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THE WEAPONS FILES

Banned Arms Flowed Into Iraq Through Syrian Firm

Files found in Baghdad describe deals violating U.N. sanctions and offer a glimpse into the murky world of weapons smuggling and the ties between 'rogue states.'

December 30, 2003|Bob Drogin and Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writers

DAMASCUS, Syria — DAMASCUS, Syria

A Syrian trading company with close ties to the ruling regime smuggled weapons and military hardware to Saddam Hussein between 2000 and 2003, helping Syria become the main channel for illicit arms transfers to Iraq despite a stringent U.N. embargo, documents recovered in Iraq show.

The private company, called SES International Corp., is headed by a cousin of Syria's autocratic leader, Bashar Assad, and is controlled by other members of Assad's Baath Party and Alawite clan. Syria's government assisted SES in importing at least one shipment destined for Iraq's military, the Iraqi documents indicate, and Western intelligence reports allege that senior Syrian officials were involved in other illicit transfers.

Iraqi records show that SES signed more than 50 contracts to supply tens of millions of dollars' worth of arms and equipment to Iraq's military shortly before the U.S.-led invasion in March. They reveal Iraq's increasingly desperate search in at least a dozen countries for ballistic missiles, antiaircraft missiles, artillery, spare parts for MIG fighter jets and battle tanks, gunpowder, radar systems, nerve agent antidotes and more.

The Bush administration accused Damascus in March of sending night-vision goggles and other military equipment into Iraq, but U.S. officials now say the White House was unaware of the extent of the illicit weapons traffic.

Other gaps in Washington's efforts to stem the flow of black-market weapons and missile technology to outlaw states emerged this month when Libya revealed that it had procured medium-range missiles and prohibited nuclear technology despite U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry did not respond to numerous faxes and telephone calls asking for clarification of SES's activities. SES also has not responded to requests by The Times for an interview. In an e-mail Monday, the company termed "false" any suggestion that it was involved in illicit trade but did not address any of the specific cases.

The White House previously has accused Syria of sheltering fugitives from the ousted Iraqi regime, of letting Islamic militants cross into Iraq to attack coalition forces, and of refusing to release at least $250 million that Hussein's regime stashed in Syrian banks.

Files from the Baghdad office of Al Bashair Trading Co., the largest of Iraq's military procurement offices, provide no new evidence about chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq. And not every contract for conventional weapons was filled.

But the successful deals -- such as the delivery of 1,000 heavy machine guns and up to 20 million bullets for assault rifles -- helped Baghdad's ill-equipped army grow stronger before the war began in March. Some supplies may now be aiding the insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation.

And the files reviewed by The Times -- about 800 pages of signed contracts, shipping manifests, export documents, bank deposits, minutes of meetings and more -- offer a rare glimpse into the murky world of international arms smuggling and the ties between countries such as Syria and North Korea, which the administration calls "rogue states," and the ousted Iraqi regime. The documents illustrate the clandestine networks and complex deceptions Iraq used to evade U.N. sanctions and scrutiny by U.S. intelligence. Those include extensive use of front companies, sham contracts, phony export licenses, kickbacks and money laundering schemes.

A three-month investigation by The Times has found:

* A Polish company, Evax, signed four contracts with Iraq and successfully shipped up to 380 surface-to-air Volga/SA-2 missile engines to Baghdad through Syria. The last batch was delivered in December 2002, a month after the U.N. Security Council warned Iraq that it faced "serious consequences" if it continued to violate U.N. resolutions.

* South Korea's Armitel Co. Ltd. shipped $8 million worth of sophisticated telecommunications equipment for what Iraqi documents said was "air defense." The company is now submitting bids to the U.S.-led occupation authority for contracts to improve telephone and Internet service from Baghdad to Basra.

* Russia's Millenium Company Ltd. signed an $8.8-million contract in September 2002 to supply mostly American-made communications and surveillance gear to Iraq's intelligence service. The company's general manager in Moscow later wrote to suggest "the preparation of a sham contract" to deceive U.N. weapons inspectors, documents show.

* Slovenia's STO Ravne company, then a state-owned entity, shipped 20 large battle tank barrels identified as "steel tubes" to SES in February 2002. The next month, Slovenia's Defense Ministry blocked the company from exporting 50 more tank barrels to Syria. Overall, STO Ravne's secret contract called for delivering 175 tank barrels to Iraq.

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