Military analysts fear thousands of small arms declared missing after being issued by the U.S. to Iraqi security forces have likely fallen into the hands of insurgents.
In June 2004, after the Iraqi military was disbanded by the U.S. provisional government, Washington launched a program to train and equip Iraqi security forces. There was a rush to get thousands of weapons to the new army and police force.
But in a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the method used to keep records on those weapons was haphazard.
"The bottom line in terms of the weapons — AK-47s and Glock pistols — is that there were about 190,000 that could not be accounted for," said Joseph Christoff, author of the GAO report.
He said he was surprised by the huge gaps in accounting as the figure represents about a third of the number of the weapons provided by the U.S. to Iraq within the past four years.
"I recall talking to some of the guys that were responsible for giving out the arms when I was in Iraq," said Christoff. "They sited 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."
The GAO will hand in another classified report to Congress that will include information about where key militias and insurgent groups are getting weapons.
The U.S. military's loss of control of thousands of rifles and pistols is fueling fears that the weapons may now be in the hands of insurgents.
But Joost Hilterman, the Middle East Project Director for the International Crisis Group, said other groups — police, army, and criminals — may be stockpiling weapons for when the U.S. pulls out of Iraq.
The broader question, Hilterman said, is whether Iraq is becoming a magnet for arms traffickers.
"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," he said. "So we're going to see a lot of private actors getting into the act, providing weapons."
Italian media reported this week that anti-Mafia investigators uncovered an alleged shipment of more than a 100,000 rifles bound for Iraq. The $40 million shipment was reportedly ordered by Iraq's Interior Ministry, which controls the police.
U.S. military officials said they have supplied every police officer with a weapon. The U.S. wasn't informed of the purchase, but say Iraq is a sovereign country and can buy whatever it wants.
Rachel Stohl, a senior advisor with the Center for Defense Information, said Iraq is also buying military equipment, including ammunition and armored vehicles, from former Eastern bloc countries.
"I think the danger here is we have so many weapons going into Iraq," said Stohl, noting that it is viewed as a very lucrative market for new arms sales.
That means Iraq is also ripe for abuse too, according to Stohl.
Turkish media reports that Glock pistols supplied by the U.S. to Iraq are showing up among the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, an armed separatist group.
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.
But Amnesty International's Colby Goodman said it appears the planes never landed in Iraq.
"When we talked to the air-traffic controllers in Iraq there was no scheduled landing slot for Aerocom at all," Goodman said. "And we also realized that Aerocom was on one of the U.N. lists of air-cargo companies that had violated the U.N. arms embargo on Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2002."
Goodman considered that maybe the planes did arrive but weren't recorded.
The Defense Department is investigating the report. Lt. Col. Daniel Williams, a military spokesman, said nowadays, there are much more stringent procedures for any weapons the U.S. brings into Iraq.
"We account for every weapon by serial number and on a hand receipt — and it's electronically done. So we have a database to go back to and it shows by spreadsheet where all of the weapons have gone, Williams said.
The GAO's Christoff acknowled the U.S. military's attempts to improve its weapons accounting but asserts that gaps still exist.