Bring the IAEA Back In

When it was revealed that roughly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives went missing from a weapons facility in Iraq, the Bush administration quickly dismissed the news as election year politicking. With the passing of the elections the story has disappeared from the nation’s headlines, despite mounting evidence indicating that explosives at the al Qaqaa facility, as well as other sites throughout the country, have ended up in the hands of deadly insurgents. Now that the political dust has settled it is time to find out what happened to those explosives.

Prior to the invasion, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sealed off the locations, including the al Qaqaa site. As they departed Iraq, they warned the Bush administration of the need to secure these facilities from rampant looting. Inexplicably, the administration ignored those warnings and failed to allocate enough troops to secure those facilities throughout the country. To make matters worse, the Bush administration unwisely barred IAEA officials from entering Iraq in April and May of 2003 to take an inventory of the deadly munitions.

It’s high time for a full accounting of what happened to those weapons stockpiles and the IAEA is the appropriate body for the task. The IAEA has done this job many times. With more than a decade's worth of experience in Iraq they know what weapons were there and the manner in which they were stored before the war. The administration has resisted allowing them to investigate though, instead relying on its own Iraqi Survey Group, to conduct an investigation. Bringing the IAEA back into Iraq would provide needed expertise, would respect the wishes of the sovereign Iraqi government, would lessen the burden on US forces, and would help rehabilitate America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

The unwillingness of the Bush administration to allow the IAEA to return to Iraq obstructs the wishes of the sovereign Iraqi government. Iraq still remains legally obligated to the agency and is therefore required to provide a semi-annual account of its weapons stockpiles. Prime Minister Allawi and his government are currently without an accurate account of the country’s weapons stockpiles. And despite his request to the IAEA, the Bush administration has continued to block Allawi’s request.

Permitting the IAEA to return would help repair America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Many of our allies have called for the return of the IAEA. For instance, the Russians, who have their own problem with terrorism, are calling for the IAEA to return to Iraq. The very real possibility that explosives proliferated beyond Iraq’s borders makes this not just a problem for America, but an international problem as well. The President talks about the need for the international community to share the burden in Iraq, but when the international community attempts to help the President dismisses them.

Some in the U.S. may question the credibility of the IAEA. But the Bush administration has continuously relied on their expertise in other areas of vital concern, such as in Iran and North Korea and senior government officials have praised the head of the agency, Dr. El Baradei. Continuing to stiff-arm the IAEA will only complicate this important relationship and could potentially harm the US in its dealings with Iran and North Korea. Additionally, before the war the IAEA argued that Saddam no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, a conclusion recently vindicated by U.S. government investigators.

The administration’s refusal to allow the IAEA back in is typical of its misguided approach to the management of post-war Iraq. We need fewer Americans in Iraq, not more. Treating post-conflict Iraq as an American prize rather than a global problem, the administration continues to fail to make the necessary right choices. The Bush administration insists on monopolizing the investigation of the missing explosives, costing American tax payers $600 million dollars a year (ironically, twice the amount needed to put new weapons explosive detectors in every major US airport). It’s not too late to change course. Let the IAEA back in.

Michael Pan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress and a former political advisor to the chief prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Max Bergmann is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.

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Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow