Oct. 26, 2004 – Despite extensive obstacles placed in its way by Washington, the UNâ€™s nuclear watchdog organization has learned that nearly 380 tons of high explosives for which the US military was responsible have been mysteriously removed from a previously inspected site in Iraq.
The explosives had been kept at a facility that the UNâ€™s International Atomic Energy Agency inspected and sealed prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq. But the IAEA says the installation that formerly contained the high explosives -- Al-Qaqaa, about 45 kilometers south of Baghdad -- was looted during the widely predicted chaos that immediately followed the USâ€™s capture of Baghdad in April 2003. During the looting, US forces secured oil-related infrastructure but failed to guard conventional weapons and nuclear materials already identified by inspectors.
The Agency also reported that the US ignored repeated warnings about the importance of securing the materials, which inspectors had specifically identified and highlighted for Bush administration planners. Numerous experts and diplomats have said the site was well known and could not have been easily overlooked.
Less than a pound of the type of explosive that is now missing by the hundreds of tons would be enough to down a full-sized jet airliner, and nuclear proliferation experts say the material could be used to start a nuclear fission reaction and detonate an atomic bomb, which is why the IAEA had inspected the site prior to the invasion.
Since the invasion, the US has only permitted IAEA inspectors to conduct two specific, limited missions in Iraq. The Agency learned of the missing materials only because the Iraqi Ministry of Science reported their absence about two weeks ago.
US government officials in Washington and Baghdad have downplayed the significance of the missing explosives, suggesting the materials were already missing when US troops reportedly entered the site during and after last yearâ€™s invasion. Numerous officials have also denied that the materials pose a nuclear proliferation threat, contrary to what the UN Atomic Agency has reported.
But a senior Iraqi Ministry of Science official, Mohammad Abbas, reported to the UN that the materials went missing sometime after the April 9, 2003 fall of Baghdad. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters that Abbasâ€™ report -- received about two weeks ago -- blamed the disappearance on ''theft and looting of governmental installations due to lack of security." The basis for Abbasâ€™ estimation has not been reported.
Former US chief weapons inspector David Kay, who led a 1,300-member team throughout Iraq during most of last year, was not surprised to learn that such large amounts of munitions are missing. He told the Boston Globe that as late as last fall, over 100 large conventional munitions storage facilities remained unsecured by occupation forces. Additionally, Kay said, US troops did not consider guarding such installations to be part of their job and often allowed Iraqis to steal dangerous materials with abandon.
As a result of prohibitions placed on inspectors, Daryl Kimball of the Washington, DC-based Arms Control Association told the Associated Press, "Today we are probably paying the price with the insurgents probably using some materials -- especially high explosives from these sites."