A U.S. military unit that reached a munitions storage
installation after the invasion of Iraq had no orders to search or
secure the site, where officials say nearly 400 tons of explosives
have vanished.

Looters were already throughout the Al-Qaqaa installation south
of Baghdad when troops from the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd
Brigade arrived at the site a day or so after other coalition
troops seized the capital on April 9, 2003, Lt. Col. Fred Wellman,
deputy public affairs officer for the unit, told The Associated
Press.

The soldiers “secured the area they were in and looked in
a limited amount of bunkers to ensure chemical weapons were not
present in their area,” Wellman wrote in an e-mail to The
Associated Press. “Bombs were found but not chemical weapons
in that immediate area.

“Orders were not given from higher to search or to secure
the facility or to search for HE type munitions, as they
(high-explosive weapons) were everywhere in Iraq,” he
wrote.

A U.N. official said Al-Qaqaa installation was believed to be
the only site in Iraq where high explosives such as HMX, RDX and
PETN were stored. When Iraq declared the explosives after the 1991
Gulf War, IAEA experts concentrated them at Al-Qaqaa so they could
be monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors, the official said,
speaking on condition of anonymity.

HMX and RDX are key components in plastic explosives, which
insurgents in Iraq have used in bomb attacks. HMX is also a
“dual use” substance powerful enough to ignite the
fissile material in an atomic bomb and set off a nuclear chain
reaction.

The disappearance of the explosives — first reported in
Monday’s New York Times — has raised questions about
why the United States didn’t do more to secure the facility
and failed to allow full international inspections to resume after
the invasion.

It has also become a heated issue in the U.S. presidential
campaign. The Kerry campaign called the disappearance the latest in
a “tragic series of blunders” by the Bush
administration in Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney raised the possibility the explosives
disappeared before U.S. soldiers could secure the site, and he
complained that Kerry does not mention the “400,000 tons of
weapons and explosives that our troops have captured.”

The 101st Airborne was at least the second military unit to
arrive at Al-Qaqaa after the U.S.-led invasion began. Pentagon
spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Washington Post that the 3rd
Infantry Division reached the site around April 3, fought with Iraq
forces and occupied the site. It left after two days for Baghdad,
the Post reported yesterday.

AP Correspondent Chris Tomlinson, who was embedded with the 3rd
Infantry but didn’t go to Al-Qaqaa, described the search of
Iraqi military facilities south of Baghdad as brief, cursory
missions to seek out hostile troops, not to inventory or secure
weapons.

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