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Russia Seeks to Rebuild Influence in Iraq

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, October 10, 2012.Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, October 10, 2012.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, October 10, 2012.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, October 10, 2012.
Almost one decade after American troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kremlin is seeking to regain some of the influence it enjoyed in the country during the near quarter century of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Russia’s president and prime minister rolled out the red carpet last week for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who came to Moscow with his defense and trade ministers and a large group of business leaders. The first priority was negotiating a $4 billion weapons deal, and Russian President Vladimir Putin got straight to the point.

“Iraqi specialists are familiar with our weapons systems, which are highly recommended,” Mr. Putin told the visiting Iraqi leader. “And I'm confident that we'll find a mutual understanding in these important directions, which will unquestionably increase not only returns in economic trade, but will also increase trust between the two governments.”

Alexander Golts, a military analyst, said that under Saddam Hussein, 90 percent of Iraq’s arms came from Russia, or from its predecessor state, the Soviet Union. The new weapons package is to include air cargo planes and anti-aircraft guns.
 
“Russian weapons are simpler, not the most modern,” said Golts, who edits the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. “They can be used by soldiers without a high degree of technological training.”

Business, or foreign policy?
 
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, Moscow has tried to make more and more of its arms sales straight commercial transactions.

Although Iraq is rich in oil revenues, Alexei Malashenko, a regional expert for the Carnegie Moscow office, wondered if Moscow’s sales will end up being an expensive foreign policy move for Russia.

"I don't know if they will pay,” he said of the Iraqis. “In the Kremlin, some people hope that Iraq will pay for these arms."

Malashenko and other analysts in Moscow and in Washington say Baghdad is trying to diversify away from its heavy dependence on arms from the United States.

James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and to Turkey, spoke to VOA about Iraq's plans to buy $4 billion in arms from Russia.

“That would still be a very small portion of what Iraq has received from the United States, and the $12 billion of outstanding orders that it is now working through,” he said in an interview in Washington. “Plus, we have very close counter-terrorism cooperation; we have very close cooperation in the energy field."

Russian energy companies Gazprom and Lukoil are working in Iraq. President Putin urged Prime Minister Maliki to allow Russian companies to produce more oil and gas there.

In addition to trade, the high profile visit had a strong foreign policy element for Russia.

Over the last year, the Kremlin repeatedly took the losing sides in the Arab Spring - in Egypt, in Tunisia and in Libya. Now, Malashenko believes, the Kremlin hopes to rebuild influence in the Arab world, starting with Iraq.

"Maybe they hope in Moscow that, from Iraq, Russia will begin coming back to Middle East,” said Malashenko, an analyst of the Muslim world.

Bridging sectarian divide
 
In Moscow, Iraq’s prime minister repeatedly praised Russia’s policy of opposing Turkish and Sunni Arab intervention in Syria. In an interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency, he said about Syria, “Our position coincides with Russia’s position on this issue.”

This was well received in Moscow, which suffered the humiliation on Thursday of seeing Turkish fighter jets intercept a Syrian plane that was flying from Moscow to Damascus. Turkish authorities said they confiscated dual use communications equipment. Russia said it was carrying radar equipment.

But Carnegie’s Malashenko stressed that the Kremlin is careful to maintain good relations with Turkey, a historical antagonist in wars dating back to the 16th century.

"Despite special relations between Moscow and regime in Syria, despite this story with aircraft, Russia wants to keep normal relations with Turkey,” he said.

Some analysts speculated that Russia is tilting toward a “Shi'ite crescent” - a loose alliance that would stretch from the Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq and Iran. Facing this group would be a "Sunni alliance," stretching from Turkey to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies.

Malashenko and others said the weak links to the formation of such a “crescent” are the embattled Assad government in Syria, and the mistrust between Shi'ite Arabs in the Middle East and Shi'ite Persians in Iran.

For now, Russia’s goal is to rebuild influence in Iraq, a key Arab nation. It is avoiding overly committing itself to one side in the region’s growing sectarian divide.

James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
October 15, 2012 8:49 PM
It’s laughable when Mr Golts admitted that once victorious Russian weapons became “not most modern” as a euphemism to disastrous attitude of the regime to science, technology, industry and education. Mr Putin plunged Russia into political stagnation bordering with clinical death but tries to compensate in highly controversial deals by passing between Scilla and Charybdis (of sectarian divide).


by: Damon P from: London
October 15, 2012 4:20 PM
It seemed that Turkey has came off a little desperate in grounding Syrian airplane, while Iran is using Iraqi airspace to ship weapons to Syria.


by: Haroon from: Afghanistan
October 15, 2012 2:38 PM
the Afghan refugees in outside of Afghanistan wished that ISAF. NATO and American troops could bring peace and stop fighting in Afghanistan from 2002 to yet. but after eleven years three Taliban can ran-out 100 ISAF, NATO and American troops into their bases.

American lost their 2,000 troops in Afghanistan during 11 years, their yelling and screaming covered all around the world. when Russia left 12,864 troops deaths and 14,390 injured and approximately 29,700 mad in 14 years war. they never yelled and screamed to the world because they were invited by Tarakey and Hafizullah Ameen. America and NATO were invited and came by shoulders of Karzai. well, I pray for Iraq people that they find their way. like other Russia's allies


by: Haroon from: Afghanistan
October 15, 2012 2:12 PM
Luck to Iraqi leader at least they have knowledge that they close their relation tightly with a powerful country in the world. I am sure Russia will raise Iraq on high level of success as Russia did for Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Syria, Belarus and other 100 countries in the world that no powers are comparable with them. the best policy of Russia is equalization of people. you cannot find a rich people beside of poor people. from President to drive they have one breakfast, lunch and dinner.

if President eat bread with tea you can see driver also have bread with tea. if the driver has rice with meat the president has rice with meat too. it is called Russia policy in it's allies countries. not like American allies countries one person is dying from starving another is dying by more eating. Shame on American I am not American to eat poison


by: Nazabayev from: Ukraine
October 15, 2012 12:33 PM
listen Turkies... this is all designed to really hurt you... Russians just do not like you... intensely... and now, with your Islamic bs you had given them a pretext to screw you with a lot of pain... enjoy!!

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