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Iraq `defying UN nuclear weapon ban'

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is investigating allegations that Iraq is stillattempting to develop a nuclear weapons programme in violation of a United Nations ban.

In a report to the UN Security Council, the Vienna-based agency in charge of destroying all the country's nuclear materials said yesterday that it believed Iraq's past nuclear weapons programme had been dismantled.

The IAEA has a long-term monitoring project in place and operational in Iraq, and the agency regularly samples air, water and soil to keep in check any efforts by President Saddam Hussein to bring the programme back on line. "But we are under no illusions that the lessons learned over the last 10 years can be unlearned or erased from people's heads,'' David Kydd, the IAEA spokesman, said.

According to diplomats who have seen thereport, there are suggestions that Iraq hasconducted theoretical computer-based programmes on nuclear weapons designs - a developmentdifficult to monitor. "It is impossible for us to search every Baghdad basement for computer disks or software,'' Mr Kydd said. "What we have to try to prevent are design teams reassembling.''

The agency was unable to verify the authenticity of materials obtained from a defecting Iraqi nuclear scientist who has gone missing. The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that before disappearing, Dr Khidir Abdul Abas Hamza had faxed several pages of material to the newspaper suggesting Iraq was concealingnuclear material from inspectors and trying to get together a group of scientists to rebuild its weapons programme.

Mr Kydd said the paper had faxed four pages of documents to the IAEA. "They're not something we could dismiss out of hand as being totally implausible,but we are not yet in a position to make any conclusion regarding their authenticity."

The agency would pursue the investigation and report back to the Security Council. So far Iraq has not responded to IAEA questions about the documents.

If it emerged that Iraq has not abandoned its desire to acquire the bomb it would be a further setback to the country's efforts to lift crippling economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991.