Al Qaqaa Weapons Cache
On October 25, 2004 the New York Times reported here the disappearance of 380 tons (about 345 metric tons) of powerful conventional explosives from an Iraqi military facility south of Baghdad. According to the report, the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had been informed within the preceding month about the disappearance. White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year. (The New York Times, October 25, 2004, Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq)
The explosives are referred to as HMX High melting explosives and RDX cyclonite or hexogen. HMX and RDX are white powders in their pure form. (See section below on the explosives for more technical information and remarks on the meanings of he acronyms.)
Prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the HMX had been sealed and tagged with the IAEA emblem while being stored at Al Qaqaa.
Iraq was permitted to keep some of its explosives for mining purposes after the IAEA completed its dismantling of Saddam's covert nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Gulf war.
According to Reuters , diplomats at the IAEA in Vienna said the IAEA had warned the United States about the danger of the explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told U.S. officials about the need to keep the them secured.
The Al Qaqaa facility was well-known even before the first Gulf war as a center for nuclear weapons research. It was also known that large amounts of conventional explosives were stored there. These conventional explosives came under IAEA purview since they could be used as triggers for nuclear devices. Much of the current controversy centers around the timeline of events at al Qaqaa, specifically the events that occurred after IAEA inspectors left and before the first U. S. troops arrived.
In January 2003, IAEA inspectors viewed and inventoried the explosives at Al-Qaqaa for the last time. They placed fresh seals over the bunker doors. On March 15, 2003 inspectors visited Al-Qaqaa for the last time but apparently did not examine the explosives because according to their report, the seals on the bunker doors were not broken. The visit to Al Qaqaa on January 14, 2003 is documented here in a composite document supplied by FOXNews.
According to many reports (see Wall Street Journal, October 28) U. S. satellites were monitoring Iraqi weapons sites before the invasion. No satellite images indicating movement of material from Al Qaqaa have been reported.
The first U . S. unit to arrive at the site, on April 3, 2003 was the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. The commander of this unit, Col Dave Perkins was reported in a Reuters report  and in a DOD news release  to have said his unit did not carry out a hunt for such material.
The 101st Airborne arrived al Qaqaa later, on April 10 after the fall of Baghdad. NBC correspondent Lai Ling Jew, an embed with th 101st also told MSNBC, "there wasn't a search" of Al-Qaqaa by her unit.
The current controversy began with a communication to the IAEA received on October 10 from Mohammed Abbas, the "General Director of Planning and Following Up" of the Ministry of Science and Technology of Iraq itemizing the lost explosives. This letter is an annex to the document linked here. On previous occasions (the last one being on October 1) the IAEA had sent letters to the U. N. Security Council raising the issue of the systematic dismantlement and looting of sites that had been under its supervision. (October 28, 2004, The Wall Street Journal, Looting Suspected at Iraq Arms Site, David S. Cloud and Carla Anne Robbins).
It is now becoming increasingly clear that this is only a small part of the disappearance of dangerous materials (not only explosives and other weapons, but biohazardous medical material) from sites that were left unguarded during and immediately after the fall of Saddam's regime , , .. According to remarks by David Kay reported by the Boston Globe , as of late fall 2003, that is months after the dissolution of the Iraq army, more than 100 large ammunition storage points throughout Iraq were still unsecured. These sites contained everything from conventional bombs to artillery shells and rockets.
News and Sources
The Los Angeles Times  gives eyewitness accounts by U.S. soldiers of looters carting explosives away from the Al Qaqaa site on pickup trucks, several weeks after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The soldiers said they were outnumbered by looters and were unable to prevent the looting. This report casts doubt on previous claims by the DOD that they had cleared the site of most of the dangerous material. One soldier is quoted as saying
- "On our last day there, there were at least 100 vehicles waiting at the site for us to leave".
(Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2004, Soldiers Describe Looting of Explosives, Mark Mazzetti.)
The New York Times  reports an interview with four Iraqis who witnessed (and may have participated in) the looting of the Al Qaqaa munitions depot. Two of those Iraqis were employees at the Al Qaqaa site before the war. All tell the same story - that after the 101st left the site (on April 10-11), looters moved in en masse and stripped the entire place clean in the space of a couple of weeks. Locals rented trucks and other vehicles to looters, heavy machinery, paperwork, computers, and (presumably) any and all munitions were removed. (New York Times, October 28, 2004, Iraqis Tell of Looting at Munitions Site in '03, James Glanz and Jim Dwyer)
The New York Times  quotes Col. Joseph Anderson, the Commander of 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborn, as saying the 101st went through Al Qaqaa on April 9th-10th, did not check the bunkers and had no idea the site was sensitive or important. According to Anderson there was no sign of looting at the site, adding
- "Looting was going on in Baghdad, and we were rushing on to Baghdad. We were marshaling in."
(New York Times, October 27, No Check of Bunker, Unit Commander Says,Jim Dwyer and David Sanger)
Extensive report and interviews, including a very blunt-spoken David Kay in the Boston Globe detailing the timeline, the looting, the causes (miscommunication and administrative incompetence), and the implications of this incident. Yahoo News has a report regarding the looting and the use of similar materials in ongoing IED and car bomb attacks in Iraq.
Numerous reports listed below confirm that this site was visited by U. S. troops in April 2003.
- At the Pentagon, an official who monitors developments in Iraq said US-led coalition troops had searched Al-Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives, which had been under IAEA seal since 1991, were intact. Thereafter the site was not secured by U.S. forces, the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
- The AP reported on April 5, 2003 that the US military thought it had encountered signs of chemical weapons (SanDeigo Online and a similar report on FOX News):
- On Friday, troops at a training facility in the western Iraqi desert came across a bottle labeled "tabun," a nerve gas and chemical weapon Iraq is banned from possessing. There was no immediate confirmation whether the substance was indeed tabun.
- Closer to Baghdad, troops at Iraq's largest military industrial complex found nerve agent antidotes, documents describing chemical warfare and a white powder that appeared to be used for explosives.
- Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said troops found thousands of 2-inch-by-5-inch boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare.
- Initial reports suggest the powder is an explosive, but tests are still being done, a senior U.S. official said. If confirmed, it would be consistent with what the Iraqis say is the plant's purpose, producing explosives and propellants.
- The Western Mail (Cardiff) reported on April 5, 2003:
- Nerve agent antidote and Arabic documents on how to wage chemical warfare were also found at the Latifiyah industrial complex. "It is clearly a suspicious site," said Col John Peabody, an engineer brigade commander with the 3rd Infantry Division, who were the first Allied troops to reach the site 25 miles south of the capital.
- The Latifiyah industrial complex is one of the facilities at Al Qaqaa. The article specifically refers to a comment by a senior US official:
- "Initial reports are that the material is probably just explosives, but we're still going through the place."
- A similar report in The Scotsman, Chemical threat: White powder found at industrial site April 5, 2003 states:
- The powder is undergoing further study, and US troops from the 3rd Infantry were still searching the huge site, 25 miles south of Baghdad, for weapons of mass destruction.
- The LATimes interviews David Kay, former CIA Chief Weapons Inspector for the Iraq Survey Group, who indicates that the Al Qaqaa site was "heavily looted" in May of 2003, and that HMX and RDX are "perfect" for terrorists.
- Gulf News April 6, 2003 (Barton Gellman) discusses finding explosives in vials at Al Qaqaa packed three to a box.
The blame game within the Bush administration
The administration has produced a number different of stories since the first report of the explosives' dissappearance first surfaced on October 24, 2004. These stories were generated reactively as part of the 2004 presidential campaign which was entering its last week. After November 3, and the Bush/Cheney spin on outcome of the election as a mandate, the importance within the administration of producing any credible explanation of what happened at Al Qaqaa seems to have vanished entirely.
The main talking points in the administration and its surrogates seemed to be variants of the following:
- It wasn't our fault: The stuff was gone when U. S. troops got there.
- It wasn't our fault: The seals were broken when U. S. troops got there.
- It's not that bad: It's a small amount compared to what's already out there. The democrats are desperate if they think 380 tons of new explosives is going to make us less secure.
- It's not that bad: It's a small amount compared to what has been siezed by coalition forces.
- It's not that bad: the importance of the missing explosives has been exaggerated. From pundit David Brooks on the PBVS News Hour, October 29 (thanks to Joshua Marshall) 
- As for these specific munitions whether it was 350 million tons or maybe the U.S. destroyed 250 so there were 100 million tons, as many people pointed out, there were between 650 million and a trillion tons sitting out there. We destroyed at least 400 million tons. So this is 0.1 percent of the munitions sitting out there in that country.
- So it is not the thing we should all be pinioned about. And to me the story has been vastly overblown.
- Saddam did it: Looters could not have walked off with 400 tons of stuff during the invasion of Iraq with U. S. troops all over the place.
- Saddam did it: It's good we got there in time to prevent even more stuff from falling into the hands of our enemies.
- Saddam did it: We should have invaded Iraq even before we did.
- It's the fault of the troops: Ex New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in a lapse of judgement tried this argument on the NBC Today Show, October 28.
- No matter how you try to blame it on the president the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough? Didn't they search carefully enough?
- It Kerry's fault: He's doesn't know what he's talking about: Cheney tried this one. From a AP report October 28, in the New York Times IAEA Says It Warned U.S. About Explosives
- ABC News, citing IAEA inspection documents, reported Wednesday that the Iraqis had declared 141 tons of RDX explosives at Al-Qaqaa in July 2002, but that the site held only three tons when it was checked in January 2003. The network said that could suggest that 138 tons were removed from the facility long before the March 2003 invasion.
- Vice President Dick Cheney seized upon the ABC report Thursday, telling supporters in Wisconsin that Kerry had gotten the facts wrong in criticizing the Bush administration for the disappearance of the explosives.
See here for other variants of the same. As for the arguments:
- The "it's not that bad argument" applies a fallacy of arbitrary comparison; e.g. any finite thing is always insignificant with respect to something else. With particular reference to David Brooks comments on the News Hour, he appears to be all confused. What 350 million tons is he referring to? The Al Qaqaa site had documented 350 metric tons of RDX and HMX.
- In some sense these critics have a legitimate point: The problem in Iraq with loose explosives is much worse than Al Qaqaa. The focus now is on Al Qaqaa, because the Iraqi interim government now blames the Bush administration for failing to secure dangerous material which is now a threat to its own existence.
- There is evidence to suggest much if not most of the explosives were not gone when U. S. troops arrived. This conclusion follows from many eyewitness reports cited above. Perhaps the most damaging evidence against claims by DoD that the explosive material had been removed is this report filed by the ABC news Twin Cities affiliate KSTP, with numerous photographs of material marked as "explosive". The video from the ABC affiliate clearly indicates that HMX explosives were at the site . Also from a CNN transcript of a program aired October 28, we have the following exchange between David Kay and Aaron Brown regarding the KSTP video
- KAY: Aaron, as about as certain as I can be looking at a picture, not physically holding it, which obviously I would have preferred to have been there, that's an IAEA seal. I've never seen anything else in Iraq in about 15 years of being in Iraq and around Iraq that was other than an IAEA seal of that shape.
- BROWN: And was there anything else at the facility that would have been under IAEA seal?
- KAY: Absolutely nothing. It was he HMX, RDX, the two high explosives.
- It is probably true that the seals were broken when U. S. troops got there, and some looting may have occurred. But the Pentagon was well aware of the importance of this site and should have immediately secure it. This was a command and communication failure.
- Indeed looters could not have walked off with the stuff in a few days. However, this site was (or should have been) under satellite surveillance which should have picked up convoys of trucks carting the stuff away. On the other hand, over a period of several months (say between April 2003 and September 2003) determined looters could have carried out tens of thousands of boxes even by foot. This is confirmed by David Kay in an interview on CNN  (tnanks to Joshua Marshall).
- The "We should have invaded Iraq even before we did" argument fails to explain how moving up the time of invasion would at all change the dynamics of the situation on the ground.
- "It's the fault of the troops" argument. In fact, it was a strategic failure by the Pentagon and the Bush administration to understand and plan for the aftermath of the conventional war against conventional units. Trying to pin blame on anyone or anything else is an extreme instance of passing the buck. In the specific instance Giuliani tried this argument and backfired, he later tried to claim was taken out of context. This is a spurious defense, since the context does not change the meaning and intention of what he said. The most charitable interpretation of Giuliani's statement is "Bush should not be held accountable for every screw-up on the ground". Sadly, this was not a screw-up but a result of a strategic failure, the responsibility for which falls ultimately to the Commander in Chief.
- Cheney's "Kerry doesn't know what he's talking about" argument: The IAEA report of January 15 2003 site visit referenced above indeed only mentions the location of 3 tons of RDX at nine bunkers in Al Qaqaa. However, referring again to the October 28 AP report published in the New York Times, an IAEA spokeswoman said that most of the RDX was kept at Al-Mahaweel, a storage site under Al Qaqaa's jurisdiction located about 30 miles outside the main Al Qaqaa site. IAEA inspectors visited Al-Mahaweel on Jan. 15, 2003, and verified the RDX inventory by weighing sampling. (The "weighing sampling" process is explained in the site visit report).
Here's an anecdote turned up by an enterprising dKos reader on Lexis-Nexis. From the Chicago Tribune on September, 30th nearly 4 weeks before the story broke on October 24:
- The insurgents probably are using weapons and ammunition looted from the nearby Qa-Qaa complex, a 3-mile by 3-mile weapons-storage site about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, said Maj. Brian Neil, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which initially patrolled the area.
- The site was bombed during last year's invasion and then left unguarded, Neil said.
- "There's definitely no shortage of weapons around here," he said
That soldier seems to have known about the problem for a while.
Others can ponder the import of searching a 9 square mile weapons storage site and how long that would take. As a point of reference, a slow march from one corner of the facility to the other would take an hour on foot. There are about 110 buildings there.
For more evidence indicating that the problem was obvious, see this CNN article --they are claiming that the weapons were already gone, but the State Dept official concedes that there were explosives there, and furthermore that:
- "Some explosive material at the time was discovered, although none of it carried IAEA seals, and this discovery was reported to coalition forces for removal of the material," Ereli said.
It seems likely that if the Coalition had gone back to the site to destroy some of the explosives, the Administration would have been trumpeting that fact already. What appears to have happened is that they were clearly warned about the problem, the troops knew about the problem, which -- high explosives notwithstanding -- was ongoing and a problem for US forces (see the quote from the Major above), and yet still no one did anything about it.
The DOD claimed in a press release dated October 26  that no weapons were there when U. S. troops arrived at the facility after the invasion. This DOD account has been discredited by the above referenced video  taken on April 18, 2003 (nine days after the fall of Baghdad) by an embed reporter travelling with the 101st airborne.
On Oct. 28, 2004, the DoD released imagery dated March 17, 2003, showing two trucks parked outside one of the 56 bunkers at Al Qa Qaa. However, the bunker nearest where the trucks were parked are not any of the nine bunkers indentified by the IAEA as containing the missing explosive stockpiles.
A release dated October 29, 2004  summarizes the pentagon press briefing by Major Austin Pearson. According to the report, on or about April 13, 2003, Pearson's unit
- removed about 250 tons of "TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords, initiators and white-phosphorus rounds."
This was five days before the KSTP crew videotaped the site. None of this material had IAEA seals, and no details were given on amounts of each.
DOD news releases for October 2004 can be found here.
One more fact: At a density of 1.91 g/cm³, 1 metric ton of packed HMX explosive should occupy a space of about 1/2 cubic meter. Even in the form of loosely packed cristal powder 400 metric tons would be about 200 1 m³ containers.
The political fallout
The reported disappearance of munitions from the Al Qaqaa depot in the last week of the 2004 presidential campaign became the focus of charges and countercharges between the main candidates. Senator John Kerry pointed to the disappearance as one more in a "tragic series of blunders" by the Bush administration in Iraq. As reported in the Boston Globe, Kerry attacked Bush for not commenting on the missing explosives. Cheney, on the other hand, has tried to suggest the explosives disappeared before U.S. soldiers arrived on the scene. Bush was believed to have addressed the issue for the first time on October 27 . Bush said
- "The military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios including that the explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived at the site"
Bush also accused Kerry of making "wild charges" about the missing explosives.
It was also reported that the Bush administration believed that the IAEA leaked the information about the missing explosives to damage the credibility of President Bush.
HMX and RDX are key ingredients in plastic explosives such as Semtex and C-4, puttylike substances that easily shaped and disguised in various configurations. It has been reported that less than 1 pound of Semtex was used in 1988 to down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
Joshua Marshall asks if this is the kind of explosive al Qaeda would like to get its hands on. Marshall links to this page by al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen whose is answer is yes. According to Bergen, that's the type of explosive would-be LAX bomber Ahmed Ressam got caught trying to smuggle into Port Angeles, WA from Canada.
The New York Daily News reports here that forensic tests show that the bombers who destroyed the United Nations and Jordanian missions in Baghdad used RDX and HMX explosives. (Thanks to this dKos posting for the link).
RDX is Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine also known as cyclonite, or hexogen, is an explosive material widely used by the military.
There are many interpretations of its acronym including (but not limited to) Royal Demolition eXplosive and Research Department Explosive. In fact the latter is nearest to the mark. New explosives were given an identification number preceded by the letters 'RD' indicating 'Research and Development'. For some reason, this explosive was unable to be given a number (the story goes that the department that issued the numbers had just blown itself up - but this may be apocryphal). Instead the letter 'X' was appended to indicate 'unknown' with the intention of adding the number later. Although a number was issued, the term 'RDX' stuck.
In its pure synthesised state it is a white crystalline solid. As an explosive it is usually used in mixtures with other explosives and plasticizers or desensitizers. It is stable in storage and is considered the most powerful and brisant of the military high explosives.
RDX forms the base for a number of common military explosives: Composition A (wax-coated, granular explosive consisting of RDX and plasticizing wax), composition A5 (mixed with 1.5% stearic acid), composition B (castable mixtures of RDX and TNT), composition C (a plastic demolition explosive consisting of RDX, other explosives, and plasticizers), composition D, HBX (castable mixtures of RDX, TNT, powdered aluminium, and D-2 wax with calcium chloride), H-6, Cyclotol and C-4.
It is a colourless solid, of density 1.82 g/cm³. It is obtained by reacting concentrated nitric acid on hexamine. It is a heterocycle and has the shape of a ring. It starts to decompose at about 170°C and melts at 204°C.
At room temperatures, it is a very stable product. It burns rather than explodes, and only detonates with a detonator, being unaffected even by small arms fire. It is less sensitive than pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). However, it is very sensitive when crystalized, below -4°C.
It was widely used during WW II, often in explosive mixtures with TNT such as Torpex (TNT (42%),RDX (40%) and aluminium (18%)). RDX was used in one of the first plastic explosives.
HMX is a development of RDX.
Like RDX, it has various translations of its acronym including High Melting eXplosive, Her Majesty's eXplosive or even High Velocity Military eXplosive. In fact the acronym simply means 'High Molecular weight rdX'.
Its chemical name is cyclotetramethylene-tetranitramine and is also called Tetrahexamine Tetranitramine. It is a powerful military explosive material; it is also used in rocket fuels. It may be produced by nitration of hexamine in the presence of acetic anhydride, paraformaldehyde and ammonium nitrate.
HMX, also known as octogen, explodes violently at high temperatures. It decomposes around 280°C. Its density (in cgs units) is 1.91 g/cm³.
HMX is the military's most powerful conventional (non-nuclear) explosive, though Octanitrocubane is expected to be more powerful. In general, the explosive power of high explosives is directly related to its molecular weight.
HMX is used to make so-called explosive lenses which are explosive materials configured in shapes to focus the energy produced by an explosion. Explosive lenses are used to detonate nuclear weapons.
The military facility
According to the American Federation of Scientists website, Al QaQaa is located in Yousefiya, near Al Iskandariya. See . Iskandariya itself is an ancient town in central Iraq, one of a number of towns in the Near East named after Alexander the Great. It is largely populated by Shia Muslims, and is located about 25 miles (40 km) from Baghdad.
The Al Qaqaa State Establishment is believed to be have been in charge of developing the non-nuclear components for a nuclear weapon. It was subsequently inspected by United Nations weapons inspectors and officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1989, the British journalist Farzad Bazoft was arrested there after visiting Iskandariya to check reports that an explosion at the Al Qaqaa plant had killed 700 people. He was subsequently executed by the Iraqi authorities. This incident had been reported (among others) by William Safire in an OpEd piece for his newspaper (New York Times, November 5, 1990, Object:Survival, William Safire). He also reported that some of the explosives produced at the Al Qaqaa site had been siezed by British and American agents at Heathrow Airport in March of 1990, raising the alarming possibility that these explosives may escape detection at checkpoints.
Al Iskandariya is one of the last big towns before reaching Baghdad and possesses a major military air base. It is on the main highway leading from Karbala to Baghdad. Al Iskandarya was a major target for United States forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq after the capture of Karbala. Though it fell quickly, it became the scene of a number of lethal guerrilla attacks against the occupying forces and the post-Saddam Iraqi security forces. For example, in a report filed from Iskandariya in June 2003, The New York Times reports:
- In the latest in a series of attacks on American troops here, a soldier from the 804th Medical Brigade was killed today when the military ambulance in which he was traveling came under fire from a rocket-propelled grenade. Two other soldiers were wounded, according to a statement from the United States Central Command. (New York Times, June 20, 2003, G.I. Dies as Military Ambulance Is Hit by Rocket-Propelled Grenade, Amy Waldman).
This site had been under intense surveillance by spy satellites for many years since it was supposedly one of the main focus points for Saddam's nuclear ambitions. An article published on September 4, 2002 in The Independent states
- The evidence of President Saddam's nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programmes will have come from three possible sources: Iraqi defectors, Western intelligence monitoring of foreign suppliers approached by Iraq, and information from the numerous spy satellites and other monitoring equipment trained on Iraq.
The article continues:
- President Saddam began acquiring technology and equipment for nuclear weapons in 1987, using two organisations for procurement and development. The first, Al Qaqaa State Establishment, in Iskandariya near Baghdad, was thought to be in charge of developing the non- nuclear components for a nuclear weapon.
(These are excerpts from: The Independent, September 4, 2002, Defectors and spy satellites hold key to finding evidence of Iraq's nuclear weapons, Anne Penketh.)
The IAEA history
The IAEA has published numerous media advisories regarding the Al Qa Qaa facility, clearly suggesting that its importance was widely known and should have been made a top military priority for an invading force.
IAEA Media Advisory December 2002...
IAEA Media Advisory December 2002...
IAEA Report 24 January, 2003...
IAEA Search for Al Qa Qaa...
Vertic Inspection Timeline for Al Qa Qaa indicating 30 inspections, with the last inspection dated March 15th, 2003. Note that Al Qa Qaa's 30 inspections is more than any other facility in Iraq between November 2002 and March 2003, which is the time period that the VERTIC site covers. Even Tuwaitha rated just over 20 inspections.
NTI Timeline For March, 2003.
Portions of this article come from the Wikipedia articles on these explosives. Its use is permitted by the GPL.
- Schema-root.org: Al Qaqaa current newsfeed, research links