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    Threat of 'dirty bomb' growing, officials say

    By Douglas Frantz

    VIENNA Concerns are growing that Al Qaeda or a related group could detonate a "dirty bomb" that would spew radioactive fallout across an American or European city, according to intelligence analysts, diplomats and independent nuclear experts.

    Although safeguards protecting nuclear weapons and their components have improved, experts said the radioactive materials that wrap around conventional explosives to create a contaminating bomb remained available worldwide and were often stored in non-secure locations.

    Detonating a dirty bomb would not cause the death and devastation wrought by a nuclear weapon, but officials and counter-terrorism experts predicted that it would result in some fatalities, radiation sickness, mass panic and enormous economic damage.

    Intelligence agencies have reported no reliable, specific threats involving dirty bombs or nuclear weapons, but senior U.S. and European officials and outside experts said several factors had heightened fears in recent weeks.

    They said concerns were focused on three Al Qaeda operatives who led experiments involving dirty bombs and chemical weapons and on widely held suspicions that a special wing of the terrorist network was planning a spectacular attack.

    They also said that chatter justifying the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. had increased on radical Islamic websites as the occupation of Iraq stretches into its second year.