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October 25, 2004
TRACKING THE WEAPONS

Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq

JAMES GLANZ, WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER/New York Times

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.

The White House said President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was informed within the past month that the explosives were missing. It is unclear whether President Bush was informed. American officials have never publicly announced the disappearance, but beginning last week they answered questions about it posed by The New York Times and the CBS News program "60 Minutes."

Administration officials said Sunday that the Iraq Survey Group, the C.I.A. task force that searched for unconventional weapons, has been ordered to investigate the disappearance of the explosives.

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 bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 used less than a pound of the same type of material, and larger amounts were apparently used in the bombing of a housing complex in November 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the blasts in a Moscow apartment complex in September 1999 that killed nearly 300 people.

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.

"This is a high explosives risk, but not necessarily a proliferation risk," one senior Bush administration official said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency publicly warned about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured, European diplomats said in interviews last week. Administration officials say they cannot explain why the explosives were not safeguarded, beyond the fact that the occupation force was overwhelmed by the amount of munitions they found throughout the country.

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.

The Qaqaa facility, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, was well known to American intelligence officials: Mr. Hussein made conventional warheads at the site, and the I.A.E.A. dismantled parts of his nuclear program there in the early 1990's after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. In the prelude to the 2003 invasion, Mr. Bush cited a number of other "dual use" items - including tubes that the administration contended could be converted to use for the nuclear program - as a justification for invading Iraq.

After the invasion, when widespread looting began in Iraq, the international weapons experts grew concerned that the Qaqaa stockpile could fall into unfriendly hands. In May, an internal I.A.E.A. memorandum warned that terrorists might be helping "themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history."

Earlier this month, in a letter to the I.A.E.A. in Vienna, a senior official from Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology wrote that the stockpile disappeared after early April 2003 because of "the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."

In an interview with The Times and "60 Minutes" in Baghdad, the minister of science and technology, Rashad M. Omar, confirmed the facts described in the letter. "Yes, they are missing," Dr. Omar said. "We don't know what happened." The I.A.E.A. says it also does not know, and has reported that machine tools that can be used for either nuclear or non-nuclear purposes have also been looted.

Dr. Omar said that after the American-led invasion, the sites containing the explosives were under the control of the Coalition Provisional Authority, an American-led entity that was the highest civilian authority in Iraq until it handed sovereignty of the country over to the interim government on June 28.

"After the collapse of the regime, our liberation, everything was under the coalition forces, under their control," Dr. Omar said. "So probably they can answer this question, what happened to the materials."

Officials in Washington said they had no answers to that question. One senior official noted that the Qaqaa complex where the explosives were stored was listed as a "medium priority" site on the Central Intelligence Agency's list of more than 500 sites that needed to be searched and secured during the invasion. "Should we have gone there? Definitely," said one senior administration official.

In the chaos that followed the invasion, however, many of those sites, even some considered a higher priority, were never secured.

A No Man's Land

Seeing the ruined bunkers at the vast Qaqaa complex today, it is hard to recall that just two years ago it was part of Saddam Hussein's secret military complex. The bunkers are so large that they are reminiscent of pyramids, though with rounded edges and the tops chopped off. Several are blackened and eviscerated as a result of American bombing. Smokestacks rise in the distance.

Today, Al Qaqaa has become a wasteland generally avoided even by the marines in charge of northern Babil Province. Headless bodies are found there. An ammunition dump has been looted, and on Sunday an Iraqi employee of The New York Times who made a furtive visit to the site saw looters tearing out metal fixtures. Bare pipes within the darkened interior of one of the buildings were a tangled mess, zigzagging along charred walls. Someone fired a shot, probably to frighten the visitors off.

"It's like Mars on Earth," said Maj. Dan Whisnant, an intelligence officer for the Second Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment. "It would take probably 10 battalions 10 years to clear that out."

Mr. Hussein's engineers acquired HMX and RDX when they embarked on a crash effort to build an atomic bomb in the late 1980's. It did not go smoothly.

In 1989, a huge blast ripped through Al Qaqaa, the boom reportedly heard hundreds of miles away. The explosion, it was later determined, occurred when a stockpile of the high explosives ignited.

After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the United Nations discovered Iraq's clandestine effort and put the United Nations arms agency in charge of Al Qaqaa's huge stockpile. Weapon inspectors determined that Iraq had bought the explosives from France, China and Yugoslavia, a European diplomat said.

None of the explosives were destroyed, arms experts familiar with the decision recalled, because Iraq argued that it should be allowed to keep them for eventual use in mining and civilian construction. But Al Qaqaa was still under the authority of the Military Industrial Council, which ran Iraq's sensitive weapons programs and was led for a time by Hussein Kamel, Mr. Hussein's son-in-law. He defected to the West, then returned to Iraq and was immediately killed.

In 1996, the United Nations hauled away some of the HMX and used it to blow up Al Hakam, a vast Iraqi factory for making germ weapons.

The Qaqaa stockpile went unmonitored from late 1998, when United Nations inspectors left Iraq, to late 2002, when they came back. Upon their return, the inspectors discovered that about 35 tons of HMX were missing. The Iraqis said they had used the explosive mainly in civilian programs.

The remaining stockpile was no secret. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the arms agency, frequently talked about it publicly as he investigated - in late 2002 and early 2003 - the Bush administration's claims that Iraq was secretly renewing its pursuit of nuclear arms. He ordered his weapons inspectors to conduct an inventory, and publicly reported their findings to the Security Council on Jan. 9, 2003.

During the following weeks, the I.A.E.A. repeatedly drew public attention to the explosives. In New York on Feb. 14, nine days after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented his arms case to the Security Council, Dr. ElBaradei reported that the agency had found no sign of new atom endeavors but "has continued to investigate the relocation and consumption of the high explosive HMX."

A European diplomat reported that Jacques Baute, head of the arms agency's Iraq nuclear inspection team, warned officials at the United States mission in Vienna about the danger of the nuclear sites and materials once under I.A.E.A. supervision, including Al Qaqaa.

But apparently, little was done. 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.

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.

But the Bush administration would not allow the agency back into the country to verify the status of the stockpile. In May 2004, Iraqi officials say in interviews, they warned L. Paul Bremer III, the American head of the occupation authority, that Al Qaqaa had probably been looted. It is unclear if that warning was passed anywhere. Efforts to reach Mr. Bremer by telephone were unsuccessful.

But by the spring of 2004, the Americans were preoccupied with the transfer of authority to Iraq, and the insurgency was gaining strength. "It's not an excuse," said one senior administration official. "But a lot of things went by the boards."

Early this month, Dr. ElBaradei put public pressure on the interim Iraqi government to start the process of accounting for nuclear-related materials still ostensibly under I.A.E.A. supervision, including the Qaqaa stockpile.

"Iraq is obliged," he wrote to the president of the Security Council on Oct. 1, "to declare semiannually changes that have occurred or are foreseen."

The agency, Dr. ElBaradei added pointedly, "has received no such notifications or declarations from any state since the agency's inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq in March 2003."

A Lost Stockpile

Two weeks ago, on Oct. 10, Dr. Mohammed J. Abbas of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology wrote a letter to the I.A.E.A. to say the Qaqaa stockpile had been lost. He added that his ministry had judged that an "urgent updating of the registered materials is required."

A chart in his letter listed 341.7 metric tons, about 377 American tons, of HMX, RDX and PETN as missing.

The explosives missing from Al Qaqaa are the strongest and fastest in common use by militaries around the globe. The Iraqi letter identified the vanished stockpile as containing 194.7 metric tons of HMX, which stands for "high melting point explosive," 141.2 metric tons of RDX, which stands for "rapid detonation explosive," among other designations, and 5.8 metric tons of PETN, which stands for "pentaerythritol tetranitrate." The total is roughly 340 metric tons or nearly 380 American tons.

Five days later, on Oct. 15, European diplomats said, the arms agency wrote the United States mission in Vienna to forward the Iraqi letter and ask that the American authorities inform the international coalition in Iraq of the missing explosives.

Dr. ElBaradei, a European diplomat said, is "extremely concerned" about the potentially "devastating consequences" of the vanished stockpile.

Its fate remains unknown. Glenn Earhart, manager of an Army Corps of Engineers program in Huntsville, Ala., that is in charge of rounding up and destroying lost Iraqi munitions, said he and his colleagues knew nothing of the whereabouts of the Qaqaa stockpile.

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.

"HMX and RDX have a lot of shattering power," said Dr. Van Romero, vice president for research at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, or New Mexico Tech, which specializes in explosives.

"Getting a large amount is difficult," he added, because most nations carefully regulate who can buy such explosives, though civilian experts can sometimes get licenses to use them for demolition and mining.

An Immediate Danger

A special property of HMX and RDX lends them to smuggling and terrorism, experts said. While violently energetic when detonated, they are insensitive to shock and physical abuse during handling and transport because of their chemical stability. A hammer blow does nothing. It takes a detonator, like a blasting cap, to release the stored energy.

Experts said the insensitivity made them safer to transport than the millions of unexploded shells, mines and pieces of live ammunition that litter Iraq. And its benign appearance makes it easy to disguise as harmless goods, easily slipped across borders.

"The immediate danger" of the lost stockpile, said an expert who recently led a team that searched Iraq for deadly arms, "is its potential use with insurgents in very small and powerful explosive devices. The other danger is that it can easily move into the terrorist web across the Middle East."

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. In a nuclear implosion weapon, the explosives crush a hollow sphere of uranium or plutonium into a critical mass, initiating the nuclear explosion.

A crude implosion device - like the one that the United States tested in 1945 in the New Mexican desert and then dropped on Nagasaki, Japan - needs about a ton of high explosive to crush the core and start the chain reaction.

James Glanz reported from Baghdad and Yusifiya, Iraq, for this article, William J. Broad from New York and Vienna, and David E. Sanger from Washington and Crawford, Tex. Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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