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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

U.N. nuclear watchdog expresses concern at disappearance of high-precision equipment from Iraq's nuclear facilities

UNITED NATIONS (AP) The U.N. nuclear watchdog expressed concern Monday at the disappearance from Iraq's nuclear facilities of high-precision equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said some industrial material that Iraq sent overseas has been located in other countries but not high-precision items including milling machines and electron beam welders that have both commercial and military uses.

''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,'' said the agency's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei.

IAEA inspectors left Iraq just before the March 2003 U.S.-led war. The Bush administration then barred U.N. weapons inspectors from returning, deploying U.S. teams instead in what turned out to be an unsuccessful search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, 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 an inventory of ''several tons'' of natural uranium in storage near Tuwaitha.

ElBaradei told the council that Iraq is still obligated, under IAEA agreements, ''to declare semi-annually changes that have occurred or are foreseen at sites deemed relevant by the agency.'' But since March 2003 ''the agency has received no such notifications or declarations from any state,'' he said.

As a result of the IAEA's ongoing review of satellite photos and follow-up investigations, ElBaradei said, ''the IAEA continues to be concerned about the widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear program and sites previously subject to ongoing monitoring and verification by the agency.''

''The imagery shows in many instances the dismantlement of entire buildings that housed high precision equipment ... formerly monitored and tagged with IAEA seals, as well as the removal of equipment and materials (such as high-strength aluminum) from open storage areas,'' he said.

Because of the holiday, U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment on ElBaradei's letter.

In a report to the Security Council in early September, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which is charged with overseeing the elimination of any banned Iraqi missile, chemical and biological weapons programs, also expressed concern about the disappearance of tagged equipment.

Demetri Perricos, head of the commission, known as UNMOVIC, said Iraqi authorities for over a year have been shipping thousands of tons of scrap metal out of the country, including at least 42 engines from banned missiles and other equipment that could be used to produce banned weapons.

The UNMOVIC report said the export was handled by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, which was under the direct supervision of U.S. occupation authorities until June 28, when the Americans handed power to Iraq's interim government.