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.
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.
"Eastern European countries are not very choosy about who buys their weapons, and their economies tend to be highly dependent on arms exports," Mr. Zantovsky says. "It is altogether possible that individuals within the civil service are involved in illegal deals. It may not be policy, but corruption is rampant."
Western experts on Iraq suspect that weapons from Central and Eastern Europe pass through Jordan and Syria to reach Iraq. Iraq appears to be paying for the weapons with unauthorized oil exports, which are reexported as Syrian oil. Syrian oil exports have unaccountably increased by 100,000-200,000 barrels per day in the past year.
"It is not that difficult to smuggle weapons to Iraq.... There is basically no control of ships coming into Syrian ports and trucks take the cargo over the border into Iraq," says a Western diplomat who is an expert on Iraq.
Iraqi Army deserters say they witnessed the delivery of Czech-made missiles and guidance systems to Iraq last February. "It involved weapons worth $800,000. The freight was unloaded in the Syrian harbor of Latakia and then transported to Iraq," three Iraqis told the British Guardian newspaper earlier this year.
The Iraqi government denies that it is importing weapons.
Large Russian and Ukrainian military delegations have visited Baghdad in recent months to assess Iraq's weapons needs. Officially, deliveries will only be made if UN sanctions are lifted. But recent smuggling scandals in both vendor countries point to illegal arms transfers. Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh told the visiting Russian delegation that Baghdad could order more than $10 billion worth of Russian weapons, according to press reports. A source within the Ukrainian delegation told Mr. Kupcinsky that they, too, were given a huge shopping list of weapons the Iraqis wanted, and then the Ukrainians sang "Happy Birthday" to Saddam.
Earlier this year Ukrainian bodyguard Nikolai Melnichenko revealed recordings of the private conversations of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to a court in San Francisco. The tapes, which were inspected by Virginia-based BEK TEK experts, captured a discussion in which Mr. Kuchma approved the sale of three Kalchuga radar systems to Iraq through a Jordanian middleman for $100 million. The Kalchuga is a mobile, passive radar system which can overcome US stealth technology and detect air and land targets up to 500 miles away.
Czech arms company Tesla Pardubice has produced a similar system, called Tamara, which brought down two US bombers during the 1990s Balkan wars. Czech arms dealers tried to sell Tamara systems to Iraq in 1997, but at least one deal was halted in Turkey.
During the cold war, Czech arms companies supplied much of the Third World, including Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and North Korea, with high-tech military equipment and explosives. Sanctions against clients have drastically cut into profits, but sales continue in various shades of gray. Last year, despite pressure from NATO allies, the Czech Republic officially sold 20 L-39 Albatross light jet fighters to Yemen, a country notorious for reselling weapons to embargoed states such as Sudan.
Meanwhile, several recent arrests suggest that the black-market trade in Czech-made Semtex, a virtually undetectable plastic explosive popular with terrorist groups, is booming.