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Soldiers say they watched 'chaos' as Iraqis looted munitions

LOS ANGELES -- Explosives were looted from the Al Qaqaa ammunitions site in Iraq while outnumbered US soldiers assigned to guard the materials watched helplessly, soldiers told the Los Angeles Times.

About a dozen US soldiers were guarding the sprawling facility in the weeks after the April 2003 fall of Baghdad when Iraqi looters raided the site, the newspaper quoted a group of unidentified soldiers as saying. US Army reservists and National Guardsmen witnessed the looting, and some soldiers sent messages to commanders in Baghdad requesting help but received no reply, they said.

''It was complete chaos. It was looting like LA during the Rodney King riots," one officer said.

The eyewitness accounts reported by the Times are the first provided by US soldiers and bolster claims that the US military had failed to safeguard the powerful explosives, the newspaper said.

Iraqi officials last month told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, that about 380 tons of high-grade explosives, a type powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon, had been taken from the Al Qaqaa facility.

Soldiers in two units described how Iraqis snatched explosives from unsecured bunkers and drove off with them in pickup trucks. The soldiers who spoke to the Times asked to remain unidentified, saying they feared retaliation from the Pentagon.

The soldiers said they could not confirm that looters took the particularly powerful explosives known as HMX and RDX. One soldier, however, said US forces saw looters load trucks with bags marked ''hexamine," which is a key ingredient of HMX.

One senior noncommissioned officer said troops ''were running from one side of the compound to the other side, trying to kick people out" and that at least 100 vehicles were at the site waiting for the military to leave so that they could loot the munitions.

The Pentagon has offered accounts that suggest the explosives were removed before the US-led invasion to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Four soldiers who are members of the Germany-based 317th Support Center and the 258th Rear Area Operations Center, an Arizona-based Army National Guard unit, said the looting happened over several weeks in late April and early May 2003.

Pentagon spokeswoman Rose-Ann Lynch told the newspaper: '' We are looking into the facts and circumstances of this incident."

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