US Customs' uncovering of TOW-missile smuggling saga shows how Iraq's military dealt under table in hunt for modern weapons
THE code word for the merchandise was ``toys.'' But the purpose of the deal was anything but playful: It might have meant thousands of United States antitank missiles and other smuggled weapons for the troops of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Fortunately for US-led forces now gathering in Saudi Arabia, the alleged arms middlemen were trapped by Customs Service agents and taken into custody on Aug. 13.
They fell prey to a year-long probe dubbed ``Operation Dragon,'' and their story shows some of the shadowy methods Iraq and other Middle East nations use to try to obtain advanced weapons technology.
Because unfortunately, Operation Dragon is far from an isolated case.
The Customs Service currently is conducting more than 20 investigations dealing with potential Iraqi arms-technology smuggling. There are hints that in the months before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait its attempts to obtain US weapons intensified.
``Saddam Hussein's got an objective to obtain all the equipment he can,'' says Jack Kelley, Customs senior special agent and head of the EXODUS export control program.
Operation Dragon began in early July 1989, when an American arms dealer received a letter from a Dr. Claus Fuhler, a German eye doctor living in Spain, requesting help in obtaining TOW missiles and other items, according to an indictment handed up in US District Court in Orlando on Aug. 15.
The tube-launched, wire-guided TOW is the Pentagon's top antitank weapon and a highly controlled export item. The arms dealer contacted the Customs Service, agreed to act as an informant, and then sent Dr. Fuhler a return letter containing TOW brochures.