As with most major decisions made by Baghdad, these contracts got caught up in domestic politics as the Kurdish Coalition criticized them. Iraq has traditionally bought weapons from Eastern Europe, and has done so in recent years, and will likely to continue to do so in the future, regardless of what the Kurds have to say about it.
During Prime Minister Maliki’s trip to Russia and the Czech Republic he made two weapons purchases. First, he signed a $4.2 billion deal with Russia to buy 30 Mi-28NE attack helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems.
In the Czech Republic, he made an additional purchase of 28 L-159 jets. The first four of those will come from the Czech Air Force, with the remaining 24 being built by Aero Vodochody, to be delivered beginning in 2014. Some of those will be two-seat trainers, so that the Iraqi Air Force can familiarize themselves with how to fly them.
The Mi-28 is the Russians’ current attack helicopter, while the L-159 is a light combat jet. Both can be used for fighting the insurgency that continues to plague Iraq or be used for defense against foreign ground and air forces. Iraq already has a small contingent of armed American Bell 407 and French SA342 Gazelle helicopters, and is waiting for delivery of F-16 fighters from the United States.
The Pantsir S1 is a combination ground-to-air missile and anti-aircraft guns mobile system that will provide the country with desperately needed air defense. Currently Iraq relies upon a variety of anti-aircraft guns and eight U.S. Avenger air defense systems. It needs to purchase a variety of ordinance to be able to defend its own skies. It hopes to be self-reliant in this field by 2020.
A lot of Iraq’s military equipment comes from the United States, but that comes with restrictions on their use to protect against a return to dictatorship. Russia places no such restrictions on the weapons it is selling to Iraq. Baghdad also has a long history of buying equipment from Eastern Europe dating back to the government of Colonel Abdul al-Karim Qasim who started buying from the Soviet Union after he took power in a 1958 coup. It is no surprise then that it is going to places like Russia and the Czech Republic for its military needs today.
Within days of the Russian and Czech arms deals being publicized, the Kurdish Coalition voiced their reservations. On October 13, a lawmaker from the Coalition said that the list was concerned about Prime Minister Maliki’s moves. He said that the premier had taken some provocative actions in the disputed areas of Ninewa and Diyala province, and just created the Tigris Operations Command, which is based in Tamim governorate. The Kurdish parliamentarian asked whether the contracts had limits on the use of the weapons against civilians, commented that Iraq did not need such heavy weapons at this time, and that the Kurdish peshmerga should be similarly armed. These complaints have been heard before from the Kurdish list after new arms purchases were announced.
In January 2011 for instance, a Kurdish member of parliament warned against Baghdad buying F-16s from the U.S. In March 2012, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani gave a speech where he claimed that Maliki was trying to take over the armed forces, and that the F-16s would be used to challenge the Kurds. The following month, he called on the United States to delay the delivery of the fighters. T
hese worries are due to the long history of the central government using the military against the Kurds. Saddam was infamous for his Anfal campaign after the Iran-Iraq War, but there were a series of military campaigns against the Kurds after Iraq got its independence. President Barzani has also attempted to unseat Maliki, so these views relate to that on-going political dispute since these weapons would help the prime minister grow in strength.
DURING A RECENT VISIT TO WASHINGTON, KRG PRES. BARZANI ASKED THE U.S. TO DELAY THE DELIVERY OF F-16 FIGHTERS (RUDAW)
Iraq is attempting to build a military capable of defending the country from outside threats. Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has been a weak state, which has opened it up to widespread interference by its neighbors. With a strong military, Baghdad would not be so vulnerable to these interventions. At the same time, a strengthened armed forces worries the Kurds. A military attack upon Kurdistan is not likely any time soon, but the central government could use its army and air force to assert itself over the disputed territories, which the Kurdistan Regional Government claim. That’s the reason why the Kurdish Coalition always complains about any major arms purchase Baghdad makes. They have no real say over the purchases however. Since Iraq needs so much in terms of ordinance, more arms deals will occur in the future regardless of the criticism it may engender.
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of Joel Wing.