With U.S. President George W. Bush ratcheting up American rhetoric against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, attention is focusing on the alleged sales of arms systems to Baghdad by Ukraine and Belarus. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the systems could help shoot down U.S. and British warplanes patrolling the "no-fly" zones over Iraq, as well as be used during any future military showdown with Saddam.
Washington, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Allegations have surfaced that Ukraine and Belarus sold Iraqi President Saddam Hussein anti-aircraft systems and trained Baghdad's forces to use the weapons, in violation of United Nations sanctions.
The U.S. State Department, which recently threatened sanctions against Minsk for alleged illicit arms transfers to rogue states, says Washington has credible evidence that a group of Iraqi officers were in Belarus last fall to be trained to use the S-300 anti-aircraft system against British and U.S. jets patrolling the "no-fly" zones over Iraq.
The training, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer, took place after the September terrorist attacks against the U.S. and President Bush's subsequent edict that America will not differentiate between terrorists and the nations that sponsor them.
Pifer traveled to Minsk in late February to voice U.S. concerns over reports that some Belarusian arms exports violated UN sanctions or ended up in the hands of terrorists or of states suspected of supporting them, such as Iraq. Pifer made this observation in an interview this week with RFE/RL: "In the fall, there was a group of Iraqis in Belarus being trained on how to operate the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. This is a very advanced anti-aircraft system, and there's only one reason that the Iraqis would want to have that system and people trained to operate it, [and] that is to shoot down American aircraft and British aircraft that are flying over Iraq now."
The American charges, which Belarus has repeatedly denied, come as the U.S. is reportedly considering military action against Iraq as part of the next phase in the war against terrorism. Washington fears Baghdad may be seeking to develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction -- and possibly transfer them to Islamic militants for use against U.S. or other Western targets.
Yesterday, Bush ratcheted up American rhetoric against Baghdad, telling a White House news conference that he is deeply concerned about Iraq -- "a nation run by a man who is willing to kill his own people" -- and calling Saddam "a problem" that America is going to deal with.
Minsk is not alone in being implicated in an arms dispute. Yesterday, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian accused President Leonid Kuchma of coordinating the sale of an S-300 air defense system to Iraq in the summer of 2000.
Oleksandr Zhyr, who has already accused Kuchma of benefiting for years from illicit arms sales to rogue regimes such as the Taliban, said yesterday he has heard a taped conversation about the S-300 sale that took place between Kuchma and Valeriy Maleyev, the former head of Ukraine's official state arms export agency, Ukrspetsexport. Maleyev died in a car crash in March.
Zhyr heads a parliamentary committee investigating tapes recorded by former Kuchma bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who says he recorded more than 300 hours of conversations in Kuchma's office -- including the alleged conversation about arms sales to Iraq. Melnychenko has received political asylum in the United States.
A source close to Melnychenko, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that he recently listened to the tapes in which Kuchma allegedly approves of a plan to sell S-300 air-defense systems to Iraq, a deal worth $100 million. The source says Zhyr's portrayal of the taped conversations is accurate. The Iraqi portion of the tapes has reportedly been turned over to experts at BEK TEK, a private U.S. firm run by former agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who are expected to test them for authenticity. Kuchma's office has dismissed Zhyr's claims as political mudslinging designed to help him ahead of elections this spring.
There is no explicit or even alleged connection between the supposed training of Iraqi officers by Belarus on the same kind of system that Ukrainian officials are accused of selling to Baghdad.
But Lee Wolosky, an expert on transnational crime and an official in the National Security Council of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, believes it is possible that contact exists among arms sellers and experts in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
"I don't feel comfortable suggesting that there is evidence of such a conspiracy or such collusion, but there are enough circumstantial factors to suggest that, at a minimum, there are significant contacts, because if you're finding weapons systems -- former Soviet weapons systems -- in Iraq, and they are new, you have to ask yourself, 'How did they get there?'" Wolosky says.
Scott Ritter is a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. Although critical of U.S. policy toward Baghdad, Ritter says he and his fellow inspectors found ample evidence during the 1990s that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus violated UN sanctions by selling a wide range of conventional arms, such as the S-300 system, to Iraq.
Ritter's comments echoed remarks by the State Department's Pifer, who said UN inspectors had discovered Belarusian artillery equipment in Iraq in 1996, when sanctions were in full force.
Ritter says he believes it is quite feasible that such activity continued after the 1998 departure of the UN inspectors. He says Iraq set up a series of front companies in Jordan, Syria, Malaysia, and other countries that acted as official buyers of the weapons, which later found their way to Iraq: "We were following, in '97 and '98, information that held that Iraq was working very closely with the government of Syria to use Syrian procurement networks in place with Belarus, with Ukraine, with Russia, whereas the Syrians would acquire military technology, military equipment, military hardware, in contracts between these nations and Syria, and then Syria would transfer this material to Iraq in a covert fashion. And the method of payment was Iraqi oil."
Ritter adds that U.S. and British warplanes fly daily sorties in protection of the "no-fly" zones, and that there have been a number of reported "near misses" involving fire from Iraqi anti-aircraft guns. Iraq has not hit a U.S. or British jet since the end of the Gulf war.
But Pifer says the alleged training by Belarus of Iraqi officers is part of a much broader -- and murkier -- picture of arms sales by Belarus to states believed to sponsor terrorism and which are under UN or U.S. sanctions.
Pifer says Washington has credible evidence confirming recent media reports linking the government of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with weapons sales to various "areas of concern," including African nations devastated by war, as well as Iraq and Sudan, the former home of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.
Pifer declines to go into detail about this evidence but says this about Belarusian arms transfers: "We are very confident that weapons have come out of there and have gone to areas of concern. I don't want to get into exactly whose hands they ended up in, but certainly when you talk about weapons getting to countries that have been sponsors of terrorism, you have to be concerned with where those weapons ultimately go."
Pifer also says the U.S. is concerned that Belarusian arms have gone to Sudan, but he will not confirm reports that Minsk sold tanks and fighter jets to Khartoum for use in its war against southern rebels. Some 2 million people -- many of them civilians -- have died in that conflict.
Sudan is not under UN sanctions, but Pifer says Washington sometimes applies sanctions to countries that sell lethal military equipment to seven countries: Sudan, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Bush recently labeled those last three nations as an "axis of evil" seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Belarusian political opposition leaders have accused Lukashenka of selling arms outside the state budget and depositing the proceeds into his personal bank accounts. Anatoliy Lebedka of the United Civil Party in Belarus faces criminal libel charges for making such allegations, as do the editors of two opposition papers -- "Pahonia" and "Narodnaya Volya" -- which reprinted a "Washington Post" commentary that contained similar accusations against Lukashenka.
Pifer has this to say about Lukashenka's alleged pocketing of the arms proceeds: "Because of the closed nature of the bookkeeping process, I don't think anyone has a good idea of where the money goes. I mean, these are not transparent accounts. And it was one thing that we pushed during my visit, was one on arms sales in general -- for greater transparency, to be more transparent (a) about who you are selling to and (b) to be more transparent about the money that you're getting, [about] what happens to it."
Although Pifer will not confirm reports that much of the weaponry that Belarus has reportedly sold to rogue states has come from Russia, he acknowledges the U.S. has separate concerns about Russian arms sales to places like Iran.
Pifer says Washington is starting to talk about Belarus with Russia. He says the main U.S. concerns about Minsk concern its poor human rights record and lack of democracy. He adds that he hopes Russia can use its influence in Belarus to improve the situation.
Although the State Department has threatened sanctions against Belarus for the alleged arms sales, Pifer acknowledges that U.S.-Belarusian relations are so poor that there is little that Washington can actually place sanctions on: "They really have sort of put themselves in a box. One of the reasons we haven't sanctioned is because there's nothing to sanction. So certainly if things got much worse, we would look to do some things. But again, when relations are at this level, it's sometimes hard to find things that you can do in addition."