WASHINGTON – The mystery over tons of missing explosives in Iraq turned Tuesday from a question of what happened to them to when they disappeared.
The United Nations' nuclear department, the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), warned Monday that insurgents may have stolen the 380 tons of conventional explosives — the kind used in the car bombing attacks that have killed many soldiers and bystanders in Iraq.
But senior Defense Department officials told FOX News they’re not sure whether looters made off with the explosives or whether Saddam moved them before the war began. NBC News reported Monday night that one of its reporters was embedded with the 101st Airborne. She watched the troops conduct what can be described as a "cursory search" of the premises on April 10, and found a great deal of conventional ordnance, but no RDX or HMX.
The embedded reporter, Lai Ling Jew, told cable news partner MSNBC on Tuesday that she stopped with the Second Brigade at the Al-Qaqaa facility, 30 miles south of Baghdad, and stayed there for 24 hours.
"The mission that the brigade had was to get to Baghdad. That was more of a pit stop there for us," she said. "And, you know, the searching, I mean certainly some of the soldiers head off on their own, looked through the bunkers just to look at the vast amount of ordnance lying around. But as far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away. But there was — at that point the roads were shut off. So it would have been very difficult, I believe, for the looters to get there."
The White House has played down the significance of the missing weapons, saying the NBC report shows the United States wasn’t responsible for the loss of the explosives. However, the question of when the explosives disappeared has become a political tool in the presidential campaign during its final week.
The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said that securing and accounting for the weapons was still the responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, especially since it isn’t clear when they disappeared.
Kerry accused Bush of "incredible incompetence" and his campaign said the administration "must answer for what may be the most grave and catastrophic mistake in a tragic series of blunders in Iraq."
"Despite devastating evidence that his administration's failure here has put our troops and our citizens are in greater danger, George Bush has not offered a single word of explanation. His silence confirms what I have been saying for months: President Bush rushed to war without a plan to win the peace," Kerry said in a statement on Tuesday.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei (search) reported the disappearance to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, two weeks after he said Iraq told the nuclear agency that the explosives had vanished from the former Iraqi military installation as a result of "theft and looting ... due to lack of security."
The disappearance raised questions about why the United States didn't do more to secure the facility and failed to allow full international inspections to resume after the March 2003 invasion.
In the aftermath of Saddam’s ouster, U.S. troops looked for weapons of mass destruction in a variety of locales, including Al-Qaqaa. U.S. commanders say the military had already destroyed or secured and prepared to destroy more than 400,000 tons of explosives, artillery shells, mines and ammunition.
IAEA inspectors visited the site in late 2002 and early 2003 before the war, sealing and tagging the stockpiles of “high explosives.”
In May 2003, members of the Iraq Survey Group (search), the CIA-led weapons inspection team, began work at Al-Qaqaa. It conducted 25 inspections, which covered 37 large bunkers and more than 80 other buildings. No IAEA-tagged high-explosive material was found.
Al-Qaqaa is near Youssifiyah, an area rife with ambush attacks. An Associated Press Television News crew that drove past the compound Monday saw no visible security at the gates of the site, a jumble of low-slung, yellow-colored storage buildings that appeared deserted.
"The most immediate concern here is that these explosives could have fallen into the wrong hands," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
The agency first placed a seal over Al-Qaqaa storage bunkers holding the explosives in 1991 as part of U.N. sanctions that ordered the dismantlement of Iraq's nuclear program after the Gulf War.
IAEA inspectors last saw the explosives in January 2003 when they took an inventory and placed fresh seals on the bunkers, Fleming said. Inspectors visited the site again in March 2003, but didn't view the explosives because the seals were not broken, she said.
Nuclear agency experts pulled out of Iraq just before the U.S.-led invasion later that month, and have not yet been able to return for general inspections despite ElBaradei's repeated urging that they be allowed to finish their work. Although IAEA inspectors have made two trips to Iraq since the war at U.S. requests, Russia and other Security Council members have pressed for their full-time return — so far unsuccessfully.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said coalition forces were present in the vicinity of the site both during and after major combat operations, which ended May 1, 2003 — and searched the facility but found none of the explosives material in question. That raised the possibility that the explosives had disappeared before U.S. soldiers could secure the site in the immediate invasion aftermath.
The Pentagon would not say whether it had informed the nuclear agency at that point that the conventional explosives were not where they were supposed to be.
Saddam's regime used Al-Qaqaa as a key part of its effort to build a nuclear bomb. Although the missing materials are conventional explosives known as HMX and RDX, the Vienna-based IAEA became involved because HMX is a "dual use" substance powerful enough to ignite the fissile material in an atomic bomb and set off a nuclear chain reaction.
Both are key components in plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex, which are so powerful that Libyan terrorists needed just a pound to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 170 people.
Insurgents targeting coalition forces in Iraq have made widespread use of plastic explosives in a bloody spate of car bomb attacks. Officials were unable to link the missing explosives directly to the recent car bombings, but the revelations that they could have fallen into enemy hands caused a stir in the last week of the U.S. presidential campaign.
"These explosives can be used to blow up airplanes, level buildings, attack our troops and detonate nuclear weapons," senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said in a statement. "The Bush administration knew where this stockpile was, but took no action to secure the site."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the administration's first concern was whether the disappearance constituted a nuclear proliferation threat. He said it did not.
"We have destroyed more than 243,000 munitions" in Iraq, he said. "We've secured another nearly 163,000 that will be destroyed."
McClellan said the IAEA informed the U.S. mission in Vienna on Oct. 15 about the missing explosives at Al-Qaqaa. He said National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice was notified "days after that," and she then informed President Bush.
ElBaradei told the council the agency had been trying to give the U.S.-led multinational force and Iraq's interim government "an opportunity to attempt to recover the explosives before this matter was put into the public domain."
But since the disappearance was reported Monday in The New York Times, ElBaradei said he wanted the Security Council to have the letter dated Oct. 10 that he received from Mohammed J. Abbas, a senior official at Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology, reporting the theft of 377 tons of explosives.
The letter from Abbas informed the IAEA that since April 9, 2003, looting at the Al-Qaqaa installation had resulted in the loss of 215 tons of HMX, 156 tons of RDX and six tons of PETN explosives.
Diplomats said there was nothing to suggest that ElBaradei, who had irritated the Bush administration before the war by insisting there was no evidence that Saddam had revived his nuclear program, had intended to keep the report a secret until after the Nov. 2 election.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.