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Posted: 10/27/2004 4:06:43 PM EDT
[Last Edit: 10/27/2004 4:17:31 PM EDT by J_Smith]
Russians ‘may have taken Iraq explosives’
By Demetri Sevastopulo and Guy Dinmore in Washington and James Harding in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Published: October 28 2004 00:45 | Last updated: October 28 2004 00:45

Iraq flag and mapThe campaign controversy over high explosives missing in Iraq intensified on Wednesday as President George W. Bush accused John Kerry of making “wild charges”, while a senior Pentagon official claimed that Russian troops might have been involved in removing the munitions.

Mr Kerry told a rally in Iowa on Wednesday that Mr Bush had allowed 350 tonnes of explosives to fall into the hands of the insurgents, even as his campaign conceded that the former regime of Saddam Hussein might have removed them before the invasion.

The Pentagon is investigating what happened to the explosives, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said this week had disappeared from a former Iraqi weapons depot. Mr Bush said the explosives might have been removed before US troops arrived at the al-Qaqaa site.

While the candidates sparred over the issue, a senior Pentagon official alleged that “Russian units” might have transported the explosives and other weapons out of Iraq into Syria.

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 a major effort employing various Russian units on the eve of hostilities to both 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 Iraq at the time.

Mr Shaw, who heads the Pentagon's international armament and technology trade directorate, has not provided evidence to back up his assertions, and the Pentagon distanced itself from his remarks.

“I am unaware of anyparticular information on that point,” said Larry Di Rita, Pentagon spokesman. “I would be careful about information that has been asserted because I don't know how accurate it might be.”

The issue has dominated the presidential campaign since the IAEA raised the problem at the United Nations Security Council on Monday. Mr Kerry has charged that the disappearance marked “one of the greatest blunders of this administration, and the incredible incompetence of this president”.

The Democrats' charge that the munitions ended up in the hands of insurgents is based on the official explanation of the Iraqi government, which says that the explosives disappeared during looting after US forces seized Baghdad.

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