PERUGIA, Italy (AP) — A chance discovery at Rome's busy Fiumicino Airport led anti-Mafia investigators to a huge black-market transaction in which Iraqi and Italian partners haggled over shipping more than 100,000 Russian-made automatic weapons into Iraq.
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 not clear.
Iraqi middlemen in the Italian deal, in intercepted e-mails, said the arrangement had official U.S. approval. A U.S. spokesman in Baghdad denied that.
"Iraqi officials did not make [the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq] aware that they were making purchases," said Lt. Col. Daniel Williams of the transition command, which oversees arming and training of the Iraqi police and army.
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.
Court documents obtained by AP show that Mr. 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 and monitoring e-mails, Mr. Razzi's investigators followed the trail to a group of Italian businessmen who were working to sell arms to Libya and, by late 2006, to Iraq through offshore companies they set up in Malta and Cyprus.
Four Italians have been arrested and are awaiting indictment on charges of creating a criminal association and trading in weapons without a government license. A fifth Italian is being sought in Africa.
In the documents, Mr. 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 in 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, United Arab Emirates — apparently had communicated with Mr. Bettinotti earlier about buying night visors and had been told MIR could also procure weapons.
Al-Handal has figured in questionable dealings before, having been identified by U.S. investigators three years ago as a "front company" in Iraq's oil-for-food scandal.
In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry wouldn't discuss the AK-47 transaction on the record. But a senior ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that it had sought the weapons through al-Handal.
Although this official refused to discuss details, he said "most" of the 105,000 weapons were meant for police in Iraq's western province of Anbar. That statement raised questions, however, since Pentagon reports list only 161,000 trained police across all 18 of Iraq's provinces and say the ministry has been issued 169,280 AK-47s, 167,789 pistols and 16,398 machine guns for them and 28,000 border police.
A July 26 Pentagon report said 20,847 other AK-47s purchased for the Interior Ministry have not yet been delivered. Iraqi officials complain that the U.S. supply of equipment, from bullets to uniforms, has been slow.
A Pentagon report in June may have touched on another possible destination for weapons obtained via secretive channels, noting that "militia infiltration of local police remains a significant problem." Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq's civil war have long been known to find cover and weapons within the Interior Ministry.