Tuesday, 27 December 2011




Sarkis Soghanalian obituary

World's largest private arms dealer for more than two decades

Sarkis Soghanalian
Sarkis Soghanalian leaving a Florida court in 1991. Photograph: BILL COOKE/AP
For a man who lived his life in the shadowy, secret world of arms deals and spooks, Sarkis Soghanalian, who has died aged 82, never stopped talking. About his deals, his connections. To government agents, prosecutors and journalists. In private, on television. Often to keep out or get out of jail. Most of what he said, while well informed, was self-serving; much of it was difficult to prove and some was hard to believe.
Over two decades, Soghanalian was the world's largest private arms dealer – involved in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Angola, the Iran-Iraq war. A short, rotund figure, Soghanalian revelled in being described as "the merchant of death".

"That name does not bother me a bit," he explained.

He was also a long-time asset of the CIA, FBI and other US government agencies. He was a "cut-out" with "plausible deniability" on covert arms deals where the US did not want its fingerprints to be found. He supplied arms to Anastasio Somoza, fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and to Saddam Hussein, for deployment against Iran. He was an informant providing valuable intelligence. "You listen with your mouth and you talk with your ears," he explained. His Washington contacts were a get-out-of-jail card when deals went bad – to pull strings with judges and prosecutors.

Soghanalian was a Lebanese citizen – he was born in Iskenderun, Turkey, but his Armenian family later moved to Beirut. He emigrated to the US in 1958 and ran a garage before returning to Lebanon. He became the agent for Colt, makers of the M16 rifle.

During Lebanon's civil war, Soghanalian supplied the Christian militias and began his association with the CIA. He worked with Félix Rodríguez, the Cuban exile agent involved in tracking down Che Guevara in Bolivia, and Edwin Wilson, the renegade agent turned arms trafficker who supplied Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. "It takes a special type of character to make a successful arms dealer," Soghanalian said. "You need to enjoy taking risks. Trust and reputation mean everything. But if you want to stay alive, you have to keep your angels happy. You cannot afford to have governments on the other side of the fence. You must know who's going to be happy and unhappy."

With too many unhappy people in Beirut, Soghanalian relocated to Miami. He portrayed himself as a devout anti-communist. "I never sold arms to anybody on the left," he claimed in 2000 – after it emerged that he had armed the Farc rebels in Colombia. To help himself, and Somoza, Soghanalian defrauded the British arms dealer John Ralph in 1977 over $1.15m (about £640,000) paid to supply Mauritania in west Africa – fighting the Polisario insurgents – with machine guns. The guns went instead to Nicaragua. The rest of the money repaid Soghanalian's debts.

"He's not some sleazy, fly-by-night gun runner. He certainly is known to high officials of our government," Soghanalian's lawyer had declared in 1978 – the year he attended a White House dinner. Just how well connected Soghanalian was would become clear.

Ralph filed a criminal complaint but no action was taken until 1981 when Soghanalian was indicted for fraud. A year later, a highly unusual plea bargain saw him sentenced to five years' probation. The judge explained that the case "involved international affairs conducted by the state department".

Soghanalian supplied Exocet missiles to Argentina, which were later used in the Falklands conflict to sink HMS Sheffield. "The Americans knew what I was doing, every minute, every hour," he claimed on US TV in 2001.

His biggest deals, more than $1.5bn, were with Saddam, during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran from 1980. The US supposedly banned the selling of arms to both sides. Soghanalian claimed he was encouraged by the Reagan administration, but dropped when expendable. He was indicted in 1987 for conspiring to supply helicopters to Iraq. Described by the prosecutor as "a con-man, a master manipulator", Soghanalian was convicted in 1991 but, once again, help was at hand. In 1993, his six-and-a-half-year sentence was slashed to two, and he was released – in return for information on a counterfeit US currency scam in Lebanon. "When they needed me, the US government that is, they immediately came and got me out," he explained in 2001. "I can produce the intelligence information they need."

Banned from US arms deals and owing the US taxman $30m, Soghanalian moved to France, then Jordan. In 1999 he was arrested on arrival in Miami over a $3m cheque fraud. But again, the arms dealer had information to trade. He was released on bail after 10 months.

Soghanalian always claimed never to act against US interests – despite dealing with Libya – but earlier, in 1999, had supplied 10,000 AK47s to the Farc in a deal set up by the Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, a CIA ally. The agency believed the guns were going to Peru. The US was funding Colombia's war against the Farc. Montesinos went to jail in Peru. Because of his "substantial assistance to law enforcement", a 2001 plea bargain saw Soghanalian sentenced to the time served for the cheque fraud, plus three years' supervised release.

By 2008 Soghanalian, in poor health, was living in a low-rent Miami neighbourhood but still being visited by FBI officials, still looking to do deals, still talking. When he died, the man who once had several private jets was "broke", according to his son, Garo, who survives him, along with a daughter, Melo.

Sarkis Garabet Soghanalian, arms dealer, born 6 February 1929; died 5 October 2011

Sarkis Soghanalian

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Sarkis Soghanalian
Born Սարգիս Սողանալեան
February 6, 1929
Iskanderun, French Mandate Syria
Died October 5, 2011 (aged 82)
Hialeah, Florida
Known for Convictions for traffic arms, conspiracy of shipping unauthorized weapons
Sarkis Garabet Soghanalian (Armenian: Սարգիս Սողանալեան; February 6, 1929 – October 5, 2011), nicknamed Merchant of Death, was an international private arms dealer who gained fame for being the "Cold War's largest arms merchant"[1] and the lead seller of firearms and weaponry to the former government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.[2]
Soghanalian, then a permanent resident living in Virginia Gardens, Florida, was hired on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency to sell arms to help Iraq in the midst of the Iran–Iraq War.[3] With the encouragement of the Reagan Administration and the backing of US intelligence agencies, he oversaw the transaction of several significant arms deals, including the sale of artillery from France (at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion USD).
In addition to Iraq, he also sold weapons to groups such as the Polisario forces in Mauritania, the Phalange militia during the Lebanese Civil War, to Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador, and to Argentina during the Falklands War.[1] He extended his services to other regions of the world including Africa. Prior to the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, Soghanalian appeared in several television interviews, explaining detail the work he had done in Iraq, along with naming several top US government officials who were involved in the arms transactions.
With this, the Justice Department charged Soghanalian for "conspiracy of shipping unauthorized weapons" to Iraq where he was found guilty and sentenced to jail.[4] He was released several years later when he helped the Clinton administration unsuccessfully break up a counterfeiting ring in Lebanon. He moved his office from the United States and opened up operations in France and Jordan. In 2001, was arrested once more by the US government on bank fraud charges but was released a year later after he revealed the weapons transactions deals that were going on between CIA and Peru, an account which arguably led to the collapse of the Alberto Fujimori government.[4]

Early life

Soghanalian was born to an Armenian family in what was then French mandate Syria Iskanderun (now modern Turkey). In late 1939, his family moved to Lebanon. Due to the poor economic conditions his family lived in at the time, he decided to drop out of high school and joined the French Army and served in a tank division. It was from his experience in the military that brought him into the world of weaponry and, in his words, he "adapted to it from childhood and kept going."[1]
Soghanalian later took up a job as a ski instructor in Lebanon, where he met and married his American wife.[citation needed]

Initial arms deals


Soghanalian was introduced to the arms trade in the beginning of the 1970s. He sold his first consignment of firearms in 1973, mainly consisting of American weaponry (the Lebanese military had largely been armed by the United States). However, he was soon able to procure weaponry from a multitude of Eastern bloc countries including Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland.[1] The arms consisted largely of small arms and infantry weapons. After the civil war, he moved his arms operations to other countries, supplying the Christian Phalange militia in Lebanon, various factions in Ecuador Mauritania and Nicaragua, Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire, an American C-130 Hercules transport plane to Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Argentina military in the Falklands War, until moving on to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.[1]


According to Soghanalian, the United States was fully aware of his operations when he moved on to Iraq: "The Americans knew what I was doing, every minute, every hour. If I drank a glass of water, they were aware of it and what kind of water it was."[1] He had built a largely amiable relationship with the United States ever since it landed a contingent of Marines in Lebanon in 1958.[5] American intelligence officials had described him as a cooperative and reliable source in Lebanon, making him an ideal candidate to conduct the arms deal with Iraq.[6] With the beginning of the Iran–Iraq War in 1980, he began to sell weapons to Iraq with the blessing of the United States. Since there was an arms embargo placed against Iraq, the weapons were funneled through various countries. His most significant deal came with the sale of several French 155mm self-propelled howitzers that cost an estimated $1.4 billion.[7]
Iraqi leaders had initially approached the Reagan administration to purchase American 175mm artillery, but were turned down. They were, however, encouraged by American officials to procure the weapons through private arms dealers.[7] The Iraqis in 1981 appealed to Soghanalian, then based in Miami, Florida, who in turn approached several European governments. He found French leader François Mitterrand well-disposed to conducting the transaction so long as the deal was kept secret, since Iran was holding French hostages at the time, and thus France did not wish to antagonize it further. The U.S. encouraged Mitterrand to approve the sale, titled "Vulcan", as it passed through a complex set of transactions.[8]
Soghanalian defended the sales when they were revealed on the eve of the Gulf War in January 1991. He stated that, "We didn't give him those weapons to fight U.S. forces. The weapons were given to him to fight the common enemy [Iran] at that time. Which he did. There was no need to have direct confrontation with him and endanger American troops."[1] His other transactions to Iraq also included artillery from South Africa, which he routed through Austria as a "middle man," to bypass United Nations sanctions.[9] Soghanalian helped sell to the Iraqi army military uniforms worth $280,000,000 from Romania.[1]
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Soghanalian stated that top-level American officials were aware from the beginning of his deals in Iraq. These included former U.S. President Richard Nixon, former Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Nixon's chief of staff Colonel Jack Brennan and attorney general John N. Mitchell. Encouraged by other senior officials, Nixon had written a letter on behalf of him to expedite the sale of the uniforms to Iraq. He continued on to say that "They were not only in the uniform business. They would sell their mothers if they could, just to make the money."[9] Soghanalian also predicted that the ensuing war between Coalition troops and Iraq would turn into a lengthy and costly conflict, much like the Iran–Iraq War. This assertion ultimately proved incorrect as Coalition troops rapidly ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait in February 1991.

Arrest and conviction

Soghanalian's testimony exposed the role of American government officials in the illicit arms trade. The United States Congress however stated that his revelations had been found to be "extremely disturbing to every American. They are disturbing to Mr. Soghanalian. He gives a first-hand description of official and unofficial American involvement in the enormous buildup of arms to Saddam Hussein."[9]
His testimony led to the George H. W. Bush administration open criminal charges against him in 1991. He was convicted on six counts for possession of armament and intent to sell to Iraq. The weapons included 103 helicopter gunships from the Hughes Helicopters corporation and two rocket-propelled grenade launchers from a 1983 deal.[1] A year later, he was fined $20,000 and sentenced to six years in prison. However, in 1993 his sentence was reduced to two years. Although the exact reasons remain unknown, his attorney stated that Soghanalian had given intelligence to U.S. law-enforcement officials that led them to an unsuccessful attempt to break up a $100 billion counterfeiting operation in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. In 1995, after he was released, he moved to France and opened offices there and in Amman, Jordan.[citation needed]


In 1999 Soghanalian arranged for an air drop of 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles, originally from East Germany and Jordan, intended for use by the Peruvian government but most of it fell into the possession of the Colombian leftist guerrilla organization FARC, which were opposed to the US-backed government of Colombia.[10] Soghanalian had been able to purchase the rifles for $55 apiece in addition to a $20 transportation, and "shipping and handling" fee. Several months later, it was revealed that the CIA had backed the deal to arm Peruvian intelligence head Vladimiro Montesinos.[1]

Legacy and death

Though reputed for his role in the global arms trade, Soghanalian also used his resources to dispatch 26 planes to deliver humanitarian relief to the Soviet Union in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit Spitak, Armenia in 1988.[11] For his efforts, President George H. W. Bush described him as an individual who “strengthened the ties that unite mankind,” while Mother Teresa wrote him a letter, stating that God would reward him and his family's efforts a "hundredfold."[11]
Soghanalian died on October 5, 2011 at the Hialeah Hospital in Hialeah, Florida.[11]

Inspiration for Lord of War

The main character of the 2005 film Lord of War was Yuri Orlov, a fictional international arms trader during the 1980s and 1990s. The character, a US-raised Ukrainian, was a composite of at least five real life arms dealers, including Soghanalian.[12]

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