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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Confusion over Iraq nuclear assets
By David Bamford
BBC security correspondent

US troops guard canister containing traces of uranium
The IAEA has not been able to properly check Iraq's facilities since looting last year

The statement by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN's nuclear monitoring agency, on the disappearance of nuclear equipment and materials in Iraq, may give rise to some confusion.

The IAEA director-general said entire buildings related to Iraq's former nuclear programme appeared to have been dismantled, and that the agency had lost track of high-precision equipment thought to have been inside the buildings.

News headlines have been full for months of acknowledgements in the US and elsewhere that Iraq had long ago abandoned plans to build nuclear weapons.

Yet now the IAEA is talking of equipment known to have been in Iraq as recently as last year that had potential nuclear use.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, Iraq did have a civilian nuclear programme, being developed under close supervision by the IAEA.

It suffered a major setback in 1981 when the Israelis attacked and destroyed Iraq's French-built Osirak nuclear reactor.

Since then, atomic energy inspectors have visited Iraq but they were forced to leave last year because of the Iraq war.

Answers needed

The Americans have still not allowed them back for further inspections, and this seems to be a key factor lying behind Mr ElBaradei's statement now.

He says the agency knows in which buildings this sensitive equipment was stored when it left Iraq.

Now satellite photos suggest the entire buildings have been dismantled.

The Iraqi interim Minister of Science and Technology, Rashad Omar, told the BBC that the buildings concerned were comprehensively looted during the days following the American-led capture of Baghdad last year and before the coalition troops could secure the facilities.

He said the US did take control - with the approval of the IAEA - of quantities of low-grade uranium.

US troops look down on the nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, Iraq
The US has been blocking full UN inspections in Iraq
Since the transfer of sovereignty, the Iraqi government has assumed responsibility for the sites.

An IAEA spokesman, Mark Gwozdecky, said that the Agency has been monitoring foreign ports to try to track the flow of nuclear-related and 'dual-usage' items out of Iraq.

He said there has been a steady flow of mildly radioactive scrap items, including missile engines, turning up in locations including Jordan and the Netherlands.

The IAEA says it cannot do its job of guarding the world against secret nuclear proliferation if it is prevented from keeping track of such equipment.

The Americans may well know what has happened to it - or they may not.

Mr ElBaradei does not know because he has been kept out of the information loop - and he wants some answers.

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