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U.S. to bolster arms-sales office in Iraq

The plan includes a staff increase. The goal: Get gear to Iraqi forces and keep it from insurgents.

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is bolstering a badly understaffed office in Baghdad to speed the flow of war-fighting gear to Iraqi forces and help keep the weapons from insurgents and off the black market.

The increase in staff from six to nearly 70 includes a two-star general who arrived in Iraq two weeks ago to manage the growing team. Army Reserve Maj. Gen. George Smith replaces a colonel, evidence of the greater clout for the office handling billions of dollars in arms sales.

The new push is intended to untie the bureaucratic knots blocking aircraft, armored vehicles, radios and guns from getting to Iraqi police and the military units that are taking more control over Iraq's security.

Over the summer, Iraqi officials complained that delays were forcing their troops to fight with inferior equipment.

As demands for more and better gear have escalated, so have concerns over who is getting the supplies. Corruption in Iraq's government has been well-documented, and tens of thousands of U.S.-supplied weapons have gone missing; terrorist groups allegedly have used some of the firepower.

In one case, Turkish officials complained to U.S. authorities that guns the Turks seized from a Kurdish militant group had markings matching those on weapons intended for Iraqi forces.

The Pentagon's internal watchdog, Claude Kicklighter, led an investigation to determine how pervasive the problem was and what needed to be done to tighten control over arms, ammunition and explosives. His findings, already presented to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, are classified.

While the Iraqis will continue to receive weapons from various sources, the goal is to emphasize the more regimented and transparent foreign military-sales system that the United States uses with other allies, Smith said in an interview.

"Over the long haul, as security develops here in Iraq, they're going to be able to develop their economic power," said Smith, who met with Kicklighter before leaving for Iraq. "I don't know that we can afford to be supporting over a terribly long period everything that a nation needs to provide for its own national defense. So it's entirely appropriate that they go in a direction of purchasing their own equipment."

But there are risks in pushing more weapons into a country with a government striving for stability.

"For countries that are struggling with corruption, with internal violence, with threat of diversion or theft, is it the best policy to be funneling as many weapons to that country as possible?" said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Smith said part of his mandate was to monitor where the gear, including sensitive items such as night-vision goggles, went. Keeping tabs on equipment not purchased from U.S. manufacturers is more challenging.

The security assistance office is part of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.

The Iraqis use their money to place orders. Smith's office acts as the middleman, steering the requests through the contracting process.

The more formal approach contrasts with a U.S.-funded account that has distributed billions of dollars in arms and support equipment to the Iraqis since 2003.

U.S. military officials have not kept good records, however, as they hurried to overhaul Iraq's army and police force. About 190,000 assault rifles and pistols were not fully accounted for, an audit completed in July showed. A report last month about a separate investigation found that the sloppy record-keeping persisted and that U.S. commanders could not be sure where all the gear paid for with dollars was going.