Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq
This article was reported and written by James Glanz, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger.
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 24 - The Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives - used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons - are missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations.
The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year....
American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings.
...The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept a watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it. The other components of an atom bomb - the design and the radioactive fuel - are more difficult to obtain.
Not good. But the article raises some questions that one might have expected it to answer a bit more emphatically:
The closest we get to an answer is in paragraph 10:
A Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said Sunday evening that Saddam Hussein's government "stored weapons in mosques, schools, hospitals and countless other locations," and that the allied forces "have discovered and destroyed perhaps thousands of tons of ordnance of all types." A senior military official noted that HMX and RDX were "available around the world" and not on the nuclear nonproliferation list, even though they are used in the nuclear warheads of many nations.
(2) Why the focus on this site? Iraq apparently had several sites for making or storing high explosives.
The answer seems to be that this site was special because it was associated with Iraq's nuclear program, not that it was a special storage site for the the HMX in Iraq. Late in the story we get this:
Administration officials say Iraq was awash in munitions, including other stockpiles of exotic explosives.
"The only reason this stockpile was under seal," said one senior administration official, "is because it was located at Al Qaqaa," where nuclear work had gone on years ago.
As a measure of the size of the stockpile, one large truck can carry about 10 tons, meaning that the missing explosives could fill a fleet of almost 40 trucks.
By weight, these explosives pack far more destructive power than TNT, so armies often use them in shells, bombs, mines, mortars and many types of conventional ordinance.
(3) Was the stockpile moved before the war? The short answer seems to be yes, it was probably moved while under Saddam's control. But where? We have this:
By late 2003, diplomats said, arms agency experts had obtained commercial satellite photos of Al Qaqaa showing that two of roughly 10 bunkers that contained HMX appeared to have been leveled by titanic blasts, apparently during the war. They presumed some of the HMX had exploded, but that is unclear.
Other HMX bunkers were untouched. Some were damaged but not devastated. I.A.E.A. experts say they assume that just before the invasion the Iraqis followed their standard practice of moving crucial explosives out of buildings, so they would not be tempting targets. If so, the experts say, the Iraqi must have broken seals from the arms agency on bunker doors and moved most of the HMX to nearby fields, where it would have been lightly camouflaged - and ripe for looting.
Or it could have been dispersed to other hiding places - non one knows, but there is certainly evidence that Saddam planned for an insurgency. We do see this:
...A senior Bush administration official said that during the initial race to Baghdad, American forces "went through the bunkers, but saw no materials bearing the I.A.E.A. seal." It is unclear whether troops ever returned.
Fine, the Iraqis under Saddam probably unsealed it and moved it. US troops did not see anything under seal. Would they have paused to secure or destroy a stockpile of HMX? They have in many other places.
(4) Why the sudden alarm? What makes this HMX special is that at one time it was under IAEA supervision as part of their attempt to monitor the Iraqi nuclear program. Since that is officially still their job, they have decided to call attention to this. Which is fine - somebody ought to be keeping track of Iraq's nuclear program - but it does not mean that this is a breathtaking new discovery.
A slighly less excting version of this story seems to be, Saddam had conventional explosives, not all of which can be accounted for, and we did a poor job of securing munitions dumps. The presence of the IAEA lets the NY Times include a special fear factor. And we love this, near the conclusion:
More worrisome to the I.A.E.A. - and to some in Washington - is that HMX and RDX are used in standard nuclear weapons design.
Yes, the IAEA would be worried about that, since it is their job. More worrisome to the FAA (if the Times had called) would have been the fear that this HMX would be used to bring down an airliner. More worrisome to the Army Corps of Engineers is the possibility that this could be used to blow up the Hoover Dam, or the George Washington bridge. And so on.
I can't decide how much of this story is "news", and how much is the Times attempt at an October surprise. But my guess is that the reality-based community is pretending that Bush has lost track of all of the HMX in the world.
UPDATE: Kerry on the attack. But the article does not have any Administration response. I'm getting lonely here, guys...
FINALLY: If Jim Geraghty of the Kerry Spot is with me, who will stand against me? Follow his links, but one of his points is, the Army Corp of Engineers estimated that there were 600,000 tons of munitions in Iraq, of which 238,000 has been destroyed or captured. He also notes, as I do, that these explosives may have been moved before the war, or immediately after it started.
CNN has a different slant, and some Admin reaction. Here's the spin:
According to the Pentagon official, coalition forces, who went to the area around Al Qaqaa in the months after the war ended, searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings. They found no weapons of mass destruction, but indications of looting.
The discovery was not made public sooner because standard intelligence practice is not to let enemies know such information, said a senior administration official.
There are hundreds of tons of other weapons and munitions missing around the country, and it is impossible for the United States to track down all of them, the official said.
Even so, he conceded, the story is not a good one for the White House, just over a week from Election Day.
...The senior administration official downplayed the importance of the missing explosives, describing them as dangerous material but "stuff you can buy anywhere." The official added that the administration did not see this necessarily as a "proliferation risk."
"In the grand scheme -- and on a grand scale -- there are hundreds of tons of weapons, munitions, artillery, explosives that are unaccounted for in Iraq," the official said. "And like the Pentagon has said, there is really no way the U.S. military could safeguard all of these weapons depots or find all of these missing materials."
OK, the notion that hundreds of tons are already missing, so what is a few hundred more, is not wholly reassuring. I would rather they focus on the notion that this area was under Saddam's control for some time after the war started, and the explosives could have been moved then. The fedayeen were south of Baghdad, and fighting with what seemed to be a plan, after all. Or, if this facility was in a Republican Guard sector, what about the view that the Republican Guard slipped away to fight another day? [MSNBC says no to this - why can't CNN or the Times get this news?]:
At the Pentagon, an official who monitors developments in Iraq said U.S.-led coalition troops had searched Al Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives were intact. Thereafter the site was not secured by U.S. forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [NBC tells a different story, in UPDATE 2 below]
From CNN, the key bit of the Admin response to John Kerry: "John Kerry can't lead the nation to victory in a war he doesn't believe in."
Welcome to the Grand Diversion.
From the WaPo:
Car bombs have largely taken the lives of Iraqi civilians. IEDs have killed and wounded large numbers of U.S. troops.
...Almost all of the roadside bombs combine PE-4 and some sort of artillery munitions, from small mortar rounds to powerful 155mm shells.
PE-4, or PE4, is an RDX derivative which is made in Portugal or England, although a different story mentions Russia as a source. Could it be made from the RDX from Al QaQaa? And where would the facilities for such a conversion exist?
BURIED WHERE NO ONE WILL SEE IT: This explosive went missing from Al QaQaa, and I am wondering about the name. Can we all agree that "QaQaa" should be pronounced like "Kaka"?
UPDATE 2: From Jim Geraghty again, transcribing the NBC Nightly News:
NBC News: Miklaszewski: “April 10, 2003, only three weeks into the war, NBC News was embedded with troops from the Army's 101st Airborne as they temporarily take over the Al Qakaa weapons installation south of Baghdad. But these troops never found the nearly 380 tons of some of the most powerful conventional explosives, called HMX and RDX, which is now missing. The U.S. troops did find large stockpiles of more conventional weapons, but no HMX or RDX...
A bit later in the broadcast, Mr. Miklaszewski adds that Pentagon officials have seen no evidence that these explosives have actually been used in Iraq.