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Saturday, Jan. 03, 2004 at 5:39 PM
DAMASCUS, Syria - A Syrian trading company with close ties to the ruling regime smuggled weapons and military hardware to Saddam Hussein between 2000 and 2003, helping Syria become the main channel for illicit arms transfers to Iraq despite a stringent U.N. embargo, documents recovered in Iraq show.
The private company, called SES International Corp., is headed by a cousin of Syria's autocratic leader, Bashar Assad, and is controlled by other members of the president's Baath Party and Alawite clan. Syria's government assisted SES in importing at least one shipment destined for Iraq's military, the Iraqi documents indicate, and Western intelligence reports allege that senior Syrian officials were involved in other illicit transfers.
Iraqi records show that SES signed more than 50 contracts to supply tens of millions of dollars' worth of arms and equipment to Iraq's military shortly before the U.S.-led invasion in March. They reveal Iraq's increasingly desperate search in at least a dozen countries for ballistic missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, artillery, spare parts for MiG fighter jets and battle tanks, gunpowder, radar systems, nerve-agent antidotes and more.
The Bush administration accused Damascus in March of sending night-vision goggles and other military equipment into Iraq, but U.S. officials now say the White House was unaware of the extent of the illicit weapons traffic.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry did not respond to numerous faxes and telephone calls asking for clarification of SES's activities. SES also has not responded to requests by the Los Angeles Times for an interview. In an e-mail Monday, the company termed ''false'' any suggestion that it was involved in illicit trade but did not address any of the specific cases.
Files from the Baghdad office of Al Bashair Trading Co., the largest of Iraq's military procurement offices, provide no new evidence about chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq. And not every contract for conventional weapons was filled.
But the successful deals -- such as the delivery of 1,000 heavy machine guns and as many as 20 million bullets for assault rifles -- helped Baghdad's ill-equipped army grow stronger before the war began in March. Some supplies may now be aiding the insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation.
The files reviewed by the Times -- about 800 pages of signed contracts, shipping manifests, export documents, bank deposits, minutes of meetings and more -- offer a rare glimpse into the murky world of international arms smuggling and the ties between nations like Syria and North Korea, so-called ''rogue states,'' and the ousted Iraqi regime.
The documents illustrate the clandestine networks and complex deceptions Iraq used to evade U.N. sanctions and scrutiny by U.S. intelligence. Those include extensive use of front companies, phony export licenses, kickbacks and money-laundering schemes.
A three-month investigation by the Times has found:
• A Polish company, Evax, signed four contracts with Iraq and successfully shipped as many as 380 surface-to-air Volga/SA-2 missile engines to Baghdad through Syria. The last batch was delivered in December 2002, a month after the U.N. Security Council warned Iraq that it faced ''serious consequences'' if it continued to violate U.N. resolutions.
• South Korea's Armitel Co. Ltd. shipped million worth of sophisticated telecommunications equipment for what Iraqi documents said was ''air defense.'' The company is now submitting bids to the U.S.-led occupation authority for contracts to improve telephone and Internet service from Baghdad to Basra.
• Russia's Millenium Company Ltd. signed an .8 million contract in September 2002 to supply mostly American-made communications and surveillance gear to Iraq's intelligence service.
• Slovenia's STO Ravne company, then a state-owned entity, shipped 20 large battle-tank barrels identified as ''steel tubes'' to SES in February 2002. The next month, Slovenia's Defense Ministry blocked the company from exporting 50 more tank barrels to Syria. Overall, STO Ravne's secret contract called for delivering 175 tank barrels to Iraq.
• Two North Korean officials met the head of Al Bashair at SES offices in Damascus a month before the war to discuss Iraq's payment of million for ''major components'' for ballistic missiles. U.S. intelligence agencies were unaware of the deal at the time, or of a meeting 10 months earlier in which Iraqi officials authorized a .9 million down payment to Pyongyang through SES.
• Massachusetts-based Cambridge Technology Inc. sold four optical scanners, which can be adapted to help divert laser-guided missiles, to a student in Canada. He had the equipment shipped to Amman, Jordan, and told the company he was donating it to a university whose name he now says he cannot remember. Without the U.S. company's knowledge, the real buyer was the Iraqi military.
Iraq's Al Bashair Trading Co. handled all those deals and scores of others. Its English-speaking director-general, Munir A. Awad, fled to Syria during the war and now is living there ''under government protection,'' according to an intelligence report in Washington.
Filling an entire floor of a dingy downtown Baghdad office building, Al Bashair was the largest of 13 known companies, including an Iraqi intelligence operation called M-19, that Hussein's military used to evade the U.N. arms embargo and other sanctions, according to a confidential U.N. report on Iraq's procurement networks.
Al Bashair had special status, however. Hussein personally ordered the company to deal directly with foreign brokers and suppliers, the U.N. report notes. It estimated the value of Al Bashair's sanctions-busting deals between million and billion per year in the 1990s. Al Bashair also served another key role: It helped launder and hide vast sums of cash for the Iraqi dictator and his closest aides.
Three Al Bashair contracts from 1993 to 1995, for example, indicated that Iraq had purchased 0 million, 0 million and .2 billion worth of sugar. U.N. inspectors found that most of the money was diverted to banks in Panama, the Bahamas and Monaco.
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