Conflict in iraq: insurgents control uranium

Not a security risk, but worrying: this is how the International Atomic Energy Agency assesses the substances in the hands of Islamists in Iraq.

Burned-out police car in Mosul: IS has taken control of the northern city Image: reuters

Islamist insurgents in Iraq have taken possession of nuclear materials, according to government figures. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, the low-level radioactive substances probably do not pose a major security risk.

Nevertheless, such a case is always worrying, the UN agency said Thursday. According to Iraq, nearly 40 kilograms of uranium mixtures from the University of Mosul ended up in the hands of "terrorists."

Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim called on the international community to help in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He said the threat of the material "being used by terrorists in Iraq or elsewhere" must be averted. It "may be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction" or even smuggled out of Iraq, the ambassador warned.

The U.N. nuclear agency IAEA initially did not share that view. Based on initial reports, it believes the material is only slightly enriched and poses no risk in terms of safety or nuclear proliferation, a spokeswoman said.

Mosul overrun

U.S. government sources also said that the materials probably did not contain enriched uranium and therefore could hardly be used to build weapons. The material is also not good enough for a so-called dirty bomb, former IAEA inspector Olli Heinonen told the reuters news agency. Such a weapon releases radioactive material with a conventional explosive device.

Radical Sunnis of the Islamic State group have overrun Mosul in their offensive. Just days ago, the government admitted it had lost control of a chemical weapons stockpile to the Sunni rebels. Meanwhile, rifts between Iraqi Kurds and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad have continued to deepen.

Kurdish ministers in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s interim government announced they would stay away from weekly cabinet meetings. They said this was in response to the head of government’s claim the previous day that the Kurdish town of Ebril had become a stronghold of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. However, a Kurdish representative said they had explicitly not left the government.

Cargo flights canceled

A few hours later, reuters learned from the head of the Iraqi Air Traffic Control Authority, Nasser Bander, that all cargo flights to Erbil and the second-largest Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah were canceled until further notice. Passenger traffic was not affected, he said.

Islamic State has taken control of large swaths of territory in recent weeks. Iraq now threatens to break up into three regions: The autonomous Kurdish region in the north, a Shiite part in the south still under the control of the central government, and the territory of the radical Sunni Islamic State, which has declared a transnational caliphate in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The Kurds are also showing signs of secession. The head of the autonomy government, Massud Barsani, called on parliament last week to prepare for a referendum on independence. The ethnic group’s well-organized militia has taken control in places in northern Iraq abandoned by central government security forces during the fighting against the Islamists. These include, in particular, the oil city of Kirkuk.

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