Vast quantities of ordnance still unsecured in Iraq

Much has been destroyed, U.S. says, but country remains `a literal armory'

October 30, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

While the debate continues about whether 377 tons of explosives from an Iraqi arms depot were removed during Saddam Hussein's last days of power or looted after U.S. troops invaded, hundreds of thousands of tons of ordnance throughout Iraq have not been secured, according to military officers and documents.

U.S. forces and contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers have destroyed or secured about 400,000 tons, officials said.

But it is estimated that Iraq's total inventory of bombs, rockets, missiles and explosives is at least 600,000 tons.

An Army officer labeled Iraq "a literal armory," with at least a third of the ordnance inventory of the U.S. military squirreled away in a country the size of California.

With roadside bombs and car bombs growing in number and sophistication, concern continues about the source of the explosives. Moreover, questions linger about whether there were enough U.S. troops initially to secure the ordnance and whether the troops and U.S. and Iraqi contractors now in Iraq are adequate to deal with the untold quantity of ordnance that remains.

"Right after Baghdad fell, we didn't know how many sites there were," said an Army officer who was serving in Iraq at the time. The priority for U.S. forces was to surge toward Baghdad, he said, and "we weren't going to stop and clear anything. You left that to follow-on forces. It all comes down to a lack of troops."

Even after the fall of the capital, the 140,000 U.S. troops in the spring of last year were not sufficient to guard all sites and conduct other operations, including battling a growing insurgency and protecting the Iraqi infrastructure, the officer said.

He pointed out that there were too few troops to patrol the entire Sunni Triangle, the restive area north and west of Baghdad, let alone enough to secure all of Iraq's weapons sites.

At issue in the presidential campaign this week has been what happened to the 377 tons of powerful explosives once stored under United Nations seal at the Al Qaqaa military complex.

The former commander of an Army unit said yesterday that his soldiers removed 250 tons of ammunition from Al Qaqaa in April last year and destroyed it. Maj. Austin Pearson, speaking at a Pentagon news conference, said his team removed TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords and white phosphorus rounds April 13, 10 days after U.S. forces reached the weapons depot south of Baghdad.

But that 250 tons was not under the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency - as the missing high-grade explosives had been - and Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita could not definitely say whether it was part of the missing 377 tons.

In May last year, Human Rights Watch, a nongovernment international human rights advocacy group, provided U.S. and British forces with data, including precise global positioning satellite coordinates, on unsecured weapons stockpiles around Baghdad and in Basra, in southern Iraq.

"Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, our researchers were finding massive stockpiles of weapons and explosives throughout Iraq," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday. "But when we informed coalition forces, they told us they just didn't have enough troops to secure these sites."

Over the next several months, the U.S. military reported that at least 50 large ammunition sites existed but that it didn't know the total number of sites, according to U.S. Central Command "talking points" prepared for military briefers in October last year.

By May of this year, another Central Command document estimated the number of large ammunition sites at 100, "and more are discovered every day."

A large area would require a dozen or more "low-boy" trailers to move the stored ammunition.

The documents said that each military unit was responsible for securing ordnance or moving it to a place where it could be destroyed. "Area security" plans were created, including patrols and overflights at unannounced times, warning signs in Arabic and barriers along access roads.

About the same time, the Army created Task Force Bullet, which included about 6,000 soldiers assigned to recover and destroy the ordnance.

But the Central Command document said that "the sheer quantity of materiel is challenging our capabilities" and that "still hidden caches" of weapons were the likely source for the growing number of roadside bombs.

The Central Command document also said the security situation at an Iraqi air force facility known as the Elm, a 6-mile-by-9-mile ammunition storage facility south of Baghdad, was controlled by the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

"We do not have a permanent guard there," the document says. The "best solution," it says, "is to train Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible to deal with the problem, since they have a vested interest in cleaning up their own country."

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