Letters discovered in Baghdad that appear to detail negotiations on the illegal sale of weapons to Saddam Hussein's regime by private Russian and Belarusian firms are being examined by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The texts of the letters were obtained at an Iraqi military compound in early April by RFE/RL. The information was presented to officials and independent experts during an OSCE forum in Prague this week that focused on trafficking.
Prague, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says letters discovered in Iraq about apparent weapons deals with Saddam Hussein's regime by private Russian and Belarusian firms appear to be authentic.
After an initial review of the documents, Daan Everts, the special representative of the OSCE's Dutch chairman, told RFE/RL: "I have little doubt about their authenticity. From Russia, we know that there are elements involved in this. Also Moldova."
Everts did not elaborate. He was speaking this week on the sidelines of an OSCE forum in Prague on trafficking. He said the materials must go through "proper channels" and studied carefully before any definitive conclusions are announced.
United Nations sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 prohibited the sale of weapons to Baghdad.
A spokesman for the OSCE Secretariat, Alexander Nitzsche, says the documents have been formally passed to the Russian government.
"We have received the documentation submitted to us and it has been handed over [by the Dutch chairmanship of the OSCE] to the Russian delegation, which is present here at the OSCE economic forum," Nitzsche said. "You'll have to understand that this documentation has to be reviewed very carefully and thoroughly before any assessment can be made. And no doubt, a similar assessment will be taking place by the U.S. delegation. I understand this has also been sent up the chain to the United States."
Nitzsche told RFE/RL the OSCE intends to pass copies of the documents to the Belarusian government as well.
During the closing press conference at the OSCE's Prague forum on 23 May, Everts said the letters also will be sent to a United Nations' committee on sanctions violations, which he described as the "appropriate committee" to determine the authenticity of the documents and deal with the issue.
Members of Russia's OSCE delegation at the Prague forum declined a request today from RFE/RL for a recorded interview about the documents. But Anvar Azimov, deputy director of the European Cooperation Department within Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Kremlin will study the materials closely and "respond in an appropriate manner in due time."
One OSCE official told RFE/RL that the documents "hit the nail on the head" in regard to the complicated issue of how to combat illegal weapons trafficking. The OSCE official said the materials have -- as he put it -- "stirred up a hornet's nest" behind the scenes at this week's forum in Prague.
The letters, dated June and July 2001, were obtained by RFE/RL from an Iraqi Republican Guard facility in Baghdad shortly after it was captured by U.S. troops in early April. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz was embedded with those troops and was able to roam freely within the walled compound of the Republican Guard motor pool and monitor the discovery of documents and other materials there.
One letter was written in English on the letterhead of FTW Systems Ltd., a private Moscow-based firm with a post office box in Nicosia, Cyprus.
That letter contains a signature reading "Colonel General Vladislav Achalov, Representative of the Company." Achalov was a Soviet-era deputy defense minister who made several widely publicized private trips to Iraq in the months and years before the recent war in Iraq.
The letter offers prices in a proposed multi-million dollar deal on new gun barrels for Soviet-built T-72 tanks, along with hundreds of new engines and heavy machine guns for BTR armored troop carriers. It also includes the promise of a guarantee from the state-owned Russian weapons manufacturer.
The other document appears to be a copy of a fax written in Russian on the letterhead of the Barysau Repair Factory -- a subsidiary of the Belarusian Defense Ministry -- and signed by that state plant's director V.F. Sakatch. Addressed to private Belarusian businessman V.S. Rachkevich, it purportedly details three issues that were under negotiation as part of a proposed program for the exchange of military expertise and hardware.
On the back, a handwritten comment in Arabic says: "Send a delegation in August."
Both Achalov and Rachkevich admit to having visited Iraq recently but deny involvement in any weapons deals. Some officials in Belarus allege the documents were planted by U.S. intelligence agents to discredit the government in Minsk.
Rachkevich told RFE/RL that some of his business competitors in Iraq may have forged the documents and left them at the Iraqi motor pool before the arrival of U.S. troops.
Independent experts on weapons trafficking who presented research at this week's OSCE forum also reviewed the letters and offered mixed reactions.
Phil Williams, an economics professor in graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, viewed the materials just before he told the OSCE forum that it is a myth that governments are interested in trying to stop arms trafficking. Williams told the forum delegates that his research shows many governments are more interested in promoting arms sales than stopping illegal deals.
"Very often, governments don't give stopping trafficking a high priority. There are all sorts of geopolitical considerations which come into play. There are domestic political considerations that come into play. And these things mean that there is a lot of rhetoric that isn't always backed up by substantive measures," Williams said.
After examining the letters yesterday, Williams offered his assessment: "None of this surprises me. I think it fits the pattern of what we have seen. I mean, what we have here are basically states which really don't have much to offer in terms of competitive exports except arms and some of the expertise that goes with it. So it is very natural, given the constraints they are under, given the limited foreign direct investment, that they take this opportunity."
But Thomas Naylor, a professor of economics at McGill University in Montreal, told RFE/RL he automatically views such documents with suspicion. Naylor, who specializes in black market smuggling and international financial crime, said letters on arms deals are often faked by intelligence agencies as acts of "black propaganda."
"So, assuming they are real, you have here some evidence of private sector contraband trade. Undoubtedly, because it's military, it is being monitored to some degree by the intelligence services probably of several different sides. Because most arms deals, especially when they are black market deals, are being monitored by the intelligence services," he said.
Naylor described the proposals in the letters found in Iraq as relatively insignificant: "I wouldn't at all be surprised if the American intelligence services were fully aware of this all along and decided to let it go through. After all, most of this stuff doesn't seem to be particularly dangerous or lethal anyway. It's standard equipment. So what? That's my reaction."
Hundreds of thousands of documents from the archives of Saddam Hussein's regime still await review by international monitors and foreign intelligence services.