TEL AVIV, Israel — Earlier this month, Shia militiamen in Iraq dropped off an American-supplied Abrams tank at a US-supported repair facility where workers were surprised to find an attached Russian machine gun plus Iranian ammo, Defense News has learned.
The MIA1 main battle tank — one of 146 frontline tanks the US sold to Baghdad — was transported through the Green Zone to a US-supported Iraqi service facility at al-Muthanna that was established as part of the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
The tank was equipped with a Russian .50-caliber machine gun and Iranian-stamped 12.75-mm ammunition, according to a source at the facility.
"They brought it in through Iraqi checkpoints, back-rolled it off the trailer and then drove away," recounted the source.
"Once all the ammo was removed, as per procedure, by Iraqi personnel, we noticed Iranian markings on the back of the shell casings. Seems they put a Russian machine gun with Iranian ammunition on an Abrams tank."
As Washington scrambles to adapt to the myriad, Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting alongside its US-trained and -supplied partners in Iraq, new manifestations of shifting alliances may threaten the relevance of US end-use monitoring in that war-torn country.
After US-led coalition airstrikes were forced to destroy about 10 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) seized from the Iraqi Army by the Islamic State group, often called ISIL or ISIS, Washington is now grappling with the phenomenon of their voluntary transfer to Shiite forces battling in concert with Baghdad against the fanatical Sunni Caliphate.
Foreign Military Sales violation?
The US-Russian tank hybrid could constitute twin violations of Iraq's FMS agreements with Washington, due to unauthorized use by Shiite militias and the unsanctioned addition of the Russian gun and Iranian ammo, Pentagon officials say.
"Any time you do a foreign military sale, there's a requirement that you do end-use monitoring, and it's a violation if you do alterations," Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) told Defense News.
The presence of hybrid M1 Abrams tanks was confirmed to Defense News by Dr. Wathaq al-Hashimi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies. "Iraq has been dependent on a number of different weapons suppliers, therefore they have integrated these weapons onto different platforms to achieve effectiveness."
Al-Hashimi said this isn't the first time Iraqi forces — looking for more firepower to battle ISIL — have integrated Russian weapons systems onto American platforms.
"Russian systems were placed on American M1 Abrams tanks specially with armor-piercing rocket systems to be used against ISIL explosive cars used in their attacks," he said. "In Beiji [in Northern Iraq], there were 28 explosive cars used in one day and in Ramadi 15 cars were blown on another day."
Iraqi forces need to integrate different systems as they receive weapons from American, Russian, Iranian and European sources, al-Hashimi said.
"This integration may very well lead to a problem between the US and Iraq due to the purchase agreements," he said. "However, there was a real problem and threat from the ISIS-armored explosive cars which led the prime minister to travel to Moscow with the minister of defense to acquire these rocket systems which were placed on the tanks."
Iraq has a long history and experience in weapons and hybridization, al-Hashimi said, noting that Iraqi military experts may have acquired assistance from some of the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 international consultants present in the country from many countries including Russia, the US, Iran and France.
With Thursday being a national holiday, Iraq's Ministry of Defense could not be reached for comment.
'This Is Not What We're Going to Do'
Interviewed in Washington this week at the annual Association of the US Army conference, neither Admiral Rixey, the Pentagon’s FMS chief, nor Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, chief of the US Army Security Assistance Command, had knowledge of the event recounted to Defense News. However, both men suggested that their Iraqi customers had an obligation to report such occurrences in a timely and accurate manner.
"If they brought it into the maintenance facility, then that should be reported to our US folks there, and then we can have a discussion about how, 'This is not what we're going to do,'" McDonald said.
McDonald was deputy commander at the time the Iraqi tank deal was concluded, and noted that the FMS contract includes a maintenance package that covers the facility in question. "We eventually got them to buy the maintenance and training package, so I do know there is an ongoing maintenance effort going on over there under our FMS contract, with a US company doing the maintenance."
The in-country source noted that it was the first time anyone he had encountered the hybridization of the Abrams to accommodate the Russian gun and Iranian ammo.
"It could be an isolated event or it could mark the beginning of something worrisome. It's too early to tell … but given the strange bedfellows over there in the Amber Zone, you never know."
He was referring to the area adjacent to Baghdad's US-dominated Green Zone, where, since the Iraqi Army's stinging string of defeats at the hands of ISIL, sovereign Iraqi forces are cooperating — and often interoperating — with Iranian-backed Shiite militias against their common enemy.
The area designated as Amber Zone is now home to two regiments of Iraq's 9th Armored Divison, each with 35 Abrams MBTs, a contingent from the Iranian Quds Force, Hezbollah, the Asa'ib al-Haq (AAH) and at least one other Shia militia loosely organized under the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which is ostensibly under the command and control of the government in Baghdad.
US and Israeli intelligence sources note that Iran has flooded the Iraqi theater with billions of dollars worth of weaponry and ammunition since the Baghdad-sanctioned formation of the PMF in June 2014.
Washington also continues to send US State Department-approved and congressionally notified weaponry to Iraq on condition that US materiel remains under the strict command and control of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
But a video posted in January, in which a convoy of US vehicles, including an Abrams MBT, was shown flying the Hezbollah flag as they passed through the Iraqi desert offered circumstantial evidence that Iranian-controlled forces under the PMF umbrella have gained access to US-origin hardware.
At the time, Iraqi officials sought to assure their US counterparts that the convoy in the video was still under ISF control, and that the Hezbollah banner was simply displayed in solidarity for the Shiite militia sacrificing on their behalf.
Similarly, when told about the latest development, a source in Washington speculated that the hybrid tank could have been delivered to the facility by militiamen acting as drivers or subcontractors to the ISF. "It doesn't necessarily mean that the tank was in direct control of the militias. We simply don't know," he said.
Yet another source suggested that the overabundance of Iranian ammunition and the preference many Iraqi soldiers still have for Russian-origin machine guns may have triggered an ad hoc rigging of the US tank for purposes of convenience.
US Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, declined comment on the reported hybrid Abrams MBT or on the constitution of forces in the Amber Zone, referring all queries to the Combined Joint Task Force at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.
There, US Sgt. Vanessa Kilmer referred Defense News to CJTF's Media Ops Center, where, after 24 hours, detailed questions submitted to Sgt. First Class Eric Rodriguez were returned with "no additional information on this subject" and a recommendation to contact the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
A US State Department official said he would need more information to determine whether Iraq could or should be held accountable for any end-use violations.
"We have made clear that the coalition will only support Iraqi efforts against ISIL that are under clear ISF command and control. We have received assurances from the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use US equipment in accordance with US law and our bilateral agreements," the official said.
Section 40A of the US Arms Export Control Act mandates two forms of end use monitoring (EUM): the Blue Lantern program managed by the State Department and the Golden Sentry program delegated to the Pentagon's Defense Security and Cooperation Agency.
The former focuses on pre-checks before an export license is granted and post-checks to determine that the designated materiel has reached intended end users. The latter, managed by primarily by the Pentagon's in-country security assistance officers aims to ensure that recipients are using the equipment properly as stipulated in various government-to-government agreements.
"Our mandate to conduct assessments in-country and to visit military installations is agreed upon by the Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA), which have notes and provisos that commit the recipients to proper end-use assurances," a Pentagon official told Defense News in an interview two years ago.
At the time, the Pentagon official said DSCA works in concert with the State Department "in order to try to bring a united front from a US government perspective."
Retired Israel Air Force Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said he would not be surprised if Hezbollah forces in Iraq or even Syria had access to frontline American MBTs. "It's not surprising, because the Iraqi Army and the Shia militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and some American Special Forces are now fighting against the same enemy," Yadlin said.
When asked if Abrams tanks in the hands of Hezbollah or other Iranian-controlled militias posed a concern to Israel, the former fighter pilot replied: "The dream of every Israeli helicopter pilot is to see this kind of vehicle against the background of the bare desert."
Joe Gould reported from Washington and Awad Mustafa reported from Dubai.