Nuclear material 'has gone missing' since war

An alarming report that nuclear material had disappeared from Iraq under the noses of the US-led Allies and Iraqi authorities yesterday prompted calls for the return of UN weapons inspectors.

An alarming report that nuclear material had disappeared from Iraq under the noses of the US-led Allies and Iraqi authorities yesterday prompted calls for the return of UN weapons inspectors.

The UN nuclear watchdog said in a letter to the UN Security Council that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remained concerned about the "widespread and apparently systematic" dismantling of Iraqi nuclear sites.

It is not the first time that the IAEA has expressed such concern, prompting fears that the equipment could be sold by looters to countries such as Iran. But the timing of the report is politically sensitive. Coming less than three weeks before the US presidential election, it could cause further criticism of policies in Iraq.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, played down the IAEA report in Parliament, saying that he believed that most of the looting had taken place amid the chaos that followed the Iraq war in spring last year.

But IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said that the systematic looting had now been going on "for more than a year." The IAEA was first alerted to the problem last December when a steel vessel contaminated with uranium turned up in a Rotterdam scrapyard. The shipment was traced back to Iraq via Jordan. Other nuclear-related material has shown up in Turkey.

In his 1 October letter to the UN Security Council, the IAEA director general, Mohamed El Baradei, said that satellite pictures had in some cases shown "the dismantling of entire buildings that housed high precision equipment". The nuclear-related material had been looted from sites which had been monitored by the IAEA until the Iraq war, to guard against Iraq resuming its clandestine nuclear activities. Since then, the sites were supposed to have been guarded by coalition forces and by Iraqi authorities.

The Iraqi interim Science and Technology Minister, Rashad Omar, said that if the nuclear inspectors wanted to return to Iraq to check for the missing equipment and materials they were welcome.

¿ The Bush administration, which has opposed deals with what it branded "axis of evil" states such as Iran, is working with Europe on a plan to use threats and incentives to persuade Tehran to end its nuclear activities.

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