Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met on October 10 with Russian President Vladimir Putin to seal a $4.2bn arms sales deal, supplying Iraq with 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters, 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, and at a later time, several MiG-29 fighters. A joint statement claims talks for the deal – which makes Russia Iraq’s second-largest arms supplier, behind the United States – have been ongoing since April.
This is the first significant military deal between the two countries since 2008. According to Konstantin Makienko, the deputy director of Russia's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, this is a statement by Iraq to take an independent position in the region, regardless of political pressure by the United States, adding that Iraq is much more used to Russian-made weapons.
The U.S. is currently fulfilling an estimated $11bn deal with Iraq that would supply Iraq with arms, F16 fighter jets, tanks, and training to rebuild their army and air force, as well as supplies already received by Iraq to help protect its fragile domestic security forces.
While Maliki maintains his relationship with the United States remains strong, he also made the point in advance of the meeting that he did not want Iraq to be part of “someone else’s monopoly,” referring to the arms export deal with the United States. The premier added that he would buy arms based on his country’s needs, stating that he does not want Iraq to be encircled in conflict.
“While Iraq may be exploring other available options for arms purchases, there is a large and growing Foreign Military Sales program that the United States shares with the government of Iraq,” said an official from the U.S. State Department. “In fact, Prime Minister Maliki said as much at his press conference before he departed for Moscow, when he said that arms deals with the U.S. were still in progress, and will not be replaced with deals with Russia.”
Within Iraq, there is dissenting opinion about the state of the arms deals, and how beneficial it will be for the country at this point.
With the ongoing strain between two governments, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has expressed concern over Baghdad having advanced weaponry, fearing a war on his region. He has previously been unsuccessful in preventing arms deals, despite voicing his fears that the weapons would be used on Iraq’s Kurds.
Many in the Sunni districts have also expressed fear of escalated fighting, should the available weaponry become more sophisticated.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda in Iraq has adopted new tactics, including assassinating security personnel to acquire their weapons, and to deter young Iraqis from joining the army and police forces. Baghdad has added 90 new checkpoints in the past two months to protect against al-Qaeda attacks, but with the security forces at an estimated quarter of its previous strength, it has instead made the city more vulnerable to attacks, and there is a fear that the new weapons could land in their hands, rather than be used to protect against them.
Iraqi military expert Mohammed al-Jubori claims the deal with Russia comes from frustration with the “loitering of the U.S. to supply Iraq with weapons, particularly F16 fighters.”
“We are committed to working with them to fulfill these military equipment orders as quickly as possible,” the State Department official said. “The FMS program that the U.S. shares with the government of Iraq is one of our largest, and symbolizes the long term security partnership envisioned by both countries.”
The first of the U.S. F16s are due to arrive in Baghdad in September of 2014.
“We’ve been struggling with this region for years, but it’s foolhardy for the U.S. to think these countries aren’t going to arm themselves against the other countries around them,” said Jeffery Lay, a former TOPGUN fighter pilot, who flew several combat missions in Iraq. He added that it is hard for the U.S. to keep a military monopoly, as it no longer has the technological edge it once did.
But still, it is important for the U.S. to keep its military commitments, he said, as they will be armed, one way or another.
“Iraq is tougher to defend because of its pourous borders,” he said. “That’s going to be the question, whether the Iraqis are committed to protecting those borders.”
Baghdad-based reporter Nizar Latif contributed to this report.