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Iraq nuke material being looted, says UN
A woman takes a raffle, said to be Saddam Hussein's favourite weapon, to an arms collection point in Baghdad

Vienna, Oct. 12 (Reuters): The UN nuclear watchdog is worried the US-led war aimed at disarming Iraq may have unleashed a proliferation crisis if looters have sold equipment that can be used to make atomic weapons, western diplomats said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitored Saddam Hussein's nuclear sites before last year's Iraq war, said yesterday equipment and materials that could be used to make atomic weapons have been disappearing from Iraq but neither Baghdad nor Washington had noticed.

'If some of this stuff were to end up in Iran, some people would be very concerned,' a diplomat close to the IAEA said. 'The IAEA's big concern would be profiteering, people who would sell this stuff with no regard for who is buying it.' The profiteers could have sold the items on to groups or countries interested in weapons, the diplomat added.

The US today said it would investigate the IAEA's report. 'Obviously we'll do a full investigation, working with the Iraqis,' US deputy ambassador Anne Patterson said at the UN when asked about the report by the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog.

The US believes Iraq's neighbour, Iran, is secretly developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme. Tehran denies this, insisting its nuclear ambitions are limited to generating electricity.

Pre-war US allegations that Saddam had revived his atomic weapons programme from the early 1990s have never been proven.

But the IAEA has warned countries to keep a close eye on all their nuclear sites due to multiple warnings from western intelligence agencies that terrorist organisations are interested in getting their hands on a nuclear device.

Satellite imagery shows entire buildings in Iraq that once housed high-precision equipment have been dismantled, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in a letter to the UN Security Council.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw said he believed most of the removal of materials and equipment took place in the chaos that reigned shortly after the invasion last spring. 'It is not clear, but it appears, and I'm seeking more details after receipt of the IAEA report overnight, that most of the unauthorised removal took place in the immediate aftermath of the major conflict in March and April last year,' Straw told parliament.

The diplomat close to the IAEA said Straw's comment implied the removal of materials and equipment that took place after April 2003 had been authorised.

'If that is the case, the IAEA would like to know,' he said, adding that the UN watchdog had received no response so far from the Iraqi, U.S. or British authorities in this matter.

In 1991, the IAEA detected Saddam's clandestine nuclear weapons programme and spent the next seven years investigating and dismantling it. By the time UN inspectors fled the country in December 1998, Iraq's covert atom bomb programme was gone.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said that before the US-led invasion in March 2003, all the nuclear materials, equipment and facilities that have disappeared from satellite photos were accounted for and were not being used in a weapons programme.

'This is dual-use stuff of which ' when we were there ' we were certain was not being misused,' he said, adding that everything had been tagged or sealed and was closely monitored. 'It was systematically removed,' Gwozdecky said.

Inspectors welcome

If UN nuclear inspectors want to return to Iraq to check for missing equipment and materials, they are welcome, a government minister said today.

Science and technology minister Rashad Omar was responding to concerns raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency at the 'apparent systematic dismantlement' of the physical remnants of Saddam Hussein's once-vigorous nuclear programme. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today he hoped all Shia fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City would join a cash-for-weapons disarmament programme.

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