U.S. weapons cache became emporium

Iraqi trusted to arm police also helped himself, officials say

November 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- As the insurgency in Iraq escalated in the spring of 2004, U.S. officials entrusted an Iraqi businessman with issuing weapons to Iraqi police cadets training to help quell the violence.

By all accounts, the businessman, Kassim al-Saffar, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, did well at distributing the Pentagon-supplied weapons from the Baghdad Police Academy armory he managed for a military contractor. But, co-workers say, he also turned the armory into his own private arms bazaar with the seeming approval of some U.S. officials and executives, selling AK-47s, Glock pistols and heavy machine guns to anyone with cash in hand - Iraqi militias, South African security guards and even American contractors.

"This was the craziest thing in the world," said John Tisdale, a retired Air Force master sergeant who managed an adjacent warehouse. "They were taking weapons away by the truckload."

Activities at that armory and other warehouses help explain how the U.S. military lost track of some 190,000 pistols and automatic rifles supplied by the United States to Iraq's security forces in 2004 and 2005, as auditors discovered in the past year.

These discoveries prompted criminal inquiries by the Defense and Justice departments and stoked fears that the arms could fall into enemy hands and be used against U.S. troops. So far, no missing weapons have been linked to any American deaths, but investigators say that in a country awash with weapons, it may be impossible to trace where some ended up.

While the Pentagon has yet to offer its own accounting of how the weapons channel broke down, it is clear from interviews with two dozen military and civilian investigators, contracting officers, warehouse managers and others that military expediency sometimes ran amok, the lines between legal and illegal were blurred, and billions of dollars in arms were handed over to shoestring commands without significant oversight.

In the armory that Saffar presided over, for example, his dealings were murky. Tisdale said he thought Saffar enriched himself selling American stocks along with guns he acquired from the streets. Tisdale was supposed to sign off on any transactions by Saffar, but he said many shipments left the armory without his approval and without the required records.

Saffar denies any wrongdoing, including any arms dealings. Nearly a half-dozen U.S. and Iraqi workers say his gun business was an open secret at the armory.

Elsewhere, U.S. officers short-circuited the chain of custody by rushing to Baghdad's airport to claim crates of newly arrived weapons without filing the necessary paperwork. And Iraqis regularly sold or stole the American-supplied weapons, U.S. officers and contractors said.

A shipment of 3,000 Glocks issued to police cadets disappeared within a week when they were sold on the black market, said a U.S. officer involved in distributing weapons. U.S. military commanders say Iraqi security guards are suspected of stealing hundreds of weapons last year in about 10 major thefts at arms depots at Taji and Abu Ghraib.

The investigations into missing weapons are among the most serious in the widening federal inquiries into billions of dollars in military contracts for the purchase and delivery of weapons, supplies and other materiel to Iraqi and U.S. forces.

Already there is evidence that some U.S.-supplied weapons fell into the hands of guerrillas responsible for attacks against Turkey, an important U.S. ally. Some investigators said that because military suppliers to the war zone were not required to record serial numbers, it was unlikely that the authorities would ever be able to tell where the weapons went.

Many of those weapons were issued when Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was responsible for training and equipping Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005. Petraeus has said that he opted to arm the Iraqi forces as quickly as possible, before tracking systems were fully in place. The Pentagon says it has since tightened its record-keeping for the weapons, but government auditors said in interviews that they were not yet convinced that an effective system was in place.

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