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US commander says theft 'improbable' after invasion

WASHINGTON -- The infantry commander whose troops first captured the Iraqi weapons depot where 377 tons of explosives disappeared said yesterday it is ''very highly improbable" that someone could have trucked out so much material once US forces arrived in the area.

Two major roads that pass near the Al Qaqaa installation were filled with US military traffic in the weeks after April 3, 2003, when US troops first reached the area, said Colonel David Perkins. He commanded the Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division, the division that led the charge into Baghdad.

Perkins and others in the military acknowledged there was some looting at the site. But he said a large-scale operation to remove the explosives almost certainly would have been detected.

Perkins, now a staff officer at the Pentagon, was made available to reporters by Defense Department spokesmen. Perkins gave his account amid a furious exchange of accusations between the campaigns of President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry over what happened to the missing explosives.

Larry Di Rita, the Pentagon's top spokesman, said what ultimately happened to the explosives is unknown. But Perkins's description seemed to point to the possibility that the explosives were removed before the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, not in the chaos afterward.

The colonel did not directly offer that conclusion.

But the Pentagon said in a statement, ''The movement of 377 tons of heavy ordnance would have required dozens of heavy trucks . . . moving along the same roadways as US combat divisions occupied continually for weeks prior to and subsequent to the Third ID's arrival at the facility."

On April 6, the battalion left for Baghdad. About four days later, the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division moved into the area; it did not search Al Qaqaa. A unit spokesman said there was heavy looting in the area.

Kerry has pointed to the missing explosives as evidence of the Bush administration's poor handling of the war. Bush officials have responded that more than a thousand times that amount of explosives and munitions in Iraq have been recovered or destroyed.

Two weeks ago, Iraqi officials told the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives vanished as a result of ''theft and looting . . . due to lack of security." A letter from Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology said the explosives were stolen after coalition forces took the capital.

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