Al-Qaqaa spokesman says no weapons search
The first U.S. military unit to reach the Al-Qaqaa military installation after the fall of Baghdad did not have orders to search for the nearly 400 tons of explosives that are missing from the site, the unit spokesman said Tuesday.
When troops from the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade arrived at the Al-Qaqaa base a day or so after coalition troops seized Baghdad on April 9, 2003, there were already looters throughout the facility, Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, deputy public affairs officer for the unit, told The Associated Press.
The soldiers "secured the area they were in and looked in a limited amount of bunkers to ensure chemical weapons were not present in their area," Wellman wrote in an e-mail message. "Bombs were found but not chemical weapons in that immediate area.
"Orders were not given from higher to search or to secure the facility or to search for HE type munitions, as they (high-explosive weapons) were everywhere in Iraq," he wrote.
His remarks appeared to confirm the observations of an NBC reporter embedded with the army unit who said Tuesday that she saw no signs that the Americans searched for the powerful explosives during their 24 hours at the facility en route to Baghdad, 30 miles to the north.
Their comments came two weeks after Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives had vanished from the former military installation as a result of "theft and looting ... due to lack of security." The letter said the explosives were stolen sometime after coalition forces took control of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
The disappearance, which the U.N. nuclear agency reported to the Security Council on Monday, has raised questions about why the United States didn't do more to secure the facility and failed to allow full international inspections to resume after the March 2003 invasion.
On Tuesday, Russia, citing the disappearance, called on the U.N. Security Council to discuss the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq. But the United States said American inspectors were investigating the loss and that there was no need for U.N. experts to return.
The missing explosives have become a major issue in the final week of the presidential campaign, with Vice President Dick Cheney questioning on Tuesday whether the explosives were still at the facility when U.S. troops arrived, and the Kerry campaign calling the disappearance the latest in a "tragic series of blunders" by the Bush administration.
The Al-Qaqaa explosives included HMX and RDX, key components in plastic explosives, which insurgents in Iraq have used in repeated bomb attacks on U.S.-led multinational forces and Iraqi police and national guardsmen. But HMX is also a "dual use" substance powerful enough to ignite the fissile material in an atomic bomb and set off a nuclear chain reaction.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday that coalition forces were present in the vicinity of the site both during and after major combat operations, which ended on May 1, 2003. He said they searched the facility but found none of the explosives in question.
"The forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the facility," Whitman said.
It was unclear whether the search to which Whitman was referring was conducted by a military unit other than the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade.
Wellman, the army unit's spokesman, said the facility was in the 101st's sector at that time but that he does not know if any troops were left at the grounds of the facility once the combat troops from the 2nd Brigade left.
Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said that on May 27, 2003, a U.S. military team specifically looking for weapons went to the site but did not find anything with IAEA stickers on it.
The Pentagon would not say whether it had informed the IAEA that the conventional explosives were not where they were supposed to be. Boykin said that the Pentagon was investigating whether the information was handed on to anyone else at the time.
The explosives had been housed in storage bunkers at the facility. U.N. nuclear inspectors placed fresh seals over the bunker doors in January 2003. The inspectors visited Al-Qaqaa for the last time on March 15, 2003 and reported that the seals were not broken — therefore, the weapons were still there at the time. The team then pulled out of the country in advance of the invasion later that month.
Cheney raised the possibility the explosives disappeared before U.S. soldiers could secure the site in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.
"It is not at all clear that those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived in the area of Baghdad," Cheney said Tuesday.
As the missing explosives became a heated campaign issue, NBC News quoted Army officials on condition of anonymity Tuesday night that troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division arrived at Al-Qaqaa on April 4, finding "looters everywhere" carrying what they could out on their backs. The troops searched bunkers and found conventional weapons but no high explosives, NBC quoted the officials as saying.
The network said that with more than 1,000 buildings, the complex was so large that it was not clear the troops even saw the bunkers that might have held the explosives.
Earlier Tuesday, NBC News reporter Lai Ling Jew, who accompanied the 101st Airborne, said the unit seized Al-Qaqaa on April 10 — a day after Baghdad fell — and remained there for 24 hours before joining the 3rd Infantry Division in the capital.
"We still had Iraqi troops in Baghdad we were trying to combat," said Wellman, the 101st Airborne spokesman. "Our mission was securing Baghdad at that point."
The NBC correspondent told MSNBC, an NBC cable news channel, that "there wasn't a search."
"The mission that the brigade had was to get to Baghdad," she said. "As far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away."
She said there was no talk among the 101st of securing the area after they left. The roads were cut off "so it would have been very difficult, I believe, for the looters to get there," she said.
Both HMX and RDX are key components in plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex, which are so powerful that Libyan terrorists needed just a pound to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.