The U.N. nuclear watchdog this week alerted the Security Council that up to 377 tons of powerful explosives was missing from the Al-Qaqaa facility. The Iraqi government said the material was lost to looting due to poor security after the U.S. invasion. U.S. commanders acknowledged that when troops visited the site in April 2003, they did not conduct an extensive search for weapons.
The missing explosives have become an issue on the .
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry claims the Bush administration failed to secure the weapons, endangering U.S. troops.
The administration has countered that the explosives might have been looted before troops arrived.
A story in The Washington Times on Thursday quoted a high-ranking U.S. defense official alleging that Russian special forces had "almost certainly" helped spirit out the hundreds of tons of high explosives. The newspaper based its report on an interview with John Shaw, the deputy U.S. undersecretary of defense for international technology security.
Russia angrily denied the allegations. Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov dismissed the allegations as "absurd" and "ridiculous."
"I can state officially that the Russian Defense Ministry and its structures couldn't have been involved in the disappearance of the explosives, because all Russian military experts left Iraq when the international sanctions were introduced during the 1991 Gulf War," he told The Associated Press.
Martin reports that the trucks seen on satellite photos could have been at the site for any number of reasons having nothing to do with hauling away the explosives. The Pentagon is trying to correlate the specific geographic coordinates of those bunkers where the explosives were stored with these satellite photos to see if there is evidence that trucks were parked outside those bunkers.
Meanwhile, an infantry commander said Wednesday it is "very highly improbable" that someone could have trucked out so much material once U.S. forces arrived in the area.
Col. David Perkins commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, the division that led the charge into Baghdad. Two major roads that pass near the Al-Qaqaa installation were filled with U.S. military traffic in the weeks after April 3, 2003, when U.S. troops first reached the area, the colonel said.
Perkins and others in the military acknowledged that some looting at the site had taken place. But he said a large-scale operation to remove the explosives using trucks almost certainly would have been detected.
However, three Iraqis claim to have witnessed wide-scale looting of the site in the days after U.S. troops moved through, according to The New York Times.
The first U.S. military units to reach the Al-Qaqaa installation did not have orders to search for the explosives.
"We were still in a fight," said the commander of the unit that was first to arrive in the area, in an interview with Martin.
"Our focus was killing bad guys," he continued, adding that he would have needed four times as many troops to search and secure all the ammo dumps his troops came across during the push into Iraq.
Mike McCurry, an adviser to Kerry, said, "From some of the Pentagon reporting today, there is a window that's available there where either just prior to or just after the invasion, there could have been an opportunity for either Saddam to move the weapons or for something happening after that facility had been abandoned.
"And that is up to the administration to best determine how to answer that question when that happened. But they don't have an answer, and that's what we're asking for," McCurry said.
The explosives were known to be housed in storage bunkers at Al-Qaqaa. U.N. nuclear inspectors placed fresh seals over the bunker doors in January 2003. The inspectors visited Al-Qaqaa for the last time that March 15 and reported that the seals were not broken. The team then pulled out of the country before the invasion, which started March 20.
ABC News reports that the unbroken IAEA seals may not offer proof that the explosives were there in March 2003, because there were unsealed potential entry points to the bunkers. ABC also reports discrepancies in IAEA documents over exactly how much explosive material was stored at Al-Qaqaa.
Meanwhile, an armed group claimed in a video obtained Thursday to have obtained the explosives and warned that if foreign troops threaten Iraqi cities.
At the end of a tight presidential race dominated by national security issues both campaigns have raced to address the question of when the explosives went missing and whether they should have been better secured.
The Democratic nominee has seized on the story as proof of his contention that President Bush has mismanaged the war.
"The missing explosives could very likely be in the hands of terrorists and insurgents, who are actually attacking our forces now 80 times a day on average," Kerry said in Iowa.
For his part, Mr. Bush is depicting Kerry's criticism as another example of what the Republicans have said are traits that make the senator a poor choice to lead a nation at war.
"A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief," Mr. Bush told supporters Wednesday. "The senator is denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts."