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Missing Iraqi nuke equipment worries IAEA

Senior Iraqi adviser blames U.S. for not securing equipment

Outside the grounds of the Tawaitha nuclear facility, south of Baghdad
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The senior adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry blamed U.S. forces Tuesday for not securing facilities where the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency says equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons has vanished.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, playing down the International Atomic Energy Agency's concerns, said U.S.-led coalition forces "did move quickly" to secure the so-called dual-use equipment after invading Iraq in March 2003.

"I think we share the general concern that some material might have gotten out [during the mass looting that took place] immediately after the war, but it has been brought under control," Boucher told reporters in Washington.

According to an October 1 letter from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the U.N. Security Council, satellite imagery showed that not only was dual-use equipment missing, but buildings that once housed it had been dismantled. (Full story)

"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," ElBaradei's letter said.

ElBaradei said that although some radioactive equipment taken from Iraq after the war began has shown up in other countries, none of the missing dual-use equipment or materials have been found.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky, speaking from the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, said locating the dual-use equipment was a priority.

"The kind of equipment we're talking about ... is the sort of thing that has a multitude of industrial applications," Gwozdecky said. "We were satisfied when we were in Iraq that it was not being used for a nuclear weapons program.

"In the wrong hands, it could be turned to use in a nuclear weapons program," he said. "Until we establish that this material is in responsible hands, we have to treat it as a serious proliferation concern."

Iraqi Interior Ministry adviser Sabah Kadhim acknowledged that much of the country's dual-use equipment was missing, charging that the looting was organized and carried out by "neighboring countries."

He also alleged that "lower-level U.S. military officers" facilitated the sale of some of the equipment. CNN is seeking comment on the allegation.

A CIA report released last week by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer showed that some equipment could have been taken during the chaos of the 2003 invasion.

Gwozdecky said, however, that looting apparently continued after that.

"From our satellite photos, we've seen evidence that some of the facilities we used to monitor closely have been dismantled completely," Gwozdecky said, indicating that it happened over a longer period with more forethought.

"We need to answer the question, 'Where did this material go?' "

Kadhim did not put a time frame on the dismantling of the facilities and the disappearance of equipment.

Gwozdecky said the IAEA has been "alerting the relevant authorities to" its concerns about the missing equipment since the war, noting that the matter has been included in biennial reports to the Security Council.

IAEA weapons inspectors left Iraq shortly before the invasion. Since then, the Bush administration has turned down IAEA offers to return, and the agency has had to rely on satellite imagery to determine the status of Iraq's potential and former nuclear sites.

IAEA inspectors did travel to Iraq in early August for the agency's semiannual inventory of nuclear material, which now consists mostly of "yellowcake" enriched uranium, a spokeswoman said.

Except for an amount that U.S. officials notified the agency it was removing to the United States, the IAEA verified that the yellowcake remaining in Iraq was the same as before the war.

The equipment is another matter. Under the IAEA's Ongoing Monitoring and Verification mandate from the United Nations, Iraq is obligated to notify the agency if it moves any of the equipment in question.

"We've not received any such notification since the war," Gwozdecky said. "Until we learn from either Iraq or any country that might have received or have knowledge about where this material went, we have a concern on our hands."

Boucher contended that "the Iraqis have been able to put into place the kind of monitoring and control systems that are necessary" to keep track of nuclear equipment and material.

In his letter to the Security Council, ElBaradei said that in late September the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology asked the agency to assist in selling the remaining yellowcake, dismantling and decontaminating former nuclear facilities and resuming the IAEA's monitoring and verification activities.

ElBaradei said the discussions about the requests are still taking place. Kadhim said the Iraqi interim government has indicated it would welcome the IAEA's return, but that the Security Council must back the agency's presence there.

In the first presidential debate, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed that nuclear proliferation is the single most serious threat facing the United States.

Bush justified the war in Iraq in part by contending Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon he might use against the United States or give to terrorists.

The Duelfer report concluded that Saddam terminated his nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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