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Inspectors To Visit Syria Mystery Site

These two satellite images made available by DigitalGlobe shows a suspected nuclear facility site in Syria before and after a Sept. 6, 2007 Israeli airstrike.
AP/DigitalGlobe
This report is by CBS News' George Baghdadi, reporting from Damascus.

A delegation of the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Syria on Sunday, hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Syrian remote building which was destroyed by the Israelis last September on suspicion it was a plutonium-producing reactor.

Led by IAEA chief inspector Olli Heinonen, the inspectors will stay until Tuesday.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has recently told an Indian newspaper that the allegations were "fabricated 100 percent."

He said his country would welcome the visit but insisted the mission would be limited to the Al-Kibar site in the Syrian eastern desert, 90 miles north of the Iraqi border.

Syria's ambassador to the U.N. Ibraheem Jaafari denied late last month that the site was a nuclear installation, saying it only contained a disused military building.

The Israeli airstrike inside Syria on Sept. 6, 2007, reignited international debate over whether the Syrians are trying to overcome past obstacles by starting their own small nuclear program, or by trying to buy nuclear components from an outside supplier. Washington believes it is North Korea.

Head of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei cast doubt on Syria's ability to construct and run such a complex nuclear process, but urged the Syrians to fully cooperate.

Syrian political analyst Ibrahim Darraji said Damascus had allowed the inspectors in, in order to avoid any confrontation with the international agency, suggesting Syria would gain at the end of the day.

"When Damascus gets all the documents and proofs needed from the inspectors that the site is clean, Israel would be legally and politically responsible," Darraji, a professor at the Damascus University, said.

"I believe Syria would have the right then to activate its demand to scrutinize Israel's responsibility for the aggression in September … Furthermore, the U.S. would also be morally and politically responsible as it was the party pushing for the visit of the inspectors," he added.

Israel has never commented publicly on the intended target of its bombing in 2007, but the alleged Syrian nuclear program came into the spotlight in May when the U.S. published photos that Washington said was evidence that Syria was secretly trying to build a nuclear reactor.

"Such photos were a funny reminder of the huge embarrassment suffered by ex-general and former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell when he was made to lie to the world live on TV with fake photos about Iraqi mobile chemical weapons factories that never existed," one analyst told CBS News.

"It is too difficult to believe the U.S. administration after all the lies about Iraq and other disasters it unleashed in our region," he added, noting that the U.S. pressure came less than a fortnight after the news of Turkish-sponsored Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations became public and "the rush of the news on European and Arab diplomatic activity in Syria."

One analyst suggested the political use of the issue became clear when Israel called on Syria to cut its close relations with Iran.

"It seems that Syria is not heeding the call - at least up until now," he said.

Under its inspection agreement with the IAEA, Damascus has an obligation to report nuclear projects as soon as planning gets underway.

Israel refuses to sign the agreement.

Despite the nuclear allegations, spirits in Damascus are good: Israel and Syria have launched indirect peace talks (with Turkey acting as mediator), after previous negotiations were broken off in 2000.

Signaling the breaking of the international isolation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has invited his Syrian counterpart to Paris for a July 13 Euro-Mediterranean summit, which Israeli Prime Ehud Olmert is also due to attend.