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Nuclear materials 'vanish' in Iraq

Outside the grounds of the Tawaitha nuclear facility, south of Baghdad.
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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Equipment and materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons have disappeared from Iraq, the chief of the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency has warned.

Satellite imagery shows entire buildings that once housed high-precision equipment that could be used to make nuclear bombs have been dismantled, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a letter to the Security Council.

In the letter, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said that though some radioactive equipment taken from Iraq after the war began has shown up in other countries, none of the high-quality, dual-use equipment or materials that is missing has been found.

The U.S. government prevented U.N. weapons inspectors from returning to Iraq -- thereby blocking the IAEA from monitoring the high-tech equipment and materials -- after the U.S.-led war was launched in March 2003.

The Bush administration then deployed U.S. teams in what turned out to be an unsuccessful search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The IAEA said in its letter that U.S. and Iraqi officials have not reported dismantling any sites relevant to Iraq's nuclear program.

Anti-proliferation agreements say that the United States, which administered Iraq until June 2004, and the Iraqi interim government, which took over from the United States in June, must inform the IAEA of any import or export of such materials and equipment.

But since March 2003 "the agency has received no such notifications or declarations from any state," ElBaradei said.

The nuclear agency has since then had to rely on satellite imagery to work out what is happening with Iraq's nuclear sites.

"The imagery shows in many instances the dismantlement of entire buildings that housed high precision equipment ... formerly monitored and tagged with IAEA seals, as well as the removal of equipment and materials (such as high-strength aluminum) from open storage areas," he said.

In his letter, ElBaradei added that "as the disappearance of such equipment and materials may be of proliferation significance, any state that has information about the location of such items should provide IAEA with that information."

A spokesman for the U.S. Mission in New York said he had not seen the letter.

In a report to the Security Council in early September, a U.N. commission charged with overseeing the elimination of any banned Iraqi missile, chemical and biological weapons programs, also expressed concern about the disappearance of tagged equipment.

Demetri Perricos, head of the commission, known as UNMOVIC, said Iraqi authorities for over a year have been shipping thousands of tons of scrap metal, including at least 42 engines from banned missiles and other equipment that could be used to produce banned weapons.

In the first presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed that nuclear proliferation is the single most serious threat facing the United States.

George W. Bush has justified the war in Iraq in part by saying that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was on the brink of developing a nuclear bomb that he might use against the United States or give to terrorists.

But a CIA report released last week by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer concluded that Hussein terminated his nuclear program after the first Gulf War in 1991.

-- CNN Associate Producer Lauren Rivera contributed to this report.

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