Trying to account for the disappearance of nearly 400 tons of powerful explosives from an Iraqi military facility, the Pentagon yesterday identified a 2 1/2-month period in the spring of 2003 in which defense officials now suspect the material was removed.
But the period covers several weeks before Baghdad fell as well as several weeks afterward, leaving it unclear whether the explosives vanished at a time U.S. forces were in position to secure them, Pentagon officials said.
What became of the explosives has led to a major international controversy this week after the disclosure Monday by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the stockpiles were missing. One of the explosives, HMX, can be used to trigger nuclear bombs. But it and the two other materials -- RDX and PETN -- also have applications in car bombs and other devices, prompting fears they could fuel the attacks on U.S. and coalition troops.
Iraqi authorities have asserted the material was stolen after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, amid the widespread lawlessness and chaos that prevailed as U.S. forces struggled to reassert order. That possibility has raised questions about why U.S. commanders did not do more to secure the Qaqaa facility where the explosives were stored or permit international weapons inspectors to quickly reenter Iraq.
But Pentagon officials continued yesterday to point to the possibility that the explosives were removed in March or early April of last year, while the government of Saddam Hussein was still in power.
Providing an official timeline of events that he described as still very preliminary, Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, said IAEA personnel had visited Qaqaa on March 9 and found intact seals on the bunkers where the HMX was stored. U.S. forces invaded Iraq on March 19.
The first U.S. forces to reach Qaqaa arrived around April 3, Whitman said, identifying them as members of the 3rd Infantry Division. They fought with Iraqi forces at the facility, then occupied the site.
But their focus was on securing Baghdad, not searching Qaqaa for weapons caches or high explosives, so they left after two days and headed toward the Iraqi capital about 30 miles to the north, Whitman said.
Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division flew by helicopters into the facility about a week later. But they also were intent on getting to Baghdad and left after a day without conducting a search.
"We still had troops in Baghdad we were trying to combat," recalled Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a division spokesman. "Our mission was securing Baghdad at that point."
Not until May 27, Whitman said, did U.S. troops specifically charged with hunting for Iraqi weapons arrive at Qaqaa and begin a survey of the facility.
Members of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, the troops were focused initially on searching for Iraqi Scud missiles. They found the massive facility unguarded, a U.S. reporter traveling with them said. The site looked like a scrap yard, filled with hundreds of thousands of artillery shells, old land mines, anti-tank devices and unexploded ordnance.
"They found propellants and explosives, but no sealed IAEA material," Whitman said.
A number of weapons experts have noted that the removal of so many tons of high explosives posed difficult logistical challenges. Even if transported by heavy trucks, for instance, several dozen vehicles would have been required.
Asked about the likelihood that such a major movement of material out of an Iraqi military site would have been detected before the invasion, a senior defense official noted that U.S. authorities were attempting to monitor more than 500 "sensitive" sites in Iraq, as well as Iraqi combat formations, which put a strain on reconnaissance assets.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Andrey Denisov, told reporters at the United Nations yesterday that the Security Council should address the disappearance of the explosives, and he urged the council to authorize the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq.
But the United States said U.S. authorities were investigating the loss and disputed the need for U.N. experts to return.
Staff writers Dafna Linzer and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.