Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Pentagon yesterday said U.S. Army troops removed an estimated 250 tons of ammunition, including plastic explosives, from the Al-Qaqaa weapons storage site in Iraq weeks after the war began.

Defense officials said they believe the 250 tons of explosives that Army troops destroyed after overruning the facility south of Baghdad included some of the 380 tons of explosives that have been reported missing.

“We believe [the 250 tons] constitutes some portion of those weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita. The Pentagon is still investigating the possibility of missing explosives, including ingredients for plastic explosives and nuclear weapons.

Army Maj. Austin Pearson, who was with the 24th Ordnance Company at Al-Qaqaa, said the weapons his company removed and destroyed were not under seal by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA was notified by the new Iraqi government in a letter earlier this month that 380 tons of high explosives at Al-Qaqaa that had been under seal were missing and presumed looted by Iraqis in the chaos after the fall of Baghdad April 6.

“I did not see any IAEA seals at the locations that we went into,” Maj. Pearson said. “I was not looking for that.”

Mr. DiRita said the IAEA statements that the missing explosives included 141 tons of RDX, an ingredient in plastic explosives, are also being questioned.

“They first said there were some 141 tons of it there; we’re now trying to better understand some of the reports that indicate there may have only been three tons of it at that particular facility,” Mr. DiRita said.

News videotape showing barrels containing unidentified explosives at Al-Qaqaa that was filmed by an ABC affiliate crew during the conflict also have not yet been identified as either RDX or HMX, which are used in making nuclear weapons, Pentagon officials said.

Mr. DiRita said there were signs that the missing explosives were moved out of the facility by Saddam’s government before the war.

“There was some apparent movement of heavy equipment in this facility at a time when only Saddam Hussein was in control of that facility, meaning after [U.N.] inspectors left the country and before U.S. forces arrived to begin the liberation of the country,” Mr. DiRita said.

John A. Shaw, the deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, revealed this week that two European intelligence services have evidence that Russian special forces units were dispatched to Iraq in the months before the invasion.

Mr. Shaw told The Washington Times that the intelligence reports indicated that the Russians shredded documents on Moscow’s arms deals with Iraq, and used trucks to move weapons covertly to Syria, Lebanon and possibly Iran.

Other Bush administration officials have said they are unaware of Mr. Shaw’s information, and the Russian government has denied any involvement.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a radio interviewer on Thursday that he had no information on the Russian role in moving weapons and “cannot validate that even slightly.”

However Mr. Shaw is standing by the foreign intelligence reports, which are still being investigated by his office, a defense official said.

The missing explosives became a topic of sharp debate in the final days of the presidential election campaign after the New York Times reported on the IAEA report Monday. CBS’ “60 Minutes” initially planned to air the story tomorrow night, two days before the election, but said they agreed to let the Times, its “reporting partner,” use it, fearing they’d be beaten by other competition. CBS network news ran the story Tuesday.

Democratic presidential contestant Sen. John Kerry has said in speeches that President Bush allowed dangerous explosives to be taken by Iraqi insurgents from Al-Qaqaa.

Mr. Bush said Mr. Kerry does not know the facts and was making reckless statements about the missing explosives.

In New York, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei dismissed reports that he timed his request for information about the missing Iraqi explosives to influence the presidential campaign.

“It’s total junk,” Mr. ElBaradei told the Associated Press. “The timing probably is unfortunate, but there is a world out there other than the American election.”

Mr. DiRita acknowledged yesterday “there’s a lot we don’t know” about the explosives and what happened to them.

The unusual activity seen in satellite photographs at the explosives facility include truck transports that were at the site before U.S. troops entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, he said.

“Unusual activity meaning large trucks in front of bunkers — doing what, we don’t know,” Mr. DiRita said. “We’ve seen other photos, photos we didn’t release because we don’t understand them well enough, that show a significant number of large trucks on that site near those bunkers.”

Maj. Pearson said that his troops used trucks and forklifts to move pallets of ammunition and explosives. He described the material at TNT, plastic explosives and detonation cord.

The material was moved on nine tractor trailers and taken to another facility and destroyed, he said.

Maj. Pearson said he did not know whether some of the missing 380 tons of IAEA-monitored explosives were among the 200 to 250 tons of material he removed.

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