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" and the lead seller of firearms and weaponry to the former government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.
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. With the encouragement of the Reagan Administration and the backing of US intelligence agencies, he coordinated the transaction of several crucial arms deals, including the sale of artillery from France which cost an estimated $1.4 billion USD.
In addition to Iraq, he also sold weapons to other groups such as the Polisario forces in Mauritania, to Phalange militias during the Lebanese Civil War and to Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador, and to Argentina during the Falklands War. 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, detailing 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. 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.
Soghanalian was born to an Armenian family in what is now current-day Iskanderun, 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."
Soghanalian later took up a job as a ski instructor in Lebanon, where he met and married his American wife.
Initial arms deals
With the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, Soghanalian was introduced to the arms trade. He sold his first consignment of firearms in 1973, which was mostly American weaponry since 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. Among the factions he sold to was the Christian Phalange militia. The arms consisted largely of small arms and infantry weapons. After the civil war, he moved his arms operations to other countries, supplying 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, Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War until moving on to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
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." He had built a largely amiable relationship with the United States ever since it landed a contingent of Marines in Lebanon in 1958. 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. With the beginning of the Iran–Iraq War in 1980, he began to sell weapons to Iraq with the backing of the United States. Since there was an 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.
Iraqi leaders had initially approached the Reagan administration on the purchase of American 175mm artillery, were turned down but then encouraged by American officials to procure the weapons through private arms dealers. The Iraqis turned to Soghanalian, then based in Miami, Florida in 1981, who in turn approached several European governments. He found France's leader, François Mitterrand, open to the idea so long as the deal was kept secret since Iran was holding French hostages at the time and so did not wish to risk further worsening relations with it. The U.S. encouraged Mitterrand to move forward with the sale, which was entitled "Vulcan", as it passed through a complex set of transactions.
Soghanalian defended the sales when they were revealed on the eve of the Persian 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 at that time. Which he did. There was no need to have direct confrontation with him and endanger American troops." His other transactions to Iraq also included artillery from South Africa, which he routed through Austria, acting as a "middle man" to bypass the United Nations' sanctions. Soghanalian helped sell to the Iraqi army military uniforms worth $280,000,000 from Romania.
In an interview on 60 Minutes, Soghanalian stated that top-level American officials were aware from the beginning of his deals in Iraq including former US 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." Soghanalian also predicted that the ensuing war between coalition troops and Iraq would become a lengthy and costly conflict much like the Iran–Iraq War because of the experience of Iraqi troops and the weapons it possessed; this assertion proved to be incorrect as the war "concluded within two months".
Arrest and conviction
Soghanalian's testimony damaged the reputation of many American government officials. 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."
His testimony lead to the George H. W. Bush administration open criminal charges in 1991 and convicted him 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 (RPG) launchers from a 1983 deal. 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 US law-enforcement officials which 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.
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. 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.
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.
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- Interview with Sarkis Soghanalian in 2003. Interview with Sarkis Soghanalian. Public Education Center. Retrieved April 10, 2007
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- Merchants of Death 1999 documentary that travels into the lives of the two biggest private arms dealers in the world—Sarkis Soghanalian and Samuel Cummings
- "CIA FOIA Report detailing possible arms drop from Miami, Florida"