BAGHDAD, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly flew to Moscow Monday for talks on defense and trade amid signs Russia is trying to make inroads in on Iraq's multibillion-dollar rearmament program, which has been dominated by the United States.
The word is that Baghdad, nearly a year after the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, Maliki will sign a $5 billion air-defense contract with Moscow.
It's not clear whether Baghdad's seeking to pressure Washington to speed up the delivery of arms or is genuinely seeks an alternate major power source of supply.
The reports of a deal with Moscow, which before the fall of the Soviet Union was Iraq's main's arms supplier, follow demands by Maliki in July that Washington accelerate weapons transfers to Baghdad.
Iraq has signed contracts for U.S. weapons and equipment worth more than $12 billion. These include 36 Lockheed Martin F-16IQ Block 52 fighter aircraft armed with sophisticated missile systems, worth around $5 billion.
First deliveries are scheduled for September 2014 at the earliest, more likely 2015. And it will take several years to deliver all the combat jets, enough for two fighter squadrons, and train the re-emerging Iraqi air force to operate them.
In the meantime, Iraqi officials have complained that the country's air defenses remain critically deficient following the U.S. military withdrawal that was completed in December 2011.
Maliki reportedly personally complained to Washington three times in September, once in a telephone conversation with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Underlining Baghdad's impatience, Maliki's government decided July 15 to allocate additional funds from the supplementary budget to boost its air defenses.
Ali Mohsen al-Allaq, secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, said Iraq's sovereignty required that its air space shouldn't be violated. Backed by acting Defense Minister Sa'adoon al-Dulaimi, he declared that the country should take precautions to bolster its air defenses.
Allaq said, without elaboration, that Iraq would import advanced air defense systems from "a variety of countries."
The Russians have long pushed for stronger defense ties with Iraq. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged greater collaboration on security issues when he visited Baghdad in May 2011.
He's considered close to Vladimir Putin, who's once again Russia's president and pushing for a greater global role for Russia at a time when U.S. power in the Middle East is ebbing.
On Friday, Pravda reported, "Russia may join the ranks of major exporters of weapons to Iraq."
It said Maliki may sign "a contract for $5 billion for the sale of MiG fighter jets, Russian helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, armored vehicles and other weapons."
Russian sources said these include an unspecified number of MiG-29M/M2 interceptors, up to 30 Mil Mi-28N all-weather anti-armor attack helicopters, NATO codename Havoc, and 41 anti-aircraft missile units.
Baghdad's interest in Russia as a primary arms supplier became evident in July when Dulaimi visited Moscow, and extended his stay twice amid several rounds of talks on strategic military cooperation and visits to Russian defense plants.
Dulaimi ended up staying in the Russian capital for a month, a visit believed to be the longest official visit made by a senior Iraqi official. He was accompanied by Lt. Gen. Jabbar Obeid, Iraq's air defense commander, and Gen. Zia Jabbar, director general of procurement at the Defense Ministry.
Maliki was accompanied to Moscow, his first visit there in 3 1/2 years, by Dulaimi as well as the minister's of foreign affairs, oil and trade and the head of Iraq's investment commission.
Russian sources said the Iraqis are increasingly worried about the civil war in neighboring Syria, a close ally of Iran, whose influence is growing following the U.S. military withdrawal.
There are also concerned about the semiautonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, which is battling Baghdad over oil rights and has independence in mind.
Iraq's Kurds fought a secessionist war against the Baathist regime in Baghdad for decades until the fall of Saddam Hussein following the U.S. invasion of March 2003.
Kurdish leaders, already alarmed that Baghdad might use the F-16s against them, are also concerned about Maliki's regime acquiring attacking helicopters that could be used in counter-insurgency operations.
During his visit to Moscow, Maliki's also expected to discuss the worsening crisis in Syria, with both Baghdad and Moscow seen as helping prop up the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.
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