BAGHDAD - Ziad Cattan was a Polish Iraqi used-car dealer with no weapons-dealing experience until U.S. authorities turned him into one of the most powerful men in Iraq last year - the chief of procurement for the Defense Ministry, responsible for equipping the fledgling Iraqi army.
As U.S. advisors looked on, Cattan embarked on a massive spending spree, paying hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi funds for secret, no-bid contracts, according to interviews with more than a dozen senior American, coalition and Iraqi officials, and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The money flowed, often in bricks of cash, through the hands of middlemen who were friends of Cattan and took a percentage of the proceeds.
Although much of the material purc hased has prov ed useful, U.S. advisors said, the contracts also paid for equipment that was shoddy, overpriced or never delivered. The questionable purchases - including aging Russian helicopters and underpowered Polish transport vehicles - have slowed t he developmen t of the Iraqi army and hindered its ability to replace American troops, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Cattan, now facing corruption charges leveled by the Iraqi Justice Ministry, insists that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and the victim of a smear campaign. In interviews in Poland, where he now lives, Cattan said he had worked under pressure from U.S. and Iraqi officials to arm the Iraqi forces as quickly as possible.
"Before, I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars - but not weapons," said Cattan, who signed most of the 89 military contracts worth nearly $1.3 billion to equip Iraqi security forces, according to the documents. "We didn't know anything about weapons."
Cattan's improbable rise and fall raises troubling questions about American oversight of the Iraqi army's development, considered the most important mission in reducing the number of U.S. troops in harm's way.
The portrait that emerges from interviews and documents is a Defense Ministry whose members were picked with the care of choosing a pickup basketball team. U.S.-appointed military advisors often selected inexperienced Iraqis and watched as they cut pell-mell weapons deals that eventually totaled one-third of the entire procurement budget.
The Iraqis "were like, 'Hey we're a sovereign government now.... We'll buy what we want,' " one military advisor said. "We didn't know what was going on with the money."
Iraqis say the corruption scandal has set back their efforts to fight insurgents. More than 27 arrest warrants have been issued for former government officials, including Cattan and his boss, former Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan. Several former ministry officials have fled the country, others are already in prison awaiting trial, and six have been killed by unknown assailants.
"These violations are many, and they allow terrorism to flourish," said Judge Radhi Radhi, the head of the Commission on Public Integrity, which is leading the investigations. "Exposing this corruption is a matter of vital importance for Iraq."
Cattan's ascent began two days before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when he returned from Poland after 26 years in an attempt to bring his elderly father out of Iraq to safety.
His father refused to leave, however, so Cattan decided to stay as the war raged on. A broad, garrulous man with boundless confidence, Cattan figured he could help rebuild the country, drawing on a past that included an economics doctorate and business ventures including used cars and a pizza parlor.
Cattan was elected to one of the local advisory councils the U.S. set up after the initial combat phase of the war. He soon became close with the U.S. troops that occupied his neighborhood, filled with military officers who served under President Saddam Hussein, who had just been toppled.
By early 2004, as the U.S. moved toward handing sovereignty to the Iraqis, Cattan had caught the eye of American officials who were scrambling to build a new Defense Ministry. The U.S. was starting from scratch. Coalition advisors decided that civilians should lead the new ministry, but under Hussein, the Defense Ministry was run by military officers, meaning there was no pool of experienced Iraqis from which to draw.
In desperation, Americans cast a wide net, sending interested Iraqis to the United States for a three-week crash course on Defense Ministry management. Cattan was one of the first to go.
Upon his return, he rose quickly through the new ministry's ranks, becoming the director of military procurement after the first director's assassination. Cattan was chosen partly because he had done a good job obtaining furniture for the ministry building, one source said.
He impressed U.S. officials in the coalition with his ability to get things done, a trait lacking in many Iraqi government prospects, who had learned to avoid taking the initiative under the Hussein dictatorship.
"He was somebody we recruited, and we were taking a chance on him just like on everybody else," said Frederick Smith, a former Defense Department official who was one of a handful of coalition officials charged with building the ministry. "Ziad is not a choirboy. But he was willing to serve."
As the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority handed over sovereignty in June 2004, the American mission in Iraq shifted its focus to training and equipping Iraqi forces.
Cattan said U.S. officials pressured the Iraqis to begin spending Iraqi funds, which would supplement American spending on arms contracts that had gotten bogged down in the U.S. contracting process. Gen. David Petraeus, head of the training mission, and Nick Beadle, a British Defense Ministry official who was chief advisor to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, declined to comment.
All of sudden, Cattan had $600 million to spend, with a mandate to spend it by the end of December under Iraqi budgeting rules.
In September, Cattan said, he signed the first of 38 contracts with Bumar, Poland's state arms dealer, which would total more than $400 million. Bumar is supposed to supply Iraq with 36 Russian and Polish transport helicopters and 600 Polish armored personnel trucks.
Petraeus and Beadle both objected to the helicopters, according to interviews with military advisors, saying they were not a top priority when Iraqi soldiers still needed basic equipment such as guns and bulletproof vests.
"It was a question of what was the greatest need given the resources available to them and the coalition, and at the same time, whether they had the capacity not only to buy it, but to maintain and sustain it," one military official said.
The Iraqis later objected to the helicopters as well, declaring them too old to fly. A delegation of Iraqi test pilots who visited Bumar's production facility in St. Petersburg, Russia, declined to sign papers to finalize the sale. The current Iraqi government has since rebuffed Bumar's offers to ship the helicopters.
Cattan and Bumar officials acknowledged that some helicopters were 25 years old, but defended the purchase.
Bumar President Roman Baczynski said in an interview that his company has already prepared 10 new Russian MI-17 helicopters for delivery. The rest of the helicopters are used and must be overhauled, including eight manufactured between 1978 and 1986.
Baczynski arranged for a Times reporter to tour a production plant outside Warsaw where the armored personnel trucks were being prepared. The factory will produce about 20 vehicles a month, mostly by hand, at an average cost of $167,000 each. The boxy, beige trucks have metal-reinforced tires, space for 10 soldiers and armor sufficient to stop an AK-47 round.
But during a test drive, the reporter could not manage to propel the heavy truck up a 45-degree, 8-foot-high incline from a standing start; a test driver had to back the vehicle up to build momentum. Bumar officials said the truck only had a 150-horsepower engine - about the same as a Mazda Miata.
"The engine size was their decision," a Bumar executive said. "We adjust to the client's requirements - and cost was a factor for them."
Besides the quality of the material, U.S. and Iraqi officials have raised questions in audits and financial reviews about the possibility of fraud in the payment mechanism.
The Polish contracts, like others signed by Cattan, were paid in cash, up front - both violations of Iraqi contracting regulations, according to a confidential audit by the Iraqi Supreme Board of Audit obtained by The Times.
Many of the contracts signed by Cattan passed through companies run by Iraqi businessman Naer Mohammed Jumaili, whom Cattan had gotten to know while on the advisory council, according to Cattan and the audit. Cattan said he worked closely with Jumaili and other businessmen who owned cash-transfer companies, which exchange currency and move it outside the country. Cattan said he awarded them reconstruction contracts as they provided information on insurgent money flowing into Iraq.
"They supported me to become a big man in Iraq," Cattan said of Jumaili and the other businessmen, whom he referred to as "my friends."
He said he turned to Jumaili during the weapons deals because Jumaili was Bumar's sole registered agent in Iraq - a claim Bumar denied. Cattan also said he used Jumaili's services because it was the only way to move money out of Iraq. In a complicated series of transactions, the Defense Ministry would issue a check to Jumaili's firm, which would cash the check at an Iraqi bank. Jumaili or Cattan would then coordinate the physical movement of sacks of cash to banks in Jordan, according to interviews and documents.
All told, nearly $1 billion worth of contracts were signed with Jumaili's companies, according to the audit. Cattan said Jumaili charged 1% for his services. If true, Jumaili could have earned up to $10 million in fees. Jumaili could not be reached for comment.
U.S., Iraqi and coalition officials said they didn't know about the enormous cash transfers until after one especially large shipment of $300 million became public last winter, when ministry officials were spotted loading bags stuffed with $100 bills onto a flight to Jordan.
U.S.-appointed military advisors conducted a high-level financial review of the ministry's books, resulting in a determination in February of a "high risk of fraud," according to two sources with knowledge of the review.
That review, in turn, sparked a more thorough examination by the Supreme Board of Audit, one of three anti-fraud Iraqi agencies supported by the U.S. government to crack down on corruption.
The May report, which reviewed 89 contracts worth $1.3 billion signed between June 28, 2004, and Feb. 28, was sharply critical. Auditors could not find contract copies, payment receipts or verify that equipment had been received. The audit criticized Cattan's cash payments as a "flagrant violation of the state monetary policy."
Iyad Allawi, the U.S.-appointed interim Iraqi prime minister at the time of the deals, said he wasn't aware that Cattan was using private intermediaries to transfer cash. He charged that the accusations of corruption within his Cabinet were politically motivated.
"I don't think it is fair at all that we shift focus from Saddam and the corruption during Saddam's time ... to a period of six to seven months when I was prime minister," said Allawi, who noted that he initiated three investigations. "That is not to say that there is no corruption - there is, of course, corruption."
Another contract called into question by the auditors and U.S. officials involved Wye Oak Technology, a Pennsylvania firm run by Dale Stoffel, an American arms broker. Stoffel, who was killed in a roadside attack after reporting his concerns about corruption at the Defense Ministry, was the subject of previous Times stories.
Stoffel had an agreement worth up to $283 million to refurbish Iraqi tanks and sell scrap metal abroad, according to interviews and documents. When Cattan was slow to pay invoices, Stoffel complained to the Pentagon that the Iraqis were demanding kickbacks by insisting that only certain contractors be hired, according to letters obtained by The Times.
Cattan said he was reluctant to pay the contract because he received only a "vague invoice." He said U.S. officials regularly pressured him to pay Wye Oak.
Army Col. David Styles, the Petraeus deputy who was in charge of the tank project, acknowledged pressuring Cattan, but only because he wanted the project to progress, he says.
Styles also said Cattan used money from the project to buy tens of thousands of bulletproof vests that fell apart and helmets "which were no better than the helmets I got as a kid from [the] toy store."
"The fact that Cattan did not want money paid unless it was to a contractor he personally approved was the problem," Styles said in response to e-mailed questions.
Although U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the chaotic spending harmed the effort to develop Iraqi forces, they disagree about the nature of the effect.
Iraqi officials believe that as much as $500 million has been wasted. They say that Iraqi soldiers are unable to fight effectively and are at greater risk because they lack good-quality weapons, armored vehicles and other supplies as a result of the questionable purchases. More than 2,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers have died this year.
"The Americans have spent two years building the Iraqi forces," said Hadi Amery, an Iraqi legislator and head of the Badr Brigade militia, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top political party. "What have you done through these two years?"
U.S. officials say the scale of corruption is far smaller, and that its effect on Iraqi troop readiness is smaller too.
One U.S. military official said some of Iraq's battalions could have improved their combat readiness had the Iraqis focused more on buying critically needed items instead of equipment such as helicopters.
"There clearly was some impact from Ziad's practices," the military official said. "However, it was not clear that it was all that substantial." The Americans said they did all they could, but that the Iraqis made final decisions.
Such assertions puzzle Iraqis. How is it, they say, that the U.S. could have allowed such slipshod execution of such an important task?
"We have American experts in the Defense Ministry," said Radhi, the official investigating the corruption. "When they saw such violations, why didn't they do something? They are experts."
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