The Man Who Armed Iraq

Saddam's broken pledge to use the Hughes helicopters for civilian purposes apparently meant little to the State Department. Two years later officials approved an additional sale to Iraq of 45 Bell 214ST helicopters, despite the fact that the Bell 214ST is often used militarily and can be so converted at minimal cost. Saddam promised that the helicopters would be used only for recreation.

If the State Department was unfazed, at least one congressman took notice. "It is beyond belief that Iraq, with its foreign exchange reserves depleted by its conflict with Iran, would purchase 45 helicopters at $5 million apiece simply to transport civilian VIPs," wrote Rep. Howard Berman to then-Secretary of State George Shultz in November l984. "The helicopter which Iraq wishes to purchase, the 214ST, was originally designed for military purposes."

State Department officials wrote back, arguing, "We believe that increased American penetration of the extremely competitive civilian aircraft market would serve the United States' interests by improving our balance of trade and lessening unemployment in the aircraft industry."

Sure enough, evidence surfaced indicating that the helicopters were being employed militarily. In October l988, a Washington Post reporter, in Iraq to tour the war front, witnessed Iraqi military pilots flying the Bell 214s. He also observed other Bells lined up at three Iraqi military air bases alongside Soviet MIG jet fighters. The Reagan Administration once again did not muster a word of protest with the Iraqi government. Privately, State Department officials defended the Iraqis, claiming the helicopters were being used only to transport military officials to the front. Saddam would be in violation of his pledge only if the aircraft were used in actual combat.

The broker in that deal? Again, it was Miami's Sarkis Soghanalian.
Enormous arms sales, multimillion-dollar commissions, convoluted international deals, political intrigue - for Soghanalian these are the common ingredients of his daily business. And business has been very good to him. Besides his waterfront mansion on Hibiscus Island, he owns a 136-acre farm in Wisconsin and maintains homes in Athens, Madrid, and Paris. His business offices stretch from Miami to Geneva to Baghdad. A fleet of planes is always at his disposal to fly him anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.

Soghanalian, an Armenian born in Turkey, grew up in poverty in a suburb of Beirut. There he became involved in a growth industry that attracted many of the city's young men: gunrunning. In the l950s he worked closely with Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, and through him met Jordan's King Hussein. Soghanalian fled Beirut after he was nearly murdered for helping arm one of Lebanon's many political factions. He promptly drove a Mercedes sports car (a gift, he has said, from King Hussein) right onto a ship headed for New York. He struggled for years, working at a small garage in upstate New York while on the side arranging modest arms sales for Lebanese Christians.

Though Soghanalian declined to be interviewed for this article, in the past he has claimed that his good fortunes soared when he began working for the Central Intelligence Agency. Over the years, the devoted anti-communist would sell arms to Nicaragua's dictator Anastasio Somoza, Exocet missiles to the Argentine junta (which used them to sink a British warship during the Falklands war), rocket launchers to the Nicaraguan contras, and planes to the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

That Soghanalian and his various businesses have worked closely with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies is beyond dispute. Two federal law enforcement officials have confirmed they were formally informed by the CIA that Soghanalian for years has served as a contract employee of the agency, although the CIA claims it has no knowledge of nor was it involved in most of the more questionable of his arms sales. And Soghanalian himself has admitted to his work on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies. During a sworn deposition for a civil lawsuit in federal court, he was asked, "Have you ever been involved in any intelligence activities for any branch of the government of the United States of America?" Soghanalian answered, "Yes."

His lawyer, however, instructed him to provide no more details. "There is no question but this man has been involved in intelligence and counterintelligence over the years," Miami attorney Gerald Richman was quoted as saying during the deposition. "[But] that is not something that is relevant to the issues in this case and that may embarrass him and may expose him."

Other evidence of his work with U.S. intelligence officials is included in the trial record of a criminal case that developed from a federal grand jury indictment brought against Soghanalian in l981. (Prosecutors charged Soghanalian with fraud in a case involving the sale of machine guns to the small African nation of Mauritania.) After Soghanalian's attorney submitted a sealed motion describing his client's "great assistance to the United States," court records show, he was allowed to plead guilty to a single count without formally admitting culpability. Had he been tried and convicted, he could have been sentenced to fifteen years in prison or, because he is a Lebanese citizen, he could have been deported. But federal prosecutors, after negotiating the plea agreement, recommended only that he be given probation.

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