TRIPOLI, Libya, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Libya's $1.8 billion arms deal with Russia comes amid a major rearmament program by the leading North African states, although it is dwarfed by Algeria's $7.5 billion arrangement with Moscow in 2006.
The most contentious weapons system that Moammar Gadhafi's regime will acquire in the deal announced in Moscow Saturday is the S-300PMU2 air-defense missile, one of the most advanced in the world.
If Russia has in fact agreed to sell this to the Libyans, Iran, Israel and the United States -- an unlikely trio -- are likely to be extremely miffed.
The Russians agreed to sell Iran the S-300 in 2007 but buckled under intense U.S. and Israeli pressure, not to mention the prospect, with U.S. approval, of some tasty arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians have been complaining angrily because they want the S-300 to protect their nuclear sites from threatened attacks by Israel -- and possibly from the United States somewhere down the road.
Although Libya, for decades a U.S. adversary, poses no threat to the West any more, the Israelis, in particular, do not like to see weapons systems as formidable as the S-300 in the hands of hostile states.
According to Russia's Interfax news agency, Libya is to get two batteries of the S-300.
It will also receive 20 military aircraft -- 12-15 Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighters, four Su-30s and six Yakovlev Yak-130 combat training aircraft -- according to Russian sources.
At a cost of $1 billion, the jets account for the bulk of the Libyan purchase.
Tripoli will also get several dozen T-90 main battle tanks and upgrades for more than 140 Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which are almost obsolescent now, and other weapons systems.
During the Cold War, Libya was largely equipped with Soviet weapons, but its armed forces have received little new equipment since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and are badly in need of modernization.
The new arms contract with Moscow's state-owned arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was made possible in April 2008 when President Vladimir Putin visited Tripoli.
He wrote off Libya's Cold War debt of $4.5 billion in return for lucrative energy and arms deals.
France has sold Libya missiles and other equipment, although on a far smaller scale than Russia. But it is currently making a big pitch to sell Gadhafi 14 Dassault Rafale multirole jet fighters, patrol ships, helicopters and armored vehicles worth $5.8 billion.
Gadhafi had expected access to U.S. military equipment after he renounced terrorism and abandoned a clandestine nuclear program in 2003 in a reconciliation bid with the international community following decades of isolation.
But U.N. trade sanctions were not lifted until 2004, and Washington did not restore full diplomatic relations with Tripoli -- and remove it from its terrorism blacklist -- until 2006.
Libya's acquisitions from Russia and France underline a pattern of sizeable military acquisitions by North African states that some analysts view as a regional arms race.
The Arab states of North Africa, known as the Maghreb, began significant military upgrades in 2006. In March Algeria concluded its $7.5 billion arms package with Moscow.
Although Algeria, a stalwart Soviet client during the Cold War, was opening up to the West, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, Moscow won the contract by writing off $4.74 billion of the country's Soviet-era debt.
Soon after, Morocco, Algeria's traditional rival with whom it is locked in a decades-old dispute over the mineral-rich Western Sahara, announced it planned a major upgrade of its military.
Although short of funds, it started with a French deal to upgrade its Dassault Mirage F1 fighters. Since then Morocco, a longtime U.S. ally, has opened negotiations with France for at least one FREMM frigate.
Russia is driving to boost its ailing defense industry and to regain the influence it had in the Middle East and North Africa during the Cold War.
Moscow has delivered arms worth $2.5 billion to the United Arab Emirates and $1 billion to Kuwait in recent years.
"Russia is trying to restore some of its power in the Middle East, but its capability is limited because of the doubt about Russian technology," explained Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
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