The mystery surrounding the disappearance of 380 tons of powerful explosives from a storage depot in Iraq has taken a new twist, after a network embedded with the U.S. military during the invasion of Iraq reported that the material had already vanished by the time American troops arrived.
NBC News reported that on April 10, 2003, its crew was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division when troops arrived at the Al Qaqaa storage facility south of Baghdad.
While the troops found large stockpiles of conventional explosives, they did not find HMX or RDX, the types of powerful explosives that reportedly went missing, according to NBC.
The International Atomic Energy Agency revealed Monday that it had been told two weeks ago by the Iraqi government that 380 tons of HMX and RDX disappeared from Al Qaqaa after Saddam Hussein’s government fell.
In a letter to the IAEA dated October 10, Iraq’s director of planning, Mohammed Abbas, said the material disappeared sometime after Saddam’s regime fell in April 2003, which he attributed to “the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security.”
Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003. According to NBC, troops from the 101st Airborne arrived the next day to find that the material was already gone.
Prior to the Iraq war, the high-grade explosives at Al Qaqaa had been under the control of IAEA inspectors because the material could be used as a component in a nuclear weapon, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said. IAEA and other U.N. inspectors left the country in March 2003 before the fighting began on March 19.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that five days after the IAEA received the letter from the Iraqi government, the agency alerted U.S. officials in Vienna, who in turn told National Security Director Condoleezza Rice. She then alerted Bush, McClellan said.
Once U.S. officials were alerted, the multinational force in Iraq and the Iraq Survey Group, charged with hunting for weapons in Iraq, were both ordered to investigate what was missing and the possible circumstances, according to State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
“We, from the very beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, did everything we could to secure arms caches throughout the country,” Ereli said. “But given the number of arms and the number of caches and the extent of militarization of Iraq, it was impossible to provide 100 percent security for 100 percent of the sites, quite frankly.”
The news of the missing explosives followed an IAEA report earlier this month that said high-end, dual-use machinery that could be used in a nuclear weapons program was missing from Iraq’s nuclear facilities.
“Our immediate concern is that if the explosives did fall into the wrong hands, they could be used to commit terrorist acts and some of the bombings that we’ve seen,” the IAEA’s Fleming said.
She described Al Qaqaa as “massive” and said it is one of the most well-known storage sites. Besides the explosives, it also held large caches of artillery.
Fleming said the IAEA, which is based in Vienna, Austria, did not know whether some of the explosives may have been used in past attacks.
The IAEA said that before the war it inspected the Al Qaqaa facility multiple times and verified that the material was present in January 2003. The agency said the material was mentioned in reports to the U.N. Security Council that were made public.
Ereli said coalition forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the Al Qaqaa facility after the war for weapons of mass destruction. The troops found none, but did see indications of looting, he said. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.
“Some explosive material at the time was discovered, although none of it carried IAEA seals, and this discovery was reported to coalition forces for removal of the material,” Ereli said.
Ereli said coalition forces have cleared 10,033 weapons caches and destroyed 243,000 tons of munitions. Another 162,898 tons of munitions are at secure locations and awaiting destruction, he said.
A senior administration official played down the importance of the missing explosives, describing them as dangerous material but “stuff you can buy anywhere.”
The official noted that the administration did not see this necessarily as a “proliferation risk.”
“In the grand scheme — and on a grand scale — there are hundreds of tons of weapons, munitions, artillery, explosives that are unaccounted for in Iraq,” the official said.
“And like the Pentagon has said, there is really no way the U.S. military could safeguard all of these weapons depots or find all of these missing materials.”
The official said the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and documented the scope of the problem.
Threat from terrorists
A European diplomat told The New York Times that Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, is “extremely concerned” about the potentially “devastating consequences” of the vanished stockpile.
“The immediate danger” of the lost stockpiles is its potential use by insurgents to make small, but powerful, bombs, an expert told the Times. The expert said the explosives could be transported easily across the Middle East.
According to the Times, the stockpiles missing from Al Qaqaa are the strongest and fastest in common use by militaries around the globe.
The Iraqi letter to the IAEA identified the vanished explosives as containing 194.7 metric tons of HMX, or “high melting point explosive,” 141.2 metric tons of RDX, or “rapid detonation explosive,” among other designations, and 5.8 metric tons of PETN, or “pentaerythritol tetranitrate.”
Fleming said the IAEA, whose mission is to keep track of everything with potential nuclear weapons applications, had been monitoring about 100 sites in Iraq, but there were only a few of special concern, including Al Qaqaa.
“This is a real massive quantity of explosives that could have reached the hands of insurgents and could be used with deadly force and consequences against people in Iraq,” Fleming said.
“One would have to assume it’s been stolen by someone who has some sort of nefarious purpose for it.”
With the U.S. presidential election eight days away, news of the missing explosives quickly became campaign fodder.
Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry immediately seized on the information to accuse President Bush of incompetence in failing to secure the material, charging that “this is one of the great blunders of Iraq and one of the great blunders of this administration.”
But in the wake of the NBC report, the Bush campaign fired off a statement saying that Kerry’s criticism of the president over the missing material has “been proven false before the day is over.”
“John Kerry’s attacks today were baseless,” Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. “He said American troops did not secure the explosives, when the explosives were already missing.”
Schmidt also said that Kerry “neglects to mention the 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives that are either destroyed or in the process of being destroyed” in Iraq.
But Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart fired back with a statement of his own, accusing the Bush campaign of “distorting” the NBC News report.
“In a shameless attempt to cover up its failure to secure 380 tons of highly explosive material in Iraq, the White House is desperately flailing in an effort to escape blame,” Lockhart said. “It is the latest pathetic excuse from an administration that never admits a mistake, no matter how disastrous.”
Lockhart did not elaborate on how the Bush campaign was distorting the NBC report.