U.S. left ammo site unguarded
Friday, October 29, 2004
Six months after the fall of Baghdad, a vast Iraqi weapons depot with tens of thousands of artillery rounds and other explosives remained unguarded, according to two U.S. aid workers who say they reported looting of the site to U.S. military officials.
The aid workers say they informed Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the highest ranking Army officer in Iraq in October 2003 but were told that the United States did not have enough troops to seal off the facility, which included more than 60 bunkers packed with munitions.
“We were outraged,” said Wes Hare, city manager of La Grande, who was working in Iraq as part of a rebuilding program. A colleague who also visited the depot, Jerry Kuhaida, said it appeared that the explosives at the Ukhaider Ammunition Storage Area had found their way to insurgents targeting U.S. forces.
“There’s no question in my mind that the stuff in Ukhaider was used by terrorists,” said Kuhaida.
The issue of whether U.S. forces did enough to keep Iraqi munitions out of the hands of insurgents has emerged as a central issue in the presidential campaign. Sen. John Kerry said it was an example of the administration’s “continuing misjudgments” on Iraq while President Bush has dismissed the criticism as “wild charges.”
The bitter exchanges were prompted by reports Monday that as much as 377 tons of highly powerful explosives had disappeared from a weapons depot in Al-Qaqaa after the arrival of U.S. forces. Al-Qaqaa is about 50 miles northeast of the Ukhaider site, which was used to store artillery shells and small-arms ammunition.
A Pentagon official Thursday acknowledged that the United States had been forced to leave many ammunition dumps in Iraq unguarded. The official, who declined to be identified, said the U.S. military had identified about 900 sensitive weapons sites in Iraq but had assigned only “a brigade-sized force” to deal with them. A brigade typically has about 3,500 soldiers.
“The country was made into a major ammo dump by the Hussein regime as they prepared to fight, and have left cleanup to us,” the official said by e-mail. “If that were our only job we could devote more troops to the task, but the majority of our troops are fighting the enemy. When bullets are flying you’ve got to decide on your priorities, and sending a bullet back is the preferred alternative.”
The official said he could not speak to how Sanchez had handled the report about Ukhaider.
The Iraqi insurgency has effectively used what the U.S. military calls improvised explosive devices — artillery shells and other munitions buried in roads or carried by suicide car bombers. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq by IEDs and thousands more maimed.
The two American aid workers who stumbled upon the Ukhaider depot, Hare and Kuhaida, were in Iraq as employees of the International City/County Management Association. They said in separate interviews that they found the depot on Oct. 10, 2003, while on a recreational trip with Polish soldiers through the desert southwest of Karbala, Iraq.
They visited a lake and the ruins of the Palace of Ukhaider.
After leaving the palace, they followed a remote road that led to a facility surrounded by several strands of barbed wire. As they got closer, Hare and Kuhaida said, they saw a series of open bunkers with mortar rounds, ammunition and loose gunpowder scattered around the grounds.
The area appeared to be guarded by a half-dozen kids in their teens and early 20s who had perhaps one rifle among them, and no vehicle to patrol the complex’s hundreds of acres. Kuhaida said nobody knew whether they were working for the military, the insurgents or someone else.
When he saw the ordnance littering the landscape, a Polish colonel traveling with the Americans, Cezary Rog, was in “shock,” Kuhaida recalled.
The kids who were stationed at the depot told Kuhaida and Hare that they regularly heard trucks coming and going at night. Hare said he was told that some weapons were ferried across the lake. And the men were shown an intruder’s truck that was blown up one night, apparently by an errant explosive.
Looters had been carting away munitions, Hare said. “It’s indisputable.”
“The big concern we had was that something had to be done,” Kuhaida said. “It was all fresh ammunition and gunpowder.”
So Kuhaida pledged to try to contact Sanchez, who was commanding U.S. forces in Iraq at the time. He found Sanchez’s e-mail address on the Internet and sent a message saying he wanted to pass along some information.
When one of the general’s aides replied, Kuhaida sent a list of munitions found at the depot, along with coordinates of its location. And he urged the military to secure the site.
The aide sent an immediate reply that said “they were taking action,” Kuhaida said.
But when Kuhaida met the aide face to face in Baghdad a month later and asked about the depot, the aide told him the military simply didn’t have enough troops to guard the site.
“There’s no question in my mind that these guys were sincere about it,” he said of their desire to keep munitions from falling into the wrong hands. “They just didn’t have the resources.”
Hare took a leave of absence from his municipal job in Oregon to serve as a civilian consultant to local governments in the Karbala region from September 2003 through March 2004. He currently is on a 10-day mission with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Croatia, where he spoke by phone to The Oregonian.
Kuhaida resigned his job as an elected official in Tennessee to serve in the same program. He now lives a “semi-retired” life at home, where he is considering whether to return to Iraq to help people who are trying to learn to govern themselves.
Hare said he didn’t see any looters at the depot that day last October. “If I had, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.
The presence of so much loose weaponry in the “essentially unguarded” complex, at a time when U.S. military vehicles were increasingly being attacked by roadside and vehicle-borne bombs, “was a travesty,” said Hare.
Kuhaida said he was troubled by the ability of insurgents and terrorists to freely enter and exit the depot. “It’s a straight shot to Syria and Jordan,” he said. And the depot is easily reached by back roads from Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-American sentiment.
U.S. military and intelligence officials were well aware of the facility. Declassified documents from the first Persian Gulf War show that it was bombed in 1991 as a suspected storage site for biological weapons.
On Jan. 16, 2003, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, U.N. weapons inspectors said they found 11 empty chemical warheads at Ukhaider. They said at the time the complex consisted of a series of bunkers built in the late 1990s.
A week after the fall of Baghdad, on April 16, 2003, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division discovered the depot, according to a report in The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. The soldiers said they found 65 bunkers, 75 open depots, and enough ammunition to support nearly two divisions of soldiers. The soldiers said the depot held an estimated 200,000 156 mm artillery rounds, along with mortar rounds, tank rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, the anti-armor munition that has been a weapon of choice for the Iraqi insurgency.
“The site was five times bigger than the ammunition supply point at Fort Bragg,” said Maj. Joe Gregg, identified by The Observer as the operations officer for the 3rd Battalion of the 82nd’s 325th Airborne Infantry Division. Gregg, the newspaper said, believed it was the biggest weapons stockpile he had ever seen.
Mike Francis: 503-294-5955; firstname.lastname@example.org