The 377 tons of Iraqi explosives whose reported disappearance has dominated the past few days of presidential campaigning represent only a tiny fraction of the vast quantities of other munitions unaccounted for since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government 18 months ago.
U.S. military commanders estimated last fall that Iraqi military sites contained 650,000 to 1 million tons of explosives, artillery shells, aviation bombs and other ammunition. The Bush administration cited official figures this week showing about 400,000 tons destroyed or in the process of being eliminated. That leaves the whereabouts of more than 250,000 tons unknown.
Against that background, this week's assertions by Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign about the few hundred tons said to have vanished from Iraq's Qaqaa facility have struck some defense experts as exaggerated.
"There is something truly absurd about focusing on 377 tons of rather ordinary explosives, regardless of what actually happened at al Qaqaa," Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an assessment yesterday. "The munitions at al Qaqaa were at most around 0.06 percent of the total."
Retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who served briefly as President Bush's adviser on counterterrorism and has criticized some aspects of the administration's performance, said yesterday he considered the missing-explosives issue "bogus."
Kerry has seized on the incident to press his charge that Bush mishandled the invasion of Iraq, failing, among other things, to secure sites containing dangerous Iraqi munitions, some of which were stored in bunkers marked with International Atomic Energy Agency seals to designate particular international concern.
Bush administration officials have refused to accept a statement issued earlier this month by a senior official of Iraq's interim government that the munitions disappeared after the April 9, 2003, fall of Baghdad "due to a lack of security." Iraqi authorities have not offered any supporting evidence, and Bush administration officials have suggested the explosives may have been removed earlier by Iraqi forces.
Several defense analysts said Kerry's focus on Qaqaa has resonated mainly because the explosives issue has become symbolic of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, especially its long-running insistence that it has a sufficient number of U.S. forces there.
"The issue has been out there for a long time," said James Bodner, who helped formulate Iraq policy in the Clinton-era Pentagon. "Are we properly manned to carry out the specific military tasks that need to be accomplished? If the answer is, 'Yes, we have enough troops,' then why are these facilities unguarded?"
Whatever the case, the military significance of the loss, in a country awash with far larger amounts of munitions, is open to question.
The most powerful of the three explosives -- HMX -- can be used in a trigger for nuclear devices, which is why it was placed under IAEA seal. But HMX is obtainable elsewhere, and the chief U.S. weapons investigator in Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer, has acknowledged that the Iraqi stockpile posed no particular concern in this regard.
Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert in nuclear weapons and terrorism, said that although he is concerned by the removal of the explosives, he is far more worried by IAEA reports that large quantities of sophisticated equipment, such as electron beam welders, were looted and removed from Iraq's nuclear weapons program. "That material, which would be quite useful to a nuclear weapons program, was also well known to the United States, was not guarded and today is probably in hostile hands," with Iran being a likely recipient, said Bunn, who noted that he has been advising the Kerry campaign but does not speak for it.
HMX and the two other types of explosives reported missing from Qaqaa -- RDX and PETN -- could also be used in devices targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. But defense officials say the many car bombs and roadside explosive devices that have menaced U.S. forces and other foreigners in Iraq have tended to be constructed from old artillery shells and other munitions, which remain in ample supply in Iraq.
Pentagon officials, reconstructing a timeline of what might have occurred at Qaqaa, believe they have narrowed the window for the disappearance to a two-month period between mid-March 2003, when the IAEA verified its seals were still in place, and May 2003, when U.S. military search teams arrived at the site and found it had been looted, stripped and vandalized. The search teams saw none of the explosives that were once under seal.
Although invading U.S. forces never secured the facility, defense officials have disputed the notion that such a large quantity of explosives could have been transported without notice by the U.S. military.
Bolstering the possibility that the munitions were removed before U.S. troops arrived, defense officials say, is the Hussein government's history of moving weapons to elude air attack. An official also said intelligence photos show lots of activity at Qaqaa before U.S. forces reached the site.
The Pentagon has contributed to confusion surrounding the case. John A. Shaw, deputy undersecretary for international technology and security, told the Washington Times on Wednesday that Russian troops, working with Iraqi intelligence, "almost certainly" removed the explosives from Qaqaa. Yesterday, other senior defense officials, after reviewing Pentagon intelligence reports, said Shaw's remarks had no basis in fact.
Other confusion has arisen over how much explosive material had been stored at Qaqaa. The 377-ton figure was cited by Iraq's interim government in a letter to the IAEA earlier this month first reporting the amount missing. That figure was based on a Hussein government declaration in July 2003 of what existed at the site. It included about 155 tons of RDX. On Wednesday, ABC News reported that IAEA documents indicated there were only about 3 tons of RDX remaining at Qaqaa in January 2003, two months before the U.S.-led invasion. Yesterday, however, IAEA officials said records showed another 138 tons of the RDX were being kept then at a military warehouse used by Qaqaa's managers at Mahaweel, 25 miles away. The IAEA has not accounted for an additional 14 tons in the July 2003 Iraqi declaration.
Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman, said yesterday that the IAEA warned the United States in April 2003 of concerns about security at Qaqaa. Other U.N. officials said repeated efforts were made for more than a year to get answers from the U.S. government about the explosives and other weapons-related materials that had been under U.N. seal before the war.
A fresh request to the Iraqi government generated the Oct. 10 reply that the explosives were no longer at Qaqaa.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Dafna Linzer in New York contributed to this report.