The Interior Ministry needs to supply affiliated death squads -- the Badr Corps, the Mahdi Army -- with the weaponry necessary to combat Sunni insurgents, terrorists and ordinary civilians. But the U.S. is hardly well-disposed to the ministry's sectarian agenda. And that apparently set officials at Interior on a shady course to get thousands of Chinese and Russian-made AK-47s and machine guns into the country:
Investigators say the prospect of an Iraq deal was raised last November, when an Iraqi-owned trading firm e-mailed Massimo Bettinotti, 39, owner of the Malta-based MIR Ltd., about whether MIR could supply 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 10,000 machine guns "to the Iraqi Interior Ministry," adding that "this deal is approved by America and Iraq."
The go-between -- the Al-Handal General Trading Co. in Dubai -- apparently had communicated with Bettinotti earlier about buying night visors and had been told MIR could also procure weapons.
Al-Handal has figured in questionable dealings before, having been identified by U.S. investigators three years ago as a "front company" in Iraq's Oil-for-Food scandal.
Ultimately, al-Handal was prepared to send nearly $40 million to Bettinotti in exchange for the guns, a deal that would have netted the Italians over $6 million in profit. And the deal would have gone through, had the Italians not arrested Bettinotti and his colleagues in February as part of an arms-smuggling case that stretches all the way to Libya. Most interestingly, the head of the al-Handal company, Waleed Noori al-Handal, claimed to the AP that U.S. authorities in Baghdad allow al-Handal's parent company "to do all kinds of business" in Iraq.
The Interior Ministry wouldn't comment on the record to the AP about the illicit weapons deal. But an official did acknowledge off the record that "it had sought the weapons through al-Handal," and that it didn't ask questions about how the guns got into the country. His claim that the guns were meant for police in Anbar Province doesn't match up with U.S. supply records that show more AK-47s in the province than there are policemen, at least according to official records.
There's a ton that isn't clear about this story. But the simplest explanation is that the Interior Ministry needed to hide weapons purchases from the U.S. in order to funnel guns to Shiite death squads and militiamen. As the U.S. has recently been supplying Sunni ex-insurgents in Anbar, perhaps the Shiite-dominated ministry felt compelled to balance the scales. It's hard to say at the moment. But the broader significance is that the Iraqi government that U.S. troops are dying to protect is shaping up as a rather large client of the illicit international arms trade.