The looting of Iraq's arsenal

The same month Al Qaqaa was being stripped of high explosives, I warned my military intelligence unit of another weapons facility that was being cleaned out. But nothing was done.

Published October 29, 2004 11:25PM (EDT)

When I read last Sunday's New York Times story of the missing explosives from the Iraqi weapons storage facility south of Baghdad at Al Qaqaa, it brought back memories from my time with the Army National Guard's 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion in Iraq last year. Bad memories. In the Times story, Iraqi scientists who worked at Al Qaqaa described how the facility was looted of almost 400 tons of high explosives right after the American troops swept through the area in April 2003 and failed to secure the site.

But Al Qaqaa is not the whole story. The same month it was being looted, I learned of another major weapons and ammunition storage facility, near my battalion's base at Camp Anaconda, that was unguarded and targeted by looters. But despite my repeated warnings -- and those of other U.S. intelligence agents -- nothing was done to secure this facility, as it was systematically stripped of enough weapons and explosives to equip anti-U.S. insurgents with enough roadside improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, for years to come.

Camp Anaconda, where I was stationed with the 223rd from April through October, 2003, is a sprawling logistical supply base located 50 miles north of Baghdad which once served as one of Saddam's largest air force bases. It is now home to over 22,000 U.S. troops, mostly Army but some Air Force personnel as well, and serves as the main supply point for American forces throughout Iraq. Hundreds of heavy trucks in long convoys enter and leave the two main gates every day, 24 hours a day, hauling every conceivable item that an army at war might need.

When I first arrived at Anaconda in late April of 2003 however, the base was a barren, desolate outpost. There were only about 200 soldiers on the base when we first arrived with our wartime convoy of California and Massachusetts National Guard troops up from Kuwait. The base had been vacated by Iraqi forces just days before our arrival. The signs of battle were everywhere, starting with the charred remains of the guard shack at the main gate and continuing all over the base in the form of bomb craters, bullet holes and wrecked vehicles. With a total area of about 15 square miles within the base to defend, and with just a couple hundred soldiers to do it, security was our main concern. The war was still going on and the base was located right in the middle of the hot zone known as the Sunni Triangle. We all took turns standing watch on one of the many guard towers that ringed the base.

As a counterintelligence agent, one of my main jobs was to talk to local Iraqis and gather information on any possible threats to the security of the Army. This is called "force protection." In order to do that, we recruit and train local people to act as informants to provide us with needed information on the location and intention of the bad guys and their weapons. This is also known as "human intelligence" and is the area most lacking in our war on terrorism thus far.

During the period just after we arrived at Anaconda, the Iraqi people were actually very supportive of our presence and would line up at the entrances to the base in order to bring us information on all manner of things and also to ask for assistance with their medical or other needs. Those bringing us information were referred to as "walk-ins." Some of the best intelligence I obtained during my tour in Iraq came from walk-ins.

Sometime in early May 2003, several local walk-ins came to the base and told me that there was a large weapons storage facility located about two or three kilometers to the south that was abandoned after the Iraqi forces fled the area following the collapse of the Saddam regime on April 9, 2003. The facility, they said, was still unguarded. The Iraqi guards had simply deserted their posts and disappeared. The storage facility, I was told, was an annex to the main base at Anaconda and was used by the Iraqi Air Force to store bombs, missiles and other ordnance. These same people said that they were concerned that their children might pick up some of the explosives or landmines that were stored there and blow themselves up. I was also told that local "Ali Babbas" or thieves were looting the site daily and word in the local communities was that they were selling the weapons and explosives to ex-Baath party members for use in attacking U.S forces.

My team and I immediately went out to the location, finding a huge facility perhaps 5 square miles or more in size. It was composed of dozens of both underground bunkers and above-ground storage buildings. I was stunned to see vast amounts of weapons simply lying around on the ground littering the base. Some of these weapons included surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles, land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms ammunition, hand grenades, detonator caps, plastic explosives and other assorted ammunition and weaponry. It was quite a frightening sight.

My team took pictures of the site and all of the weapons and ammunition and filed a report immediately after returning to Anaconda. I also verbally briefed my battalion commander, Lt. Col. Timothy Ryan, as was the policy with any significant event such as this. Upon hearing my report, Lt. Col. Ryan requested that I take him back out to the site the next day, which I did. Ryan toured the facility just as I had done and saw all of the unsecured weaponry and ammunition. Ryan told me that he would talk to EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) and "have the stuff removed."

It should be noted that after U.S forces moved into Iraq and the Saddam regime fell, the responsibility for securing and disposing weapons and explosives at the many storage sites scattered across Iraq became the instant responsibility of the U.S military. The Iraqi police, or any other local public authority that could have taken responsibility, simply no longer existed.

I do not know whether Ryan relayed my reports about the storage site to the appropriate military officials. I placed calls to his office on Thursday for comment, but received no replies. In all fairness to him, Ryan did not have the authority to either remove the material or to post guards. He would have had to request such action through his chain of command, in this case, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th M.I. Battalion of Abu Ghraib fame. But in any event, no action was taken.

For the next several weeks I continued to receive reports from my sources in the community that the weapons were still at the storage facility, there were still no guards, and the looting was continuing. I made three or four more trips to the site between May and August and confirmed that the facility was in fact unsecured and that weapons and ammunition were still exposed. On one such visit I actually saw some Iraqis in the distance driving a pickup truck and stopping at bunkers inside the storage facility, no doubt helping themselves. During one visit that summer, I took note of some land mines that were stored in an above-ground building at the site. The next time I visited the site, the land mines were gone.

After each visit, I filed reports to the 223rd OMT (Operations Management Team) on the exposed weaponry and the risk to coalition forces. The Iraqi villagers kept coming and telling me of the dangerous situation and asking me why the Americans could not place guards at the facility or haul the stuff away. I had no answer for them.

It is interesting to me to note now, as I recall these incidents, that my brigade commander from July 1 onward at Anaconda was Col. Pappas, who I remember making trips to Abu Ghraib several times a week. Although I did not report on the unguarded site directly to Pappas, he undoubtedly received all of my reports.

While working on this story, I called another member of the unit who served in Iraq with me at Anaconda, Sgt. Greg Ford. Ford was also a counterintelligence agent and is now retired from the National Guard and lives in California. Ford also remembers the vast weapons stockpiles lying open to looters just outside Anaconda. He advised me that he had also filed at least one written report about the problem and verbally advised Lt. Col. Ryan as well. Ford told me, "No one seemed too interested in what I said about that stuff. I went out there several times after I told them and the place was still unguarded. The more times I went out there, the more stuff was missing. It really sucked." Ford went on to say that his sources had also told him that local insurgents, ex-Baath party members as they were known then, were going to use the weapons as roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In fact, Ford told me, one of his sources in Samarra, a tribal sheik, told him that an Iraqi expatriate living in Syria had been sending drivers across the porous border between the two countries and systematically looting weapons storage facilities, including Al Qaqaa, for material to be used in making IEDs. Until that time, late spring of 2003, IEDs were virtually unknown in Iraq. But beginning around June, they became a common threat to U.S. forces around Anaconda and elsewhere.

Ford also told me of a warehouse outside the city of al Khalis, located about 15 kilometers south of Anaconda. During a visit there in May or June 2003, his intelligence team discovered a huge cache of weapons, including heavy machine guns, ammunition, missiles and large chemical drums with Russian insignia. The local people he spoke with told him it had been abandoned right after the regime fell and had been looted ever since. Ford said he filed a written report and verbally briefed his unit upon his return to base. He requested an EOD team to remove the weapons and chemicals. When he returned two days later, almost all of the weapons and chemical drums were gone. When he asked his local sources if the American soldiers had removed them, he was told "No, Ali Babba took them!" The warehouse had been looted and the weapons were now on the street.

Michael Marciello, another ex-counterintelligence agent from the 223rd, told me a similar story on Thursday. He said that he too informed his unit chain of command about the unguarded storage facility outside of Anaconda, but got no response. Marciello told me that he saw many such unsecured storage sites all over Iraq that were full of weapons and ammunition. "They were commonplace," he told me. "Nobody really cared about them."

An Army civilian interpreter who worked with the 223rd last year had a blunter assessment of the U.S. military command's vigilance. "They just didn't give a shit," said Abdullah Khalil, a Kurdish-American who served in Iraq last year with several Army units, including the 223rd. "I told Ryan many times about those weapons and that they were being stolen. People in the villages asked me all the time when are we (the Americans) going to move them? I asked Ryan what is he going to do? He never even answered me. Because I am Iraqi, he treated me like an animal. What happened in Al Qaqaa is no surprise."

On Thursday I spoke with Department of Defense spokesperson, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, who told me that he is not aware of any reports about unsecured weapons storage facilities near Camp Anaconda. He also said that "the priority of the troops at that time was taking down the Saddam regime." Since the regime's fall, said Venable, "Coalition forces have destroyed 240,000 tons of munitions and have secured another 160,000 tons that are awaiting destruction." When asked if there were enough troops to secure the weapons sites after the war, he insisted, "There were enough troops to complete the mission." Are there still unsecured weapons storage sites in Iraq that are being looted even as we speak, I asked? Lt. Col. Venable admitted he had no idea.

By David DeBatto

David DeBatto is an author and former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Iraq War