Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq
The Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives – used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons – are missing from one of Iraq’s most sensitive former military installations. The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man’s land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year.
American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings. The bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 used less than a pound of the same type of material, and larger amounts were apparently used in the bombing of a housing complex in November 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the blasts in a Moscow apartment complex in September 1999 that killed nearly 300 people. The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept a watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it. The other components of an atom bomb – the design and the radioactive fuel – are more difficult to obtain. “This is a high explosives risk, but not necessarily a proliferation risk,” one senior Bush administration official said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency publicly warned about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured, European diplomats said in interviews last week. Administration officials say they cannot explain why the explosives were not safeguarded, beyond the fact that the occupation force was overwhelmed by the amount of munitions they found throughout the country.
Clearly, this is a problem, although the extent to which it represents the lack of strategic oversight on part of the Administration versus decisionmaking on the ground by the military leadership is hard to judge. There is an inordinate amount of hazardous material in Iraq, which is a huge country, but one would think securing the explosives would be a higher priority. Indeed, after the first Gulf War, our forces began blowing up ammunition bunkers within days of the cease fire.