UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Equipment and materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons are disappearing from Iraq but neither Baghdad nor Washington appears to have noticed, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency reported on Monday.
Satellite imagery shows that entire buildings in Iraq have been dismantled. They once housed high-precision equipment that could help a government or terror group make nuclear bombs, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report to the U.N. Security Council.
Equipment and materials helpful in making bombs also have been removed from open storage areas in Iraq and disappeared without a trace, according to the satellite pictures, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said.
While some military goods that disappeared from Iraq after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, including missile engines, later turned up in scrap yards in the Middle East and Europe, none of the equipment or material known to the IAEA as potentially useful in making nuclear bombs has turned up yet, ElBaradei said.
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. U.N. inspectors then monitored the sites until their evacuation from Iraq just before the war.
The United States barred the inspectors’ return after the war, preventing the IAEA from keeping tabs on the equipment and materials up to the present day.
Under anti-proliferation agreements, the U.S. occupation authorities who administered Iraq until June, and then the Iraqi interim government that took power at the end of June, would have to inform the IAEA if they moved or exported any of that material or equipment.
But no such reports have been received since the invasion, officials of the watchdog agency said.
The United States also has not publicly commented on earlier U.N. inspectors’ reports disclosing the dismantling of a range of key weapons-making sites, raising the question of whether it was unable to monitor the sites.
‘WE SIMPLY DON’T KNOW’
In the absence of any U.S. or Iraqi accounting, council diplomats said the satellite images could mean the gear had been moved to new sites inside Iraq or stolen. If stolen, it could end up in the hands of a government or terrorist group seeking nuclear weapons.
“We simply don’t know, although we are trying to get the information,” said one council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials had no immediate comment on the report.
President Bush, locked in a tough reelection battle with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, justified the war, in part, by saying that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was on the brink of developing a nuclear bomb that he might use against the United States or give to terrorists.
Both men agreed during a Sept. 30 debate that nuclear proliferation is the most serious threat facing the United States.
A new CIA report last week by chief U.S. weapons investigator Charles Duelfer made clear, however, that Saddam had all but given up on his nuclear program after the first Gulf War in 1991.
ElBaradei, whose agency dismantled Iraq’s nuclear arms program over a decade ago, drew similar conclusions to the Duelfer report well before the March 2003 invasion.