WASHINGTON – When the Pentagon went shopping for seven armored cars for senior Iraqi policemen, U.S. officials turned to an Iraqi supplier to provide them with some hardened Mercedes-Benzes.

After spending nearly $1 million, here’s what they got: Six vehicles with bad armor and run-down mechanics. They also were a little more than slightly used: The newest model was a 1996; the oldest a 1994.

According to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, the seventh auto is missing.

In a report released Monday, the inspector general said the Pentagon couldn’t get its money back because it did such a bad job negotiating the no-bid deal.

In June, the Pentagon’s Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq bought the seven Mercedes-Benzes for $135,000 each. They were supposed to include high-quality armor that could withstand high-velocity rifle shots.

The sheet plates provided were something less.

“The armoring of the vehicles appears to be of low standard and provides only limited safety to the occupants of the vehicle,” the military command unit’s own mechanics wrote, according to the inspector general’s report.

In addition, Pentagon mechanics found “inadequate suspensions, low-quality tires, low-quality brakes and unarmored electrical systems,” the report said. The mechanics concluded that “the vehicles were not worth the money paid and to bring them up to required standards would have required an investment that exceeded the value of the vehicles.”

The Iraqi supplier, which wasn’t identified to protect its employees from retribution for working with Americans, says the vehicles are fine, according to the inspector general.

Furthermore, the seller said the military “should have been more specific about requirements” if it wanted something better. The inspector general agreed, saying the military’s contract specifications were “ill-defined.” The inspector general faulted the agency for poor contracting practices.

The multinational command spokesman, Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, said he hadn’t seen the inspector general’s report and couldn’t comment on specifics. But he said the command unit “seeks out the best possible equipment for our Iraqi counterparts … everything we do is quality versus delivery time versus needs.”

The military command has learned its lessons and has brought in auditors and lawyers to improve its purchasing, Wellman said. And it agreed with all the inspector general’s recommendations, which include trying to find the missing vehicle.

The purchase “is like a daydream of a used car salesman; we paid big bucks for lemons,” said Keith Ashdown, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We’re buying lemons for Iraqi allies who have bull’s-eyes on their backs. That’s crazy.”

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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