Coalition losing war for Iraqi arms

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO  |  Sept. 29, 2003 at 2:34 PM
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BAGHDAD, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- The U.S.-led coalition forces are losing a bidding war for sophisticated weapons still widely available in Iraq, nearly six months after the fall of Baghdad. Anti-occupation groups and supporters of the old regime are financially able and willing to spend more for weapons, a series of interviews with underground arms dealers by United Press International has determined.

Adding to the concern, private contractors involved in security consulting to companies operating in Iraq say the street prices for some weapons appear to be increasing, indicating weapons are being bought at a higher rate than previously during the occupation.

Some security experts, who asked they not be named, say the higher prices for common military staples such as the AK-47 assault rifle could indicate an impeding attack by anti-U.S. forces and supporters of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime.

In the case of sophisticated weapons such as the Russian-made SA-7 and SA-9 surface-to-air missiles, which are portable and operated by one man, the coalition forces are being largely outbid by arms dealers helping the resistance.

Qais Najeeb -- who once worked for Saddam's older son, Uday, in a venture that exported wheat bought under the U.N.-sanctioned oil-for-food program prior to the U.S.-led invasion -- said the criminal enterprises once run by Saddam's friends and family have reverted underground and now concentrate on material support for the resistance.

Najeeb said he used to help smuggle the wheat out of Iraq in exchange for weapons in defiance of the U.N. sanctions program and that his former colleagues continue to use that approach to procure the huge stores of weapons looted after the war. Uday and Saddam's cousin Ali Hussain al-Majid or "Chemical Ali," his nickname after leading the chemical weapons attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s, led the sanction-busting efforts. Despite Uday's death and al-Majid's recent arrest, the organization remains highly funded and led by other relatives.

And many of the dealers are criminals released by Saddam last October, men who had dealt weapons before and are supported by their old criminal organizations.

"With an (SA-7), the U.S. troops pay less than $1,000 to turn one in, the resistance will pay more than $3,000 for one," Najeeb said, adding similar markups are available for rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons, explosives and even artillery shells used to make roadside bombs.

"They only pay for the weapons that are easy to carry and hide," he said. "Things that you can fire and run away with."

"Some people have kept their weapons since April because they do not know how the occupation will go," Mazen Mikhael, another arms dealer, said in a separate interview. "Even an RPG-7 that the Americans pay $50 to $100 for can be sold to resistance men for $300 or more."

And, he says, it's not just the anti-American forces that are doing the buying, but that some allies of the occupation are taking advantage of the market for deadly weapons.

"The Kurds will pay twice as much as the Americans for an SA-7 or SA-9," Mikhael said. "And the Shiite militias, particularly around Najaf, will also pay whatever you want for similar weapons."

According to Najeeb, who lives just down the street from an American military checkpoint in a largely quiet Baghdad neighborhood, most of the people selling the weapons don't know or care who ends up with them.

"People have no jobs; they have no money," he said. "But the Americans just let them loot the weapons (stockpiles left by Saddam) after the war. So they find a man who will buy them.

"That man is an arms dealer working for Saddam or the resistance. The dealer is backed by a millionaire or some big man, so money (is) no problem."

Najeeb also said many of the new members of the resistance are just Iraqi "patriots who don't care about Saddam, they just want the Americans to leave. So people think they can sell them weapons and not be supporting Saddam, but supporting Iraq."

"Maybe they don't like Saddam," Mikhael said of the resistance. "They just don't like the occupation and they hate how the Americans behave."

When asked about the reports that AK-47 prices are rising and whether that was because U.S. troops have been effective in getting them off the streets, both men laughed and confirmed the rise in prices.

Mikhael said the U.S. forces have been ineffective in rounding up weapons from the start of the conflict.

"No, they have nothing to do with the prices," he said. "(The Americans) started (fighting the arms dealing) wrong. They let people sell weapons and buy heavy weapons. So no one pays any attention to them after that."

"It's too late to stop the trading," Najeeb said. "There are too many hidden stores of weapons and people are dealing and trading freely. The Americans should pay more for the guns they want."

But while Mikhael agrees that the rise in prices -- an AK-47 that sold for $50 three weeks ago can now fetch $200-$300 -- could be a harbinger of an impending offensive against the U.S. troops, Najeeb doesn't think so.

"They just pay more for them," he said of the illegal buyers.

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