RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Iraq, there are concerns that the U.S. has lost track of tens of thousands of weapons. A recent government report says the rifles and pistols were supposed to go to Iraq's nascent security forces. Military analysts say it's just as likely that many of the weapons have fallen into the hands of those opposing U.S. efforts in Iraq.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In June 2004, the U.S. military began a program to train and equip Iraq security forces. The Iraqi military had been disbanded by the U.S. provisional government and there was a rush to get thousands of weapons to the new army and police force being created.
In its recent report, the General Accounting Office says the method the U.S. military used to record those weapons was at best haphazard. Joseph Christoff authored the GAO's report.
Mr. JOSEPH CHRISTOFF (Director, Internal Affairs and Trade, Government Accountability Office): The bottom line was - is that in terms of the weapons, the key weapons, AK-47s and Glock pistols, there were about 190,000 that could not be accounted for.
NORTHAM: That's about one-third of the number of weapons provided by the U.S. to Iraq over the past four years. Christoff says he was surprised by the huge gaps in accounting.
Mr. CHRISTOFF: I recall talking to some of the guys that were responsible for giving out the arms when I was in Iraq, and they cited instances in which they would just uncover warehouses where U.S.-purchased equipment was stored. And they didn't even know that it was being stored in some of these locations.
NORTHAM: The U.S. military's loss of control over thousands of rifles and pistols is fueling fears that the weapons may now be in the hands of insurgents. But Joost Hiltermann with the International Crisis Group says other groups - police, Army units, plain old criminals - may be stockpiling weapons for the future, for if and when the U.S. pulls out of Iraq. The broader question is whether Iraq is becoming a magnet for arms traffickers, says Hiltermann.
Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Middle East Project Director, International Crisis Group): When a country like Iraq is disintegrating and becoming a failed state, you're going to see a total free-for-all for any number of issues, including weapons smuggling.
NORTHAM: Italian media reported this week that anti-mafia investigators uncovered an alleged shipment of more than 100,000 rifles bound for Iraq. The $40 million shipment was reportedly ordered by Iraq's Interior Ministry, an institution which has been linked to Shia death squads. U.S. military officials say they have supplied every police officer with a weapon, but as a sovereign nation, Iraq can purchase whatever weapons it wants.
Rachel Stohl, a senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information, says Iraq is also buying military equipment from former Eastern Bloc countries.
Ms. RACHEL STOHL (Senior Analyst, Center for Defense Information): But I think the danger here is we have so many weapons going into Iraq not just from the United States, but from Eastern European countries as well as other NATO allies that are looking at Iraq as a very lucrative market for new arms sales.
NORTHAM: And one that is ripe for abuse, says Stohl. Turkish media report that Glock pistols that were supplied by the U.S. to Iraq are showing up among the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement which is fighting a guerilla war against the Turkish state.
A year ago, Amnesty International issued a report that examined a shipment in 2004 of some 25,000 AK-47s from an American base in Bosnia to Iraq. The weapons, ordered by the U.S. military, were supposed to arrive in Baghdad on four planes licensed to a Moldovan air cargo firm named Aerocom.
Colby Goodman with Amnesty International says it appears the planes never landed in Iraq.
Mr. COLBY GOODMAN (Advocacy Associate for Military, Security and Police Issues, Amnesty International): What we found was that, when we talked to the air traffic controllers in Iraq, was there was no scheduled landing slots for Aerocom at all. And we also realized that Aerocom was on one of the U.N. lists of air cargo companies that have violated the U.N. arms embargo on Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2002.
NORTHAM: The Defense Department says it's investigating the report. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Williams, a military spokesman in Iraq, says nowadays there are much more stringent procedures for any weapons the U.S. brings into Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel DANIEL WILLIAMS (U.S. Army): We account for every weapon by serial number and on a hand receipt. And it's electronically done so that we have a database to go back to, and it shows by a spreadsheet where all of the weapons have gone.
NORTHAM: The GAO's Christoff says the U.S. military has made steps to improve its weapons accounting, but that some gaps still exist.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.