In a massive pre-election embarrassment for the Bush administration, nearly 350 tons of lethal explosives - which could be used to trigger nuclear weapons - have vanished from a military facility in Iraq supposed to have been guarded by US troops.
Hardly had the disappearance come to light than John Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger, seized on the episode as proof that George Bush was incapable of keeping America safe. The material could already be in terrorist hands, he warned yesterday.
This was "one of the great blunders of the war," Mr Kerry said on the campaign trail in the swing state of New Hampshire. A statement from his campaign said the "unbelievable incompetence of this President and this administration has put our troops at risk and this country at greater risk", adding that Mr Bush, "who talks tough and brags about making America safer, has once again failed to deliver",
According to The New York Times, which broke the story in a lengthy front-page story, the missing stockpiles - some 350 tons in all - are of HMX, RMX and PETN, extremely powerful, conventional explosives that are used to blow up buildings, fill missile warheads or detonate nuclear weapons. So devastating are they that just one pound of a similar explosive was enough to destroy Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988. HMX, RMX, or explosives like them have been used in car and apartment bombings in Moscow and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in recent years.
At the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the explosives were being stored by the Saddam regime, under United Nations control at the al-Qaqaa military facility south of Baghdad, which was mentioned in the Government's September 2002 dossier as a source of possible chemical-weapons production. Some time after the fall of Saddam the explosives disappeared, but their loss was not formally notified to the Bush administration and the IAEA nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna until two weeks ago.
In a letter on 10 October 2004, the Ministry of Science and Technology of the interim Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi detailed the losses to the IAEA, which it ascribed to "theft and looting". Five days later, the agency sent the letter to Bush's administration.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the IAEA, is said to be "extremely concerned" about the "potentially devastating consequences" of the vanished explosives. Yesterday, the agency made clear that the US, as leader of the coalition in Iraq, had been repeatedly warned of the importance of making sure the stockpiles were safe. "The coalition was responsible" for looking after the weapons, an IAEA spokeswoman said. "We had hoped that they would be protected."
After the news was disclosed, Mr ElBaradei formally informed the UN Security Council in a letter yesterday. Agency officials denied suggestions that the IAEA director had been under pressure from the administration to keep the news quiet until after the presidential election next Tuesday.
The White House immediately moved to contain the possible political damage, playing down the threat posed by the explosives. The material did not constitute a risk in terms of nuclear proliferation, said Scott McClellan, Mr Bush's spokesman.
As soon as US officials in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, had been told of the disappearance, the news was passed to Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, who then informed the President. Dismissing complaints that the news should have been made public earlier, the White House said the Iraq Survey Group - which reported last month - would try to find out what had happened.
It remains to be seen whether the episode is lost in the swirl of the campaign, or whether it becomes the "October surprise" - the unexpected event dreaded by both parties, capable of tipping a close election to the other side.
Democrats see the debacle as a perfect means of discrediting Mr Bush's claim that he is the commander-in-chief best able to protect America from terrorists. "The unbelievable blindness, stubbornness, arrogance of this administration to do the basics have now allowed this President to once again fail the test of being the commander-in-chief," Mr Kerry said.Reuse content