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Iraqis complain of illness near nuclear facility

'My skin itches. I can't breathe well'

From Karl Penhaul

U.S. military personnel look down on the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha from a berm earlier this month.
U.S. military personnel look down on the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha from a berm earlier this month.

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CNN's Karl Penhaul reports on concerns of radiation sickness among villagers near an Iraqi nuclear research facility. (May 16)
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TUWAITHA, Iraq (CNN) -- Villagers near Iraq's largest nuclear research facility complain that they are falling ill from what doctors say may be radiation poisoning.

The research facility, which stores nonweapons-grade radioactive materials, was looted in the final days of the Iraq war. Many containers were stolen and used by residents near the Tuwaitha complex to store drinking water, among other things. The facility is about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

U.N. weapons inspectors who monitored the site before the war said low-grade radioactive material may have been stored in the drums.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency said they had sealed nuclear materials before the start of the war.

It is unclear how long the nuclear complex was left unguarded. U.S. troops are now on the scene.

A "nuclear disablement team" from the U.S. Army's V Corps will conduct an assessment of the site to review "the quantity and condition of the nuclear material stored there," U.S. Central Command announced Friday.

Some of the items stolen from the facility have been dumped on the street. Others were used by the people who stole them.

Amar Jorda is a boy who said he has fallen ill after drinking water from a plastic barrel from the site.

"My skin itches. I can't breathe well, and my nose bleeds at least four times a day," Amar said.

The boy said he and his father bought the barrel from a man in the street. Amar said he only drank water from it once.

Now he's stopped playing soccer and quit going to school. Doctors have told him his illness is not contagious, but Amar has cut himself off from his friends.

"My best friend came only once," he said. "But I told him not to come too close. I was scared he might get infected."

One of Amar's friends drank water stored in a different barrel, and she said her vision has faded. "I can't see," Irkhlas Hassam said.

Dr. Jaafar Nasser, a senior physician at the nearest hospital, said he suspects the girl is suffering from radiation sickness. However, until experts conduct a detailed medical study, there's little chance of pinpointing the precise causes or of predicting consequences.

Nasser said he has seen six people within two days with similar symptoms as Amar's -- breathlessness, rashes, frequent nosebleeds and vomiting.

"This is called acute radiation sickness," Nasser said.

Local doctors are just beginning to keep detailed case files on patients they suspect have radiation sickness.

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