Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Those 110,000 U.S. weapons missing from Iraq?

A notorious Russian arms dealer is behind those missing AK-47s:

Consider the case of one particular bad guy, Viktor Bout — a stout, canny Russian air transporter who also happens to be the world's most notorious arms dealer.

When the U.S. government needed to fly four planeloads of seized weapons from an American base in Bosnia to Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in August 2004, they used a Moldovan air cargo firm tied to Bout's aviation empire. The problem is that the planes apparently never arrived.

The missing Bosnian weapons could simply be a paperwork problem (and it's not certain that they are among the missing weapons the GAO discovered; they may be an additional loss). But Bout's involvement raises bleak possibilities … that the arms were diverted to another country or to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops.

For more than a decade before he landed on U.S. payrolls, Bout's air cargo operations delivered tons of contraband weapons … to some of the world's most dangerous misfits.

He stoked wars across Africa, supplying Charles Taylor, the deposed Liberian president now on trial for war crimes. He ferried $50 million in guns and other cargo, and he even sold air freighters to the Taliban. …

Bout also has a well-known record for working both sides of the fence. His planes armed both the Angolan government in Africa and rebel forces arrayed against it. He cut weapons deals with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance government before betraying it by arming the Taliban.

One thing about the Bout affair is certain. As of mid-2006, his firms were no longer flying for the U.S. in Iraq. But now he poses a new problem: "blowback," the blunt term espionage writers like to use for the deadly consequences of poor spycraft.

When the U.S. turned to the Bout network to mount its Iraq supply flights, it was already clear that Bout's network had aided the Taliban's extremist mullahs. How could the U.S. be absolutely certain he wouldn't fly for our enemies once he had left the payroll?

We couldn't and, apparently, he is.

Last summer, a jumbo Il-76 flying the Khazakh flag swooped down to a landing in Mogadishu to unload arms for radical Islamic leaders who briefly seized control of Somalia. It was one of Bout's planes, concluded U.S. military intelligence officials.

With arms-dealer friends like this, who needs enemies, eh?

Cross-posted at Socratic Gadfly and Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus.