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WAR WITH IRAQ / DIPLOMACY

Russia to Probe Alleged Arms Sales to Iraq

At Bush's request, Putin reportedly vows to look into whether three firms sold illegal weapons. Russian foreign minister denies the accusation.

March 25, 2003|Robin Wright and Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to investigate three Russian companies for allegedly providing illegal weaponry and technical military assistance to Iraq that U.S. officials said could seriously affect the war.

The Bush administration said Putin pledged to look into the allegations, which include the sale of electronic jamming devices, antitank missiles and thousands of night-vision goggles to the Iraqi military.

The United States contends that at least one Russian firm is still in Baghdad trying to install jamming devices with a unique signal that can be used against U.S. and British warplanes and bombs.

"It's the kind of equipment that will put our young men and women in harm's way," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday on Fox News. "It gives an advantage to the enemy, an advantage we don't want them to have, and that's our concern."

Russia's Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov strongly denied the accusations, as did two of the arms dealers that U.S. officials said sold the materials in violation of U.N. sanctions, which allow only for the import of goods approved by the oil-for-food program. One admitted meeting with Iraqi officials, and said he had no qualms about dealing with them, but the Iraqis inexplicably lost interest.

"I was surprised that they didn't want to cooperate," said Oleg Antonov, 63, general director of the Aviakonversiya company, who admits he met with Iraqi officials 15 times in Moscow hoping to sell his jamming technology to them.

U.S. officials said some of the Russian materiel has been sent directly to Iraq, while other weaponry has been transported illegally via Syria and Yemen to avoid a U.N. arms embargo.

The issue of illegal arms sales to Iraq, which has bought its most sophisticated arms from Russia for decades, is the latest conflict between Washington and Moscow. It follows Russia's threat to veto a controversial U.N. resolution authorizing military intervention against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Russian officials have continued to call for an end to the war. Putin expressed concern Monday over the growing casualties while Ivanov said the war must be stopped to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Washington said it was going public with its allegations after repeated behind-the-scenes appeals dating back to mid-2002 by national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and Powell for Moscow to close down the arms deals in violation of U.N. sanctions.

U.S. envoys made one final appeal to Russia 10 days before the outbreak of hostilities, but again failed to win a satisfactory answer or action, U.S. officials said Monday.

A debate ensued within the administration between those who wanted to protect the already troubled U.S.-Russian relationship and others who were so angry they were ready to "thrash the Russians" in public, an administration official said.

U.S. officials claim that new intelligence as current as Friday, two days after the war began, revealed that technicians from Aviakonversiya were still in Iraq trying to help get the jamming system up and running.

Antonov denied that any of his staff was there.

An official at another of the accused Russian companies denied ever attempting to sell proscribed technology to Iraq. Arkady Shipunov, design director at KBP Tula, said his company strictly adheres to U.N. sanctions. Tula is accused by the United States of selling Kornet missiles to Iraq.

The third Russian firm was not identified.

Although the companies implicated are all private, the United States believes Moscow should be involved in oversight and interdiction because the weapons sales are prohibited by U.N. resolutions that Russia supported.

"Foreign Minister Ivanov assured me that with enough information, the right information, they would do something about it," Powell said, "but, frankly, we believe we have given them more than enough information so that they should have been able to find out the truth of this. And I am quite confident of our facts in this matter."

After two Tomahawk cruise missiles misfired Sunday and landed in Turkey, some military analysts suggested the Iraqis may have used a jamming device, although missiles do have backup guidance systems.

However, at a Pentagon briefing Monday, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff downplayed the issue.

The military has long been aware of the problem, he said, "and what we've found is, through testing and through actual practice now, that they are not having a negative effect on the air campaign at this point."

In Moscow, Ivanov said Russia had repeatedly investigated the U.S. claims during the last five months.

"No facts confirming the U.S. concerns were revealed," he said.

Antonov, the Aviakonversiya official, described in an interview what he characterized as ardent negotiations that suddenly waned.

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