Equipment and materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons have disappeared from Iraq, the UN's nuclear watchdog warned yesterday.
Satellite imagery and investigations of nuclear sites in Iraq have caused alarm at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The agency found that in some cases entire buildings housing high-precision nuclear equipment had been dismantled; equipment that could be used to make a bomb, such as high-strength aluminium, had vanished from open storage areas, the agency said.
In a report to the UN security council yesterday, the IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the agency "continues to be concerned about the widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear programme and sites previously subject to ongoing monitoring and verification by the agency".
Before the war, the buildings had been monitored and tagged with IAEA seals to keep tabs on their function and content. But US authorities barred IAEA inspectors from returning to Iraq after the war began in March 2003, instead deploying US teams in an unsuccessful search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Mr ElBaradei has therefore relied largely on satellite imagery in the latest report. IAEA teams were allowed into Iraq in June 2003 to investigate reports of widespread looting of storage rooms at the main nuclear complex, at Tuwaitha, and in August to take inventory of "several tonnes" of natural uranium in storage nearby.
Anti-proliferation agreements mean the US occupying authorities and now the Iraqi interim government were responsible for informing the IAEA if they moved or exported any of that material or equipment. The IAEA said it had received no such reports.
In a September 30 debate both the US president, George Bush, and his Democratic rival, John Kerry, identified nuclear proliferation as the greatest threat facing the US.
In February 2003, a month before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr ElBaradei reported to the security council that Iraq's nuclear programme had been "neutralised" by December 1998. In the two and a half months his agency had in which to resume inspections during 2003, his teams found "no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq".
Last week a CIA report by the chief US weapons investigator, Charles Duelfer, agreed that Saddam Hussein had all but given up on his nuclear programme after the first Gulf war in 1991.
But it now appears Iraq may pose a nuclear threat of a different sort: some military goods, including missile engines, that disappeared from Iraq after the US-led invasion later turned up in scrap yards in the Middle East and Europe. However, none of the equipment or material known to the IAEA as potentially useful in making nuclear bombs has been found, according to Mr ElBaradei.
"As the disappearance of such equipment and materials may be of proliferation significance, any state that has information about the location of such items should provide IAEA with that information," Mr ElBaradei said.
Sure, Saddam is in prison, but the known remnants of his weapons programs--secured by the U.N. before the invasion--are who knows where.
And Bush continues to claim that the invasion and occupation have made us safer???