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White House Downplays Missing Iraq Explosives

Times Staff Writers

The White House acknowledged Monday that nearly 380 tons of powerful explosives were missing from a weapons facility that American forces failed to guard after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, raising fears that the munitions could be given to militants or used for attacks against troops in Iraq.

U.S. officials say the explosives -- which are powerful enough to detonate a nuclear bomb -- may have been looted from one of Saddam Hussein’s bomb-making plants when U.S. forces worked to pacify Baghdad and other restive cities.

White House officials downplayed the significance of the missing explosives. But coming eight days before the presidential election, the disclosure reverberated through the campaign, with Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry calling it one of President Bush’s “great blunders” in Iraq.

Using the report to take the offensive Monday, Kerry tried to turn against Bush a key question the president has raised throughout the campaign: Which candidate is best suited to keep the country safe?

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“The incredible incompetence of this president and this administration has put our troops at risk and put this country at greater risk than we all need,” Kerry said. “George W. Bush has failed the essential test of any commander in chief, to keep America safe.”

Bush, Kerry added, “talks tough and brags about making America safer,” but “once again failed to deliver.”

The timing of the theft was in dispute Monday. One Pentagon official said that when U.S. forces advancing toward Baghdad reached the Al Qaqaa military facility in early April 2003, the weapons cache was already gone. He suggested that the Americans had no chance to safeguard the material, which had been labeled and was being monitored by United Nations weapons inspectors.

“It had already been looted by the time U.S. forces went through there,” the senior Defense official said. “When the troops went in, they never saw anything that was tagged.”

Some cast doubt on the Pentagon’s claim. Given the size of the missing cache, it would have been difficult to relocate undetected before the invasion, when U.S. spy satellites were monitoring activity at sites suspected of concealing nuclear and biological weapons.

“You don’t just move this stuff in the middle of the night,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked in Baghdad.

Iraqi officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. monitoring group -- earlier this month that the explosives were looted after April 9, 2003, when U.S. forces entered Baghdad. IAEA officials verified that the explosives were still at the site and under seal in January 2003, the last time the inspectors were there.

The IAEA had been monitoring the material -- known as HMX and RDX -- as part of the U.N. inspection program after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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The agency had issued numerous warnings about the explosives falling into the wrong hands before and after the U.S. invasion.

Pentagon officials said that although U.S. troops searched the facility on several occasions during and after the invasion, the facility was not high on U.S. commanders’ list of sites to guard because survey teams found no nuclear or biological materials at Al Qaqaa, a collection of 87 buildings and underground bunkers less than 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Asked if U.S. troops were ever ordered to guard the facility, where Hussein built conventional warheads and the IAEA dismantled parts of his nuclear program after the Gulf War, a Defense official responded, “Not that I’m aware of.”

David Kay, the CIA’s former chief weapons hunter in Iraq, believes that the material was looted in the immediate aftermath of the war.

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He said he saw the facility in May 2003, “and it was heavily looted at that time. Sometime between April and May, most of the stuff was carried off. The site was in total disarray, just like a lot of the Iraqi sites.”

Kay said that HMX and RDX were “superb explosives for terrorists” because they were stable compounds that could be transported safely and used for large-scale attacks.

Both types of material “would be good for a car bomb or a truck bomb,” Kay said. “Just pack it together with a detonator.”

The U.S. failure to guard hundreds of ammunition depots after the invasion has been well documented. Top military officials in Iraq believe that weapons taken from these sites have armed an insurgency that is taking American lives almost daily. More than 1,100 U.S. troops have been killed since the invasion began.

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The explosive power of the stolen material -- just half a pound of HMX brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 -- has officials particularly worried.

“That’s half a pound; 380 tons are missing -- that’s almost 40 truckloads,” an IAEA official said on condition of anonymity. “Imagine what it could do in the hands of insurgents there. It’s a huge concern that it is missing, whatever it may be used for.”

IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei has been stepping up pressure for an accounting of sensitive sites in Iraq. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council this month, he said that under IAEA agreements, Iraq is obligated “to declare semiannually changes that have occurred or are foreseen at sites deemed relevant by the agency.” But since March 2003, he said, “the agency has received no such notifications or declarations.”

The IAEA reported the missing explosives to the Security Council on Monday. The monitoring agency waited before informing the council to give the U.S.-led multinational force and Iraqi authorities a chance to track down the missing material, said IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

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An article in Monday’s New York Times accelerated the agency’s disclosures.

Officials at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon insisted that the 380 tons of stolen explosives were not a nuclear threat and noted that roughly 400,000 tons of collected munitions in Iraq had either been destroyed or were in U.S. custody.

“There is not a nuclear proliferation risk,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We’re talking about conventional explosives.”

Officials also argued that the vast number of weapons sites made it difficult to ensure that Hussein’s entire arsenal was brought under U.S. control.

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“Given the number of arms and the number of caches and the extent of the militarization of Iraq, it was impossible to provide 100% security for 100% of the sites, quite frankly,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

This month, the former U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, said he believed that the Pentagon had too few troops in Iraq to prevent the looting and chaos that erupted after U.S. forces entered Baghdad.

The Iraq Survey Group, the CIA’s weapons-hunting team, estimated that there were more than 10,000 weapons sites across Iraq.

Although the Pentagon maintained that all known stores of munitions and potential nuclear sites were being guarded by U.S. or allied forces, even some highly sensitive facilities were guarded only loosely.

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The interim Iraqi government notified the IAEA of the missing 380 tons of explosives on Oct. 10, and the IAEA passed the information to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna on Oct. 15. According to McClellan, Bush learned of the missing explosives days later.

Jon Wolfstahl, deputy director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Al Qaqaa location was well known to U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors and had been routinely visited by them from 1991 to 1998 -- before inspectors left Iraq.

“This isn’t some stash that no one knew about,” Wolfstahl said. “The IAEA knew about it and warned the administration about its sensitivity.”

Military responsibility for northern Babil province, where the Al Qaqaa facility is located, has shifted among several U.S. Army and Marine units since American forces took control of the area in April 2003.

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Since last month, about 3,200 Marines have been based in the area -- twice the number that had protected the region earlier in the year. Despite the increase, military officials have complained of being stretched thin.

Kerry hammered Bush about the missing explosives in campaign appearances Monday, saying the administration was “doomed to repeat the same mistakes” with Iran or North Korea, two countries that U.S. officials believe are developing nuclear weapons.

“Terrorists could use this material to kill our troops, our people, blow up airplanes and level buildings,” he told supporters at a New Hampshire rally.

Kerry accused the administration of “blindness,” “stubbornness” and “arrogance” on Iraq, and blasted Bush for failing to “do the basics” in securing Hussein’s weapons.

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The Democrat said U.S. troops “have been doing their job courageously and honorably. The problem is the commander in chief has not been doing his.”

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush’s reelection campaign, said Kerry had “no vision for fighting and winning the war on terror, so he is basing his attacks on the headlines he wakes up to each day.”

“If John Kerry wants to spend the next eight days trying to explain his positions again, we welcome that debate,” Schmidt said. “John Kerry can’t lead the nation to victory in a war he doesn’t believe in.”

Mazzetti reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writers Greg Miller and Tyler Marshall in Washington, Edmund Sanders in Baghdad and Michael Finnegan in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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