New York Times
October 27, 2004
White House officials reasserted yesterday that 380 tons of powerful explosives may have disappeared from a vast Iraqi military complex while Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, saying a brigade of American soldiers did not find the explosives when they visited the complex on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell.
But the unit's commander said in an interview yesterday that his troops had not searched the site and had merely stopped there overnight.
The commander, Col. Joseph Anderson, of the Second Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, said he did not learn until this week that the site, Al Qaqaa, was considered sensitive, or that international inspectors had visited it before the war began in 2003 to inspect explosives that they had tagged during a decade of monitoring.
Colonel Anderson, who is now the chief of staff for the division and who spoke by telephone from Fort Campbell, Ky., said his troops had been driving north toward Baghdad and had paused at Al Qaqaa to make plans for their next push.
"We happened to stumble on it,'' he said. "I didn't know what the place was supposed to be. We did not get involved in any of the bunkers. It was not our mission. It was not our focus. We were just stopping there on our way to Baghdad. The plan was to leave that very same day. The plan was not to go in there and start searching. It looked like all the other ammunition supply points we had seen already."
What had been, for the colonel and his troops, an unremarkable moment during the sweep to Baghdad took on new significance this week, after The New York Times, working with the CBS News program "60 Minutes," reported that the explosives at Al Qaqaa, mainly HMX and RDX, had disappeared since the invasion.
Earlier this month, officials of the interim Iraqi government informed the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives disappeared sometime after the fall of Mr. Hussein on April 9, 2003. Al Qaqaa, which has been unguarded since the American invasion, was looted in the spring of 2003, and looters were seen there as recently as Sunday.
President Bush's aides told reporters that because the soldiers had found no trace of the missing explosives on April 10, they could have been removed before the invasion. They based their assertions on a report broadcast by NBC News on Monday night that showed video images of the 101st arriving at Al Qaqaa.
By yesterday afternoon Mr. Bush's aides had moderated their view, saying it was a "mystery" when the explosives disappeared and that Mr. Bush did not want to comment on the matter until the facts were known.
On Sunday, administration officials said that the Iraq Survey Group, the C.I.A. taskforce that hunted for unconventional weapons, had been ordered to look into the disappearance of the explosives. On Tuesday night, CBS News reported that Charles A. Duelfer, the head of the taskforce, denied receiving such an order.
At the Pentagon, a senior official, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged that the timing of the disappearance remained uncertain. "The bottom line is that there is still a lot that is not known," the official said.
The official suggested that the material could have vanished while Mr. Hussein was still in power, sometime between mid-March, when the international inspectors left, and April 3, when members of the Army's Third Infantry Division fought with Iraqis inside Al Qaqaa. At the time, it was reported that those soldiers found a white powder that was tentatively identified as explosives. The site was left unguarded, the official said.
The 101st Airborne Division arrived April 10 and left the next day. The next recorded visit by Americans came on May 27, when Task Force 75 inspected Al Qaqaa, but did not find the large quantities of explosives that had been seen in mid-March by the international inspectors. By then, Al Qaqaa had plainly been looted.
Colonel Anderson said he did not see any obvious signs of damage when he arrived on April 10, but that his focus was strictly on finding a secure place to collect his troops, who were driving and flying north from Karbala.
"There was no sign of looting here," Colonel Anderson said. "Looting was going on in Baghdad, and we were rushing on to Baghdad. We were marshaling in."
A few days earlier, some soldiers from the division thought they had discovered a cache of chemical weapons that turned out to be pesticides. Several of them came down with rashes, and they had to go through a decontamination procedure. Colonel Anderson said he wanted to avoid a repeat of those problems, and because he had already seen stockpiles of weapons in two dozen places, did not care to poke through the stores at Al Qaqaa.
"I had given instructions, 'Don't mess around with those. It looks like they are bunkers; we're not messing around with those things. That's not what we're here for,' " he said. "I thought we would be there for a few hours and move on. We ended up staying overnight."
Thom Shanker and William J. Broad contributed reporting for this article.