Iraq: Dumping Russia arms deal may be ploy

Nov. 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM
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BAGHDAD, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Confusion surrounds Iraq's weekend announcement that it's scrapping a $4.2 billion Russian arms contract but the feeling is it may be a ploy by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to renegotiate a more favorable deal.

Moscow is eager to secure a major stake in Iraq's oil industry, which it may do because of Maliki's dispute with U.S. oil giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corp. The U.S. companies have defied Baghdad by signing exploration deals with Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish enclave.

There's always the possibility that Washington, which seeks to control Iraq's military acquisitions following the U.S. military withdrawal, has leaned on Maliki after the announcement of the arms deal when he visited Moscow in mid-October.

Maliki's office announced Saturday the government is reconsidering that deal, which included combat jets, helicopter gunships and missiles, because the contract could be marred by possible corruption.

It wasn't clear whether Maliki's people were referring to graft by Russian executives or by Iraqis. But, since the announcement came hard on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin's dismissal of his defense minister over alleged military corruption, it's possible the Iraqis were pointing the finger at the Russians.

Why they should do that hasn't been explained -- unless Maliki's seeking better terms from Moscow, which until the Soviet collapse two decades ago was Saddam Hussein's main arms supplier.

But things got more confused when Iraq's acting defense minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, denied there was any corruption and insisted the contract was still valid.

Dulaimi, who played a key role in the negotiations, went so far as to say that no contract had actually been signed. But Russians said during Maliki's visit that contracts had been signed with Dulaimi in April, July and August.

The Russians have made no comment on Maliki's announcement.

The Americans haven't either. But they consider Iraq to be their turf when it comes to major weapons deals for post-Saddam armed forces they've equipped, funded and trained.

Maliki has been pressing Washington to accelerate the delivery of arms and equipment purchased from the Pentagon. He's complained most volubly about the lack of air defense systems since the withdrawal of U.S. fighter squadrons and missile units.

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 extra funds to boost 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.

It may be that the announcement of a hefty arms deal with Russia prodded Washington into committing to accelerated deliveries or perhaps it was meant to jog the Russians.

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 but are more likely in 2015.

It will take several years to deliver all the jets, enough for two fighter squadrons, and train the re-emerging Iraqi air force to operate them.

Under the Moscow deal, Russia will reportedly provide an unspecified number of MiG-29M/M2 interceptors, 30 Mil Mi-28N all-weather anti-armor attack helicopters and 41 anti-aircraft missile units.

Putin's pushing for a greater global role for Russia at a time when U.S. power in the Middle East is ebbing. Oil-rich Iraq's high on his list.

During the Cold War Moscow dealt mainly with secular military regimes in the Arab world. In recent months several of these have been taken over by governments that are Islamist to one degree or another.

Moscow "was the main sponsor and beneficiary of the military regimes, and the political evolutions in these countries will have a big impact on Russia's energy and weapons relationships in the region," U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

"One key dynamic that could change Russia's position is Iraq's re-emergence as a major oil exporter ...

"As one of the leading oil exporters in the world, Russia has an interest in limiting its competition, or at least being involved in other countries' energy sectors. This explains Russian energy companies' involvement in oil exploration in many of Iraq's oil fields."

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