NEW YORK – The release of a U.N. agency report that said 377 tons of high explosives were missing from an Iraqi military facility has roiled the presidential campaign, but the United Nations' chief nuclear inspector said the report was not politically motivated.
Mohamed ElBaradei (search), the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has had a testy relationship with Washington since the run-up to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, insists that his agency was not trying to drop a political bomb on President Bush (search).
"Absolutely not," he told FOX News, when asked if the IAEA's report was deliberately timed to coincide with the election. ElBaradei went on to insist that his agency has no dog in next week's presidential contest.
Earlier this month, a senior Iraqi official alerted the IAEA that the explosives had disappeared from the Al-Qaqaa (search) arms storage facility. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was also reportedly notified earlier this month.
The IAEA says it has warned the Bush administration since before the war that a Saddam-free Iraq could become a weapons free-for-all.
While U.S. officials did not publicly confirm the explosives had gone missing until after a New York Times report on Monday, the IAEA has had the letter from the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology for nearly three weeks. ElBaredei made a report to the U.N. Security Council on the matter Monday.
ElBaradei dismissed the notion that his agency purposely sat on the information until closer to the election, saying that he had in fact wanted to "give the U.S. government a chance to retrieve the explosives before the issue was public."
The IAEA chief also denied he was embarrassed to be caught in the middle of the firestorm that has since erupted between the president and Sen. John Kerry (search).
"It's unfortunate [there is] such political hype, which is their own choosing," he told FOX News.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, ElBaradei and his U.N. colleague Hans Blix (search) took few pains to disguise their anger at the Bush administration for its perceived impatience with the weapons inspections process. In turn, Washington accused ElBaradei of working sluggishly in Iraq when he failed to turn up nuclear material.
The last time the IAEA knew with certainty the contents of the Al-Qaqaa bunkers was in January of 2003, when its inspectors logged all the explosives there. The IAEA action report, which was obtained by FOX News, placed the inventory of HMX and RDX explosives at Al-Qaqaa at 221 tons – not 377 tons, as the IAEA reported Monday.
The IAEA believes the explosives were taken after Saddam Hussein was driven from power, possibly by looters or terrorists, but U.S. officials maintain the explosives were already gone before U.S. troops arrived at Al-Qaqaa shortly before Saddam's defeat.
The Bush administration may have recently gotten support for their claim. Maj. Austin Pearson on Friday announced that a team from his 3rd Infantry Division had destroyed about 250 tons of munitions and other material from the Al-Qaqaa facility after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
While the Pentagon acknowledges it still has not solved the mystery of the missing explosives, it believes Pearson's testimony helps explain what happened to them.
FOX News' Jonathan Hunt contributed to this report.