The Missing Munitions

  E-mail Rick!

Oct. 26, 2004 5:11 pm

I've been reading and hearing a lot about the missing explosives from the Al-Qaqaa military installation in Iraq.  It’s a disturbing story, but doesn't surprise me.  Not one bit.

I don't know who is to blame for the materials not being safeguarded or destroyed at that location, or if they were actually still there when U.S. troops arrived on scene last April, but I do know this: a trip across that country revealed one huge weapons depot after another.  There were more missiles, mortars, guns, grenades, and ammo in Iraq than you could ever possibly imagine.  The stuff was everywhere: in schools, hospitals, mosques, bunkers, abandoned buildings, holes in the ground, and homes under construction.  Locating, disabling, and destroying the stuff was a priority for the Marines we were with, but the task was ridiculously challenging.

When I was embedded with the Marines in the 3rd LAR and 2/23 (2nd Battalion/ 23rd Marines) we were constantly coming across weapons and ammo caches.  The military wasn't IGNORING the issue.  The Army and Marines were actively seeking out the stockpiles, and trying to dispose of the stuff whenever and wherever possible.  But this wasn't a simple job.

A recent AP story quoted former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright as saying, "There was an utter lack of curiosity to follow up on what was well-known to the U.N.," calling it "...a systematic failure of the military, which overran the country and left all these explosives behind without protecting its rear...The military should have had the sense to either secure high explosives and armaments or blow them up as they went through."

From my experience, that's exactly what the military DID do, and this is an unfair and inaccurate criticism.  I’m not here to apologize for the Army or Marines or anyone else, but I saw the discovery of explosives and armaments firsthand, and saw how the military responded in a variety of different ways.

When we came across armored vehicles, tanks, missile launchers and other heavy fighting equipment in the fields or desert, the Marines would insure the guns were disabled and couldn't be used to kill again.  They either rigged the tanks with C-4 or other explosives and blew them up, or fired on them with explosive rounds from 25mm chainguns or other heavy weapons to put the enemy fighting tools out of commission.  When missiles, mortars, or other caches of weapons were found, the Marines would collect them themselves, if possible, or call on follow-on forces to blow them up, or pick them up and transport them to a central, specified location. Here the materials were piled up and a timed charge could be set to destroy them. 

When we got to Baghdad and set up camp with the 2/23 at an old Republican Guard compound, there were explosions on the hour and half hour pretty much every single day.  The Marines would pile up a portion of what they collected in a field next to the base, a warning would be issued, and the cries of "fire in the hole" would ring out, just before the mushroom cloud and clap of thunder announced the detonation, quickly and inevitably followed by a literal rainstorm of metal — chunks of shrapnel raining down on rooftops, vehicles, and our outdoor living and sleeping area.  Our engineer was sitting under a tarp with his laptop during one of the first such controlled blasts, and a large piece of smoking-hot metal sliced right through the canvas and slapped into the ground right next to him as other razor-sharp bits clanked off the corrugated metal roof we'd taken cover under across the road, several hundred yards away from the detonation site.  They would ignite a few hundred pounds or a few thousand rounds at a time, but this was difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming work, and they were only getting to small fractions of what was uncovered.

Remember, Saddam was known to have collected large amounts of VX and other deadly chemicals and was thought to have experimented with arming missiles and other weapons with the poisons.   For this reason, caches that were found had to be tested for the presence of the chemicals, adding another layer of caution, delays, and potential risk.

Mostly, it was the sheer volume of munitions that created a constant challenge, forcing difficult choices to be made on a daily basis.  There were so many of these weapons caches in so many places that it appeared nearly impossible to handle them all.  If there was no other duty except to locate, secure, disable, or destroy the stuff, then perhaps the Marines and other forces could've done it.  But new piles were being reported and located constantly, even as authorities were trying to figure out what to do with the stuff they'd already collected.  Much of it was stored by Saddam's forces in heavily populated areas, which created even greater problems.  For example, the Marines took us to several elementary schools in east Baghdad where classrooms had been emptied of desks and chairs and filled with hundreds of cases of grenades, large caliber machine gun rounds, mortars, and RPGs, literally stacked floor to ceiling, filling room after room.  Behind the school in the parking lot there were several large truck trailers also packed to the brim with cases of the deadly cargo. 

The Marines explained to us the dilemma they faced.  They couldn't detonate the stockpile at the school because A) it would destroy the school and B) it was in a heavily populated neighborhood and many people would be killed and many homes and businesses damaged or wiped out.  They couldn't simply drive the stuff out, either, without great risk.  What if they hooked up one of the trailers to a rig and drove it out and down the street and they came under attack?  If enemy fighters knew they were moving the stuff and fired on the convoy, the resulting explosion could kill dozens or even hundreds of innocent bystanders on the road or on the sidewalk or in nearby buildings.  And the Marines were also worried about posting military guards at the school, for a similar reason.  What if someone fired on the school, knowing the Marines were there, in an attempt to kill them?  The result would be devastating for the community.  There was also the issue of having enough trucks and manpower and time available to load up all of the thousands of cases and safely move them somewhere else.  Remember, this was just one school.  There were hundreds and hundreds of other sites just like it in and around Baghdad.

Also remember there was still a war going on.  The military was still engaged in firefights on a daily basis.  They were still trying to get the infrastructure working again, going to power plants and sewage treatment facilities, trying to deliver food and water to residents and get the garbage cleaned up.  They were trying to clear roads and rebuild bridges and get schools and hospitals up and running, while also trying to track down and capture or kill Saddam and his top guys still on the run.  The munitions dumps were one of many needs requiring attention.

I think in the end, at the elementary school I mentioned, the troops left it up to local security guards to keep looters away until a safe solution could be found.  I think the plan was to move the munitions in a heavily-protected convoy, but I’m not sure if or when they were able to do that, because our embed ended soon after.  What I DO know is that anyone who thinks getting rid of all that stuff was as easy as picking it up or blowing it up where it was found is flat-out wrong. 

This was a country that apparently thought it was more important to buy and stockpile weapons than food and water and medicine and learning materials.  They had a seemingly endless supply of guns and ammo and explosives.  The U.S. forces I observed were aware of the problem and gave it high priority.  They were angry at all they found, and frustrated at the difficulties faced in getting rid of the stuff and making Iraq a safer place, but that's exactly what they were tasked to do.

[Click the video tab in the upper right to watch Leventhal's reports.]

Great story Mr. Leventhal.  I admired your work when you were embedded in Iraq and also when you were in Charleston, WV on the shootings happening here.  Keep up the work and keep the "truth" out there.  We don't get much of that from the networks!
— Bev (Charleston, WV)


Thank you for your eyewitness report here of what you saw in Iraq. I wish that you and the other "embeds" could do a special report on this topic before election day. I wish that your story could be printed in other media outlets. Is that too much to wish for?

— Cherrie

Mr. Leventhal,
Thank you for your story, I found it to be very informative.
It's very nice to get a first-hand account of the activity which does not try to denigrate the actions of the military. I've been following the story and have heard statements made by irresponsible people which I believe are misleading and uninformed.
I also believe that anyone who witnessed the actions of the military personnel would say that they did their best.
Thanks again,
— Scott (Ft. Polk)


Thanks for telling it like it is.  I was there also and was amazed at the amount of ammunition everywhere.  In Al-Kut I saw 20 ft containers full of RPGs, pockets of bomblets all around the base, and a stack of small munitions that was about 4 ft high, 3-4 ft wide, and about 50 ft long.  The American people just don't understand the complexity of securing these places.  Keep up the honest work.

Hello Mr. Leventhal,
I just finished reading your commentary about the supposed missing munitions in Iraq. This is just one of the many reasons I watch FOX News for my fair and balanced information. I'm a news-addict but what a great time to be one! Thank you for all your hard work and the risks you take in getting us junkies information.
Addicted in Colorado!

Since you have returned I still remain a fan. I am so happy to see you write about your experience in Iraq and how the military responded to weapons dumps. There are not enough true journalists anymore, these writers and talking heads report whatever they are force-fed. I am so sick of the mainstream media, it saddens me there there is no more investigative journalists out there.

— Enzo (Long Island, NY)