RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in Baghdad with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Today he reports on the U.S. seizure of a Republican Guard compound that appeared to offer evidence that the Iraqi regime had been trying to steadily rebuild its military forces since the 1991 Gulf War.
Baghdad, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A Republican Guard motor pool captured by U.S. troops during their advance into Baghdad suggests that Saddam Hussein sought to spend millions of dollars on military hardware even as economic sanctions were causing widespread hunger and suffering in Iraq.
In one massive warehouse, the frames of dozens of Russian-built T-72 tanks were arranged in an assembly line. At the time the 1-15 Task Force of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division took control of the facility, the hulls of the tanks were being cannibalized for spare parts to rebuild other tanks. No new tanks were in evidence.
In another assembly line in the warehouse, attempts were being made to refit new guns into T-72 turrets. Similar assembly lines -- apparently built in an attempt to salvage scores of Russian-built BTR troop carriers -- stretched through the massive warehouse and into an adjacent scrap yard.
But it did not appear the Republican Guard had been reduced entirely to recycling old parts. When Task Force crews checked inside another building looking for snipers and booby traps, they instead found long rows of brand-new guns and ammunition for the vehicles that were being rebuilt.
Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, the commander of the 1-15 Task Force, grinned as he talked about the warehouse assembly lines, guns, and ammunition. Charlton called the facility a "graveyard" for Republican Guard equipment.
In an office at the motor pool, troops discovered a letter from a Russian weapons firm that appears to suggest Saddam was attempting to spend millions of dollars expanding his conventional weapons arsenal -- even as he was complaining he was unable to feed the Iraqi people because of economic sanctions.
The letter, dated July 2001 and written in broken English, is signed by Colonel General Vladislav Achalov, who identifies himself as a representative of a Moscow-based company, FTW Systems Ltd.
At this time there are no means to ascertain whether the letter was in fact sent by Achalov. The Associated Press, citing the Interfax-Military news agency, recently reported that Achalov, a former Soviet deputy defense minister, said he had repeatedly visited Iraq just before the war and had found Iraqi defenses to be strong.
AP also cited Achalov as saying Soviet military advisers had been based in Baghdad until the early 1990s and had made a "significant contribution" to the Iraqi armed forces.
The letter apparently signed by Achalov says it is in response to an Iraqi request for the "delivery of equipment." It offers 50 new gun barrels for T-72 tanks at the price of $124,000 each -- a total of $6.2 million. It also offers 400 new engines for BTR troop carriers at $7,500 each -- an additional $3 million.
The letter goes on to say the price of 200 30-caliber machine guns for BMP troop carriers would be stipulated during talks on a final contract after the Russian firm received a so-called "End-User Certificate." This is a document required by international law to ensure that military equipment is not sold illegally or transported via a third country to nations that are under arms embargoes.
It is not clear the items listed in the Russian document were ever purchased -- or that the letter represents a clear violation of the UN arms embargo on Iraq, which did not prohibit the sales of conventional weapons. But the letter, if it is genuine, seems to indicate that at a time of strict economic sanctions, the Iraqi regime was at least contemplating military purchases worth millions of dollars.
One discovery at the Republican Guard motor pool was especially ironic: ordinary postage stamps that were part of Saddam's campaign to have the sanctions lifted. They show a large arrow stretching across a map from Iraq to the Palestinian territories, indicating aid from Iraq for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The words on the stamp, written in English, read: "Despite the unjust economic sanctions."