U.S. officials have found evidence corroborating the Bush administration’s allegations that Russian companies sold Saddam Hussein high-tech military equipment that threatened U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq last March, a senior State Department official said Friday.
The United States has found proof that Russian firms exported night-vision goggles and radar-jamming equipment to Iraq, the official said. The evidence includes the equipment itself and proof that it was used during the war, said the official.
Such exports would violate the terms of United Nations sanctions against Baghdad.
“We have corroborated some of that evidence,” the official told a group of reporters.
While insisting that the matter was “now in the past,” he said that the Bush administration “never received entirely satisfactory explanations” to its charges, and acknowledged that the issue “is still a sensitive one in the relationship.”
“It’s an issue that, shall we say, did not do much for strengthening trust,” he said.
The issue burst into public view March 24, just days after the war began, when President Bush called Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to voice his concern about the use of goggles, jamming equipment and advanced antitank missiles. The White House said at the time that it had “credible evidence” that the equipment came from Russian companies.
The goggles and jammers were of special concern to the U.S. because American forces, seeking to wage war over great distances with low casualties, relied on night-vision devices and high-tech missile and aircraft guidance systems.
The goggles use heat sensors to enable infantrymen to continue operations even in the pitch of night; the jammers block signals from satellites that guide cruise missiles and “smart” bombs.
Putin staunchly denied the charges. But the allegation added friction to a relationship already strained at the time because of Russia’s vocal opposition to the U.S.-led invasion.
Yevgeny V. Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said Friday that although the allegations were first raised before the war, “we have never received real proof from the American side that Russian firms were involved in the delivery of this equipment.”
The State Department official declined to elaborate on what the proof was.
Khorishko noted that the U.S. and Russia were now involved in broad talks to halt the spread of weapons around the world. He said he could not comment, under the terms of those talks, on whether they addressed U.S. concerns about the night-vision and jamming equipment.
In raising the issue last year, U.S. officials contended that although the hardware was allegedly sold by private companies, the Russian government could have taken steps to oversee and block the traffic. They maintained at the time that the gear had been sold relatively recently, and with an understanding that it could be used in such a war.
High-tech military equipment is a top export for Russia. Though the country’s military budget has shrunk dramatically, its military industry exports about $5 billion annually in tanks, planes, small arms and other equipment -- directly or through transshipment -- to dozens of countries.
During the war, U.S. military sources gave differing accounts of how much the Russian-made equipment affected American-led coalition forces. Some military officials were quoted as blaming jamming gear for sending missiles off course and into Iran and Saudi Arabia, and claiming that Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles destroyed at least two American M1A1 tanks during the war, the first time such tanks had been destroyed in battle.
But other officials said the equipment had little effect during the rapid sweep to Baghdad.
Some Russian arms industry executives and military analysts said the charges about the jamming equipment were made only to explain the inaccuracy of U.S. smart bombs. Some argued, too, that the allegations were pointless, since the hardware could have been legitimately sold to other countries and then exported to Iraq without Russian authorities’ knowledge.
A U.S. intelligence official said he could provide no further details on the alleged shipments and acknowledged that it was generally very difficult to determine whether a government is aware of, let alone involved in, shipments by companies operating within its borders. “It’s always unclear as to what extent governments know about what companies are doing on their turf,” the official said.
Though top U.S. officials have not publicly named the companies believed to be involved, the firms are widely reported to have included Aviakonversiya, which manufactures radar-jamming equipment, and KBP Tula, the manufacturer of Kornet antitank guided missiles.
Leonid B. Roshal, deputy director of KBP Tula, said in an interview late last year that his company sold about 1,000 Kornets to Syria three or four years ago, but insisted that the transaction was “absolutely legitimate.” “As of today, there is no evidence that Kornet antitank missiles have ever been discovered in Iraq,” he said.
Aviakonversiya is a small, private development company founded in Moscow in 1991 by Oleg Antonov, who used to work for the Soviet military complex before founding the company.
It has recently specialized in the production of small, portable jammers. They are not considered military equipment by Russia, since they are not built according to Russian military standards and are made with commercially available parts.
The jammers are said to have a range of 90 to 125 miles. Because they emit a radio frequency, six sites where they allegedly were used were found and destroyed by U.S. aircraft, according to the military.
Antonov, in an interview last year, denied that Aviakonversiya sold any jammers to Iraq, and insisted that the company had no specialists in Iraq to train soldiers in their use. He said the company makes some components of the jammers in Russia, buys other components elsewhere and assembles the units abroad because of Russia’s “crazy customs regulations.”
He said Iraqi delegations visited the company about 15 times, talking about buying the devices, but never came up with the money. “They promised to pay the money, then they would send two or three questions via e-mail, and after that they disappeared,” he said.
“A few months after that, another Iraqi delegation would arrive. And all that lasted for four years. I couldn’t stay away from those meetings, even though I knew that I was simply wasting my time.”
In the end, he said, he became convinced that the Iraqis were trying to use him as a scapegoat: They would buy the equipment elsewhere, but make it look as though they bought it from him.
“So if something is discovered, they could easily leave me vulnerable,” Antonov said.*
Richter reported from Washington and Murphy from Moscow. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.