VIENNA Western powers pressed Syria to give U.N. inspectors access to the remains of a suspected nuclear site in the desert, but Damascus and its ally Iran said the focus should be on Israel, which bombed it to rubble.
The U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaking during a debate on Syria at its governing board that began on Wednesday, said Washington would back the agency's use of "all tools" at its disposal to advance the probe.
It has been over two years since the IAEA was allowed to inspect the Dair Alzour site, destroyed by Israel in 2007.
U.S. intelligence reports say it was a nascent North Korean-designed atomic reactor geared to produce bomb fuel. Syria, like Iran, denies ever having had an atom bomb program.
In a report last week the IAEA said Syria's refusal to allow inspectors back to the site, where secret nuclear activity may have taken place, was endangering potential evidence.
The IAEA board debate highlighted deep divisions and showed little sign of progress on an issue the West says undermines the agency and risks damaging the non-proliferation regime.
"Unfortunately and with growing concern, information related to Syria's clandestine nuclear activities is deteriorating or has been lost entirely due to Syria's refusal to cooperate," U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said in a statement.
LEAKS AND PARTICLES
Last month, Davies said a "number of countries" were beginning to ask whether it was time to invoke the IAEA's "special inspection" mechanism to give it the authority to look anywhere necessary in Syria at short notice.
"We strongly support the (IAEA) secretariat's use of all tools at its disposal to verify Syria's compliance with its safeguards obligations," he told the closed-door meeting.
The agency last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed nuclear bomb capacity in secret.
The European Union voiced concern that "necessary information concerning the Dair Alzour site is deteriorating or at risk of being lost entirely" and urged Syria to cooperate.
Syrian envoy Mohammed Badi Khattab said the agency did not need to go back to Dair Alzour because it already had "ample proof" that it was a non-nuclear military site, diplomats said.
The diplomats said he also cited concerns about leaks of confidential information at the IAEA, a factor which Iran raised earlier this week regarding a probe into its nuclear work.
Khattab confirmed to Reuters he had addressed the "issue of confidentiality" in his statement but gave no details.
Syria has previously suggested that uranium particles discovered by U.N. inspectors at the site came from Israeli weapons used in the attack, and Khattab called on Thursday for the IAEA to investigate the Israeli origin of the material.
His demand was echoed by Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh of Iran, which the West accuses of seeking to develop nuclear arms.
"We are looking forward to receiving the reports of swipe samples from the launcher of (the) missile in Israel... before the source of contamination is cleaned up or destroyed by the Israeli regime," Soltanieh told the 35-nation board.
Arab states, backed by Iran, also want the IAEA to focus attention on Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal. They are expected next week to seek backing for an IAEA assembly resolution calling on Israel to sign an anti-nuclear arms pact.
(editing by Paul Taylor)