Nearly 380 tons of explosives missing from Iraqi facility

October 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - 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, produce 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 U.S. military control but is now a no-man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as yesterday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished after the U.S.-led invasion last year.

The White House said President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was told within the past month that the explosives were missing. It is unclear whether Bush was informed. U.S. 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 yesterday that the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA task force that searched for unconventional weapons, has been ordered to investigate the disappearance of the explosives.

U.S. weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against U.S. or Iraqi forces: The explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could be used to 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 material of the type stolen from Al Qaqaa.

The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it. But 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," a 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 U.S. 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.

The Qaqaa facility, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, was well known to U.S. intelligence officials. Under Saddam Hussein, conventional warheads were made at the site, and the IAEA dismantled parts of his nuclear program there in the early 1990s after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

In the prelude to the 2003 invasion, Bush noted a number of "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 IAEA memorandum warned that terrorists might be helping "themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history."

In an interview with The New York Times and CBS in Baghdad, the minister of science and technology, Rashad M. Omar, confirmed the facts described in the letter. "Yes, they are missing," Omar said. "We don't know what happened."

The IAEA 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.

Omar said that after the U.S.-led invasion, the sites containing the explosives were under the control of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a U.S.-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.

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