Tons of Explosives Missing from Former Iraq Atomic Site
By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA (Reuters) - Nearly 380 tons of explosives are missing from a site near Baghdad that was part of Saddam Hussein's dismantled atom bomb program but was never secured by the U.S. military, the United Nations said Monday.
The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, will immediately report the matter to the U.N. Security Council, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
The missing explosives could be used to detonate a nuclear weapon or in conventional weapons, the agency said.
"ElBaradei has decided to inform the Security Council today," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
The New York Times, which broke the story Monday, said U.S. weapons experts feared the explosives could be used in bombing attacks against U.S. or Iraqi forces, which have come under increasing fire ahead of Iraq's elections due in January.
The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been barred from most of Iraq since the war and has watched from afar as its former nuclear sites have been stripped by looters.
Vienna diplomats said the IAEA had cautioned the United States about the danger of the explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told U.S. officials about the need to keep the them secured.
U.S. presidential challenger John Kerry accused President Bush of committing a massive blunder in failing to secure the explosives.
"This is one of the great blunders of Iraq, one of the greatest blunders of this administration, and the incredible incompetence of this president and this administration has put our troops at risk and this country at greater risk," Kerry told supporters in Dover, New Hampshire.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth said the Bush administration was investigating the matter.
"Obviously this is a serious matter. We are looking into it," he said.
IAEA spokeswoman Fleming said ElBaradei informed Washington of the seriousness of the matter on Oct. 15 after learning about the disappearance on Oct. 10.
KNOWN NUCLEAR SITE
One substance found in large quantities at the Al Qaqaa facility was the explosive HMX, which Fleming said had "a potential use in a nuclear explosive device as a detonator."
Prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the HMX had been sealed and tagged with the IAEA emblem while stored at Al Qaqaa.
Iraq was permitted to keep some of its explosives for mining purposes after the IAEA completed its dismantling of Saddam's covert nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Gulf war.
Fleming said HMX had civilian and conventional military applications. In the months prior to the second Gulf war, the IAEA was certain none of the materials were being used in a nuclear weapons program.
Diplomats at the IAEA have warned that materials useable in nuclear weapons could easily be shipped out of Iraq and sold to countries like Iran or terrorist groups believed to be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons.
The New York Times report cited White House and Pentagon officials -- as well as at least one Iraqi minister -- as acknowledging that the explosives vanished from the site shortly after the U.S.-led invasion amid widespread looting.
The minister of science and technology, Rashad M. Omar, confirmed the explosives were missing in an interview with The Times and CBS Television in Baghdad.
A Western diplomat close to the IAEA, who declined to be named, said it was hard to understand why the U.S. military had failed to secure the facility despite knowing how sensitive it was.
"This was a very well known site. If you could have picked a few sites that you would have to secure then ... Al Qaqaa would certainly be one of the main ones," the diplomat said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the IAEA informed the U.S. mission in Vienna on Oct. 15 that the explosives were missing and Bush was told days later.
U.S. administration officials said Sunday the Iraq Survey Group, the Central Intelligence Agency task force that searched for unconventional weapons, had been ordered to investigate the disappearance, the Times said. (Additional reporting by Javier E. David in New York and Patricia Wilson in Dover, N.H.)