The string of arms deals concluded by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Moscow and Prague has raised a number of questions concerning the future of Iraqi-American relations, as well as concerns regarding the practicality of contracts signed during a period of extraordinary regional instability. Has Iraq returned to the arms market of the former Eastern Bloc? Or is this just a message to Washington that Iraq will not remain under a US arms embargo?
The backlash continues over Iraq’s arms deals with Russia and the Czech Republic, and the purported relationship between these moves and regional political alignments. Questions are being posed regarding how these these moves relate to the confrontation between the Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis and its rivals inside the Middle East and in the international community. Although Iraqi-Russian dialogue has extended to oil contracts and economic deals more broadly, relations between the two countries are primarily limited to arms deals, and the military component has dominated Maliki’s trip abroad. This might signal Iraq’s serious desire to break the US arms embargo.
What do the two agreed-upon packages contain?
According to recently released information, Iraq has signed a $4 billion agreement to purchase helicopters and an air defense system from Moscow. In addition, Iraqi officials have also agreed to a $1 billion dollar deal to purchase training and combat aircraft from the Czechs. Maliki’s State of Law coalition justified the two deals as mandated by Iraq’s need for defensive (but not offensive) weaponry. But security officials say that Iraq’s main need lies elsewhere: strengthening its intelligence capabilities and refining the operations of its existing security forces.
One official, Sa’id al-Jayashi, says that the war on terrorism is primarily a war of information, based on effective intelligence gathering and the element of surprise. Iraqi forces continue to lack both, after suffering numerous breaches within their ranks. In Jayashi’s view, ending chronic infiltration and corruption within the security forces is urgent to enable the forces to function under set standards of security, trustworthiness and discretion.
An operational leader in one of Iraq’s governorates who chose to speak on condition of anonymity stated the following: “Tanks or planes can’t fight al-Qaeda or armed gangs.” He added that “when a tank passes through a ‘hot’ street, or a warplane flies over that same street, it doesn’t halt the activities of armed gangs hiding among the local population.” He further stressed that there is a pressing need for strengthening intelligence capabilities in order to provide precise information to the security forces concerning major operations, so that they do not degenerate into random campaigns of arrest.
Government officials have also noted a need for more advanced devices to detect explosives, along with better training of security forces. Most security officers lack training, and are simply thrown into the street unprepared.
The arms deals for war planes and tanks have raised concerns among a number of political factions, above all the Kurds. They have renewed their objection to arms deals signed by the central government without consulting the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), viewing it as an omen of an emerging dictatorship. They are calling for the inclusion of KRG security forces (the Peshmerga) in Iraq's arms contracts. Muayyid Tayyib, a member of parliament and spokesman for the Kurdish Coalition, revealed recently that the Kurds are very worried by the arms deals with Russia and the Czech Republic, and are suspicious that other deals that have been concluded but not yet announced by the central government. Tayyib says the Kurds demand the disclosure of these agreements and that the secrecy surrounding them be dispelled.
The arms deals Iraq has concluded with Moscow and Prague have broken the US's lock on arming the Iraqi security establishment with US and Western weapons. Since 2003, the US has armed the Iraqi Army and police force; prior to 2003, Russia and Eastern Europe had been Iraq's almost sole suppliers. Iraq has purchased weapons for its military and law enforcement agencies through arms deals with the US known as the FMS, which are contracts that extend well into the future.
The latest weapons deals with Moscow and Prague are the largest arms deals concluded by Iraq with a non-Western country. Member of parliament Ashur Saleh from Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya party believes that these deals have raised the US government's ire. He believes the US will not permit Iraq to finalize the purchases of these weapons, particularly heavy weapons.
Many observers believe that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s latest arms-related visit signaled to Washington that Iraq will not remain under a US arms embargo that is inconsistent with his desire to equip Iraqi security forces as rapidly as possible. Minutes before departing for Russia from the Baghdad airport, Maliki announced that agreements with the US to provide arms to the Iraqi Army were still in effect, and that any arms contracts that would be concluded with Russia would not mean nullifying these agreements. On the contrary, he stressed the need for deals to be implemented rapidly for the sake of the war on terror, indicating his displeasure with the conditions that Washington has set on delivering American weapons to Baghdad.
Maliki confidants privately acknowledge their dissatisfaction with the US's delays in supplying arms to the Iraqi Army. Washington often postpones target dates for weapon deliveries under pre-negotiated contracts and imposes conditions on the use of these weapons. The F-16 package is generally considered the best example of this sluggishness. The Iraqi government concluded a deal in 2009 to purchase 36 F-16s, under which Washington agreed to deliver the first batch in March 2011. The delivery has been postponed until 2013 due to concerns by various political parties. So far, none of the planes have been delivered.
Observers have linked these events with a visit initiated by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro to Baghdad only a few days after Maliki's return. Some interpret this trip as an expression of US reservations regarding the the deals signed by Maliki. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry reported that Shapiro met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and said that the US is comitted to improving the defensive and technological capabilities of Iraq's security forces, and that, in accordance with US law, bilateral contracts between two countries would be honored. Shapiro did not meet with Maliki.
Meanwhile the spokesperson for the US State Department, Victoria Nuland, refrained from commenting on reports that focused on the military character of Maliki's trip to Moscow. "Iraq overall has initiated some 467 foreign military sales cases with the United States. If all of these go forward, it will be worth over $12.3 billion, so obviously our own military support relationship with Iraq is very broad and very deep," she said.
In the view of many experts, the US is responsible for any jolt to Iraq's emerging democracy and understands the fears that the security forces and their arms could be used in domestic fighting, as under Saddam Hussein. He used the army to quell popular uprisings in southern Iraq in 1991 and in the northern region in 1988. As a result, Washington is looking for credible Iraqi guarantees.
In contrast to the US, Russia does not believe there is any harm in selling arms without preconditions, especially when the indicators of the global arms market portend a decline in Russian arms sales. Iraqi politicians and representatives accuse Russia of nefarious intentions in its arming of states. Meanwhile observers have argued that the timing of Iraq's rapprochement with Russia and signs of Moscow mending its historic ties with Baghdad are inextricably tied to current regional circumstances, and especially developments in Syria. These have greatly encouraged the revival of an erstwhile, volatile relationship.
As far as their positions on the Syrian crisis and their proposed solutions, Iraq and Russia have adopted compatible positions. By contrast, Iraq’s posture cannot be reconciled with Washington's stance on the region. Indeed, this represents a low point in the relationship between the two countries. Iraq harbors many fears for what comes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is intensely preoccupied with fears that Islamist extremists would take the reins of power in Syria. According to those with close ties to the Iraqi government, this intensifies the need to support Iraq's security forces as they seek to defend the country from any possible confrontation.
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