Concerns are growing that high-precision equipment in Iraq that could be used to make nuclear weapons has been "systematically" disappearing, and may present a new proliferation risk.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has told the UN Security Council of the "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement" of buildings in Iraq that once housed key dual-use items. Because UN inspectors have been all but barred from Iraq since March 2003, they must rely primarily on satellite imagery to track the missing equipment.
Among them are precision milling and turning machines and electron-beam welders that before the war were tagged with IAEA seals and monitored to ensure that they were not used for an illicit weapons program.
Analysts say the missing equipment could be useful to a nation or terrorist group bent on building a nuclear bomb. The fact that it's now unaccounted for also raises questions about the quality of protection of such sensitive sites by US-led forces in Iraq.
The Bush Administration declared that preventing the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction know-how and material was an aim of the US-led war.
"It's equipment that is very specialized, very hard to come by, that's tightly controlled, so it could be very helpful for [those] seeking to build weapons," says Jon Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, contacted in Paris.
"It's very troubling that any of this stuff should be unprotected, let alone go missing," says Mr. Wolfsthal. "If one of these things went missing in the US, there would be a massive criminal investigation ... and people going to jail."
In a letter to the Security Council, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei raised the alarm, noting that in some cases entire buildings have been dismantled.
Certain materials, such as high-strength aluminum, have also been removed from open storage areas, according to the IAEA letter. While the IAEA has in the past found industrial and sometimes radioactively contaminated items outside Iraq - in one case, in a large Rotterdam metal scrapyard - the report says that "none of the high quality dual use equipment or materials" that are missing have been found.
The items "may be of proliferation significance," warned Mr. ElBaradei. Except to confirm the integrity of Iraq's declared nuclear material, IAEA inspectors have been blocked from visiting Iraq, raising concerns that sensitive sites were not well protected.
"Looking at the state of Iraq's nuclear program, [the machinery] wouldn't be particularly useful to a country with an advanced program," says Michael Levi, a nuclear terrorism expert at King's College London. "But there is a danger it can be used to fill gaps. Sometimes there are holes [in budding programs], and they can be filled."
Even if such equipment could be gained legitimately, an acquiring nation may prefer to buy it secretly on the black market, to have more options for testing, says Mr. Levi. "There was a definite lack of regard [by the US] in guarding nuclear sites" after the war, Levi says. "There is no question that this should have been guarded."
Though US officials said their fear of "a mushroom cloud" nuclear blast was a top reason for toppling Saddam Hussein, in the aftermath of war US troops permitted the extensive looting of critical sites, including Iraq's nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad. Local areas later had to be tested for contamination, and sensitive equipment returned.
Still, the IAEA reported in early July that it had been informed by the US that 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium and about 1,000 highly radioactive sources had been transferred to the US from Iraq. The IAEA says it accounted in early August for all 550 tons of nuclear material that remain in Iraq.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told parliament Tuesday: "It is not clear, but it appears, and I'm seeking more details after receipt of the IAEA report overnight, that most of the unauthorized removal took place in the immediate aftermath of the major conflict in March and April last year."
But IAEA reporting spanned the last six months, and builds on a trend of disappearances identified by the IAEA before then.
"The worry would be that if [the missing equipment] fell into the wrong hands, it could be used in a nuclear weapons program," says IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, in Vienna.
"It's not nuclear material, [but] it doesn't make us feel comfortable that it is potentially on the black market," says Ms. Fleming. "We don't know where it is. All we can do when we watch these things from the sky, is see that if the building is gone, the equipment inside is gone."
The speed and number of sites that have been dismantled leads the IAEA to believe that it is "systematic," says Fleming. "It's hard to read into it, because we've seen a flourishing trade in scrap metal in Iraq."
And there have been signs that thieves may be interested in more than scrap. "Some of the looting is very strategically timed," says CEIP's Wolfsthal. "They're stealing only specialized items - that would suggest it wasn't just the work of looters, but that there was some strategic purpose."