VIENNA, Austria -- From the deserts of the south and west to the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq is awash in weapons sites -- some large, others small; some guarded, others not. Even after the U.S. military secured some 400,000 tons of munitions, as many as 250,000 tons remain unaccounted for.
Attention has focused on the al-Qaqaa site south of Baghdad, where 377 tons of explosives are believed to have gone missing -- becoming a heated issue in the final days of the U.S. presidential campaign.
But with the names of other sites popping up everywhere -- al-Mahaweel, Baqouba, Ukhaider, Qaim -- experts say the al-Qaqaa stash is only a tiny fraction of what's buried in the sands of Iraq.
"There is something truly absurd about focusing on 377 tons," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst and Iraq expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He contends Iraq's prewar stockpiles "were probably in excess of 650,000 tons."
Underscoring the depth of Iraq's militarization before the March 2003 invasion, the Pentagon says U.S.-led forces have destroyed 240,000 tons of munitions and have secured another 160,000 tons that is awaiting destruction.
Through mid-September, coalition forces inspected and cleared more than 10,000 caches of weapons, U.S. arms hunter Charles Duelfer said in a recent report. But up to 250,000 tons remains unaccounted for, according to military estimates, much of it in small stashes scattered around the country.
"I caution that there is a lot that we probably don't know about, because this was a country, as the inspectors acknowledged, that was awash in weapons," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Friday in Washington.
The 377 tons that Iraq says vanished from Al-Qaqaa sometime after the April 9, 2003, fall of Baghdad represents just "one 1,000th of the material that we are aware of," Di Rita said.
In the wrong hands
The debate between the Bush administration and its critics is sharpened by the possibility that munitions remaining unsecured may since have fallen into the hands of Iraqi insurgents leading a bloody campaign of bombings and attacks on U.S. forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Among the sites that don't appear to have been secured was a cache of hundreds of surface-to-surface warheads at the 2nd Military College in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Each warhead is believed to have contained 57 pounds of high explosives.
Peter Bouckaert, who heads the emergency team for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he was shown a room "stacked to the roof" with the warheads on May 9, 2003. He said he gave U.S. officials in Baghdad the exact GPS coordinates for the site, but that it was still not secured when he left the area 10 days later.
"Looting was taking place by a lot of armed men with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades," Bouckaert said Saturday in a telephone interview from South Africa.
David Albright, a former U.N. inspector, said the sheer volume of weapons stored across Iraq should have prompted the United States to invite inspectors back to check on key sites such as Al-Qaqaa.
Instead, he said, "there was a lot of arrogance" on the part of U.S. officials who rebuffed the International Atomic Energy Agency's repeated requests to resume general inspections.
IAEA inspectors pulled out of Iraq on March 16, 2003, a few days before the invasion. They since have been allowed to return only twice, both times to check on the Tuwaitha nuclear complex, the U.N. agency's main concern in Iraq. They have not been back to Al-Qaqaa.
The IAEA, which informed the U.N. Security Council about the missing explosives last week, says Al-Qaqaa is important because it was the main storage site for HMX, which can be used in plastic explosives but also in ignitors for a nuclear weapon.
Al-Qaqaa also contained large stores of RDX and PETN, but the U.N. nuclear agency's main concern was the HMX. Although the IAEA said Saddam's nuclear program was in disarray before the war and there was no evidence that Iraq had revived efforts to build atomic weaponry, the agency placed the material under seal as a precaution.
It remains unclear whether U.S.-led forces attempted to secure the vast site, which the Iraqis say was looted "due to a lack of security" after Saddam's fall. The White House contends the material may have been removed before American troops arrived in the area.
Army Maj. Austin Pearson said his team removed 250 tons of munitions, including plastic explosives, from Al-Qaqaa on April 13, 2003. But those munitions were not under IAEA seal as the missing high-grade explosives were, and the Pentagon was unable to say definitively that they were part of the missing 377 tons.
Cordesman thinks the Pentagon is taking a bad rap on Al-Qaqaa. U.S. forces' main task at the time, he contends, was to advance swiftly on Baghdad.
"There was little military point in securing this particular site during a period the U.S. was rushing forward with limited forward-deployed strength to seize Baghdad before Saddam's forces had any chance to regroup," he said.