In the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqi looters loaded powerful explosives into pickup trucks and drove the material away from the Al Qaqaa ammunition site, according to a group of U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsmen who said they witnessed the looting.
The soldiers said about a dozen U.S. troops guarding the sprawling facility could not prevent the theft because they were outnumbered by looters. Soldiers with one unit -- the 317th Support Center based in Wiesbaden, Germany -- said they sent a message to commanders in Baghdad requesting help to secure the site but received no reply.
The witnesses' accounts of the looting, the first provided by U.S. soldiers, support claims that the American military failed to safeguard the munitions. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. nuclear watchdog -- and the interim Iraqi government reported that about 380 tons of high-grade explosives had been taken from the Al Qaqaa facility after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The explosives are powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon.
During the last week, when revelations of the missing explosives became an issue in the presidential campaign, the Bush administration suggested that the munitions could have been carted off by Saddam Hussein's forces before the war began. Pentagon officials later said that U.S. troops systematically destroyed hundreds of tons of explosives at Al Qaqaa after Baghdad fell.
Asked about the soldiers' accounts, Pentagon spokeswoman Rose-Ann Lynch said Wednesday, "We take the report of missing munitions very seriously. And we are looking into the facts and circumstances of this incident."
The soldiers, who belong to two different units, described how Iraqis plundered explosives from unsecured bunkers before driving off in Toyota trucks.
The U.S. troops said there was little they could do to prevent looting of the ammunition site, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
"We were running from one side of the compound to the other side, trying to kick people out," said one senior noncommissioned officer who was at the site in late April 2003.
"On our last day there, there were at least 100 vehicles waiting at the site for us to leave" so looters could come in and take munitions.
"It was complete chaos. It was looting like L.A. during the Rodney King riots," another officer said.
He and other soldiers who spoke to The Times asked not to be named, saying they feared retaliation from the Pentagon.
A Minnesota television station last week broadcast a video of U.S. troops with the 101st Airborne Division using tools to cut through wire seals left by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, at Al Qaqaa, evidence that the high-grade explosives remained inside at least one bunker weeks after the war began.
The video was taped April 18, 2003, while soldiers from the 101st Airborne searched Al Qaqaa for chemical and biological weapons. The IAEA had placed seals on nine of the bunkers at the complex, where inspectors had found high-grade explosives. Other bunkers contained more conventional munitions.
After opening bunkers, including one containing the high-grade explosives, U.S. troops left the bunkers unsecured, the Minnesota station reported.
According to the four soldiers -- members of the 317th Support Center and the 258th Rear Area Operations Center, an Arizona-based Army National Guard unit -- the looting of Al Qaqaa occurred over several weeks in late April and early May.
The two units were stationed near Al Qaqaa at a base known as Logistics Support Area (LSA) Dogwood. Soldiers with the units said they went to the ammunition facility soon after the departure of combat troops from the 101st Airborne Division.
The soldiers interviewed by The Times could not confirm that powerful explosives known as HMX and RDX were among the munitions looted.
One soldier said U.S. forces watched the looters' trucks loaded with bags marked "hexamine" -- a key ingredient for HMX -- being driven away from the facility. Unsure what hexamine was, the troops later did an Internet search and learned of its explosive power.
"We found out this was stuff you don't smoke around," the soldier said.
According to a list of "talking points" circulated by the Pentagon last week, when U.S. military weapons hunters visited Al Qaqaa on May 8, 2003, they found that the facility "had been looted and stripped and vandalized." No IAEA-monitored material was found, the "talking points" stated.
A senior U.S. military intelligence official corroborated some aspects of the four soldiers' accounts. The official who tracked facilities believed to store chemical and biological weapons -- none was ever found in Iraq -- said that Al Qaqaa was "one of the top 200" suspect sites at the outset of the war.
Despite the stockpiles at the site, no U.S. forces were specifically assigned to guard Al Qaqaa -- known to U.S. forces in Iraq as Objective Elm -- after the 101st Airborne left the facility.
Members of the 258th Rear Area Operations Center, responsible for base security at nearby LSA Dogwood, came across the looting at Al Qaqaa during patrols through the area. The unit, which comprised 27 soldiers, enlisted the help of troops of the 317th Support in securing the site, the soldiers said.
The senior intelligence official said there was no order for any unit to secure Al Qaqaa. "No way," the officer said, adding that doing so would have diverted combat resources from the push toward Baghdad.
"It's all about combat power," the officer said, "and we were short combat power.
"If we had 150,000 soldiers, I'm not sure we could have secured" such sites, the officer said. "Securing connotes 24-hour presence," and only a few sites in Baghdad were thought to warrant such security.
Troops of the two units went to Al Qaqaa over a week in late April but received no orders to maintain a presence at the facility, the soldiers said. They also said they received no response to a request for help in guarding the facility.
"We couldn't have been given the assignment to defend a facility unless we were given the troops to do it, and we weren't," said one National Guard officer. "[Objective] Elm being protected or not protected was not really part of the equation. It wasn't an area of immediate concern."
Some confusion came in late April 2003 when U.S. commanders in Baghdad reassigned military responsibility for the area surrounding Al Qaqaa from Army units to the 1st Marine Division, which had participated in the assault on Baghdad and eventually took control over much of southern Iraq.
According to Marine sources, when the 1st Marine Division took over, the combat unit didn't have enough troops to secure ammunition depots scattered across central and southern Iraq. The Al Qaqaa facility, they said, was of particular concern.
"That site was just abandoned by the 101st Airborne, and there was never a physical handoff by the 101st to the Marines. They just left," said a senior officer who worked in the top Marine command post in Iraq at the time. "We knew these sites were being looted, but there was nothing we could do about it."
During the same period, Marines came across another massive ammunition depot near the southern Iraqi town of Diwaniya, the senior officer said. They sent a message to the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad seeking guidance on how to keep the site from being plundered.
Commanders in Baghdad responded that the Marines should attempt to blow up the depot. The Marine officers responded that the site was too large to demolish.
Commanders in Baghdad "didn't have a good response to that," the officer said. "There was no plan to prevent these weapons from being used against us a year later."
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.