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Issue Date:  September 10, 2004

Iraq allowed to rearm

Critics say embargo lift may worsen Iraq's security problems


Iraq, once restrained by some of the severest military sanctions, can now buy its own weapons thanks to a little-publicized provision of the United Nations Security Council that lifted a 14-year arms embargo on the country. The provision is included in a U.N. resolution, unanimously passed last June, legitimizing the new Iraqi interim government.

The removal of the arms embargo, instituted to enable Iraq to refurbish its arsenal and take responsibility for its security needs, has turned the formerly weapons-deprived country into a seller’s market for defense contractors. It has also drawn criticism from some analysts who question the wisdom of rearming a politically unstable country still occupied by the world’s largest military power.

“How much of this is a photo op? A way to whitewash the occupation by showing the world that we are allowing Iraq to rebuild its army? Any new [Iraqi] security force would still remain under U.S. control,” said Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute.

The new U.N. provision is a formality. Iraq has technically been open to the arms trade since May 2003 when the country came under the governance of the Coalition Provisional Authority. According to the Asia Times, over the past year Iraq has purchased 50,000 handguns from the Austrian company Glock, 421 UAZ Hunter jeeps from Russia, “millions of dollars worth of armored cars from Brazil and Ukraine, along with AK-47 assault rifles, 9 mm pistols, military vehicles, fire control equipment and night vision devices.”

Asia Times also reported that the Coalition Provisional Authority, shortly before its transfer of power to the Iraqi interim government, negotiated contracts for six C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, 16 Iroquois helicopters and a squadron of 16 low-flying, light reconnaissance aircraft, to be delivered by April 2005.

Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms exporter, manufactures the C-130. An ironic detail of the Iraq purchase is that Lockheed Martin products were used during U.S. bombing campaigns of the first Gulf War, which destroyed much of Iraq’s air force. Cynical though it may be for a company to sell military aircraft to a country after it made a profit building the weapons that destroyed its aircraft, the practice is commonplace, according to Chatap Pratterjee, an investigative journalist for the online publication CorpWatch. “Weapons manufacturers will sell to anybody unless there is an arms embargo,” he said.

Free to buy, Iraq is unable to pay for its military hardware and currently relies on U.S. military aid. Congress has appropriated a little less than $3 billion for Iraq’s security needs, $2 billion of which are earmarked for developing the country’s new army, according to the report in the The National Interest.

Chris Toensig, editor of the quarterly Middle East Report, said American funding of Iraqi weaponry is a continuation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. “The U.S. has been a large arms supplier in the region. This is one of the linchpins of strategic relationships -- a way of trying to make sure the Iraq government remains dependent on the U.S.,” he said.

Several analysts pointed out that Iraq’s lack of independent purchasing power has translated into a bias towards American companies for arms deals.

“U.S. defense contractors consider the Iraqi military contracts their domain. The Glock deal was an anomaly and some people were upset by it. The sentiment expressed by some members of the American Congress was, ‘How could an American company not get it?’ ” said Berrigan.

“Obviously countries and defense industries are excited about lifting an arms embargo,” said Rachel Stohl, a researcher with the Center for Defense Information. “But the policy is problematic because there has been no thorough inventory of Iraq’s arsenals.”

Iraq is “awash in light weaponry,” Stohl said. She believes importing arms will only exacerbate the security problems posed by the country’s already overstocked and unregulated arsenal of small arms -- revolvers, rifles, pistols and the like.

After Saddam Hussein’s defeat, the Iraqi people found themselves in possession of at least 7 to 8 million small arms previously kept by security forces, according to the Small Arms Survey of 2004, a publication of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. The publication described Iraq as a country that “has become synonymous with gun violence.”

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Stohl estimated that small arms have killed “more than one third” of the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq since the end of major combat operations in May 2003, wounded thousands more, and wreaked havoc on the Iraqi population. “Uncounted Iraqi civilians have been killed, wounded, threatened or terrorized by small arms,” she wrote.

With regard to replenishing Iraq’s heavy conventional weaponry, Stohl asked, “Do they need to be spending a significant amount of money on new weapons? The threats they are facing are not going to be solved with tanks alone. What are the greatest needs of reconstruction? Is it military goods and services or is it roads and services?”

But for Anthony Cordesman, national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, lifting the arms embargo is the natural outcome of Iraq’s sovereignty and should not be questioned, especially given the severity of the current insurgency. Cordesman, who has sharply criticized the United States for not attending to the development of Iraq’s security forces, admitted there are practical obstacles to Iraq’s rearmament, including lack of money and the lack of a stable security force to absorb the arms. But he said the current insurgency necessitates that the new government have access to weapons.

“If you cannot create effective security, you have no chance of creating a national government. For an Iraqi government to succeed it has to take this mission [of security] over. There is no question the insurgents are able to draw from a large cache of weapons left over from Hussein’s regime. Suggesting Iraq should remain under an arms embargo is about as relevant as suggesting an arms embargo for the Spanish government when they were fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War,” he said.

Critics of the new U.N. provision disagree. They say Iraq’s sovereignty is limited, if not superficial, overshadowed by the formidable presence of the U.S. military.

“You are dealing with a country that is about to get seven large U.S. military bases,” said George Lopez, director of Policy Studies and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “The only way to make this appear to be a not so visible occupation is to allow the Iraqis their own arsenal. It’s like NATO basing in Germany at the height of the Cold War. They armed NATO and they armed Germany, and that’s what you have here.”

Iraq has five major security forces: the Iraqi Police Service, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the army, the border patrol and the Facilities Protection Services. Although the Pentagon has been successful in recruiting members of these forces (working security in Iraq is one of the few jobs that offers a regular paycheck), cultivating their allegiance to a central government has been more difficult.

“In some instances, private contractors are training Iraqi military and police,” Berrigan said. “Who’s vetting these people? The security environment is so precarious that introducing a whole new set of armed individuals is adding a new layer of volatility to an already volatile region. At the same time water isn’t clean.”

Berrigan said she is familiar with the argument that security must precede reconstruction but she sees Iraq’s dilemma as a “chicken and egg kind of thing. The fact that there isn’t electricity or plumbing fuels the resistance. It seems to me these projects come first. Security flows from basic needs being met,” she said.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004

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