The issue of missing US weapons in Iraq is getting, as Alice said in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. What started out as a mere report documenting improper bookkeeping procedures for assault rifles and pistols given by the Pentagon to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005 is turning into an international scandal.
It started on July 31, when the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report "Stabilizing Iraq: DOD [Department of Defense] Cannot Ensure That US-Funded Equipment Has Reached Iraqi Security Forces". A classified version of the report will be submitted to Congress next month.
The report found that since 2003, the United States has provided about US$19.2 billion to develop Iraqi security forces. As part of that effort, components of the Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I), are responsible for implementing the US program to train and equip Iraqi forces. The report found that as of July, the DOD and MNF-I had not specified which DOD accountability procedures, if any, apply to the train-and-equip program for Iraq.
As Congress funded the train-and-equip program for Iraq outside traditional security assistance programs, the Pentagon had a large degree of flexibility in managing the program. Normally, the traditional security assistance programs are operated by the State Department. Since the funding did not go through traditional security assistance programs, the DOD accountability requirements normally applicable to these programs did not apply. Thus the DOD and MNF-I cannot fully account for Iraqi forces' receipt of US-funded equipment.
As a result, the GAO found a discrepancy of at least 190,000 weapons between data reported by the former commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) and the property books. The GAO report indicates that US military officials do not know what happened to 30% of the weapons the United States distributed to Iraqi forces from 2004 through early this year.
The highest previous estimate of unaccounted-for weapons was 14,000, in a report issued last year by the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. According to that report, 13,180 Glock automatic pistols were unaccounted for. The more recent GAO study puts the total figure for missing pistols closer to 80,000. In addition, the report found that US officials in Iraq could not account for 751 M1F assault rifles and 99 MP5 machine-guns.
It seems a virtual certainty that many of the Glocks have been diverted to the black market. An article in the current issue of Newsweek magazine quotes a senior Turkish security official, who said his government estimates that some 20,000 US-bought Glock pistols have been brought from Iraq into his country over the past three years.
The GAO reached the estimate of 190,000 missing arms - 110,000 AK-47s and 80,000 pistols - by comparing the property records of the MNSTC-I against records US General David Petraeus maintained of the arms and equipment he had ordered, after he was brought in in June 2004 to build up Iraqi security forces.
The gaps between the two records are enormous. Petraeus reported that about 185,000 AK-47 rifles, 170,000 pistols, 215,000 pieces of body armor and 140,000 helmets were issued to Iraqi security forces from June 2004 through September 2005. But the property books contained records for 75,000 AK-47 rifles, 90,000 pistols, 80,000 pieces of body armor and 25,000 helmets.
The fact that the weapons are not fully accounted for does not necessarily mean they are all missing. It is possible that the US military simply does not have the supporting records confirming the dates the equipment was received, the quantities of equipment delivered, or the Iraqi units receiving the items.
On the other hand it seems fairly likely that some of the missing weapons are being used against US forces in Iraq. Given that the most readily accessible black market for those stolen weapons is in Iraq, some of those are going to be bought by the insurgents.
In fact, the problem could be considerably worse than the GAO report indicates.
According to Amnesty International research, additional hundreds of thousands of US-approved arms transfers from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Iraq could also be missing. In a May 2006 report, Amnesty revealed that Taos Inc, a US company with multiple DOD contracts, subcontracted to a Moldovan/Ukrainian company called Aerocom to transport hundreds of thousands of arms, more than 90 tonnes of AK-47s, and other weapons from Bosnia to Iraq between July 31, 2004, and June 31, 2005, for Iraqi security forces.
US military air-traffic controllers in Iraq, however, said Aerocom never requested landing slots to touch down in the country. Aerocom smuggled weapons to Liberia in 2002 and was operating without a valid license in 2004, according to the United Nations Security Council.
As of August, Amnesty was still awaiting a reply from the Pentagon regarding its investigation into the Bosnia-to-Iraq weapons shipments.
And, in a move that can only be likened to the fox guarding the hen-house, it turns out, as the Los Angeles Times reported on August 13, that there may have been another factor at work, namely the US government's use of Viktor Bout - a Russian air transporter who also happens to be the world's most notorious arms dealer.
When the US government needed to fly four planeloads of seized weapons from Bosnia to Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in August 2004, it used Aerocom. But Aerocom is tied to Bout's aviation empire. The problem is that the planes apparently never arrived. US officials admitted they had no record of the flights landing in Baghdad.
Why the US government would have used Bout-controlled Aerocom - which had already been linked to supplying arms to Liberia when it was ruled by Charles Taylor and to drug traffickers in Belize - is a mystery in and of itself, considering that by 2004 Bout was very well known to the US government as a global gun-runner whom they wanted to put out of business.
The latest development occurred this week when it was reported that that Italian anti-Mafia investigators had uncovered an alleged shipment of 105,000 rifles of which the US military command in Iraq was unaware. The Italian team, in an investigation code-named Operation Parabellum, stopped the $40 million sale and made four arrests. The consignment appears to have been ordered by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The US high command in Baghdad admitted it had no knowledge of any such order, even though the ministry is supposed to inform the US before purchasing arms.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry official insisted the weapons were mostly for Iraqi police in al-Anbar province. But given the close relationship between the Shi'ite-led government and Shi'ite militias and the irregular nature of the arms order, the disclosure prompted suspicion that the eventual destination could have been the militias, or police units close to them.
Furthermore, why the police in Anbar would need more weapons raises more questions. The Pentagon has issued 169,280 AK-47s, 167,789 pistols and 16,398 machine-guns to the 161,000 police in Iraq and 28,000 border police.