Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Iraqi arms deals spark debate

Vast weapons deals agreed by Iraq with Russia and the Czech Republic have led to controversy over the country's intentions, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq's Shia-led government has concluded two massive weapons deals with Russia and the Czech Republic in an attempt to revamp the Iraqi military's capabilities, destroyed after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

The deals, signed during visits by Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to Moscow and Prague this month, raised questions about Baghdad's military cooperation with Washington following last year's US troop withdrawal and the future of American weapons sales to Iraq.

The deals have also alarmed Iraq's Kurds, who are suspicious of Baghdad's intentions, and they have created a backlash against Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's bid to end the country's lingering governmental crisis.

The deals also provoked Iraq's powerful neighbour Turkey, at loggerheads with Baghdad over Ankara's incursions into northern Iraq, its ties with the Kurds, and its position on the Syrian uprising.

Under the deal with Moscow, Iraq will buy attack helicopters and surface-to-air missile systems worth $4.2 billion. Discussions are said to be under way for Iraq to buy Russian-made MiG-29 jets, heavy armoured vehicles and other weaponry.

The sales will make Russia, the main supplier of arms to Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein, the country's second-biggest arms supplier after the United States.

Iraq has also agreed to buy 24 Czech-made subsonic L-159 military airplanes and another four secondhand planes from Czech military stockpiles in a deal worth $1 billion. The first used plane should be delivered half a year after the signing of the agreement and all the new planes should be handed over to Iraq within four years.

The agreement also foresees Czech army experts training Iraqi personal.

The two deals came less than two weeks after Iranian Defence Minister Ahmed Wahidi said he had signed a defense pact with his Iraqi counterpart during a visit to Baghdad. The agreement, which includes weaponry and technology, is expected to boost bilateral military cooperation between Iran and Iraq.

Iraq has been rebuilding its army since the end of the US-led occupation in December.

With nearly one million men under arms, more than 50 divisions, a powerful airforce and missile capabilities, Iraq's military under Saddam Hussein was dubbed the world's fourth largest.

Iraq's new military has about half a million men, but its competence has been questioned and it lacks the weaponry to defend the country against foreign threats.

Al-Maliki's government has signed more than 400 military sales with the United States worth more $12.3 billion, including the purchase of 96 F-16 jet fighters. Under the agreements, Washington should start delivery by next year, but the Pentagon has now postponed this to 2014-15.

Word of the deals with Russia and the Czech Republic comes amid increasing demands by the Obama administration that Iraq halt Iranian weapons airlifts from reaching Syria. Washington also wants Baghdad to stop helping Iran skirt sanctions imposed on Tehran because of the Iranian nuclear programme.

Several US congressmen have urged the Obama administration to halt the US weapons supplies until the Iraqi government changes its behaviour, including its relationships with Iran and Syria.

Some argue that the new deals are likely to pave the way for a possible new alliance between Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East.

For Iraq, the deals with Russia and the Czech Republic have been a clear message that it has been discomforted by the delay of the F-16 jet fighters and that it wants to diversify its weapons purchases beyond Washington.

Before his trip to Moscow, Al-Maliki said he did not want Iraq to be "part of someone else's [arms export] monopoly. We buy weapons based on the needs that we feel we have," he said.

Internally, Al-Maliki's opponents have lambasted his new arms-purchase policy. The Kurdish Alliance voiced concerns over the purchases and demanded guarantees that the new supplies would not be used against the Kurds and that their Peshmergas paramilitary forces should be included in them.

The Kurds feel threatened by the new weapons supplies to the Baghdad-controlled Iraqi army, believing that new arms in the hands of Al-Maliki would pose a threat to their historic dream of independence, further promoted when the Syrian crisis erupted.

These suspicions were reinforced after Iraqi media quoted Al-Maliki as saying that his government wanted weapons that could be used by the Iraqi army "to fight terrorism in both the mountainous and the desert areas."

Mouayad Al-Tayab, a Kurdish lawmaker, accused the government of signing clandestine deals with other countries.

The Kurds have always demanded that the Baghdad government recognise the Peshmergas forces and give them legal status. Baghdad has refused to do so because it considers the Peshmergas to be local forces.

In April, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani warned that "Kurdistan's future is in severe danger because of al-Maliki," alleging that the latter had discussed using F-16s against Kurdistan during a meeting with military officers.

"The F-16s should not reach the hands of this man [Al-Maliki]," Barzani was quoted as saying by AFP.

One of the fears Kurds have is that the Russians and the Czechs did not put pre-conditions on the sales, as the US did, not to use these weapons in internal disputes and in offensive operations inside Iraq.

In July, Barzani told Al-Jazeera that the Kurds would be obliged to "target" government fighters so that they could not reach Kurdistan. "In fact, for us F-16s are not different from MIG-19s or MIG-21s. We have seen them being used against us," he said.

The Kurds have also objected to efforts by the government to bring back officers from the old army, accusing them of being Baath Party loyalists.

Yassin Majid, a top aide to Al-Maliki, accused Barzani of campaigning to block foreign countries from selling arms to Iraq. "His [Barzani's] objection to the Russian deal proves he doesn't want Iraq to have a strong army. He wants to keep the Peshmergas stronger at the expense of Baghdad," Majid told reporters on Sunday, adding that Barzani "poses a great danger to Iraq."

The comments drew fire from Iraq's Kurdish President Talabani, who accused Majid of trying to sabotage reconciliation efforts. "This is provocative, and it smells of warmongering against Barzani," Talabani said in a statement, urging the Shia Alliance to which Majid belongs to retract the "reckless statement".

The comments came against the backdrop of a nearly one-year-old political crisis in the country after the Kurds and the main Sunni bloc Al-Iraqiya accused Al-Maliki of failing to implement a power-sharing agreement that cleared the way for his government after 2010's inconclusive elections.

Al-Maliki seems to have consolidated his image as an Iraqi strongman despite mounting criticism and dissent. Over the last seven years, he has managed to outmanoeuvre his rivals and divide political groups, allowing him to sidestep domestic challenges.

Now, however, by using Iraq's vast oil resources he is seeking to establish himself as a strong leader abroad as well by using international and Middle Eastern divisions over Iraq, Syria, Iran and other regional conflicts.

A little point of clarification

An article on this page on 16 August about Iraq's foreign policy, referred to a statement by Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari given to the Le Monde. The reference to the Le Monde interview came out in July on several Kurdistan and Iraqi websites in both English and Arabic including:

- Kurdistan Tribune: "Hoshyar Zebari advocates a Kurdish state"

- Alaazadi: "Its an honour to be foreign minister of an independent Kurdish state"

- Shababek: "Kurds have full right to have a Kurdish state and I will be honoured to be its foreign minister"

- Sotaliraq: "Zebari: Kurds have the right to set up their independent state and I will be proud to be its foreign minister"

- Buratha: "In interview with Le Monde: Zebari, I am a Kurdish minister in the Arabs' government"

However, there have been no records that Zebari has denied the statement neither the reference to Le Monde in all articles carried by Kurdish or Iraqi websites.

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