BAGHDAD - Several federal agencies are investigating a widening network of criminal cases involving the purchase and delivery of billions of dollars of weapons, supplies and other matÃƒ©riel to Iraqi and American forces, according to American officials. The officials said it amounted to the largest ring of fraud and kickbacks uncovered in the conflict here.
The inquiry has already led to several indictments of Americans, with more expected, the officials said. One of the investigations involves a senior American officer who worked closely with Gen. David H. Petraeus in setting up the logistics operation to supply the Iraqi forces when General Petraeus was in charge of training and equipping those forces in 2004 and 2005, American officials said Monday.
There is no indication that investigators have uncovered any wrongdoing by General Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who through a spokesman declined comment on any legal proceedings.
This article is based on interviews with more than a dozen federal investigators, Congressional, law enforcement and military officials, and specialists in contracting and logistics, in Iraq and Washington, who have direct knowledge of the inquiries. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because there are continuing criminal investigations.
The inquiries are being pursued by the Army Criminal Investigation Command, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, among other agencies.
Over the past year, inquiries by federal oversight agencies have found serious discrepancies in military records of where thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces actually ended up. None of those agencies concluded that weapons found their way to insurgents or militias.
In their public reports, those agencies did not raise the possibility of criminal wrongdoing, and General Petraeus has said that the imperative to provide weapons to Iraqi security forces was more important than maintaining impeccable records.
In an interview on Aug. 18, General Petraeus said that with ill-equipped Iraqi security forces confronting soaring violence across the country in 2004 and 2005, he made a decision not to wait for formal tracking systems to be put in place before distributing the weapons.
"We made a decision to arm guys who wanted to fight for their country," General Petraeus said.
But now, American officials said, part of the criminal investigation is focused on Lt. Col. Levonda Joey Selph, who reported directly to General Petraeus and worked closely with him in setting up the logistics operation for what were then the fledgling Iraqi security forces.
That operation moved everything from AK-47s, armored vehicles and plastic explosives to boots and Army uniforms, according to officials who were involved in it. Her former colleagues recall Colonel Selph as a courageous officer who was willing to take substantial personal risks to carry out her mission and was unfailingly loyal to General Petraeus and his directives to move quickly in setting up the logistics operation.
"She was kind of like the Pony Express of the Iraqi security forces," said Victoria Wayne, who was then deputy director of logistics for the overall Iraqi reconstruction program.
Still, Colonel Selph also ran into serious problems with a company she oversaw that failed to live up to a contract it had signed to carry out part of that logistics mission.
It is not clear exactly what Colonel Selph is being investigated for. Colonel Selph, reached by telephone twice on Monday, said she would speak to reporters later but did not answer further messages left for her.
The enormous expenditures of American and Iraqi money on the Iraq reconstruction program, at least $40 billion over all, have been criticized for reasons that go well beyond the corruption cases that have been uncovered so far. Weak oversight, poor planning and seemingly endless security problems have contributed to many of the program's failures.
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The investigation into contracts for matÃƒ©riel to Iraqi soldiers and police officers is part of an even larger series of criminal cases. As of Aug. 23, there were a total of 73 criminal investigations related to contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, Col. Dan Baggio, an Army spokesman said Monday. Twenty civilians and military personnel have been charged in federal court as a result of the inquiries, he said. The inquiries involve contracts valued at more than $5 billion, and Colonel Baggio said the charges so far involve more than $15 million in bribes.
Just last week, an Army major, his wife and his sister were indicted on charges that they accepted up to $9.6 million in bribes for Defense Department contracts in Iraq and Kuwait.
Investigations span the gamut from low-level officials submitting false claims for amounts less than $2,500 to more serious cases involving, conspiracy, bribery, product substitution and bid-rigging or double-billing involving large dollar amounts or more senior contracting officials, Army criminal investigators said. The investigations involve contractors, government employees, local nationals and American military personnel.
Questions about whether the American military could account for the weaponry and other equipment purchased to outfit the Iraqi security forces were raised as early as May of last year, when Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a request to an independent federal oversight agency to investigate the matter.
But federal officials say the inquiry has moved far beyond the initial investigation of hundreds of thousands of improperly tracked assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols that grew out of Senator Warner's query. In fact, Senator Warner said in a statement to The New York Times that he was outraged when he was briefed recently on the initial findings of the investigations.
"When I was briefed on the recent developments, I felt so strongly that I asked the Secretary of the Army to brief the Armed Services Committee right away, which he did in early August," Senator Warner said in a statement.
An Army spokesman declined to comment on the briefing by the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren. In a sign of the seriousness of the scandal, the Defense Department Inspector General, Claude M. Kicklighter, will lead an 18-person team to Iraq early next month to investigate contracting practices, said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
Mr. Morrell said Mr. Kicklighter, a retired three-star Army general, would stay in Iraq indefinitely to investigate contracting abuses, and was empowered to fix problems on the spot or take action if his team identified potential criminal activity.
Congressional officials who have been briefed on the Defense Department inspector general's inquiry said Monday that one focus would be on weapons, munitions and explosives. In addition, Mr. Geren, the Army secretary, is expected to announce later this week the creation of a panel of senior contracting and logistics specialists to address any systemic problems they identify.
Senator Warner's request last May for an independent federal oversight agency to investigate the accountability of weapons and equipment given to Iraqi security forces underscored concern about the issue.
That federal agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, responded with a report in October 2006 that found serious discrepancies in American military records of where thousands of the weapons actually ended up. The military did not take the routine step of recording serial numbers for the weapons, the inspector general found, making it difficult to determine whether any of the weapons had ended up in the wrong hands.
In July 2007, the Government Accountability Office found even larger discrepancies, reporting that the American military "cannot fully account for about 110,000 AK-47 rifles, 90,000 pistols, 80 items of body armor, and 115,000 helmets reported as issued to Iraqi security forces as of Sept. 22, 2005."
James Glanz reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company