News Video Is at Center of Storm Over Iraq Explosives
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 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 high-grade explosives disappeared on the Americans’ watch.
Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry this week seized on reports by the interim Iraqi government and United Nations nuclear inspectors indicating that 377 tons of high-grade explosives were plundered from the sprawling Al Qaqaa weapons site after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, 2003.
Kerry charged that the munitions’ absence 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 the explosives before the U.S.-led invasion on March 20.
The report by KSTP television of St. Paul, an ABC affiliate, said its crew was embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and reached a site that appeared to be Al Qaqaa on April 18. ABC News reported Thursday that weapons experts had said that the site the crew videotaped appeared to contain powerful HMX explosives.
The Minnesota station reported that officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, said still images taken from the network’s website appeared to show the agency’s seals on the doors of the bunker. Before the invasion, the agency had been monitoring the explosive material, which can be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.
Former top U.S. weapons hunter David Kay said the video, which showed soldiers going through the explosives as well as the apparent IAEA seal on the door, was strong evidence that the weapons were still in at least one bunker weeks after the start of the war. The IAEA had placed seals on nine bunkers in the complex.
“The seal was broken [by U.S. troops] and, quite frankly, to me the most frightening thing is not only is the seal broken and the lock broken, but the soldiers left after opening it up,” Kay said on CNN. “You have to provide security.”
The missing Al Qaqaa cache was a fraction of the problem, Kay said. “Iraq is awash with tens of thousands of tons of explosives right now in the hands of insurgents because we did not provide the security when we took over the country.”
Kay said Al Qaqaa “was one of the most well-documented explosives sites in all of Iraq.”
Pentagon officials claimed to have evidence of Iraqi military activity at the compound before the invasion. Thursday they released a declassified surveillance photograph showing two Iraqi trailer-trucks parked outside a bunker at Al Qaqaa on March 17, 2003.
The photograph reveals little about the fate of the 377 tons of explosives, part of an estimated 600,000 tons of explosives believed to have been scattered throughout Iraq at the time.
The controversy over the missing munitions has centered on a seven-week period. The IAEA last visited Al Qaqaa on March 9, 2003; CIA and military officials who were hunting for weapons of mass destruction reported the site thoroughly looted by early May.
Pentagon officials argue that the presence of Iraqi vehicles in the photo released Thursday -- one trailer-truck about 25 feet long and another about 50 feet long -- prove that Iraqi officials were at the site after U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq on March 15. In photos taken days before and after March 17, officials said, the trucks are not parked at the bunker. The Pentagon did not release those photos.
“There was a perception that this facility was under some kind of hermetic seal,” Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said Thursday. “The photo shows that there was activity at the facility at the time Saddam and only Saddam was in control of Iraq.”
Pentagon officials said it was 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 in an interview with WPHT radio in Philadelphia on Thursday.
“So the idea that it was suddenly looted and moved out, all of these tons of equipment is, I think, at least debatable,” he said.
Col. David Perkins, whose 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division was the first to go through the area and which battled Iraqi forces over control of the site on April 3, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that he did not believe his troops saw the weapons during their brief stay at Al Qaqaa.
At the same time, he said he doubted that the explosives could have been removed after his soldiers arrived. American forces likely would have noticed anyone removing the material, he said, because the only developed road traversing the site was packed for weeks with U.S. convoys supplying troops heading toward Baghdad.
“It would be almost impossible to do that, because there is not a very well-developed road network in Iraq,” Perkins said.
After the 3rd Infantry left on April 5 and April 6 to proceed to Baghdad, the 101st Airborne 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 there. The Minnesota television crew accompanied the 101st.
As the controversy over the explosives raged this week, IAEA officials and U.S. inspectors have countered the military’s position, saying that the weapons were probably stolen during the chaos that followed the ground invasion.
U.S. officials were warned about safeguarding Al Qaqaa soon after the assault began. Alarmed by the rampant looting of Iraqi’s main nuclear site, Tuwaitha, IAEA head Mohamed 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” of 2003, said Jacques Baute, the IAEA’s chief inspector for Iraq. “We didn’t hear anything back.”
One year later, Iraqi interim officials say they warned coalition head L. Paul Bremer III that Al Qaqaa had probably been looted after the invasion.
At the beginning of this month, in his report to the U.N. Security Council, ElBaradei described “widespread and systematic dismantlement” of Iraq’s most important weapons sites, including Al Qaqaa. He appealed for anyone with information about weapons materials being exported, imported, stolen or destroyed to notify the IAEA.
That appeal apparently prompted an Oct. 10 letter from a senior official at Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Mohammed Abbas, informing the IAEA of the missing explosives.
The IAEA verified with the Iraqi mission in Vienna that the letter was authentic, then quietly passed it on to the U.S. mission to give it a chance to investigate.
The fact that the report was made public days before the U.S. election has led critics to charge that the timing of the IAEA’s disclosure was politically motivated by El Baradei, whose nomination for a third term as IAEA chief has been opposed by the Bush administration.
The monitoring agency denies the charge. “The report originated from Iraq, not from us,” said Baute, the IAEA official.
Times staff writers John Hendren in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.