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Explosives were looted after Iraq invasion

UN nuclear official cites security lapse

WASHINGTON -- Iraqi officials reported that thieves looted 377 tons of powerful explosives from an unguarded site after the US-led invasion last year, the top UN nuclear official said yesterday. And a former weapons inspector said he had counted about 100 other unguarded weapons sites that may have been stripped of munitions for use in the wave of attacks against US soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The explosives that were looted from the Al Qaqaa nuclear facility, apparently in April and May of 2003, had been sealed and monitored by international nuclear inspectors before the invasion. The explosives were monitored because they can be used to detonate a nuclear bomb, although Iraq was allowed to keep them because they also have civilian and conventional military uses.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, disclosed the security lapse to the UN Security Council yesterday after receiving a letter from the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology earlier this month that informed him of the loss and blamed it on ''theft and looting of governmental installations due to lack of security."

News that such a large amount of specialized explosives had disappeared from the abandoned facility spread alarm in Washington among longtime observers of Iraq's weapons programs.

''This is not just any old warehouse in Iraq that happened to have explosives in it; this was a leading location for developing nuclear weapons before the first Gulf War," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project, a nonprofit organization that has followed Iraq's attempts to procure weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade. ''The fact that it had been left unsecured is very, very discouraging. It would be like invading the US in to order to get rid of [weapons of mass destruction] and not securing Los Alamos or [Lawrence] Livermore [National Laboratory]."

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said the looting of the explosives -- known as HMX, RDX, and PETN -- was fresh evidence of the Bush administration's inept handling of the Iraq invasion and its aftermath. His campaign seized on the news, organizing a conference call to reporters with Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser to the campaign, and Susan Rice, who advises Kerry on national security issues.

''Terrorists could use this material to kill our troops and our people, blow up airplanes, and level buildings," Kerry said yesterday to an audience in Dover, N.H. ''And now we know that our country and our troops are less safe because this president failed to do the basics. This is one of the great blunders of the Bush policy in Iraq."

The looting of the Qaqaa weapons site was first reported yesterday by The New York Times. US officials have acknowledged since the invasion that Iraq was riddled with sprawling weapons caches and that many sites were poorly guarded and subject to looting.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that securing the site had been ''a priority" but that ''given the number of arms and the number of caches and the extent of militarization of Iraq, it was impossible to provide 100 percent security for 100 percent of the sites, quite frankly."

Ereli said the US military had destroyed 243,000 tons of munitions and was in the process of destroying 160,000 tons more.

But the disappearance of the HMX, or ''High-Melting Point Explosive," caused particular alarm because the lightweight substance is twice as powerful as an ordinary plastic explosive and is not easily set off by an accident as other substances are. That makes it the perfect detonator for a nuclear device, or in attacks on large buildings or planes, although the substance is not considered a weapon of mass destruction and often is used for civilian purposes such as demolition and mining.

David Kay, a former weapons inspector in Iraq for the US government who led the Iraq Survey Group that searched for weapons of mass destruction, said that although his team of 1,400 investigators found no such weapons, they found small amounts of HMX and RDX -- and hundreds of square miles of other conventional munitions -- at unguarded sites across Iraq.

''The RDX, HMX, is a superb explosive for terrorists," Kay said. ''The danger is that it's gone somewhere else in the Middle East."

However, Kay's team had a mandate only to search for weapons of mass destruction, not to secure conventional arms, so he could do little beyond referring the caches to the US-led coalition.

''The military did not view guarding these sites as their responsibility," Kay said, recalling that he witnessed US troops guarding the gates of the Tuwaitha nuclear facility while Iraq civilians carried away radioactive pipes and metal drums through other exits.

''There just were not enough troops to guard the number of sites. It was just crazy."

At the time, there was no major insurgency and US military officials felt the war had been won, Kay said, so the Department of Defense did not fear that the weapons that disappeared in widespread looting would be used against US soldiers.

Later, as the insurgency heated, at least three major bombing sites in Iraq tested positive for HMX or RDX, Kay recalled.

Kay said that late into fall 2003, more than 100 large ammunition storage points had been left unsecured; everything from conventional bombs to artillery shells and rockets were unguarded.

By the time Kay's team visited Qaqaa in the late summer of 2003, the buildings had been largely destroyed by the war and looting, and it was too dangerous to spend much time at the sites. He said there was no sign of the neatly packaged explosives in locked bunkers that Kay had seen as a weapons inspector in 1991, when he researched how Iraq bought the explosives, mostly from China and Eastern Europe.

Kay said he stressed the danger of leaving the weapons sites unguarded in his testimony to Congress. Since late fall of last year, the military has put out contracts seeking companies that will secure and destroy the weapons, Kay said, but the process has gone slowly.

The location of the explosives at Qaqaa had been so well known to inspectors that they appeared routinely in reports written by ElBaradei to the Security Council.

''Qaqaa was a well-known site even before the first Gulf War as a place where Iraqis were doing nuclear research," said Milhollin, who said he learned that in 1989 the Department of Defense had brought three Iraqis from the site to Oregon to train them in HMX detonations. ''It was certainly a leading candidate to be inspected after the first Gulf War and to be secured after the second."

Yesterday, Democratic Representatives Marty Meehan, of Massachusetts, and Ellen Tauscher, of California, prepared a letter to Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, requesting a hearing on the issue and demanding that the government account for the missing materiel.

The pair had written to President Bush in May asking for former weapons sites to be secured. 

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