How Did the Weapons Vanish?

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EMPTY Al-Qaqaa was secure when U.S. forces arrived. A month later, it had been picked clean

In the last days of the race, with both candidates crisscrossing battleground states and trading cable-news sound bites, the first wartime election in a generation was consumed, appropriately, by news out of Iraq: specifically, the revelation that the interim Iraqi government had discovered that roughly 380 tons of highly dangerous explosives and munitions had gone missing since the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The amount of missing materiel was not huge. Before the war, Saddam Hussein was thought to have possessed from 650,000 to 1 million tons of weaponry. The saga of what exactly happened to the explosives at the al-Qaqaa facility, followed by the airing of a fresh Osama bin Laden videotape (see NOTEBOOK), cast into high relief a central question of the election: Which candidate can we trust to make us safer?

After news of the missing explosives was first reported in the New York Times and on CBS, Kerry seized on the discovery during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, holding it up as evidence of how negligent postwar planning by Bush and his war council had compromised the safety of U.S. troops. That line of attack was aimed at Bush's advantage over Kerry on national-security issues. It worked well enough to force the Bush campaign, which initially brushed off the Times report, to mount a counteroffensive of its own. Bush and his surrogates suggested that the explosives may have been pilfered or removed by Saddam in the window of time after weapons inspectors left Iraq in mid-March 2003 but before U.S. forces arrived at al-Qaqaa that April. In Pennsylvania, Bush accused Kerry of undermining troop morale by making charges without all the facts. "A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your Commander in Chief," he said.

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The trouble is, of the facts that are known, few are on the President's side. What we know for certain is that the U.S. found more than 10,000 weapons caches in Iraq in the invasion's wake. One of the most prominent was al-Qaqaa, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. It was widely recognized in diplomatic and military circles as the hub of Saddam's conventional-weapons operation and had been a routine target for inspectors from the U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since the early '90s. In January 2003, IAEA inspectors conducted a full inventory of al-Qaqaa's 56 bunkers and alerted U.N. and U.S. officials that there were 377 tons of high explosives inside. The cache originally assessed included 156 tons of RDX, a powerful, easily transported plastic explosive; 6 tons of PETN, used in small-caliber ammunition, detonators and land mines; and 215 tons of HMX, which can be used as a trigger in a nuclear device or, in the hands of insurgents, as an ingredient of car and truck bombs. (Less than a pound of a similar material brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.) On March 15, 2003, four days before the war began, IAEA inspectors returned to the site for a final visit and confirmed that the seals they had used two months earlier to secure the bunkers containing the munitions were still secure.

On April 18, 2003, troops from the 101st Airborne Division stopped at al-Qaqaa on their way to Baghdad and entered some of the secured bunkers with bolt cutters, as documented by a camera crew from an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis, Minn. The footage, which came to light after the White House sought to cast doubt on the story last week, indicated that some of the sealed weaponry was still present a month after the war began. The 101st did not resecure the bunkers when they left al-Qaqaa, nor did they destroy the ordnance, in part because their orders were to get to Baghdad and find evidence of Saddam's purported arsenal of unconventional weapons. Looters soon descended on al-Qaqaa and pilfered the remaining weaponry, ammunition and equipment. In late April IAEA's chief weapons inspector for Iraq warned the U.S. of the vulnerability of the site, and in May 2003, an internal IAEA memo warned that terrorists could be looting "the greatest explosives bonanza in history." Seventeen months later, on Oct. 10, in response to a long-standing request from the IAEA to account for sensitive materials, the interim Iraqi government notified the agency that al-Qaqaa had been stripped clean. The White House learned about the notification a few days later.

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