Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Pentagon said yesterday that 380 tons of missing explosives from an Iraqi munitions facility may have been moved before U.S. troops overran the area during the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The statement came after a joint project by CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the New York Times reported that the Iraqi government has told the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the stockpile of material for plastic explosives went missing during postwar looting. The IAEA did not publicly reveal the issue of missing explosives until after the CBS-Times report.

But Pentagon officials said yesterday that Iraq had already admitted to breaking the IAEA seals and moving tons of the explosives from the Al Qaqaa facility, south of Baghdad, before U.N. inspectors re-entered the country in 2002. Officials said the rest of the explosives stockpiles may have been removed and hidden before the arrival of American troops.

That explanation was bolstered last night by a report from NBC News, which said the weapons already were missing when their embedded reporter arrived at the site on April 10, 2003.

“NBC News was embedded with troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne as they [took] over the weapons installation south of Baghdad. But they never found the 380 tons” of missing explosives, the network reported.

A Pentagon statement said troops searched the Al Qaqaa site during and after major combat. They searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings, the Pentagon said, but found no weapons of mass destruction or any material under IAEA seal.

“Although some believe the Al Qaqaa facility may have been looted, there is no way to verify this,” the Pentagon said. “Another explanation is that regime loyalists or others emptied the facility prior to coalition forces arriving in Baghdad in April.”

The “60 Minutes-New York Times report said Pentagon officials acknowledged the material disappeared after Baghdad fell. But Pentagon and White House officials said yesterday they do not know when the explosives went missing and have asked the CIA’s Iraqi Survey Group to investigate.

The Pentagon also said allies have cleared more than 10,000 arms caches since April 2003, destroying more than 240,000 tons of arms and explosives. Another 162,000 tons are awaiting destruction.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts seized on yesterday’s report as evidence of “the unbelievable blindness, stubbornness, arrogance” of the Bush administration.

“George W. Bush, who talks tough, talks tough and brags about making America safer, has once again failed to deliver,” he said at a rally in Dover, N.H. “After being warned about the danger of major stockpiles of explosives in iraq, this president failed to guard those stockpiles.”

Joe Lockhart, an adviser to Mr. Kerry, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that is not an indictment of the troops fighting in Iraq, but of their civilian leadership — a point Mr. Kerry made as well.

“They have been doing their job courageously and honorably. The problem is the commander in chief has not been doing his,” Mr. Kerry said. “These are the very errors of judgment that are supposed to be avoided by a wise president.”

But Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said the NBC report, which he distributed to reporters, disproved Mr. Kerry.

“John Kerry today launched attacks against the president that have been proven false before the day is over,” he said. “John Kerry’s attacks today were baseless. He said American troops did not secure the explosives, when the explosives were already missing.”

Unlike the Pentagon, White House spokesman Scott McClellan did not dispute the timeline presented by the Iraqi government on when the material was missing. Instead, he focused on the tough task some 140,000 American troops faced when Baghdad fell.

“There were munitions caches spread throughout Iraq at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That’s why I pointed out the large volume of munitions that have already been destroyed and the large volume that are on line to be destroyed. The sites now are the responsibility of the Iraqi government to secure.”

Iraq has a history of moving armaments to evade detection by the United Nations. During U.N. inspections after the first Gulf war in 1991, the Iraqi Intelligence Service was seen in surveillance photographs clearing out facilities before inspectors arrived.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the U.N. Security Council one month before the allied invasion that Iraq had moved some of its highly explosive HMX from the Al Qaqaa site. The United Nations could not verify Iraqi claims that it used the explosives for commercial uses.

The missing explosives include HMX as well as RDX, two highly explosive substances used to make C-5 plastic devices that can be used for legitimate commercial purposes, or by terrorists to bring down an airplane.

Mr. ElBaradei told the Security Council yesterday he was informed Oct. 1 by the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology that the explosives were lost after April 9, 2003, throughout the theft and looting of the government installations due to lack of security.

• Stephen Dinan, traveling with Sen. John Kerry’s campaign, contributed to this story.

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