Missing Weapons Go Far Beyond al-Qaqaa

New details have emerged in the week after nearly 380 tons of powerful explosives were reported missing from the al-Qaqaa munitions facility south of Baghdad, supporting Iraqi interim government assertions that someone looted the site following the U.S. capture of the capital city on April 9, 2003. Additional reports by eyewitnesses and the military suggest the problem extends well beyond that single installation. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and White House continue to put forth postulations intended to deny or excuse U.S. culpability in the loss of deadly materials in al-Qaqaa and throughout Iraq.

Last week, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), forwarded an Oct. 10 letter [.pdf] to the UN Security Council from Iraqi officials notifying the IAEA that tons of Iraq’s most powerful explosives "were lost after 9 April 2003, through the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security" at al-Qaqaa.

The Bush administration immediately denied the insinuation that the site was looted under the U.S.’ watch. White House spokesperson Scott McClellan stated that the sites are now "the responsibility of the Iraqi forces," directly contradicting provisions in UN Resolution 1546 of June 2004 [.pdf], which mandates that the U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq "shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq," a point also noted in ElBaradei’s Oct. 25 correspondence.

Three days after the New York Times broke the al-Qaqaa story, KSTP television news in Minneapolis broadcast footage of U.S. soldiers breaking into an IAEA-sealed bunker at al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003. A team from the ABC-TV affiliate had filmed the 101st Airborne Division’s exploration of explosives and other materials in "bunker after bunker" at the al-Qaqaa installation.

More revealing than the footage showing orderly rows of explosive materials, KSTP reported that once their search was complete, troops left the site unsecured.

Military officials said that the area was considered protected because it was within a U.S. military perimeter, KSTP reported, noting that its own journalists disputed the assertion.

"We weren’t quite sure what we were looking at, but we saw so much of it and it didn’t appear that this was being secured in any way," photojournalist Joe Caffrey said on Thursday’s KSTP 10 p.m. news broadcast. Via telephone, reporter Dean Stanley recalled, "At one point there was a group of Iraqis driving around in a pickup truck – three or four guys we kept an eye on, worried they might come near us."

The station confirmed Saturday that the site its news crew filmed was the southern edge of the al-Qaqaa’s weapons complex and that the material in the video included sealed IAEA material. According to former CIA chief weapons inspector David Kay, who reviewed the tapes, at least some of the material filmed by the station was HMX, one of the more dangerous high explosives said to be missing. While it is not yet known if the munitions filmed on April 18, 2003 have since been accounted for, what is no longer in dispute is that the hazardous material was left unsecured.

The government has simultaneously ignored and attempted to refute the video, releasing evidence of its own the day after KSTP’s first broadcast. The Pentagon showed reporters satellite reconnaissance photographs apparently depicting trucks parked at the al-Qaqaa facility on March 17, 2003.

However, even the Pentagon admitted that the photos prove nothing more than that there was activity at the site before the U.S. invaded three days later.

Progressive media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) analyzed the relevance of the photographs in a bulletin on its Web site. "Indeed, the fact that trucks were in the vicinity of bunkers that contained large amounts of battlefield weapons (in addition to the high explosives) just before a war seems hardly newsworthy," FAIR intoned. "Certainly the presence of trucks near the bunkers does nothing to undermine the footage of explosives in the bunkers days later."

Though KSTP’s report and footage debunked the Pentagon and White House’s original assertions that that al-Qaqaa and other munitions sites were emptied before the end of the U.S.-led invasion, the government’s position is further undermined by reports of eyewitnesses who saw al-Qaqaa and other sites looted, in some cases long after the U.S. took control of Iraq.

Three al-Qaqaa employees told the New York Times that they witnessed the looting of al-Qaqaa after the U.S. Army visited the site in April 2003. An Iraqi security official based in the vicinity confirmed their accounts. "The looting started after the collapse of the regime," Wathiq al-Dulaimi told the Times.

French journalist Sara Daniels came upon al-Qaqaa in November 2003. In a report for Le Nouvel Observateur on Saturday, Daniels recounted following a resistance group to the site, just days before the same group shot at a DHL cargo plane. One of the men told Daniels that stolen material had been used to blow up a convoy.

"The next day at one of the parties given by an American agency at the Palace," Daniels reported, "I asked one of the generals in charge of training the new Iraqi army why al-Qaqaa was not guarded. He had never heard of this once largest explosives and bomb-making factory in the Middle East… . "

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. apparently failed to secure at least two other munitions facilities: In October 2003, two U.S. aid workers reported looting at an ammunition storage area 75 miles south of Baghdad, but were told there were not enough U.S. soldiers to stand guard. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said he saw surface-to-surface warheads "stacked to the roof" at the unprotected at the 2nd Military College in Baquba on May 9, 2003.

"Looting was taking place by a lot of armed men with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades," Bouckaert told the AP, which reports that despite his warnings to U.S. officials, the site remained unsecured ten days later, when Boukaert left. "Everyone’s focused on al-Qaqaa, when what was at the military college could keep a guerrilla group in business for a long time, creating the kinds of bombs that are being used in suicide attacks every day."

As many as 250,000 additional tons (500 million pounds) of munitions remain unaccounted for, reports the AP, citing military estimates and noting that the military reports having secured or destroyed another 400,000 tons of munitions.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, blamed the situation on the Bush administration being "determined to punish and humiliate" the IAEA for its inspectors’ repeated reports before the invasion that no banned weaponry could be found in Iraq.

"This is where the ideology of the administration has really hurt U.S. national security. They wanted to make a point that they didn’t need international inspections or the help of international authorities," Cirincione told Salon.com in an October 25 interview. "As it turns out, the IAEA was absolutely correct in its reports on Iraq before the war. The UN intelligence was far better than the U.S. intelligence. They got it right. We should’ve listened."