As part of its stealth effort to evade U.N. sanctions and rebuild its military, the Iraqi government under President Saddam Hussein found that it had no shortage of people around the world who were willing to help. Among them: a French arms dealer known only as "Mr. Claude," who made a surreptitious visit to Iraq four years ago to provide technical expertise and training.
Mr. Claude worked for Lura, a French company that sold tank carriers to Iraq, according to documents recovered by the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. The mysterious Frenchman may have also helped the Iraqis attempt to acquire military-related radar and microwave technology, despite a U.N. ban on such trade with Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Other French military contractors came to Baghdad with offers to supply the Iraqi government with helicopters, spare parts for fighter aircraft and air defense systems after 1998, when U.N. weapons inspectors withdrew under pressure, according to a report issued this week by Charles A. Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector. The report cites evidence that contacts between the French suppliers and Hussein's government continued until last year, less than one month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
While not denying that the transfers took place, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Herve Ladsous, said the accusations "were not verified either with the people themselves or with the authorities of the countries concerned," according to the Associated Press.
The French were hardly alone in helping Hussein to reinvigorate his military forces during the 12 years that Iraq was under strict U.N. sanctions. Arm dealers and military suppliers from the former Eastern Bloc -- Russia, Poland, Romania, Belarus and Ukraine -- provided critical assistance to Iraq as it tried to build a long-range missile program and other systems that weapons inspectors feared could have been used someday to launch chemical, biological or even nuclear attacks.
"It was well known within the U.S. government that individuals and companies were selling Iraq various kinds of prohibited items," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation specialist in the Clinton administration who now works as an analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
While the United States sought to shut down suppliers through diplomatic and other means, Samore said, it was common knowledge that Iraq was able to bypass sanctions by buying in small quantities and paying high prices, using a network of front companies in Jordan, Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
"The world is awash in conventional arms, and every time there's been an arms embargo on a country they've been able to circumvent it," he said. "It's much more difficult to buy more exotic technologies like nuclear weapons, but there are so many private dealers and corrupt state entities, especially in the former Soviet Union. The best you can do is slow down sales, obstruct them or make it more expensive."
Numerous other nations bought and sold on the Iraqi military shopping network, including such dictatorships as North Korea and the former Yugoslavia before the downfall of President Slobodan Milosevic. While some of the countries were politically friendly with or sympathetic to Iraq, the biggest motivation was usually money, according to Duelfer's report to the CIA.
"As long as the regime had enough cash to pay for these items, it really wouldn't have been too much of a problem to obtain these things and smuggle them in," said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments, a London-based magazine. "It just takes people with enough money and the ability to find the right contacts to get their hands on this stuff."
The Iraqi pipeline extended to four countries -- Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Ukraine -- that later sent troops to Iraq to join the U.S.-led military coalition.
In Poland, Iraqi intelligence officers helped set up a front company called Ewex, which obtained engines and guidance components for surface-to-air missiles from Polish scrap dealers and middlemen who scoured military surplus stockpiles for the parts, the report said.
U.S. inspectors estimated that Iraq bought about 280 engines from Poland from 2001 to 2003 with the intent of using them to equip a new missile that violated U.N. range limits. The engines had been removed from Polish missiles decommissioned after the Cold War.
Polish authorities arrested some Ewex executives in 2003 on charges of making illegal arms deliveries to Iraq. Purchasing documents confiscated later showed that many of the engines were funneled through Syria.
In Bulgaria, a firm called the JEFF Co. exported more than $7 million worth of warheads, missiles and launcher units to Baghdad in 2002 in violation of U.N. sanctions, the report found. Other Bulgarian traders sold chemicals and machine tools to Iraq that could be used for civilian purposes but were really intended for missile components and other military purposes.
In Romania, Iraqi intelligence agents used diplomatic pouches to send photos of tanks and other military equipment available for sale in that nation back to Baghdad. Although weapons inspectors said it was unclear how much equipment was purchased by the Iraqi government, they did uncover documents after the war showing that a Romanian firm, Uzinexport SA, signed a contract in October 2001 to sell magnets to Iraq that "could have been suitable" for a uranium enrichment program.
In most cases, U.S. weapons inspectors found no clear evidence that officials in those countries were involved in the arms deals. One exception was Ukraine, where leaders gave their blessing to military sales to Iraq.
The Duelfer report calls Ukraine "one of the countries involved in illicit military-related procurement with Iraq" after the 1991 Gulf War, noting that President Leonid Kuchma personally approved the sale of a $100 million antiaircraft radar system to Iraq via a Jordanian intermediary in 2000. Ukrainian officials have since said the sale was never completed, and weapons inspectors said they had not found any evidence that the radar system was shipped to Iraq.
In 2001, Iraqi intelligence agents also bought five motors from a Ukrainian company as part of a project to develop unmanned spy planes. The motors were shipped to Iraq from Ukraine in diplomatic pouches to avoid the attention of international inspectors, the report said.
A Ukrainian electronics professor whose private firm transferred missile engines and motors to Iraqi companies was rewarded with vouchers and credits for more than 7.5 million barrels of Iraqi oil from 1998 to 2000, the report found. The professor, identified as Yuri Orshansky, made about $1.85 million in profits under the U.N. oil-for-food program, which was designed to generate revenue for the Iraqi people under economic sanctions.
Some of the clearest evidence of government corruption, according to the report, involved Russia, a country that has vast storehouses of military technology.
Although the Russian government has denied past accusations that it played a role in supplying arms and military equipment to Hussein's government, U.S. weapons inspectors reported finding "a significant amount of captured documentation showing contracts between Iraq and Russian companies."
In one case, a Russian general, Anatoly Makros, formed a joint company with Iraqi partners in 1998 "just to handle the large volume of Russian business," according to the report, which also cited a former Iraqi diplomat as saying that Russian customs officials ignored the illegal commerce in exchange for bribes.
Trade with Russia was so brisk that Iraqi Embassy officials smuggled military supplies on weekly charter flights from Moscow to Baghdad, according to the former Iraqi diplomat, who was not named in the report. The equipment included radar jammers, night-vision goggles and small missile components.
One Russian company signed contracts valued at about $20 million to provide material for Iraq's missile systems. Another Russian firm, Uliss, negotiated a deal to support a tank project dubbed "Saddam the Lion," according to the report.
Frankel reported from London.