Russian Weapons to Save Iraq

An additional consignment of three TOS-1A Solntsepyok heavy flamethrower systems were unloaded from a transport vessel in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Russia not only returned to Iraq’s arms market after an interval of more than 20 years, but also helped its authorities to prevent its seizure by the Islamists.

These powerful weapons, produced by the Uralvagonzavod research and production corporation, were ordered by Iraq under a 2013 contract on the purchase of arms, primarily artillery systems, worth about $1.6 billion. The current consignment is the third one. Considering the amount of weapons supplied to Iraq in recent years, it is possible to speak about the full restoration of bilateral military-technical cooperation after a break of more than 20 years.

At one time, Iraq was one of the largest recipients of Soviet weapons. The first Soviet arms consignments arrived in Iraq in 1958, immediately after the July 14 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and proclaimed a republic. The British military bases that had dominated the country were withdrawn. The year 1979, when Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq, ushered in a golden period in Soviet-Iraqi military-technical cooperation. As distinct from dozens of other “partners” that received Soviet weapons for free or with loans that nobody had any intentions to pay back, Iraq paid for weapons with money or oil that could be easily converted into money. Shortly after his rise to power, Hussein nationalized the main source of national wealth: oilfields and the oil industry. The country acquired funds that enabled it to create one of the world’s strongest armies with Soviet supplies (in terms of strength and quantity of weapons, the Iraqi army was fourth in the world in the late 1980s, after the USSR, the US and China.) The total worth of Soviet arms supplies amounted to $30.5 billion in current prices, out of which Iraq paid the USSR $22.4 billion (including $8.1 billion in oil). In all, during this period Iraq received 4,630 tanks (including 1,038 T-72 tanks that the Iraqi army received earlier than many Soviet tank units), 2,810 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,714 armored personnel carriers, 3,279 artillery systems of all calibers, and 725 anti-tank missile systems. The Iraqi Air Force received 1,145 combat and transport aircraft and 348 helicopters, and the Navy was supplied 41 warships. In addition to supplying Iraq with weapons, the USSR trained Iraqi officers and repaired the equipment supplied. An important component of the bilateral MTC was the construction of Iraqi military industrial facilities with the help of Soviet specialists. Plants for the production of artillery ammunition, pyroxylin gunpowder, missile fuel, air munitions and bombs were built in Al Iskandariyah. The USSR sold or transferred to Iraq over 60 licenses for the independent production of arms, ammunition and military equipment, including Kalashnikov rifles, which quickly spread throughout the Middle East. The amount of Soviet weapons that Iraq purchased was sufficient for waging Arab-Israeli wars, suppressing Kurdish resistance and conducting an exhausting years-long war with Iran.

This large-scale and mutually advantageous military-technical cooperation was disrupted by Saddam Hussein’s escapade in Kuwait. In early August 1990, in response to the Iraqi aggression the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 661, which, among other things, demanded that all states ban the transfer of arms and military equipment to Iraq. For over a decade, Iraq ceased to be a major player on the arms market. It was only after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 on lifting international sanctions against Iraq and the 2004 resolution on establishing Iraqi security forces that Russia was legally able to return to the Iraqi market. However, the political and economic conditions in Iraq underwent a fundamental change. The country was under de facto US occupation, and its US-controlled political and military leaders were not rushing to let Russia return to the Iraqi arms market. Emaciated by a decade of sanctions and the US invasion, Iraq was no longer able to spend tens of billions of dollars on arms, as Saddam Hussein did. Moreover, initially Iraq’s New Army had very limited numerical strength (35,000 soldiers). So Russia did not rush headlong back into the Iraqi market shortly after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and the cancellation of sanctions.

The situation began to change in late 2011, when the last American soldiers left Iraq, thereby putting an end to its nine-year occupation. On the one hand, the Iraqi leaders received some freedom of action in choosing partners for military-technical cooperation. Iraq restored its oil industry, the main source of money for its arms purchases. On the other hand, numerous rebel groups, which had gained strength following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, focused their fight against the central Iraqi government. The conflict between various religious and ethnic groups flared up with renewed force. The Iraqi government began to look for a reliable source of modern weapons to counter the threats it faced. As a result of several visits by an Iraqi delegation headed by Acting Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi and a meeting between prime ministers Dmitry Medvdev and Nouri al-Maliki, Russia and Iraq signed several contracts on the supply of about $4.2 billion worth of arms and military equipment. Russia was supposed to supply to Iraq 48 Pantsyr-S1combined anti-aircraft missile and artillery systems and 36 Mi-28NE attack helicopters (later on their number was increased to 40.) The Americans did not want to lose their share of the Iraqi market, and launched a campaign to discredit military-technical cooperation between Russia and Iraq. They claimed that the contracts were corrupt and needed to be verified. Following an inquiry, the adviser to the prime minister, Ali al-Musawi, gave the contracts the green light. Iraq made an advance payment. In April 2013, Russia and Iraq signed an additional contract for the supply of six Mi-35M helicopter gunships. In November 2013, Iraq received the first batch of four Mi-35M helicopters manufactured by the Rostvertol Company. In 2014, Russia supplied Iraq its new-generation Mi-28NE helicopter gunships (this was the first time these helicopters were exported).

By that time, Iraq was facing a much more ominous threat. In January 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an international terrorist organization, launched a large-scale offensive in Iraq. On January 1, 2014, ISIL militants attacked the city of Mosul; on January 2, they seized Ramadi; on January 4, Iraqi troops left Fallujah. The offensive was accompanied by a number of major terrorist attacks in Baghdad and other large Iraqi cities. By strenuous efforts, government forces managed to stabilize the situation and win back several populated localities. However, in June 2014, ISIL launched another large-scale offensive in northern Iraq. Over 1,300 armed militants captured army facilities and Mosul International Airport. By June 10, they had established complete control over Mosul. Fearing a massacre, half a million residents fled from the city. On June 11, ISIL militants seized Tikrit, an important point on the road to Baghdad, threatening to capture the Iraqi capital. Under these difficult conditions, the United States stabbed Iraq in the back by delaying the delivery of F-16IQ fighters that were part of a 12 billion dollar contract for the supply of US weapons to Iraq. The delivery was delayed for an indefinite time under a fairly cynical pretext – until the security situation improved in Iraq. Along with the F-16IQs, the Iraqis were to receive guided bombs and other weapons that could help stop ISIL’s offensive. Faced with a de facto refusal on the part of the US to supply Iraq with the required arms, the Iraqi government appealed for urgent help to Russia, its tried and tested partner in military-technical cooperation. On June 28, a few days after Iraq made its request, Russia delivered the first Su-25 ground attack aircraft, which were part of its Defense Ministry’s strategic reserve. The aircraft were followed by artillery systems. On July 28, 2014, a Ruslan An-124-100 of the Volga-Dnieper air company brought to Baghdad three TOS-1A heavy flamethrowers (BM-1 launchers and TZM-T transloaders). They were put into action before long. Most Iraqi officers and experts were trained in Russia and quickly learned how to operate them. The Russian weapons helped Iraq contain the Iraqi offensive. “Su-25 aircraft largely helped to shift the military balance in favor of the Iraqi army. They were used for dealing air strikes, as a result of which many strategically important regions were liberated,” said an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman.

To sum up, Russia not only returned to Iraq’s arms market after an interval of more than 20 years, but also helped its authorities to prevent its seizure by the Islamists. The contrast between the attitudes of the US and Russia was also important, and was played up by Russian diplomats and arms exporters. America, which was considered to be an ally of the new Iraqi authorities, refused to supply them with F-15IQ fighters, whereas Russia promptly responded to their request. In the meantime, US-Iraqi relations continued to deteriorate. The United States was supposed to deliver F-16IQs in September 2014 but has yet to supply them. The next announced delivery date is the latter half of 2015. Moreover, Iraqi media carried leaks from national intelligence sources to the effect that the United States was supplying arms to Iraq’s enemy, ISIL. As evidence they report that the US Air Force is dropping military cargos on ISIL-controlled territory. They are publishing numerous photos and videos confirming that ISIL militants have American weapons, and cite testimonies about the involvement of American military instructors in training ISIL militants. For all of its dubious and conspiracy-like character, this version is largely supported by part of the Iraqi establishment. Facts of US direct support for Kurdish forces opposing the country’s central government do not facilitate understanding between the United States and Iraq either. Occasional altercations between US and Iraqi officials are indicative against this backdrop. Commenting on ISIL militants’ capture of Ar-Ramadi for CNN last May, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight” and interpreted this as “an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.” The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, charged the US Defense Secretary with using incorrect information about the potential and opportunities of the Iraqi army in fighting ISIL. Iraqi Minister of the Interior Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban told RT that Iraq hoped for Russia’s help in fighting the Islamists. This creates an additional opportunity for Russia and its arms producers to supply Iraq with weapons. Such mutually advantageous and financially-based military-political cooperation is seldom achieved on the arms market. In rendering assistance to the secular Iraqi government, Russia is saving its old partner from destruction by ISIL, thereby consolidating its military and political influence in the region. Russia is not only acquiring a reputation as a reliable partner, but is also bringing in money that its economy badly needs as a result of sanctions and the current crisis. 

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