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U.S., Iraq to probe missing N-equipment

Outside the grounds of the Tawaitha nuclear facility, south of Baghdad
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Washington has said it will join Baghdad in a full investigation into missing machinery from Iraq's nuclear facilities, and Iraq's science minister has invited U.N. inspectors to the country.

The United States and Iraq have played down concerns raised this week when the U.N.'s atomic energy watchdog said equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons had vanished.

On Wednesday, Iraq's interim science and technology minister, Rashad Omar, told The Associated Press that all sites under the interim government's control had been secured.

He invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the sites and promised full cooperation with the U.N. group.

"The locations under my control are very well protected," he said. "Not even a single screw is being taken away without my knowledge."

He said Iraq would inform the IAEA itself if anything did go missing.

"We are transparent. ... The IAEA can come at any time to look at the facilities," Omar told AP.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said inspectors were ready to return to Iraq, Reuters reported.

"We are ready, subject to Security Council guidance and the prevailing security situation, to resume our Security Council mandated verification activities in Iraq," he said.

The senior adviser to Iraq's interior ministry acknowledged that much of the country's dual-use equipment -- and sometimes entire factories -- was missing, charging that the looting was organized and carried out by "neighboring countries."

Iraqi Interior Ministry adviser Sabah Kadhim blamed U.S. forces for not securing facilities where the IAEA says equipment vanished.

He also alleged that "lower-level U.S. military officers" facilitated the sale of some of the equipment. CNN is still seeking comment on the allegation.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman said officials were concerned about the missing machinery but that the situation was "under control."

The U.S.-led coalition "did move quickly" after invading Iraq to secure Iraq's nuclear facilities, spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"I think we share the general concern that some material might have gotten out (during the mass looting that took place) immediately after the war," he said, "but it has been brought under control."

"The Iraqis have been able to put into place the kind of monitoring and control systems that are necessary" to keep track of nuclear equipment and material, Boucher said.

Anne Patterson, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, "Obviously we'll do a full investigation, working with the Iraqis."

The IAEA's Gwozdecky said locating the missing equipment was a priority.

"In the wrong hands, it could be turned to use in a nuclear weapons program," he said. "Until we establish that this material is in responsible hands, we have to treat it as a serious proliferation."

A CIA report released last week by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer showed that some equipment could have been taken during the chaos of the 2003 invasion.

However, Gwozdecky said the looting apparently continued after that.

"From our satellite photos, we've seen evidence that some of the facilities we used to monitor closely have been dismantled completely," Gwozdecky said, indicating that it happened over a longer period with more forethought.

"We need to answer the question, 'Where did this material go?' "

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council dated October 4, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said that while 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 has turned down IAEA offers to return, and the agency has had to rely on satellite imagery to determine the status of Iraq's former and potential nuclear sites.

IAEA inspectors did travel to Iraq in early August for the agency's twice-yearly inventory of nuclear material, which now consists mostly of "yellowcake" enriched uranium, a spokeswoman said.

In his letter to the Security Council, ElBaradei said that in late September the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology asked the agency to assist in selling the remaining yellowcake, dismantling and decontaminating former nuclear facilities and resuming the IAEA's monitoring and verification activities.

ElBaradei said the discussions about the requests are still taking place.

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