AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Looted Hopes in Iraq
by Michael Hammerschlag
There has been much commotion over the lack of armor on Iraq vehicles and vests, but that’s always been a trade-off: if you reinforce a HUMV enough to survive an RPG strike, you may make it too heavy to accelerate enough to avoid getting hit, and full body armor suits are great, except when 120° temperatures causes heat prostration. As our death toll passes 2000, the far more egregious outrage is why these hundreds of thousands of tons of ordnance were allowed to be looted by insurgents in the first place. (see photo)
The Pentagon admits a breathtaking 250,000 tons of heavy ordnance (out of 650,000 tons total): aircraft bombs, artillery and tank shells, mines, rockets were allowed to be looted by our undermanned army in the 4-30 weeks after invasion through gross negligence at the top- equivalent to 1 million 500 lb bombs. At ten 500 lb. roadside mines or market closeouts a day, that's enough for 274 years of attacks.
---"During the fall of 2003, what you would see was Iraqis going in at night, individually and in trucks," US weapons inspector David Kay told U.S. News . "They would pull ordnances out and drive off." Security was so bad after Saddam Hussein's regime fell, Kay recalled, that his team was often shot at by insurgents when they went to inspect the sites: "There were just not enough boots on the ground, and the military didn't give it a high enough priority to stop the looting. Tens of thousands of tons of ammunition were being looted, and that is what is fueling the insurgency." -US News+WR report
David BeBatto, a Military counterintelligence officer at the massive Camp Annaconda 50 miles north of Baghdad, in charge of hunting the deck-of-cards Baathists, found a 5 square mile ammo dump under 2 miles south of the camp in April 2003 “littered with anti-aircraft missiles, land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives” in dozens of bunkers. He reported it again and again in written reports to his battalion commander Lt. Col. Timothy Ryan, even giving him a tour of the dump. “Local Iraqis told us- ‘these guys’ – and they would point to looters in the distance- ‘are fedayeen. They’re going to take this and make it into bombs and use it against you,’” he said in an interview. Nothing was done. “We had enough people.. if we had placed 4,5,6 guys at the main entry to that facility, that would have been enough!.. Every time I went back there, there was less.”
Two other intelligence agents also reported seeing that and many unsecured ammo dumps all over Iraq bursting with deadly material- all of which were massive looted. “They were wasting people for really menial things: KP, when there were a thousand Iraqis begging to do it for a jug of water. I would have feasts with shieks and ministers- when I came back me and my team of counterintelligence special agents would be.. emptying out latrines. Bottom line is they ignored it- (because of) a lack of people, ignorance, and .. absolute lack of planning for the occupation. Every day was a new day- you made it up as you went along.” Ryan’s commander from July 2003 was Col. Thomas Pappas, convicted of dereliction of duty and relieved for his part in Abu Graib abuse scandal, who directed Ryan to take no action about the looting.
When questioned about the looting*, Donald Rumsfeld, famously replied with the blithe insolence of a drunken teenager who had crashed the family car, “Freedom's untidy. And free people are free to commit mistakes, and to commit crimes and do bad things…. Stuff happens.” The looting was "part of the price" for the liberation of Iraq and not uncommon for countries that experience significant social upheaval. Incredibly Rumsfeld seemed to think the looting was a finger in Saddam’s eye and a healthy release of “pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression”, although after the invasion America owned Iraq and would have to fix any damage.
* questions were about looting of Baghdad infrastructure and Museum; deadly munitions never came up.
The First Rule of Occupation since the Sumerians is: disarm the population, but Rumsfeld knew better, wanting to test his faster lighter cheaper invasion theories, and blindly convinced we would be feted as liberators. DeBatto says, “They made a decision at the highest level- Rumsfeld- to just let it go. They wanted not to be seen as brutal occupiers and didn’t react at all. You had these heavily armed Americans who could have stopped anything, yet they let these looters take everything they wanted. We have given every weapon Saddam stored for 30 years.. to every terrorist and 2-bit thug in the Middle East.”
Worst was the Manhattan-sized weapons dump of Al Qaqa'a (an issue before the 2004 US election), loaded with 380 tons of HMX, RDX, PETN high explosives, so powerful they are used in nuclear bombs, and useable in making near undetectable IED's out of rubble (no metal). The 101 Airborne Div., who swept the area April 7-10, 2003, said they "did not receive orders to search and secure the entire facility or search for high explosive-type munitions." By May 27, it was stripped of all explosives by looters.
Even the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility was allowed to be looted under the noses of US troops, putting a lie to the entire WMD excuse for invasion, and releasing dangerous radioactive compounds. Although only the IAEA knew what existed there, the administration blocked them from inspecting it for 2 months. Debatto found empty shells meant to be filled with chemicals and bills of lading from the late 80’s. “The only WMD I found in Iraq was supplied by the USA… sanctioned by George Bush Sn. when we were still buddies.”
The cost has been borne by soldiers blasted by massive IED’s and car bombs, which were easily available only because of the looting: 745 coalition deaths2 (Iraq Coalition Casualty Count) and 2000-5000 wounded by Oct 26. Insurgents have destroyed everything short of Abrams tanks with these artillery shell or air bomb IED’s, sometimes daisy chained together or shaped to penetrate armor. Although US forces are stopping half of them, IED’s now cause the majority of US deaths in Iraq, 176 (59%) from IED or car bomb in the last 4 months alone (May-Aug 2005) compared to only 77 from the same period in 2004. The Marines have really suffered: in June, 24 of 28 Marine fatalities, 85%, were from IED’s and car bombs†. In addition, helicopter crash deaths from anti-aircraft missiles, RPG and missile attacks on vehicles, even mortar fatalities could be largely blamed on the unlimited looting.
America initially had enormous authority as the new overlord who had easily vanquished a brutal dictator. The looting of all institutions first caused amazement among Iraqis, then outrage, then disgust, finally contempt; which allowed the insurgency to flower. America wasn’t all powerful; but seemed incompetent, careless, impotent, reckless; and the protective aura of invincibility evaporated. The one thing Iraq required was order, but the USA refused to keep it, although an explosion of looting was to be expected once the pressure cooker lid was finally released on totalitarian Iraq (where no heavy weapons were in the hands of the populace). Even hundreds of high power transmission towers and lines were destroyed.
We were ignorant towards their culture too. “Iraq is a tribal country- everything revolves around the sheiks,” explains DeBatto. “They came hundreds of miles and said, ‘We will contain our tribe, we guarantee there will be no problem in this sector as long as you deal with (pay) me and don’t go in on your own.’ The Army refused to deal with that. They said, ‘Nope… we are the law and you don’t tell us what to do.’”
“It all comes back to Rumsfeld: he tried to do the war on the cheap at the expense of the miltary,” fumes DeBatto. “If we had contained the looting, I firmly believe, Iraqis would have still liked us, we could have sent the vast majority of our people home, and left a small number to train their people. Things would be very different today.”
Rumsfeld said in the 2004 Congressional hearings on Abu Graib that, I would resign in a minute if I thought that I couldn't be effective.” He wasn’t- he cavalierly ignored the most basic rules of invasion and perhaps 1000 Americans have paid the ultimate price for his arrogance and hubris. He should resign or be fired, or suffer the endless chants of Cindy Sheehans camped at his door, or the doorstep of his mind.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; or in this case, a quarter million tons and 140,000 troops of it.
Copyright©2005 Michael Hammerschlag
† 490 Iraq Marine deaths as of June 3,’05; total 565 Aug 31, inc. attached Navy; 30% of all US fatalities then(1882)
2 Includes categories “explosion”, “bomb”, “suicide car bomb” which are also IEDs (10-26). Grenade, RPG, mine, etc deaths listed separately
Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and articles (HAMMERNEWS.com) have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence. Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian. He's been a TV reporter, foreign correspondent, and produced documentaries. He spent 2 years in Russia from 1991-94, while multiple wars raged in the Islamic southern republics. firstname.lastname@example.org