Iraq will purchase more than $4.2 billion of weapons from Russia under contracts signed in recent months, the Russian government said today, in a challenge to the Middle Eastern country’s military ties with the U.S.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is visiting Russia this week and plans to meet President Vladimir Putin tomorrow after today’s talks with his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.
“Iraq is sending a clear signal to the U.S. that it can conduct an independent policy,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The message is: ‘We can sign contracts with Russia if we like.’”
Iraq has bought about $6 billion of U.S. armaments, including F-16 jets, since a U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, according to Igor Korotchenko, the head of the defense ministry’s advisory council. During the same period, the country spent about $300 million on Russian Mi-17 military transport helicopters.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the purchases from Russia don’t reflect a reduction in Iraq’s military support relationship with the U.S., which is “very broad and very deep.” Iraq “initiated some 467 foreign military sales cases” with the U.S. totaling more than $12 billion “if all of these go forward.” She didn’t specify the time frame for those sales.
“We’re doing some $12.3 billion worth of military business with Iraq, so I don’t think one needs to be concerned about that relationship being anything but the strongest,” she told reporters today at a briefing.
The new Russia contracts were signed following trips by Iraqi military experts to Russia in April and July-August, organized by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, according to an e-mailed government fact sheet. Russia will supply Iraq with helicopters and short-range air defense systems, according to the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a research group that advises the Defense Ministry.
“This will be about one-third of the total Russian arms contracts signed this year,” said Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “We knew that there were plans to sign deals but the fact that they are already signed is a big surprise.”
Under Saddam’s rule, Iraq was a major buyer of Soviet weaponry and relied on Russian help to develop its oil industry. Russia lost about $8 billion of contracts when its companies had to stop cooperation with Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, according to the government fact sheet.
The U.S., whose overthrow of the Sunni Muslim regime of Saddam paved the way for Maliki’s rise to power, has seen his Shiite Muslim-led government establish close ties with neighboring Shiite-ruled Iran, said Malashenko.
In the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, these contracts, if fulfilled, would lead to the presence of Russian military advisers and technicians in Iraq as in the Soviet era, said Malashenko.
Maliki, who is accompanied by the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, oil and trade, first visited Russia in 2009.