Russians ‘may have taken Iraq explosives’

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The controversy over Iraq’s missing explosives intensified on Wednesday as the Bush administration rejected charges of incompetence and a senior Pentagon official claimed the munitions may have been removed by Russians before the US-led invasion.

Breaking his silence over an issue that has dominated headlines since Monday, President George W. Bush accused John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, of making “wild charges” over the 350 tonnes of explosives and weapons.

The Pentagon is still investigating their disappearance. But Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, said there was a “very real possibility” the munitions were taken by the Saddam Hussein regime before US troops arrived at the munitions facility at al-Qaqaa, south of Baghdad.

At a rally in Iowa on Wednesday, however, Mr Kerry claimed that Mr Bush had allowed the explosives to fall into the hands of Iraqi rebels. Later, his campaign conceded that the Hussein regime might have removed the munitions before the invasion.

But in a further development, John Shaw, a deputy under-secretary of defence, suggested that “Russian units” had transported the explosives out of the country.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Shaw said: “For nearly nine months my office has been aware of an elaborate scheme set up by Saddam Hussein to finance and disguise his weapons purchases through his international suppliers, principally the Russians and French. That network included. . . employing various Russian units on the eve of hostilities to orchestrate the collection of munitions and assure their transport out of Iraq via Syria.”

The Russian embassy in Washington rejected the claims as “nonsense”, saying there were no Russian military in the country at the time.

Mr Shaw, who heads the Pentagon’s international armament and technology trade directorate, has not provided evidence for his claims and the Pentagon distanced itself from his remarks.

“I am unaware of any particular information on that point,” said Larry Di Rita, Pentagon spokesman. The issue has dominated the presidential campaign since the International Atomic Energy Agency raised it at the UN Security Council on Monday. The Iraqi government says the explosives disappeared during looting after US forces seized Baghdad. But Colonel Dave Perkins, who commanded the first troops into al-Qaqaa, yesterday said it was “highly improbable” someone could have removed the munitions after US forces had taken control of the area.

The US has in the past raised concerns about Russian activities in Iraq before the invasion. During the war, Mr Bush called Vladimir Putin, Russian president, to voice concerns that Russian companies at least one state-owned had provided Iraq with anti-tank guided missiles, satellite jamming devices and night-vision goggles. Russia denied the charges and promised an investigation.

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