'Secure' arms dump that may have armed enemy

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The Independent Online

Al-Qaqaa was named in Tony Blair's famous Iraq weapons dossier as a factory whose products could kill many innocent people. That has proved to be right. The deaths, however, have not come from Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, but the hundreds of tons of high explosives which have disappeared since Iraq's "liberation" by the US and Britain.

The astonishing amount which has gone missing - 350 tons - makes an awful lot of car bombs, the deadly daily diet for the people of Iraq in the mayhem the American military cannot even begin to control.

According to Mr Blair's dossier, al-Qaqaa produced phosgene to be used as a chemical or nerve agent. We now know through the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and the Iraq Survey Group that this was false. What it did produce, legitimately were key components in plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex, favoured by terrorist groups, and that is what has gone missing.

When Downing Street produced the dossier in September 2002, I, along with other journalists from Britain, was taken to al-Qaqaa, 30 miles south of Baghdad, by the regime. The director-general, Sinan Rasim Said, said he would welcome UN inspectors to expose Downing Street "lies". And that is what happened in the following months.

Mr Said and his colleagues did not deny they were producing conventional explosives, repeatedly thrusting forward grubby bits of paper with UN authorisation for various projects. They also pointed out UN stickers, remaining from when the inspectors left in 1998, to prevent dual use for chemical or biological weapons.

The facilities for the manufacture of these explosives, destined for Iraqi armed forces, were heavily guarded, unsurprisingly for an authoritarian regime with reasons to fear attacks from rebel groups. As well as soldiers, from a unit of the Republican Guard, there were plain clothes members of the secret police, the Mukhabarat, and the "special" security service, the Amn al-Khass. Getting to the production facilities involved four sets of checks.

During Operation Desert Storm the US and Britain did not bomb the production site for the explosives, nor, for that matter, where the "nerve agents" were supposedly produced. Instead a storage area and boiler room were destroyed.

When IAEA inspectors visited al-Qaqaa in January 2003, an inventory was made of the explosives and storage bunkers were placed under agency seals. Iraqi officials complained to us that conventional explosives, needed for the forthcoming attack by the US and Britain, were being denied to Iraqi forces.

Nevertheless, when the inspectors returned in March, on the eve of war, the seals were intact.

Astonishingly, after the invasion, US forces did not bother to guard al-Qaqaa, which featured so prominently in Mr Blair's dossier. This was long before the Iraq Survey Group finally dismissed the claims, so, according to the British and American government's own assertions, those "nerve agents" could have been there for terrorists to loot.

Few in Baghdad doubt that the explosives from al-Qaqaa have been used by the insurgents in their current campaign. One does not have to go far. Yousuffiah, the area in which it is located, has seen relentless attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.

The disclosure by the IAEA about the missing explosives may have had an impact going all the way to the US presidential campaigns, but in the anarchic conditions of Iraq there had hardly been a rush to improve security. Yesterday there was not a sign of even one guard at the gate of the deserted site.