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Bloomberg October 29, 2004

U.S. Major Removed Iraq Explosives, Saw No Seals

By Jon Steinman

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. military officer who supervised removal of as much as 250 tons of ordnance from an Iraqi storage area said he didn't see any seals identifying it as part of a cache of explosives that United Nations inspectors warned is missing.

Major Austin Pearson, a 3rd Infantry Division officer who led operations at the al-Qaqaa site, said at a Pentagon briefing that he removed explosives from ``open and accessible'' bunkers. He didn't see any seals that the International Atomic Energy Agency had placed on bunkers with more than 350 tons of explosives.

``My mission was to minimize the exposure of U.S. forces by taking out what was readily available,'' said Pearson, who was at al-Qaqaa on April 13, 2003. ``I did not see any IAEA seals. I was not looking for that.'' News video shot five days later shows U.S. soldiers breaking the IAEA seals on an explosives-filled bunker.

The disappearance of the ordnance has become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Today, the Kerry campaign said it showed President George W. Bush's administrations was unprepared for the war in Iraq.

``We are firmly convinced that the people understand how that issue describes the wrong decisions and the lack of preparation of President Bush and his administration made with respect to the war,'' said Mike McCurry, a spokesman for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.

`Hard Truths'

He said Kerry, who said Bush is ignoring ``hard truths'' about Iraq, intentionally avoided talking about the issue directly today.

``We feel that argument is effectively won and we are moving on to the larger argument about where the country is headed,'' McCurry said.

Campaigning in New Hampshire today, Bush promised a ``comprehensive strategy'' against terrorism, without mentioning the munitions missing from al-Qaqaa.

Earlier this week, Bush had said Kerry jumped to conclusions about the explosives without all the evidence.

Then the video of soldiers opening a sealed bunker on April 18, 2003 at al-Qaqaa, was released. It was shot by a news crew from KSTP, a station in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose crew was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when it passed through the area.

May Change Voters' Minds

``In a close election, anything can be an issue, and this is certainly important enough that I could imagine it having an impact with enough voters to make a difference in the election,'' said Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. ``While we now live in a world where even pictures don't necessarily tell the truth, if the film footage actually holds up, that certainly would trump in my mind the memory of a single soldier in Iraq.''

He said ``95 percent or so of the public'' has already decided who to vote for, but the remaining five percent may take this matter to heart.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said that when U.S. forces first arrived at the site, they were fired on by Iraqis. Aerial photos of the area also show trucks at the site before the arrival of U.S. troops, he said.

``There's probably more we don't know about that 377 tons than what we know, other than that we've destroyed 400,000 tons of ammunition in that country,'' Di Rita said. ``We had people moving about freely on that facility prior to the arrival of US forces -- armed people, Fedayeen, special Republican guard.''

Di Rita said he's ``almost certain there was more'' ordnance at the al-Qaqaa facility when Pearson's unit left. Pearson said the entrances to some bunkers were blocked with earth and gravel.

Nine Trucks

Pearson said his unit filled nine trucks with material that included TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords and bullets.

More than 350 tons of high explosives disappeared from the facility after April 9, 2003, due to a ``lack of security,'' the International Atomic Energy Agency said in an Oct. 25 letter to the UN Security Council. The IAEA, which inspected the arms dump before the war, today said a metal seal shown on a bunker door in the videotape appears to be the type left by the agency's inspectors.

It's possible the looting of the explosives can be traced directly to a shortage of U.S. troops in Iraq, said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a public policy research institution in Washington.

Troop Levels

``It's not hard to see how maybe there weren't enough troops to guard every site in Iraq, including al-Qaqaa,'' Pena said. ``Paul Bremer (the former U.S. administrator in Iraq) is on record now saying that he thought troop levels were inadequate to deal with the looting in Iraq after the regime fell.''

After the emergence of the video, ``almost all the facts are apparently on the Kerry side,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. ``It looks like the Bush campaign has lost the latest phase of the debate too, having claimed all week we didn't know when the place was looted, but the latest evidence making it appear pretty likely that it was after the fall of Saddam.''

Di Rita said the UN report was ``significantly'' incomplete. ``The facts that we've learned since then have caused some doubt about the initial reports,'' he said.

The missing material includes about 195 tons of the explosive HMX, which had been under IAEA seal, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said in its letter to the Security Council.

HMX

HMX is used exclusively for military purposes to implode fissionable material in nuclear devices, as a component of plastic- bonded explosives, as a component of rocket propellant, and as a high explosive burster charge, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

On Thursday, the Pentagon released photos of two trucks parked outside one of the approximately 56 bunkers at al-Qaqaa, on March 17, 2003, raising the possibility that the facility may have been emptied prior to the arrival of U.S. forces. That was before the release of the videotape showing members of the 101st Airborne Division at the site on April 18.

A group calling itself the al-Karar Brigade of al-Islam's Army Brigades said it has the explosives and will use them against foreign troops in Iraq, according to a videotape from the group obtained by the Associated Press and shown by broadcasters worldwide.


Copyright 2004, Bloomberg L.P.