Tuesday, 23 October 2012, 05:22 GMT
Iraq arming military forces

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki delivers a speech during his lecture at the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Moscow./AFP PHOTO

The Kurdish Globe
By Salih Waladbagi

Kurds say that arming the military reminds them of Saddam's reign, when Halabja was chemically bombed

Hassan Jihad, a Kurdish member of the Defense and Security Committee of the Iraqi National Assembly, has told Kurdish media outlets that an agreement between Kurdistan's Ministry of Peshmarga and Iraq's Ministry of Defense will benefit Kurds by granting them a share of the arms the Iraqi central government purchased recently in deals with Russia and the Czech Republic.

"The agreement should be between either Iraq's Ministry of Defense and Kurdistan's Ministry of Peshmarga, or otherwise between Iraqi PM and Kurdistan's President, Massoud Barzani," he said.

When asked if the committee was informed that the PM was going to purchase arms, he answered that the head of the committee, Hassan Senid, accompanied PM Maliki in the visit to Russia.

According to Jihad, the primary motivating reason to buy arms at this time is to equip the Iraqi army and to improve security conditions in the country.

Besides these developments, providing a budget for Peshmarga forces and arming them is one of the biggest pending disputes between Baghdad and Erbil.

However, many political commentators and politicians, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government, vocally stated that the timing of the deals to purchase heavy weaponry from Russia and the Czech Republic was not appropriate. They interpret the action as threat to the KRG.

The arms contracts

Iraq has signed contracts to purchase Russian arms worth $4.2bn (2.6bn; 3.2bn euros) this year, Russian news agencies report. Russia was the first country to provide arms to Iraq during Saddam's regime; now it becomes the second largest provider of weapons after the USA.

Some thirty Mi-28 attack helicopters and forty-two Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems are among the items being provided to the Iraqi military. Iraqi sources confirmed that the central government will hold further discussions to purchase MiG-29 jets, heavily armored vehicles, and more arms in the future.

According to MP Hakim al-Zamili, the Iraqi central government installs anti-aircraft missiles and radar systems to address violations by Turkish airplanes. Turkey violates Iraq's airspace to operate against PKK fighters.

The KRG has not officially stated that it rejects the deployment of new Russian arms in the region. However, the KRG has recently refused to allow the Iraqi army entry to areas close to the region's borders, particularly disputed areas such as Kirkuk and Mosul.

Kurdistan's Minister of Peshmarga stated in a televised interview that we just have to look to the recent past to see that PM Maliki is more than willing to use the army to solve problems. He described the latest Iraqi movements as "dangerous".

Equipping the army, an alert for Kurdistan

Kurdish sources claim that during his visit to Russia, PM Maliki asked Russian officials to provide Iraq with weapons suitable to be used in mountainous and desert terrains. The contracts with Russia and the Czech Republic have provoked an angry response in Kurdistan because the two Eastern-European countries did not impose any conditions on the sale of their arms to Iraq.

"This takes us back to 1986 when Saddam's regime chemically bombed Halabja town and killed around 5,000 innocent Kurdish people in just hours," said a Kurdish MP who wished to remain anonymous.

Ali Ghidan, an Iraqi army commander, asserted in a statement broadcast on an Iraqi channel that the purchase of heavy arms was neither a threat to neighboring countries nor to any party inside the country. Rather than being an act of intimidation, he suggested, the deals were purely a matter of national security and self-defense.

He described the Iraqi PM's visits to Russia and the Czech Republic as being "appropriately" timed because Iraq urgently needs to equip its army.

International struggle in Iraq

With these new developments it seems that the tension between the USA and Russia over their presence in the region is going to be clearer than ever. The struggle between the two states is taking place in proxy right in Iraq's backyard. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is attempting to consolidate its military in order to independently protect its borders.

Recently, a reliable Iraqi source reported that around 12,000 American soldiers will be heading to Iraq to join the approximately 4,000 soldiers remaining in Iraq after the large-scale U.S. withdrawal last year. With these moves, the number of U.S. forces in the country will reach around 16,000 soldiers.

Assertive actions

Iraq has made some notably assertive actions in the past few weeks. Only recently, Baghdad forced an Iranian plane to make an unscheduled landing at Baghdad airport to inspect the plane, which was heading for Syria. Syria is currently buying heavy arms from Russia, the main opponent of the U.S. in the region.

Iraq's inspection of the plane stands as a warning to the mainly-Shiite Iran, while both Iraq and Syria's purchasing of Russian armaments poses a challenge to the authority of the U.S. in the region, which has been the main arms supplier to Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.

"We have good relations with both the United States and Iran. We do not want to live surround by constant conflict. We buy weapons based on the needs that we feel we have," Maliki said.

Towards dictatorship

Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the incoming political parties endeavored to create constitutional limits on governmental power to prevent a return to dictatorial systems of governance.

But once Maliki took office, he moved to tighten centralized control over the intelligence and security services. As in Saddam's time, Iraq now has six separate intelligence services, overseeing each other and everyone else. Some 933,000 people are employed in the Iraqi Security Forces, an estimated 8 percent of the Iraqi workforce and twelve percent of the male population. Other sources describe Maliki as targeting mid-level intelligence-officers to drive them out if they are seen as threats to his authority, according to an article published in Foreign Policy.

It would seem that Maliki has directly targeted the military, the courts, and government ministries in his efforts to consolidate his power.

After the U.S. forces, specifically the U.S. Special Forces, handed over responsibility for security to their Iraqi counterparts, Maliki formed several special brigades intended to serve as counter-terrorism forces.

But still he was not satisfied with this move. He then appointed the office of commander-in-chief to his position and formed the staff from those loyal to him. Maliki went on to make the brave step of consolidating the police and army into one office; following these reforms, he now holds control of all of the significant arms of the security forces.

In spite of these circumstances, Maliki is eager to declare that his authority is not absolute. Before setting off to Russia, Maliki stated that anything he may sign could well be scuttled by parliament, BBC's Rami Ruhayem reported.

Balancing powers

United States, officials confirmed that the U.S. is still the biggest supplier of arms to Iraq, adding that military cooperation continues on a wide and deep level. The U.S. officials declined to comment on the recent Iraqi arms contracts. However, Iraqi authorities say that Washington gave a green light to PM Maliki visiting Moscow.

Iraq's latest moves and comments on the United States and Moscow demonstrate that high-level diplomatic relations exist between Iraq and the two world powers. But behind the scenes it would seem that relations are foggy. The current situations with countries such as Syria and Iran, which are at the centre of major international scrutiny, make relations uncertain throughout the region.