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Group says it warned US about explosives

VIENNA -- Human Rights Watch said yesterday it alerted the US military to a cache of hundreds of warheads containing high explosives in Iraq in May 2003, but that officials seemed uninterested and still had not secured the site 10 days later.

The disclosure, made by a senior leader of the New York-based group, raised new questions about the willingness or ability of US-led forces to secure known stashes of dangerous weapons in Iraq.

The question became a heated issue in the US presidential campaign after Iraqi officials told the UN nuclear watchdog agency that some 377 tons of high explosives were reported missing from another site -- the Al Qaqaa military installation south of Baghdad.

Peter Bouckaert, who heads Human Rights Watch's international emergency team, said he was shown two rooms "stacked to the roof" with surface-to-surface warheads on May 9, 2003, in a warehouse on the grounds of the Second Military College in Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Bouckaert said he gave US officials the exact location of the warheads, but that by the time he left the area on May 19, 2003, he had seen no US forces at the site, which he said was being looted daily by armed men.

Bouckaert said displaced people he was working with in the Baqubah area had taken him to the warheads.

"They said, 'There's stocks of weapons here, and we're very concerned -- can you please inform the coalition?' " he said in a telephone interview from South Africa.

After photographing the warheads, Bouckaert said he went straight to US officials in Baghdad's Green Zone complex, where he contended that officials at first did not seem interested in his information.

"They asked mainly about chemical or biological weapons, which we hadn't seen," he said. "I had a pretty hard time getting anyone interested in it."

Bouckaert said he eventually was put in touch with unidentified US officials and showed them on a map where the stash was located, also giving them the exact GPS coordinates for the site.

But he said he never saw US forces at the site when he returned to the area for daily interviews with refugees, and that the site still was not secured when he finally left the area.

"For the next 10 days I continued working near this site and going back regularly to interview displaced people, and nothing was done to secure the site," he said.

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