LOOTED HOPES 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 or speed enough to avoid getting hit, and full body armor suits are great except when 120° temperatures causes the soldier to collapse from heat prostration. 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.
According to the Pentagon, 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. Insurgent attacks have averaged 60-65 a day.
---"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.”
2 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. “Pappas was in charge of MI (military intlligence) in central Iraq and probably the senior guy for the entire country. Ryan went up the chain of command and they told him he doesn’t have the authority. Nobody else did anything, so nothing got done.”
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 obviously would have to fix any damage.
* questions were about looting of Baghdad infrastructure and Museum; inexplicably, 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, “When looting started they just didn’t know how to react. 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… when we were still buddies.”
The cost has been borne by soldiers blasted by massive IED’s and car bombs2, which were easily available only because of the looting: 783 coalition deaths (Iraq Coalition Casualty Count) and 2000-4000 wounded. 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: last 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 weapons were in the hands of the populace). Even hundreds of high power transmission towers and lines were destroyed. Iraqis have paid in blood: In the year after turnover of sovereignity, there were 480 car bombings with 2174 killed and 5520 wounded. When enraged Iraqis blame America for these bombings, they aren’t completely wrong.
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.’” As in Afghanistan, we could have bought Sunni sheiks’ cooperation and secured these stolen armaments at a penny on the dollar.
There were, of course, US disposal teams destroying or securing some munitions: 100 tons a day destroyed, according to one report. But way too few in a landscape saturated with arms. Now 150 ordnance experts of an IED task force attempt to stop the bombers with $460 million of Warlock jammers to block the detonation signals, lasers to fry suspected IED’s, bomb robots to examine them, and military detectives to track evidence back to the bombers. Half of all IED’s are supposedly discovered and disarmed successfully. But they’ve evolved enormously in sophistication, aided by officers from Saddam’s Iraq Army Special Operations Branch: the bomb that flipped the Marine amphibious vehicle and killed US 14 soldiers was made up of 3 anti-tank shells stacked on top of each other. Delayed secondary bombs sometimes target rescue people. And like insurgents have unlimited ordnance, they may have unlimited bombers. “There is an ample supply of replacements who will perform as mercenaries – for the money. If one is detained, another one can be recruited,” said Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of the multinational forces. The foreign jihadis are mostly Saudi,and come in through Syria, which doesn’t require a visa for Arab men.
“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, instead of 150,000. 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 900 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 (1882)
2 Includes categories “explosion”, “bomb”, "car bomb", “suicide car bomb” which are also IEDs (as of 11-11). Grenade, RPG, mine, etc 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