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Missing and Explosive

Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page A24

LESS THAN A POUND of the high explosive known as HMX was enough to destroy a Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland in 1988 in one of the worst terrorist attacks against Americans before Sept. 11, 2001. So it can only be dismaying to learn that nearly 215 tons of the substance -- enough for hundreds of thousands of such bombs -- disappeared from an Iraqi weapons facility sometime after March 2003, when it was last seen by international inspectors. An additional 162 tons of the explosives RDX and PETN also are missing, according to a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency this month by the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology, which blamed a "lack of security" for the loss.

It's not clear whether the explosives vanished before or after invading U.S. forces reached the Qaqaa facility near Baghdad in April 2003, though it appears likely that the materiel was gone by May of last year, when the weapons-hunting Iraq Survey Group first visited the site. Nor is it evident that any of the explosives have since been used against U.S. forces in Iraq or any other target. It's possible that some or all of the HMX was destroyed by U.S. bombing. Nonetheless, the disappearance of the substance, which was sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency because of its potential use as a nuclear bomb trigger, must be counted as a potentially deadly cost incurred by the invasion of Iraq.

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It may not be fair to claim, as Sen. John F. Kerry did on Monday, that the loss represents "one of the greatest blunders of this administration." Apart from the doubts about whether the explosives disappeared before or after U.S. troops reached the site, Iraq was covered with some 10,000 weapons sites under Saddam Hussein; Qaqaa was not among those given highest priority by U.S. intelligence. Unfortunately, high explosives are not in short supply in the world's black markets, and HMX is far from the most valuable material needed for a nuclear bomb. We have said repeatedly, however, that President Bush erred in not dispatching enough troops to Iraq to secure the country after the war. We'll never know if a larger invasion force might have been able to prevent this looting, but the chances of avoiding this and other terrible reverses surely would have been much higher.

It's worth noting, meanwhile, that the sensation over the missing explosives emanates from the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose director, the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, has been an adversary of the Bush administration on Iraq since well before the war. This month Mr. ElBaradei delivered a report to the U.N. Security Council complaining of "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement" of dual-use equipment at sites once related to Iraq's nuclear program -- at least some of which apparently was done by the U.S. mission itself. News of the missing explosives then leaked to the U.S. media within days of its receipt by his agency. On the same day that it appeared in the New York Times, Mr. ElBaradei took the unusual step of submitting a second letter to the Security Council confirming the report. The fact that he was providing easy fodder for Mr. Kerry's campaign just eight days before the presidential election evidently did not deter this U.N. civil servant.

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