WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is locating and bombing military airfields and hardened bunkers in Iraq with the help of a document obtained from the office of a mysterious, now-deceased Iraqi expatriate and alleged arms broker, an attorney who helped acquire the information said Friday.
The document--part of a 1981 contract to build 16 military sites in Iraq for $552 million--was sold to the U.S. Customs Service by an employee of London-based IBI Engineering shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait last August.
IBI was one of about 30 firms run by Ihsan Barbouti, a wealthy Iraqi-born entrepreneur who was implicated as a Libyan arms supplier before his death last year.
The contract's role in Operation Desert Storm reflects efforts by the Pentagon to obtain information from companies that have done business in Iraq in recent years that will help allied forces destroy the country's military infrastructure.
Iraq enjoyed generally cordial relations with the United States before its invasion of Kuwait, and Western firms helped the Iraqi government build everything from chemical weapons plants to missile sites to civilian facilities that were subsequently converted to military use.
Destroying hardened bunkers and aircraft shelters has been a top priority of Operation Desert Storm because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's military has used them to shield tanks, aircraft and other key weapons. Built to withstand heavy bombardment, they can be destroyed only by pinpoint targeting.
Mike Johnston, an Oklahoma City attorney who helped the U.S. government acquire a portion of the 1981 contract with Iraq, said the document was sent directly to the CIA and subsequently made available to military commanders in Saudi Arabia. He said he has been told that the information was used to locate sites for aerial photographing and subsequent targeting.
"They used it as a checklist of where to look" in Iraq, Johnston said. "I'm convinced it played some role" in selecting bombing sites.
Johnston, who represents two former business partners who have sued Barbouti, provided a copy of the partial contract to The Times. He also supplied a copy of a letter from the Customs Service confirming his role in a transaction that involved a $2,700 payment of government funds to an unnamed third party last September "for documents which were critical to an ongoing criminal investigation."
Johnston, accompanied by a U.S. official who identified himself as a customs agent, traveled to London to meet with the IBI employee and obtain the documents. The documents do not contain a page bearing signatures of company officials. According to the employee, Barbouti routinely destroyed signature pages so that he could not be tied to specific deals.
Johnston said that he could not disclose the names of the employee or the government official.
"The Customs Service does not deny the transaction," a spokeswoman for the agency said Friday when asked about Johnston's account.
The activities of Barbouti, whose investments in real estate and technology companies in the United States are estimated to be worth $200 million, are under investigation by the FBI, the CIA, the Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to Johnston and former Barbouti employees interviewed by those agencies.
The 1981 contract between the government of Iraq and a consortium of three firms called for construction of 16 satellite military airfields. The work included 12 hardened aircraft shelters, bomb and ammunition storage armories, and personnel shelters. The document also provided the names and locations of the facilities.
The IBI employee said Barbouti was involved with one of the three firms, Gondwana, according to Johnston.
Bill Rosch, a Houston attorney, said on behalf of the Barbouti family: "The allegations concerning the Iraqi installations are absolutely, unequivocally false." He declined to discuss the matter further.
Barbouti's name surfaced in news accounts in early 1989 with the disclosure that IBI (Ihsan Barbouti International) Engineering was the principal contractor on a suspected chemical weapons plant in Rabta, Libya, that was described by U.S. officials as the largest such facility in the Third World.
Before his death, Barbouti said that, as far as he knew, the Rabta plant was designed to produce pharmaceuticals.
In October, U.S. customs officials seized $3.8 million of alleged Barbouti funds from New York and Miami banks on grounds that the money was gained through clandestine export to Libya of parts for jet fighters, helicopters and other military aircraft in violation of President Ronald Reagan's 1986 ban on doing business with Col. Moammar Kadafi, the Libyan strongman.
Arthur Valentz, who was senior vice president of IBI Industries Inc. in Houston in 1989, said Barbouti boasted of a close relationship with Kadafi. "I do the things for him that nobody else will do," Valentz said Barbouti told him.