| Arms and the army
Washington, Aug. 6: The Pentagon has lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, according to a new government report, raising fears that some of those weapons have fallen into the hands of insurgents fighting US forces in Iraq.
The author of the report from the Government Accountability Office says US military officials do not know what happened to 30 per cent of the weapons the US distributed to Iraqi forces from 2004 through early this year as part of an effort to train and equip the troops. The highest previous estimate of unaccounted-for weapons was 14,000, in a report issued last year by the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
The US has spent $19.2 billion trying to develop Iraqi security forces since 2003, the GAO said, including at least $2.8 billion to buy and deliver equipment. But the GAO said weapons distribution was haphazard and rushed and failed to follow established procedures, particularly from 2004 to 2005, when security training was led by General David H. Petraeus, who now commands all US forces in Iraq.
The Pentagon did not dispute the GAO findings, saying it has launched its own investigation and indicating it is working to improve tracking. Although controls have been tightened since 2005, the inability of the US to track weapons with tools such as serial numbers makes it nearly impossible for the US military to know whether it is battling an enemy equipped by American taxpayers.
“They really have no idea where they are,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Centre for Defence Information who has studied small-arms trade. “It likely means that the US is unintentionally providing weapons to bad actors.”
One senior Pentagon official acknowledged that some of the weapons probably are being used against US forces. He cited the Iraqi brigade created at Fallujah that quickly dissolved in September 2004 and turned its weapons against the Americans.
Stohl said insurgents frequently use small-arms fire to force military convoys to move in a particular direction — often toward roadside bombs. She noted that the Bush administration frequently complains that Iran and Syria are supplying insurgents but has paid little attention to whether US military errors inadvertently play a role.
Stohl noted that US forces, focused on a fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction after Baghdad fell, did not secure massive weapons caches. The failure to track small arms given to Iraqi forces repeats that pattern of neglect, she added.
The GAO is studying the financing and weapons sources of insurgent groups, but that report will not be made public. “All of that information is classified,” said Joseph A. Christoff, the GAO's director of international affairs.
In an unusual move, the train-and-equip programme for Iraqi forces is being managed by the Pentagon. Normally, the traditional security assistance programmes are operated by the state department, the GAO reported. The defence department said this change permitted greater flexibility, but as of last month it was unable to tell the GAO what accountability procedures, if any, apply to arms distributed to Iraqi forces.