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Looting Spree Gutted Ammo Dump
Published on Thursday, October 28, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Looting Spree Gutted Ammo Dump
Witnesses say Iraqis blitzed Al Qaqaa after U.S. troops came, left
by James Glanz, Jim Dwyer NYT
 

BAGHDAD -- Looters stormed the weapons site at Al Qaqaa in the days after American troops swept through the area in early April 2003 on their way to Baghdad, gutting office buildings, carrying off munitions and even dismantling heavy machinery, three Iraqi witnesses and a regional security chief said Wednesday.

The Iraqis described an orgy of theft so extensive that enterprising residents rented their trucks to looters. But some looting was clearly indiscriminate, with people grabbing anything they could find and later heaving unwanted items off the trucks.

Two witnesses were employees of Al Qaqaa -- one a chemical engineer and the other a mechanic -- and the third was a former employee, a chemist, who had come back to retrieve his records, determined to keep them out of U.S. hands. The mechanic, Ahmed Saleh Mezher, said employees asked the Americans to protect the site, but were told this was not the soldiers' responsibility.

The accounts do not directly address the question of when nearly 400 tons of powerful conventional explosives vanished from the site sometime after early March, the last time international inspectors checked the seals on the bunkers where the material was stored. It is possible that Iraqi forces removed some explosives before the invasion.

But the accounts make clear that what set off much if not all of the looting was the arrival and swift departure of U.S. troops, who did not secure the site after inducing the Iraqi forces to abandon it.

"The looting started after the collapse of the regime," said Wathiq al- Dulaimi, a regional security chief, who was based nearby in Latifiya. But once it had begun, he said, the booty streamed toward Baghdad.

On Oct. 10, the directorate of national monitoring at the Ministry of Science and Technology notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives -- which are used in demolition and missiles and are the raw material for plastic explosives -- were missing. The agency has monitored the explosives because they also can be used as the initiator of an atomic bomb.

Agency officials examined the explosives in January 2003 and noted in early March that their seals were still in place. On April 3, the 3rd Infantry Division arrived with the first U.S. troops.

Chris Anderson, a photographer for U.S. News and World Report who was with the division's 2nd Brigade, recalled that the area was jammed with U.S. armor on April 3 and 4, which he believed made the removal of the explosives unlikely. "It would be quite improbable for this amount of weapons to be looted at that time because of the traffic jam of armor," he said.

The brigade blew up numerous caches of arms throughout the area, he said. Anderson said he did not enter the munitions compound.

Pentagon officials said Wednesday that analysts were examining surveillance photographs of the munitions site. But they expressed doubts that the photographs would be able to show conclusively when the explosives were removed.

Col. David Perkins, who commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, called it "very highly improbable" that the explosives could have been trucked out of Al Qaqaa in the weeks after U.S. troops arrived.

He conceded that some looting of the site had taken place. But a chemical engineer who worked at Al Qaqaa and identified himself only as Khalid said that once troops left the base itself, people streamed in to steal computers and anything else of value from the offices. They also took munitions like artillery shells, he said.

Mezher, the mechanic, said it took the looters about two weeks to disassemble heavy machinery at the site and carry that off after the smaller items were gone.

© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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