WASHINGTON -An Army unit removed 250 tons of ammunition from the Al-Qaqaa weapons depot in April 2003 and later destroyed it, the company's former commander said Friday.
A Pentagon spokesman said some was of the same type as the missing explosives that have become a major issue in the presidential campaign.
But those 250 tons were not located under the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency - as the missing high-grade explosives had been - and Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita could not definitely say whether they were part of the missing 377 tons.
Maj. Austin Pearson, speaking at a press conference at the Pentagon, said his team removed 250 tons of TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords, and white phosporous rounds on April 13, 2003 - 10 days after U.S. forces first reached the Al Qaqaa site.
"I did not see any IAEA seals at any of the locations we went into. I was not looking for that," Pearson said.
Di Rita sought to point to Pearson's comments as evidence that some RDX, one of the high-energy explosives, might have been removed from the site. RDX is also known as plastic explosive.
But Di Rita acknowledged: "I can't say RDX that was on the list of IAEA is what the major pulled out. ... We believe that some of the things they were pulling out of there were RDX."
Further study was needed, Di Rita said.
Whether Saddam Hussein's forces removed the explosives before U.S. forces arrived on April 3, 2003, or whether they fell into the hands of looters and insurgents afterward - because the site was not guarded by U.S. troops - has become a key issue in the campaign.
Pearson's comments raise further questions about the chain of events surrounding these explosives, the disappearance of which has been repeatedly cited by Democrat John Kerry as evidence of the Bush administration's poor handling of the war in Iraq.
Still, 377 tons of explosives amount to a tiny fraction of the weaponry in Iraq. U.S. forces have already destroyed, or have slated to destroyed, more than 400,000 tons of all manner of Iraqi weapons and ammunition. But at least another 250,000 tons from Saddam's regime remain unaccounted for, and some has undoubtedly fallen into the hands of insurgents.
The window in which the explosives were most likely removed from Al-Qaqaa begins on March 15, 2003 - five days before the war started - and ends in late May, when a U.S. weapons inspection team declared the depot stripped and looted.
Two weeks ago, Iraqi officials told the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency that the explosives vanished as a result of "theft and looting ... due to lack of security."
The explosives were known to be housed in storage bunkers at the sprawling Al-Qaqaa complex and nearby structures. U.N. nuclear inspectors placed fresh seals over the bunker doors in January 2003. The inspectors visited Al-Qaqaa for the last time that March 15 and reported that the seals were not broken; concluding the weapons were still inside at the time.
A U.S. military reconaissance image, taken of Al Qaqaa on March 17, shows two vehicles, presumably Iraqi, outside a bunker at Al-Qaqaa. But Di Rita said that bunker was not known to contain any of the 377 tons, and that the image only shows that there was activity at the depot after U.N. inspectors left.
Elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division arrived in the area on April 3 en route to Baghdad. They fought a battle with Iraqi forces inside Al Qaqaa and moved on, leaving a battalion behind to clear out enemy fighters in the area. Troops found other weapons, including artillery shells, on the base, he said. They didn't specifically search for the 377 tons of high explosives that are missing. On April 6, the battalion left for Baghdad.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have advanced the theory that the materials were removed before U.S. forces arrived, saying looting that much material would be impossible by small-scale thieves, and that a large-scale theft would have involved lots of trucks and would have been detected.
About four days later, another large unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, moved into the area. That unit did not search Al-Qaqaa. A unit spokesman said there was heavy looting in the area at the time.
On April 13, Pearson's ordnance-disposal team arrived and took the 250 tons out in a day. That materiel was later destroyed by U.S. forces. His comments may suggest that some of it was still there when U.S. forces arrived.
On April 18, a Minnesota television crew traveling with the 101st Airborne shot a videotape of troops as they first opened the bunkers at the Al-Qaqaa that shows what appeared to be high explosives still in barrels and bearing the markings of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
U.S. weapons hunters did not give the area a thorough search until May, when they visited on three occasions, starting May 8. They searched every building on the compound over the course of those three visits, but did not find any material or explosives that had been marked by the IAEA.