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Sarkis G. Soghanalian, 82; major arms dealer aided US

SARKIS SOGHANALIAN SARKIS SOGHANALIAN (bill cooke/AP/file 1991)
By Scott Shane
New York Times / October 8, 2011

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NEW YORK - Sarkis G. Soghanalian, a larger-than-life arms dealer who provided weapons to Saddam Hussein and many other dictators and rebels, worked closely with US intelligence, and later told his story on television, died early Wednesday in Hialeah, Fla. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure suffered at Hialeah Hospital, said his son, Garo. He lived in Miami.

In a career that might have provided material for a shelf of thrillers, Mr. Soghanalian became a major arms supplier to Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, operated a fleet of cargo planes, and owned houses in a dozen countries.

In 1981, he pleaded guilty to fraud in the sale of .50-caliber machine guns to Mauritania. But a judge granted him probation, saying the case “involved international affairs conducted by the State Department.’’

In 1993, he was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for smuggling 103 helicopters to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions. But he managed to have his sentence reduced to two years after informing US officials of a place in Lebanon where high-quality counterfeit $100 bills were being printed.

Mr. Soghanalian was charged with wire fraud a few years later. But he was released after being held for 10 months in order to travel to Jordan to assist in another investigation, of the former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos. In return for his help, a judge sentenced him to the time he had already served.

He worked with the CIA off and on for years; after a falling out with that agency, he cooperated with the FBI, drawing on information about the dark corners of the global arms trade, said Lowell Bergman, professor of investigative reporting at the University of California, Berkeley, and an acquaintance of his for more than 30 years.

“He’s one of those characters who emerged out of the Cold War and played a critical role in clandestine activities on behalf of the United States, while providing deniability,’’ said Bergman, a reporter who produced reports about Mr. Soghanalian for ABC, the PBS program “ Frontline ,’’ and “60 Minutes’’ on CBS .

Bergman recalled sitting in Mr. Soghanalian’s Geneva office for a day in 1985, watching as a parade of US officials, Israelis, Palestinians, and representatives of Lebanon’s Amal militia visited Mr. Soghanalian.

After he settled in Florida in the 1990s, US Customs officials would occasionally raid his hangar at Miami International Airport, looking for contraband, Bergman said.

“And then the case would go away,’’ he said, as Mr. Soghanalian called on friends in the government to come to his defense.

“He could be infuriating and totally self-absorbed,’’ said Bergman, who has also reported for The New York Times. “What was always amazing was how much he knew.’’

A US official who worked with Mr. Soghanalian years ago confirmed his work with both the CIA and the FBI. The official said he recalled sitting with Mr. Soghanalian and listening as he called US senators, members of Jordan’s royal family, and leaders of Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based militant group.

“They’d all take his calls,’’ said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about his former contact. “You’d find out he was telling you the truth, even if he was kind of gilding it in his favor.’’

Despite his long history of supplying weapons to brutal governments, the official said, “he was able to do good things for the United States.’’

Sarkis Garabet Soghanalian was born in Iskenderun, then part of Syria but now in Turkey, into an Armenian family. After his father’s death, the family moved to Beirut, where Sarkis quit school and went to work, said his daughter, Melo Hansen. He married Shirley Adams, a teacher at a school in Beirut, in 1958.

They were divorced in the 1970s.

His son said that Mr. Soghanalian was fluent in English, French, Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic and “could make himself understood’’ in Spanish and Italian.

“There’s been enough said about ‘merchant of death’ and all that,’’ his son said. “But all the way back to the ’60s and ’70s, his goal was to help the United States. There was a deep-seated root of patriotism that often gets overlooked.’’

Mr. Soghanalian was a citizen of Lebanon and never took US citizenship, his son said. “He liked to be independent, and it gave the US an element of denial: ‘He’s not one of ours.’ ’’

In addition to his son, who lives in Miami, and his daughter, who lives in Salt Lake City, Mr. Soghanalian leaves a sister, Anahis Hartz; a brother, Zaven; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Despite the wealth his arms sales produced, the end of the Cold War cut off many of his business contacts, his son said. “The world changed around him,’’ Garo Soghanalian said. By the time of his death, “he was broke.’’