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In rush to arm Iraqis against insurgency, U.S. flooded country with thousands of poorly tracked weapons
WASHINGTON -- As President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry clashed in late 2004 over the direction of the Iraq war, a rising Army star joined the debate.
Then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, head of a new command overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces, said headway was being made.
Tens of thousands of rifles, pistols, body armor, vehicles and radios, along with millions of ammunition rounds, had been delivered to Iraqis over a three-month period, he wrote in a commentary for The Washington Post six weeks before the presidential election.
The weapons and countless pieces of other gear, paid for with tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars, were indeed flowing -- but as it turns out, not always to the right places or into the right hands.
In the rush to arm Iraqi forces against a violent insurgency, U.S. military officials did not keep good records. About 190,000 weapons weren't fully accounted for, according to one audit.
The accounting failures are at the heart of a broad inquiry by the Pentagon's inspector general, sharp questions from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and complaints from officials in Turkey who claim that pistols used in violent crimes in their country came from U.S.-funded stocks.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who preceded Petraeus as the officer in charge of training Iraq's forces, said he expects the inspector general will find there were too few people to handle the enormous influx of weapons and money into the country.
"One of the greatest irritants to me was watching the Pentagon cooking along at full strength while we in Iraq were running on a very thin personnel shoestring," said Eaton, a critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war.
"There have never been enough people, and there has never been enough bureaucratic support and effort to do this thing properly," Eaton said.
Peter Velz, a Pentagon official specializing in Iraq issues, said Petraeus' command was operating under "extremely difficult, Spartan conditions" and was in need of more personnel experienced in contracting and materiel management.
The training command had about 900 people in 2004, according to a command spokesman, and it now has 1,100.
There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Petraeus, now a four-star general and the top American officer in Iraq. And there is no indication that he is the subject of any of the inspector general's inquiries.
His commentary, however, is a reminder of how even cautiously optimistic assessments of the war in Iraq can turn with time.
In June 2004, Petraeus took over the just-formed Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, more commonly known by the acronym MNSTC-I (pronounced "min-sticky"). The organization's job is to train Iraqi army and police units so they are capable of operating on their own.
Petraeus has likened the experience to "building an aircraft that was already in flight."
Given the rising strength of the insurgency at the time, Petraeus felt it was more important to get weapons and ammunition to troops in the fight "than to wait for a signature on a hand receipt," Army Col. Steven Boylan, Petraeus's top spokesman, said Tuesday by e-mail.
Petraeus left the post in September 2005.
Since then, audits have cited the Iraq transition command for lack of oversight.
An October 2006 audit by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction said there was "questionable accuracy" and "incomplete accountability" in the way MNSTC-I managed weapons.
In one case, 751 assault rifles were purchased, but there is no record of their delivery to Iraq's ministries of defense and interior.
More recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said until December 2005, MNSTC-I had no centralized set of records for the shipping of weapons to Iraqi forces.
The command said 185,000 Russian-designed AK-47 rifles, 170,000 pistols, 215,000 sets of body armor, and 140,000 helmets had been issued to Iraq troops by September 2005, according to the July GAO report.
But due to incomplete record-keeping, the command couldn't be certain if the Iraqis received 110,000 of the rifles, or 80,000 of the pistols. More than half of the body armor and helmets couldn't be tracked.
Military officials in Washington and Baghdad still have not settled on which, "if any," accountability procedures apply to the train-and-equip program, the GAO said.
Velz, who works for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East, said oversight continues to be a subject of debate inside the Pentagon.
"There clearly has been a lack of guidance to MNSTC-I on what accountability requirements apply to them," Velz said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
Federal investigators are also examining whether employees for Blackwater USA, one of the largest private security firms in Iraq, played a role in the loose arms problem by selling weapons on the black market that ended up in the hands of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Turkish officials have complained to the United States that they had seized weapons from the PKK, a Kurdish militant group, with markings matching those intended for Iraqi forces.
Blackwater has denied any involvement in weapons smuggling and called the allegations "baseless."
Lawmakers who received a classified briefing from the inspector general last week expressed concern that U.S. troops might be injured or killed by firepower the United States purchased.
If "there is a wholesale movement of weapons that U.S. taxpayers have paid for into the hands of those who would do us harm or further destabilize the region, we must make resolving this problem one of our top priorities," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said at the Sept. 20 House Armed Services hearing.
Thomas Gimble, the Pentagon's deputy inspector general, said his office has 90 open investigations stemming from nearly $6 billion in contracts for supplies and equipment needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gimble said his staff also is auditing $88 billion in wartime expenditures to see if further investigation is warranted. Since 2003, more than $19 billion has gone to build up Iraq's security forces.
Army Lt. Col. Levonda Joey Selph, a former assistant to Petraeus during 2004 and 2005, is a target of one of the investigations.
Selph served as the U.S. commander of a large depot north of Baghdad that was responsible for outfitting Iraq's military.
On Wednesday, Selph told AP a gag order prevents her from commenting. But before hanging up, she called press reports about her "freaking lies."