Saturday, January 22, 2005

$300 Million flown out of Iraq

So what the hell's going on with this? It appears that $300 million in raw cash was sent to the Lebanon in a specially chartered aircraft, supposedly to buy heavy armour for the new Iraqi army in various places, including Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the US. It also seems that the Iraqi cabinet was kept in the dark. There's also a connection to the latest Ahmed Chalabi-related murkiness - Chalabi seems to have disclosed the cashlift in revenge for the Iraqi Defence Minister's threat to have him arrested and extradited to Jordan.

Now, something of the cynicism involved can probably be gauged by the Minister's statement that Chalabi was to be arrested for "impugning the respect of the Ministry of Defence", a fine dictator's charge if ever there was one. But, according to the Iraqi government, the cash did indeed leave. And Chalabi is after all well worth arresting - there's the bank fraud, the double-agent business, the vanishing secret police files, the computers whose hard drives vanished when the accountants appointed to investigate the "Oil for Food" scandal (that he publicised on the basis, so he said, of those files) turned up...the list goes on. But there is evidently something very bizarre going on here, as hinted at here:
"But one American official with knowledge of the transaction said taking the $300 million out of the country, although unorthodox, was probably the only way for the Iraqi government to buy weapons.

The reason, according to the American official, is that the financial mechanism set up after the war's major combat operation ended requires that Iraqi oil revenues be spent for "humanitarian" purposes. That meant that the Trade Bank of Iraq could not be used for arms purchases, thus necessitating the use of cash."
Back at the start of last year, interestingly, something similar happened with a large quantity of Iraqi currency that was flown out via Beirut, ostensibly to procure armoured vehicles (again) from an unnamed British company. (Robert Fisk report mirrored on Occupation Watch, original is behind a subscription barrier) Now, I wonder whether that might have been connected with the allegation that Chalabi's brother (the Iraqi finance minister) gave the job of disposing of the old Iraqi currency to a firm who might not have disposed of it at all? Mind you, the January 2004 flight also brings up a whole wealth of other dodginess related to Lebanese politics; Amir Gemayel's son-in-law and two prominent figures in the Maronite Christian right just happened to be aboard the aircraft. Today in Iraq charged at the time that they had connections to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that was exposed last summer as a spy ring. It's rather what you come to expect from these buggers, but the connection TII proposed strikes me as tenuous.

And, as you probably expect from the blogosphere's home of mystery jets, I also have my suspicions as to exactly who the other half of the deal is. Now, the first (January 2004) story is easy to pin as regards the aircraft. Mazen Bsat, mentioned by Fisk, is the boss of Flying Carpet, a Lebanese charter firm that now runs a regular Beirut-Baghdad service. It would appear he's getting rich on the war. And - could you possibly guess this? - his firm's on that list of Defence Department fuel contracts. He's number TBLE01. His firm seems to have graduated from offering scenic trips up the Lebanese coast (if true) to running a Fairchild Metro (serial no. AC604, registration OD-MAB). He's even got a website with a really annoying Flash intro (here - check out the music). This aircraft was photographed in Baghdad a few weeks before the curious incident of the cash in the briefcase carrying extra titles "Custer Battles Levant" on its nose (CusterBattles is a US security contractor). All very interesting, but what about the more recent job?

Back in May, at the time of the initial Boutquake, a source got in touch from Minnesota to suggest that the reason for all the - ahem - dubious contracts was that the Bout system was being used to arm Iraqi forces with ex-Soviet weapons (or possibly copies produced elsewhere). Note the reference to the Ukraine in the NYT story.

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