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Iraq: U.S. Researchers Detail Iraqi-East European Arms Smuggling Efforts

  • Charles Recknagel

An independent U.S. research organization reported this week that Iraq has developed a sophisticated smuggling system in its efforts to acquire banned weapons-system components. The researchers say unpublished reports by UN arms inspectors in the early and mid-1990s show that Baghdad vigorously courted companies in Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia to break the sanctions in exchange for money from smuggled oil.

Prague, 21 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the UN Security Council debates ways to make sanctions on Iraq more effective, two U.S. researchers have revealed evidence that Baghdad has developed a sophisticated smuggling operation to buy prohibited weapons parts.

The researchers, Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, say that previously unpublished reports by UN arms inspectors show that Baghdad sought to buy -- and in some cases succeeded in buying -- banned military items in the early and mid-1990s from companies in Romania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The researchers detail their findings in this month's edition of the U.S. magazine "Commentary," which was published on June 20.

Romania's Foreign Ministry responded immediately to the charges, while the other countries mentioned have yet to comment on them officially.

The Romanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the charges by the two experts concern the period of 1994 to 1995 and were clarified by the Romanian side during discussions with the former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq. The ministry did not say how the matter had been clarified.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu said the researchers' charges should be investigated by the Defense Ministry and called for a complete report.

The researchers' findings have gained wide notice because the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control is a well-known independent institute that since 1986 has kept close watch on the spread of nuclear weapons, chemical/biological weapons, and long-range missiles. It operates under the auspices of the University of Wisconsin and its database helps exporters and governments keep dangerous products from reaching unintended recipients.

RFE/RL this week spoke with one of the researchers, Kelly Motz, about the evidence they had obtained regarding Iraq's smuggling activities and the involvement of Eastern European and Russian companies.

Motz says that she and Milhollin, who heads the Wisconsin Project, reviewed confidential reports compiled by UNSCOM inspectors before they were banned from Iraq in late 1998. UNSCOM has since been replaced by a new UN arms inspections agency for Iraq, UNMOVIC, established in late 1999.

Motz said that the arms-smuggling evidence, which the Wisconsin Project obtained by what she called "private means," is convincing because it comes from unpublished working notes that UNSCOM inspectors used to prepare reports for the UN. Many of the notes detail conversations with companies in Germany and elsewhere about being approached by Iraq. Those conversations were kept confidential by UNSCOM in order not to embarrass the companies and to maintain their cooperation. Motz says:

"UNSCOM did a lot of its work getting help, for example, from companies in Germany which came forward and said, 'We sold Iraq this, that, and the other good,' and that would enable the inspectors to know what they were looking for on the other end. If they were embarrassing companies and pointing fingers at the time, that would have curtailed that cooperation. So, there was a real reason [at that time] not to put this information forward."

The researchers cite several examples of Iraqi arms trading with Belarus companies as typical of how Baghdad's smuggling network worked.

The UNSCOM reports show that in July 1995 Iraq sent representatives from its machine-tool making Badr State Establishment to visit Belarus' Belstroyimpex in Minsk. There the visitors inspected production lines for manufacturing high-end machine tools, diamond-cutting tools, and for powder metallurgy.

The reports say that Iraqi records show that at the time Baghdad and the company were implementing a procurement contract for these and other items and that the procurement list was never submitted to the UN for approval. The final shopping list included diamond-cutting tools, which can be used to make precision parts for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

During visits to the Badr site in 1996 and 1997, UNSCOM inspectors discovered the powder-metallurgy line. They also found a plasma-spray machine, which was manufactured by the Belarusian firm Visoky Vacuum, and can be used to protect nuclear-weapons components from corrosion. The material had been smuggled despite UN sanctions first to Jordan's free-trade zone in Aqaba and then overland into Iraq.

The researchers say that in Romania the main focus of Iraqi interest was the military firm Aerofina. The UNSCOM reports show that Iraqi missile experts visited the company in February 1994 and January 1995, and signed a contract for 250 sets of missile-engine parts Iraq could not produce itself. Some of these arrived illicitly in Iraq around September 1995.

The reports say that Aerofina agreed in July 1995, for $1.16 million, to supply Iraq with 20 sample gyroscopes -- a missile-guidance component -- and the equipment needed to produce them. Four months earlier, the company GIA-RA agreed to provide 100 complete missile engines while other companies undertook to provide engine-testing facilities and sell turbo-pumps.

Motz says that such missile components were intended to help Iraq upgrade its Scud missiles, the delivery vehicle for its nuclear program, and many of its biological and chemical weapons programs:

"There was one case in which a Romanian firm agreed to supply 100 complete missile engines, and we don't know whether that deal went through or not. But that would have definitely helped Iraq to upgrade its Scud-type missiles, to have all those engines to work with."

In Ukraine, the Iraqis were also looking for missile-guidance components. Baghdad signed a protocol in late 1993 with a representative of the firm Khartron that outlined future cooperation for sales of components for surface-to-surface missiles, equipment for missile research, and even the establishment of a college to train missile experts. The protocol was later followed by others.

When questioned by UNSCOM investigators, Iraqi officials denied that any of the sales anticipated by the protocols were ever carried out. The inspectors followed up by looking in Iraq for the listed equipment, but none of it turned up in missile sites they were monitoring and they were unable to procure any evidence showing it might be elsewhere.

The Iraqis also sought banned guidance components for Scud and more powerful missiles in Russia in 1993. Samples of parts for Scuds and the long-range SS-N-18 missile later arrived in Baghdad.

A middleman for Iraq in April 1995 also purchased a missile-dismantling plant in Zagorsk, 120 gyroscopes, and accelerometers for long-range missiles from the Niikhsm firm. UN inspectors intercepted one of the shipments in Jordan and also pulled a number of guidance components from the Tigris River, where Iraqi authorities had jettisoned them to avoid detection.

These are only some of the highlights from the researchers' full report, which appears in the current July-August issue of "Commentary."

Motz says that the evidence shows Iraq operated a sophisticated network through the early and mid-1990s to circumvent sanctions by using money from smuggled oil to buy weapons from willing companies. It is not certain how many of these activities were known to the governments of the European states involved.

Crucial to the success of the network was both the willingness of Iraq's neighboring states to receive and pay for smuggled Iraqi oil and lax border controls over what kind of materials Iraq imported.

The researchers' report comes as the UN Security Council this month is debating ways to make the sanctions regime more effective while at the same time easing its impact upon the Iraqi population. The council has a self-imposed deadline for finishing the debate by July 3.

Motz says she hopes that the new evidence of how Iraq has sought to bypass the sanctions in the past will sound an alarm that the UN needs to create more effective controls to stop Baghdad's weapons development programs:

"We are trying to give a wake-up call and these instances show that [Iraq's] arms procurement network is alive and well, and it was working well despite sanctions and even when inspectors were on the ground. So, one has to wonder what has happened in the two and a half years since they left."

The Security Council is discussing a U.S.-backed British proposal that would ease restrictions on Iraqi imports of civilian goods but tighten controls over the import of military-use items. Key to the so-called "smart sanctions" proposal is finding ways to end Iraqi oil-smuggling and to improve the monitoring of Iraq's borders.

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