By Dana Lewis – Revelations that more than 380 tons of conventional explosives have disappeared in Iraq have raised questions about what Army unit went to the Al-Qaqaa (search) military facility south of Baghdad. The answer — the 101st Airborne's strike brigade.
I was the only embedded reporter with the 2nd Brigade of the 101st as it moved north toward Baghdad last year.
As the 101st pushed North after fighting its way through Karbala and Najaf, the brigade was ordered to wait for new operational orders in Al-Qaqaa on April 10, 2003.
It was a huge walled compound with one section of the wall running for what looked like a mile or more.
And it was sealed — sealed in the sense that when we arrived, no one was inside. There were dozens of abandoned Iraqi tanks on outside the compound but no looters and no people inside.
We walked around dozens of concrete bunkers that were still closed. Many still had padlocks on the doors and in another section we saw dozens and dozens of rockets, most of them damaged from U.S. air strikes.
Some of the bunkers also had taken bomb strikes and had gaping holes. I saw no tags left by the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) used to seal the explosives, but we were never told what to look for and they could have been there.
The 101st did some cursory checks for weapons of mass destruction. Soldiers found signs of WMD so they left most of the bunkers sealed and said they'd be checked later.
It was not the 101st's mission to seal the base or stay with the bunkers, said Col. Joseph Anderson, the commander of the 101st 2nd Brigade. In fact, I was in the battle planning meetings of the 101st and no one mentioned possible high-grade explosives that had been stored there.
While Anderson often told me it was his mission to secure WMD if they were found, his prime mission was regime change — making sure that Saddam Hussein and his followers were driven from power. That's why the 101st didn't secure this facility of several others the soldiers found as they fought their way north to Baghdad.
Was that a mistake in battle planning? It's a debate for politicians and historians but commanders on the ground believed that once Saddam and his top lieutenants were captured or killed, all details of hidden weapons would become known anyway. Obviously this compound is one mystery that hasn't been resolved and it's more than just ammunition for a political debate — the explosives could be used against American or coalition soldiers or the wobbly interim Iraqi government.
We slept overnight there. After about 24 hours, the brigade got new orders to push on to Baghdad.