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Context of 'Late April-Early May, 2003: US Soldiers Witness Theft of High Explosives at Al Qaqaa'

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The priceless Warka Vase, looted from the National Museum and later returned.The priceless Warka Vase, looted from the National Museum and later returned. [Source: Art Daily (.com)]In a press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismisses the wave of looting and vandalism throughout much of Iraq (see April 9, 2003 and After April 9, 2003) with the comment, “Stuff happens.” The looting is “part of the price” for freedom and democracy, he says, and blames “pent-up feelings” from years of oppression under the rule of Saddam Hussein. He goes on to note that the looting is not as bad as some television and newspaper reports are trying to make it out to be (see Late April-Early May, 2003 and May 20, 2003). “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” he tells reporters. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.” General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is with Rumsfeld at the press briefing, agrees. “This is a transition period between war and what we hope will be a much more peaceful time,” he says. CNN describes Rumsfeld as “irritated by questions about the looting.” Rumsfeld says that the images of Iraqi citizens ransacking buildings gives “a fundamental misunderstanding” of what is happening in Iraq. “Very often the pictures are pictures of people going into the symbols of the regime, into the palaces, into the boats and into the Ba’ath Party headquarters and into the places that have been part of that repression,” he explains. “And while no one condones looting, on the other hand one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who’ve had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.” [US Department of Defense, 4/11/2003; CNN, 4/12/2003]
Accuses the Media of Exaggeration - Rumsfeld accuses the media of exaggerating the violence and unrest throughout the country: “I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny—‘The sky is falling.’ I’ve never seen anything like it! And here is a country that’s being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they’re free. It’s just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country! Do I think those words are unrepresentative? Yes.” [US Department of Defense, 4/11/2003] “Let me say one other thing,” he adds. “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think: ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’” [Huffington Post, 4/11/2009]
'Looting, Lawlessness, and Chaos on the Streets of Iraq' - The next day, Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbiasias reports: “All day long, all over the dial, the visuals revealed looting, lawlessness, and chaos on the streets of Iraq. Nothing was off-limits, not stores, not homes, not embassies, certainly not Saddam Hussein’s palaces nor government buildings and, most disgustingly, not even hospitals.” She is “astonished” at Rumsfeld’s words, and observes that “the only free anything the Iraqis are going to get in the next little while is going to be whatever they can ‘liberate’ from electronics shops. Maybe Rumsfeld’s marketing people can come up with a slogan for that.” [Toronto Star, 4/12/2003]
Archaelogists Outraged at Rumsfeld's Remarks - Historians and archaeologists around the world are outraged at Rumsfeld’s remarks. Jane Waldbaum, the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, says her agency warned the US government about possible looting as far back as January 2003. She says she is as horrified by Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude towards the looting as she is with the looting itself. “Donald Rumsfeld in his speech basically shrugged and said: ‘Boys will be boys. What’s a little looting?’” she says. “Freedom is messy, but freedom doesn’t mean you have the freedom to commit crimes. This loss is almost immeasurable.” [Salon, 4/17/2003]
Failure to Protect Hospitals, Museums - Four days after Rumsfeld makes his remarks, progressive columnist John Nichols notes that had a Democratic or liberal government official made such remarks, Republicans and conservatives would be “call[ing] for the head” of that official. Nichols notes what Rumsfeld failed to: that looters stripped hospitals, government buildings, and museums to the bare walls. He also asks why US soldiers did not stop the looting, quoting the deputy director of the Iraqi National Museum, Nabhal Amin, as saying: “The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened.” Nichols notes the irony in the selection of the Oil Ministry as the only government building afforded US protection. He concludes: “When US and allied troops took charge of the great cities of Europe during World War II, they proudly defended museums and other cultural institutions. They could have done the same in Baghdad. And they would have, had a signal come from the Pentagon. But the boss at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who had promised to teach the Iraqi people how to live in freedom, was too busy explaining that rioting and looting are what free people are free to do.” [Nation, 4/15/2003]
Fired for Confronting Rumsfeld over Remark - Kenneth Adelman, a neoconservative member of the Defense Policy Board (DPB) who before the war said that the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk” (see February 13, 2002), later confronts Rumsfeld over the “stuff happens” remark. In return, according to Adelman’s later recollection, Rumsfeld will ask him to resign from the DPB, calling him “negative.” Adelman will retort: “I am negative, Don. You’re absolutely right. I’m not negative about our friendship. But I think your decisions have been abysmal when it really counted. Start out with, you know, when you stood up there and said things—‘Stuff happens.‘… That’s your entry in Bartlett’s [Famous Quotations]. The only thing people will remember about you is ‘Stuff happens.’ I mean, how could you say that? ‘This is what free people do.’ This is not what free people do. This is what barbarians do.… Do you realize what the looting did to us? It legitimized the idea that liberation comes with chaos rather than with freedom and a better life. And it demystified the potency of American forces. Plus, destroying, what, 30 percent of the infrastructure.” Adelman will recall: “I said, ‘You have 140,000 troops there, and they didn’t do jack sh_t.’ I said, ‘There was no order to stop the looting.’ And he says, ‘There was an order.’ I said, ‘Well, did you give the order?’ He says, ‘I didn’t give the order, but someone around here gave the order.’ I said, ‘Who gave the order?’ So he takes out his yellow pad of paper and he writes down—he says, ‘I’m going to tell you. I’ll get back to you and tell you.’ And I said, ‘I’d like to know who gave the order, and write down the second question on your yellow pad there. Tell me why 140,000 US troops in Iraq disobeyed the order. Write that down, too.’ And so that was not a successful conversation.” [Vanity Fair, 2/2009]

Entity Tags: John Nichols, US Department of Defense, Jane Waldbaum, Richard B. Myers, Kenneth Adelman, Iraqi Oil Ministry, Nabhal Amin, Donald Rumsfeld, Antonia Zerbiasias, Iraqi National Museum

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

US troops with the 101st Airborne Division use tools to cut through wire seals on nine explosives-storage bunkers at the Al Qaqaa military facility. The seals were put there by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before the invasion, to seal bunkers containing hundreds of tons of conventional high explosives that could be used in the detonation of nuclear weapons. The Airborne soldiers search the bunkers for chemical and biological weapons. After finding no such weapons, the soldiers depart, leaving the bunkers unsealed. A Minnesota television station will broadcast a video of the incident in November 2004. The bunkers will be looted by Iraqis almost immediately thereafter (see Late April-Early May, 2003); by October 2004, the IAEA will report that around 380 tons of high explosives are missing from the facility (see October 10, 2004 and October 25, 2004). [Los Angeles Times, 11/4/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, International Atomic Energy Agency

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

About a dozen US soldiers witness looters stealing high explosives from the Al Qaqaa ammunition site in northern Babil Province over a span of several days. The Al Qaqaa facility is where hundreds of tons of some of Iraq’s most powerful conventional explosives have been stored since 1991 (see May 2003); at least nine of its bunkers were unsealed by US troops days before (see April 18, 2003). In October 2004 the International Atomic Energy Agency will inform the US that around 380 tons of high explosives from Qaqaa are missing (see October 10, 2004 and October 25, 2004). The US soldiers, Army reservists and National Guardsmen, will say in November 2004 that they are unable to prevent the looting because they are drastically outnumbered. Some of the soldiers call their commanders to request help in securing the site, but receive no reply. The soldiers later describe watching Iraqis heave explosives from unsecured bunkers into Toyota pickup trucks. They try, with little success, to deter the looters; one noncommissioned officer will recall: “We were running from one side of the compound to the other side, trying to kick people out.… On our last day there, there were at least 100 vehicles waiting at the site for us to leave so looters could come in and take munitions.” Another officer will recall: “It was complete chaos. It was looting like [Los Angeles] during the Rodney King riots.” The soldiers who recall the events for the Los Angeles Times ask not to be identified, fearing reprisals from the Pentagon. When US search teams visit the facility on May 8, they find it “had been looted and stripped and vandalized.” No IAEA-monitored materials are found. No US forces were specifically delegated to guard the Al Qaqaa facility, codenamed “Objective Elm” by US strategists. Marine units are later delegated to guard the facility; one senior Marine officer will say in November 2004: “That site was just abandoned by the 101st Airborne, and there was never a physical handoff by the 101st to the Marines. They just left. We knew these sites were being looted, but there was nothing we could do about it.… There was no plan to prevent these weapons from being used against us a year later.” [Los Angeles Times, 11/4/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, International Atomic Energy Agency, US Marine Corps

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warns US officials that the Al Qaqaa military facility must be kept under close supervision. The facility has long been a storage cache for hundreds of tons of extremely powerful explosives such as HMX and RDX since 1991, when, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, the UN locked down the facility. In 1996, the United Nations used some of the Al Qaqaa explosives to destroy a large Iraqi germ warfare facility. The IAEA repeatedly warned the US about the explosives cache before the March invasion; with the current wave of looting and depredations occurring around the country (see April 9, 2003), terrorists or other unfriendlies could, the agency says, help “themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history.” In October 2004, the IAEA will come to believe that looting of the explosives began in April 2003 because of “the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security.” That same month, the US media will learn that at least 380 tons of explosives from the Al Qaqaa cache have gone missing (see October 10, 2004 and October 25, 2004). [New York Times, 10/25/2004]

Entity Tags: United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

The letter sent by an Iraqi official to IAEA inspectors reporting hundreds of tons of missing explosives.The letter sent by an Iraqi official to IAEA inspectors reporting hundreds of tons of missing explosives. [Source: New York Times]Dr. Mohammed Abbas of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology writes a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency warning that the huge explosives cache at Al Qaqaa (see May 2003) has been cleaned out. The IAEA had warned US officials of the likelihood of such an event months before, as well as before the March 2003 invasion (see May 2004). Abbas says that “urgent updating of the registered materials is required.” According to Abbas, the facility is missing around 377 tons of HMX, RDX, and PETN explosives, some of the most powerful explosives ever created. HMX stands for “high melting point explosive,” RDX for “rapid detonation explosive,” and PETN for “pentaerythritol tetranitrate.” The IAEA will forward the letter to the US. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei is “extremely concerned” about the “potentially devastating consequences” of the missing explosives, according to a European diplomat. Dr. Van Romero of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology says: “HMX and RDX have a lot of shattering power.… Getting a large amount is difficult” because most nations carefully regulate who can buy such explosives. An expert who recently led a team that searched Iraq for deadly arms says that the “immediate danger” of the looted explosives “is its potential use with insurgents in very small and powerful explosive devices. The other danger is that it can easily move into the terrorist web across the Middle East.” [New York Times, 10/25/2004]

Entity Tags: Van Romero, International Atomic Energy Agency, Ministry of Science and Technology (Iraq), Mohamed ElBaradei, Mohammed Abbas

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

A 1996 photograph of one of the Al Qaqaa storage bunkers.A 1996 photograph of one of the Al Qaqaa storage bunkers. [Source: New York Times]The US media learns that Iraq’s interim government reports that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives, used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads, and detonate nuclear weapons, are missing from a former military installation (see October 10, 2004). The facility, Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under US control but in reality is “a no-man’s land,” in the words of the New York Times, “picked over by looters as recently as” October 24. UN inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had monitored the huge cache of explosives for years. The IAEA says that machine tools usable for either nuclear or non-nuclear purposes are also missing. White House and Pentagon inspectors admit that the explosives disappeared some time after the US-led invasion of Iraq. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was informed of the missing explosives within the last month; according to the Times, “[i]t is unclear whether President Bush was informed.” US officials began answering questions about the missing explosives after reporters from the Times and CBS’s “60 Minutes” began asking questions. The CIA’s Iraq Survey Group has been asked to investigate the disappearance.
Similar Explosives Used in Other Terrorist Attacks - The immediate concern, according to US officials, is the explosives’ possible use in major bombing attacks against American and/or Iraqi forces. The explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, can be used in bombs strong enough to destroy airplanes or large buildings. The Times notes that the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland (see After December 21, 1988) used less than a pound of such explosive. Larger amounts of the same kinds of explosives were used in the November 2003 Riyadh bombings (see May 12, 2003) and a September 1999 bombing of a Moscow apartment complex (see September 9, 1999 and September 13, 1999). The explosives can also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, the primary reason why it had been, until the invasion, monitored by UN inspectors from the IAEA.
Repeated IAEA Warnings - The IAEA had publicly warned about the danger of the Al Qaqaa explosives before the invasion, and after the overthrow of the Iraqi government, IAEA officials specifically told US officials that they needed to keep the facility locked down (see May 2003). Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita says that the missing explosives need to be kept in perspective, as US and allied forces “have discovered and destroyed perhaps thousands of tons of ordnance of all types.” Iraq’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Rashad Omar, tells Times and CBS reporters: “Yes, they [the 380 tons of explosives] are missing. We don’t know what happened.” Omar says that after the invasion, Al Qaqaa was the responsibility of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which served as Iraq’s de facto government until June 2004 (see June 28, 2004). “After the collapse of the regime, our liberation, everything was under the coalition forces, under their control,” he says. “So probably they can answer this question, what happened to the materials.” The CPA is defunct; Bush administration officials say they don’t know where the explosives could be. One senior official says that the Qaqaa complex was listed as a “medium priority” site on the CIA’s list of more than 500 sites that needed to be searched and secured during the invasion. “Should we have gone there? Definitely,” says one senior official. Another senior official says that US soldiers gave the Qaqaa facility a cursory inspection during the push towards Baghdad in early April, but “saw no bunkers bearing the IAEA seal.”
Refusal to Allow IAEA Inspections after Occupation - Satellite photos taken in late 2003 showed that two of the ten bunkers containing HMX had exploded, presumably from bombing during the US offensive, but eight remained relatively intact. The Bush administration refused to let the IAEA back into Iraq to inspect and verify the Qaqaa facility or any of the other stockpiles formerly monitored by IAEA officials. By May 2004, the IAEA was warning CPA officials that the facility had probably been looted (see May 2004).
More Unguarded Stockpiles - Iraq is dotted with unguarded stockpiles of explosives, say US military and administration officials. One senior administration official notes, “The only reason this stockpile was under seal is because it was located at Al Qaqaa,” where nuclear work had gone on years ago. [New York Times, 10/25/2004]

Entity Tags: Lawrence Di Rita, New York Times, Condoleezza Rice, Coalition Provisional Authority, CBS News, Rashad Omar, US Department of Defense, International Atomic Energy Agency

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

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