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Commander: Unit found unsealed al-Qaqaa explosives

Statement indicates weapons weren't removed before war


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CNN's Barbara Starr on recent troop deployments in Iraq.

A photo and video may offer differing scenarios on Iraqi cache.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre on the stockpile of missing explosives.

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(CNN) -- A U.S. Army major said Friday that soldiers under his command removed and destroyed about 250 tons of munitions at the al-Qaqaa military compound after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, but he said none of the cache bore the seal that weapons inspectors placed on explosives before the war.

Maj. Austin Pearson talked about the actions he took April 13, 2003, during a speech Friday at a Pentagon news conference. (Full story)

Before the invasion, the HMX and RDX stored in bunkers at al-Qaqaa had been put under seal and monitored by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors because the explosives can be used as detonators in nuclear weapons. The U.N. nuclear watchdog says more than 360 tons of the material cannot be accounted for, revising an earlier figure of 380 tons.

Earlier this week, Pentagon officials said Saddam Hussein's regime likely moved munitions from the compound before U.S. troops arrived. Pearson's statement Friday runs counter to that, but military spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the Pentagon was still working to determine what happened and when at al-Qaqaa.

"You guys really want the definitive answer and so do we," Di Rita told journalists Friday. "The difference is, that takes understanding facts, and we have tried to uncover facts over the last week."

Nine days after the fall of Baghdad, on April 18, 2003, a news crew from KSTP-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, embedded with troops from the 101st Airborne Division, entered the bunkers at al-Qaqaa, south of Baghdad.

At one of the bunkers, the troops broke a seal to get inside and found barrels filled with powdered explosives, said Dean Staley, then a reporter at the Minnesota station.

Based on a review of the KSTP videotape, former weapons inspector David Kay told CNN that the seal was the same type used by the IAEA and that the explosives in the barrel were the missing type.

"That's either HMX or RDX," Kay said, referring to the explosives. "I don't know of anything else in al-Qaqaa that was in that form."

Pearson said Friday that he "did not see any IAEA seals at the locations that we went into. I was not looking for that. My mission specifically was to go in there and to prevent the exposure of U.S. forces and to minimize that by taking out what was easily accessible."

The videotape, along with Kay's conclusions and Pearson's statements Friday could undercut assertions by the Pentagon that the most likely explanation for the disappearance of 360 tons of explosives is that they were moved before the war.

On Thursday evening, the Pentagon released a satellite photo showing trucks parked outside a bunker at al-Qaqaa on March 17, 2003 -- two days before the U.S.-led invasion.

U.S. defense officials acknowledge that the photo does not prove the explosives were being moved.

Whether the explosives were moved from the facility by the Iraqi regime before the war began or were looted after the facility came under U.S. control has become an issue in the presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry charges that the disappearance illustrates the Bush administration's mismanagement of the war.

Pentagon officials, however, said they believed it was more likely that the explosives were moved before the war. They say it would have been difficult to move that much material without detection in a war zone crawling with U.S. troops.

"We had total control of the air. We would have seen anything like that," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in an interview with WPTH Radio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "So the idea that it was suddenly, totally looted and moved out is, I think, at least debatable.

Al-Zarqawi may have left Falluja

Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may have left the restive city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, and some insurgents there may be headed to other parts of the country, U.S. officials say.

This assessment comes amid warnings of a major U.S.-led offensive to "smash" the al-Zarqawi network and other militants thought to be entrenched in the town.

Maj. Jim West, a Marine intelligence officer, and Gen. Dennis Hejlik, deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, analyzed the political and military environment of the volatile city in a briefing Friday.

For weeks, U.S. warplanes have been bombing targets in the city linked to al-Zarqawi. At the same time, efforts to negotiate a peace have sputtered.

On Thursday, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced a new effort to negotiate peace, with a team from the country's National Council appointed to talk with Falluja leaders, who have been asked to hand over militants.

"If we get the order, we will go in until it's done," Hejlik said. "It's going to be decisive, and we're going to whack them."

He did not provide the number of troops that would be involved in a possible assault, but he said, "It will be enough to get the job done."

West said al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, may have chosen not to make a last stand in the city.

Some of the Falluja-area insurgents may be moving to other parts of the country, unarmed and dressed as civilians.

Authorities said they think insurgents may be headed to places where weapons have been stashed. West estimated there are 2,000 to 5,000 insurgents in Falluja.

Thousands of people have fled Falluja, reducing the city's population from more than 250,000 to as low as 50,000 to 60,000, West said.

Other developments

  • A Japanese man taken hostage in Iraq earlier this week has been killed by his abductors after the Japanese government refused to meet their demands to withdraw its troops from the region, Kyodo News agency reported early Saturday. (Full story)
  • CARE International said it had shut down all operations in Iraq and urged insurgents to release its director in Iraq. Margaret Hassan, who holds dual Iraqi-British citizenship, was kidnapped October 19 by a group that did not identify itself. The group has released two videotaped statements in which she pleads for her life and calls for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.
  • A British soldier from the Black Watch battle group redeployed from Basra to an area outside Baghdad died of injuries suffered in a noncombat vehicle accident Friday, a British Army spokesman in Basra confirmed. About 850 soldiers from the Black Watch regiment have redeployed to an area 15 miles outside of Baghdad to free up U.S. troops there for operations against militants.
  • Suspected insurgents assassinated an assistant governor of Diyala, a province north of Baghdad, on Friday. Aqil Hamed al-Adeli was killed when five men opened fire in a real estate office. "It took us by surprise that he was traveling without his security detail," said Maj. Gen. Walid al-Azzawi, the local police chief.
  • An Iraqi civilian died and two U.S. soldiers and three Iraqis were injured Friday when a car bomb detonated in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military said. Another car bomb targeting a convoy in Mosul wounded three U.S. soldiers.

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