Pentagon’s response to the explosion in Baghdad: Oops!

When the first reports about the enormous explosion at the US-controlled Baghdad ammunition storage facility hit the news, it was reported that a team of US Army soldiers detonated a load of confiscated weapons near… the ammunition depot. Local residents who witnessed the incident saw several vehicles full of confiscated weapons brought in to the site and detonated. The initial explosion caused a chain reaction resulting in a massive blast of rocket fuel stored at the facility. Several burned out rocket boosters were found around the site following the explosion.

Originally the US troops on the scene confirmed that they were trying to set off a “series of controlled explosions” to destroy the ammunition they’ve found. Evidently it worked and no US troops were hurt in the process – somebody just forgot to evacuate the civilians. Later, however, the official Pentagon story on the incident has changed following a violent outburst by the local residents against the US troops in the area. Now Pentagon officials claim that the ammunition dump was fired upon by a group of unknown assailants who used four flares to set off the explosion. It was specified that “one of the flares caused the explosion”.

It is not clear where such details are coming from: a rocket flare has a range of only a few dozen meters; the resulting explosions affected an area of several hundred meters in diameter; between 12 and 40 civilians were killed and dozens more were wounded; the US troops stayed away from the ammo depot and no US soldiers were hurt; the mysterious attackers and their flares were not seen by the civilian witnesses directly at the scene.

There’ve been many similar cases in the past two years when US troops or their allies were involved in accidental ammunition explosions in Afghanistan. On December 10, 2001 a British Royal Engineer was injured while working with ammunition found at the Bagram airport in Kabul. Less than a week later three US Marines were injured while clearing ammunition at Qandahar airport in southern Afghanistan. On December 18, 2001, another soldier – this time an American – was wounded at Bagram airport while working with ammo. On January 1, 2002, a US Special Operations soldier was badly burned while trying to setoff a controlled explosion of ammunition at the Qandahar airport.

Three Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were injured when an unknown item exploded in a burn pit while they were burning trash at their base camp in Qandahar on January 17, 2002. On the same day an Australian soldier was injured while trying to remove a mine he found during a patrol mission. On March 6, 2002, two German soldiers were killed and five wounded in addition to three killed and three wounded servicemen from Denmark as a result of an SA-3 surface – to – air missile explosion: the soldiers were trying to remove pieces of the missile they found to be used as souvenirs.

On April 15, 2002, four US soldiers were killed and one was wounded when they tried to clear some 107mm rockets they found in southern Afghanistan. The next day eight British soldiers were wounded when the ordnance they were disposing of detonated. The list goes on and includes dozens more killed and wounded in accidental explosions while disposing of ammunition. It is apparent that in many cases the explosives were handled by troops without special training or adequate experience.
An Iraqi woman grieves as five coffins are brought into their former home in the Baghdad suburb of Zaafaraniya after an explosion, April 26, 2003. Many Iraqi civilians were believed killed on Saturday when an arms dump exploded outside Baghdad, sending rockets scything into nearby housing, and residents blamed U.S. troops for the tragedy. REUTERS/Chris Helgren