Did the U.S. covertly help Saddam Hussein build up his military before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait? The question has been raised in Congress and the mainstream press for months now, but it hardly surfaced as a campaign issue until the final Presidential debate on Oct. 19. That's when President Bush, pressed by rival Ross Perot, insisted: "There wasn't one single iota of evidence that any U.S. weapons were found on the Iraqi battlefield."
The President obviously hasn't talked to Michael L. Weber, a former Army sergeant, or some of his Desert Storm colleagues. Back in April, Weber wrote to Representative Charlie Rose (D-N.C.) complaining about the huge number of American-made munitions that the U.S. captured from the Iraqi army. And he included pictures to prove it. "Clearly, there was a green light given to regulators and U.S. industry to go about selling military technology to Iraq," Rose charges.
MADE IN U.S.A. Weber, who was discharged last April, says he received several awards and honors from the Army during his four-year tour of duty. Colleagues at his home base of Fort Lewis, Wash., confirm those claims.
According to his own account, detailed in an Apr. 9, 1992, letter to Rose and later in interviews with BUSINESS WEEK, Weber worked as a photojournalist assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. He traveled widely to document the war on film. Just after the cease-fire, his unit was assigned to destroy Iraqi munitions buried in two desert airfields along Highway 8 near Nasiriya in Iraq. In that area, he says, U.S. soldiers found a rich hoard of munitions stacked to the rafters in 30 warehouses--some as large as 30,000 square feet. Among the booty Weber saw: French-made cluster bombs, Chinese missiles, and Jordanian artillery shells. "There was every conceivable size of mortar and artillery shells," Weber remembers.
But what caught his eye were American-made 155-millimeter propellant bags, which contain the charge that blasts shells from cannons. Weber says he also saw crates of U.S. antitank mines. The brigade also found a handful of 5-ton GMC military trucks, Weber says, which had fewer than 5,000 miles on the odometer. "GM stopped making heavy military trucks in 1988," says a company spokesman, adding that he doesn't know how Iraq acquired the vehicles.
Using what he says were his own camera and film, Weber photographed an 82nd Airborne engineer pointing to crates of artillery fuses made by Action Manufacturing Co. in Philadelphia. Arthur J. Mattia, senior engineering vice-president at Action, says the company didn't sell fuses to Iraq over the past decade. Almost the sole buyer for the type of Action fuses stored near Nasiriya, says Mattia: the U.S. government.
No one has accused the Bush Administration of directly shipping U.S. military weapons to Iraq. But the military does contradict Bush's assertion that no U.S. weapons were found in Iraq's battlefield stores. Says a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida: "Our records do show that U.S. troops found such military items. During the Iran-Iraq war, tons of Western military equipment was captured by Iraq. Iraq also captured U.S. military items from Kuwait, to include Hawk missiles and A4 Skyhawk aircraft. Additionally, a large variety of weapons which are available on the world market, to include rockets and munitions, were found in various locations."
Indeed, there's little doubt the weapons were in wide use throughout Iraq. Weber's story is corroborated by three other veterans of the conflict, who each served in separate parts of Iraq and Kuwait. Desert Storm vet Jeffrey W. Asselin, a former infantryman with the 82nd Airborne, recalls finding boxes of U.S.-made 81-mm mortar rounds in a disabled Iraqi supply truck. Some of the boxes were dated September, 1988--a month after Iraq's cease-fire with Iran. Two other former 82nd Airborne soldiers now living near Fort Bragg, N.C., say they saw many other U.S. weapons, including M-60 machine guns and M-16 rifles. But the most disturbing piece of U.S. technology in Iraqi warehouses, says one former Army engineer, was electronic circuit boards for Hawk missiles. His outfit was given the task of destroying at least 12 tons of munitions in Iraq.
The whole experience has left Weber disillusioned. In his letter to Rose, he wrote: "I don't think we really changed anything over there.. . . It also ticked me off immensely to learn that U.S. companies sold military hardware to Iraq."
Also disturbed is Representative Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who has spent more than two years trying to document an alleged White House attempt to cover up the role played by the U.S. in Iraq's military buildup. On Oct. 27, Gonzalez told the Senate Banking Committee that the Commerce Dept. approved scores of licenses for U.S. technology used in Iraq's most advanced weapons projects--including nuclear weapons.
So far, Gonzalez and Rose have focused their investigations on those high-tech arms. But with the revelation that more prosaic U.S.-made munitions fell into the hands of the Iraqis, a new front has been opened in Iraqgate.