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How Hussein Gets 'Anything He Wants'

Iraq uses elaborate schemes to smuggle in contraband and defeat U.N. sanctions. It's a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.

November 23, 2002|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Late one afternoon in March 2001, busy border guards in Jordan gave a cursory check to a sheaf of export documents, then waved past three large trucks hauling hundreds of rolls of brightly colored cloth into Iraq.

Hidden inside the trucks was a bonanza of banned military materiel -- including night-vision devices, global positioning systems, communications gear and other highly specialized electronic equipment from South Korea.

An Iraqi smuggler had bought counterfeit export approval papers for $5,000 from officials in Amman, the Jordanian capital. That, plus a forged signature and a bogus blue stamp, was all it took to shatter strict United Nations sanctions against President Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I buy the permission," said the smuggler, a slim, 39-year-old Baghdad-born engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The permission says only fabric. It is supposed to be permission from the U.N. So the guard says: 'OK, no problem. Just go.' "

In all, the engineer said, he helped sneak at least 25 loads of contraband cargo into Iraq for hefty commissions. Among them: 2,500 tires for armored personnel carriers from Ukraine, two trucks of high-tech laboratory equipment from Germany, and mainframe South Korean computers inside empty refrigerator boxes from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

"Saddam, anything he wants, he can get," said the Iraqi, who recently moved to Britain. "Especially now. He will pay anything."

The smuggler's story, and others like it, are familiar and frustrating to U.S., European and U.N. officials who have sought to unravel the illegal procurement network Baghdad has used since U.N. sanctions were imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Those sanctions-busting schemes are back in the spotlight as U.N. inspection teams return to Iraq and as Washington girds for war. At issue: determining what Hussein may have done to make poison gases, produce deadly microbes for germ warfare, develop atomic bombs and build long-range ballistic missiles to deliver them all.

It won't be easy. Hussein has relied on a global maze of front companies and offshore banks, shady arms merchants and factory owners, crooked middlemen and brokers, plus corrupt officials and border guards. Only a fraction of goods are checked at border posts. And only a handful of people have been caught or prosecuted.

"In terms of smuggling, the U.N. inspectors will not be armed with lots of new documents showing this or that has entered the country," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraq expert at London's Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, which is affiliated with Britain's Defense Ministry. "There is almost no hard evidence. There are mostly assumptions."

In part, that's because almost all the components and raw materials needed to produce chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles are known as dual-use, meaning they also have legitimate uses in Iraq's petrochemical industry, hospitals, pesticide plants or other civilian facilities.

U.N. Must OK Goods

Under sanctions, U.N. officials are supposed to approve all goods, including any dual-use equipment, that Iraq seeks to import. Inspectors have identified more than 100 suspect contracts since December 1999 and now are checking a backlog of additional dual-use documents that Iraq handed over Oct. 1 in Vienna.

"There is no specific equipment for producing chemical warfare agents," explained a member of the current U.N. weapons inspection team. "It's all dual-use equipment."

In some cases, legitimate suppliers are unaware of the agents' agenda.

"I found a European company trying to sell high-speed pumps to Iraq," said a Western government official who plays a lead role in tracking and intercepting clandestine shipments. "Perfectly innocent. But the pump is perfect for missiles. We had to tell them."

Uncertainty also stems from Hussein's reorganization of his covert procurement network after U.N. inspectors last searched Iraqi factories, laboratories and offices for incriminating evidence in 1998.

The state-run Military Industrialization Commission was put in charge of the revamped effort. Commission agents, often traveling on phony passports, have been tracked from Congo and Kenya to Malaysia and Indonesia, from China and Thailand to Austria and Germany.

Iraq tracks them as well. In July, the official Iraqi press reported that 10 engineers at Bader Enterprise, a missile-parts plant run by the commission, had been arrested after returning from delegation visits to India, Russia and Ukraine. The engineers were said to face execution for allegedly passing information to foreign governments.

Iraqi intelligence agents accompany all such overseas visits. In the 1990s, an Iraqi intelligence unit known as M-19 also was used to create shell companies for especially sensitive deals.

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