Equipment which could be used in an illicit nuclear bomb program has disappeared from previously monitored sites in Iraq, and radioactively contaminated items from there have been found abroad, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has told the UN.
Installations in former Iraqi president's Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb program were being systematically dismantled, its director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, has told the Security Council, warning of the implications for trafficking.
In a letter to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the British diplomat presid-ing over the security council, ElBaradei said his inspectors had "been able to identify quantities of industrial items, some radioactively contaminated, that had been transferred out of Iraq from sites [previously] monitored by the IAEA."
These did not not include "high precision equipment" with a dual civilian or military use which would be valuable in a nuclear bomb program. But he added: "The disappearance of such equipment and materials may be of proliferation significance." ElBaradei said.
The warning will further embarrass the US and British governments, which justified the war in Iraq with the alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction, insisting that Saddam had an active nuclear bomb program. ElBaradei appealed for information about any of the vanished equipment.
On Monday night the Iraqi science and technology minister, Rashad Omar, invited the UN nuclear inspectors to return to Iraq to check on the missing equipment and materials.
"The locations that belong to the science and technology ministry are secure and under our control," Omar told reporters.
He said that Tuwaitha, the vast compound south of Baghdad which contained Iraq's main nuclear facility, was being turned into a science park.
"The IAEA came back one month ago, it inspected the plant and other ones and didn't say anything," he said.
"We are transparent. We are happy for the IAEA or any other organization to come and inspect," he said, adding that he had not seen the agency's report to the Security Council.
The run-up to the war in Iraq last year was marked by intense hostility between the Bush administration and the weapons inspectors, Washington and London scorning the inspections, an effort that is now known to have successfully dismantled Saddam's secret bomb program in the mid 1990s.
The inspectors have been virtually barred from Iraq by the Americans since before the war and ElBaradei's information on the missing equipment has come from satellite photography and other sources.
Some of the contaminated equipment and material from Iraq is believed to have been located in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the Netherlands.
Iran is widely suspected of conducting a clandestine bomb project and might be keen to obtain some of the sophisticated engineering equipment on the loose in Iraq.
The past nine months have also seen revelations about an extensive international network of nuclear smugglers, centred in Pakistan, supplying contraband equipment to at least three countries.
"The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be about stopping weapons of mass destruction. It was supposed to be about stopping nuclear materials from getting out from under UN control," Greenpeace said on Tuesday.
"The only winners in this story are those who are looking to capitalize on security failures by scoring loose nukes," the group said.