Looted spare parts start appearing in Iraq's markets

Posted in Iraq | 18-Apr-05 | Author: James Glanz| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Iraqi Border Patrol officer in Munthriya, at a crossing between Iraq and Iran, with confiscated machinery stolen from Iraqi weapons factories.
KIRKUK, Iraq Equipment plundered from dozens of sites in Saddam Hussein's vast complex for manufacturing weapons is beginning to surface in open markets in Iraq's major cities and at border crossings.

Looters stormed the sites two years ago when Saddam's government fell, and what happened to much of the equipment has remained a mystery.

But on a recent day, resting in great chunks on a weedy lot in front of an Iraqi Border Patrol warehouse in Munthriya, on the Iranian border, were pieces of large machine tools that investigators say formed the heart of a factory that made artillery shells near Baghdad.

Military equipment, including parts for obscure armament used by Saddam's army, is also turning up in Baghdad and Mosul in the north, they say.

For more than a year, large quantities of scrap metal from some of the sites have routinely been filling the scrap yards of Iraq and neighboring countries like Jordan. But with this emergence of a huge panoply of intact factory, machine and vehicle parts, it appears that some looters may have held back the troves they stole two years ago, waiting for prices to rise.

"Spare parts?" said Staff Sergeant William Larock, a U.S. reservist in a division out of Rochester, New York, who is stationed near Munthriya and is coordinating repairs of some of Saddam's old troop carriers to be used for the new Iraqi army. "A lot of them come from the market in Baghdad."

Larock said that some of his repairs to the vehicles, which Saddam bought in Brazil, were being delayed because the asking price on the highly specialized wheels - clearly stolen long ago from those same vehicles - was too high. "That's why these things are sitting on blocks," he said with a faint smile.

Interviews with people who identified themselves as arms dealers or members of the insurgency in Baghdad, Falluja and other Iraqi cities indicate that a parallel black market operates in the explosives looted from some of the same sites.

That market remains clandestine, but the thriving open market points to its likely pervasiveness, scale and sophistication.

In fact, sketchy descriptions by members of the Iraqi insurgency suggest that the arms market is also a highly developed enterprise with brokers, buyers and looters who have stockpiled their products, including artillery shells, mortar rounds and Kalashnikov rifles.

One former Iraqi Army officer said that in Sadr City, for example, a few trusted brokers would take prospective buyers to weapons caches that ranged in size from a few rounds buried in a garden to whole rooms of ordnance. If the broker and the buyers agreed on a price, the buyers would arrive a day or two later with a vehicle to drive their purchases away.

Witnesses described looters of varying degrees of sophistication, including local people who stormed the sites in search of precious metals after Saddam's security forces fled and highly organized operations that arrived with cranes and semitrailer trucks.

Some of the most organized groups arrived earliest and drove away with largely intact equipment.

In buying run-of-the-mill equipment and spare parts that were obviously looted in the past, the U.S. military appears to have adopted some version of a don't-ask/don't-tell policy concerning where the materials originated. The materials, after all, are now being sold openly in street markets.

So the Americans appear resigned to buying the equipment back rather than seizing it.

But the pieces of the conventional artillery factory were headed to Iran when they were seized a few months ago by Iraqi border guards. They appeared to have been cut apart carefully; the dismemberment allowed the material to meet the official definition of scrap, but did no damage that would prevent the pieces from being reassembled.

"They cut in places that were not important," said Brigadier General Nazim Shariff Muhammad, leader of the Iraqi Border Guard in Diyala Province, standing with his right foot perched on part of the machinery. "So they let us think it was going to be used as scrap metal."

Much more valuable machinery also vanished from some of the sites in the weeks after the invasion: so-called dual-use equipment, which could be used in civilian manufacturing and in building parts for nuclear weapons.

Witness accounts have indicated that much of it was carried off in systematic looting in the six to eight weeks after Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003.

That equipment, which investigators say was more likely to be coveted for its monetary value rather than its military value, disappeared without any public trace.

If an entire artillery factory could come this close to crossing the border, some military specialists say, then the dual-use equipment had a chance of getting out as well.

From Baghdad's main roads, Munthriya is the nearest border crossing, making it a natural way station for anything moved, legitimately or not, from the area around the capital.

This part of the Iraqi frontier, about 145 kilometers, or 90 miles, northeast of Baghdad and just south of Kurdistan, is a place out of time.

In the weeks after Baghdad fell, the roads in this part of Iraq were choked with trucks carrying scrap metal, looted generators, cars, chopped-up tanks and other equipment, many witnesses said. Mukhtar Ahmed, who owns a tea shop in Bashmakh, north of Munthriya, estimated that as many as 300 trucks a day passed his shop at the height of the activity.

Since the border patrol began mobilizing in June 2003, Nazim said, the border has been secure, and only scrap dealers with government permits have been allowed to transport materials into Iran through the Munthriya crossing. Specific rules for what constituted scrap had been set up. A tank, for example, had to be cut into at least eight pieces, or it was judged that someone could put it back together.

Warzer Jaff contributed reporting for this article.