On October 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially announced a massive $4.2 billion arms deal in Moscow. In doing so, he confirmed that Russia would become Iraq’s second-largest provider of military hardware, behind only the United States. One month later, however, on November 11, Baghdad backtracked from the deal amid accusations of corruption.
On the whole, Maliki has managed the political fallout well. He has taken credit for tackling the issue himself, with speed and tenacity. He has also repeatedly told interviewers that, because the deal never reached the acquisition and payment phase, there was no real corruption or kickbacks. It was aspirational. His office swears that officials will face justice if proven guilty. Whether or not they do is another matter. Iraq’s Integrity Commission reportedly finished its investigation this week but no officials have been named due to a (convenient) lack of evidence.
Predictably, Maliki’s opponents attacked him and his office for wasting public finds (on multi-billion dollar arms deals) and lining their pockets. And, although the prime minister has stayed above the fray, the scandal did strike close to his inner circle. His spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, reportedly quit his post because of his connection to illicit commissions associated with the deal. Thus far, Dabbagh is the only casualty of the scandal. No reports suggest that he will face trial.
Russian and Iraqi sources now insist that the arms deal will be renegotiated. Maliki is on record saying the cost and volume of equipment will be scaled back, if only to relieve public outrage. It seems likely that Maliki will sign a new deal but it’s worth considering why Iraq’s PM believes an arms deal with Russia is a top priority. He may stress “sovereignty” as sufficient grounds for adding to Iraq’s arsenal. But Maliki’s government has other—more specific—motivations for a signing a deal and soon.
Diversifying Iraq’s armaments would give Maliki greater flexibility. Right now, Baghdad relies almost entirely on American supplied armaments. Such dependence is a genuine liability for Maliki because his vision for Iraq—and its regional posture—does not always match up with Washington. As a result, arms, upgrades, maintenance and training could become casualties of any disagreement. The U.S. could cut Iraq off if the relationship soured, meaning that advanced weapons systems could be forfeited, including F-16 fighter jets.
This may seem like a step too far. The U.S. fought a long war in Iraq and Maliki’s rise came with Washington’s blessing. But earlier this year, when Baghdad was accused of allowing Iranian planes to carry aid through Iraqi airspace to Syria’s embattled regime, Senator John Kerry raised the prospect of cutting off aid. On September 19, Kerry told Ambassador Robert Beecroft (during his confirmation hearing) that he was alarmed by Maliki’s failure to act. American diplomats had repeatedly told Baghdad that they were enabling a brutal crackdown in Syria and that it must stop.
Kerry argued that Iraq’s refusal to inspect Iranian aircraft “seems to send a signal to me [that] maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response… I mean, it just seems completely inappropriate that we’re trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they’re working against our interest so overtly—against their interests too, I might add.” U.S. aid to Iraq in the 2012 fiscal year will total $1.7 billion. A variety of weapons deals could be held up if Congress protested.
Iraqi officials rejected the claim that Iran abuses their airspace. After Kerri’s remarks, they inspected two planes to prove it. One was on its way to Syria from Iran, but it yielded nothing; it may also have been warned in advance. The second plane was forced to land for inspection only on its return trip to Iran from Damascus, once it was empty. Officials claim it was a simple error. Not surprisingly, Maliki appeared in Moscow only a few weeks after Kerry’s threat, where he finalized the $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia that ultimately fell apart.
With Senator Kerry now the sole frontrunner for U.S. Secretary of State, Maliki may want a backdoor to avoid being leveraged. That backdoor is Russia, where leaders agree with Maliki’s assessment of the crisis in Syria and hope that Assad can outlast it. A deal with Moscow is even more appealing because it comes with far fewer political strings attached. Again, the case of Syria—where Moscow arms a regime with “defensive weapons” as it murders thousands—is instructive.
Recent developments in the north have only made the case more urgent for Maliki. In September, Baghdad established the Tigris Operations Command—the northernmost federal command, based north of Baghdad and south of Kirkuk, but in territory disputed by the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Tensions escalated after the two sides exchanged gunfire outside a local office of the PUK party; Erbil and Baghdad rushed forces and heavy weapons to the flashpoint, where thousands of soldiers waited for orders. Earlier, in August, Kurdish and Iraqi forces nearly came to blows along the border with Syria as well. The newest and most dangerous episode seems to be dissipating with a new agreement reached this week. But it proves a spark could come from anywhere, at any time, without warning.
Both sides may benefit from posturing. With provincial elections in sight, Maliki knows that pushing back against Kurdish control of the north could unite Sunni and Shia Arabs who disapprove of Kurdistan’s independent streak. Kurdish leaders like Massoud Barzani can also benefit from resisting Baghdad. A muscular response might even be the safest way to protect Kurdistan’s steady economic improvement, which hinges on foreign investment, the interest of major international oil companies, and stability. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that both sides have too much to lose and that conflict can be avoided.
This may be the case—but Maliki would be wise to prepare for the worst, both because a sudden, unplanned incident could trigger an explosive crisis in post-war Iraq, and because arms from the U.S. are not guaranteed. It’s a plain and simple fact that the U.S. Congress is sympathetic to the Kurds. Maliki must know this. He must also know that, should a conflict erupt, Washington could pull the rug out from him and Iraq’s armed forces. Thus, the Russian arms deal makes more sense than ever and is perhaps more urgent than before, in spite of the scandal.