WASHINGTON—The more than 320 tons of missing Iraqi high explosives at center stage in the U.S. presidential election are only a fraction of the weapons-related material that's disappeared in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion last year.
Huge amounts of arms and ammunition were stolen from military sites, and there's "ample evidence" that Iraqi insurgents are firing looted weapons at U.S. troops and using some of them in car bombs and improvised explosive devices, said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.N. officials also are concerned about the disappearance of sensitive equipment and controlled materials that could be used to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
"If this equipment is finding itself on the open market, then anybody with money can buy it," said Dimitri Perricos, acting head of the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), the U.N. weapons inspection agency.
The CIA has convened a "mini taskforce" of experts to assess precisely what equipment is gone and what threat it could pose if it fell into the wrong hands, said two U.S. officials.
In a new disclosure, the senior U.S. military officer and another U.S. official, who also spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that an Iraqi working for U.S. intelligence alerted U.S. troops stationed near the al Qaqaa weapons facility that the installation was being looted shortly after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
But, they said, the troops took no apparent action to halt the pillaging.
"That was one of numerous times when Iraqis warned us that ammo dumps and other places were being looted and we weren't able to respond because we didn't have anyone to send," said a senior U.S. military officer who served in Iraq.
An ABC television station in Minnesota reported that one of its camera crews embedded with the 101st Airborne Division might have filmed some of the high explosives after arriving on al Qaqaa's perimeter on April 18. Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. agency that was monitoring al Qaqaa because the missing explosives could have been used to trigger a nuclear weapon, are examining the videotape.
The disclosure appeared to contradict the Bush administration's suggestion that Saddam's regime may have removed the high explosives between the last U.N. inspection of al Qaqaa on March 15 and the arrival at the installation of 3rd Infantry Division troops on April 3. The U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government contends that the high explosives disappeared sometime after the fall of Baghdad on April 9.
The Defense Department on Thursday released a satellite photograph taken on March 17 that shows two trucks parked outside one of the 56 bunkers at the al Qaqaa complex, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. reconnaissance would have detected any major effort to loot the complex.
"We would have seen anything like that," Rumsfeld said in a radio interview. "The idea that it was suddenly looted and moved out, all these tons of equipment, I think that is at least debatable."
However, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, U.S. reconnaissance coverage of Iraqi weapons complexes and military movements was most intense before and during the U.S.-led invasion, while smaller-scale looting after the fall of Baghdad might have evaded detection.
Many U.S. officials and other experts blame the massive disappearance of Iraqi weapons-related materials on the Pentagon's failure to anticipate the waves of looting and lawlessness that convulsed Iraq after Saddam's ouster in April 2003.
They also cited decisions by Rumsfeld and former Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the invasion, to deploy far fewer U.S. troops to stabilize the country than U.S. ground commanders had sought.
Al Qaqaa was on a classified list of Iraqi weapons facilities that the CIA provided to Pentagon and military officials before the invasion, said the U.S. intelligence official.
But when the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command produced their own list of sites that a limited number of U.S. "exploitation teams" should search, priority was given to those identified by exiled Iraqi opposition groups, he said. Al Qaqaa wasn't one of them.
"The top of the list was dominated by nuclear facilities and places where we expected to find chemical and biological weapons," he said. "Iraqi exiles had a very heavy hand in determining which places got looked at first."
Al Qaqaa was one of some 900 known weapons sites in Iraq that U.S. experts estimated held more than 650,000 tons of munitions.
The Defense Department contends that the U.S.-led military coalition has destroyed or secured 402,000 tons of munitions. That leaves at least 248,000 tons still unaccounted for.
Thousands of unknown caches holding varying amounts of arms and ammunitions have been discovered in mosques, homes, schools and other locations since Baghdad's capture, and new stashes believed to belong to resistance groups are constantly being found.
The IAEA and UNMOVIC have reported that large amounts of equipment and materials have disappeared from numerous sites that were associated with the outlawed weapons programs that U.S. inspectors now believe Saddam discontinued after the 1991 Gulf War.
The IAEA monitored sites and equipment that were related to Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapon program, while UNMOVIC oversaw facilities that had been associated with Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs.
The missing equipment and materials have civilian and military applications. Precisely how much dual use technology is missing is not known, but some materials have been taken across Iraq's poorly guarded borders.
Earlier this year, radioactive scrap metal, sheets of metal alloys that are subject to strict international export controls, and dozens of missile engines from Iraq turned up in scrap metal yards in Jordan and the Netherlands.
An Aug. 27 UNMOVIC report to the U.N. Security Council said an assessment using commercial satellite imagery confirmed the "systematic removal of items subject to monitoring ... the fate of which remains unknown."
Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, said in an Oct. 1 letter to the U.N. Security Council that his agency "continues to be concerned about the widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear programme and sites previously subject to ongoing monitoring."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041027 Explosives Iraq