BAGHDAD - Iraq has begun lobbying to be allowed to restart its nuclear energy programme, almost two decades after allied war planes destroyed Saddam Hussein's last two reactors.

The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki had contacted the French nuclear industry about rebuilding at least one reactor, the Guardian newspaper reported yesterday.

Iraq has also begun lobbying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations to overturn resolutions which ban Iraq using atomic energy.

The country's science minister, Raid Fahmi, told the Guardian that any move back into the nuclear field would initially be for research purposes.

Fahmi insisted that Iraq had "only peaceful applications" in mind in the health sector, agriculture ... and water treatment".

Iraq's wish to restart a nuclear programme mirrors that of several other Arab and North African countries. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are among a number who have notified the IAEA.

While all say their programmes would be for peaceful purposes, the move towards nuclear technology has raised alarm that the wider Middle East is responding to Iran.

Iraq's energy grid does not provide for its population, and a cheap, reliable alternative to fossil fuels is needed. But many will question whether an unstable Iraq should be allowed to develop nuclear technology.

Iraq's first nuclear programme was partly responsible for its international isolation. Saddam's first French-made reactor, at Osirak, was damaged in an Iranian raid in 1980 and destroyed by Israel a year later.

Saddam's regime also built research reactors at a facility in Tuwaitha, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.

They were destroyed by American and British planes in the first Gulf War of 1991 and while they remained encased in concrete, the site was extensively looted in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003.

The IAEA began a decommissioning of the site by Iraqi scientists in 2007.

Nuclear engineer Adnan Jarjies Fahmi, who has helped with the decommissioning, admitted there were "some impediments" to the plan. "At the moment, UN resolutions don't allow us to enter this field, so we are lobbying for the resolutions to be lifted," he said.