New York Times
October 29, 2004
A videotape made by a television crew with American troops when they opened bunkers at a sprawling Iraqi munitions complex south of Baghdad shows a huge supply of explosives still there nine days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, apparently including some sealed earlier by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The tape, broadcast on Wednesday night by the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis, appeared to confirm a warning given earlier this month to the agency by Iraqi officials, who said that hundreds of tons of high-grade explosives, powerful enough to bring down buildings or detonate nuclear weapons, had vanished from the site after the invasion of Iraq.
The question of whether the material was removed by Mr. Hussein's forces in the days before the invasion, or looted later because it was unguarded, has become a heated dispute on the campaign trail, with Senator John Kerry accusing President Bush of incompetence, and Mr. Bush saying it is unclear when the material disappeared and rejecting what he calls Mr. Kerry's "wild charges."
Weapons experts familiar with the work of the international inspectors in Iraq say the videotape appears identical to photographs that the inspectors took of the explosives, which were put under seal before the war. One frame shows what the experts say is a seal, with narrow wires that would have to be broken if anyone entered through the main door of the bunker.
The agency said that when it left Iraq in mid-March, only days before the war began, the only bunkers bearing its seals at the huge complex contained the explosive known as HMX, which the agency had monitored because it could be used in a nuclear weapons program. It is now clear that program had ground to a halt.
The New York Times and CBS reported on Monday that Iraqi officials had told the agency earlier this month that the explosives were missing, and that they were looted after April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell.
Yesterday evening, the Pentagon released a satellite image of the complex taken just two days after the inspectors left, showing a few trucks parked in front of some bunkers. It is not clear they are the bunkers with the high explosives.
"All we are trying to demonstrate is that after the I.A.E.A. left, and the place was under Saddam's control, there was activity," said Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman. It is not clear from the photo what activity, if any, was under way.
On Thursday, a top Iraqi official said the interim government had spoken to witnesses who said the material was still at Al Qaqaa at the time Baghdad fell.
The videotape , taken by KSTP-TV, an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, shows troops breaking into a bunker and opening boxes and examining barrels. Many of the containers are marked "explosive." One box is marked "Al Qaqaa State Establishment," apparently a shipping label from a manufacturer.
The ABC crew said the video was taken on April 18. The timing is critical to the debate in the presidential campaign. By the Pentagon's own account, units of the 101st Airborne Division were near Al Qaqaa for what Mr. DiRita said was "two to three weeks," starting April 10.
Then they headed north to Baghdad, and the site was apparently left unguarded. By the time special weapons teams returned to Al Qaqaa in May, the explosives were apparently gone.
In disputing claims by Mr. Kerry that the Americans had lost the explosives, a senior administration official said Thursday, "We don't know all the facts and no one should be jumping to conclusions." Al Qaqaa, the official said, "was not controlled for three weeks after the I.A.E.A. left," and added "there are a lot of dots we have to connect."
The Pentagon also notes that it has destroyed 400,000 tons of munitions from thousands of sites across Iraq, and that the explosives at Al Qaqaa account for "one-tenth of 1 percent" of that amount.
The Minneapolis television crew was with an Army unit that was camped near Al Qaqaa, members of the crew said. The reporter and cameraman said that although they were not told specifically that they were being taken to Al Qaqaa by the military, their videotape matches pictures of the site taken by United Nations weapons inspectors, according to weapons experts.
"The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al Qaqaa," said David A. Kay, a former American official who led the recent hunt in Iraq for unconventional weapons and visited the vast site. "The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn't use seals on anything. So I'm absolutely sure that's an I.A.E.A. seal."
One weapons expert said the videotape and some of the agency's photographs of the HMX stockpiles "were such good matches it looked like they were taken by the same camera on the same day."
Independent experts said several other factors - the geography; the number of bunkers; the seals on some of the bunker doors; the boxes, crates and barrels similar to those seen by weapon inspectors - confirm that the videotape was taken at Al Qaqaa.
"There's not another place that you would mistake it for," said Dean Staley, the KSTP reporter, who now works in Seattle.
The accidental news encounter began last year after the invasion, Mr. Staley recalled in an interview. Their Army unit arrived in the region on Friday, April 11, and made camp. The Fifth Battalion of the 101st Airborne's 159th Aviation Brigade flew helicopter missions from the camp in the Iraqi desert, moving troops and supplies to the front.
A week later, on Friday, April 18, two journalists recalled, they joined two soldiers who were driving in a Humvee to investigate the nearby bunkers. Among other things, wandering inside the cavernous buildings offered the prospect of relief from the desert sun.
"It was just by chance that we were able to go," said Joe Caffrey, the team's photographer. "They wanted to go out and we asked to tag along."
Mr. Caffrey provided The New York Times with the latitude and longitude of the camp, which places it between 1.5 and 3 miles southeast of Al Qaqaa bunkers. A commercial satellite photograph of the region shows that the camp was close to the storage site. Mr. Caffrey said the soldiers used bolt cutters to cut through chains with locks on them, as well as seals. He said the seals appeared to be lead disks attached to very thin wires that were wrapped around the doors of the bunker entrances, forming a barrier easily cut in two.
They visited a half dozen bunkers, he said. The gloomy interiors revealed long rows of boxes, crates and barrels, what independent experts said were three kinds of HMX containers shipped to Iraq from France, China and Yugoslavia.
The team opened storage containers, some of which contained white powder that independent experts said was consistent with HMX.
"The soldiers were pretty much in awe of what they were seeing," Mr. Caffrey recalled. "They were saying their E.O.D. - Explosive Ordinance Division, people who blow this kind of stuff up - would have a field day."
The journalists filmed roughly 25 minutes of video. Mr. Caffrey added that the team left the bunker doors open. "It would have been easy for anybody to get in," he said.
Mr. Staley recalled that during the drive back to camp, they saw a red Toyota pickup truck with some Iraqis in it. "Our impression was they were looters," he said. "This was a no man's land. It was a huge facility, and we worried that they were bad guys who might come up on us."
The two journalists filed a short story, which ran soon thereafter in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
In the interview, Mr. Caffrey said he had carefully rechecked the date on the cassette for his camera, adding that he was sure it was April 18, 2003.
Yesterday Mohamed al-Sharaa, director of the national monitoring directorate at the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology, explained for the first time why Iraqi officials had specified in their letter to the United Nations agency that the explosives had been looted after April 9, 2003. "We have some witnesses," Mr. Sharaa said outside his office at the ministry. "They say that the materials," he added, were "in this site after April 9."
The witnesses were people working at Al Qaqaa, Mr. Sharaa said. Still, he said, the evidence is not yet definitive, and "we don't say it's impossible" that the material was somehow taken out of Al Qaqaa before the American forces came through the area. The first American forces arrived at Al Qaqaa on April 3.
Rashad M. Omar, the minister of science and technology, said that as far as he was concerned, the exact timing of the disappearance remained unknown. "How, where, when is it taken, all these questions, we don't have answers," Dr. Omar said.
He said a committee headed by himself was about to undertake an investigation of the disappearance, in parallel with American efforts to clear up the mystery. Dr. Omar said that he was extremely confident that the investigations would determine the facts of the case.
"The quantity was so huge," Dr. Omar said. "Somebody must know what happened to the material. I am sure the facts will not be hidden for a long time."
James Glanz contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.