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Iraq buying arms in East Europe's black markets

Two Czechs and a German were arrested in the latest smuggling case.

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2002


The Bush administration may not be ready to make its plans for war with Iraq official, but Saddam Hussein appears to be rearming and preparing for aerial assault in earnest.

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The pull of Iraq's need for weaponry can be felt a thousand miles from Baghdad in Central and Eastern Europe. Several illegal weapons transfers to Iraq have been uncovered in postcommunist Europe during the past few months, and experts on organized crime estimate that most are still successfully hidden.

Most recently, two people were arrested in the Czech Republic, a new NATO member, for allegedly organizing illicit exports of Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian arms. Investigators will not discuss the case, which opened two weeks ago, saying only that the Czech pair, a 28-year-old man and a 69-year-old woman, were at the center of a ring smuggling weapons to "Middle Eastern states under United Nations embargo."

Michal Zantovsky, chairman of the Czech Senate Committee for Defense and Security Policy, confirmed that the group is suspected of selling weapons to Iraq, Iran, and Syria over three-years.

Czech, German, and Swiss police searched homes in Prague, discovering catalogs offering military equipment to "interested persons in Arab states." A third suspect, a Russian man with Canadian citizenship, was apprehended in Germany. Investigators say a number of deals had already been successfully concluded, including sales of Russian-made Mi-8 and Mi-17 combat helicopters, Kalashnikov rifles, antitank grenades, and mobile anti-aircraft missile systems.

Within the past year, US intelligence sources have said that Iraq has a Eastern European radar system that can detect US stealth bombers.

Roman Kupcinsky, head of Crime, Corruption and Terrorism Watch, a publication of US-funded Radio Free Europe, says that the latest case indicates that arms-smuggling groups are using a NATO country as a base for money laundering and organizing deals. "This one group has probably been crippled, but it represents just a tiny fraction of the arms-trafficking underworld here. Eastern European arms continue to go to unstable Arab states and there is virtually no system in place to control them."

In the back room of a pub overlooking Prague's medieval quarter, a Russian, who does not want his name revealed, explains how the arms-trafficking system works. "I got my first taste of the arms trade while working at a refrigerator company in the Ukraine a couple of years ago," he says. "We were approached by military men with flashy brochures of weapons at bargain prices. They asked us to act as a front company to sell the weapons as 'refrigerators' and to ask no questions."

Prague, the former Russian military information officer says, is now the favored base of operations for middlemen selling weapons to the Arab world. "This is the ideal headquarters if you want to sell weapons to Iraq," he says. "The Czechs have a good cover by being in NATO. They have all the right contacts from the old days, and they are willing to do anything for easy money. That's what the arms business is: unbelievably easy money."

The end of the cold war left East Bloc countries with massive stockpiles of unused Soviet-era weapons and a hunger for quick cash. In recent years, billions of dollars' worth of weapons have passed out of Eastern Europe into Third World conflict zones.