Many tonnes of explosives disappear in Iraq

Several hundred tonnes of conventional explosives are missing from a former Iraqi military facility that once played a key role in Saddam Hussein’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb, the United Nations nuclear agency confirmed on Monday.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei will report the materials’ disappearance to the UN Security Council later on Monday, spokesperson Melissa Fleming said.

“On October 10, the IAEA received a declaration from the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology informing us that approximately 350 tonnes of high explosive material had gone missing,” Fleming said.

“The most immediate concern here is that these explosives could have fallen into the wrong hands,” she said.

In Washington, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s campaign said the Bush administration “must answer for what may be the most grave and catastrophic mistake in a tragic series of blunders in Iraq”.

“How did they fail to secure … tonnes of known, deadly explosives despite clear warnings from the IAEA to do so?” senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart asked in a statement.

The Iraqis told the nuclear agency the materials had been stolen and looted because of a lack of security at governmental installations, Fleming said.

“We do not know what happened to the explosives or when they were looted,” she said.

Nearly 350 tonnes of powerful explosives that could be used to build large conventional bombs are missing from the former Al Qaqaa military installation, The New York Times reported on Monday.

The newspaper said the explosives disappeared after the US-led invasion of Iraq last year.

They included HMX and RDX, which can be used to demolish buildings and down jetliners but also produce warheads for missiles and detonate nuclear weaponry. The material is a key ingredient in plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex — substances so powerful that Libyan terrorists needed just 0,45kg to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 170 people.

Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was informed of the missing explosives in the past month, the report said. It said Iraq’s interim government recently warned the United States and UN nuclear inspectors that the explosives had vanished.

“Upon receiving the declaration on October 10, we first took measures to authenticate it,” Fleming said. “Then, on October 15, we informed the multinational forces through the US government with the request for it to take any appropriate action in cooperation with Iraq’s interim government.”

“Mr ElBaradei wanted to give them some time to recover the explosives before reporting this loss to the Security Council, but since it’s now out, ElBaradei plans to inform the Security Council today” in a letter to the council president, she said.

Before the war, inspectors with the Vienna-based IAEA had kept tabs on the so-called “dual use” explosives because they could have been used to detonate a nuclear weapon. Experts say HMX can be used to create a powerful explosion with enough intensity to ignite the fissile material in an atomic bomb and set off a nuclear chain reaction.

IAEA inspectors pulled out of Iraq just before the 2003 invasion and have not yet been able to return despite ElBaradei’s repeated urging that the experts be allowed back in to finish their work.

ElBaradei told the UN Security Council before the war that Iraq’s nuclear programme was in disarray and that there was no evidence to suggest it had revived efforts to build atomic weaponry.

Al Qaqaa, a sprawling former military installation about 50km south of Baghdad, was placed under US military control but has repeatedly been looted, raising troubling questions about whether the missing explosives have fallen into the hands of insurgents battling coalition forces.

Saddam was known to have used the site to make conventional warheads, and IAEA inspectors dismantled parts of his nuclear programme there before the 1991 Gulf War. The experts also oversaw the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.

The nuclear agency pulled out of Iraq in 1998, and by the time it returned in 2002, it confirmed that almost 35 tonnes of HMX that had been placed under IAEA seal were missing.

“These explosives can be used to blow up airplanes, level buildings, attack our troops and detonate nuclear weapons,” Lockhart said.

“The Bush administration knew where this stockpile was, but took no action to secure the site. They were urgently and specifically informed that terrorists could be helping themselves to the most dangerous explosives bonanza in history, but nothing was done to prevent it from happening,” he said.

“This material was monitored and controlled by UN inspectors before the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to the stunning incompetence of the Bush administration, we now have no idea where it is,” Lockhart said.

He demanded the White House explain “why they failed to safeguard these explosives and keep them out of the hands of our enemies”.

ElBaradei told the UN in February 2003 that Iraq had declared that “HMX previously under IAEA seal had been transferred for use in the production of industrial explosives, primarily to cement plants as a booster for explosives used in quarrying”.

“However, given the nature of the use of high explosives, it may well be that the IAEA will be unable to reach a final conclusion on the end use of this material,” ElBaradei warned at the time.

“A large quantity of these explosives was under IAEA seal because they do have a nuclear application,” Fleming said on Monday.

The nuclear agency has no concrete evidence to suggest the seals were broken, Fleming said, but a diplomat familiar with the agency’s work in Iraq said the seals must have been broken if the explosives were stolen. — Sapa-AP

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