U.S. intelligence agencies have obtained satellite photographs of truck convoys that were at several weapons sites in Iraq in the weeks before U.S. military operations were launched, defense officials said yesterday.
The photographs indicate that Iraq was moving arms and equipment from its known weapons sites, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to one official, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, known as NGA, “documented the movement of long convoys of trucks from various areas around Baghdad to the Syrian border.”
The official said the convoys are believed to include shipments of sensitive armaments, including equipment used in making plastic explosives and nuclear weapons.
About 380 tons of RDX and HMX, used in making such arms, were reported missing from the Al-Qaqaa weapons facility, though the Pentagon and an embedded NBC News correspondent said the facility appeared to have been emptied by the time U.S. forces got there.
The photographs bolster the claims of Pentagon official John A. Shaw, who told The Washington Times on Wednesday that recent intelligence reports indicate Russian special forces units took part in a sophisticated dispersal operation from January 2003 to March 2003 to move key weapons out of Iraq.
In Moscow, the Russian government denied that its forces were involved in removing weapons from Iraq, dismissing the claims as “far-fetched and ridiculous.”
“I can state officially that the Russian Defense Ministry and its structural divisions could not have been involved in the disappearance of the explosives, because Russian servicemen were not in Iraq long before the beginning of the American-British operation in that country,” Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Vyacheslav Sedov told Interfax news agency.
Bush administration officials reacted cautiously to information provided by Mr. Shaw, who said details of the Russian “spetsnaz” forces’ involvement in a program of document-shredding and weapons dispersal came from two European intelligence services.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One that he was unaware of the information in The Times report.
“I know that there is some new information that has come to light in the last couple of days,” Mr. McClellan said, noting that another news report said the amount of high-explosive materials may have been less than 377 tons, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims.
Asked about foreign intelligence reports of Russian troops moving Iraq’s weapons to Syria, Mr. McClellan said, “I have no information that points in that direction.”
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in a interview on the Laura Ingraham radio show that she also was not aware of the information about Russian troops relocating Saddam’s weapons to Syria, Lebanon and possibly Iran.
Defense officials said the information has been closely held within the Pentagon because Mr. Shaw, a deputy undersecretary of defense of international technology security, has been working with the Pentagon inspector general in investigating the Russian role in the weapons transfers.
Information in the inspector general office is not widely shared within the policy and intelligence communities.
The Pentagon is still investigating the fate of the explosives and possible Russian involvement.
Officials said numerous intelligence reports in the past two years indicate Saddam used trucks and aircraft to withdraw weapons from Iraq before March 2003. However, the new information indicates that Russian troops were directly involved in assisting the Iraqi military and intelligence services to secure and move the arms.
Documents reviewed by one defense official include specific Russian military unit itineraries for the truck convoys.
The arms that were taken out of the country included missile parts, nuclear-related equipment, tank and aircraft parts, and chemicals used in making poison gas weapons, the official said.
Regarding the satellite photographs, defense officials said the photographs bolster the information obtained from the European intelligence services on the Russian arms-removal program.
The Russian special forces troops were housed at a computer center near the Russian Embassy in Baghdad and left the country shortly before the U.S. invasion was launched March 20, 2003.
Harold Hough, a satellite photographic specialist, said commercial satellite images taken shortly before U.S. forces reached Baghdad revealed Russian transport aircraft at Baghdad’s international airport near a warehouse.
“My thought was that the Russians were eager to get something out of Iraq quickly,” Mr. Hough said. “But it is quite possible that the aircraft was used to transport the Russian forces.”
Also yesterday, the IAEA said it warned the United States about the vulnerability of explosives stored at Al-Qaqaa after Iraq’s Tuwaitha nuclear complex was looted.
“After we heard reports of looting at the Tuwaitha site in April 2003, the agency’s chief Iraq inspectors alerted American officials that we were concerned about the security of the high explosives stored at Al-Qaqaa,” IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the Associated Press.
She did not say which officials were notified or exactly when.