American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2004 — A U.S. Army ordnance company removed roughly 250 tons of munitions from Iraq’s Al Qaqaa weapons depot in mid-April 2003, that unit’s commander said in the Pentagon today.
But officials said it is not known if any of the material removed then is part of the roughly 380 tons of high explosives claimed to be missing from the site.
In recent days, International Atomic Energy Agency officials have said about 380 tons of high-melting explosive, known as HMX, and rapid-detonating explosive, RDX, are missing from the site in Iraq.
The agency had tagged the explosives at the site and departed before hostilities started. On May 27, 2003, experts with the 75th Exploitation Task Force confirmed the IAEA-sealed explosives were missing.
In today’s press briefing, Army Maj. Austin Pearson explained how his former unit, the 24th Ordnance Company of the 24th Corps Support Group, entered the Al Qaqaa facility, which fell in an area known to the unit as “Objective Elms.” On about April 13, 2003, less than a month after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the company removed about 250 tons of “TNT, plastic explosives, “¦ detonation cords, initiators and white-phosphorus rounds,” Pearson said.
He explained that his company’s primary mission was to supply U.S. units with conventional ammunition. Secondary missions called for the unit to manage a captured-ammunition holding area and to assist 3rd Infantry Division units in clearing captured enemy ammunition from their operational areas.
DoD spokesman Larry Di Rita pointed out several items in media accounts that are now in question. The amount of missing explosives is “probably not accurate,” he said, noting initial reports claimed there were 140 tons of RDX at this facility. That appears to not be the case, he said.
There is even some confusion about exactly what kind of explosives were at the site and what type the 24th Ordnance Company removed. Di Rita explained that many people use the terms RDX and plastic explosive interchangeably. Even ordnance handlers, he said, commonly refer to all plastic explosives as RDX.
Pearson said he is a specialist in ammunition handling and management, not an expert in different types of ordnance. He noted he couldn’t know for sure what type of explosive his unit removed from the site in April 2003. None of the munitions Pearson’s company removed from Al Qaqaa contained seals from the IAEA, he said.
Also important to note, Di Rita said, is that even if 380 tons of explosives are missing from the site, that still only represents a thousandth of the total munitions coalition forces have destroyed in Iraq or marked for destruction to date. “We’ve destroyed or marked for destruction 1,000 times more ammunition than the amount of ammunition that has been called into question,” he said.
Pearson described wartime and post-war Iraq as a country littered with loose weapons and ammunition. He told how his unit once removed more than 7 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition from one home in Baghdad. The ammunition was “built into the walls of the house,” the major said. He added that his unit found similar situations in elementary schools.
Di Rita said initial reports on the missing explosive material have left an “unfortunate” impression that “the military forces there did not have a systematic approach to three priorities.” He described the three priorities as taking down the regime of Saddam Hussein, minimizing casualties to U.S. and coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, and identifying and securing weapons throughout the country.
“As we’ve delved into this deeper,” he said, “we’ve been able to demonstrate “¦ that that planning was well-conceived and extraordinarily well-executed by the forces that are over there.”