Kurds in N. Iraq Receive Arms From Bulgaria

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 23, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Kurdish officials this fall took delivery of three planeloads of small arms and ammunition imported from Bulgaria, three U.S. military officials said, an acquisition that occurred outside the weapons procurement procedures of Iraq's central government.

The large quantity of weapons and the timing of the shipment alarmed U.S. officials, who have grown concerned about the prospect of an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the government at a time when the Kurds are attempting to expand their control over parts of northern Iraq.

The weapons arrived in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah in September on three C-130 cargo planes, according to the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Kurdish officials declined to answer questions about the shipments but released the following statement: "The Kurdistan Regional Government continues to be on the forefront of the war on terrorism in Iraq. With that continued threat, nothing in the constitution prevents the KRG from obtaining defense materials for its regional defense."

Iraq's ethnic Kurds maintain an autonomous region that comprises three of the country's 18 provinces. In recent months, the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad, which includes some Kurds in prominent positions, has accused Kurdish leaders of attempting to expand their territory by deploying their militia, known as pesh merga, to areas south of the autonomous region. Among other things, the Kurds and Iraq's government are at odds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the autonomous region, and over how Iraq's oil revenue ought to be distributed.

The Kurds of northern Iraq have run their affairs with increasing autonomy since 1991, when U.S. and British forces began enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the region from President Saddam Hussein's military. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 sparked concern that Iraqi Kurds would seek independence, but the Kurds have insisted that they wish to remain part of a federal Iraq.

Neighboring countries with large Kurdish minorities, including Turkey and Iran, have said they would oppose the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, as the autonomous region is known.

Iraq's interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, said in an interview that central government officials did not authorize the purchase of weapons from Bulgaria. He said such an acquisition would constitute a "violation" of Iraqi law because only the Ministries of Interior and Defense are authorized to import weapons.

Experts on Iraq's constitution said the document does not clearly say whether provincial officials have the authority to import weapons. However, Iraqi and U.S. officials said the Ministries of Interior and Defense are the only entities authorized to import weapons. The Defense Ministry provides weapons to the Iraqi army, and the Interior Ministry procures arms for the country's police forces.

The Iraqi government has acquired the vast majority of its weapons through the Foreign Military Sales program, a U.S.-run procurement system, Brig. Gen. Charles D. Luckey, who assists the Iraqi government with weapons purchases, said Saturday. He said he knew of no instances in which provincial authorities had independently purchased weapons from abroad.

With thousands of American military officials involved in the training of Iraq's security forces, there is little the U.S. government does not know about weapons that are legally imported to Iraq. The shipments from Bulgaria in September caught the American military off guard, the three officials said. They first learned of the shipments from a source in Bulgaria, the officials said.

The three said they did not know whether U.S. officials had confronted Kurdish leaders about the shipments or alerted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

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