U.S. Military Investigates Disappearance of Tons of Explosives in Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: And with me is Washington Post military affairs correspondent Bradley Graham.
Bradley, welcome. What do we know about what was stored at the al-Qaqaa site, and how much of it there was?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: We know that there were about 380 tons of very high explosives, three different types of explosives, HMX, RDX and PETN.
The explosives of particular concern, most serious concern, was the HMX, which has an application as a trigger for nuclear devices but can also be used like the other two kinds of explosives in more conventional uses, for blowing up buildings and the like.
RAY SUAREZ: When was the last time these stores were seen, identified, their presence confirmed at al-Qaqaa?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: We’re told that the last time they were confirmed was shortly before the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.
Earlier that month, in either the first or second week of that month, IAEA inspectors visited the site and confirmed that the seals that they had placed on the bunkers containing the HMX, that those seals were still intact.
The bunkers had been monitored by the IAEA for more than a decade, and as recently as January 2003, the IAEA had put fresh seals on those bunkers, returned two months later in March 2003 and checked to see that those bunkers were still sealed.
RAY SUAREZ: The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that it passed this information on to the United States government.
In your reporting, has the Department of Defense or any government agency conceded that the IAEA did pass that information on?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: Yes. Pentagon officials say they were aware that those bunkers were sensitive. They were on a list of sensitive sites. It was a long list, a list that included more than 900 places in Iraq.
At the al-Qaqaa facility itself, there were as many as half a dozen or so of these so-called sensitive places, but the Pentagon does say that they were aware that these were items of particular interest.
RAY SUAREZ: So when is the first time American forces of any kind visited the al-Qaqaa site, and what did they do when they got there?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: Well, first, let me say we’re learning something new about that every day. The facts have been coming out piecemeal as the Pentagon itself scrambles to try to figure out exactly what troops arrived there when and what they did.
But according to the latest account, the first troops to arrive there were members of the 3rd Infantry Division. They got there around April 3 or April 4. They were headed towards Baghdad.
Baghdad still hadn’t fallen yet. And so they stopped at the Qaqaa facility but did not have orders to search the facility and were not even really aware of the importance of the facility.
They fought a battle with Iraqi forces that were at the facility, defeated them, occupied an area of the facility, secured that area, but then moved on in a day or two to secure Baghdad.
A week later, around April 10, members of the 101st Airborne Division who also were sort of leapfrogging their way across Iraq towards Baghdad, landed at the Qaqaa facility. They also did not have orders to search the facility. They did not. They stayed about a day and then moved on to secure parts of Baghdad.
It wasn’t until May that designated search teams, teams responsible for looking for weapons of mass destruction and other Iraqi weapons, members of the 75th exploitation taskforce arrived at Qaqaa and began surveying the facility.
That, we are told, started around May 8th. There was another search around May 11th and a third search May 27th.
RAY SUAREZ: So it’s hard between the time of the last placement of seals by the international atomic inspectors and the first thorough inspection by American forces to really nail down what was there or wasn’t there and when it was taken?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: That’s right. There seems to be about a two-month period between early March or mid-March when the IAEA inspectors were last at the site and May when the first designated U.S. military search units arrived.
It seemed to be a period of two months there in which the material seems to have vanished. But whether the explosives disappeared while the Saddam Hussein government was still standing, that is before April 9th, or whether the material disappeared after is unclear.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there any properties, attributes of these particular explosives that make them particularly desirable, something that people would want to have?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: Well, they’re obviously very, very powerful. They can be easily transported, and the fear is that some of these explosives may have been used already or may still be used in some of the car bombs or other kinds of explosive devices being used to target U.S. and allied forces and Iraqi forces.
There is no indication yet that any of these particular explosives have been detected in any of the bombs that have gone off in Iraq against U.S. or allied forces, but the concern is certainly there.
RAY SUAREZ: Is al-Qaqaa and are the other sites like it around Iraq now secured and guarded?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: No, they’re not. But there may not be anything left to secure. There’s been a lot of looting. The Qaqaa facility, even by the time the search teams arrived in May of last year, appeared to have been stripped of many of its weapons and explosives.
And that’s certainly true of many other sites in Iraq. Now, of course, the Pentagon has been calling attention to the fact that they have rounded up a total of 400,000 tons of other munitions and have destroyed more than half of that and they’re in the process of destroying the rest.
So a good deal of material has already been rounded up, but there has really been no conclusive accounting for how much other stuff got away.
RAY SUAREZ: In the sparring between the two campaign, we’ve heard the Kerry camp say that the United States knew the material was there, didn’t protect it and it was stolen.
We’ve heard the president’s campaign say that there’s not even definitive proof that the materials were there when U.S. troops entered that part of the country. As far as you’re able to determine now, who is right?
BRADLEY GRAHAM: I don’t think it’s possible to say at this point whether the material disappeared while Saddam Hussein was still at least nominally in control of the country or whether the material was stolen under the nose of U.S. forces once the Saddam Hussein government fell.
That’s still to be determined.
RAY SUAREZ: Bradley Graham of the Washington Post, thanks a lot.
BRADLEY GRAHAM: Pleasure.