WASHINGTON -- United Nations weapons inspectors pressed for permission to return to Iraq to help monitor weapons sites on the heels of the US-led invasion but were denied entry by the US-led coalition, according to a former inspector, UN officials, and a letter from the International Atomic Energy Agency obtained by the Globe.
The sites included Al Qaqaa, a sprawling facility about 30 miles south of Baghdad. At least 377 tons of powerful explosives, including the particularly dangerous substance known as HMX, have vanished from that location.
"They wanted to go. They were begging to go," said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security and who lobbied in vain for the UN agency in April 2003 to be allowed to resume work in Iraq. "They would have gone to Al Qaqaa and said, 'Here's the HMX. Burn it.' They would have been a driver of efforts to find these things. . . . They would have provided a tremendous service."
Yesterday, a US official said the inspectors' request to return to Iraq was denied because of "logistics and timing" and because the United States and Britain took on the inspections-related work.
"The US and the UK were taking the lead in searching for the arms, and there was really no reason" to allow the inspectors back, said Joe Merante, spokesman for the US mission to the UN.
Still, even now, the US military is unsure when the bunkers containing HMX at Al Qaqaa were searched after the war and how the munitions disappeared.
The missing explosives that had been monitored by the UN agency before the war have become a heated campaign issue in the final days before the election, as candidates trade accusations about under whose watch the munitions vanished.
Democratic challenger John F. Kerry has accused the Bush administration of allowing the explosives to fall into the hands of insurgents, while the White House and Pentagon suggest that the explosives may have been destroyed by US soldiers or taken by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein shortly before the war.
The controversy of the Al Qaqaa munitions erupted months after another team of UN weapons inspectors reported evidence of widespread looting at other weapons sites. The UN Monitoring and Verification Commission, a group that monitors non-nuclear weapons activity in Iraq from its New York headquarters, found 20 missile engines in a scrap yard in Jordan this summer and 22 other missile engines in the Netherlands, the group reported in August.
Before the war, inspectors had asked for more time to search for banned weapons, while President Bush and other high-level US officials said UN inspectors and sanctions were not working and swift action had to be taken. The inspectors left Iraq in March 2003, on the eve of the invasion, and asked to return in April and May, as the war unfolded and news reports detailed massive looting of radioactive material at Al Tuwaitha.
"I am anxious to send an expert mission to undertake a professional appraisal of the situation," Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, wrote to Kenneth Brill, the US representative to the agency, on April 29, 2003, more than five weeks after the invasion began. "You are well aware of my view that the IAEA has a legal and moral responsibility . . . to resume its work in Iraq as soon as practicable."
ElBaradei's letter notes that "other international humanitarian personnel have begun to return."
About eight IAEA inspectors were allowed to return for a short time in May and June to help clean up a specific site at Al Tuwaitha known as Location C, which had been hard hit by looting. But they were strictly prohibited by US forces from entering other locations at Al Tuwaitha and were not allowed to travel to other sites of concern, according to Albright and a Vienna-based UN official familiar with that mission.
"There was a terrible sense of frustration that we couldn't do our job," the Vienna-based official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Although the IAEA officials were most concerned about protecting nuclear sites, they also were eager to get back to Al Qaqaa because inspectors wanted to investigate the discrepancy between the amount of HMX reported by Hussein's government in 2002 and the amount they recorded and sealed in January 2003, according to Albright and an IAEA official.
Albright said he recalls a phone conversation in May 2003 with a senior IAEA official who wanted to return to Al Qaqaa.
"He talked of the need for inspectors to go back to Iraq because they had an intimate knowledge of Iraqi facilities and felt an obligation to resume monitoring," Albright said. "He then mentioned the explosives at Al Qaqaa in the context of worrying that someone would take it and make truck bombs."
While UN inspectors who had monitored Iraq's weapons facilities for nearly a decade were prevented from returning to Al Qaqaa, US soldiers who went to the facility have said they were not fully aware of what the site contained. On April 18, 2003, a Minnesota-based news crew videotaped soldiers exploring bunkers full of unguarded explosives in what is believed to be the southern edge of the sprawling Al Qaqaa facility. The soldiers did not recognize the copper seal, which the IAEA said was affixed by its inspectors, on the door of a bunker that apparently led to a massive cache of HMX.
HMX was being monitored by the agency, together with two other explosives, because they can be used to detonate a nuclear bomb.
"That makes me nervous there," one soldier said on the video taken by embedded journalists with KSTP-TV, an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis. "What's the lead seal? Why would they seal it?"
US soldiers were unaware of the presence of HMX at Al Qaqaa after the war even though the IAEA had warned about it in public reports, and even though it was the US military that discovered the same cache during the first Gulf War in 1991, according to an IAEA spokesman.
It is not clear whether the 75th Exploitation Task Force, the army contingent that was responsible for searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was specifically looking for HMX. An unclassified version of a Pentagon self-assessment report on Iraq, released in March, said the 75th had little experience or training in their mission and that the brigade had been swiftly assigned a host of other tasks. By the time the Iraqi Survey Group, a larger US-appointed team that replaced the 75th headed by former UN weapons inspector David Kay, reached the facility in August 2003, the HMX was gone.
Yesterday, Major Austin Pearson, an officer for the Army's Third Infantry Division who led postwar operations at the Al Qaqaa site, said at a Pentagon news briefing that the HMX was a fraction of the munitions scattered in bunkers across Iraq. He said he removed nine trucks worth of TNT, plastic explosives, and detonation cords from the site on April 13. He could not remove all the explosive material and could not be certain that any of the material he did remove was HMX, he said.
"I did not see any IAEA seals," Pearson said. "I was not looking for that."
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com.