Monday, August 13, 2007
As the secretive, $40 million deal neared completion, Italian authorities moved in, making arrests and breaking it up. But key questions remain unanswered. For one thing, The Associated Press has learned that Iraqi government officials were involved in the deal, apparently without the knowledge of the U.S. Baghdad command - a departure from the usual pattern of U.S.-overseen arms purchases. Why these officials resorted to "black" channels and where the weapons were headed is unclear.
The weapons free-for-all apparently is spilling over borders: Turkey and Iran complain U.S.-supplied guns are flowing from Iraq to anti-government militants on their soil. Iraqi middlemen in the Italian deal, in intercepted e-mails, claimed the arrangement had official American approval. A U.S. spokesman in Baghdad denied that.
Operation Parabellum, the investigation led by Dario Razzi, anti-Mafia prosecutor in this central Italian city, began in 2005 as a routine investigation into drug trafficking by organized-crime figures, branched out into an inquiry into arms dealing with Libya, and then widened to Iraq. Court documents obtained by the AP show that Razzi's break came early last year when police monitoring one of the drug suspects covertly opened his luggage as he left on a flight to Libya. Instead of the expected drugs, they found helmets, bulletproof vests and the weapons catalog.
Tapping telephones, monitoring e-mails, Razzi's investigators followed the trail to a group of Italian businessmen, otherwise unrelated to the drug probe, who were working to sell arms to Libya and, by late 2006, to Iraq as well, through offshore companies they set up in Malta and Cyprus. Four Italians have been arrested and are awaiting court indictment for allegedly creating a criminal association and alleged arms trafficking - trading in weapons without a government license. A fifth Italian is being sought in Africa. In addition, 13 other Italians were arrested on drug charges.
In the documents, Razzi describes it as "strange" that the U.S.-supported Iraqi government would seek such weapons via the black market.
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.
The Italians sent several offers of various types and quantities of rifles, with photos included. The negotiating focused on the source of the weapons: The Iraqi middlemen said their buyer insisted they be Russian-made, but the Italians wanted to sell AK-47s made in China, where they had better contacts.
"We are in a hurry with this deal," an impatient Waleed Noori al-Handal, Jordan-based general manager of the Iraqi firm, wrote the Italians on Nov. 13 in one of the e-mails seen by AP. He added, in apparent allusion to the shipment's clandestine nature, "You mustn't worry if it's a problem to import these goods directly into Iraq. We can bring the product to another country and then transfer it to Iraq."
By December, the Italians, having found a Bulgarian broker, were offering Russian-made goods: 50,000 AKM rifles, an improved version of the AK-47; 50,000 AKMS rifles, the same gun with folding stock; and 5,000 PKM machine guns. The Iraqis quibbled over the asking price, $39.7 million, but seemed satisfied. The Italians were set for a $6.6 million profit, the court documents show, and were already discussing air transport for the weapons. At this point prosecutor Razzi acted, seeking an arrest warrant from a Perugia court.
"The negotiation with Iraq is developing very quickly," he wrote the judge. On Feb. 12, in seven locations across Italy, police arrested the 17 men, including the four alleged arms traffickers: Bettinotti; Gianluca Squarzolo, 39, the man whose luggage had yielded the original clue; Ermete Moretti, 55, and Serafino Rossi, 64. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. The at-large fifth man, Vittorio Dordi, 42, was believed to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he apparently is involved in the diamond trade. Italian authorities were seeking information on him from the African country.
Labels: Al-Handal General Trading Co., al-Thuraya Group, Dario Razzi, Ermete Moretti, Gianluca Squarzolo, illegal arms trading, Italy, Libya, Massimo Bettinotti, MIR Ltd, Serafino Rossi, Vittorio Dordi