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Before Rearming Iraq, He Sold Shoes and Flowers

The U.S. chose Ziad Cattan to oversee military buying because he could get things done. He did, but now he faces corruption charges.

November 06, 2005|Solomon Moore and T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Ziad Cattan was a Polish Iraqi used-car dealer with no weapons-dealing experience until U.S. authorities turned him into one of the most powerful men in Iraq last year -- the chief of procurement for the Defense Ministry, responsible for equipping the fledgling Iraqi army.

As U.S. advisors looked on, Cattan embarked on a massive spending spree, paying hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi funds for secret, no-bid contracts, according to interviews with more than a dozen senior American, coalition and Iraqi officials, and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The money flowed, often in bricks of cash, through the hands of middlemen who were friends of Cattan and took a percentage of the proceeds.

Although much of the material purchased has proved useful, U.S. advisors said, the contracts also paid for equipment that was shoddy, overpriced or never delivered. The questionable purchases -- including aging Russian helicopters and underpowered Polish transport vehicles -- have slowed the development of the Iraqi army and hindered its ability to replace American troops, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Cattan, now facing corruption charges leveled by the Iraqi Justice Ministry, insists that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and the victim of a smear campaign. In interviews in Poland, where he now lives, Cattan said he had worked under pressure from U.S. and Iraqi officials to arm the Iraqi forces as quickly as possible.

"Before, I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars -- but not weapons," said Cattan, who signed most of the 89 military contracts worth nearly $1.3 billion to equip Iraqi security forces, according to the documents. "We didn't know anything about weapons."

Cattan's improbable rise and fall raises troubling questions about American oversight of the Iraqi army's development, considered the most important mission in reducing the number of U.S. troops in harm's way.

The portrait that emerges from interviews and documents is a Defense Ministry whose members were picked with the care of choosing a pickup basketball team. U.S.-appointed military advisors often selected inexperienced Iraqis and watched as they cut pell-mell weapons deals that eventually totaled one-third of the entire procurement budget.

The Iraqis "were like, 'Hey we're a sovereign government now.... We'll buy what we want,' " one military advisor said. "We didn't know what was going on with the money."

Iraqis say the corruption scandal has set back their efforts to fight insurgents. More than 27 arrest warrants have been issued for former government officials, including Cattan and his boss, former Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan. Several former ministry officials have fled the country, others are already in prison awaiting trial, and six have been killed by unknown assailants.

"These violations are many, and they allow terrorism to flourish," said Judge Radhi Radhi, the head of the Commission on Public Integrity, which is leading the investigations. "Exposing this corruption is a matter of vital importance for Iraq."

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Cattan's ascent began two days before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when he returned from Poland after 26 years in an attempt to bring his elderly father out of Iraq to safety.

His father refused to leave, however, so Cattan decided to stay as the war raged on. A broad, garrulous man with boundless confidence, Cattan figured he could help rebuild the country, drawing on a past that included an economics doctorate and business ventures including used cars and a pizza parlor.

Cattan was elected to one of the local advisory councils the U.S. set up after the initial combat phase of the war. He soon became close with the U.S. troops that occupied his neighborhood, filled with military officers who served under President Saddam Hussein, who had just been toppled.

By early 2004, as the U.S. moved toward handing sovereignty to the Iraqis, Cattan had caught the eye of American officials who were scrambling to build a new Defense Ministry. The U.S. was starting from scratch. Coalition advisors decided that civilians should lead the new ministry, but under Hussein, the Defense Ministry was run by military officers, meaning there was no pool of experienced Iraqis from which to draw.

In desperation, Americans cast a wide net, sending interested Iraqis to the United States for a three-week crash course on Defense Ministry management. Cattan was one of the first to go.

Upon his return, he rose quickly through the new ministry's ranks, becoming the director of military procurement after the first director's assassination. Cattan was chosen partly because he had done a good job obtaining furniture for the ministry building, one source said.

He impressed U.S. officials in the coalition with his ability to get things done, a trait lacking in many Iraqi government prospects, who had learned to avoid taking the initiative under the Hussein dictatorship.

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