A case of missing explosives

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

Soldiers of the British 1st Battalion Black Watch in Basra on October 27, before leaving for Baghdad. - AP

Soldiers of the British 1st Battalion Black Watch in Basra on October 27, before leaving for Baghdad. - AP

IT was the last thing the Bush administration wanted Americans to know just as they were getting ready to cast their ballots in the presidential election. On October 25, The New York Times published the shocking story of 380 tonnes of explosives that had gone missing under the watch of the United States in Iraq. The explosives, which were part of Iraq's dismantled nuclear programme, were not adequately guarded by the U.S. forces after they occupied the country. One American commentator described the incident as the biggest single weapons heist in the history of modern warfare. Alarmingly for the international community, among the missing explosives is HMX, a dual-use material that can be used in nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had tagged and sealed the facility before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The head of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, said in the last week of October that the matter of the missing explosives was being expeditiously reported to the United Nations Security Council for action. El Baradei had warned Washington about the very serious implications of the case on October 15, ten days before the story broke in the U.S. media. The IAEA had warned Washington that the materiel could be smuggled out of Iraq and sold to terrorist groups and countries interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. The nuclear agency had also warned that the explosives could be used for car-bomb attacks, which have proved to be lethal for the occupation forces in Iraq.

The IAEA has not been allowed to safeguard the Iraqi nuclear sites by the Americans after March last year. According to the IAEA spokesperson, HMX had "potential use in a nuclear explosive device as a detonator". HMX is also used in various kinds of explosives and rocket fuels.

Also missing are substantial quantities of RDX, which is used to make powerful explosives. Explosives used by terrorists in recent times in Saudi Arabia and Chechnya contained RDX. U.S. and Iraqi government officials now admit that the explosives disappeared in the widespread looting that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials say belatedly that the explosives could have been removed before the occupation of Iraq.

Experts have, however, pointed out that carrying away such large amounts of explosives would have involved heavy-duty trucks. The IAEA last inspected the site in March 2003. The seals it had put were not tampered with. The U.S. was looking intently for evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq before and during the war. The Al Qaqaa facility, which is about 50 km from Baghdad, from which the explosives were missing was one of the most closely monitored sites in Iraq. Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has focussed on the issue in the last weeks of the campaign. He has accused President George W. Bush of "incredible incompetence". He repeatedly insisted that the President must answer for the "most grave and catastrophic mistake" he has committed so far in Iraq.

After the fall of Baghdad of April 9, 2003, the troops of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division were not given the go ahead to search the facility for high explosive munitions. Central Intelligence Agency weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who recently released a report on WMDs, has said that he was never asked by the administration to track the weapons at Al Qaqaa. According to many U.S. weapons experts, Al Qaqaa is only "the tip of the iceberg". Iraq, according to them, is awash with explosives,which the insurgents are busy converting into roadside bombs.

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