IAEA monitors left Iraq shortly before the start of the U.S.-led war in March 2003 and were subsequently barred by the United States from returning.
But based on satellite photographs, the IAEA now says entire buildings related to Iraq's nuclear program prior to the 1991 Gulf War have been dismantled -- and the high-precision equipment stored inside has vanished.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that yesterday's letter was the latest in a series of quarterly reports el-Baradei is required to deliver to the Security Council.
IAEA reports issued since the war have repeatedly expressed concerns about the security of Iraq's nuclear sites and materials. This time, Fleming said, el-Baradei sought to stress that the problem has broadened beyond a few limited sites.
"What has caught everybody's attention is his report that satellite imagery that we've been monitoring -- because we can't be on the ground [in Iraq] -- has shown a widespread and systematic dismantlement of sites that previously were relevant to Iraq's nuclear program and sites that were subject to IAEA inspections," Fleming said. "Contained in these buildings are the things that we're worried about. There was equipment of a 'dual-use' nature -- that is, they could be used in industry, but as well they could, if they fell into the wrong hands, be used in a nuclear-weapons program."
Some relatively harmless military goods that disappeared from Iraq following the 2003 invasion have since been found in Europe and in the Middle East.
By contrast, the IAEA has been unable to locate dual-use equipment and materials like milling and turning machines and electron-beam welders. Material such as high-strength aluminum has also vanished from open storage areas.
These items -- which were monitored by the IAEA before the war -- could be sold on the black market to a government or terrorist group seeking to build nuclear weapons or radioactive "dirty bombs."
John Eldridge, editor of "Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense," said it is possible to speculate that the equipment listed in the latest IAEA report was simply looted the way many supplies and raw materials were stolen in the chaos and lawlessness that have followed the invasion. But he said there is another, more sinister, possibility as well.
"The suspicious view, clearly, is that when you put these pieces of equipment together in the same list, that is suspicious," Eldridge said. "You have to remember that the terrorist networks have a considerable degree of technical expertise these days, and they're able to deduce what's worth taking and keeping, and what's worth ditching. There's a lot of collusion. It's almost a commercial network between these terrorist organizations. And quite often they're completely different or have almost opposing ideological viewpoints. But they are nevertheless sometimes in support against a common enemy -- normally the United States, sadly -- and therefore there's a commercial benefit in getting hold of this stuff, and keeping it, to sell it on if somebody actually wants to make something nefarious."
In his letter, el-Baradei noted that Iraq is still obligated to inform the IAEA about any changes at those sites previously monitored by the agency.
But since March 2003, the agency has received no such notifications -- either from the U.S.-led occupation authorities, who administered Iraq until June 2004, or the interim Iraqi government that followed.
There has been no official response from Washington to the latest IAEA report. But Iraq's science and technology minister, Rashad Amr Mandan, told Reuters today that nothing has gone missing since the initial looting that followed the U.S. invasion. He invited the IAEA to come to Iraq to conduct inspections.
Fleming said the IAEA and the UN's Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) -- tasked with overseeing the elimination of any banned Iraqi weapons programs and which has also been barred from Iraq -- are both ready to resume their work in the country.
"We've said several times that we remain ready to go back to Iraq and to resume our monitoring there. It is a decision that is subject to the Security Council," Fleming said. "And the Security Council has said in its resolution that it adopted in June of this year that it plans to revisit the mandates of the IAEA and UNMOVIC, so we've just again expressed our readiness to go back."
Fleming also said the interim Iraqi government has sought the agency's assistance in selling remaining nuclear materials from its Tuwaitha nuclear plant and dismantling and decontaminating other such sites.
A new report last week from the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, said Saddam Hussein stopped trying to build weapons of mass destruction in 1991 following the arrival of UN inspection teams. The report found that Iraq did not possess chemical or biological weapons at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and was not trying to reconstitute its nuclear program.
Both U.S. President George W. Bush and his presidential opponent, Senator John Kerry, have cited nuclear proliferation as a major global concern.