U.S. to Look into "Vanished" Iraqi Nuclear Gear
UNITED NATIONS The United States will investigate a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency that equipment and materials that could be used to make nuclear arms have vanished from Iraq, a U.S. diplomat said Tuesday.
In Baghdad, a government minister said U.N. nuclear inspectors barred from Iraq by Washington during the U.S. occupation, which officially ended in June would be welcome to return if they wanted to check for the missing equipment and materials.
"Obviously we'll do a full investigation, working with the Iraqis," U.S. Deputy Ambassador Anne Patterson told reporters at the United Nations when asked about the report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA, relying on satellite imagery, said entire buildings in Iraq that once housed high-precision equipment that could help a government or terror group make nuclear bombs had been dismantled since the March 2003 war on Iraq.
Equipment and materials helpful in making bombs also had been removed from open storage areas in Iraq and disappeared without a trace, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said in a report to the U.N. Security Council.
Released three weeks ahead of the U.S. presidential election, the report could fuel criticism of President Bush, whose campaign has focused heavily on the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
Monitoring Stopped Before War
The equipment, including high-precision milling and turning machines and electron-beam welders, and materials, such as high-strength aluminum, were tagged by the IAEA years ago as part of the watchdog agency's shutdown of Iraq's nuclear program following the first Gulf War.
U.N. inspectors then monitored the sites due to their "proliferation significance" until their evacuation from Iraq just before the 2003 war.
The IAEA said neither Baghdad nor Washington appeared to have noticed the disappearance of the equipment and materials.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Science and Technology Minister Rashad Omar said the interim government favored transparency.
"We are happy for the IAEA or any other organization to come and inspect," he said.
In Vienna, Western diplomats said the IAEA was worried the U.S.-led war, aimed at disarming Iraq, may have unleashed a proliferation crisis if looters have sold equipment that could be used to make atomic weapons.
"If some of this stuff were to end up in Iran, some people would be very concerned," a diplomat close to the IAEA said. "The IAEA's big concern would be profiteering, people who would sell this stuff with no regard for who is buying it," the diplomat said, adding that the profiteers could have sold the items on to groups or countries interested in weapons.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose government took part in the war and the later occupation, said he believed most of the removal of materials and equipment took place in the chaos that reigned shortly after the invasion.
"It is not clear, but it appears, and I'm seeking more details after receipt of the IAEA report overnight, that most of the unauthorized removal took place in the immediate aftermath of the major conflict in March and April last year," Straw told parliament.
U.S. officials charged the report had been given to the media before Washington had a chance to see it. But U.N. officials said it had been sent last week to Security Council members, including the United States.
Prewar U.S. allegations that Saddam had revived his atomic weapons program from the early 1990s have never been proven.
But the IAEA has warned countries to keep a close eye on all their nuclear sites due to multiple warnings from Western intelligence agencies that terrorist organizations are interested in getting their hands on a nuclear device.
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in Vienna and Luke Baker in Baghdad