VIENNA, Austria — Revelations that nearly 400 tons of conventional explosives have disappeared in Iraq have experts worrying that other weapons might also be in jeopardy of falling into insurgent or terrorist hands.
Even the State Department concedes it can't provide "100 percent security for 100 percent of the sites." And by all accounts, Iraq is studded with weapons depots — many in places where U.S.-led forces are preoccupied by fierce fighting.
Troubling questions about what other weapons could be vulnerable to looting have arisen since the U.N. nuclear agency's warning this week that 377 tons of non-nuclear explosives vanished from the former Al-Qaqaa military installation south of Baghdad.
International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Tuesday that the Iraqis have not told the IAEA about any other missing materials since their Oct. 10 letter stating that the weapons vanished from Al-Qaqaa as a result of "theft and looting . . . due to lack of security" sometime after coalition forces took control of the capital.
But she said the agency's chief Iraq inspector, Jacques Baute, "would encourage more such reporting on what has happened to sites subject to IAEA verification." IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei reported the explosives' disappearance to the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
The missing explosives have become a hot issue in the final week of the presidential campaign, with the White House stressing that the U.S.-led coalition has destroyed hundreds of thousands of munitions and the Kerry campaign calling the disappearance the latest in a "tragic series of blunders."
"There was an utter lack of curiosity to follow up on what was well-known to the U.N.," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector.
"There was a systematic failure of the military, which overran the country and left all these explosives behind without protecting its rear," he said. "The military should have had the sense to either secure high explosives and armaments or blow them up as they went through."
The Al-Qaqaa explosives included HMX and RDX, key components in plastic explosives, which insurgents in Iraq have used in repeated bomb attacks on the U.S.-led multinational force.
Among Iraq's known weapons depots is one near Khaldiya — about 50 miles west of the capital — where a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. convoy Monday, destroying at least two Humvees. Others have been identified around Tikrit and near Karbala — places where U.S.-led forces have battled insurgents and been targeted by car bombs.
Last week, a patrol from the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade discovered a weapons cache at a large depot near Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The cache included 450 anti-tank mines, 300 grenades and 35 rocket-propelled grenades, as well as mortar shells and primers.
The Pentagon said U.S.-led forces that searched the Al-Qaqaa facility after last year's invasion found some explosive material but that none of it carried IAEA seals. The nuclear agency's inspectors had sealed storage bunkers shortly before the war because HMX is a "dual use" explosive that also can be used as an ignitor on a nuclear bomb.
"Our greatest concern from both a proliferation standpoint and from a standpoint of danger to human beings was Al-Qaqaa," the IAEA's Fleming said.
Weapons experts are questioning why Al-Qaqaa — once a key facility in Saddam Hussein's effort to build a nuclear bomb — wasn't under 24-hour guard.
The facility was considered "the pre-eminent site for high explosive stockpiles," a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The explosives missing from Al-Qaqaa could produce hundreds of thousands of bombs — more than enough to "fuel an insurgency literally for years," said Shannon Kyle, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said coalition forces were present in the vicinity of the site both during and after major combat operations, which ended on May 1, 2003. He said they searched the facility but found none of the explosives in question.
That raised the possibility the explosives disappeared before U.S. soldiers could secure the site in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.
However, some reports suggest otherwise.
Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology told the IAEA the explosives disappeared sometime after coalition forces took control of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
An NBC News reporter embedded with a U.S. Army unit that seized the Al-Qaqaa base the following day — April 10, 2003 — said Tuesday that she saw no signs that the Americans searched for the powerful explosives.
Reporter Lai Ling Jew, who accompanied the Army's 101st Airborne, Second Brigade, said her news team stayed at the base for about 24 hours en route to the capital.
"There wasn't a search," she told MSNBC, an NBC cable news channel. "The mission that the brigade had was to get to Baghdad. . . . As far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away."
On Monday night, NBC reported that its embedded crew said U.S. troops did discover significant stockpiles of bombs, but no sign of the missing HMX and RDX explosives.
The Pentagon would not say whether it had informed the IAEA at that point that the conventional explosives were not where they were supposed to be.
Contributing: Mattias Karen.