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New Iraqi arms deals stoke natural Kurdish anxiety

With a dark memories of an Arab Iraqi military might firmly on their mind, Kurds fear an extended Baghdad military arm, especially with Maliki at the helm, sectarian divisions that run rife and growing disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.

On the back of a recent multi-billion deal with the U.S. to supply 36 F16 fighter jets including training of Iraq pilots, Iraq signed further multi-billion arms deals with Russia and Czech this week with the intent to bolster its weak air defences but to ultimately reinvigorate its role as a major regional power.

Iraq hopes to have an eventual fleet of 96 F16s, with the first shipment of the planes due next year, which it aims to start flying by 2014-2015. Under the current agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, the Arizona AAir National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing is well on the way to training the quota of 27 Iraqi pilots.

Under normal circumstances a state aspiring to boost aspects of its armed forces it deems weak or its defensive capabilities is hardly unnatural, so what’s the big deal with Iraq when it comes to the recent procurement of arms and the bolstering of its air force?

The answer is simple. Iraq is not a normal state and history has cruelly shown the consequence of such a supposed right to build armed forces.

More crucially, arms purchases are masterminded by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is renowned for centralist tendencies and monopolisation of power, while consolidating a number of powerful posts under the guise of “acting” cover.

Under the constitution, the national defence forces are for the whole of Iraq, and when the Iraqi army was resurrected in 2003, the aim was to make it inclusive of both Arab and Kurdish officers. However, such is the effect of sectarianism and animosity that has gripped the disparate Iraqi social mosaic, that forces are unlikely to serve the benefit all of Iraq.

The danger of the ever growing Iraqi army been used in the political sphere cannot be discounted. Whether the army has an allegiance to a sectarian pooling or political faction as opposed to the greater nation of Iraq will always be an underlying uncertainty.

Kurds and particularly Sunnis have complained in the past about the disproportionate Shiite leverage and sectarian influence on the makeup of the Iraqi security forces.

Baghdad arms deals

The symbolic arms deals with Russia and later Czech Republic amounted to billions of dollars.

As part of the deal with Moscow Iraq is to obtain 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems for a reported fee of $4.2 billion dollars. Although with such a significant commercial arms deal, Russia sought to reposition itself as a major arms supplier in the Middle East and rekindle old ties with Iraq that had turned somewhat stagnant since 2003, it was more of political relevance than anything else.

Moscow hailed the Russia-Iraq relations, as ties “based on traditional friendship,” with Maliki quick to emphasise the importance of their partnership with the Russians.

Baghdad has had to play a rather tricky game of keeping both Tehran and Washington happy. Tehran has a powerful political hand in Baghdad, whilst it was the U.S. that Baghdad greatly relied on for so many years and of whom Baghdad built what seemed solid and long-term strategic ties.

However, as Baghdad has slowly spread its wings in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, and while it has tried to keep the US on its side, it has also sought put its foot down.

The deal makes Russia the second largest arms supplier to Iraq after the US. In this move, Baghdad sought to diversify its dependence on U.S. arms and thus the associated long-term training and rearmament of US weaponry that would be necessary but to also demonstrate that it would work on its own terms and not as a regional puppet of America.

Hot on the heels of the Russian arms deal came a $1 billion agreement with the Czech government to deliver 28 L-159 fighter jets.

The deals come in the midst of a deadly Syrian war, where Russia has been a staunch ally of the Syrian regime while Baghdad has tried to maintain a perception of neutrality. However, Baghdad has anything but a neutral position towards Syria and mindful of not upsetting its Iranian partners, it has remained part of the pro-Assad camp in one form or another.

Russia and Iraq clearly share the same view on Syria on ensuring non-Western intervention and potential break-up of Syria that would greatly change the sectarian and political balance in the Middle East.

At the same time, Iraq has had to succumb to the pressure of their American partners. This could be seen when the Americans insisted of an Iraqi inspection of Iranian passenger jets flying over Iraqi air space, which they suspected of carrying arms shipments to Damascus.

Kurdish fear

Whenever there is any motion to strengthen the hand of Baghdad, there is almost a natural unease that runs down the spine of Kurdistan.

Just what is the reason for Baghdad’s hunger for renewed military might? While Iraq wants to be a revived force to be reckoned with in the Middle East and to take an influential and powerful position in the region, the first Kurdish fear is that an extended Baghdad military arm means a direct threat to their population, their autonomy and their new found prominence. In others words it is not defence that Baghdad seeks with its new military quest but offence.

Iraq argues that it needs a revitalised and new air force to deal with terrorism and to protect what they deem vulnerable airspace. Baghdad has already warned that it won’t be able to protect its airspace until 2020 and that it cannot fully protect its borders and territorial waters. However, counter-insurgency is hardly about acquiring a deadly new air force. Iraq had the huge might of the Americans on its side for several years and yet failed to defeat insurgents.

The image of Iraqi forces repressing the Kurds, destroying Kurdish villages and bombing civilians with chemical weapons is hardly a distant memory.

Furthermore, a rapid rise to regional fame under Saddam Hussein with the amassment of a powerful military force led to an arrogance that launched a deadly war with Iran, an invasion of Kuwait and successive destructive civil wars with Kurdistan.

Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani has already voiced great concern on the likes of F16s falling into the hands of Maliki, warning in April 2012 that “I feel Kurdistan’s future is in severe danger because of (Maliki)…F-16 (jets) should not reach the hands of this man (Maliki).”

Barzani claimed that in meetings with his military advisers, Maliki showed chilling readiness to strike the Kurds with his new weaponry when the time was right.

Kurdish guarantees

The Kurds have sought guarantees from Western powers who have sold billions dollars’ worth of arms to Iraq, but remain unconvinced about the real intentions of Baghdad.

Worryingly for the Kurds, recent deals with Russia and Czech do not have the same clauses they forced on U.S. arms deals that newly acquired arms will not be used on the internal population.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has urged Baghdad to keep them informed and in the process around any such deals.

Furthermore, since the Iraqi defence forces are for the whole of Iraq, it is thus not only logical but a constitutional right that a portion of these defence forces goes to Kurdistan. It is not clear how and to what extent Baghdad supplies arms to Kurdish security forces or military training to Kurds, leading to a danger of imbalance and Kurdistan been in a position whereby it is forced to take defensive measures in light of the growing power of Baghdad.

The Kurdistan Peshermrga forces are part of the national Iraqi forces and thus the responsibility should clearly fall on Baghdad for the financing, military enforcement of the Kurdish regiments as well as providing Kurds with air defence training and capability. However, Baghdad has continuously objected to not only the size of the Peshermrga forces and its level of arming but to the actual funding itself.

Such is the alienation and mistrust that runs between Kurdish and Iraqi forces that often it is like two armies of two sovereign nations rather than a national army with two strands. There is a growing threat of an arms race, and continuing ploy by Baghdad to reinforce military capabilities will only stoke hostilities.

Furthermore, with a new air force to protect its vulnerable airspace, it will be interesting to see what Baghdad does to protect any violations of Kurdistan airspace or borders by Turkish or Iranian forces.

The agreement with Maliki and Russia must be referred to parliament as stipulated by parliament, and it waits to be seen how inclusive the political process will be.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd.net, Various Misc.