The Iraqi government has asked for international assistance after Sunni militants from the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized nuclear material from a university in Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, which they overran in June. But weapons experts are playing down any major threat from the seizure.
The Iraqi government warned Thursday that the militants had seized up to 40 kilograms of uranium compounds from Mosul University. The speed of the Iraqi military’s retreat from the rebels has left many sites unsecured, says Afzal Ashraf, counterterrorist expert at the Royal United Services Institute.
“There really wasn’t time for them to do anything. And I don’t think anybody ever really had a contingency plan," he said. "And that’s something else that might come out of this, is to think about the sorts of things that you might want to protect in the event that a city or a town falls.”
In a letter to the United Nations, Baghdad appealed for international help to "stave off the threat" of the use of the nuclear material by terrorists in Iraq or abroad; but, the International Atomic Energy Agency says the material is low grade and does not pose a significant risk.
Still, Ashraf thinks the material could be used in a so-called “dirty bomb.”
“But what they could do if they were minded to do that, and with a little bit of expertise, is to make what people call a ‘dirty bomb.’ And that’s a conventional bomb where you pack some of this radioactive material around it so that when you explode this bomb, you contaminate a whole area around there,” he said.
The ISIL militants are also in control of an unused chemical weapons factory northwest of Baghdad; but experts say the munitions are degraded and unusable.
A month after the rebels began their advance, the Iraqi government appears so far unable to wrest back the territory it lost.
That will require engagement with local Sunnis alongside a military offensive, said Ranj Alaaldin of the London School of Economics.
“Much will depend on how the Iraqi state responds; whether that’s with the Iranians, or the Turks, or the Americans even," he said. "And whether they can sustain or try to influence events in the Sunni Arab north, perhaps with the support of local tribes or moderate Sunni actors.”
But the Baghdad government appears even more divided. Iraq’s Kurdish politicians announced a boycott of Cabinet meetings Thursday, after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the northern autonomous Kurdish region of harboring the Sunni militants.
Observers say the dispute increases the likelihood that the Kurdistan regional government will attempt to break away from the Iraqi state.