SAHAB, Jordan, May 26 ? As the United States spends billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq's civil and military infrastructure, there is increasing evidence that parts of sensitive military equipment, seemingly brand-new components for oil rigs and water plants and whole complexes of older buildings are leaving the country on the backs of flatbed trucks.
By some estimates, at least 100 semitrailers loaded with what is billed as Iraqi scrap metal are streaming each day into Jordan, just one of six countries that share a border with Iraq.
American officials say sensitive equipment is, in fact, closely monitored and much of the rest that is leaving is legitimate removal and sale from a shattered country. But many experts say that much of what is going on amounts to a vast looting operation.
In the past several months, the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, has been closely monitoring satellite photographs of hundreds of military-industrial sites in Iraq. Initial results from that analysis are jarring, said Jacques Baute, director of the agency's Iraq nuclear verification office: entire buildings and complexes of as many as a dozen buildings have been vanishing from the photographs.
"We see sites that have totally been cleaned out," Mr. Baute said.
The agency started the program in December, after a steel vessel contaminated with uranium, probably an artifact of Saddam Hussein's pre-1991 nuclear program, turned up in a Rotterdam scrapyard. The shipment was traced to a Jordanian company that was apparently unaware that the scrap contained radioactive material.
In the last several weeks, Jordan has again caught the attention of international officials, as pieces of Iraqi metal bearing tags put in place by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, established to monitor Iraqi disarmament during Mr. Hussein's rule, have been spotted in Jordanian scrapyards. The observation of items tagged by the commission, known as Unmovic, has not been previously disclosed.
"Unmovic has been investigating the removal from Iraq of materials that may have been subject to monitoring, and that investigation is ongoing," said Jeff Allen, a spokesman for the commission. "So we've been aware of the issue," he said. "We've been apprised of the details of the Rotterdam incident and have been in touch with Jordanian officials."
Recent examinations of Jordanian scrapyards, including by a reporter for The New York Times, have turned up an astounding quantity of scrap metal and new components from Iraq's civil infrastructure, including piles of valuable copper and aluminum ingots and bars, large stacks of steel rods and water pipe and giant flanges for oil equipment ? all in nearly mint condition ? as well as chopped-up railroad boxcars, huge numbers of shattered Iraqi tanks and even beer kegs marked with the words "Iraqi Brewery."
"There is a gigantic salvage operation, stripping anything of perceived value out of the country," said John Hamre, president and chief executive of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington research institute, which sent a team to Iraq and issued a report on reconstruction efforts at the request of the Pentagon last July.
"This is systematically plundering the country," Dr. Hamre said. "You're going to have to replace all of this stuff."
The United States contends that the prodigious Middle Eastern trade in Iraqi scrap metal is closely monitored by Iraqi government ministries to ensure that nothing crossing the border poses a security risk or siphons material from new projects. In April, L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation's senior official in Iraq, and the Iraqi Ministry of Trade established rules for licensing the export of scrap metal from the country.
The sites now being monitored by the atomic energy agency include former missile factories, warehouses, industrial plants and sites believed to contain "dual use" equipment like high-precision machine tools that could be used either for civilian purposes or for making components for nuclear and other weaponry. Mr. Baute said that the analysis had been completed at about a dozen sites and that the agency was working to prepare a report on the entire monitoring program.
Sam Whitfield, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said that penalties for not obtaining a license or abiding by its terms were severe for a trucker. "If he does not have it or is found to be exporting scrap illegally, not only can his load be seized but his truck can be seized," he said.
Mr. Whitfield said that the overall quantity of scrap might not be surprising, considering that there were, for example, an estimated 3,000 damaged tanks and other military vehicles in Iraq as a result of a series of wars. Those vehicles are being legitimately scrapped, he said.
"There's huge volumes of scrap out there, just all over Iraq," he said.
A senior American intelligence official said the idea that the material to build missiles or nuclear devices might be being exported from the military-industrial sites was "far-fetched."
"It's conceivable that some of this material might be dual-use in nature," the official said, adding that "what appears to be happening is simply looting."
Mr. Whitfield asserted that the coalition had put a stop to widespread looting in Iraq. But a visit to an enormous scrapyard on the side of a dusty hill surrounded by goat herds in this town about 10 miles southeast of Amman raises serious questions about that assertion. Cranes and men with torches pick through seemingly endless piles of steel, aluminum and copper that workers there say has come almost exclusively from Iraq.
On a recent afternoon, roughly 100 trucks, many with yellow Iraqi license plates, were lined up near the entrance to the scrapyard or maneuvering with inches to spare inside, their engines snorting as they kicked up the flourlike dust.
Yousseff Wakhian, a scrapyard worker wearing a gray jumpsuit and a cap with a New York Yankees insignia, said that 60 to 100 trucks had come in that day from Iraq and 50 had left with loads of the scrap to be sold elsewhere.
Some of the piles contain items that might ? or might not ? have arrived as part of legitimate scrap operations. There is stripped copper cable from a high-voltage electrical system, jumbled piles of tank treads, big engine blocks and crankshafts and thick steel walls connected to a door with lettering indicating that it was part of a building at an airport.
Last year, there were widespread reports of looting of electrical transmission lines and military bases, among other things.
But Muhammad al-Dajah, an engineer who is technical director Jordanian free-trade zones like the Sahab scrapyard, pointed with chagrin to piles of other items that hardly looked as if they belonged in a shipment of scrap metal. There were new 15-foot-long bars of carbon steel, water pipes a foot in diameter stacked in triangular piles 10 feet high, and the large flanges he identified as oil-well equipment.
"It's still new," Mr. Dajah said, "and worth a lot."
"Why are they here?" he asked rhetorically, and then said, referring to the devastation in Iraq. "They need it there."
The scrap operation has not been without incident, Mr. Dajah said. A few months ago workers cutting apart an automobile at Zarqa, another free-trade zone, set off a concealed bomb that killed one of them, he said.
An Iraqi truck driver at Sahab, Ahmed Zughayer, said the trip from Karbala, where he picked up a load of tank parts that were still piled in the back of his truck, was insufferable because of delays at the Jordanian border.
"First time and last," he said when asked how often he had made the trip. "Seven days at the border being inspected. And here two days."
Mr. Zughayer said Jordanian military personnel had combed through the load and probed it with detection equipment. Officials at the atomic energy agency said that since the Rotterdam incident, radiation detectors at Iraq's borders had repeatedly picked up generally weak radioactive emissions from deep within loads of scrap.
The agency said that in one incident on May 15, radiation detectors began clicking when a truck carrying a load of scrap stopped at the Habur border crossing with Turkey; the truck was turned back.
Several Middle Eastern analysts said that the widespread traffic in Iraqi scrap did not have all the hallmarks of an above-board operation.
"What we are finding out in Iraq, there are gangs, some of them from the old days, some of them new with corruption, and they can get away with it," said Walid Khadduri, an Iraqi who is editor of the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus and was in the country as recently as January.
"It is really mayhem," Mr. Khadduri said. "There is no law."
Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst who has done business in Iraq under the oil-for-food program, said that there was in fact much talk in the business community of deals "to ship new things under the title of scrap."
Beyond what has been seen at the scrapyards, Mr. Kamhawi offered no specific evidence that those deals were taking place. But a former high-ranking Jordanian military official said that functioning pieces of, say, sophisticated electronics from surface-to-air missile batteries or precision machine tools almost could not avoid being passed around with scrap, since it is so difficult to destroy such equipment completely.
The official also said there was far from just a single Jordanian scrapyard doing a brisk business in Iraqi machinery and scrap. He said that only a few days before, he had seen nearly an entire Russian-made T-55 tank with Iraqi markings, its muzzle cut off by a blowtorch, sitting on a flatbed truck outside a steel plant near the road from Amman to the main commercial airport.
On a recent day, the plant, identified on a sign as part of the United Iron and Steel Manufacturing Company, a Jordanian business, had three trucks with Baghdad license plates idling out front. At a tumbledown shack on the way toward piles of steel in the distance, a wiry, weathered security guard with a three-day growth of beard stopped a car carrying an American journalist and two Jordanians.
"No, you can't go in," said the guard, who identified himself as Azzam Tamimi. "I have orders."
A Jordanian asked Mr. Tamimi what was down among the piles of steel to warrant barring visitors from the area.
"Nothing is in there," Mr. Tamimi said. "There is only destroyed Iraqi tanks from the war."