WASHINGTON – A U.S. Army demolition unit removed and destroyed up to 250 tons of explosives from an Iraqi storage complex shortly after the fall of Baghdad, but Pentagon officials were unable to say Friday whether the destroyed munitions were part of a cache of weaponry that U.N. inspectors said disappeared in the post-invasion chaos.
While offering a fragment of new and inconclusive evidence, Pentagon officials were unable to refute the most compelling suggestion that U.S. troops failed to safeguard the huge Al Qaqaa ammunition site: a videotape taken by a Minnesota TV station showing American soldiers breaking into sealed bunkers April 18, 2003, to find stacked crates of explosives.
The videotape appeared to show soldiers using tools to cut through wire seals left by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That bolstered reports by the interim Iraqi government and the IAEA that 377 tons of high-grade explosives were still at Al Qaqaa when the Iraq invasion began and were likely looted during the security breakdown that followed.
The munitions – primarily high-grade material known as HMX and RDX – have been a top issue in the campaign between President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, who has charged that their theft exemplifies failures by the president in the war. Kerry has said it shows the administration failed to send in enough troops to secure Iraq and failed to heed warnings to secure the ammunition dumps.
Pentagon officials all week have tried to discredit these charges. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the weapons may have been removed by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the days before the invasion.
Pentagon officials Friday took a different tack, suggesting that large quantities of the explosives at Al Qaqaa were systematically removed and destroyed by U.S. forces after the war. At a Pentagon news conference, Army Maj. Austin Pearson said his unit removed between 200 and 250 tons of TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords and white phosphorus rounds from the site April 13, several days after the fall of Baghdad to American troops. Yet he could not say whether any of these were among those weapons inventoried by the IAEA.
“I did not see any IAEA seals at any of the locations we went into,” Pearson said. “I was not looking for that.”
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita attempted to play down the significance of the missing weapons, pointing out that 377 tons amounts to less than “one-thousandth” of the 400,000 tons of munitions that U.S. troops have seized and destroyed since the war began.
A senior IAEA inspector who helped place the seals on the bunkers at Al Qaqaa said Friday that the site in the Minnesota crew’s videotape appeared to be Al Qaqaa, and that the seal snipped by soldiers trying to gain access to a weapons bunker seemed to be an authentic IAEA seal.
The agency’s chief Iraq inspector, Jacques Baute, also said the explosives containers imprinted with the Al Qaqaa label shown in the video corresponded to his memory of the material the inspectors inventoried in January.
Baute is skeptical of media reports that the explosives might have been removed through ventilation slats in the bunker, leaving the seals and chains on the doors intact.
“If these vents had been fiddled with, we would be able to detect that – even if they had been dismantled and put back with fresh concrete,” he said.
Friday at the United Nations, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei dismissed accusations that he timed the release of an Iraqi letter reporting the disappearance of the explosives to influence the U.S. presidential election.
“It’s unfortunate that the whole thing has been hyped in the media,” he said. “There are other things happening in the world than the presidential election here.”
But ElBaradei said that despite the hype, it remained a serious matter that the explosives may have fallen into the hands of insurgents, despite repeated warnings by the IAEA that the Al Qaqaa site should be secured.
“We need to focus on the message – and the message is there is a serious issue on our hands – and not to try to attack the messenger. That’s not the way to address the problem,” he said.