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Campaigns battle over missing explosives

Officials fear the missing explosives could be used in bombings like those occurring regularly in Iraq.
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Tons of conventional explosives missing from Iraqi facility.
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(CNN) -- The disappearance of 380 tons of powerful explosives from an Iraq storage depot has become a political football in the U.S. presidential elections as both campaigns look for a last-minute advantage.

The interim Iraqi government recently told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the explosives vanished after Saddam Hussein's government fell, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday.

The explosives are considered powerful enough to demolish buildings or detonate nuclear warheads.

With the U.S. presidential election a week away, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry immediately seized on the report to accuse U.S. President George W. Bush of incompetence in failing to secure the material, charging that "this is one of the great blunders of Iraq and one of the great blunders of this administration."

However, late Monday a U.S. television network embedded with the U.S. military during the Iraq invasion said the explosives had already vanished by the time American troops arrived at the site.

Following the NBC News report, the Bush campaign fired off a statement saying Kerry's criticism of the president over the missing material has "been proven false before the day is over."

"John Kerry's attacks today were baseless," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Monday night. "He said American troops did not secure the explosives, when the explosives were already missing."

Schmidt also said Kerry "neglects to mention the 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives that are either destroyed or in the process of being destroyed" in Iraq.

Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart fired back with a statement of his own, accusing the Bush campaign of "distorting" the NBC report.

"In a shameless attempt to cover up its failure to secure 380 tons of highly explosive material in Iraq, the White House is desperately flailing in an effort to escape blame," Lockhart said.

"It is the latest pathetic excuse from an administration that never admits a mistake, no matter how disastrous."

Lockhart did not elaborate on how the Bush campaign was distorting the NBC report.

NBC said that on April 10, 2003 -- a day after Baghdad fell -- one of its news crews was embedded with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division when the troops arrived at the Al Qaqaa storage facility south of Baghdad.

While the troops found large stockpiles of conventional explosives, they did not find HMX or RDX, the types of powerful explosives that were said to have disappeared, NBC said.

Earlier Monday, the IAEA revealed it had been told two weeks ago by the Iraqi government that 380 tons of HMX and RDX had disappeared from Al Qaqaa after Hussein's government fell.

In a letter dated October 10, the Iraqi government told the IAEA the material disappeared sometime after Hussein's regime fell in April 2003 "throughout the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."

"Therefore, we feel an urgent updating of the registered materials is required," Iraq's director of planning, Mohammed Abbas, wrote.

The missing material, all listed as "highly explosive material," includes 194.7 metric tons of HMX, or "high melting point explosive;" 141.2 metric tons of RDX, or "rapid detonation explosive" among other designations; and 5.8 metric tons of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate.

The explosives were under IAEA control until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. IAEA workers left the country in March 2003 before the fighting began on March 19. The IAEA had verified that the material was present in January 2003.

Abbas' letter was distributed to members of the U.N. Security Council Monday afternoon.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, wrote the president of the Security Council Monday, saying the disappearance had not been made public to give the U.S.-led multinational force and the Iraqi interim government "an opportunity to attempt to recover the explosives."

'Extremely concerned'

"However, as you are aware, the matter has been given media coverage today," ElBaradei said. The New York Times broke the story Monday.

A European diplomat told the Times that ElBaradei was "extremely concerned" about the potentially "devastating consequences" of the vanished stockpile.

"The immediate danger" of the lost stockpiles is its potential use by insurgents to make small, but powerful, bombs, an expert told the Times. The expert said the explosives could be transported easily across the Middle East.

According to the Times, the stockpiles missing from Al Qaqaa are the strongest and fastest in common use by militaries around the globe.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the agency, which is charged with keeping track of everything with potential application to nuclear weapons, had been monitoring about 100 sites in Iraq before the war, but only a few were of special concern, including Al Qaqaa.

"Our immediate concern is that if the explosives did fall into the wrong hands, they could be used to commit terrorist acts and some of the bombings that we've seen," Fleming said.

She described Al Qaqaa as "massive" and said it is one of the most well-known storage sites. Besides the explosives, it also held large caches of artillery.

Fleming said the IAEA, which is based in Vienna, Austria, did not know whether some of the explosives may have been used in past attacks.

The IAEA said it had long warned U.S. officials that important explosives were being stored at Al Qaqaa, which also held huge caches of artillery.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that five days after the IAEA received the letter from the Iraqi government, the agency alerted U.S. officials in Vienna, who in turn told National Security Director Condoleezza Rice. She then alerted Bush, McClellan said.

Once U.S. officials were alerted, the multinational force in Iraq and the Iraq Survey Group, charged with hunting for weapons in Iraq, were ordered to investigate what was missing and the possible circumstances, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

100% security 'impossible'

"We, from the very beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, did everything we could to secure arms caches throughout the country," Ereli said.

"But given the number of arms and the number of caches and the extent of militarization of Iraq, it was impossible to provide 100 percent security for 100 percent of the sites, quite frankly."

Ereli said coalition forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the Al Qaqaa facility after the war for weapons of mass destruction. The troops found none but did see indications of looting, he said. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

"Some explosive material at the time was discovered, although none of it carried IAEA seals, and this discovery was reported to coalition forces for removal of the material," Ereli said.

Ereli said coalition forces have cleared 10,033 weapons caches and destroyed 243,000 tons of munitions. Another 162,898 tons of munitions are at secure locations and awaiting destruction, he said.

The news of the missing explosives came on the heels of another IAEA report this month in which the agency said machinery from Iraq's nuclear facilities was missing.

All of that equipment was described as high-end, dual-use machinery that could be used in a potential nuclear weapons program. (Full story)

A senior administration official played down the importance of the missing explosives, describing them as dangerous material but "stuff you can buy anywhere."

The official noted that the administration did not see this necessarily as a "proliferation risk."

"In the grand scheme -- and on a grand scale -- there are hundreds of tons of weapons, munitions, artillery, explosives that are unaccounted for in Iraq," the official said.

"And like the Pentagon has said, there is really no way the U.S. military could safeguard all of these weapons depots or find all of these missing materials."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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