Arms Looters Outnumbered Troops

A U.S. soldier checks the radiation level of a canister containing "yellow cake," or uranium oxide, which was looted during the war from the nuclear facility in Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad, and being brought back for safekeeping in the sprawling complex, June 24, 2003. AP

Explosives were looted from the Al-Qaqaa ammunitions site in Iraq while outnumbered U.S. soldiers assigned to guard the materials watched helplessly, soldiers told the Los Angeles Times.

About a dozen U.S. troops were guarding the sprawling facility in the weeks after the April 2003 fall of Baghdad when Iraqi looters raided the site, the newspaper quoted a group of unidentified soldiers as saying. U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsmen witnessed the looting and some soldiers sent messages to commanders in Baghdad requesting help, but received no reply, they said.

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

The eyewitness accounts reported by the Times are the first provided by U.S. soldiers and bolster claims that the U.S. military had failed to safeguard the powerful explosives, the newspaper said.

Iraqi officials told the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency last month that about 380 tons of high-grade explosives, a type powerful enough to detonate a nuclear weapon, had been taken from the Al-Qaqaa facility.

Soldiers who belong to two different units described how Iraqis snatched explosives from unsecured bunkers and drove off with them in pickup trucks.

The soldiers who spoke to the Times asked to remain unidentified, saying they feared retaliation from the Pentagon.

The soldiers said they could not confirm that looters took the particularly powerful explosives known as HMX and RDX. One soldier, however, said U.S. forces saw looters load trucks with bags marked "hexamine," which is a key ingredient for HMX.

One senior noncommissioned officer said troops "were running from one side of the compound to the other side, trying to kick people out" and that at least 100 vehicles were at the site waiting for the military to leave so that they could loot the munitions.

The Pentagon has offered accounts that suggest the explosives were removed before the U.S.-led invasion to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and not during the chaos following the fall of Baghdad.

A Pentagon statement last week said the removal of the explosives would have required dozens of heavy trucks moving along the same roads as U.S. combat divisions.

The missing explosives became a campaign issue with Sen. John Kerry claiming it was further evidence of the Bush administration's poor handling of the war.

Four soldiers who are members of the Germany-based 317th Support Center and the 258th Rear Area Operations Center, an Arizona-based Army National Guard unit, said the looting happened over several weeks in late April and early May 2003.

Asked about the soldiers' accounts, Pentagon spokeswoman Rose-Ann Lynch told the newspaper: "We take the report of missing munitions very seriously. And we are looking into the facts and circumstances of this incident."
  • John Esterbrook

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