U.S. says Russian firms aid Iraq

Bush urges Putin to stop sale of military equipment that imperils Americans

War In Iraq

March 25, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON-The United States accused Russian firms yesterday of putting American troops at risk by selling jamming devices, anti-tank missiles and night-vision goggles to Iraq.

President Bush complained to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin yesterday about alleged sales of Russian military equipment to Iraq, including what the White House claimed were "ongoing" transfers of jamming devices that could interfere with guidance systems on American weapons.

The alleged equipment sales emerged as a major source of friction between Washington and Moscow at a time when the two governments are deeply at odds over the war in Iraq.

Russia strongly opposes the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but the disclosure of the alleged military transfers suggested that Russian firms, with or without the knowledge of the Kremlin, might be actively working with Iraq to undermine the U.S. war effort.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, interviewed on the Fox television network, described the equipment as the kind that could "put our men and women in harm's way."

By some accounts, the Bush-Putin phone call yesterday morning was a tense one. For his part, Putin called for averting a "humanitarian catastrophe" in Iraq, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, monitored by the BBC.

Russia has officially denied the transfers, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Putin promised Bush that the American charges would be investigated.

"President Bush said he looked forward to hearing the results," Fleischer said. "This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved."

Any transfer of military equipment would violate United Nations sanctions, which were imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf war and intended to limit the threat Iraq posed to the region.

In addition to the jamming devices, Fleischer said, the United States also believes Russian firms have supplied Iraq with night-vision goggles and anti-tank weapons.

He said the American charges were backed by "credible evidence."

"Such equipment in the hands of the Iraqi military may pose a direct threat to U.S. and coalition armed forces," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

However, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters at the Pentagon that the jamming devices had not hurt U.S. troops on the battlefield thus far.

Russia's official description of the call between the two presidents made no mention of the equipment transfers.

U.S. officials said American intelligence has learned that as of late last week technicians from the Russian firm Aviaconversiya were in Iraq trying to help Iraqis operate the jamming devices, which are designed to interfere with global-positioning satellite guidance systems that are used in both aircraft and munitions.

"There have been efforts since the onset of hostilities to get it up and running," one official said.

Not only could the equipment jeopardize the safety of American forces, but unwanted civilian casualties could result if the jamming devices caused U.S. weapons to veer from the military targets they were programmed to hit, U.S. officials said.

The officials said U.S. concerns about the transfers were raised a number of times at senior levels of the Russian government over the past year and particularly in the past two weeks, without any satisfactory response.

The complaints were not officially disclosed, however, until after a report in Sunday's Washington Post.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters yesterday that the American charges had been thoroughly investigated and that "no facts confirming American concerns were discovered."

However, he added, "If any facts are discovered of violation of the sanctions regime against Iraq, it will be seen as a serious violation of the criminal laws of Russia with all the consequences that entails."

A Russian embassy official here said that while Russian diplomats and journalists remain in Baghdad, "all Russian citizens working on contracts have been evacuated to Russia."

The charge about Russian firms supplying Iraq bolsters the Bush administration's argument that anti-Iraq sanctions have been unraveling for some time and could not be expected to keep Iraq's President Saddam Hussein contained for long.

For years, Russia has been a leading proponent in the U.N. Security Council of easing the sanctions and eventually lifting them altogether.

However, Hussein's regime has retaliated against Russia by canceling contracts in cases where Moscow has refused to circumvent the sanctions process.

Russia insists that its current opposition to the U.S.-led war is based on its fears about regional instability and has nothing to do with its commercial interests in Iraq, which are considerable.

Russian technology transfers to regimes that the United States considers a threat have long been a source of tension between Washington and Moscow.

American officials have repeatedly complained about Russia's assistance to Iran in the production of nuclear energy, fearing that this aid will provide invaluable knowledge in helping Iran produce nuclear weapons.

A U.S. official said the anti-tank missiles were shipped to Iraq by way of Syria and Yemen. Syria, which currently holds a seat on the Security Council, has long been accused by the United States and Britain of illegally importing oil from Iraq.

Ukraine and Belarus have also been accused in the past of making deals to supply Iraq with military equipment.

Toby Gati, a Russia expert who served in the Clinton administration as the State Department's top intelligence official, said this incident "is unlikely to be the last time we discover that countries have done things that make prosecution of the war harder, military strategy harder and diplomacy harder."

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