Sunday, August 12, 2007

Iraq's Arms Deal With The Mafia

By Cernig

Regular readers may remeber we noted this story when it first broke, but the Italian investigation of a massive Mafia arms deal with Iraq is uncovering a far larger can of worms than originally thought.
For one thing, The Associated Press has learned that Iraqi government officials were involved in the deal, apparently without the knowledge of the U.S. Baghdad command - a departure from the usual pattern of U.S.-overseen arms purchases.

Why these officials resorted to ``black'' channels and where the weapons were headed is unclear.

...Iraqi middlemen in the Italian deal, in intercepted e-mails, claimed the arrangement had official American approval. A U.S. spokesman in Baghdad denied that.

``Iraqi officials did not make MNSTC-I aware that they were making purchases,'' Lt. Col. Daniel Williams of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I), which oversees arming and training of the Iraqi police and army, told the AP.

Operation Parabellum, the investigation led by Dario Razzi, anti-Mafia prosecutor in this central Italian city, began in 2005 as a routine investigation into drug trafficking by organized-crime figures, branched out into an inquiry into arms dealing with Libya, and then widened to Iraq.

...Four Italians have been arrested and are awaiting court indictment for allegedly creating a criminal association and alleged arms trafficking - trading in weapons without a government license. A fifth Italian is being sought in Africa. In addition, 13 other Italians were arrested on drug charges.

In the documents, Razzi describes it as ``strange'' that the U.S.-supported Iraqi government would seek such weapons via the black market.

Investigators say the prospect of an Iraq deal was raised last November, when an Iraqi-owned trading firm e-mailed Massimo Bettinotti, 39, owner of the Malta-based MIR Ltd., about whether MIR could supply 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 10,000 machine guns ``to the Iraqi Interior Ministry,'' adding that ``this deal is approved by America and Iraq.''

The go-between - the Al-Handal General Trading Co. in Dubai - apparently had communicated with Bettinotti earlier about buying night visors and had been told MIR could also procure weapons.

Al-Handal has figured in questionable dealings before, having been identified by U.S. investigators three years ago as a ``front company'' in Iraq's Oil-for-Food scandal.

The Interior Ministry's need at that point for such a massive weapons shipment is unclear. The U.S. training command had already reported it would arm all Interior Ministry police by the end of 2006 through its own three-year-old program, which as of July 26 has bought 701,000 weapons for the Iraqi army and police with $237 million in U.S. government funds.

Negotiations on the deal progressed quickly in e-mail exchanges between the Italians and Iraqi middlemen of the al-Handal company and its parent al-Thuraya Group. But at times the discussion turned murky and nervous.

The Iraqis alternately indicated the Interior Ministry or ``security ministries'' would be the end users. At one point, a worried Bettinotti e-mailed, ``We prefer to speak about this deal face to face and not by e-mail.''

...By December, the Italians, having found a Bulgarian broker, were offering Russian-made goods: 50,000 AKM rifles, an improved version of the AK-47; 50,000 AKMS rifles, the same gun with folding stock; and 5,000 PKM machine guns.

The Iraqis quibbled over the asking price, $39.7 million, but seemed satisfied. The Italians were set for a $6.6 million profit, the court documents show, and were already discussing air transport for the weapons. At this point prosecutor Razzi acted, seeking an arrest warrant from a Perugia court.

...Reached at his office in Amman, Jordan, Waleed Noori al-Handal denied the family firm had done anything wrong in the Italian arms case.

``We don't have anything to hide,'' he told the AP.

Citing the names of ``friends'' in top U.S. military ranks in Iraq, al-Handal said his company has fulfilled scores of supply and service contracts for the U.S. occupation. Asked why he claimed U.S. approval for the abortive Italian weapons purchase, he said he had a document from the U.S. Army ``that says, 'We allow al-Thuraya Group to do all kinds of business.'''

In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry wouldn't discuss the AK-47 transaction on the record. But a senior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, acknowledged it had sought the weapons through al-Handal.

Asked about the irregular channels used, he said the ministry ``doesn't ask the supplier how these weapons are obtained.''

Although this official refused to discuss details, he said ``most'' of the 105,000 weapons were meant for police in Iraq's western province of Anbar. That statement raised questions, however, since Pentagon reports list only 161,000 trained police across all 18 of Iraq's provinces, and say the ministry has been issued 169,280 AK-47s, 167,789 pistols and 16,398 machine guns for them and 28,000 border police.
A companion piece to this report, which looks at the extent of the Iraqi arms black market, says there are already over seven million guns in Iraqi "civilian" hands and that Anbar police are missing "large portions" of their issued equipment. It seems clear that black market purchases via Iraqi government officials are likewise destined, not for the Iraqi security forces, but for militais or to be sold on the black market for the enrichment of corrupt officials.

The US military has also used a network of private firms - some of highly dubious provenance - to transfer over 200,000 guns to Iraq from Bosnia, many of which then promptly disappeared. It seems likely that at least some of that activity has seen the same kind of corruption alleged in the case of Maj. James Cockerham, recently arrested for the largest Army contract-rigging and bribery case to emerge from the Iraq reconstruction effort.

It's interesting to note that all of this happened in 2004-2005, when General Saint Petraeus was the man charged with being US overseer of the Iraqi defense procurement process as part of his task of training the Iraqi security forces.

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