Baghdad is struggling to get its story straight regarding a massive arms deal with Russia that has put extra strain on the ever-tenuous alliance between Iraq and the United States.
On Monday, after a series of conflicting reports on the status of the controversial arms trade agreement, an Iraqi government spokesman said that negotiations with Moscow were ongoing.
The original deal, announced officially last month, arranged for weapons sales worth US$4.2 billion. Russia was slated to supply Iraq with attack helicopters, surface-to-air missile systems, military jets and other heavy weaponry.
But in a sudden about-face on Saturday, Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said that the original deal had been scrapped due to suspicions of “corruption.” He did not elaborate on the nature of that corruption, and analysts noted that it seemed an odd reason to cancel such a major transaction.
“We informed Russia about our decision, but we hope to sign a new weapons deal between Iraq and Russia. However, talks are still ongoing,” said Moussawi, according to CNN.
The situation was further complicated when acting Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoon al-Dulaimi rushed to deny Moussawi’s statement. He said the deal was going ahead as planned, but then contradicted reports that it had already been signed off on.
"We have not transferred even one dinar, there was no agent, no contract [with Russia] was signed. These were just technical and financial offers," he said, according to Reuters.
Finally, on Monday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh endeavored to set the record straight.
Dabbagh confirmed Dulaimi’s assertion that no final contract had been signed, according to Agence France-Presse. But he also confirmed Moussawi’s suggestion that alleged corruption had thrown a wrench into the negotiations.
“The process is ongoing to purchase weapons from Russia because of Iraq’s needs,” Dabbagh explained, adding that the Iraqi National Security Council was forming a new committee to restart dialogue with Moscow.
“It will renegotiate with Russia to put an end to suspicions of corruption in the weapons deal,” he said.
Moscow has not responded to any of Baghdad’s mixed messages of the past few days.
Russia has already sold weapons to Iraq on a smaller scale and is a major arms exporter to Syria and Iran. But the Iraqi agreement announced last month would have been a monumental boon; Ria Novosti reported that it would have been Russia’s largest weapons deal since 2006. The agreement was also of great political importance to Russia, which hopes to build partnerships and strengthen its influence in the Middle East.
In reneging on its original agreement, Iraq may be angling for a better deal or trying to secure better, more advanced weaponry for the same price.
It could also be reacting to pressure from the United States, which is -- and would like to remain -- Iraq’s largest weapons supplier.
That’s how Igor Korotchenko, head of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade, interprets Iraq’s “unprecedented” cancellation of the deal with Russia.
"As soon as the deal was announced a month ago I said that the U.S. would not allow Iraq to buy such huge quantities of weapons from Russia. I believe Washington regarded this as an absolutely unacceptable scenario," he said to the BBC.
“I can't see any scope for corruption in the Iraq deal. I believe this is just a pretext and the true reason is Washington applying pressure on Baghdad."
Iraq’s military capabilities took a critical blow during the U.S. and UK-led occupation of the country – since then, the United States has become a critical defense partner for the new Baghdad government.
Even after the regime of Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, sectarian violence continued to take a heavy toll on the country, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and decimating infrastructure. The turmoil reached its apex in 2006 and 2007.
Although the worst of the violence has ended, it is far from over. Clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are still commonplace, and al-Qaeda in Iraq has seen a resurgence since the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December of last year.
Imported weapons will help Iraq beef up its security, but many in the West are concerned about Iraq’s intentions in the region. There are fears that the government, which has been dominated by Shiite Muslims since the overthrow of Hussein’s Sunni regime, is forming close ties with the Shiite Iranian regime.
Furthermore, Iraq, like Russia, opposes foreign intervention in the uprising in Syria, where more than 38,000 people have died in a 19-month struggle against the Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Baghdad is suspected of allowing Iranian aircraft to use Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to Syria’s regime forces.
These are worrying trends for the United States, which is keen to keep Iraq as an ally. A new weapons deal with Russia would evince Baghdad’s eagerness to establish strong non-Western alliances.
But Maliki has played down the geopolitical significance of the Russian arms deal, arguing in October that the decision was pragmatic rather than provocative.
“As far as our arms purchasing policies are concerned, we do not ask for anyone's advice first. We do not intend to play the role of being someone's monopoly interests .… We have good relations with the United States and Iran. We do not want to live surrounded by constant conflict. We buy weapons based on the needs that we feel we have,” he said, according to Al Jazeera.
Officially, the United States has also played down concerns about a growing bond between Russia and Iraq. U.S. Department of State Victoria Nuland said last month that “with regard to U.S.-Iraqi military support, Iraq overall has initiated some 467 foreign military sales cases with the United States. If all of these go forward, it will be worth over $12.3 billion, so obviously our own military support relationship with Iraq is very broad and very deep.”
Or so she hopes. As politicians in Baghdad struggle to shape a favorable narrative regarding the Russian weapons deal, U.S. officials will be paying very close attention.