WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army has approved the purchase of more than $29 million worth of weapons for the new Iraqi army from a Chinese state-owned company that's under indictment in California in connection with the smuggling of 2,000 AK-47 automatic rifles into the United States in 1996.
The haul remains the largest seizure of smuggled automatic weapons in U.S. history.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Warren, Mich.-based U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command approved the contract for Poly Technologies after a check into the company's background. The company wasn't among those banned from doing business in the United States, he said.
The Beijing-based firm is to deliver 2,369 light and heavy machine guns, 14,653 AK-47 rifles and 72 million rounds of ammunition worth $29.3 million by Saturday, according to a Pentagon statement.
It isn't clear whether the deal, which comes as the Bush administration is pressing the European Union to maintain an embargo on high-tech arms sales to China, was discussed or approved by higher-ranking officials at the State and Defense departments. Hungary, Poland and Romania, all members of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, could supply the same weapons. China opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Poly Technologies won the competitively bid $29.3 million contract in February from The International Trading Establishment, a Jordan-based consortium. The U.S. Army selected the consortium to supply Iraq's fledgling security forces with as much as $174.4 million worth of radios, night-vision equipment, weapons and ammunition. The consortium comprises coalition partners of corporations from the Czech Republic, Spain and Jordan.
Iraq is awash in AK-47s and other weapons, but American commanders want new weapons for the new army.
Dynasty Holding of Atlanta, the name under which Poly Technologies did business in the United States, was charged in the smuggling case, along with 14 co-defendants, including Bao Ping "Robert" Ma, a former Chinese army general who was the firm's U.S. representative, according to the May 1996 federal grand jury indictment.
Ma and three co-defendants were also charged with smuggling 20,000 AK-47 bipods into the United States from China in December 1994.
Ma is a fugitive believed to be in China, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The 30-count indictment stemmed from a sting operation mounted by undercover U.S. Treasury and U.S. Customs Service agents, who posed as organized-crime arms dealers.
The agents paid $700,000 for 2,000 fully automatic AK-47s that were shipped into Oakland, Calif., aboard a Chinese-owned vessel from China in March 1996.
The shipment, which had an approximate street value of more than $4 million, also included about 4,000 AK-47 drum magazines capable of holding up to 40 rounds each.
A key figure in the plot who pleaded guilty, Hammond Ku, a resident alien from Taiwan, suggested to the undercover agents that the weapons be sold to "gang bangers," or street gangs, according to an affidavit from a U.S. Customs agent that accompanied the indictment.
Ma is one of five Chinese nationals indicted in the case who are fugitives. Two other Chinese nationals who were charged, a former Poly Technologies export manager and a former export official of another state-run munitions firm, NORINCO, have been convicted in China, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
"It's still a pending investigation," said Haley. "As long as they are fugitives, the investigation is still open."
Ma's lawyer, Joseph Russinello, said his client was innocent.
He said the Chinese government had "basically cleared" Ma in the investigation that led to the convictions of the former Poly Technologies and NORINCO export officials.
According to U.S. federal court records, four other defendants have pleaded guilty, including Ku. He pleaded guilty in 1997 to illegal importation and money laundering charges, but has yet to be sentenced.
"Poly Technologies is not on any list of prohibited sources, nor is the U.S., under existing law, regulation or policy, prohibited from using Chinese companies to supply weapons," said Yoswa, the Pentagon spokesman. "There are firms within China that are on the prohibited source list, but Poly Technologies is not one of them."
He also pointed out that a U.S. arms embargo slapped on China after the 1989 massacre that crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square applies only to American sales of advanced defense technologies to the communist regime.
An Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Army investigators were aware of the link between Poly Technologies and the 1996 weapons smuggling case. But, the official said, Poly Technologies itself was not named in the indictment.
"We looked at Poly Technologies, not Dynasty Holding. Dynasty Holding doesn't exist," the official said.
The official said the background check on the company was conducted by the National Ground Intelligence Center, an Army intelligence agency in Charlottesville, Va.
Poly Technologies was started by the Chinese military as an arms trading corporation. When the government ordered the military to divest itself of numerous businesses, Poly Technologies in 1999 was placed under the central government.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.