Friday, October 29, 2004

U.S. Team Took 250 Tons of Iraqi Munitions

WASHINGTON - A U.S. Army officer came forward Friday to say a team from his 3rd Infantry Division took about 250 tons of munitions and other material from the Al-Qaqaa arms-storage facility soon after Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003.

Explosives were part of the load taken by the team, but Major Austin Pearson was unable to say what percentage they accounted for.

The Pentagon believes the disclosure helps explain what happened to 377 tons of high explosives that the International Atomic Energy Agency said disappeared after the U.S.-led invasion.

Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita acknowledged the Defense Department did not have all the answers and could not yet account for all of the missing explosives, but stressed that the major's disclosure was a significant development in unraveling the mystery.

"We've described what we know, and as we know more we'll describe that," said DiRita.

Pearson, accompanied by DiRita, appeared at a Pentagon news conference and said his team's mission in April 2003 was to clear material from the Al-Qaqaa facility in order to secure it for U.S. forces. He admitted he was not an explosives expert.

The IAEA reported the disappearance of the explosives to the United Nations on Monday, suggesting they had fallen into the hands of looters after American troops had swept through the area.

U.S. military officials have retorted that they suspect the munitions were removed by Iraqis before Saddam was ousted from power on April 9, 2003.

The officer's story came the morning after new videotape surfaced supporting the contention that the explosives were still at the base following Saddam's fall.

Videotape shot by a Minnesota television crew traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq on April 18, 2003 shows what appeared to be high explosives still in barrels bearing IAEA seals.

The video was taken by a reporter and cameraman employed by KSTP, an ABC affiliate in St. Paul. It was broadcast nationally Thursday on the ABC national network.

"The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al-Qaqaa," David A. Kay, the former American official who directed the hunt in Iraq for unconventional weapons and visited the site, told The New York Times. "The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn't use seals on anything. So I'm absolutely sure that's an IAEA seal."

The Pentagon late Thursday released a satellite photograph of Al-Qaqaa taken on March 17, 2003, just before the war. It showed showing several bunkers, one with two tractor-trailers next to it.

Senior Defense officials said their photo shows that the Al-Qaqaa facility "was not hermetically sealed" after international weapons inspectors had paid their last visits to the facility earlier in the month.

Officials were analyzing the image and others for clues into when the nearly 380 tons of explosives were taken. The munitions included HMX and RDX, key components in plastic explosives, which insurgents in Iraq have used in bomb attacks.

The Pentagon insisted that the image shows the Iraqis were moving something at the site before the first U.S.-launched bombs fell.

Meanwhile, an IAEA report obtained by FOX News said the inspectors noted that despite the fact that the Al-Qaqaa bunkers were locked, ventilation shafts remained open and provided easy access to the explosives.

The IAEA can definitively say only that the documented ammunition was at the facility in January; in March, an agency spokesman conceded, inspectors only checked the locked bunker doors.

The question of what happened to the explosives has become a major issue in the closing days of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry says the missing explosives - powerful enough to demolish a building, bring down a jetliner or even trigger a nuclear weapon - are another example of the Bush administration's poor planning and incompetence in handling the war in Iraq.

President Bush says the explosives were possibly removed by Saddam's forces before the invasion.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld entered the debate Thursday, suggesting the 377 tons of explosives were taken away before U.S. forces arrived, saying any large effort to loot the material afterward would have been detected.

"We would have seen anything like that," he said in one of two radio interviews he gave at the Pentagon. "The idea it was suddenly looted and moved out, all of these tons of equipment, I think is at least debatable."

The bunker with the trucks parked next to it in the Pentagon's satellite image is not one known to have contained any of the missing explosives, and Defense spokesman DiRita said Thursday the image only shows that there was some Iraqi activity at the base on March 17.

DiRita acknowledged that the image says nothing about what happened to the explosives.

Rumsfeld, in one radio interview, also cast doubt on the suggestion by one of his subordinates that Russian soldiers assisted Iraqis in removing the munitions.

The Washington Times on Thursday quoted John A. Shaw, the deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, who said he believed Russian special-forces personnel, working with Iraqi intelligence, "almost certainly" removed the high-explosive material from Al-Qaqaa.

Shaw said he believed the munitions were moved to Syria in the weeks before the March 2003 invasion.

Senior Defense officials urged caution over the Washington Times article because they could not verify its allegations as true.

"I have no information on that at all, and cannot validate that even slightly," Rumsfeld said.

The article prompted an angry denial from Moscow.

At the core of the issue is whether the explosives were moved before or after U.S. forces reached that part of the country in early April.

No one has been able to provide conclusive evidence either way, although Iraqi officials blamed the munitions' disappearance on poor U.S. security after Baghdad fell.

The Pentagon has said it is looking into the matter, and officials note that 400,000 tons of recovered Iraqi munitions have either been destroyed or are slated to be destroyed.

Click on the link to see the source of the report. - U.S. Team Took 250 Tons of Iraqi Munitions

1 comment:

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