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U.S. quietly tries to replace U.N. nuclear agency chief

He's running unopposed, but Mohamed ElBaradei still may fail in his bid for a third term leading the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, tripped by his main opponent, the United States.

Unable to find a candidate willing to oppose the independent-minded Egyptian diplomat, Washington is now quietly lobbying other member states in ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency in a bid to unseat him by June, opening the way for a replacement more to the Bush administration's liking _ one harder on Iran and other nations on the U.S. nasty list.

With the agency spearheading international attempts to squelch nuclear proliferation, who controls the IAEA is key for Bush administration officials. They want someone sharing their view of which country represents a nuclear threat and what to do about them.

ElBaradei has challenged those views _ particularly over prewar Iraq and Iran, both labeled part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea by President Bush.

He first disputed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program _ claims that remain unproved. He then refused to endorse assertions by Washington that Iran was working to make nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is for generating electricity.

A direct U.S. attempt to unseat ElBaradei fizzled late last year, with Americans unable to find anyone to challenge his bid for a third term by the Dec. 31 deadline.

Since then, the nuclear power struggle has moved underground, but even before Dec. 31 much of it was cloak and dagger, including reported wiretaps of ElBaradei's phone conversations in attempts to show he was demonstrating favoritism toward Iran in his investigation of its nuclear activities.

Diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based IAEA say America has a new candidate in the wings who will be presented if the United States swings enough nations on the IAEA board of governors to back its demand for a no-confidence vote on the incumbent.

ElBaradei himself appears to be taking the campaign for his ouster in stride. "Member states have asked me to continue to serve," he told the AP. "I see that as confidence in my stewardship."

To oust ElBaradei, Washington must find backing from 12 other nations on the 35-nation IAEA board of governors. It already can count on traditional allies Canada and Australia and several others, and diplomats say it hopes to sway enough others from Europe to get the required number.

The key players include former Soviet bloc nations like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, all board members with strong post-communist loyalties to Washington.

Other potential supporters are Western European countries now sitting on the fence on whether to back ElBaradei.

Also crucial is whom Washington has waiting in the wings. With candidates from nuclear weapons stations unwanted in the job, he is unlikely to be American, and diplomats say they are skeptical that the Bush administration can put forward anyone who will find broad acceptance from what is generally an America-skeptic IAEA board.

ON THE WEB

Read more about the International Atomic Energy Agency at www.iaea.org.

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