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Arms Plan for Iraqi Forces Is Questioned

August 08, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a nation awash with hundreds of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, the U.S.-led occupation authority is planning to buy and import 34,000 more of the ubiquitous weapons to equip a new Iraqi army.

The plan has baffled some observers, not only because U.S. forces in Iraq have already seized and stockpiled thousands of the rifles since April, but because defense analysts have strongly recommended that the new Iraqi army be equipped with more modern, U.S.-made weapons.

The AK-47, designed by Russians shortly after World War II, is manufactured almost exclusively in former Soviet Bloc countries and China. Among the possible beneficiaries of such an unlikely U.S. order: Poland, where the assault rifles are made and support for the war in Iraq has been strong.

With a bidding deadline today, the Coalition Provisional Authority now running Iraq is quietly seeking the best deal on the arsenal from U.S.-licensed arms dealers, asking that they deliver the assault weapons to the Taji military base north of Baghdad by Sept. 3. The plans were spelled out on its official Web site this week.

A spokesman for the Coalition Joint Task Force, which commands the military occupation in Iraq, was unaware of the request for bids and questioned it.

"That's surprising," said Army Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons, a task force spokesman in Baghdad. "It would seem to me odd that we're out there looking to buy more weapons for a place where we've already captured and set aside so many of them. It would raise a red flag for me, that's for sure."

But an official with the occupation authority in Baghdad, who asked not to be named, confirmed the plans and said the AK-47s would be used to equip a new Iraqi army being formed to replace the 400,000-strong military that was formally disbanded in May.

The U.S. Army and private American defense contractors, led by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, have begun to train the first Iraqi army recruits in Kirkuk under a $48-million Pentagon contract, and the Taji base is the supply point for that northern Iraqi city. The new force is expected to number 12,000 at the end of this year and 40,000 in three years.

In its Internet solicitation for the 34,000 weapons and accessories, technically called a request for proposals, the occupation authority specified that it wanted to buy "brand-new, never-fired, fixed-stock AK-47 assault rifles with certified manufacture dates not earlier than 1987."

The authority wants a new shipment of the weapons from a single source "so that they're all of the same standard, and they're all new and ready to use," the official said. He declined to speculate on the cost of the weapons or the source of the funds that will be used to buy them, adding, "We're looking for a product that works, and we're looking for value."

Individual AK-47s are advertised on the Internet for several hundred dollars apiece. Although it was unclear what the per-rifle cost would be under such a large purchase, the total order would presumably exceed $1 million.

But the U.S. forces who seized control of Iraq in April have since discovered vast stockpiles of new, never-fired AK-47s, which U.S. military officials said have been deliberately warehoused for a future Iraqi army.

At one compound of eight concrete warehouses that a company of the 10th Engineer Battalion found in central Baghdad in mid-April, Times reporters watched soldiers form a human chain to fill a truck bed with AK-47s so new the soldiers' hands turned orange from the packing grease.

One officer on the scene at the time called the arms cache a "mother lode." Another said there were so many weapons he'd lost count. First Lt. Matt Miletich, who was in charge of the company, said then that the weapons would be held and guarded until a new Iraqi government and army were ready to receive them.

The following day, U.S. Marines who were securing the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad announced that they had found 100,000 AK-47s there, 80,000 of them in a hospital. And in the months that have followed, there have been almost daily reports of U.S. military units seizing quantities of AK-47s both large and small, new and used.

"We've been designating a lot of these captured weapons specifically for the new Iraqi army and police organizations we're setting up," Fitzgibbons said, although he acknowledged that many of the weapons were old.

The civil authority official, however, asserted that the makes and models of the new weapons seized have "slight differences" depending on the nation where they were made, and that the goal of the agency's AK-47 purchase is to standardize the arms.

He added that the agency decided to order AK-47s rather than another weapon made in the U.S. or another Western country not only because the Iraqi recruits are familiar with it but because "the AK-47 is the easiest weapon to teach, and it's the easiest to use."

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