The Blog

An Iraqi Arms Bust

Russian weapons, organized crime, and the Iraqi government.

10:50 AM, Aug 21, 2007 • By RUEBEN F. JOHNSON
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The second is that the Italian businessmen are charged with operating in violation of national laws that make trading in arms without a government-issued license illegal. One of the chief figures in the deal was one Massimo Bettinotti, a 39-year-old arms broker operating a Maltese firm called MIR, Ltd.

The third is that the company in the middle between the Italians and the buyers within the government in Baghdad was the Iraqi-owned Al-Handal General Trading Company, which is based in Dubai. Dubai is another location that is known for being the official front for contracts aimed skirting international embargoes.

From 1996-2003, Al-Handal was utilized as a broker in the now well-known Oil for Food Program. The company was accused of aiding and abetting the whole scheme by which kickbacks were paid to officials of the Saddam regime, as well as covertly aiding the movement of goods and equipment (presumably military hardware and other embargoed technologies) into Iraq in violation of the UN sanctions enacted against the Hussein government. Other Dubai-based trading companies are sometimes used to procure embargoed arms and other materiel for the Iranian armed forces.

Fourth, the need by the Iraqis for this quantity of arms is hard to justify. To date 701,000 weapons have been purchased for the Iraqi army and police forces using $237 million in U.S. government funds. Another 100,000 automatic weapons and small arms seems like overkill.

And lastly, one of the five Italian businessmen that has been charged, Vittorio Dordi, 42, is still at large and was reported to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dordi is said to have be involved in the diamond trade, which in this part of the world is often linked to illicit trades of arms for what are commonly called "conflict diamonds."

Perhaps one of the keys to the Italian authorities deciding to close in on these would-be arms traders is that in addition to the circumstantial indicators that something was amiss, there were messages intercepted from Waleed Noori al-Handal, the general manager of Al-Handal. He emailed the Italians "you mustn't worry if it's a problem to import these goods directly into Iraq. We can bring the product to another country and then transfer it to Iraq." In other words, there would be falsification of the end user certificates for this purchase and the official and actual destinations might end up being two different countries.

This arms bust comes on the heels of announcements in July that some 110,000 Kalashnikov AK-47s and 80,000 other small arms originally purchased by the U.S. military to arm the new Iraqi Security Forces and police units are unaccounted for.

Analysts in Washington with knowledge of the situation in Iraq point out that the U.S. regularly blames both Syria and Iran for permitting a flow of materiel across the border into Iraq, but that Coalition forces are ignoring the growing black-market trade of arms and loss of government inventory inside Iraq. Quoted in the Washington Post, Rachel Stohl from the Center for Defense Information states that U.S. forces on the ground are ignoring this dimension of the problem at their own peril. "It likely means that the United States is unintentionally providing weapons to bad actors."

Add to the equation that the long-term plan of the U.S. Army is to replace the AK-47s now being used by coalition-trained Iraqi units with the famous U.S.-made M-16 and the specter of a country awash in black-market weapons seems ever more likely. Stohl and others have warned that to let this situation continue is to repeat the same type of mistakes made when Coalition forces initially invaded Iraq in 2003 and left large caches of arms and ammunition in their wake--arms that have been used by the insurgents ever since.

Reuben F. Johnson is a contributor to THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.