US troops refused requests to protect explosives store

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The Independent Online

Al-Qaqa'a, the Iraqi military complex from which 350 tons of explosives disappeared, was looted after US troops left the area refusing requests to protect the site, Iraqi witnesses say.

Al-Qaqa'a, the Iraqi military complex from which 350 tons of explosives disappeared, was looted after US troops left the area refusing requests to protect the site, Iraqi witnesses say.

They say unguarded buildings were stripped of their contents after the arrival and departure of American troops in the last few days of the war.

Yesterday an armed Islamic group claimed to have obtained a large quantity of the explosives and threatened to use them against coalition troops. The group, calling itself al-Islam's Army Brigades, al-Karar Brigade, said on a video that it had co-ordinated with officers and soldiers of "the American intelligence" to obtain a "huge amount of the explosives that were in the al-Qaqa'a facility".

The looted explosives have become a contentious issue in the US election campaign, adding weight to the accusations of John Kerry, that George Bush mishandled the war.

Iraqi people claim US forces were specifically asked to secure the complex but declined to do so, saying their orders were to proceed towards Baghdad. The looters are said to have removed everything from desks and computers to ammunition and artillery shells.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has revealed that among the items stolen were HMX and RDX, key components in plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex, which are favoured by insurgent groups. The IAEA said it had warned the Bush administration of the vulnerability of the al-Qaqa'a arsenal in April last year after the looting of the main Iraqi nuclear facility. There is strong suspicion that the explosives have been used in the car bomb attacks in which hundreds of civilians as well as US and Iraqi government forces have been killed.

Al-Qaqa'a was identified in Tony Blair's Iraq weapons dossier of September 2002 as a place where phosgene was used to produce chemical or nerve agents. The United Nations, the IAEA and the Iraq Survey Group all found the claims to be false. The factories did, however, legitimately produce explosives for Iraq's armed forces. Before the war, IAEA inspectors checked the seals in the bunker where the material was stored and found them to be intact.

The Bush administration has moved to discredit the reports about the al-Qaqa'a looting, accusing Russian special forces of helping to spirit the explosives out of Iraq. The Russian defence ministry was adamant in denying the charge.

Mohammed Hamid Abdullah, from Yusufiah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, where al-Qaqa'a is located, said: "I know the Americans were told what was in the factories, and they must protect it. But they said they had to go on to Baghdad. We all saw people go in there afterwards and take everything they could. It went on for days."

Colonel Joseph Anderson, of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said his troops had mustered at al-Qaqa'a on 10 April 2002, simply as a convenient location. No one had told him about the explosives inside the complex.

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