Videotape indicates Iraq explosives were stolen after invasion

Minn. TV crew shot footage of U.S. troops finding Al-Qaqaa arms

October 29, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - On April 18, 2003, a television news crew from Minnesota videotaped U.S. troops in Iraq using bolt cutters to break through chains and wire seals on the door of a dusty bunker and finding explosives stored inside.

The video did not appear significant at the time, particularly because it did not reveal any weapons of mass destruction.

But now, days before a presidential election that is turning on how President Bush has handled Iraq, it appears to be the strongest evidence so far in the debate over whether a huge cache of explosives disappeared on the Americans' watch. Democrat John Kerry has seized on reports by the Iraqi government and United Nations nuclear inspectors indicating that 377 tons of high-grade explosives were stolen from the sprawling Al-Qaqaa weapons site after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime April 9, 2003. Kerry charged that it shows Bush failed to plan well, secure the site and send enough troops to Iraq.

Bush and Pentagon officials have suggested that the facility had been cleared of such explosives before the U.S.-led invasion March 20.

The report by KSTP of Minnesota, an ABC affiliate, said its crew was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division and reached a site that appeared to be Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003. ABC News reported yesterday that weapons experts had said the site videotaped by the crew appeared to hold powerful HMX explosives. The station reported that officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency said the tape appeared to show the agency's seals on the doors of the bunker. Before the invasion, the international agency had been monitoring the explosive material, which can be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.

Pentagon officials released yesterday a declassified satellite photo showing two Iraqi trucks parked outside a bunker at Al- Qaqaa on March 17, 2003. Pentagon officials say the trucks are evidence of Iraqi military activity at the compound in the days just before the U.S.-led invasion.

The IAEA's last visit to Al-Qaqaa was March 9, 2003, and CIA and military officials hunting for illicit weapons reported the site looted by early May.

Pentagon officials say the presence of Iraqi vehicles in the photo released yesterday prove that Iraqi officials were at the site after U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq on March 15.

"The photo shows that there was activity at the facility at the time Saddam and only Saddam was in control of Iraq," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said yesterday.

Pentagon officials say it is more likely that the missing weapons were moved by Hussein's forces before the invasion, rather than stolen afterward.

"Picture all the tractor trailers and forklifts and Caterpillars it would take to move 377 tons, and we had total control of the air. We would have seen anything like that," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday in an interview with WPHT radio in Philadelphia.

Col. David Perkins, whose 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry was the first to go through the area and battled Iraqi forces over control of the site on April 3, 2003, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that he did not believe his troops saw the explosives during their brief stay and that he doubted that they could have been removed after his soldiers arrived without being noticed by U.S. forces headed toward Baghdad.

After the 3rd Infantry left on April 5 and April 6 to proceed to Baghdad, the Army's 101st Airborne Division took charge of the area surrounding Al-Qaqaa. The 101st never did an extensive search of the facility, Pentagon officials have said, and could not confirm whether the weapons were still at the site.

As the missing explosives controversy raged this week, IAEA officials and U.S. weapons inspectors, including former top U.S. weapons hunter David Kay, have countered the military's position, saying that the weapons were likely stolen during the chaos that followed the U.S. ground invasion of Iraq.

U.S. officials were warned about safeguarding the Al-Qaqaa site soon after the invasion began. Alarmed by the rampant looting of Iraqi's main nuclear site, Al-Tuwaitha, IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei wrote an internal memo about the potential "explosives bonanza" available to terrorists, which was passed along to U.S. officials.

"We put it to the U.S. Mission in Vienna in April" 2003, said Jacques Baute, the IAEA's chief inspector for Iraq. "We didn't hear anything back."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper

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