Thursday, October 28, 2004

missing explosives (a rundown)

I've spent more than 10 hours researching and putting together this little post, so please, be patient with it. If you've been under a rock the past few days, you might not have heard that nearly 400 tons of high-grade explosives went missing from an Iraqi facility, al-Qaqaa, sometime around the beginning of the war in Iraq. [Read the initial NY Times piece here; or go to BBC News for a shorter and non-registration required summary]

Because there have been so many conflicting accounts in the news media, I set out to put together a little "tick-tock" of events. It proved more difficult than I imagined, with Netscape inexplicably crashing twice in the process. I took that as a sign that I wasn't supposed to give up, because I'm such a superstitious little bastard.

I'll try to keep this updated for a bit, so if you see in factual errors or omissions, let me know (also, if any of the links fail, give me a buzz as well). The NY Times pieces require registration; all other links should take you right to the original source. Many thanks to Josh Marshall at, where he's been meticulously following this thing, giving me plenty of leads to follow all across the net. Give him a visit.

al-Qaqaa Timeline

1991-2003 - In conjunction with UN sanctions put onto Iraq after the First Gulf War, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspects weapons facility at al-Qaqaa numerous times. Included at the facility are High Explosive (HE) weapons called HMX and RDX, which while conventional explosives, were under the review of the IAEA because they can be used to detonate nuclear weapons. (AP)

January 2003 - The last time IAEA inspectors cataloged and inventoried weapons at al-Qaqaa. They left seals on the HE munitions in order to keep the Iraqis from tampering with them. (AP)

March 2003 - IAEA returns to site for its final inspection at al-Qaqaa, not for another inventory, but to check the seals they had left. All seals remained intact. (AP)

April 4th- 3rd Infantry Division stops at al-Qaqaa, searches parts of compound, and finds many weapons still intact. Among them, white powders, that while assumed to be chemical weapons, are later identified as explosives. (Note: HMX and RDX are white powders.) Division does not find sealed weapons, not do they find facilities with broken seals. Leaves facility unsecured. (AP &

April 5th - Military experts say that because the al-Qaqaa site is so large, the search done by the 3rd Infantry Division was not thorough enough, and that further searches need to be done. (Washington Post)

April 9th - Earliest date the Iraqis have given for theft of the HE munitions. Date coincides with the fall of Baghdad, so presumably, this is the Iraqis way of blaming the U.S. occupying forces. They have given no facts to support this date, other than the materials went missing "due to lack of security." (White House Press Gaggle & CNN)

April 10th - NBC news reporters embedded with 101st Airborne found no signs of the HE munitions as they stopped at al-Qaqaa on their way to Baghdad. They searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings [out of 1000 structures, divided into 10 or more factories]. Leave the next day; site unsecured. (Washington Post & Washington Times)

Early April 2003 - Iraqi witnesses claim that the al-Qaqaa facility is the scene of rampant looting, after U.S. forces have come through. (NY Times)

May 2003 - J. Paul Bremer (head of U.S. occupation forces) informed of looting at al-Qaqaa weapons facility. (NY Times)

May 27th, 2003 - According to Pentagon sources, U.S. troops and Iraqis inspect al-Qaqaa site, and find no HE munitions or IAEA sealed weapons. (MSNBC via TPM)

Somewhere in between - Unconfirmed rumors that the DOD (U.S. Department of Defense) pressured the Iraqis to keep quiet about the missing HE munitions. (The Nelson Report via TPM; note: As far as I've been able to tell, no major news source has picked up on this, let alone confirmed it.)

Roughly 16 months pass before anything is done by either the U.S. or Iraqi officials to report the missing weapons.

Sep 30th, 2004 - Marines in Latifiyah fear Iraqi insurgents using weapons and ammunitions looted from nearby Al-Qaqaa complex (though not the type of HE munitions that went missing). (Chicago Trib)

Oct 10th, 2004 - Iraqi Interim Govt finally informs IAEA are the theft of the HE munitions. [Go straight to the PDF or IAEA website)

Oct 15th - The IAEA informs U.S. mission in Vienna, Austria of the missing munitions. (IAEA & NY Times)

Oct 15-24(?) - National Security Advisor to the president Condoeezza Rice “informed a few days” after the 15th. (CNN)

Oct 24th/25th - Bush wants to know what went wrong. (CNN)

Oct 25th - White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan claims U.S. did not know about the theft until the 15th of October -- President Bush until days later. McClellan also claims that the Pentagon has already directed the Iraqi survey group to look into the matter, and that they are currently doing as such. (White House Press Gaggle)

Oct 25th - Pentagon Spokesman Larry DiRita claims that it’s unclear when the explosives went missing (before or after the fall of Saddam). Warns that Saddam's regime had control of facility from the beginning of war until sometime in April 2003. (AFP)

Oct 25th - Anonymous Pentagon official claims explosives were intact in the aftermath of invasion, contradicting official Pentagon position and DiRita's claims. (AP)

Oct 26th - NBC news reporter embedded with army admits that 101st Airborne did not have time for exhaustive search of facility. (CNN & MSNBC via TPM)

Oct 26th - MSNBC follows up that no search was done by 101st airborne; reports that U.S. troops and Iraqi Survey group inspected al-Qaqaa site on May 27 and did not find explosives or weapons under IAEA seal. (MSNBC via TPM)

Oct 26th- CBS evening news reports that the Chief of the Iraqi Survey Group, Charlie Dulefer, has not been ordered to undergo an investigation of al-Qaqaa (conflicting with earlier reports by Press Secretary Scott McClellan who said that such an investigation was already under way). (CBS News via TPM)

Oct 27th - Iraqi official Mohammed al-Sharaa rejects White House claim that HE munitions went missing before the fall of Saddam’s regime. (AFP)

Oct 27th - Despite conflicting reports and contradictions from the White House and the Pentagon, FOX News believes that the HE munitions were gone by the time U.S. forces arrived. (FOX News)

So that's that for now. But the big issue in my mind is not when the HE munitions went missing, but why the White House is claiming ignorance until Oct 15th, 2004. If Paul Bremer and the Pentagon knew that the munitions were gone by May 2003, do you really believe they would not have informed the White House? And why did it take the Iraqis so long to report it to the IAEA? TMP sums it up:

Let's review for a moment. We have a dispute here about a window of time covering two to four weeks, say roughly from March 10th to April 10th 2003 at the longest. But it's an important few weeks because it was over this span of time that the region went from the control of Saddam's government to the US military.

If the Di Rita hypothesis rests on the claim that the first US troops that visited al Qa Qaa found that the explosives had already been stolen or looted or otherwise secreted away. (He has, in fact, already said this.) And that would mean that the US government has known the explosives were missing for some eighteen months.

The problem is that the White House has spent the entire day claiming that they knew nothing about this until ten days ago, October 15th. Scott McClellan said this repeatedly during his gaggle with reporters this morning. Indeed, he went on to say the following: "Now [i.e., after the notification on October 15th], the Pentagon, upon learning of this, directed the multinational forces and the Iraqi survey group to look into this matter, and that's what they are currently doing."

So McClellan says that the Pentagon only just learned about this. And that's why they only now assigned the Iraq Survey Group to examine what happened at al Qa Qaa.

But Di Rita says that the US government has known about it for 18 months.

So which is it?

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