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Tons of Iraq explosives missing

'Massive' facility also held large caches of artillery

Rusting missile shells at the Al Qaqaa complex, as seen in this 2002 photo.
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Tons of conventional explosives missing from Iraqi facility.
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(CNN) -- Some 380 tons of explosives powerful enough to detonate nuclear warheads are missing from a former Iraqi military facility that was supposed to be under American control, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency says.

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the interim Iraqi government reported to the agency several days ago in a letter that the explosives were missing from the Al Qaqaa complex south of Baghdad.

The explosives -- considered powerful enough to demolish buildings or detonate nuclear warheads -- were under IAEA control until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. IAEA workers left the country before the fighting began.

"Our immediate concern is that if the explosives did fall into the wrong hands, they could be used to commit terrorist acts and some of the bombings that we've seen," Fleming said.

She described Al Qaqaa as "massive" and said it is one of the most well-known storage sites. Besides the explosives, it also held large caches of artillery.

Fleming said the IAEA, which is based in Vienna, Austria, did not know whether some of the explosives may have been used in past attacks.

Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the multinational force in Iraq and the Bush administration's Iraq Survey Group had been ordered to investigate the disappearance of the explosives.

The news followed an IAEA report earlier this month that said high-end, dual-use machinery that could be used in a nuclear weapons program was missing from Iraq's nuclear facilities. (Full story)

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush wants to determine what went wrong.

McClellan, talking to reporters on Air Force One, said the storage site was the responsibility of the interim Iraqi government, not the United States, as of the June 28 transfer of power.

McClellan said the Iraqi government reported the missing weaponry to the IAEA in a letter dated October 10, and the IAEA informed the U.S. mission in Vienna on October 15. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was told a few days later, then informed the president.

The Iraqi letter said the material disappeared "due to lack of security" of government installations during the looting that followed the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.

The IAEA said that before the war it inspected the Al Qaqaa facility multiple times and verified that the material was present in January 2003. The agency said the material was mentioned in reports to the U.N. Security Council that were made public.

Ereli said coalition forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the Al Qaqaa facility after the war for weapons of mass destruction. The troops found none, but did see indications of looting, he said. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

"Some explosive material at the time was discovered, although none of it carried IAEA seals, and this discovery was reported to coalition forces for removal of the material," Ereli said.

Ereli said coalition forces have cleared 10,033 weapons caches and destroyed 243,000 tons of munitions. Another 162,898 tons of munitions are at secure locations and awaiting destruction, he said.

A senior administration official played down the importance of the missing explosives, describing them as dangerous material but "stuff you can buy anywhere."

The official noted that the administration did not see this necessarily as a "proliferation risk."

"In the grand scheme -- and on a grand scale -- there are hundreds of tons of weapons, munitions, artillery, explosives that are unaccounted for in Iraq," the official said.

"And like the Pentagon has said, there is really no way the U.S. military could safeguard all of these weapons depots or find all of these missing materials."

The official said the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction and documented the scope of the problem.

Threat from terrorists

A European diplomat told The New York Times that Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, is "extremely concerned" about the potentially "devastating consequences" of the vanished stockpile.

"The immediate danger" of the lost stockpiles is its potential use by insurgents to make small, but powerful, bombs, an expert told the Times. The expert said the explosives could be transported easily across the Middle East.

According to the Times, the stockpiles missing from Al Qaqaa are the strongest and fastest in common use by militaries around the globe.

The Iraqi letter to the IAEA identified the vanished explosives as containing 194.7 metric tons of HMX, or "high melting point explosive," 141.2 metric tons of RDX, or "rapid detonation explosive," among other designations, and 5.8 metric tons of PETN, or "pentaerythritol tetranitrate."

Fleming said the IAEA, whose mission is to keep track of everything with potential nuclear weapons applications, had been monitoring about 100 sites in Iraq, but there were only a few of special concern, including Al Qaqaa.

"This is a real massive quantity of explosives that could have reached the hands of insurgents and could be used with deadly force and consequences against people in Iraq," Fleming said.

"One would have to assume it's been stolen by someone who has some sort of nefarious purpose for it."

Political fallout

With the U.S. presidential election eight days away, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry seized on the information.

"If President Bush can't recognize his failures in Iraq -- which he doesn't admit, won't acknowledge -- you can't fix them. And then he's doomed to repeat the same mistakes elsewhere," Kerry said. (Full story)

The Bush campaign responded in kind.

"John Kerry has no vision for fighting and winning the war on terror, so he is basing his attack on the headlines he wakes up to each day," said Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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