Reporter's Notebook: Weapons Galore

When I heard the news about some 380 tons of dangerous HMX and RDX explosives disappearing from the Al Qaqaa (search) military installation south of Baghdad I had just one reaction: Tell me something I don't know. This being my fifth visit to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, I long ago learned this whole country is one big dangerous weapons bazaar.

Weapons of mass destruction (search) were never the problem. The "Mass of Destroying (conventional) Weapons" is the real deadly foe facing the United States as it tries to rein in things here and protect our fighting men and women. And the fact the stuff was out there for anybody to grab is the real problem.

I remembered one hot, dusty morning in the summer of 2003. I was spending time with Lt. Col Steve Russell of the 4th Infantry Division out of Tikrit. At the end of a long night of raids we stopped by the house of a guy who was supposed to be one of the unit's best sources.

For some reason, one of Col. Russell's men wandered back to a large shed behind the house. He discovered an AK-47 automatic rifle. And then another. Then another. I think the guys pulled out about 200 guns from the shed.

Then — and I don't know how one of Russell's resourceful guys thought of doing this — a soldier literally "rooted" out big slabs of something wrapped in plastic buried in the guy's orchard. It turned out the stuff inside was a plastic explosive, the type of thing that's "gone missing" at Al Qaqaa. The kind of thing that can be fashioned into IEDs that mangle legs and arms of American forces here.

The point of that story is not that you have to be a friend of Saddam (which this guy was) to have a pile of arms and explosives, but that anybody here can get what they want. Saddam literally spent billions on weaponry and stashed it away in bases, weapons stores and police stations.

During the days and months following the fall of the regime it was open season. I came to Iraq just a few days after Saddam was finished. Looters were still pushing supermarket carts full of bad stuff taken from unwatched government facilities. When I was nosing around the headquarters of Saddam's version of the CIA, the Mukhabbarat, in Baghdad, so were a few dozen kids looking to find guns or anything else for fun and games — and killing.

And that's what happened at Al Qaqaa. I'd actually been there in February of 2003. A desperate Iraqi regime had brought a bunch of reporters to the site, which the United States had said contained prohibited weapons. We didn't see any. But we did see piles of missiles, which could do real harm in the wrong hands.

And, no doubt, in one of the many bunkers we passed, lay those couple hundred of tons of explosives that are now missing, according to the Iraqi interim government.

I called the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, to get more details. I asked spokesman Mark Gwozdecky if the agency was concerned, since the stolen material can be fashioned to trigger atomic weapons or used for more conventional attacks. There was a pause on the end of the line. Then he caught himself and said, "Of course we're concerned."

Understatement. The regular drumbeat of press releases form the U.S. military is of "finds" of weapons caches. What each successive wave of American military that comes here is finding is that the place is another branch of Guns 'R' Us.

In the days when Western reporters could still roam freely I would stroll though markets here. You could buy anything: Chinese fans, toothpaste and machine guns. Well, the toothpaste is out of the tube. The explosives have already been snatched from Al Qaqaa and other places. Now it's coming back to haunt the U.S. military and everybody else here trying to rebuild the country.

Weapon buy-back programs like the one that just wrapped up in Baghad's Sadr City are impressive. Five million dollars paid out and 19,000 landmines turned in. But according to many who were there, including the U.S. military up until the last few days of the drive, the weaponry given up was less for the bang and more for the bucks.

Much good "bad" stuff, no doubt, was stashed away in cupboards and closets, laying in wait for the next U.S. convoy. Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) has recently announced a nationwide extension of the weapons buy-back program. Why do I think no one is going to be turning over the 380 tons of explosives from Al Qaqaa? Or if they do, why do I think someone else has another 380 tons explosives ready for other evil use?