Whether it was poetic justice or yet one more instance of hubris, in the end there was indeed an “October surprise.” Call it the WMD-lite scandal: the disappearance of 380 tons of dual-use explosives in Iraq. Certainly Republican Machiavelli-in-charge Karl Rove didn’t see this surprise coming – hitting the Bush administration like a jet converted into a missile. Now the neo-cons and Pentagon civilians are scrambling like mad trying to cover US President George W. Bush’s back and defuse yet another spectacular blunder.

Where’s the booty?

The 2nd Brigade of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, on its way to Baghdad, reached the sprawling al-Qaqaa compound on April 3, 2003. In a brief arranged by the Pentagon itself, the brigade commander at the time, Colonel Dave Perkins, said early this week it was “very highly improbable” that Iraqis could have looted – in fact trucked out – 380 tons (345,000 kilograms) of dual-use RDX and HMX explosives (which can be used to detonate nuclear bombs) in the less than four weeks between the last time inspectors for the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) checked the seals on the bunkers where they were stored and the arrival of the first US combat troops.

Perkins also confirmed that his brigade, as well as the 101st Airborne Division, which arrived one week later, conducted no searches at al-Qaqaa. The commander of the 101st told CBS News he would have needed four times as many troops as he had to fulfill this particular mission – apart from all his other duties.

So this is the crucial point in the whole affair: the Pentagon – as well as the IAEA – knew the 380 tons were stored at al-Qaqaa, but US troops didn’t make any move to search for them or secure them, because this was not a priority at the time. This week White House spokesman Scott McClellan all but admitted that securing Iraq’s oil fields and the Ministry of Oil was a much higher priority than securing 345,000kg (760,000 pounds) of the most powerful non-nuclear explosives around (less than one pound blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland). In itself, this admission blows up the Bush administration’s whole case for invading Iraq, weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

There was indeed a “window of opportunity” of less than four weeks between the last IAEA inspection, in early March 2003, and the storming of Baghdad, in early April, when the explosives could have been looted. But Iraqis conclusively deny this possibility. Mohammed al-Sharaa, now in the Science Ministry and someone who worked with UN weapons inspectors under Saddam Hussein, said “it is impossible that these materials could have been taken from this site before the regime’s fall.” He said he and all other relevant officials had been under orders by Saddam’s regime since early March to make sure “not even a shred of paper left the sites.”

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) former weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, also weighed in, saying that looting while Saddam was in power would have been highly implausible. Kay told CNN: “I find it hard to believe that a convoy of 40-60 trucks left that facility prior to or during the war, and we didn’t spot it on satellite or UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle]. That is because it is the main road to Baghdad from the south, a road that was constantly under surveillance. I also don’t find it hard to believe that looters could carry it off in the dead of night or during the day and not use the road network.”

The spin

The initial White House spin was that the US knew absolutely nothing about the missing explosives until recently, October 15 – which in itself would already be an admission of incompetence. But there’s more: the Iraqis claim they told former US proconsul Paul Bremer about it as early as last May – when the occupying power was still formally in charge of al-Qaqaa. And significantly, the Iraqis have also said the White House forced them not to report anything to the IAEA. Bremer – the man at the center of this controversy – must have precise answers. But he is not talking.

The Pentagon at first tried to spin that al-Qaqaa was inspected in early April by the 3rd Infantry Division. This was proved to be nonsense: the sprawling al-Qaqaa complex is composed of roughly 1,000 buildings and bunkers, and inspection was not part of the mission. Now the Pentagon and its propaganda arm Fox News are spinning that on April 3, 2003, the 3rd Infantry Division didn’t find a “huge quantity of munitions,” so the explosives had to be gone.

The point remains that the soldiers were not specifically looking for any explosives: this may have been at best a very brief inspection. But what they did find were thousands of vials of white powder (RDX and HMX are white powders). According to an Associated Press report at the time, the powder was believed to be explosives. As this was a quick inspection, it does not prove that all 380 tons were at al-Qaqaa. But it may be evidence that on April 3 at least some of the stuff was there.

Iraqi reporters working for the New York Times actually managed to interview two employees of al-Qaqaa – a chemical engineer and a mechanic – and a former employee, a chemist. They can’t say exactly when the 380 tons of explosives vanished from al-Qaqaa. It may be possible that the Republican Guards, Saddam fedayeen or Mukhabarat agents discreetly trucked out a few kilos before the invasion. But Wathiq al-Dulaimi, a regional security chief who was based nearby in Latifiya, is absolutely adamant that “the looting started after the collapse of the regime.” He also said the booty went straight to Baghdad.

Why this is so serious

It’s unimaginable that both the Pentagon and the CIA didn’t know exactly what was going on in al-Qaqaa: the sensitive compound had to be under saturated satellite surveillance early last year, as well as each and every Iraqi weapons site. But this information is classified – and it won’t be disclosed for public scrutiny.

The buck, once again, stops with Bush, not Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It was Bush who accepted Rumsfeld’s gamble and decided to send a very small army to Iraq, absolutely incapable of performing a proper post-invasion job (and that’s the key reason for the widespread looting after April 9, 2003: the grand theoretician of Italian Marxism, Antonio Gramsci, will tell us that when the old order collapses and the new order is yet unborn, chaos is the norm).

It’s also fair to assume that if there were any WMD in al-Qaqaa they could have been trucked out to the Iraqi resistance – or to al-Qaeda operatives – in no time. Judging by the avalanche of deadly explosions in these past 18 months, unknown quantities of RDX and HMX have certainly reached the hands of the Iraqi resistance – and might eventually reach terrorist networks who would be able to blow up the entire airline industry. If one follows the warped Bush administration rhetoric of Iraq as the front line on the “war on terror,” this means in fact that “terrorists” may well be in possession of plenty of WMD-lite.

How does the Bush administration get away with all this? Once again, thanks to the media. Apart from the New York Times, CBS News and the blogosphere, US corporate media are doing what the can to shun the story – duly following the White House line. The entire Bush administration spin now consists of “proving” the explosives had already disappeared before April 3, 2003. But accumulated evidence from the “reality-based community” – ie the real world, as compared with the Bush administration’s fantasyland – keeps interfering.

The main Karl Rove-directed administration strategy remains misrepresenting reality to influence people’s judgments – and then hurling a barrage of insults. The Bush administration initially ignores any accusation based on facts. Then it brands the accusation – incompetence in al-Qaqaa, for instance – as a lie. Finally it uses its own fabricated lie – or in this case a different excuse every day – to go into character-assassination mode. This is the heart of Bush’s delayed – at least by two and a half days – “response” to Senator John Kerry on the al-Qaqaa scandal: “See, our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including this one – that explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived, even arrived at the site. The investigation is important and ongoing. And a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not the person you want as the commander-in-chief.”

In this shift-away-the-blame environment, only minor fall guys are responsible for something. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was not responsible for ignoring al-Qaeda before September 11, 2001. Bremer was not responsible for screwing up the occupation. Rumsfeld was not responsible for Abu Ghraib. And certainly Bush is not responsible for anything he does as commander-in-chief: after all, he’s on a mission from God.


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