BAGHDAD, Iraq—When U.S. troops invaded Iraq last March, what they found astounded them: The country was a vast munitions dump, a problem that American military planners had seriously underestimated.
The U.S. military's chief engineer in Iraq said Thursday that up to 1 million tons of bombs, artillery shells, land mines and other ammunition were scattered in storage dumps and bunkers across the country.
"We think our initial estimate of 600,000 tons is low," Brig. Gen. Larry Davis said. "We think 600,000 tons could be as much as 1 million tons. They had an inordinate amount of ammunition in this country."
Securing it seems an impossible challenge, even as Saddam Hussein's alleged stocks of chemical and biological weapons remain undiscovered.
Even though 6,000 American soldiers from two artillery brigades are guarding the known munitions sites, military officials in Baghdad admit that even those aren't fully secure. And an untold number of weapons and ammo caches still haven't been found, easy pickings for the guerrillas who are attacking U.S. troops 18 to 20 times a day in increasingly sophisticated and deadly ways.
"It is a problem," said a senior military officer, who asked not to be named. "There are so many weapons caches all over this country. There are not enough troops. We don't have enough troops to guard them."
More than 105 large ammo dumps have been identified across the country so far, Davis said. A large dump is defined as one that has 100 or more bunkers. Some of them have as many as 700 open pits full of artillery shells and other ordnance. One site is about nine miles square.
"We find new caches every day," Davis said. "I have no idea how many there are."
In one sector in northern Iraq, at least 1,089 weapons and ammo caches have been found. In one small victory, an unidentified Iraqi man handed over 165 surface-to-air missiles to American troops with the 101st Airborne Division in the northern town of Mosul, U.S. military officials said earlier this week.
But coalition military officials estimate that as many as 5,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles remain unaccounted for, a potentially fatal threat to low-flying aircraft and a primary reason that Baghdad International Airport remains closed to commercial flights.
Coalition military officials plan to consolidate Saddam's ammunition stocks in six centralized locations. Most of the munitions are in such poor shape that as much as 85 percent of them will have to be destroyed. That process will take three to five years and will cost $285 million the first year alone.
So far, coalition troops have destroyed about 1 million pounds of munitions, but they don't have the expertise to handle the job alone, Davis said. The plan is to hand the job over fully to contractors by December.
Four U.S. firms—EOD Technology Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., USA Environmental Inc. of Tampa, Fla., Tetra Tech Inc. and Parsons Corp., both of Pasadena, Calif.—and more than 400 contract personnel will operate the six disposal sites. Contractors have destroyed 2.5 million pounds of ordnance in a three-week period alone, Davis said.
But the supply seems endless.
"We're destroying 100 tons a day, but we're also finding that much a day," said the senior military officer. "This country is literally awash in weapons."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.