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The Baltimore Sun October 26, 2004

Missing explosives capture spotlight

Bush camp says issue exaggerated by Kerry

By David L. Greene, Tom Bowman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis

GREELEY, Colo. - News that a cache of powerful explosives in Iraq was apparently left unguarded by American forces and is missing put President Bush on the defensive yesterday as the race for the White House entered its final week.

Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry charged that Bush had "failed the test of being commander in chief" and called the failure to secure the explosives, which could be used to detonate a nuclear weapon, "one of the great blunders of this administration."

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Kerry said ominously that "terrorists could use this material to kill our troops, our people, blow up airplanes and level buildings."

He added, "The incredible incompetence of this president and this administration has put our troops at risk, and put this country at greater risk, than we ought to be."

Last night, the Bush campaign released the details of an NBC News report from April 2003 that suggested the explosives were gone from the former military installation, called Al Qaqaa, by the time U.S. troops arrived.

Bush aides downplayed the significance of the missing explosives and criticized Kerry for focusing on them, calling him a "Monday morning quarterback."

Bush was silent on the issue, making what aides called a strategic decision not to engage in a daily debate with Kerry on developments in Iraq.

Treasure trove

Military analysts had mixed reactions to the significance of the missing explosives.

John Pike, a defense analyst for GlobalSecurity. org, said the explosives, the disappearance of which was first reported in yesterday's New York Times, would prove to be an "unprecedented treasure trove" of bomb-making material.

"I think the evil-doers will put it to good use," he said. "You'd have to be concerned. We'll be hearing about it again."

The missing cache, reported to be about 380 tons of the explosives HMX and RDX, not only offers a large quantity of material but more importantly has useful "fabrication properties" for making bombs, Pike said.

The materials can handily be molded and shaped into bombs, he said, but the explosives are only "slightly more powerful" than TNT and not as explosive as C4 chemical explosives.

While both HMX and RDX can be used in detonating nuclear bombs, there is no indication that whoever took the explosives has materials for building a nuclear weapon. Those materials are more difficult to acquire, Pike said.

Lax security

The theft reflects the lax security at Iraqi weapons depots, which some military officers have long complained have either gone unguarded or have been turned over to Iraqi security forces of questionable competence and allegiance, Pike said.

"They have been so poorly guarded it's difficult to imagine," he said. "Just a badly conceived program for securing this stuff."

The U.S. command in Baghdad in August 2003 set aside Army artillery brigades, about 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers dubbed Task Force Bullet, to collect and destroy ordnance.

An Army officer with experience in Iraq said the program last year was destroying about 105 tons per day, and officers estimated it would take years to destroy it all.

"More (U.S.) troops would have helped," the officer said. But what problem should have been tackled first? he asked. The weapons depots? Or the growing insurgency? Or the porous borders with Syria and Iran that are sources of foreign fighters and arms?

Amount 'in context'

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the president was informed of the missing stockpile about 10 days ago, and the Pentagon has called for an investigation.

Moreover, McClellan said, 380 tons of explosives was a small amount, compared with the 243,000 tons of munitions that have been destroyed and 163,000 tons secured since the end of major combat operations.

"Literally, there were munitions caches spread throughout Iraq at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom," said McClellan. "That puts this all in context."

While silent on the missing explosives, Bush did respond directly to another major headline from Iraq yesterday: the killing Sunday of 50 newly trained Iraqi security officers outside the town of Mandali.

He called the attacks "desperate executions" that "show the evil nature of the terrorists we fight."

Poor management

Kerry aides said problems in Iraq give American voters the opportunity to see Bush's shortcomings and question the president's rosy portraits of the war. Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser, said the campaign would use the missing weapons as an example of what they see as a poorly managed war.

If Bush plans to talk about national security and terrorism for the remainder of the campaign, Lockhart said, "he's going to have to talk about this part of the story, too."

For weeks, Kerry aides had said they wanted to shift the campaign's focus to domestic issues. But Lockhart said yesterday that they were ready to engage in a battle over national security in the race's last week, challenging Bush on what polls show has been his strength.

How voters respond to the strategy of the two sides - Kerry's attempts to hold Bush accountable for missteps and Bush's effort to offer an optimistic picture even if the headlines sometimes contradict it - might shape the choices of undecided voters next Tuesday.

Speech retooled

Yesterday, Bush offered a re-tooled stump speech hammering Kerry on his foreign policy record.

His biggest applause line at rallies here and in Iowa came when he said the senator criticizes him for shifting focus to Iraq and missing a chance to capture Osama bin Laden.

Originally, Bush said, Kerry praised the military for its efforts to capture the terrorist in the mountains of Tora Bora, but has now changed his views.

"At the time, Senator Kerry said about Tora Bora, 'I think we've been smart. I think administration leadership has done well, and we are on the right track.' End quote," Bush told his audiences.

"All I can say is that, 'I am George W. Bush, and I approve of that message.'" vTom Bowman reported from Washington and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from Philadelphia.


Copyright 2004, The Baltimore Sun Company