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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Star Tribune October 29, 2004

KSTP tape may show Iraqi bunkers

By Bob Von Sternberg and Paul Mcenroe

Videotape shot by a Twin Cities television news crew in Iraq suggests that explosives and munitions were still being stored at Iraq's unsecured Al-Qaqaa military installation nine days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

The explosives could include HMX, powerful high-grade explosives that were recently reported missing from Al-Qaqaa.

The KSTP-TV footage has become a new focus in a controversy that has dominated the presidential campaign this week.

Sen. John Kerry contends that President Bush must take responsibility for the missing explosives. "You were warned to guard them," Kerry said Thursday in direct challenge to Bush. "You didn't guard them."

Bush has accused Kerry of jumping to conclusions about the missing explosives, calling it a dangerous thing for a wartime president to do.

The Pentagon has said the weapons could have been moved before the U.S. invasion in March 2003. But in a potential blow to Bush's case, the U.N. nuclear agency said on Thursday that it had warned the United States about the vulnerability of explosives stored at the installation.

The videotape shows a door of one of the Iraqi storage bunkers sealed with cable and a disk that resembles seals used by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

If that is confirmed, it would mean that high-grade explosives monitored by the agency were still being stored at Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003, the day the video was shot. In January 2003, U.N. nuclear inspectors had placed fresh seals over the doors of storage bunkers that contained HMX.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said Thursday that he believes the explosives in the KSTP footage are HMX. He was in Iraq in the mid-1990s and is now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C.

Inside the bunkers, the videotape showed boxes, plastic bags and drums of what appeared to be various munitions. "I could see that there were these cardboard kind of squarish boxes in the background, and that's how I remember HMX being stored," Albright told the Star Tribune.

Albright said he sought further confirmation with another former weapons inspector, whom he asked to review the tape. He declined to identify the colleague, but said he was at Al-Qaqaa during the last round of U.N. inspections. "He knows about these bunkers," Albright said. "He definitely was in these bunkers at various times."

His former colleague said that not only did the seal on the bunker in the video look like an IAEA seal but also that the inside of the bunkers "look just like I remember them when I was in there last."

Earlier this week, it was reported that 377 tons of high-grade munitions disappeared from the Al-Qaqaa complex. Exactly when the munitions disappeared has become a flashpoint in the presidential race, with questions lingering over whether the explosives disappeared before or after U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein. Portions of the KSTP videotape were aired Wednesday night after Dean Staley, the reporter embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, recognized recent news photographs of the bunkers. "We didn't know what we had until the issue of the missing explosives came up," said Chris Berg, news director at KSTP. "At the time it was shot, Iraq's munitions weren't the news we were interested in."

The footage shows U.S. troops cutting into the bunkers with bolt cutters, inspecting various kinds of munitions and then leaving without securing the bunkers.

The TV report created a buzz on the Internet, and KSTP reported that its Web site had received 200,000 hits Thursday, a tenfold increase over a typical day.

The buzz was fueled in large part by liberal and partisan bloggers using it as ammunition against Bush.

On Thursday, the U.N.'s nuclear agency announced that U.S. officials had been warned about the vulnerability of explosives stored at Al-Qaqaa after another facility -- the country's main nuclear complex -- was looted in April 2003. The agency cautioned U.S. officials directly about Al-Qaqaa, the main storage facility in Iraq for high-grade explosives.

Iraqi officials say the explosives were taken amid looting some time after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, although the Pentagon and Bush have suggested the ordnance could have been moved before the United States invaded on March 20, 2003.

An IAEA official told the Associated Press that the high-grade explosives were stored in hundreds of heavy cardboard drums. A portion of KSTP's video shows similar drums, labeled "explosive" and filled with powdery material.

"We're not munitions experts, so nobody was sure what it was," said Joe Caffrey, the photographer who shot the video during a five-hour tour of the complex.

Caffrey and reporter Dean Staley had been embedded with an air assault battalion at a base 2 to 3 miles south of Al-Qaqaa. On April 18, two off-duty soldiers decided to drive up in their Humvee to take a look at the complex, and the journalists went with them.

"They were just going up there to look around, and we decided to tag along," Caffrey said.

They passed as many as 50 bunkers, some broken open and empty, others locked with chains and at least one with a seal resembling the kind used by the U.N.'s nuclear energy agency. The soldiers used bolt cutters to open about a half-dozen locked bunkers.

The soldiers were able to identify detonation cord, bombs and proximity fuses scattered on the ground. "I'm an air traffic controller, not a weapons expert," one soldier said on-camera as he poked through a box of explosives.

Some barrels and boxes were labeled "explosive" and one crate was stenciled with the words "AL QAQAA STATE ESTABLISHMENT."

The soldiers gathered some documents to pass to their superiors, but they took none of the munitions. "They didn't tell their officers anything about it," Caffrey said.

John Pike, who maintains an Internet Web site specializing in satellite imagery, GlobalSecurity.org, reviewed the station's video for the Star Tribune.

Using the video and global positioning system coordinates provided by Caffrey, Pike concluded that the KSTP journalists were at Al-Qaqaa. He said he reached that conclusion because the video shows igloo-like structures that are consistent with buildings at Al-Qaqaa and because the global satellite coordinates recorded by the film crew match where the complex is located.

Military officials with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade, in Ft. Campbell, Ky., said Thursday they couldn't say for sure if the television crew had actually been at Al-Qaqaa.

"I don't know if it's the same place, but we did missions in that area," said Lt. Fred Wellman, deputy public affairs officer for the unit. "There were several facilities in that area that we dealt with."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2004, Star Tribune