(Adds U.S. embassy comment)
BAGHDAD, July 7 (Reuters) - Iraq’s government has removed 550 tonnes of natural uranium left over from Saddam Hussein’s era and sold it to a Canadian company, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
The uranium, called yellowcake, had been stored in a compound at Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad, which was once the centre of Saddam’s nuclear weapons programme.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman confirmed the U.S. military helped safely ship the uranium out of the country.
"The Iraqi government decided to get rid of the uranium, which amounted to 550 tonnes, because of its potentially harmful affects on Iraq and the region and because it causes pollution," Dabbagh said on Iraqiya state television late on Sunday.
The Tuwaitha nuclear complex was dismantled after the 1991 Gulf War. But tonnes of nuclear material remained there under the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq when it was left unguarded and looted by Iraqi civilians.
Dabbagh said the uranium had not undergone any enrichment. He did not name the Canadian company that bought the stockpile, but other media reports said it was Cameco (CCO.TO).
He said the removal had been carried out in cooperation with the IAEA.
Yellowcake is an impure mixture of uranium oxides obtained from processing uranium ore. It has to be enriched before it can be used in nuclear reactors or to make bombs.
"As far as the (nuclear) proliferation threat goes, natural uranium is not of direct use in a nuclear weapon," U.S. embassy spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said.
The Bush administration’s claim that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons was a primary justification it gave for the invasion to topple his regime, but no evidence has been found that Saddam continued a nuclear weapons programme after 1991. (Reporting by Wisam Mohammed and Tim Cocks; editing by Ralph Boulton; writing by Tim Cocks)