Satellite images worries U.N. over missing nuke-related gear in Iraq

Satellite images worries U.N. over missing nuke-related gear in Iraq

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The chief of the U.N. nuclear-watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has expressed concern at the disappearance from Iraq’s nuclear facilities of high-precision equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei said some industrial material that Iraq sent overseas has been located in other countries, but high-precision items including milling machines and electron-beam welders that have commercial and military uses are unaccounted for.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, who had marked the equipment and put it under their control, left Iraq just before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. 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.

ElBaradei said satellite “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.”

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 and chemical- or biological-weapons programs, also expressed concern about the disappearance of tagged equipment.

Demetri Perricos, head of the commission, said Iraqi authorities for more than 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.

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, IAEA officials said.

In the absence of any U.S. or Iraqi accounting, U.N. 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,” said one U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials were not available for comment.