By Corey Charlton
Islamic State terrorists are feared to have obtained 'highly dangerous' radioactive material that could be used as a weapon in their war against the West.
The Iraqi government is searching for the material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop, after it was stolen in November from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra.
It is said to have belonged to U.S. oilfield services company Weatherford and utilizes gamma rays to test flaws in materials in oil and gas pipelines.
Officials fear it could be used to make a so-called 'dirty bomb' - a device that combines nuclear material with conventional explosives to contaminate an area with deadly radiation.
In comparison, a nuclear weapon uses nuclear fission technology to trigger a vastly more powerful blast.
The militants are known to have previously used chemical weapons - such as mustard gas - while fighting for territory across Iraq and Syria
A senior environment ministry official based in Basra, who declined to be named, said the device contained up to 0.35oz of Ir-192 'capsules', a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.
Large quantities of the material - called Ir-192 - have gone missing before in the U.S., Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could fall into hands of criminals.
A spokesman for Iraq's environment ministry said he could not discuss the issue, citing national security concerns, while Weatherford offices either declined to comment or did not return calls.
The material was owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, according to a document seen by Reuters and confirmed by multiple officials. It too declined to comment and referred Reuters to its Turkish headquarters, which did not respond to phone calls.
The document, dated November 30 and addressed to the ministry's Centre for Prevention of Radiation, describes 'the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province'.
The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
If not managed properly, it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days.
A senior security official, who declined to be identified, said: 'We are afraid the radioactive element will fall into the hands of Daesh. They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb.'
There was no indication the material had yet come into the possession of ISIS, which seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but does not control areas near Basra.
The security official, based in Baghdad, told there were no immediate suspects for the theft.
But the official said the investigation suggested the culprits had specific knowledge of the material and the facility: 'No broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry,' he said.
An operations manager for Iraqi security firm Taiz, which was contracted to protect the facility, declined to comment, citing instructions from Iraqi security authorities.
A spokesman for Basra operations command, responsible for security in Basra province, said army, police and intelligence forces were working 'day and night' to locate the material.
The army and police have responsibility for security in the country's south, where Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and criminal gangs also operate.
Iraqi forces are battling ISIS in the country's north and west, backed by a U.S.-led coalition.
The closest area fully controlled by ISIS is more than 300 miles north of Basra in the western province of Anbar.
The Sunni militants control no territory in the predominantly Shi'ite southern provinces but have claimed bomb attacks there, including one that killed 10 people in October in the district where the Weatherford facility is located.
The militant group has been accused of using chemical weapons on more than one occasion over the past few years.
Besides the risk of a dirty bomb, the radioactive material could cause harm simply by being left exposed in a public place for several days, said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
'If they left it in some crowded place, that would be more of the risk. If they kept it together but without shielding.
'Certainly it's not insignificant. You could cause some panic with this. They would want to get this back.'
The senior environmental official said authorities were worried that whoever stole the material would mishandle it, leading to radioactive pollution of 'catastrophic proportions'.
A second senior environment ministry official, also based in Basra, said counter-radiation teams had begun inspecting oil sites, scrapyards and border crossings to locate the device.
Two Basra provincial government officials said they were directed on November 25 to coordinate with local hospitals.
'We instructed hospitals in Basra to be alert to any burn cases caused by radioactivity and inform security forces immediately,' said one.