Weapons for the Taking in Iraq

By Jon Lee Anderson
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, is the author of "The Fall of Baghdad," just published by Penguin Press.

Los Angeles Times

October 29, 2004

It now seems highly likely that a group of well-organized looters made off with the missing cache of 380 tons of powerful explosives at Iraq's Al Qaqaa military site after it was visited by invading U.S. troops in early April 2003.

For myself and other reporters who were on the ground in Baghdad during those days, this oversight does not seem surprising. Coinciding with the arrival of the Americans, Baghdad succumbed to an orgy of looting and, eventually, to wholesale sabotage, all of which took place under the tolerant and overwhelmed gaze of the newly arrived U.S. soldiers. That U.S. troops could have visited Al Qaqaa, inspected the explosives and then moved on without securing them — evidently unaware of the high-level importance of the site — seems completely in keeping with the extraordinary lack of coordination between senior commanders and their troops in the field that we witnessed on a daily basis.

On April 10, 2003, for instance, I spoke with a senior Marine commander about the looting of Baghdad's hospitals. He was unaware of the problem and clearly was under no orders to stop it from happening but seemed worried by the news.

He asked me to show him where the hospitals were on a map. He then dispatched a platoon to protect the last functioning hospital in the city center.

That same day, a friend of mine came across an armory being looted by a group of men and boys. Several U.S. soldiers were manning a roadblock less than 100 yards away, yet were unaware of what was taking place. When he warned them, they intervened and managed to stop the looting, but by then hundreds of weapons, including shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, had been stolen.

Inexplicably, the looting in Baghdad was not halted after a few days, but went on for weeks. Hospitals, museums, ministries and even some of Saddam Hussein's palaces were looted and, in some cases, burned.

The U.S. inaction was bewildering and a source of great anger and frustration to most of the Iraqis I knew. There have been few public explanations from U.S. officials about this, but, off the record, senior U.S. military officers have told me they did not intervene because they had insufficient numbers of troops.

Today, most also acknowledge that this period of anarchy helped lay the foundation for the Iraqi insurgency by souring the perceptions of many Iraqis toward the occupation troops while simultaneously revealing the extent of U.S. intelligence weaknesses to the members of Iraq's fallen regime, who had melted away to watch and wait. It was not long before they began attacking Americans.

And at least some of the weaponry they have been using comes from unguarded arms caches like Al Qaqaa's.

In June 2003, two months after the invasion that toppled Hussein, I visited a vast dumping ground for war detritus on the southern outskirts of Baghdad — just up the road from Al Qaqaa, in fact. There, I found live rocket warheads, howitzer shells and large quantities of live ammunition lying around, being picked over by scavengers and looters. There were no Iraqi sentries or U.S. soldiers in sight.

Whenever I have mentioned my visit to this place to U.S. officials — and the dangers it seemed to pose to U.S. soldiers — the reaction has always been the same: They grimace, acknowledge the problem and, once again, cite the lack of troops to guard such sites.

The problem, of course, is that the war has been made much easier for the insurgents by their easy access to so much bomb-making material, just sitting there for the taking.

A year and a half later, with Iraq's insurgency becoming stronger and more dangerous than ever, the Americans appear still to be operating in an intelligence vacuum. Last July in Baghdad, for instance, I met an arms dealer who boasted of having access to several underground warehouses full of war materiel that the Americans have never known about. In front of me, he took orders over the phone for various types of weaponry and then called the orders in to the warehouses.

When asked what kind of arms he had at his disposal, the dealer said they included small arms, such as pistols and Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft missiles. He even had a brand new Russian attack helicopter, he boasted, still sitting in its packing case. When I asked him who his clients were, he said: "Iraqis. I will sell to anyone but the Americans. I am a patriot."