- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

IRBIL, Iraq — Interested in buying a piece of Saddam Hussein’s old army at a closeout price? Visit Kamal Jalal’s scrap yard just south of the Kurdish city of Irbil.

It might not look like much from the road — a few piles of twisted metal in an ugly wasteland made white by nearby gypsum mines.

But from close up, you can easily distinguish the hulks of a dozen old Iraqi tanks and armored cars. A Russian-made MiG fighter lies on its side amid the chaos, its cockpit gone but control panel intact.

The MiG looks forlorn without its wings, which stand 60 feet away, propped grotesquely against a couple of empty oil drums.

“We started to break this thing up four months ago, but stopped when the ejector seat shot out and killed one of the workers,” Mr. Jalal says. “We’ve been a bit nervous about touching it ever since.”

He and his colleagues will get back to it, though.

“That plane set me back $12,000,” Mr. Jalal says. “You don’t really think I’m just going to let it lie there and rot.”

The tanks and armored cars, made of steel rather than the MiG’s lightweight aluminum, come much cheaper.

“We buy the tanks from old Iraqi military bases down in Kirkuk and Mosul for $800,” says Mr. Jalal’s partner, Nizar Abullah, 19. “Each one makes us $100 profit.”

Since the end of the war last year, Iraqi Kurds have been snapping up newly available foreign goods. Items as varied as refrigerators and pasteurized cream flood across the eastern border from Iran, while Turkey, to the north, provides goods, including plastic window frames and bomb-resistant concrete blocks.

The Iraqis have to little to offer in return apart from the remnants of Saddam’s armies. And they offer these in a seemingly unending flow into Turkey and Iran.

A five-hour truck drive east of Mr. Jalal’s scrap yard, officials at the Bashmakh border crossing with Iran say an average of 30 trucks loaded with scrap have crossed the border daily for more than a year.

“At that rate, we should have enough military junk to last us 20 years,” jokes customs officer Riyadgar Abdulrahman. “All Saddam spent his money on was tanks and bombs.”

Just across the border, a 30-foot-high mural of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seems to watch through beady eyes as the trucks deposit the scrap atop vast heaps of tangled metal.

The steel later will be taken to foundries in Isfahan to be melted down for reuse.

“It’s ironic, really, isn’t it?” says truck driver Aso Abdullatif, who makes the trip from Irbil to Iran twice a week. “Saddam used this stuff to kill Iranians between 1980 and 1988. Now the same stuff is making them rich.”

The Iraqi scrap dealers also are benefiting. Mr. Jamal says he was bankrupt when he set up his stall by the Irbil road in April 2003. Since then, he says, he’s earned more than $100,000.

And though several other dealers whose yards litter the two main roads south of Irbil say they are finding it increasingly difficult to keep the flow of military hardware coming, Mr. Jamal insists business is as good as ever.

“Next week, we’re due to receive a new cargo from Mosul — 80 tanks and armored cars,” he crows. “Just as well, because I’ve had four Iranian businessmen here this week already, all of them asking for good-quality military scrap.”

Like other dealers, he responds coyly to questions about the legality of his trade.

“At first, the stuff we dealt with was probably looted after the fall of Saddam,” he says. “Since then, we’ve been working with the Americans. They are the ones who gave us our license.”

Some Kurds fear the Iranians have no intention of melting down the metal they receive, that they instead plan to increase the size of their own military. Others say most usable hardware has ended up in the hands of the Kurdish militia commanders.

“The looting of Saddam’s army made a lot of peshmerga [militiamen] very wealthy,” says one Irbil-based businessman.

At the Bashmakh border crossing, customs agent Mr. Abdulrahman and his colleagues say they couldn’t care less who benefits from the trade.

“We Kurds have been eating steel from Saddam’s guns for the last 30 years,” he says. “The sooner all this stuff is out of the country, the better.”

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