BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on unnecessary and overpriced equipment for Iraq’s new army at a time when the United States and its allies are struggling to get the force in shape to battle insurgents, Iraqi officials say.

Iraqi authorities have opened inquiries into several cases of possible corruption at the Defense Ministry. The ministry official believed behind most of the questionable deals was removed from his job in June and banned from leaving the country.

“Corruption is widespread at the ministry. One of the cases alone is worth $226 million. The investigation is still going on,” said legislator Kamal al-Saaidi, a member of the independent Supreme Anti-corruption Commission.

Most of the alleged unnecessary purchases were made during the term of interim Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, who took office after occupation authorities turned over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, 2004.

When new Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi took office in May, an investigation was opened into several alleged cases of corruption.

Former National Security Adviser Qassim Dawoud refused to speak about corruption at the ministry, citing the ongoing investigation.

Iraqi investigators are probing several weapons and equipment deals engineered by the dismissed official, former procurement officer Ziad Cattan, and other defense officials.

One case involves Polish weapons maker Bumar, which signed a $236 million contract in December to equip the Iraqi army with helicopters, ambulances, pistols, machine guns and water storage tanks. Added to other deals signed last year, Bumar’s contracts with the Iraqi army totaled nearly $300 million.

Iraqi officials said that when Iraqi experts traveled to Europe to check on their purchase of the transport choppers, they discovered the aircraft, which cost tens of millions of dollars, were 28 years old and outdated. They refused to take them and returned home empty-handed.

A Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the helicopter deal was “canceled after the ministry discovered that the helicopters are not needed at the moment.”

In Warsaw, however, a spokeswoman for Bumar denied her company ever provided Iraq with poor-quality helicopters and said that although they were several years old and used, this was at the request of the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

Iraqi authorities wanted them at “half the price and wanted to get them quickly,” spokeswoman Roma Sarzynska told The Associated Press.

It would have taken the company longer to provide new helicopters, she said.

Another case involving Cattan was a deal to purchase 7.62 mm bullets, used in machine guns and rifles. Iraqi officials said the bullets should have cost between 4 and 6 cents apiece but the ministry was eventually charged 16 cents per bullet.

Jawad al-Maliki, who heads parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, said that despite spending huge sums, “we did not see weapons on the ground.”

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in charge of training and equipping the Iraqi military, declined to comment on the corruption claims, saying it was a matter to be resolved by the Iraqi government.

Since U.S. authorities turned over sovereignty last year, Iraqis have obtained weapons three different ways: Procuring them through the auspices of the multinational force command, donations from other countries and purchases by the Defense Ministry.

A U.S. military officer who used to work with the Defense Ministry said equipment that could have been useful was not being purchased, such as new armored vehicles or good ammunition.

The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because it was an internal Iraqi issue. He said there appeared to be little oversight and accountability in the procurement of equipment.

Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to contact Cattan in recent weeks were unsuccessful. However, in a telephone interview in May, he spoke proudly of his efforts to procure equipment.

Cattan said that in only six months, he had signed contracts worth $600 million and that he headed military delegations to 15 countries including Russia, Poland and Germany.

He added that he signed contracts to “buy 500 Humvees, 600 armored personnel carriers from Poland as well as transport planes from Russia and Poland.”

Earlier this year, another scandal broke when media reports revealed that Allawi’s defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, transferred $500 million to a bank account in Lebanon to buy weapons. Ahmad Chalabi, the current deputy prime minister, demanded an investigation into that case.

Shaalan left Iraq after a new government was formed and remains abroad.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently complained about administrative and financial corruption but also blamed former dictator Saddam Hussein.

“Just as a house that is burned down takes time to rebuild, so it will take us time to clean out the culture that Saddam brought to Iraq,” he said.

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