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Evidence cited of Russian arms in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- US officials have found evidence corroborating White House allegations that Russian companies sold Saddam Hussein high-tech military equipment that threatened US forces during the invasion of Iraq last March, a senior State Department official said yesterday.

The official said the United States has found proof that Russian companies exported night-vision goggles and radar-jamming equipment to Iraq, the official said. The evidence includes the equipment itself and proof that it was used during the war, according to the official. Such exports would violate the terms of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

"We have corroborated some of that evidence," the official told a group of reporters.

While insisting that the matter is "now in the past," he said that the Bush administration "never received entirely satisfactory explanations" of its charges, and that the issue "is still a sensitive one in the relationship."

"It's an issue that, shall we say, did not do much for strengthening trust," the official added.

The issue burst into public view last March 24, just days after the war began, when President Bush called Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, to voice his concern about the goggles, jamming equipment, and advanced antitank missiles. The White House said at the time that it had "credible evidence" that the equipment came from Russian companies.

The goggles and jammers were of special concern to the United States because US forces, seeking to wage war over great distances with low casualties, rely on night-vision devices and high-tech missile and aircraft guidance systems.

The goggles use heat sensors to enable infantrymen to continue operations even in the dead of night; the jammers block signals from satellites that guide cruise missiles and "smart" bombs.

Putin staunchly denied the charges. But the allegation added friction to a relationship that was already under strain at the time because of Russia's vocal opposition to the US-led invasion.

Yevgeny V. Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said yesterday that though the allegations were first raised before the war, "we have never received real proof from the American side that Russian firms were involved in the delivery of this equipment."

The State Department official declined to elaborate on what the proof is.

Khorishko noted that the United States and Russia are now involved in broad talks aimed at developing new ways to halt the spread of weapons around the world. He said he could not comment, under the terms of those talks, on whether they addressed US concerns about the night-vision and jamming equipment.

In raising the issue last year, US officials contended that although the hardware was allegedly sold by private companies, the Russian government could have taken steps to oversee and interdict the traffic. They maintained at the time that the gear had been sold relatively recently, and with an understanding that it could be used in such a war.

High-tech military equipment is a top export for Russia. Though the country's military budget has shrunk dramatically, its military industry exports about $5 billion annually in tanks, planes, small arms, and other equipment, which end up -- directly or through transshipment -- in dozens of countries.

During the war, US military sources gave differing accounts on how much the Russian-made equipment affected US forces. Some military officials were quoted as blaming jamming gear for sending missiles off course and into Iran and Saudi Arabia, and as contending that Russian made Kornet antitank missiles destroyed at least two American M-1 A-1 tanks, the first time such tanks had been destroyed in battle.

But other officials contended they had little effect during the rapid sweep to Baghdad.

Some Russian arms industry executives and military analysts asserted that the charges about the jamming equipment were made only to explain away the inaccuracy of the US-made "smart bombs."

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