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Iraq: Analysts Speculate Over Presence Of Russian-Made Antitank Missiles In War

  • Gregory Feifer

With U.S. military planners weathering accusations they underestimated the level of resistance their forces would encounter in Iraq, one piece of Iraqi military hardware is especially dogging U.S. tanks advancing on Baghdad: the Russian-made Kornet missile. Although it is not clear exactly who sold them to Iraq, the Kornet is being blamed for U.S. setbacks on the battlefield and has caused a diplomatic spat between Washington and Moscow. RFE/RL questions military experts about how Baghdad likely got its hands on the hardware.

Moscow, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S.-led forces closing in on Baghdad, Washington continues to deflect criticism that unexpectedly fierce guerrilla tactics by Iraqi forces have made the battle tougher than expected.

Among the most visible blows dealt U.S. and U.K. forces so far was the disabling of at least two technologically advanced Abrams M1 tanks, reportedly attacked by Iraqi soldiers using Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles.

The surprise use of the missiles by Iraq, along with other Russian-made technology, has kicked up a diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Washington that has touched other countries as well.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said that, although he has seen no concrete evidence of how the Kornets got to Baghdad, Iraqi forces "would not have been able to put up any resistance" were it not for violations of United Nations sanctions on the country. "Over the past 12-plus years that the sanctions have been in place, Russia, like Ukraine and Belarus, has taken part in violating them. During all those 12-plus years, military materiel and weaponry have been sent to Iraq," Felgenhauer said.

Felgenhauer said that in addition to those three countries, arms dealers in Jordan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have also violated weapons sanctions to varying degrees, providing both new weapons systems and spare parts through well-organized networks.

The Kornet, manufactured by the state-controlled Russian firm KBP Instrument Design Bureau of Tula, is an advanced, portable, laser-guided missile designed to disable and destroy tanks and armored vehicles from a distance of up to 5 kilometers.

In addition to the Kornet, the United States says it has "credible evidence" that Russian companies sold Iraq night-vision goggles and technology to jam global-positioning-system (GPS) satellite signals.

Iraq denies possessing the Kornet, but RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz, who is traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq, cited U.S. military intelligence in Iraq last week as saying that Iraqis have used Kornets to attack at least two U.S. Abrams M1 tanks and an armored troop carrier. Initial warnings to U.S. troops in the field -- who were unaware the Iraqis possessed the weapon -- had indicated the Kornet was wire-guided instead of laser-guided.

Citing unidentified Pentagon sources, "Newsweek" magazine this week reported that Iraq bought as many as 1,000 Kornets, with 500 supplied by Ukrainian arms dealers and some possibly coming through Syria.

The Russian government angrily denies accusations from the White House that it illicitly sold military technology to Iraq in violation of UN weapons bans. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed Washington's allegations as "propaganda" intended to distract attention from criticism of its military campaign, "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported yesterday.

Washington has imposed sanctions on several Russian companies it accuses of supplying arms to Iraq, including KBP Tula. The company itself and the Russian state arms-export company Rosvoruzhenie also deny supplying Kornets to Iraq.

But some officials, including Duma Deputy Andrei Kokoshin, a former head of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Security Council, have admitted Russian-sold equipment may have been resold to Iraq by other countries.

Kyiv, dogged by U.S. accusations last year that it sold sophisticated Kolchuga radar systems to Baghdad, has also denied accusations that Ukrainian arms dealers sold Kornets to Iraq.

"Jane's Intelligence Digest" last week also reported that Belarus was a possible conduit for arms to Iraq.

Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor of "Jane's Sentinel," agreed that while the origins of the Kornets in Iraqi hands are far from established, former Soviet states are a large source of illicit arms sales. "There seem to be some powerful, almost mafia kind of arms dealers who cut pretty big deals acting as middlemen getting access to the large stores of post-Cold War equipment, etc., or equipment left over from the Cold War, and then they can sell them on to whoever wants to buy them in the Middle East, Africa, or wherever," Binnie said.

Felgenhauer, meanwhile, said that Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely sources for the Kornet because they probably do not have stores of the relatively new weapon, which was unveiled in 1994. He said that Syria and the United Arab Emirates are more likely suspects.

Russia has sold Syria more than 1,000 Kornets over the past three years. The United Arab Emirates also bought the missiles as part of larger weapons systems.

Felgenhauer said U.S. accusations that arms falsely marked as destined for Yemen were sold to Iraq through Syria may well be true.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week accused Syria of allowing military supplies, including night-vision goggles, to cross its territory into Iraq, calling it a "hostile act."

Syria did not deny the allegations, with Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara saying on 31 March that he hoped U.S. and British forces would be defeated in Iraq.

Countries selling arms are obliged to provide so-called end-user certificates in which buyers pledge not to sell on weapons without permission from the source country. Felgenhauer said these are routinely falsified, allowing source countries such as Russia to claim they are not responsible for weapons resold by third countries. "Of course, everyone really knows what goes where because the false end-point countries never actually receive the arms," he said. "They go straight to places like Iraq."

Ruslan Pukhov is director of Moscow's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He stressed that there is no concrete evidence of Russian arms sales to Iraq. He points his finger at Syria and the United Arab Emirates as possible conduits to Iraq. "It remains an open question as to whether [middle countries] sold arms [to Iraq] with Russian permission or not. It's not possible to know that now, neither from the reactions of Russian authorities nor from American announcements," Pukhov said.

Felgenhauer said Kornets will not likely have a significant influence on the course of the war, saying there is no proof they can penetrate Abrams tank armor head-on, and they are not alone in being able to inflict damage at weak spots.

Binnie said Iraqi military tactics are also not putting weapons systems such as the Kornet to their best use. By rushing up in pickup trucks during hit-and-run raids, he said that Iraqi combatants cannot properly train laser-guided systems on their targets. "Western armies would dig those systems into fortified positions," he said.

Felgenhauer said the Kornets will do their most damage to already frayed U.S.-Russia relations through the public knowledge of their sales. "They'll show greater influence in that regard than on the battlefield itself," he said.