The arms trade and Iraq

When a few years ago, before I became a journalist, I worked as a researcher for NATO, I was very interested in the arms trade. At the time, new NATO members in Eastern Europe had to upgrade their military capabilities from Soviet-era equipment to the type of equipment that would work in joint actions with other NATO members. That meant that a lot of old weapons, particularly small arms (i.e. guns), ended up on the black market, presumably with military officers from these countries getting a nice commission. This was the time when you could buy a Kalashnikov in the Great Lakes region of Africa for a few dollars, which contributed enormously to the civil conflicts in that area.

The arms trade gets little attention from the press these days, despite the fact that it is estimated to be one of the top three biggest businesses internationally (alongside sex and drugs). Much of it is illegal, and as Americans in particular now know, even the legal part is morally dubious when your system of governance relies on a revolving door system with the military industrial complex of the kind Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney used. The arms trade is not only part of providing deadly systems (as the military calls weapons) to a lot of people who should not have them, but it has also been a largely corrupting influence. Take US military aid to Egypt: it is the lubricant that greases a vast system of payoffs and commissions that keep this military regime in place, while also keeping US arms manufacturers in business. There is a vast and little-reported human rights dimension to the arms trade that this Amnesty International report exposes in all of its complexity:

The report shows how, partly as a consequence of the "export rush" that followed the end of the Cold War, arms trade routes are becoming more complex, requiring even more differentiated logistical, transport, brokerage, and financial arrangements. The use of private transport contractors and brokers for arms transfers is not adequately covered by national legal and regulatory frameworks, and the responsibility of states for the shipment of hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons and other military and security equipment, ammunition and spare parts to armed forces and law enforcement agencies around the world can be easily obscured by complex supply chains. The resulting lack of transparency, monitoring and effective control of such arms supply chains are contributing to the diversion and easy availability of arms by those perpetrating serious violations of human rights during armed conflicts and law enforcement operations. Examples in the report also show how arms are destined or diverted to arms-embargoed countries, criminal organizations and armed groups, including those believed to engage in terrorism, and are paid for with cash or bartered for narcotics, precious stones, metals, oil, timber and other natural resources.
International relations is not about institutions like the UN, as they'll teach you in universities. It's about international business and the process of distribution of money, goods and resources. One of the reasons these things can keep on going is the reluctance by even powerful democratic countries to do anything about the corrupting effect of international financial black holes like the Bahamas and the logistics of the arms trade in general. Only every now and then, as in the Clearstream affair in France, do these issues come up in the public eye.

For our region, the report has some interesting tidbits about the arms trade around Iraq:

International and local observers in Belgrade say that arms stockpiles of newly manufactured weapons and ammunition from Serbia and Montenegro are being transferred to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Taos executives mentioned the involvement of a previously unknown Israeli-registered company, “Talon,” which they said was an arms-brokering company “based in Tel Aviv, Israel”, playing a major role to facilitate the transfer of weapons from Serbia to the Middle East. A Montenegrin arms company executive also stated that Talon acted as an “agent” on behalf of Taos in Serbia & Montenegro, but that a confidentiality clause in their contract forbade them for discussing the company’s identity. Moreover, the Serbia & Montenegro Ministry of International Economic Relations (MIER) stated that the company involved in procuring weapons for Iraq in Serbia & Montenegro is Talon Security Consulting and Trade Ltd, registered at an address in the “Diamond Tower” Twin Towers complex in Jabotinsky street, Ramat-Gan, Tel Aviv.

Talon’s owner is Major Shmuel Avivi, according to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of commerce website. An Israeli source described Shmuel Avivi as “former Israeli military attaché in Switzerland.” Mr. Avivi declined to say whether he was currently a serving member of the Israeli defence forces. Mr. Avivi appears to have served as Israel’s military attaché in Denmark and Sweden. The Israeli source stated that “He [Mr. Avivi] operated out of Switzerland with a Swiss business partner whose first name is Henri.” Henri goes by the name of Heinrich in Switzerland where he is known as Mr. Heinrich Thomet, associated with at least two companies involved in arms dealing, Brugger & Thomet AG and BT International Ltd. Mr Heinrich Thomet stated that he worked together with Mr. Shmuel Avivi “occasionally” and that his company “are supplying Taos Industries on the US SOCOM business” but that his company was not “actually providing any services for Iraq or Afghanistan, we are mainly working on the US government contract which is a SOCOM transaction.”

Another company involved in arms transfers to Iraq is a UK-based company called Global Trading Group Ltd. Global have purchased large quantities of small arms and light weapons for Iraq, including an order for 1000 sniper rifles. In documentation supplied to the Ministry of International Economic Relations, Global Trading Group Ltd give as their address premises currently used by a high street store selling hi-fi equipment. This is a different address from the one supplied in their official UK company registration papers. Global Trading Group Ltd is a new company, incorporated on April 5, 2005, the only publicly available document is the appointments report which describes the company as a “private limited company”; no information is supplied under section entitled “Nature of business” and no accounts have been filed to date. According to UK company house data, Global’s business address is a private one, which appears to be the home of one of the directors of the company.

One of the directors of Global Trading Group Ltd is listed in the Company house documentation as “Fawzi Francis Toma”, who is described as a British citizen born in 1958. Mr Fawzi Toma is known in Iraq as Mr. Fawzi Hariri, a one-time aide to Kurdish faction militia and political leader Massoud Barzani and now a senior figure within Barzani’s political party the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Mr. Hariri liaises with foreign governments on behalf of the KDP and currently serves as chief of staff of the Iraqi foreign ministry, currently headed by Mr. Hoshyar Zebar, also of the KDP. According to Companies’ House documentation, Global Trading Group Ltd’s registered business address is at the home of another company director, Praidon Darmoo, who lobbied the UK government to support the war in Iraq in 2003. A Global Trading director stated that the weapons supplied by Global Trading Group Ltd were on behalf of another company in Jordan who held the contract with the Iraqi Ministry of Defence but that he had seen the end user certificate which he said was issued on behalf of the Iraqi ministry of defence and was sent to Belgrade.
The report is also available as a 149-page PDF. And remember that just two days ago it was revealed that:

SOME 200,000 guns the US sent to Iraqi security forces may have been smuggled to terrorists, it was feared yesterday.

The 99-tonne cache of AK47s was to have been secretly flown out from a US base in Bosnia. But the four planeloads of arms have vanished.

Orders for the deal to go ahead were given by the US Department of Defense. But the work was contracted out via a complex web of private arms traders.

And the Moldovan airline used to transport the shipment was blasted by the UN in 2003 for smuggling arms to Liberia, human rights group Amnesty has discovered.

It follows a separate probe claiming that thousands of guns meant for Iraq's police and army instead went to al-Qaeda

Amnesty chief spokesman Mike Blakemore said: "It's unbelievable that no one can account for 200,000 assault rifles. If these weapons have gone missing it's a terrifying prospect." American defence chiefs hired a US firm to take the guns, from the 90s Bosnian war, to Iraq.

But air traffic controllers in Baghdad have no record of the flights, which supposedly took off between July 2004 and July 2005. A coalition forces spokesman confirmed they had not received "any weapons from Bosnia" and added they were "not aware of any purchases for Iraq from Bosnia". Nato and US officials have already voiced fears that Bosnian arms - sold by US, British and Swiss firms - are being passed to insurgents. A Nato spokesman said: "There's no tracking mechanism to ensure they don't fall into the wrong hands. There are concerns that some may have been siphoned off." This year a newspaper claimed two UK firms were involved in a deal in which thousands of guns for Iraqi forces were re-routed to al-Qaeda.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.