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Mystery of missing explosives continues

Army commander says looting 'improbable'; arms inspector differs

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U.S. military, arms inspector have different theories on the missing explosives in Iraq.

What happened to a huge stockpile of powerful Iraqi explosives?
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The mystery of the missing cache of Iraq high explosives continued Wednesday, with various explanations -- but still no hard evidence -- offered as to what happened to them, and when.

A U.S. Army commander who was near the site said Wednesday it would have been "highly improbable" for the explosives to have been looted without being noticed by military forces nearby.

But the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq said Wednesday that was probably what happened -- that the cache was looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein because the military failed to secure it.

The 380 tons of conventional explosives -- considered powerful enough to demolish buildings or detonate nuclear warheads -- were reported missing from Al Qaqaa weapons depot south of Baghdad in a letter to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency from the interim Iraqi government this month.

The Iraqi letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, dated October 10, blamed the theft and looting of government installations on a "lack of security" during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The disappearance of the explosives has become a campaign issue since it was reported Monday.

Democratic candidate John Kerry hammered President Bush for a third day Wednesday over the administration's handling of the situation, accusing the White House of trying to "dodge and bob and weave in their usual effort to avoid responsibility."

Bush struck back, accusing Kerry of making "wild charges" and "denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts." (Full story)

Pentagon officials said they cannot rule out the possibility that explosives were looted between March 3, 2003 -- the last time the site was checked by the IAEA before the U.S. invasion -- and May 8, 2003, when a military team arrived to inspect the site a month after the fall of Baghdad.

But they said they believed looting was unlikely because a large number of U.S. troops were in the area and the logistical difficulty of moving the materials in a war zone.

Col. David Perkins told reporters at the Pentagon that "it would be almost impossible" for the material to have been stolen after his 3rd Infantry Division troops arrived.

"There was one main road ... packed for weeks, bumper-to-bumper... with U.S. convoys ... pushing toward Baghdad," Perkins said, concluding that it would be "very highly improbable" that a convoy of trucks could have sneaked in and out.

But David Kay, former chief of the Iraq Survey Group, the joint CIA-Pentagon task force charged with locating Saddam's suspected weapons programs, said the Pentagon had underestimated the capability of Iraqi looters, who he said could dismantle buildings without heavy equipment.

"I find it hard to believe that a convoy of 40 to 60 trucks left that facility prior to or during the war and we didn't spot it on satellite or UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle]," said Kay, who also was a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s.

"That was because it is the main road to Baghdad from the south. It was a road that was constantly under surveillance. I also don't find it hard to believe that looters could carry it off in the dead of night or during the day and not use the road network," Kay said in a CNN interview.

Although Kay alleged that the U.S. military failed to take control of Iraq's ammunition stockpiles, he played down the effect of the missing explosives in a country already "awash" in ordnance.

He noted that the material missing from Al Qaqaa was only a small portion of the arsenal of bombs, artillery shells and explosives amassed by Iraq -- an arsenal he said was nearly two-thirds the size of the much larger U.S. Army.

"Iraq is not short of explosives. The insurgents are not short of explosives," he said.

"On the other hand, they are important as a symbol of what happened in Baghdad as the military victory was completed," Kay said.

Troops made several visits

Peter Khalil, a former security official in the Coalition Provisional Authority, told CNN that the U.S.-led occupation government did not have enough troops to halt looting when Saddam's government collapsed after the three-week war.

"It was after the war that more troops were needed, and there simply weren't enough to secure all the military bases the explosives, to establish law and order and to secure other government ministry buildings," said Khalil, now an analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The munitions were under the IAEA's control until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. U.N. weapons inspectors left the country before the fighting began.

The IAEA said Tuesday that the last date it can vouch for the presence of the explosives at the sprawling Al Qaqaa site was in March 2003, when the munitions bunkers were under IAEA seals that had been placed previously.

Initially the Pentagon reported members of the U.S. military's Task Force 75, charged with finding weapon stockpiles in Iraq, didn't arrive at the site until May 27, 2003.

Pentagon officials later said records show the investigative team made three visits to the site -- May 8, May 11 and May 27.

By the end of May the team had abandoned the storage dump, which officials said consists of 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings, declaring no weapons or munitions were left that needed to be destroyed or secured, a Pentagon official said.

At least two U.S. military units stopped at Al Qaqaa en route to Baghdad during the invasion.

Elements of the 3rd Infantry Division -- under Perkins' command -- were reportedly the first to arrive, on April 3, 2003. The soldiers exchanged fire with Iraqis in the compound and conducted tests on a substance, which turned out to be explosives, before moving on the morning of April 4.

A week later, on April 10, a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division encountered looters when it arrived at the site, said Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a spokesman for the division.

The troops made a limited search before moving on, finding bombs and other munitions but no chemical weapons, Wellman said.

"It wasn't their mission," a Pentagon spokesman said. "They were supposed to make note of the site and report it to their higher headquarters, so an exploitation team could get there later."

CNN's Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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