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Fate of missing Iraq weapons unresolved
Updated: 2004-10-30 09:11

The fate of up to 377 tons of high-grade explosives missing from an Iraqi depot remained unresolved a week after it became a hot issue in the presidential election.

The Pentagon offered piecemeal information about operations at the base but was unable to say where the weapons went.

Some analysts are questioning the relevance of the debate, noting 377 tons is a pittance compared to the unclaimed arsenal left behind after Saddam Hussein's regime fell. Bush administration officials have repeatedly said some 400,000 tons of munitions and explosives have been either destroyed or are slated to be destroyed. They do not mention that, by military estimates, a minimum of 250,000 more tons remains unaccounted for.

On Friday, an Army major said his company had recovered and destroyed some of the munitions left at the Al-Qaqaa depot south of Baghdad after the invasion. A Pentagon spokesman asserted some of that was of the same type as the missing explosives that have become a major issue in the campaign.

Maj. Austin Pearson said his team removed the 250 tons of plastic explosives and other munitions on April 13, 2003 — 10 days after U.S. forces first reached the Al-Qaqaa site.

But those munitions were not located under the seal of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency — as the missing high-grade explosives had been. And Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita could not definitely say whether they were part of the missing 377 tons.

Di Rita sought to point to Pearson's comments as evidence that some RDX, one of the high-energy explosives, might have been removed from the site. RDX is also known as plastic explosive.

Whether Saddam's forces removed the explosives before U.S. forces arrived on April 3, 2003, or whether they fell into the hands of looters and insurgents afterward — because the site was not guarded by U.S. troops — has become a key issue.

The window in which the explosives were most likely removed from Al-Qaqaa opens on March 15, 2003 — five days before the war started — and closes in late May, when a U.S. weapons inspection team declared the depot stripped and looted.

Two weeks ago, Iraqi officials told the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives vanished as a result of "theft and looting ... due to lack of security" and said this took place after the invasion.

The explosives were known to be housed in storage bunkers at the sprawling Al-Qaqaa complex and nearby structures. U.N. nuclear inspectors placed fresh seals over the bunker doors in January 2003. The inspectors visited Al-Qaqaa for the last time that March 15 and reported that the seals were not broken, concluding the weapons were still inside at the time.

A U.S. military reconnaissance image, taken on March 17, shows two vehicles, presumably Iraqi, outside a bunker at Al-Qaqaa. But Di Rita said that bunker was not known to contain any of the 377 tons and that the image only shows that there was activity at the depot after U.N. inspectors left.

Troops from the 3rd Infantry Division first arrived on April 3 en route to Baghdad. They fought a battle with Iraqi forces inside Al-Qaqaa and moved on, leaving a battalion behind. That unit didn't specifically search for the 377 tons of missing high explosives but did find some munitions on the base. On April 6, the battalion left for Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have advanced the theory that the materials were removed before U.S. forces arrived, saying looting that much material would be impossible by small-scale thieves and that a large-scale theft would have involved many trucks and would have been detected.

About four days later, elements of the 101st Airborne Division moved into the area but did not search Al-Qaqaa.

On Friday, Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a 101st spokesman, said "several thousand" soldiers from the division — primarily aviation elements — moved into the area when the 2nd Brigade left, and operated there for several weeks before moving into northern Iraq.

Wellman said no one he has talked to can confirm seeing the IAEA sealed weapons.

"We went in there and looked for chemical weapons to make sure there was not a risk to our soldiers, and then we actually tried to leave the bunkers and storage facilities alone," Wellman said. "We weren't trained to go through there so we tried to stay out of there as much as possible."

Wellman said there was looting in the area, but they were able to prevent looting in the section where the division was operating.

On April 13, Pearson's ordnance-disposal team arrived and took 250 tons of munitions out and later destroyed them.

On April 18, a Minnesota television crew traveling with the 101st Airborne shot a videotape of troops as they first opened the bunkers at Al-Qaqaa, which shows what appeared to be high explosives still in barrels and bearing the markings of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

U.S. weapons hunters did not give the area a thorough search until May, when they searched every building on the compound over the course of those three visits, but they did not find any material or explosives marked by the IAEA.

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