Sun 15 Feb 2004
Revealed: Britain's arms deal with Iraq
BRITAIN has sanctioned the sale of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of military equipment to Iraq for the first time in more than a decade, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
The government has rubber-stamped special export licences for weaponry, including sub-machine guns, pistols, riot shields and smoke grenades in the past few weeks alone as ministers admit the threat of continuing civil unrest is seriously hampering reconstruction efforts.
The revelation last night provoked outrage from politicians and pressure groups, who warned that weapons flooding into the country could end up in the hands of resistance fighters, further destabilising the situation.
The head of one of several British security firms providing armed protection in Iraq last night labelled some of his rivals "cowboys" who were putting guns into the hands of untrained, inexperienced personnel.
But UK arms manufacturers last night called on ministers to help them win a greater share of the American-bankrolled reconstruction of Iraq, to allow them to ship more military equipment to the country.
Most of the hardware already licensed will be sent to the burgeoning number of private security firms taken on to protect members of the interim authority running Iraq, and workers from foreign companies involved in the reconstruction effort.
It will also be used by Iraq's interim administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is struggling to establish security forces capable of restoring order amid the post-war chaos gripping the country.
Revelations about Britain's contribution to the flood of weapons into Iraq came as senior officials admitted dozens of UK firms have refused to bid for profitable reconstruction deals in the country because they fear murderous attacks.
In an outspoken assault on the monitoring of security firms that have put thousands of heavily-armed staff on the streets of Iraq, Jeff Muir - chief of London-based AD Consultancy - claimed some private bodyguards were working under false professional credentials, while others had experience amounting to patrolling shopping malls.
"There are intelligence reports of a couple of cowboy institutions we have encountered directly in Iraq using cheap labour and bringing personnel in from surrounding countries," he said. "Unfortunately, in our sector, the world is full of civilians who have done a week's close protection training course and fancy themselves as bodyguards.
"I feel sorry for an awful lot of contractors going in to Iraq because they are simply not getting the protection they require and are paying for."
Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who has condemned past exports to Iraq, said: "If we are putting weaponry of any sort in the hands of private security companies in Iraq or anywhere else, we should have better control over what happens to them.
"Does Iraq actually need any more weaponry? It seems to be awash with weapons and we shouldn't be adding to that."
Arms exports to Iraq had been restricted by a United Nations embargo imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Before Saddam was toppled last year, the only exports allowed were strictly for humanitarian purposes, under the "oil-for-food" programme, or for the use of UN weapons inspectors searching for evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
But the UN sanctions regime has now been relaxed to allow weapons into Iraq for the use of the CPA or security firms. A consortium including two Polish companies last month won a £150m CPA contract to equip Iraqi forces and civil defence corps with military equipment in the next two years.
A Scotland on Sunday investigation has revealed that the British government has endorsed at least six applications for arms export licences submitted by UK firms.
A senior Whitehall source confirmed that the inventory included dozens of sub-machine guns and pistols for the use of private security firms, and hundreds of riot shields, smoke grenades and rounds of ammunition. Full details of the contracts remained cloaked in commercial secrecy, however.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry, which endorses export licences along with the Foreign Office, said prospective sales were rigorously scrutinised, and checks were maintained once the items had reached their destinations.