By GEORGE JAHN
VIENNA - Israel bluntly accused the head of the U.N. atomic agency of political bias Thursday in his probe of Syria's nuclear program, in an unusual direct attack on the agency chief.
The comments by Israel Michael, Israel's chief delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, briefly lifted the diplomatic curtain shrouding the agency and revealed the tensions surrounding Middle East issues that often pit Israel - and the U.S., its chief Western backer - against Islamic IAEA member nations.
While diplomats from nations allied with Israel occasionally suggest there is IAEA bias in favor of Iran and Syria - the two Mideast nations being probed by the agency - they do so only on condition of anonymity, in keeping with diplomatic convention that dictates that U.N agencies and its heads are above the political fray.
Syria became the subject of an IAEA probe after Israel jets destroyed what the U.S. says was a nearly finished nuclear reactor built with North Korean help that was configured to produce plutonium - one of the substances used in nuclear warheads.
Syria denies hiding nuclear activities but has blocked the IAEA's probe into the allegations, refusing to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors follow-up visits beyond one last year and declining to provide satisfactory explanations for unusual finds of traces of uranium.
Damascus alleges that Israel used bombs or missiles containing depleted uranium - which hardens metal and allows it to penetrate deeper - in attacking the site. That, says Syria, accounts for one instance of the uranium traces.
But IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has said that is unlikely, and Israel has repeatedly told the IAEA it did not use such ordnance - something Michaeli repeated in his comments Thursday to the IAEA's 35-nation board.
"Israel has responded ... in good faith" to the allegations, he said, in comments to the closed meeting made available to The Associated Press. "Therefore, the repeated call by the director general on Israel to cooperate with this investigation is redundant.
"Had the director general wished for further information from Israel, he would have not refused to meet with Israeli officials and refrained from publicly lashing (out) at Israel.
"Israel calls on the director general to avoid political bias in dealing with the Syrian file."
ElBaradei has repeatedly criticized the Israeli attack, saying it complicated the chances of success of his agency's probe.
Diplomats first told the AP that ElBaradei was boycotting requests for meetings with Israel officials earlier this year. The agency back then refused to comment.