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Former Iraq Security Contractors Say Firm Bought Black Market Weapons, Swapped Booze for Rockets

Newly released documents provide a glimpse into the messy business of creating a private army on the fly in the middle of a war zone.

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Van Arsdale acknowledged the hectic pace of fulfilling contracts. But he said that even under tight deadlines the company didn’t break the rules.

"We defined the gold standard for training and equipping people at great expense to ourselves as well as great time to ourselves,” he said. “At a period of hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, we took over two weeks to train guys to make sure they were prepared to go in country. To say that we're cutting corners and we're opportunistic and we're war profiteers, all of the facts argue against that.

"In terms of weapons procurement, the rules were clear and we followed them," Van Arsdale said.

But former senior officials with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation government that controlled Iraq until June 2004, questioned whether there were any established procedures for buying weapons from Iraqis.

They noted that any Iraqis with large quantities of weapons to sell were most likely businessmen or military officials associated with the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

Some former U.S. officials in Iraq said that buying guns locally was by definition illicit. Steve Casteel, the U.S. senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior at the time, said there was a "disconnect" between Washington and what was happening on the ground in Iraq.

"There was no legal market for the sale of weapons, so if they bought them it had to be black market," said Casteel, who now works for another private security company. "It wouldn't have been legal under U.S. guidance. It wouldn’t have been legal under any Iraq law that I'm aware of."

Triple Canopy's frustrations with the U.S. government were hardly unique. In numerous interviews, former U.S. and industry officials described a crazed atmosphere in which U.S. contracting officers demanded guns on the ground and asked few questions.

One private security company official said Iraqi vendors sold weapons at open-air markets, the tables stacked high with AK-47s and other armaments, in full view of U.S. officials.

"It was wide open. It was like a swap meet," said the official, who works for a Triple Canopy competitor and did not want to be identified. "I'm not aware of any company that didn't use it."

Companies that wanted to conduct business in normal channels were stymied by short deadlines, constantly changing requirements and bureaucratic clashes between U.S. officials on the ground in Iraq and in offices back in Washington.

"People needed to have weapons,” said one former official with the Coalition Provisional Authority. “So of course you went out and bought them on the black market because you couldn't get them from anywhere else. If you have a demand, you are going to have a supply."

CPA officials were aware that there were few controls over the weapons used by their private security contractors. But ideas to exert greater control were ignored.

"We recognized there was a problem, the CPA official said. “We had inconsistent quality. There was not as much control and accountability of those weapons as we wanted."

Other companies also found means. Blackwater, now known as Xe, said in a statement that it had obtained valid U.S. import and export licenses for its employees’ weapons. The company has been investigated for weapons smuggling, though no charges were filed and it denies the allegations.

An official with DynCorp, the second-largest security contractor in Iraq, said weapons were obtained from a variety of sources. In some contracts, requests for licenses were granted, allowing the import of U.S. weapons. For other contracts, requests were denied and the firm turned to the local weapons market.