Arms Plan for Iraqi Forces Is Questioned

Times Staff Writer

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.”

Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947, the AK-47 is manufactured largely in former Soviet Bloc nations. It was standard issue for the Iraqi army and security services under the Saddam Hussein regime, which handed out well over a million of them to soldiers and civilians and warehoused tens of thousands more.

To some U.S. defense analysts, that is scant justification.

“Basically, they would be equipping the new and improved Iraqi military with un-American weapons. If you’ve decided to start all over again from the beginning, it would make sense to equip the new Iraqi military with American equipment,” said John Pike, who heads the Virginia-based, nonprofit defense policy group.

“It raises a lot of interesting questions that will continue to be raised as they rebuild the Iraqi military .... If played right, this could be a real bonanza for American armament companies.”

Pike and his group say that the purchase, presumably the first of many for the new Iraqi army, potentially has multibillion-dollar implications.

“What about tanks? How many tanks does Iraq need?” Pike asked. “Does Iraq need fighter planes? Are they going to buy Swedish fighter planes?”

A recent study by Global- on rebuilding the Iraqi military said: “It is important for the United States to monitor and supervise Iraq’s military reconstruction, as the U.S. has an interest in reequipping Iraq with U.S. military equipment. The use of U.S. systems would require significant training and allow the U.S. to have continued military influence in the country long after significant U.S. units had departed.

“Likewise, if left to its own accord, Iraq would likely turn to other available systems on the open arms sales market, most likely Russian or Russian- derivative arms that the Iraqi military already has experience in using.”

The coalition authority’s request for the rifles does specify that its supplier have “required licenses and credentials” that include an official registration with the State Department as a “broker” of defense products and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Class III “license for U.S. companies,” which permits the manufacture or sale of fully automatic assault weapons.

Such a license permits a U.S. company to sell the weapons only to U.S. law enforcement agencies. But if the company also is registered with the State Department’s Defense Trade Controls Office, it can broker the sale of those weapons from a foreign manufacturer to another foreign buyer.

Independent analysts added that, given those specifications, the coalition’s winning bidder probably would be a licensed U.S. arms broker or dealer who arranges the shipment to Iraq from a former Soviet Bloc country that makes AK-47s.