Thousands of UK firearms in Zarqawi's hands
Thousands of weapons supplied to Iraq by British arms companies have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists targeting UK troops, an Observer investigation reveals. A deal approved by ministers to export semi-automatic pistols to Iraqi police forces has ended up arming the supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq.
The Department of Trade and Industry last year sanctioned export of the Beretta 92S guns, although there is no evidence that special checks were put in place to prevent them from reaching insurgents.
The two British companies involved in supplying the 20,318 weapons to Iraq have said there was a risk that some of the weapons could end up with the 'wrong people' if preventative measures were not introduced.
Critics said last night that the revelations raised damaging questions over Britain's role in exporting arms to Iraq, amid evidence that Shia militia 'death squads' linked to the Badr Brigade are embedded within Iraq's police. Recently, ministers even said the UK authorities 'sought to reintegrate militia members' into Iraq's fledgling police force.
The House of Commons Quadripartite Committee, which oversees arms sales, said it would be seeking answers from the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price said: 'The failure [of the coalition authorities] to monitor properly the end-user for the shipment could prove to be criminally negligent. When the government lifted its embargo in July 2004, they were warned Iraq was far too unstable for the export of small arms. The failure to heed that warning has put Iraqi civilian and British soldiers' lives at risk.'
The Beretta deal was instigated when the US government asked its procurement arm, Taos Industries, to find weaponry to arm the Iraqi police. The US firm contacted London-based Super Vision International, which negotiated procurement of the semi-automatic pistols from Beretta's Brescia factory and asked Cornwall-based arms firm Helston Gunsmiths to obtain an export licence from the UK government.
The DTI approved the licence and the Beretta 92S guns were flown from Italy to Stansted airport, Essex, where customs officials approved the paperwork before they were dispatched to the US military base in Baghdad. In February 2005 the guns were handed over to the Coalition Provisional Authority for distribution to Iraqi police.
However, Iraqi officers have reported that a number of the Beretta pistols have been found among the 'friends of al-Zarqawi' and 'in the possession of the enemy forces'. Italian prosecutors have launched an investigation into how the guns could have ended up arming al-Qaeda loyalists and have confirmed that they have contacted UK authorities. Zarqawi remains one of the main figures behind the destabilisation of Iraq and is behind a series of attacks against the Shia majority with the aim of provoking a sectarian civil war. The Jordanian-born insurgent has admitted responsibility for attacks on British soldiers, including the death of Anthony John Wakefield, 24, from Newcastle, who was killed last year by a roadside bomb in southern Iraq. Zarqawi was also named as the ringleader behind the London bombings last July.
Roger Berry, of the Commons Quadripartite Committee, said the revelation raised concerns over what the UK government had done to ensure the guns did not end up arming terrorists targeting British troops. 'Everybody knows the potential for leakage in Iraq is massive. We need to know what checks and assurances were made to make sure this kit did not fall into the wrong hands,' he added.
A spokesman for the DTI said the deal, approved by Nigel Griffiths, the minister then responsible for arms exports, was sanctioned only after considering the 'risk that the equipment will be diverted within the buyer country [Iraq]'. Both British arms companies involved in the sale admitted weapons had been found in the possession of insurgents. However, they said it was impossible to know exactly how many, although the figure is believed to be in the thousands.
The admission of the two UK arms firms that they had concerns over where the guns might end up could prove politically damaging to the government at a time the coalition is struggling to stabilise Iraq.
Chris Price, proprietor of Helston Gunsmiths, near Truro, Cornwall, which has a UK government licence to supply guns to police forces across the world, said: 'Some police I presume are corrupt, and they sell them on the black market. Some of these Berettas have turned up in the hands of wrong people and it's opened the lid on it. Because Iraq is in such a mess, there must be kit flying all over place. Everyone must be at it.'
Chris Bradbury, managing director of Super Vision International, based in Barnes, south-west London, who is also licensed to sell guns to foreign police forces, said he was not surprised some of the Berettas were in the wrong hands: 'The police forces are recruiting people off the streets. We don't know who their loyalties belong to or whether they are the wrong people.'
In Italy, the discovery of the guns in the possession of Iraqi insurgents has caused a political scandal amid reports the weapons were second-hand and meant to be destroyed rather than sold. Brescia prosecutor Francesco Piantoni told The Observer that British authorities have been contacted as part of an investigation into the deal.
Bradbury said that Scotland Yard and MI5 had also questioned him over the shipment, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Helston Gunsmiths and Super Vision International said they had obeyed the American government's contract to deliver the guns to the CPA at Baghdad, and are not accused of behaving inappropriately. 'There is no wrongdoing whatsoever, nothing immoral either,' Bradbury said. 'It's all very straight and above aboard.'
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-19