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UN panel concerned about missing nuclear equipment

UNITED NATIONS -- The UN nuclear watchdog group expressed concern yesterday about the disappearance from Iraq's nuclear facilities of high-precision equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said some industrial material that Iraq sent overseas has been located in other countries, but not high-precision items including milling machines and electron beam welders that have both commercial and military uses.

"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," said the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. IAEA inspectors left Iraq just before the March 2003 US-led war.

The Bush administration then barred UN weapons inspectors from returning, deploying US teams instead in what turned out to be an unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, IAEA teams were allowed into Iraq in June 2003 to investigate reports of widespread looting of storage rooms at the main nuclear complex at Tuwaitha, and in August to take an inventory of "several tons" of natural uranium in storage near Tuwaitha.

ElBaradei told the council that Iraq is still obligated, under IAEA agreements, "to declare semiannually changes that have occurred or are foreseen at sites deemed relevant by the agency."

But since March 2003 "the agency has received no such notifications or declarations from any state," he said. As a result of the IAEA's ongoing review of satellite photos and follow-up investigations, ElBaradei said, "the IAEA continues to be concerned about the widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear program and sites previously subject to ongoing monitoring and verification by the agency."

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