VIENNA, Austria (AP) — The U.N. nuclear agency warned
yesterday that insurgents in Iraq may have obtained nearly 400 tons
of missing explosives that can be used in the kind of car bomb
attacks that have targeted U.S.-led coalition forces for
months.

Janna Hutz
Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks in Vienna in September. (FILE PHOTO)

Diplomats questioned why the United States didn’t do more
to secure the former Iraqi military installation that had housed
the explosives, which they say posed a well-known threat of being
looted. Others criticized the United States for not allowing full
international inspections to resume after the March 2003
invasion.

The White House played down the significance of the missing
weapons, but Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry accused
President Bush of “incredible incompetence” and his
campaign said the administration “must answer for what may be
the most grave and catastrophic mistake in a tragic series of
blunders in Iraq.”

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei
reported the disappearance to the U.N. Security Council yesterday,
two weeks after he said Iraq told the nuclear agency that 377 tons
of explosives had vanished from the Al-Qaqaa facility south of
Baghdad as a result of “theft and looting … due to lack of
security.”

Al-Qaqaa is near Youssifiyah, an area rife with ambush attacks.
An Associated Press Television News crew that drove past the
compound yesterday saw no visible security at the gates of the
site, a jumble of low-slung, yellow-colored storage buildings that
appeared deserted.

“The most immediate concern here is that these explosives
could have fallen into the wrong hands,” IAEA spokeswoman
Melissa Fleming. The agency first placed a seal over Al-Qaqaa
storage bunkers holding the explosives in 1991 as part of U.N.
sanctions that ordered the dismantlement of Iraq’s nuclear
program after the Gulf War.

IAEA inspectors last saw the explosives in January 2003 when
they took an inventory and placed fresh seals on the bunkers,
Fleming said. Inspectors visited the site again in March 2003, but
didn’t view the explosives because the seals were not broken,
she said.

Nuclear agency experts pulled out of Iraq just before the
U.S.-led invasion later that month, and have not yet been able to
return for general inspections despite ElBaradei’s repeated
urging that they be allowed to finish their work. Although IAEA
inspectors have made two trips to Iraq since the war at U.S.
requests, Russia and other Security Council have pressed for their
full-time return — so far unsuccessfully.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said U.S.-led forces searched
the Al-Qaqaa facility after the invasion.

“Coalition forces were present in the vicinity at various
times during and after major combat operations,” he said.
“The forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the
facility, but found no indicators of WMD (weapons of mass
destruction). While some explosive material was discovered, none of
it carried IAEA seals.”

IAEA analysts since have viewed satellite photographs of
Al-Qaqaa, and only two storage bunkers showed damage that may have
occurred in bombing during the war, an agency official told the
AP.

The other bunkers were intact, and the photos showed no evidence
of a crater that would have been created if bombing runs had caused
the explosives to blow up, the official said.

Saddam Hussein’s regime used Al-Qaqaa as a key part of its
effort to build a nuclear bomb. Although the missing materials are
conventional explosives known as HMX and RDX, the Vienna-based IAEA
became involved because HMX is a “dual use” substance
powerful enough to ignite the fissile material in an atomic bomb
and set off a nuclear chain reaction.

Both are key components in plastic explosives such as C-4 and
Semtex, which are so powerful that Libyan terrorists needed just a
pound to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in
1988, killing 170 people.

Insurgents targeting coalition forces in Iraq have made
widespread use of plastic explosives in a bloody spate of car bomb
attacks. Officials were unable to link the missing explosives
directly to the recent car bombings, but the revelations that they
could have fallen into enemy hands caused a stir in the last week
of the U.S. presidential campaign.

“How did they fail to secure nearly 380 tons of known,
deadly explosives despite clear warnings from the International
Atomic Energy Agency to do so?” senior Kerry adviser Joe
Lockhart said in a statement.

“These explosives can be used to blow up airplanes, level
buildings, attack our troops and detonate nuclear weapons,”
Lockhart said. “The Bush administration knew where this
stockpile was, but took no action to secure the site.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the
administration’s first concern was whether the disappearance
constituted a nuclear proliferation threat. He said it did not.

“We have destroyed more than 243,000 munitions.
We’ve secured another nearly 163,000 that will be
destroyed,” he said.

“Remember, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom there was
some looting, and some of it was organized. There were munitions
caches spread throughout the country, and so these are all issues
that are being looked into by the multinational forces and the
Iraqi Survey Group.”

But diplomats and analysts questioned why the U.S.-led
coalition, which administered Iraq until June, and the U.S.-led
multinational force, which is still in charge of security, did not
do more to secure Al-Qaqaa. They said that facility should have
been a priority and posed a well-known threat of being looted.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control
Association in Washington, said the United States “unwisely
spurned” the IAEA’s help in securing sites used by
Saddam’s regime.

“As a result, today we are probably paying the price with
the insurgents probably using some materials — especially
high explosives — from these sites,” he said.

ElBaradei told the council the agency had been trying to give
the U.S.-led multinational force and Iraq’s interim
government “an opportunity to attempt to recover the
explosives before this matter was put into the public
domain.”

But since the disappearance was reported Monday in The New York
Times, ElBaradei said he wanted the Security Council to have the
letter dated Oct. 10 that he received from Mohammed J. Abbas, a
senior official at Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology,
reporting the theft of the explosives.

The letter from Abbas informed the IAEA that since April 9,
2003, looting at the Al-Qaqaa installation had had resulted in the
loss of 215 tons of HMX, 156 tons of RDX and six tons of PETN
explosives.

Diplomats said there was nothing to suggest that ElBaradei, who
had irritated the Bush administration before the war by insisting
there was no evidence that Saddam had revived his nuclear program,
had intended to keep the report a secret until after the Nov. 2
election.

McClellan said the IAEA informed U.S. mission in Vienna on Oct.
15. He said national security adviser Condoleeza Rice was notified
“days after that,” and she then informed President
Bush.

At the State Department, deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the
United States hadn’t known about the missing explosives until
Oct. 15.

“This is the first time that we knew that this material
under IAEA seal was not where it was supposed to be,” Ereli
said. The Pentagon has ordered an investigation, he said.

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