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Iraqi guns: Smugglers and bunglers

by ISN Security Watch Monday, Nov. 05, 2007 at 9:20 AM

With Iraq sliding into civil war amid repeated reports detailing the large-scale loss of US-provided weaponry, questions arise regarding the Pentagon's alleged relationship with international gun runners.

02 November 2007

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (02/11/07)

Post-invasion Iraq has been blighted by a massive proliferation in small arms, conducted with the active involvement of both state and non-state actors, including major criminal entities.

This proliferation profoundly undermines efforts to stabilize the security situation and future moves to reconstitute Iraq as a viable state.

Unprotected stockpiles

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was marked by the large-scale misappropriation of Iraqi munitions and weapons.

International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) Policy Officer Dr Alun Howard told ISN Security Watch, "One of the reasons there are so many guns in Iraq is that in the US seizure of Baghdad they did not secure Iraq's stockpiles and the guns moved from the stockpiles into the civilian community."

"Probably because of the expected level of insecurity: people felt they needed guns so they looted Saddam's old stockpiles," he said.

A 2004 Small Arms Survey report found that between seven to eight million weapons were looted from Iraqi stockpiles in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the looted weaponry included several thousand shoulder-fired SA-7, SA-14 and SA-16 missiles, subsequently used by militants in attacks on US aircraft.

An October 2006 Lancet morbidity study found that gunshots accounted for 56 percent of violent deaths during the study period and that "the number of deaths from gunshots increased consistently over the post-invasion period."

The report concluded that a staggering 655,000 Iraqis "above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation" had died since 2003.

Iranian involvement

The extent of Iranian involvement in Iraqi weapons smuggling is impossible to ascertain given the secrecy of the trade and the limited nature of US seizures.

US forces in Iraq allege in repeated press conferences that Iran has provided Shia militants with shaped charges, RPGs, mortars and shoulder-fired surface-to-air-missiles, exhibiting weapons with Iranian markings.

It is hard to gauge whether the Iranian government is directly involved in the smuggling given the convoluted domestic political structure and possibility that these activities may be conducted without the knowledge of other power centers and institutions.

US-led forces have made efforts recently to bolster security against weapons smuggling along the Iraq-Iran border; however, effective policing of illicit border traffic is impossible given the lack of manpower.

It appears that the Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Force is playing some role in Iraq. US and Iraqi officials claimed that prominent al-Quds Force leaders were among those detained in December and January raids in Baghdad and Irbil.

The al-Quds Force has allegedly played a key role in the military development of Hizbollah and may be poised to take a similar role in Iraq. However, the complex patchwork of competing Shia militant movements in the south of the country tends to militate against the clear extrapolation of Iran-militant relations as in Lebanon. However, the Badr Corps is believed to be particularly close to Iran.

Journalist and analyst Douglas Farrah, who co-authored a recent book on prominent weapons smuggler Victor Bout, told ISN Security Watch, "I have spent a lot of time talking to non-US intelligence services who believe that Iran is certainly a significant factor" in weapons smuggling.

"Clearly Iran has interests in destabilizing the US project and its own clear regional interest in setting up a government that is not hostile to them," he said. "So I think they play a rather significant role both in arming and backing the Shia militias."

Director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation, Dr Michael Kraig, interprets Iranian involvement in Iran as motivated by "desperation to have future influence and not be isolated again."

"If you have the adjective Shia in front of [your name] Iran is talking to you and trying to help you and that is not focused, that is scattershot," he told ISN Security Watch, adding, "My impression is that they are actually giving money and training to anyone and everyone who asks for it because they don't want to be left out of the game."

Massive misappropriation

Alleged Iranian involvement in the illicit Iraqi arms trade appears to pale in comparison to the largely inadvertent US role in feeding the black market.

A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in August found that US forces in Iraq "cannot fully account for about 110,000 AK-47 rifles, 80,000 pistols, 135,000 items of body armor and 115,000 helmets reported as issued to Iraqi forces as of September 22 2005."

The GAO findings followed an October 2006 report by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen, which found that only 10,000 of around 400,000 small arms provided to Iraqi forces had had their serial numbers properly recorded. Bowen said in his report that US logistics efforts were "severely undermanned."

An independent panel established by Secretary of the Army Pete Green, confirmed on Thursday that major logistical problems continued to blight US operations in Iraq and elsewhere, with the US military fundamentally failing to train contracting officers required for the proper oversight or procurements. The panel recommended a 25 percent boost in their numbers.

With reports speaking of mass desertions and police involvement in a wave of extrajudicial sectarian murders, it appears likely that the lost weapons have played a major role in fueling the weapons black market and, by extension, insurgent, sectarian and intra-sectarian strife.

Asked if steps had been taken to address loopholes, Farrah said, "Amazingly enough, things are probably more in chaos than they have been for a while."

"There is a constant urgency to everything that happens there [in Iraq] to tread water, to keep the plan moderately afloat, and there is very little time or attention given to closing these types of loopholes that are not viewed as vital. I just don't think they have the time, the wherewithal or the interest frankly in tracking down things."

Arming militants

Importantly, US forces in al-Anbar province, Diyala and other areas are continuing to bypass the recalcitrant, Shia-controlled Interior Ministry in creating and arming local Sunni tribal and neighborhood defense groups and police precincts.

Kraig believes that US planners have come to the realization, in the past six months to a year, that the Nouri al-Maliki administration is not a neutral player. He believes that the decision to arm Sunni groups is a response to this perception shift.

The US is now seeking to "put pressure on the Shia, who are dominant in the government, by giving the Sunni tribes the means to defend themselves," he said. "That is such a horrible strategic point to be at and ideally we souldn't have done things that got us to this kind of decision in the first place."

"I think it is a very delicate balance," Farrah said. "You have to do something to move forward, and this program has obviously had some success in arming these groups. But the blowback remains to be seen."

"I don't get the sense talking with people that a great deal of thought has been put into it. I think there is a great desire to do something and they'll deal with the consequences later," he said.

The extent to which the US is struggling to cope with the logistics of Iraqi force reconstruction was underlined by a recent US0 million small-arms deal signed between the Iraqi government and China.

Relating to the deal in an interview with the Washington Post, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that Baghdad demanded that the US accelerate the arming of Iraqi forces, complaining that only one in five police had a weapon.

Criminal ties

As in any major conflict zone, the collapse of security in Iraq has created a fertile environment for major international arms smugglers. A disturbing pattern has emerged whereby their services have been utilized by the Pentagon in direct contravention of stated US government policy.

Adrian Wilkinson, who led a Southeastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC) team probing illicit arms deliveries, explained that "all the arms trafficking was legal but it was covert."

"Basically the American government needed a supply of weapons to re-equip the armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan so they came to a deal with the Bosnian government whereby a substantial amount of weapons - somewhere in the region of 300,000 - would leave Bosnia between 2004-2005, going to Iraq."

"The problem is that the people who moved those weapons used airlines with links to well-known arms traffickers such as Victor Bout," he explained.

According to Wilkinson, the SEESAC probe found that when the shipments "left Bosnia the weapons weren't shipped by serial number. The organizations that shipped the weapons had leaks in the past and therefore there was a significant risk of diversion, but we don't know whether the diversions took place or not, that is still under investigation."

"When the weapons got to Iraq they weren't accounted for by serial numbers, they just arrived in boxes and were dished out willy-nilly," Wilkinson said.

Farah alleges that Bout probably flew "around 1,000 flights for the US military through contractors and sub-contractors."

"We found that, astonishingly enough, Victor was flying with official US government permission a series of flights from Bosnia into Iraq," he said. "Those weapons - as far as we could determine […] weren't confirmed as arriving in Iraq."

These flights allegedly took place despite a 2004 executive order from US President George W Bush proscribing any US involvement with Bout, and a subsequent Treasury Department order seizing his, and his associates' and companies' assets and banning any US citizen from having any contacts.

Asked if the clear violation of presidential and Treasury directives had led to censures or investigations in the US, Farrah said, "There has been no interest in pursuing those allegations here at all, which I find truly stunning."

SEESAC has reportedly sent a limited-release report to customs and other agencies on the activities of a second major arms trader, Serb Tomislav Damjanovic, who was described in a recent International Herald Tribune report as "the biggest air shipper of weapons from the Balkans to Iraq on behalf the United States."

"Damjanovic is well known for being an illegal arms trafficker in the past. Therefore, is it morally and ethically right that the American government should reward a well-known international arms trafficker, named in sanctions committee reports, with the contract?" Wilkinson said.

"More importantly, without any form of effective oversight, how do they [Pentagon officials] know that the number of weapons that were loaded on Damjanovic's aircraft at point A were actually delivered to point B, or did only nine of every 10 cases get through," he asked.

"They can never prove it, they just don't know."

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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