Broken Supply Channel Sent Weapons for Iraq Astray
This article was reported by Eric Schmitt, Ginger Thompson, Margot Williams and James Glanz, and was written by Mr. Schmitt and Ms. Thompson.
Joao Silva for The New York Times
Joao Silva for The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 — As the insurgency in Iraq escalated in the spring of 2004, American officials entrusted an Iraqi businessman with issuing weapons to Iraqi police cadets training to help quell the violence.
By all accounts, the businessman, Kassim al-Saffar, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, did well at distributing the Pentagon-supplied weapons from the Baghdad Police Academy armory he managed for a military contractor. But, co-workers say, he also turned the armory into his own private arms bazaar with the seeming approval of some American officials and executives, selling AK-47 assault rifles, Glock pistols and heavy machine guns to anyone with cash in hand — Iraqi militias, South African security guards and even American contractors.
“This was the craziest thing in the world,” said John Tisdale, a retired Air Force master sergeant who managed an adjacent warehouse. “They were taking weapons away by the truckload.”
Activities at that armory and other warehouses help explain how the American military lost track of some 190,000 pistols and automatic rifles supplied by the United States to Iraq’s security forces in 2004 and 2005, as auditors discovered in the past year.
These discoveries prompted criminal inquiries by the Pentagon and the Justice Department, and stoked fears that the arms could fall into enemy hands and be used against American troops. So far, no missing weapons have been linked to any American deaths, but investigators say that in a country awash with weapons, it may be impossible to trace where some ended up.
While the Pentagon has yet to offer its own accounting of how the weapons channel broke down, it is clear from interviews with two dozen military and civilian investigators, contracting officers, warehouse managers and others that military expediency sometimes ran amok, the lines between legal and illegal were blurred and billions of dollars in arms were handed over to shoestring commands without significant oversight.
In the armory that Mr. Saffar presided over, for example, his dealings were murky. Mr. Tisdale, who recalled seeing a briefcase stuffed with stacks of $20 bills under Mr. Saffar’s desk, said he thought Mr. Saffar enriched himself selling American stocks along with guns he acquired from the streets. Mr. Tisdale was supposed to sign off on any transactions by Mr. Saffar, but he said many shipments left the armory without his approval and without the required records.
Ted Nordgaarden, an Alaska state trooper who worked as the police academy’s supply chief, said most of the weapons he saw leaving the armory went with a military escort. For his part, Mr. Saffar denies any wrongdoing, including any arms dealings. Nearly a half-dozen American and Iraqi workers say his gun business was an open secret at the armory.
Elsewhere, American officers short-circuited the chain of custody by rushing to Baghdad’s airport to claim crates of newly arrived weapons without filing the necessary paperwork. And Iraqis regularly sold or stole the American-supplied weapons, American officers and contractors said.
A shipment of 3,000 Glocks issued to police cadets disappeared within a week when they were sold on the black market, said an American official involved in distributing weapons. Other military sources said the weapons would fetch between five and seven times more than the $200 a police cadet would earn in a month. American military commanders say Iraqi security guards are suspected of stealing hundreds of weapons last year in about 10 major thefts at arms depots at Taji and Abu Ghraib.
The investigations into missing weapons are among the most serious in the widening federal inquiries into billions of dollars in military contracts for the purchase and delivery of weapons, supplies and other matériel to Iraqi and American forces.
Already there is evidence that some American-supplied weapons fell into the hands of guerrillas responsible for attacks against Turkey, an important United States ally. Some investigators said that because military suppliers to the war zone were not required to record serial numbers, it was unlikely that the authorities would ever be able to tell where the weapons went.