WASHINGTON – A U.S. Army officer came forward Friday to say a team from the 3rd Infantry Division took about 250 tons of munitions and other material from the Al-Qaqaa (search) arms-storage facility soon after Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003.
Maj. Austin Pearson said at a Pentagon news conference that he was tasked in the days after the fall of the Iraqi regime with a mission to secure and destroy ammunition and explosives. He led a 25-man team called Task Force Bullet.
His comments were the latest twist into the mystery of what happened to 377 tons of explosives that the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) reported missing from Al-Qaqaa. The IAEA reported the matter to the United Nations on Monday and said it feared that looters may have stolen the explosives.
The issue also has dominated much of the presidential campaign in its final full week. To read more about the political impact, click here.
Pearson's team arrived at Al-Qaqaa on April 13, 2003, 10 days after U.S. forces first reached the site and four days after Saddam went into hiding. This was the same time that the 101st Airborne Division had secured Al-Qaqaa and the surrounding area.
According to Pearson, the team removed 250 tons of material including TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords and munitions. He arrived at that estimate because he said the team used nine truck-trailer combinations that each could carry 33 tons of material.
While Pearson could not characterize the tonnage of plastic explosives his team removed and he could not remember seeing any IAEA tags on the bunkers, he said plastic explosives taken from the site were used to detonate thousands of tons of other munitions collected further north in Baghdad.
Pearson also described the area around Al-Qaqaa, which the Army called “Objective Elms.”
"At the time when I was in Objective Elms, that area was very pacified where there wasn't a lot of civilians in the area at that time. If they were, they were very respectful to U.S. forces. They were very respectful to us. I didn't see any hostilities at that location at that time,” he told reporters.
Pentagon officials conceded that Pearson’s description did not answer all the questions about the missing explosives.
"I can't say RDX that was on the list of IAEA is what the major pulled out,” said Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita. “We believe that some of the things they were pulling out of there were RDX."
He also said that the IAEA has not come forward with documentation that explains how it arrived at the figure of 377 tons of missing explosives. The IAEA so far only has verified in its paperwork that 219 tons of explosive materials were at Al-Qaqaa and surrounding facilities.
Di Rita said that the major's disclosure was a potentially significant development in unraveling the mystery. "We've described what we know, and as we know more we'll describe that," said Di Rita.
New Videotape Seems to Show Explosives
Pearson's story came the morning after new videotape surfaced supporting the contention that the explosives were still at the base following Saddam's fall.
Videotape shot by a Minnesota television crew traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq on April 18, 2003 shows what appeared to be high explosives still in barrels bearing IAEA seals.
The video was taken by a reporter and cameraman employed by KSTP, an ABC affiliate in St. Paul. It was broadcast nationally Thursday on the ABC national network.
"The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al-Qaqaa," David A. Kay, the former American official who directed the hunt in Iraq for unconventional weapons and visited the site, told The New York Times. "The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn't use seals on anything. So I'm absolutely sure that's an IAEA seal."
The Pentagon late Thursday released a satellite photograph of Al-Qaqaa taken on March 17, 2003, just before the war. It showed showing several bunkers, one with two tractor-trailers next to it.
Senior Defense officials said their photo shows that the Al-Qaqaa facility "was not hermetically sealed" after international weapons inspectors had paid their last visits to the facility earlier in the month.
Officials were analyzing the image and others for clues into when the nearly 380 tons of explosives were taken. The munitions included HMX and RDX, key components in plastic explosives, which insurgents in Iraq have used in bomb attacks.
The Pentagon insisted that the image shows the Iraqis were moving something at the site before the first U.S.-launched bombs fell.
Meanwhile, an IAEA report obtained by FOX News said the inspectors noted that despite the fact that the Al-Qaqaa bunkers were locked, ventilation shafts remained open and provided easy access to the explosives.
The IAEA can definitively say only that the documented ammunition was at the facility in January; in March, an agency spokesman conceded, inspectors only checked the locked bunker doors.
The question of what happened to the explosives has become a major issue in the closing days of the 2004 presidential campaign.
Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry says the missing explosives — powerful enough to demolish a building, bring down a jetliner or even trigger a nuclear weapon — are another example of the Bush administration's poor planning and incompetence in handling the war in Iraq.
President Bush says the explosives were possibly removed by Saddam's forces before the invasion.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld entered the debate Thursday, suggesting the 377 tons of explosives were taken away before U.S. forces arrived, saying any large effort to loot the material afterward would have been detected.
"We would have seen anything like that," he said in one of two radio interviews he gave at the Pentagon. "The idea it was suddenly looted and moved out, all of these tons of equipment, I think is at least debatable."
The bunker with the trucks parked next to it in the Pentagon's image is not one known to have contained any of the missing explosives, and Defense spokesman Di Rita said Thursday the image only shows that there was some Iraqi activity at the base on March 17.
Di Rita acknowledged that the image says nothing about what happened to the explosives.
Rumsfeld, in one radio interview, also cast doubt on the suggestion by one of his subordinates that Russian soldiers assisted Iraqis in removing the munitions.
The Washington Times on Thursday quoted John A. Shaw, the deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, who said he believed Russian special-forces personnel, working with Iraqi intelligence, "almost certainly" removed the high-explosive material from Al-Qaqaa.
Shaw said he believed the munitions were moved to Syria in the weeks before the March 2003 invasion.
Senior Defense officials urged caution over the Washington Times article because they could not verify its allegations as true.
"I have no information on that at all, and cannot validate that even slightly," Rumsfeld said.
The article prompted an angry denial from Moscow.
At the core of the issue is whether the explosives were moved before or after U.S. forces reached that part of the country in early April.
No one has been able to provide conclusive evidence either way, although Iraqi officials blamed the munitions' disappearance on poor U.S. security after Baghdad fell.
The Pentagon has said it is looking into the matter, and officials note that 400,000 tons of recovered Iraqi munitions have either been destroyed or are slated to be destroyed.
FOX News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.