Several thousand shoulder-fired missiles -- the kind that could be used to shoot down aircraft -- are missing in Iraq, and their disappearance has prompted U.S. military and intelligence analysts to increase sharply their estimate of the number of such weapons that may be at large, administration officials said yesterday.
Some U.S. analysts figure that as many as 4,000 surface-to-air missiles once under the control of Saddam Hussein's government remain unaccounted for. That would raise the number of such missiles outside government hands worldwide to about 6,000.
But a senior defense official said yesterday that military intelligence analysts are having difficulty estimating just how many of the portable missiles may have vanished and how many of those may be in working order and therefore a threat to U.S. and other aircraft.
"We don't have a good estimate," the official said. "Some have put forward some figures, but there is none that the Defense Intelligence Agency has confidence in."
Another official said government analysts could not say with any certainty whether the missing weapons remain in Iraq or have been smuggled outside the country. "There is no evidence that they have left the country," he said.
Still, other government officials said the threat that the Iraqi missiles could be used to target military or civilian aircraft remains a very real one. Concern about the Iraqi missiles was raised during a conference on aviation threats last week at the DIA's Missile and Space Intelligence Center in Huntsville, Ala. The new estimates, based on analysis done by the DIA and with the proliferation section of the CIA, were first reported yesterday by the New York Times.
The U.S.-led invasion forces did not secure all weapons depots in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions were looted. U.S. officials fear that the shoulder-launched missiles were among the items carried off by groups willing to sell them on the black market to terrorist organizations.
Western intelligence officials have repeatedly warned of al Qaeda's desire to acquire the missiles for use against American and other airliners. The weapons are easy to hide and cost relatively little -- from less than $1,000 to $100,000 each.
In 2002, terrorists launched two Russian-made SA-7 missiles at a commercial airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. The State Department estimated in 2003 that more than 40 aircraft have been struck by portable missiles since the 1970s, causing at least 24 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide.
U.S. officials have said thousands of antiaircraft missiles, most of them SA-7s, were looted from Iraqi army stockpiles and remain unaccounted for. The U.S. military initiated a buyback program for surface-to-air missiles in August 2003, paying as much as $500 apiece. Although hundreds were acquired, military officials have said that thousands remain in circulation.
Three months after the start of the buyback program, in November 2003, a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter packed with soldiers was hit by a missile west of Baghdad, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 20. At the time, the attack marked the deadliest single assault on U.S. forces since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Since the 1950s, 20 countries have developed or produced more than 30 different types of portable missiles, with between 500,000 and 750,000 weapons believed to be in the worldwide inventory today, according to a report in May by the General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office.
The report, "Nonproliferation: Further Improvements Needed in U.S. Efforts to Counter Threats from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems," cited official U.S. figures estimating a few thousand manually portable missiles outside government control.
But, the report added, the government "estimates that thousands more under government controls may be vulnerable to theft and possible transfer to terrorist groups because they are not subject to stringent national export standards nor do they have adequate physical security or inventory controls."
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.