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Lieutenant General Frank Helmick was a decorated U.S. Army officer. In 2004, he led the raid that killed the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s murderous sons, Uday and Qusay. Later, Helmick commanded NATO’s training mission in Iraq, then spent a year as Deputy Commanding Officer of all American forces in the country.
But in December 2011, the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq. A few months later, after 36 years in the Army, Helmick retired, too. At the ceremony, then-CIA Director David Petraeus called him an “exceptional officer.”
Since then, Helmick’s actions have won him fewer accolades. By the end of 2012, he was back in Iraq. The war had privatized and Helmick privatized with it.
After the American withdrawal, Iraq had a gold rush. Billions of dollars of leftover U.S. military equipment was free for the taking and huge contracts were available as the country struggled to rebuild. Helmick used his contacts to take advantage of this. He joined a military contractor that struck deals with Iraqi oligarchs who are steeped in corruption and have at least superficial ties to some notorious Iranian operatives.
Some might say that’s just the price of doing business in Iraq over the last few years, but that doesn’t make the business any less ugly.
In late 2012, Helmick became Vice President of SOS International LLC (SOSi). At that time, SOSi was a small family-owned company focused on translation and training, and Helmick, as the saying goes, was a rainmaker.
A retired general joining a military contracting company isn’t unusual. But many former high-ranking officials cash out simply by joining the board of a large company, earning tens of thousands to attend meetings and lobby old friends. Helmick, for his part, took a more hands-on role than his retired peers, overseeing SOSi’s “Mission Solutions Group” and managing the company’s Iraq work.
His qualifications were obvious. As one former SOSi employee told us, “Helmick was hired specifically for his contacts in Iraq.”
“I went to see my old buddies.”— Retired Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick interviewed by Human Events, 2012
Before Helmick joined SOSi, the company had never received a large government security or logistics contract, according to government contract databases.
Since Helmick signed on, SOSi has won nearly $2 billion in base protection contracts in Iraq and expanded into commercial work. But the deals Helmick helped to make have the potential to land SOSi in legal trouble.
A Government Accountability Project investigation for The Daily Beast uncovered substantive ties between SOSi, an Iraqi oligarch who has been linked to Iranian terrorist networks, and a criminal group backed by Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. All these connections were developed after Helmick joined the company.
The FBI is conducting interviews relevant to at least one of the resulting deals, according to sources who were questioned by federal agents about SOSi activities.
The FBI declined to comment and Helmick did not respond to our inquiries.
Although we submitted detailed questions to SOSi regarding every aspect of this story and allowed weeks to respond, the company declined to address most of the specific issues raised:
“The business of SOSi is to support critical activities of the United States government—often in hostile and dangerous environments,” SOSi said in a statement. “The company has been a federal contractor for more than 30 years and has effectively served the U.S. military in Iraq since 2003. In performing this work, SOSi consistently complies with all U.S. and applicable foreign laws. The company likewise carries out extensive programs to ensure that its employees do the same, while also observing the highest professional and ethical standards. … SOSi has no knowledge and is aware of no credible evidence to suggest the existence of any investigation of the company by any federal law enforcement agency.”
Helmick joined SOSi with an important relationship: he knew Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally.
In December 2012, Helmick met with al-Maliki on SOSi’s behalf, according to an interview he gave to the conservative website Human Events. “When I was [in Iraq], I had the opportunity to speak to Prime Minister Maliki, who I have a great relationship with,” said Helmick. “It was Julian Setian, the [SOSi] CEO and myself, and we sat down for 45 minutes.”
Helmick also met with other high level Iraqi officials. “I went to see all these guys because I do have pretty good relationships with many of the senior Iraqis,” Helmick said. “I went to see my old buddies.”
Helmick said in the Human Events interview that al-Maliki told him Iraq was open for business.
At that time, doing business in Iraq meant working with al-Maliki’s people.
A key figure in al-Maliki’s orbit is an oligarch named Essam al-Asadi. Several diplomatic and intelligence officials spoke on background about al-Asadi’s connections to al-Maliki, summed up by one source as “extensive and deep.” And by late 2012, al-Asadi and SOSi were working together, thanks to Helmick.
Al-Asadi also has at least a passing acquaintance with some of the shadier characters in al-Maliki’s orbit, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was sanctioned as a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department. The Daily Beast obtained photos of a 2015 meeting among al-Asadi, al-Maliki, and al-Muhandis.
Al-Muhandis is an advisor to Qassem Soleimani, the infamous commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was blamed for many deadly attacks on Americans and is now preparing for a proxy war against the United States. In 1983, as part of the Iranian backed campaign against Saddam Hussein and his allies during the Iran-Iraq war, al-Muhandis allegedly helped bomb the American and French embassies in Kuwait and in 1985 tried to assassinate the emir of that country.
Today, al-Muhandis is the operational commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, a predominantly Shia, quasi-governmental paramilitary network that formed to fight the so-called Islamic State after the virtual collapse of much of the American-trained Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014.
Al-Muhandis also commands Kata’ib Hizbollah, a Shia militia in Iraq accused of war crimes by Amnesty International, including torturing and murdering Iraqi Sunnis. The group also has killed American and coalition forces in Iraq. In 2015, Kata’ib Hizbollah kidnapped and ransomed 26 members of the Qatari royal family.
Al-Asadi and al-Muhandis may have no financial ties or working relationship, but as the photograph suggests, they travel in the same al-Maliki circles.
Essam al-Asadi’s ties to another terror-linked figure are clearer. Al-Asadi has a business relationship with a banker facing Treasury Department sanctions, Aras Karim Habib, who allegedly helped finance the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In 2004 the CIA reportedly believed Habib was a paid agent of Iran, working closely with the late financier and politician Ahmed Chalabi to draw the U.S. into Iraq. Habib has denied the charges.
Habib now runs Al-Bilad Islamic Bank, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018 because of very specific allegations stating “Aras Habib, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Al-Bilad Islamic Bank” had been “assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force].”
The Treasury Department went on to say that Habib “enabled” the Quds Force’s “exploitation of Iraq’s banking sector to move funds from Tehran to Hizballah, jeopardizing the integrity of the Iraqi financial system. Habib, who has a history of serving as a conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Iranian-backed Iraqi groups, has also helped provide IRGC-QF financial support to Lebanese Hizballah. Al-Bilad Islamic Bank is being designated for being owned or controlled by Aras Habib.”
Put more simply, as one source told us, “His bank served as a big vehicle for facilitating the movement of money to Iran, Lebanon and Syria.”
Previously, Al-Bilad Islamic Bank held shares of Baghdad Soft Drinks Co., Pepsi’s Iraqi affiliate, which is controlled by none other than Essam al-Asadi. Aras Habib served on Baghdad Soft Drinks Co’s board. Al-Asadi’s relationship with Habib was also confirmed by four sources.
Neither Nouri al-Maliki’s office, which was sent questions via the Iraqi Embassy in Washington D.C., or al-Asadi responded to requests for comment about their relationship, business deals or connections to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
SOSi did not respond to questions about its relationship with al-Asadi and al-Maliki.
But despite al-Asadi’s unsavory associations, for SOSi, partnering with him was worth the risk.
In April 2013, al-Asadi’s network hooked SOSi up.
The Iraqi prime minister’s office awarded SOSi an exclusive land use agreement for four Iraqi military bases: Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, Forward Operating Base Hammer in Besmaya, the Umm Qasr Naval Port, and Balad Air Base. This agreement meant only SOSi, and no other contractors, could freely do business on those bases.