- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

NEW YORK — U.S. officials yesterday said they would look into a report that radioactive material and sophisticated equipment had disappeared from Iraq’s nuclear power and research facilities, but expressed confidence that such dangerous materials are now secure.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, Mohamed El Baradei the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that whole buildings had suffered “systematic dismantlement” and that sensitive equipment previously subject to U.N. verification and monitoring had disappeared.

U.S. officials at the United Nations and the State Department said Washington would investigate the charges, but expressed no urgency.

“I think we share the general concern that some material might have gotten out into the market immediately after the war,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

“But to the extent that all of us have been able to bring it under control, we have done that, and we have been able to — I think the Iraqis have been able to put in place the kind of monitoring safeguards and control systems that are necessary to prevent any further leakage.”

At the United Nations yesterday, Deputy U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson told reporters: “Obviously, we’ll do a full investigation, working with the Iraqis.”

But other U.S. officials seemed eager to play down the two-page letter, saying they had not seen it before yesterday.

The IAEA concerns surfaced only three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, in which the Iraq invasion and its justification have become issues.

In a long-awaited report to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Charles A. Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, said that U.N.-imposed sanctions had been close to crumbling before the war and that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had wanted to re-create his illicit weapons capability once they did.

“Saddam sought to sustain the requisite knowledge base to restart the program eventually,” Mr. Duelfer reported. In the interim, he said, the regime wanted to keep “the inherent capability to produce such weapons as circumstances permitted in the future.”

The specter of an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program was a primary justification given for the 2003 war. Although no weapons were found, poorly secured power plants, storage facilities and research compounds were looted and vandalized in the postwar security vacuum.

Radiation levels among Iraqis living near the sprawling Tuwaitha nuclear facility south of Baghdad spiked shortly after the invasion, with equipment and supplies from the facility turning up in people’s homes.

In the past year, the IAEA has located plainly tagged nuclear equipment in shipments intercepted in the Rotterdam, Netherlands, port and abandoned in junk heaps in Jordan.

The IAEA repeatedly has called on governments to police their ports and borders for Iraqi contraband and to report leads to the agency. There is no confirmation that any of the missing dual-use equipment — such as electron beam welders and milling and turning machines have landed in countries with covert-weapons programs.

Mr. Boucher stressed yesterday that Washington is working with the interim Iraqi government on nuclear security, but that it’s up to Baghdad to take the lead.

“We’re very supportive of the Iraqi government,” he told reporters. “We work with them on export control; we work with them on border control; we work with them in supporting their efforts, helping them define the mission; and obviously, we work with them in helping with security at facilities. But they have the lead on this one.”

In Baghdad, Iraq’s minister of science and technology said the IAEA inspectors were welcome to return to Iraq whenever they want.

“We are happy for the IAEA or any other organization to come and inspect,” Rashad Mandan Omar told Reuters news agency.

Inspectors have been back to Iraq twice since the March 2003 invasion, both times under severe restrictions on their mandate and mobility.

The Bush administration has informed the IAEA that it has transferred to the United States nearly two tons of enriched uranium and 1,000 highly radioactive items.

Based on satellite imagery and other “open-source” information, the IAEA letter implies that authorities in Washington and Baghdad did not realize that the theft was occurring.

“Pursuant to the ongoing monitoring and verification plan, Iraq is obliged to declare semi-annually changes that have occurred or are foreseen at sites deemed relevant by the agency,” wrote Mr. ElBaradei in the letter.

“The agency has received no such notifications or declarations from any state since the agency’s inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq in March 2003.”

The letter is unlikely to do anything to improve relations between Washington and Mr. ElBaradei, who is seeking a third term at the helm of IAEA over U.S. objections.

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