Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently announced an upcoming visit to Russia "seeking to revive and advance relations with the Russian Federation in both economic and commercial spheres, in addition to military assistance and satisfying the Iraqi army’s hopes of obtaining the necessary equipment.” With this visit, Moscow thus completes the third leg of its regional triangle of alliances: Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.
American and Iraqi information had indicated that “Iraqi strategic cooperation with Russia” had begun at Iran's behest, with the visit of acting Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Dulaimi. He invested around a month pursuing Baghdad-Moscow strategic military cooperation, following the expansion of Russia’s role in supporting Tehran in its conflict with the international community over the question of its nuclear program. It has also supported the Damascus regime, supplying it with weapons, equipment and expertise, as well as thwarting multiple UN Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime.
During his trip to Russia at the end of last July, the Iraqi minister was accompanied by a large military delegation. Among others, it included the staffs of Brig. Gen. Talib Shughati, head of the Counter-Terrorism Force Brig. Gen. Jabar Ubayd, the head of Air Defense and Maj. Gen. Diyaa Abd al-Jabbar, general-director of the Department of Arms and Procurement in the Ministry of Defense. During the visit, they signed an arms-deal package including an air-defense system, tanks, infantry weapons, war planes and helicopter gunships.
The Iraqi-Russian deal has been valued at over $1 billion. Given the Russians’ high asking price, the Iraqi delegation insisted on rapid delivery, owing to the “crisis situation in Syria and worsening problems in Kurdistan.”
An American military expert of Iraqi descent working in one of Washington's military academies said, “I’m surprised to see the Iraqi military leadership is resorting once again to Russian doctrine, foremost among which are Russian weapons technology that had been rendered obsolete in Iraq since 2003.” He elaborated that “Russian doctrine and weaponry is no longer acceptable in Iraqi military circles. There is a dearth of senior officers who possess positive experience with Russian weapons, particularly among the younger generations and even more so in the realm of air defense, armor and aircraft, whether helicopter or fixed-wing.”
The officer who had taken refuge in America in 2006 was not surprised that Iraq, acting under Iranian influence, had turned toward Russian weaponry. In his words, “Iranian pressure has been obvious and intense over every aspect of the Iraqi government. Arming itself with Russian weapons once again is part of Tehran’s policy of strengthening Russian influence in the region through the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis.”
It is noteworthy that, while in Russia, Defense Minister Dulaimi twice contacted Prime Minister Maliki to request the latter’s consent for extending the trip, thus making it “the longest working trip undertaken by any official in the history of the Iraqi state,” in the words of a senior source in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. He confirmed to Al-Hayat that “Iraq’s deal with Russia was initially planned not to exceed one billion dollars, but was expanded following additional deliberations among the Iraqi delegation. Moreover, it is likely to grow to over four billion dollars, after the delegation visited many arms-production sites and held meetings with representatives of local arms manufacturers as well as Russian military experts. Their interest deepened in advancing the bilateral arms relations with Iraq, within Moscow’s well known regional goals and in connection with Russia’s alliance with the regimes in Tehran and Damascus.”
According to the same source, there are “deals for fully equipped aircraft which should be signed when Maliki visits Russia. It will include 30 Mi-28 helicopters, and a number of MiG-29 combat planes.”
American weaponry and Iraq
Iraqi officials believe that the deal will “give Iraq freedom to act as an independent decision-maker, removed from US pressure,” alluding to the F-16 deal Iraq had concluded with the US. It was initially projected to deliver its first planes to Baghdad in early 2014 as part of a broader purchase of 36 planes.
Yet, documented Iraqi military sources revealed that the delivery of American F-16 planes will be delayed until 2015, claiming that “the entire deal now hinges on regional and Iraqi security developments, and it is possible that the planes will not be delivered at all.”
The same sources highlighted “US security fears that advanced American technological secrets could be leaked to states that are both hostile to Washington and widely influential in Iraq,” in a clear allusion to Iran. They elaborated that “these fears could be behind the delay in delivering the F-16s.”
The US Department of Defense and the Pentagon has handled this information as “journalistic leaks” and stressed its commitment to the timetable for delivering the arms and F-16s to Iraq. Despite these assurances, Maliki lodged three separate complaints last month regarding the delivery of arms his government had contracted for with Washington. The first came during a phone conversation with US Vice President Joseph Biden, and the latter two in separate meetings held with US officials — one from the state department, and the other with a congressional delegation.
According to Qassem al-Araji, an MP of the ruling Iraqi National Alliance, “among the guarantees requested by the US before fulfilling its end of arms packages concluded with Iraq were that the weapons would not be used to fight against the Israeli enemy. In other words, Washington wants a first-rate guarantee of Israel’s regional security.” He pointed out that “the US side is attempting to intervene in Iraqi affairs despite the presence of an elected national government that was able, after prolonged negotiations, to expel the American occupier from Iraq, which effectively abolished its authority to work toward changing this country’s policy.”
Araji added, “We will not permit the American occupation to return to Iraq under any name; its demands to refrain from striking the Zionist entity or to alter the Iraqi position on the present situation in Syria are illegitimate. These two issues are being used as leverage against Iraq due to the army’s need for weapons.” He stressed that “the Iraqi government has begun to seriously consider diversifying its sources of arms procurements for the Iraqi army, through concluding agreements with several states renowned for good, advanced weapons manufacturing. This is what we saw on Acting Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi’s visit to Russia for consultations on this matter.”
The deputy speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Kurdish leader Arif Tayfur, criticized Dulaimi’s visit to Moscow with a large military delegation, during which he sought to conclude an arms deal for purchasing heavy weapons. Tayfur drew attention to many past weapons deals concluded by previous minister Abd al-Qadir al-Ubaydi that have been tainted with corruption.
Tayfur expressed his reservations to concluding deals of such massive sums as a result of regional pressures on the government. As he put it, “we have past experiments with the former minister of defense, Abd al-Qadir al-Ubaydi, who is still in America and accused of several cases of corruption. There is an ongoing investigation involving the Commission on Integrity concerning deals for arms and military vehicles signed by the Ministry of Defense with other nations.”
It is well known that Ubaydi was dispatched to a number of countries in the former Soviet bloc after 2003, including Ukraine and Poland. There he signed deals that "integrity" investigations have shown to have been tainted by significant corruption. After this became known, Ubaydi (who had been supported by Maliki) fled to the US.
Yet the critical tone Kurds have struck toward the arms deal with Russia did not arise because of “corruption in past military deals,” but rather stems from widespread Kurdish fears of Iraqi weapons being turned against them by the central government in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdish voices have warned against “the mentality that governs Baghdad today; it barely differs from Saddam’s mentality that plunged the country into an absurd war with [our] Iranian neighbor, attacked Kuwait and waged bloody military campaigns against the Kurdish people.”
In commenting on Iraq’s arms deal with Russia, writer and researcher Jawdat Hoshyar argues that “Maliki thinks that the Kurdistan region represents an obstacle to strengthening his dictatorship after he successfully eliminated or marginalized most of those who stood in opposition to his monopolization of power and decision-making authority in the country.”
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