VIENNA — Missing nuclear-related equipment in Iraq was removed by experts working systematically over an extended period, diplomats said Thursday.
Their comments contradicted assertions from Baghdad that high-precision equipment removed from Iraq's nuclear facilities was stolen haphazardly immediately after the U.S. invasion last year.
The diplomats, who are familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggested that it was concerned that the equipment could be sold to so-called rogue governments or terrorist groups interested in making nuclear weapons.
In a letter Monday to the U.N. Security Council, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said satellite photos and follow-up investigations showed "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement" at sites once related to Iraq's nuclear program.
Iraq's interim science and technology minister, Rashad Mandan Omar, said Tuesday that the missing equipment -- which the IAEA says includes milling machines and electron beam welders -- was taken in the looting spree that followed the U.S. invasion. The sites were quickly secured by coalition forces before they were turned over to Iraqi authorities in June, he said.
But one of the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "Our assumption is that this had to have been an organized effort by professionals who had to have had heavy lifting equipment and big trucks." He said the operation to take the equipment and materials probably began after May 2003 and ended sometime this year.
Although some industrial material that Iraq sent overseas has been located, ElBaradei said in his letter that no high-precision items, which can be used both commercially and for nuclear weapons, have been found.