Iraq Nuclear Sites Were Stripped Methodically, Say Diplomats
VIENNA, Austria The mysterious removal of Iraq's mothballed nuclear facilities continued long after the U.S.-led invasion and was carried out by people with access to heavy machinery and demolition equipment, diplomats said on Thursday.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog told the Security Council this week that equipment and materials that could be used to make atomic weapons had been vanishing from Iraq without either Baghdad or Washington noticing.
"This process carried on at least through 2003 ... and probably into 2004, at least in early 2004," said a Western diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitored Iraq's nuclear sites before last year's war.
That contrasted with statements by Western and Iraqi officials, who have played down the disappearance of the equipment. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on Tuesday he believed most of the removals took place in the chaos shortly after the March 2003 invasion.
The United States and Britain said they invaded to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Both countries now admit toppled ruler Saddam Hussein had no such weapons.
Several diplomats close to the IAEA said the disappearance of the nuclear items was not the result of haphazard looting.
They said the removal of the dual-use equipment which before the war was tagged and closely monitored by the IAEA to ensure it was not being used in a weapons program was planned and executed by people who knew what they were doing.
"We're talking about dozens of sites being dismantled," a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "Large numbers of buildings taken down, warehouses were emptied and removed. This would require heavy machinery, demolition equipment. This is not something that you'd do overnight."
Diplomats in Vienna say the IAEA is worried that these facilities, which belonged to Saddam's pre-1991 covert nuclear weapons program, could have been packed up and sold to a country or militants interested in nuclear weapons.
The diplomats said that among the sites that had been stripped were a precision manufacturing site at Umm Al Marik, a site connected with Iraq's nuclear weapons activities at Al Qa Qaa, and an engineering facility at Badr.
One diplomat said there were "dozens of others" that gradually disappeared from satellite photos analyzed by IAEA experts at its headquarters in Vienna.
Independent expert Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, said Iraqi nuclear and weapons-related material that was monitored by the U.N. before the invasion had since been found in Europe. Raw "yellowcake" uranium, apparently from Iraq, was found in Rotterdam last December, he said.
"It seems extremely negligent for the authorities in Iraq to allow this quantity of material to have been exported from the country," Standish said.
In 1991, the IAEA detected Saddam's clandestine nuclear weapons program and spent the next seven years investigating and dismantling it. By the time U.N. inspectors left the country in December 1998, Iraq's covert atom bomb program was gone.
After returning in November 2002 until they were evacuated in March 2003, the IAEA was confident none of the dual-use nuclear equipment in Iraq was being used in a weapons program.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff in London