Home > U.S. Sneaks Uranium Out of Iraq; UN Team Returns with Limited Mandate

U.S. Sneaks Uranium Out of Iraq; UN Team Returns with Limited Mandate

by Open-Publishing - Tuesday 27 July 2004

by Lisa Ashkenaz Croke (bio)

Two weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the US had secretly shipped nuclear materials out of Iraq, the Agency has been invited back for the first time in over a year.

The US-installed interim Iraqi government requested the return of international inspectors. The Agency’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, confirmed to reporters Wednesday in Cairo that a team would return to Baghdad. Before the US-led invasion last year, the Agency was responsible for ensuring that Iraq’s nuclear material and facilities were not being used for military purposes.

Agence France-Presse quotes ElBaradei as saying the IAEA’s return "is an absolute necessity, not to search for weapons of mass destruction, but to draft the final report on the absence of WMDs in Iraq so that the international community can lift the [remaining] sanctions on Iraq." The director general also stated that inspectors "will complete the mission [the UN had] assigned to them before the invasion."

However, various press reports cite IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming referring to the upcoming mission as a routine, UN-mandated inventory of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Complex, not a search related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Yanked out of Iraq just days before the March 2003 invasion, the IAEA was at that time unable to fulfill its dual mandate: to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and to conduct routine audits of nuclear materials sealed and warehoused after the 1991 Gulf War. The inspectors have been asked to return just once, in June 2003, after frantic media reports of missing low-level nuclear materials and contamination surrounding the Tuwaitha Facility, just south of Baghdad, prompted the US to call on the IAEA for help.

According to ElBaradei’s report to the UN after that mission, at least 10 kg of uranium compounds "could have been disbursed" into the residential areas surrounding the site, though ElBaradei stated that neither the type nor quality of the material would be useful for weapons purposes.

In the war’s aftermath, with occupation forces providing inadequate if any security for facilities throughout the country, looters broke into at least five Iraqi nuclear facilities. The Washington Post reported in May 2003 that the Tuwaitha Storage Facility and the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, the Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility, the Baghdad New Nuclear Design Center and the Tahadi Nuclear Establishment were all "damaged or effectively destroyed."

The IAEA did not inspect any of the other sites, nor does its report mention the risks of radiation sickness to the community, as inspectors were not allowed to leave the facility itself. But Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations found overwhelming evidence that the materials from Tuwaitha had proliferated throughout the surrounding areas and by last summer were causing highly exaggerated radioactivity levels and severe illnesses.

As ElBaradei noted at the time, "The [US-run Coalition Provisional] Authority has informed the Agency that it would assume responsibility for nuclear safety. The Agency mission therefore did not look into possible safety and health effects of the looting of nuclear material or radioactive sources." He added, "I trust that the [Coalition Provisional] Authority will monitor any impact on the safety and health of the surrounding population and will share its findings with the Agency."

Returning inspectors may soon determine if that trust was warranted.

Questions have also been raised about the legality of last month’s transfer of low-grade uranium and other radioactive materials, airlifted from Iraq to the United States.

Confirming the transfer in a July 6 statement, the US Department of Energy asserted the mission was "consistent with [US] authorities and relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions."

However, the Associated Press reports that an unnamed UN official questioned the legality of the move, saying the nuclear material belonged to Iraq and was under the control and supervision of the IAEA. The United States did not notify the UN Agency of the transfer until June 30, after the joint effort between the US departments of Defense and Energy was completed and the materials secured at undisclosed locations in the United States.

’’The American authorities just informed us of their intention to remove the materials, but they never sought authorization from us,’’ IAEA official Gustavo Zlauvinen told the AP.

ElBaradei addressed the transfer in a letter to the UN Security Council, revealing that the US had notified IAEA on June 19, 2003 that, due to security concerns, nuclear materials would be taken to the United States from the Tuwaitha nuclear facility "at a future date." The US asked the Agency to keep the matter confidential. A year later, the move was made with no further notice.

Interestingly, ElBaradei had recently made it a point to address the issue of possible relocation of materials not disclosed to the Agency. In an April 14 briefing to Security Council President Gunter Plueger, ElBaradei called attention to UN Resolution 1051, requiring parties notify the IAEA of related imports or exports. "The Agency has received no such declaration or notification since it withdrew from Iraq a year ago," asserted ElBaradei, ten months after the apparent understanding with between US and IAEA officials.

The director general also recently expressed concern that IAEA’s ability to resume its full mandate may have already been compromised by activity suspected to include large-scale industrial piracy. Satellite imagery shows "extensive removal of equipment and, in some instances, removal of entire buildings" from previously contained nuclear sites in Iraq. Meanwhile, contaminated scrap metal has been found in other countries, including Jordan, to which it was shipped by the truckload.

"It is not clear whether the removal of these items has been the result of looting activities in the after matter of the recent war in Iraq, or as part of systematic efforts to rehabilitate some of the locations," assessed ElBaradei. "In any event, these activities may have a significant impact on the Agency’s continuity of knowledge of Iraq’s remaining nuclear-related capabilities and raise a concern with regard to the proliferation risk associated with dual use material and equipment disappearing to unknown destinations."

While ElBaradei refused to assign blame in his April briefing, he had less than generous words for the former occupation authorities this week.

"It does not fall within the competence of the Coalition forces... to prove or disprove the possession by Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," said ElBaradei, commenting on his inspectors’ limited mandate, which still does not include a final search regimen that could prove Iraq’s compliance with prior resolutions. It remains to be seen whether ElBaradei’s Agency will be able to finally close the books on Iraq’s status as an alleged nuclear threat.