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U.S. reinforces its arms sales office in Iraq

The Pentagon is bolstering a badly understaffed office in Baghdad to speed the flow of warfighting gear to Iraqi forces and help keep the weapons from insurgents and off the black market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pentagon is bolstering a badly understaffed office in Baghdad to speed the flow of warfighting gear to Iraqi forces and help keep the weapons from insurgents and off the black market.

The increase in staff from six to nearly 70 includes a two-star general who arrived in Iraq two weeks ago to manage the expanding team. Army Reserve Maj. Gen. George Smith replaces a colonel, evidence of the greater clout for an office that handles billions of dollars in arms sales.

The new push is intended to untie the bureaucratic knots blocking aircraft, armored vehicles, radios and guns from getting to Iraqi police and the military units that are taking more control over the country's security. Over the summer, Iraqi officials complained bitterly that the delays were forcing their troops to fight with inferior equipment.

As demands for more and better gear have escalated, so too have concerns over who is winding up with the supplies. Corruption within Iraq's government has been well documented, and tens of thousands of U.S.-supplied weapons have gone missing; terrorist groups allegedly have used some of the firepower.

In one case, Turkish officials complained to U.S. authorities that guns the Turks seized from a Kurdish militant group had markings matching those on weapons intended for Iraqi forces.

Monitoring needed
The Pentagon's internal watchdog, Claude Kicklighter, led an investigation to determine how pervasive the problem is and what needs to be done to tighten control over arms, ammunition and explosives. Kicklighter's findings, already presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are classified.

While the Iraqis will continue to receive weapons from a variety of sources, the goal is to emphasize the more regimented and transparent foreign military sales system that the United States uses with other allies, Smith said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"Over the long haul, as security develops here in Iraq, they're going to be able to develop their economic power," said Smith, who met with Kicklighter before leaving for Iraq. "I don't know that we can afford to be supporting over a terribly long period everything that a nation needs to provide for its own national defense. So it's entirely appropriate that they go in a direction of purchasing their own equipment."

But there are risks in pushing more weapons into a country with a government striving for stability.

"For countries that are struggling with corruption, with internal violence, with threat of diversion or theft, is it the best policy to be funneling as many weapons to that country as possible?" said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "Or are there other things the United States could be doing first to strengthen democracy rather than just fueling the cycle?"

Smith said part of his mandate is to monitor where the gear, including sensitive items such as night-vision goggles, goes. Keeping tabs on equipment not purchased from U.S. manufacturers is more challenging.

The security assistance office is part of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.

The Iraqis use their money to place orders. Smith's office acts as the middleman, steering the requests through the contracting process. While the Iraqis often want equipment made by U.S. defense contractors, that is not always the case. For example, Smith said his office has finalized a deal for Russian-made helicopters to be used by Iraq's air force.

The more formal approach contrasts with a U.S.-funded account that has distributed billions of dollars in arms and support equipment to the Iraqi since 2003.

U.S. military officials have not kept good records, however, as they have hurried to overhaul Iraq's army and police force. About 190,000 assault rifles and pistols were not fully accounted for, according to one audit completed in July. A report last month about a separate investigation found that the sloppy record keeping persists and that U.S. commanders cannot be sure where all the gear paid for with dollars is going.

Smith, who previously worked as the Joint Staff's deputy director for strategic initiatives, said it will be early summer before his office is fully staffed. By the end of December, he will have close to two dozen people.

A system bogged down
While Iraq's orders for weapons have increased from $200 million to more than $3 billion over the past year, there was no corresponding increase in the number of U.S. officials to meet the expanded workload, Gates said in a Dec. 4 letter to leaders of the House Armed Services Committee.

As a result, the buying process had bogged down and led Iraq to seek equipment elsewhere, including from China. Members of Congress wanted to know if Iraq was using any U.S. money to buy Chinese equipment.

The Defense Department has no information indicating that happened, Gates said, nor is the U.S. security assistance office helping with this sale.

In his letter, Gates said a special task force led by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England found that the U.S. weapons shipments to Iraqi security forces were not given a high enough priority. That, too, is being fixed, according to Gates.

Smith acknowledged that the sales system is not built for speed. Yet that could work to Iraq's advantage.

"Because of its discipline and transparency, it helps the Iraqis to deflect any arguments that some might make about corruption," he said. "But if you're going to have discipline, that entails a certain amount of time."