|(CNN) -- The disappearance of nearly 380 tons of sophisticated explosives in Iraq remained in question Tuesday and continued to be an issue in the presidential campaign.|
The day after the Bush campaign pointed to an NBC report to quash the story, the network reporter who visited the Al Qaqaa weapons depot with American soldiers in April 2003 played down their role at the facility.
Pentagon officials acknowledged there was a window of about six weeks after the invasion of Iraq when the stockpile could have been stolen from the sprawling facility near Baghdad.
They argued it is more likely, however, that the explosives were moved before the war began March 19, 2003.
The Iraqi government notified U.N. nuclear monitors in early October that an explosives stockpile was missing from the Al Qaqaa arms depot, blaming the disappearance on looting that followed the collapse of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003.
The news of the missing stockpile was reported by several media outlets soon after the invasion, but the issue resurfaced Monday when The New York Times reported the Iraqi letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization.
In the letter, dated October 10, the interim government blamed "the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security." (Full story)
The explosives, considered powerful enough to demolish buildings and detonate nuclear warheads, were well known before the war and had been sealed by U.N. inspectors, the IAEA said.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry continued his attacks on President Bush over the issue for a second day Tuesday.
"What did the president have to say about the missing explosives? Not a word. Complete silence," Kerry said during a stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
"Despite devastating evidence that his administration's failure here has put our troops and our citizens are in greater danger, George Bush has not offered a single word of explanation."
Bush did not answer a reporter's shouted questions about the issue at a campaign stop in Richland, Wisconsin, but Vice President Dick Cheney blasted Kerry for "playing armchair general."
Cheney told supporters in Pensacola, Florida, that it was not clear when and how the explosive cache disappeared.
"The actions of America's fighting men and women have made the world safer, and it's time for John Kerry to own up to that fact," he said. "Senator Kerry is playing armchair general, and not doing a very good job of it."
In the NBC report cited by the Bush campaign, the reporter embedded with American troops when they visited Al Qaqaa on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell, said she did not see any explosives.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said the NBC report showed that Kerry's allegations were "baseless."
But the reporter, Lai Ling Jew, said in an interview Tuesday on the network's cable arm, MSNBC, that the 24-hour visit by elements of the 101st Airborne Division was "more of a pit stop."
U.S. troops did not conduct a detailed search of the compound nor did they try to prevent looting, she said.
The IAEA said Tuesday the last time it can vouch for the presence of the explosives at Al Qaqaa was in March 2003, before the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the agency warned U.S. officials in May 2003 that U.N. inspectors feared the site might have been looted.
On May 27, inspectors with the Iraq Survey Group -- the CIA-Pentagon task force set up to account for Saddam's suspected weapons programs -- arrived to inspect the compound and did not find the stockpile.
In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said it "looks to me like somehow the multinational force didn't stay on top of this."
He referred further comment to the Pentagon, but added, "We're shocked."
David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, said Iraq often dispersed its ordnance when threatened with military action.
"Iraqi behavior when they believed they were going to be attacked would be to empty the bunkers and scatter the material around the site," he said.
News reports during the conflict indicated that troops from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division entered the Al Qaqaa site on April 4, 2003, finding thousands of boxes of white powder that preliminary tests determined was an explosive. The 101st Airborne Division troops arrived six days later.
No material under IAEA seal was found, but Pentagon officials said the troops were not under orders to conduct a thorough inspection.
Pentagon officials admit the facility was not completely secured between April 10 and May 27, but many U.S. troops were in the general area.
Although small-scale looting was possible, they scoffed at the idea that the large number of heavy trucks required to transport the 380 tons of missing explosives could have been moved into the facility unnoticed during that time.
Russia calls for investigation
Russia called on the U.N. Security Council to investigate the issue Tuesday, but the United States said there was no need.
Andrey Denisov, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, told a closed meeting of the council that Russia wants to discuss the missing explosives as well as the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador John Danforth said, "We have in place the Iraq Survey Group, which is equipped to look into all of this."
The news of the missing explosives followed an IAEA report earlier this month that said high-end, dual-use machinery that could be used in a nuclear weapons program was missing from Iraq's nuclear facilities. (Full story)
CNN's Jamie McIntyre, Suzanne Malveaux, Elise Labott and Liz Neisloss contributed to this report.