Russia on Tuesday sought to take ties with Iraq to a new level as it hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the first time in four years with an eye on a mega arms deal and harmony over the Syria crisis.
The conflict ripping Syria apart threatens to ultimately unseat Moscow’s sole unwavering Middle East ally President Bashar al-Assad and makes it all the more crucial for Russia to forge regional alliances elsewhere.
Maliki arrived on Monday in Moscow for three days of discussions that reports speculated would conclude with the signing of a US$4.3 billion arms deal that would make Russia Iraq’s biggest supplier of weapons after the United States.
Russia was also likely to find Maliki offering a ready ear for its policy of strongly opposing outside intervention in the Syria crisis that has angered Moscow’s Western partners.
“We support neither the Syrian opposition nor the government in Damascus,” Maliki said in a speech at the foreign ministry guest house on his arrival in a virtual restatement of Russia’s own official policy.
“We are against military intervention into Syria. There would then be the danger of the crisis spreading to the whole region.”
The talks offer President Vladimir Putin a rare chance to create a new partnership with Iraq and rekindle ties that have lagged since the toppling of the secular Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US invasion.
The United States became the main foreign player in Shiite-majority Iraq that in turn forged its own new relationship with Iran – leaving Moscow out in the cold.
Russia views Syria as its last major Middle East outpost and has most recently refused to condemn its deadly volleys of fire into Turkish territory that have edged the two sides ever closer to an all-out war.
Maliki is due to meet Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev later on Tuesday and Putin on Wednesday.
But the powerful Shiite prime minister also intends to use his high-profile stay – one he described as a bridge-building mission after a decade of “not always cloudless relations” – to wean off Iraq’s dependence on US arms.
“As far as our arms-purchasing policies are concerned, we do not ask for anyone’s advice first. We do not intend to play the role of being someone’s monopoly interests,” said Maliki in reference to the United States.
“We have good relations with the United States and Iran. We do not want to live surrounded by constant conflict. We buy weapons based on the needs that we feel we have.”
The Vedomosti business daily said that the US$4.3 billion negotiated arms agreement involves 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems.
Further discussions are reportedly underway for Iraq’s eventual acquisition of MiG-29 jets and heavy armoured vehicles along with other weaponry.
Vedomosti said the deal would be Russia’s largest since 2006 and a symbol of its return to the Middle East arms markets after years of decline caused by the surging US presence.
Maliki is travelling with Iraq’s oil and trade minister as well as the chief of its investment commission – two officials in a perfect position to approve new investments from Russia’s state energy holdings Rosneft and Gazprom as well as the private firm Lukoil.
Both Russian giants enjoyed lucrative deals in the country before those were restructured following the 2003 fall of the Saddam regime.
Both have expressed interest in new fields in the region that could compensate for gradually diminishing production at some of the two companies’ most important but oldest fields.
Rosneft chief Igor Sechin said this month that his company was considering a cooperation proposal on one field from the US super-giant ExxonMobil.