The death of six coalition soldiers this last Tuesday may have gotten little attention stateside, but it sheds light on one of the biggest problems our troops in Iraq are currently facing -- one that the Bush administration and Congress have yet to properly address.
The soldiers -- two Poles, three Slovaks, and a Latvian -- were killed just south of Baghdad as they transported a few of the estimated up to one million tons of Saddam's conventional weapons arsenal to a disposal area. At first it was reported as an accident, but the truth came out later in the week. A couple of insurgents armed with 82mm mortars had shot off four rounds from about a mile away. One hit pay dirt -- a load of anti-tank and mortar shells. The explosion killed the six men and terribly burned another Polish soldier.
"There was an artillery school in the region and many officers ... having no occupation now, offer their services to the terrorists," Maj. Gen. Mieczyslaw Bieniek, commander of the Polish-led multinational force in south-central Iraq, told the Associated Press.
There's a bit of black humor you'll hear time and again if you talk to U.S. soldiers, weapons experts, and government officials trying to sort out Iraq's deadliest conundrum: Before the war, Iraq was an ammo dump with a government. Now it's just an ammo dump.
The danger posed by the ample number of conventional weapons in Iraq has been somehow lost in the media frenzy over weapons of mass destruction. "Conventional weapons" are, contrary to popular belief, not just old pistols and dusty AK-47s. The term does indeed include crude weaponry, but it likewise encompasses sophisticated Western military hardware such as surface-to-air missiles, sea mines, high-tech tracking systems, rocket-propelled grenades, and bombs weighing in at hundreds of pounds.
When the Spectator published my cover story on this danger three months ago, approximately 350,000 tons of these weapons had been secured. Officials in both the State Department and the Department of Defense told me that the U.S. had no idea going into Iraq that they would find such staggeringly large stockpiles. The unspoken addendum to such a statement is that we had no firm plans to deal with them, either.
Many of these ammo dumps -- some up to 40 square miles -- are wide open and only spottily patrolled, serving as Jihad 7-Elevens. The car bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices and all the rest that we constantly hear about are frequently just piles of spare ordnance packed tightly together with a plastic explosive trigger in the center.
"Even trivial seepage from stockpiles that large is more than enough to sustain the enemy," John Pike, founder of GlobalSecurity.org, told me. "The total amount of explosives being used against the coalition is relatively small. The average car or truck bomb takes maybe a quarter or half ton of explosives."
The Army Corps of Engineers, in concert with private contractors, is working diligently to try and neutralize the threat these weapons pose. It hopes the six demolition sites currently being developed will eventually dispose of 100 tons of ordnance a day. But that won't come easy. The stockpiles are a tempting target for terrorists, especially those in civilian areas. And there are many. Schools, hospitals, private homes, and mosques all served as weapons depots under Saddam. Somewhere between a quarter and a half of the weapons are old, decrepit, and prone to exploding if jostled too much.
It is welcome news that the Pentagon will be sending 5,000 Marines to Iraq to help bolster security. But one can't help thinking that perhaps we should put the recently announced eventual withdrawal of 12,500 troops from South Korea -- a country perfectly able and equipped, both in treasure and weaponry, to defend itself -- on the fast track and send those forces to fortify and expedite the defense and destruction of these weapons of conventional destruction.
Doing so might result in a bit of bad PR about America abandoning its charge. But, frankly, that's a price we should be willing to pay to protect the lives of the coalition soldiers and ordinary Iraqis currently being terrorized by Saddam's explosive legacy.