- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

LONDON The threat of invasion is spurring Iraq into a military shopping spree in an attempt to strengthen Saddam Hussein's hand before a U.S.-led military attack on his regime, officials and intelligence sources said.
U.S. intelligence reports have indicated a series of contacts between Iraqi officials and underground arms networks across the world since President Bush made it clear that the goal of his administration is to change the regime in Baghdad.
According to the intelligence reports, as the U.N. Security Council debates a "last-chance" resolution calling on Iraq to accept arms inspections and begin disarmament, the signs are that Saddam may be embarking on the opposite course of action.
"For someone with his mind-set, the current debate at the U.N. if it drags on for too long may become a last window of opportunity instead of a last chance to reform," a U.S. official said. "There are signals."
An unusually large number of illicit weapons transfers to Iraq from former Soviet states have been uncovered during the past few months. In an attempt to close down the source of "slush funds" from illegal oil exports that finance Iraqi purchases of arms, the U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, has just stepped up inspections of commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba.
A number of clandestine shipments of Iraqi oil were detected off the Jordanian port of Aqaba during the summer, fueling fears that illegal oil exports were being increased to finance weapons deals as the risk of war grew.
Syria, which recently opened a new oil pipeline to Iraq, is receiving an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 cut-price barrels of oil a year from Iraq, in defiance of U.N. sanctions. This summer, the Syrian government was accused by Israeli intelligence officers of smuggling Eastern European tank engines, aircraft, radar systems and anti-aircraft guns to Baghdad, ignoring the U.N. arms embargo.
Two weeks ago, Czech police pressed charges against two Czech citizens believed to be the leaders of an arms-smuggling ring that dealt with Iraq. Investigators said the group had considerable experience in smuggling weapons to "Middle Eastern states under the United Nations embargo."
Michael Zantovsky, the chairman of the Czech Senate's committee for defense and security policy, said the group was suspected of selling weapons to Iraq during a three-year period. Police searched homes in Prague and discovered piles of catalogs offering military equipment to "interested persons in Arab states."
Investigators said that a number of significant deals had been successfully completed before the arrests were made. Sales to Iraq included Russian-made Mi-8 and Mi-17 combat helicopters, Kalashnikov rifles, anti-tank grenades and mobile anti-aircraft missile systems.
"Arms trafficking is now rampant throughout eastern Europe and, for obvious reasons, Iraq is one of the big customers," a senior Czech police officer said. "I guess the threat of war may well have something to do with the increased activity."
A large number of the illicit arms deals are being conducted through Jordanian middle men, who are falsely listed as the final user in transactions, intelligence sources said.
The arms dealers many of whom are based at Aqaba place legal orders for equipment such as conventional weaponry and machine tools vital for making the high-precision instruments needed in the construction of long-range missiles or nuclear weapons.
The items are then taken by trucks across the Iraqi border, where U.N. inspections are limited mainly to trucks carrying farm produce into Iraq under the U.N. oil-for-food program.
President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine is believed to have approved the sale of three Kalchuga radar systems to Iraq through a Jordanian middle man for $100 million earlier this year.
The Kalchuga long-range system is able to detect radar sources from more than 500 miles away, although Iraqi missiles are officially limited to a range of 93 miles by U.N. resolutions.
The State Department is also examining reports that Iraqi officials may be bargaining with the North Korean government over stocks of plutonium, which would be sufficient to create at least one nuclear warhead. British nuclear experts from the International Institute of Strategic Studies believe that Iraq could create a nuclear weapon "within months" if it were able to import fissile material such as plutonium.
Last week, the White House said Iraq was also attempting to buy high-strength aluminum tubes to enrich uranium to the extent required for a nuclear weapon.
Washington's studies of Saddam's sources of revenue have estimated that illegal sales of oil at cheap prices to neighbors including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iran brought the Iraqi regime $2 billion last year.
Under the oil-for-food plan, Iraq is permitted to export oil in return for basic foodstuffs. However, at the U.N. General Assembly last week, Mr Bush said, "Saddam Hussein has subverted this program, working around the sanctions to buy missile technology and military materials."
*Julian Coman reported from Washington, Damien McElroy from Beijing and David Wastell from London.


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