The Belgrade-Baghdad axis
by Ian Traynor and Nicholas Wood
Eastern Europe arms Saddam: how FRY government condoned illicit trade to replenish Iraqi arsenal
Ian Traynor in Zagreb, Nicholas Wood in Belgrade
FRY is the hub for East European arms smugglers and military experts who have been supplying Saddam Hussein with crucial equipment and know-how to help him frustrate a US air campaign against Iraq. Senior Western officials and regional analysts say that Serbia is the centre of the illicit trade which involves at least seven countries in the Balkans and former Soviet Eastern Europe. The trade has been going on for some time, and has even increased since the toppling of Slobodan Milošević, a Saddam ally, in 2000.
An investigation by the International Crisis Group think-tank into the arms-for-Iraq scam concludes that Jugoimport, the Belgrade-based FRY state arms export agency accused by the US last month, also brokered arms to Iraq from Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, and ‘possibly Macedonia and Belarus’.
Despite claims by senior FRY officials, including President Vojislav Koštunica, that they knew nothing of the trade, documents seen by The Guardian show that the Koštunica administration was warned in January by its foreign ministry of the damage being done by its trading with Iraq. The Koštunica cabinet then voted to continue with the clandestine deals. ‘According to diplomatic sources, the pace of arms sales to Iraq may have increased during 2002,’ concludes the ICG report. A senior Western official told the Guardian: ‘Just about every defence company in [FRY] sold to Iraq via Syria or via a third country.’
Last month, acting on a tip-off from US intelligence, the Croatian authorities seized 14 steel containers from the freighter Boka Star. Inside the barrels and crates labelled ‘active carbon’ and ‘filter inserts for water purification’ were some 208 tonnes of nitrocellulose propellant and nitroglycerine, compounds that could be used for Iraq's dwindling arsenal of Scud missiles. ‘This material has a wide range of uses in military industry, primarily as fuel for artillery and rockets,’ says Dejan Sakić, a Croatian investigator with the Boka Star case. The rocket fuel cargo originated from the Prva Iskra munitions plant outside Belgrade, claim investigators, and was bound for Iraq via Syria from the Montenegrin port of Bar.
A team of US investigators arrived in FRY last week to inspect suspect defence plants. At the weekend, they scoured the Sloboda munitions plant in Čačak, southern Serbia, a town which, according to the ICG, has been offering a ‘cash-and-carry’ service for Iraqi arms buyers.
Under Western pressure, Belgrade has shut the Baghdad office of Jugoimport, the pivot of the Balkan arms trade and dubbed a ‘state-within-a-state’ in FRY But key figures remain in place, including Borisa Vuković, a former FRY foreign trade minister who fled to Baghdad in October 2000 when Mr Milošević was ousted. He is seen as the middleman and is said to be a close friend of President Saddam's son Uday.
The ICG investigation also claims that allies of Mr Koštunica visited Baghdad last year for a conference devoted to attacking US policy in the Balkans and the Middle East. ‘The conference resolution unanimously condemned "American imperialism and hegemony", and everything the US was doing in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, and had done in Yugoslavia,’ the ICG report says.
Two months after the conference, the FRY foreign ministry wrote to the Koštunica cabinet demanding that the illicit trade be halted. The document, obtained by the ICG and seen by The Guardian, said FRY had £380m worth of military contracts with states embargoed by the UN, including £75m worth of business with Iraq and £65m with Libya.
US diplomats in the Balkans say a string of defence plants in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro have supplied Baghdad with, among other weapons, armour-piercing missiles, rockets, anti-tank ammunition, tank engines, various explosives, chemical stabilisers, and grenade launchers, as well as missile fuel, MiG aircraft engines, spare parts and expert advice on how to configure air defences against the US. ‘This shows the urgency of FRY taking steps to stop exports of any kind of arms or technology that could be used in any way for terrorist activities, or that could be used by these countries to manufacture weapons of mass destruction,’ the letter warned.
The FRY cabinet discussed the matter in January but voted to continue trading, the ICG reports. The FRY interior minister, Zoran Živković, said the arms trade was not the government's responsibility. In the past year, FRY had sold a total of £25m worth of arms to countries under international embargoes, he said, adding: ‘Anyone familiar with weapons can see that this is no great amount.’
If the arms conduits to Baghdad are operating frequently with the blessing of Balkan and East European governments, Western officials say that the problem is much greater than Mr Živković suggests.
Reprinted from a longer article in The Guardian (London), 25 November 2002