Explosives in Iraq were looted, soldiers say

WASHINGTON — In the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqi looters loaded powerful explosives into pickups and drove the material off the al-Qaqaa ammunition site, according to a group of U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsmen who said they witnessed the looting.

The soldiers said about a dozen U.S. troops guarding the sprawling facility could not prevent the theft of the explosives because they were outnumbered by looters. Soldiers from one unit — the 317th Support Center based in Wiesbaden, Germany — said they sent a message to commanders in Baghdad requesting help to secure the site, but received no reply.

The witnesses' accounts of the looting are the first provided by U.S. soldiers, and support claims that the American military failed to safeguard the powerful munitions. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the U.N. nuclear watchdog — and the interim Iraqi government reported that approximately 380 tons of high-grade explosives had been taken from the al-Qaqaa facility after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The explosives are powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon.

The soldiers interviewed by the Los Angeles Times could not confirm that powerful explosives — known as HMX and RDX — were among the materials looted.

During the past week, when revelations of the missing explosives became an issue in the presidential campaign, the Bush administration suggested that the explosives could have been carted off by Saddam Hussein's forces before the war began. Pentagon officials later said that U.S. troops systematically destroyed hundreds of tons of explosives at al-Qaqaa after Baghdad fell.

Asked about the soldiers' accounts, Pentagon spokeswoman Rose-Anne Lynch said yesterday, "We take the report of missing munitions very seriously. And we are looking into the facts and circumstances of this incident."

The soldiers, who belong to two different units, described how Iraqis plundered explosives from unsecured bunkers before driving off in Toyota trucks.

"We were running from one side of the compound to the other side, trying to kick people out," said one senior noncommissioned officer who was at the site in late April 2003. "On our last day there, there were at least 100 vehicles waiting at the site for us to leave" so that they could come in and loot munitions.

"It was complete chaos. It was looting like L.A. during the Rodney King riots," another officer said.

He and other soldiers who spoke to the Los Angeles Times asked not to be named, saying they feared retaliation from the Pentagon.

A Minnesota television station last week broadcast a video of U.S. troops from the 101st Airborne using tools to cut through wire seals left by the IAEA at al-Qaqaa, evidence that the high-grade explosives were still inside at least one bunker weeks after the start of the war.

The video was taped April 18, 2003, while soldiers from the 101st Airborne searched the site 30 miles south of Baghdad for chemical and biological weapons. The IAEA had placed seals on nine of the bunkers at the complex where inspectors had found high-grade explosives. Other bunkers contained more conventional munitions.

After opening bunkers, including one containing the high-grade explosives, U.S. troops left the bunkers unsecured, the Minnesota station reported.

According to the four soldiers — members of the 317th Support Center and the 258th Rear Area Operations Center, an Arizona-based Army National Guard unit — the looting of al-Qaqaa occurred over several weeks in late April and early May.

Soldiers from the units said they visited the ammunition facility soon after the departure of combat troops from the 101st Airborne Division.

One soldier said U.S. forces watched the looters' trucks loaded with bags marked "hexamine" — a key ingredient for HMX — being driven away from the facility. Unsure what hexamine was, the troops later did an Internet search and learned of its explosive power.

"We found out this was stuff you don't smoke around," the soldier said.

According to a list of "talking points" circulated by the Pentagon last week, when U.S. military weapons hunters visited al-Qaqaa on May 8, 2003, they found the facility "had been looted and stripped and vandalized." No IAEA-monitored material was found, the "talking points" stated.

A senior U.S. military intelligence official corroborated some aspects of the four soldiers' accounts.

The official who tracked facilities believed to store chemical and biological weapons — none were ever found in Iraq — said that al-Qaqaa was "one of the top 200" suspect sites at the outset of the war.

Despite the stockpiles at the site, no U.S. forces were specifically assigned to guard al-Qaqaa — known to U.S. forces in Iraq as Objective Elm — after the 101st Airborne left the facility.

According to the senior intelligence official, there was no order for any unit to secure al-Qaqaa. "No way," the officer said, adding that doing so would have diverted combat resources from the push toward Baghdad.

"It's all about combat power," the officer said, "and we were short combat power.

"If we had 150,000 soldiers, I'm not sure we could have secured (such sites)," the officer said.

Troops from the two units visited al-Qaqaa over a week in late April, but received no orders to maintain a presence at the facility, according to the soldiers' accounts. They also said they received no response to a request for help in guarding the facility.

Some confusion came in late April 2003 when U.S. commanders in Baghdad reassigned military responsibility for the area surrounding al-Qaqaa from Army units to the 1st Marine Division, which had participated in the assault on Baghdad and eventually took control over much of southern Iraq.

According to Marine sources, when the 1st Marine Division took over, the combat unit didn't have enough troops to secure ammunition depots scattered across central and southern Iraq.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.