Italian drug investigation finds illegal deal to sell arms to Iraq
PERUGIA, Italy – In a hidden corner of Rome’s busy Fiumicino Airport, police dug quietly through a traveler’s checked baggage, looking for smuggled drugs. What they found instead was a catalog of weapons, a clue to something bigger.
Their discovery led anti-Mafia investigators down a monthslong trail of telephone and e-mail intercepts, into the midst of a huge black-market transaction, as Iraqi and Italian partners haggled over shipping more than 100,000 Russian-made automatic weapons into the bloodbath of Iraq.
As the secretive, $40 million deal neared completion, Italian authorities moved in, making arrests and breaking it up. But key questions remain unanswered.
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.
Some guns the U.S. bought for Iraq’s police and army are unaccounted for, possibly fallen into the hands of insurgents or sectarian militias. Meanwhile, the planned replacement of the army’s AK-47s with U.S.-made M-16s may throw more assault rifles onto the black market. And the weapons free-for-all apparently is spilling over borders: Turkey and Iran complain that U.S.-supplied guns are flowing from Iraq to anti-government militants on their soil.
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,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Williams of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees arming and training of the Iraqi police and army.
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.
Court documents show that Razzi’s break came early last year when police monitoring one of the drug suspects covertly opened his luggage as he left on a flight to Libya. Instead of the expected drugs, they found helmets, bulletproof vests and the weapons catalog.
Tapping telephones and monitoring e-mails, Razzi’s investigators followed the trail to a group of Italian businessmen, otherwise unrelated to the drug probe, who were working to sell arms to Libya and, by late 2006, to Iraq, through offshore companies they set up in Malta and Cyprus.
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, and 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.
Why the Interior Ministry would need such a massive weapons shipment at that point 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.
The Italians sent several offers of various types and quantities of rifles, with photos included. The negotiating focused on the source of the weapons: The Iraqi middlemen said their buyer insisted they be Russian-made, but the Italians wanted to sell AK-47s made in China, where they had better contacts.
“We are in a hurry with this deal,” an impatient Waleed Noori al-Handal, Jordan-based general manager of the Iraqi firm, wrote the Italians on Nov. 13 in an e-mail.
He added, in apparent allusion to the shipment’s clandestine nature, “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 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 the 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 July 26 Pentagon report said 20,847 other AK-47s purchased for the Interior Ministry have not been delivered. Iraqi officials complain that the U.S. supply of equipment, from bullets to uniforms, has been slow.
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