Where Have All the Weapons Gone?

August 9th, 2007 - by admin

Rachel Stohl / Center for Defense Information – 2007-08-09 22:50:40


Last month the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report revealing that hundreds of thousands of weapons and other military equipment the United States provided Iraqi security forces were unaccounted for. The United States has no way of knowing if thousands of AK-47s and pistols are in the hands of the Iraqi forces working alongside US soldiers, or if some of the weapons have ended up in the hands of Iraqi insurgents and criminals.

The GAO reports that the Department of Defense (DOD) – which oversees the Iraqi train and equip program – failed to keep track of the distribution of weapons issued in 2004 and 2005, both in quantity and the intended recipient. According to the GAO, DOD failed to implement basic accountability procedures and the Multinational Force-Iraq did not have direct orders to account for weapons distributed to Iraqi forces. DOD points to the lack of an established Iraqi bureaucracy to oversee the distribution, limited manpower and a shortage of resources as explanations for their failure to institute the proper administrative procedures.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have heard that US weapons have made their way onto the streets of Iraq. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction noted in his October 2006 report that the US military had witnessed weapons originally supplied by the United States and its allies to the Iraqi police turning up on the streets and black markets of Iraq, likely diverted from their legitimate owners by theft, loss or officers who kept their weapons after quitting the police force. Further, the Special Inspector General reported almost half a million weapons transferred to Iraq by the United States were not properly documented when they entered the country, which has resulted in thousands of misplaced weapons that could be used against US troops.

These uncontrolled small arms and light weapons have had devastating effects on the people of Iraq and on the ability of the US and coalition forces to help Iraq rebuild. Terrorism experts have estimated that small arms and light weapons have been used in over half of all terrorist attacks on civilians in Iraq. According to CDI’s own analysis, more than 20 percent of all US troop casualties since the beginning of the invasion were caused solely by small arms attacks, and the combined effects of small arms and roadside bombs have claimed even more lives – 60 percent of US casualties as of November 2006. Moreover, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed and countless others have been victimized by the widespread availability and use of small arms. Iraqi business owners claim that small arms violence and the insecurity it perpetuates have made it impossible to conduct normal business.

As the situation in Iraq has grown more complex, so has the small arms problem. Yet, the United States has neglected to develop a comprehensive small arms strategy, even though the proliferation of these weapons has been an issue for the US military since the initial US invasion in March 2003. Prior to the onset of war in 2003, Iraqi citizens began to stockpile guns and ammunition to prepare for the ensuing chaos and Saddam Hussein’s regime is even reported to have distributed weapons directly to citizens. The US military has estimated that anywhere from 1 million to 7 million weapons were already in private hands at the time of the invasion. During the early stages of the invasion, vast stockpiles of weapons abandoned by Saddam’s forces were discovered by US forces as they moved throughout the country. Yet US forces did not have the manpower, nor the orders, to secure these weapons, which were promptly looted by civilians seeking to protect themselves, militias and insurgents seeking to arm themselves, and those seeking to profit off of the war by selling weapons to civilians, insurgents and militia members alike.

To date, few successful programs have been undertaken to deal with the flood of small arms in Iraq. Weapons collection and buyback programs instituted by the United States in 2003 and 2004 were limited in their success. Despite collecting a wide array of weapons, it is questionable whether or not the programs substantively reduced the volume of weapons available on the streets of Iraq, and, in some cases, there is evidence that US payouts for weapons actually emboldened the illicit market for small arms. Further, as sectarian violence rages on, families and communities are loathe to turn in their weapons for fear of becoming more vulnerable to attacks.

A thriving black market for weapons has existed throughout the three years of US occupation, and as the violence continues, illicit weapons sales have likewise continued to rise. Former caches remain lucrative sources of weapons today, and munitions from these caches are used in roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The United States also points to weapons smuggled into Iraq through poorly secured borders with Iran and Syria as additional sources of illicit weaponry. The unaccounted for US weapons will increase the weapons available in the country, but will most likely not affect the overall capabilities of insurgents and criminals within the country. What is clear is that, regardless the source, US forces are plagued with potentially millions of weapons in circulation throughout the country.

At some point, steps must be taken to stop this self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

The GAO report amplifies the need for a comprehensive US small arms policy in Iraq. From keeping track of weapons provided by the United States to mopping up the millions of weapons in circulation throughout the country, the United States must do more to address not only the violence in Iraq, but the tools of that violence as well.

First, the US military must begin to track down the unaccounted for weapons. Former recruits must be found and their weapons confiscated or listed as missing, and inventories of the weapons of current Iraqi forces must be taken.

Second, Congress should exert strict oversight and control of any new US equipment provided to Iraqi security forces. US taxpayers are paying for weapons that the United States has lost track of and footing an ever increasing bill to deal with weapons the US government has not adequately addressed. DOD has already provided $19.2 billion in assistance for the Iraqi train and equip program and another $2.8 billion is slated to continue US programs. This new aid should be conditioned on effective accountability procedures conducted by the Department of Defense and the Multinational Force-Iraq.

Third, the Department of Defense must institute clear administrative procedures to account for future weapons and equipment transfers. New weapons supplies must be secured and new policies must be put in place to keep track of future weapons distributed to police and security forces. Weapons supplied by the United States must be regulated and controlled, including keeping track of serial numbers and recipients of weapons. Recipients of US weapons must be vetted to ensure that the recipients will behave consistently with US policy interests.

Fourth, policies that address the large amount of weapons currently in circulation must be implemented by both US forces and the Iraqi government. For example, community incentive programs that collect weapons contributing to instability, reward communities with rebuilding projects, and then symbolically destroy the weapons must be pursued.

Fifth, policies that address why citizens and insurgents are trying to acquire weapons must be developed. These kinds of strategies cannot be developed by US and coalition forces – the Iraqi government, in cooperation with the Iraqi people, must determine the best way to ensure the security of Iraqis.

The GAO report highlights a pattern of neglect by the United States when it comes to a sustainable and comprehensive small arms policy. Above all, minimizing small arms proliferation and misuse must be included in strategies that mark the way forward in Iraq. Ignoring this threat is signing a death warrant for countless more US forces and Iraqi civilians.

Rachel Stohl is senior analyst at the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information and co-author of Small Arms Trade: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications, November 2006)

• [1] This article is an update of “Uncontrolled Arms Perpetuate Insecurity in Iraq,” By Rachel Stohl and Rhea Myerscough, available at:

• Read the CDI report, “Uncontrolled Small Arms Perpetuate Insecurity in Iraq,” by CDI Senior Analyst Rachel Stohl and CDI Research Assistant Rhea Myerscough.

• Read the CDI report, “Small Arms Analysis of Iraq Study Group Report,” by CDI Senior Analyst Rachel Stohl and CDI Research Assistant Rhea Myerscough.

• Read the Aug. 6 Washington Post article, “Weapons Given to Iraq are Missing.”

• Watch coverage of the story on NBC Nightly News, “What happened to US weapons in Iraq.”