Iraq’s fishy business

Iraq’s fishy business

A mysterious Russian plane landing in Baghdad airport prompts questions of illicit oil-for-weapons deals with IS, writes Salah Nasrawi

The news came first from a Jordan-based television channel owned by an Iraqi Kurdish tycoon and well known for his dubious business. A Russian cargo plane landed at Baghdad airport on 2 November with some tons of weapons on board after it was denied permission to land in Suleimaniya International Airport in the autonomous Kurdistan Region, Al-Tagheir TV reported.

The delivery of weapons and ammunition to a country in a state of war shouldn’t have made headlines except that the story surrounding the plane started growing more mysterious after the Baghdad government distanced itself from the shipment.

The stunning reports must have also raised concern with the US administration which is leading an international coalition to support Iraq in the war against the barbaric Islamic State (IS) terror group which has seized one third of Iraq’s territories.

Details about the plane and its cargo gradually began emerging highlighting suspicions that the weapons on board may have been on their way to IS.

According to accounts given by Kurdistan’s media, the Russian plane was approaching Suleimaniya when it was denied permission to land in the city’s international airport which is under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main parties in the region.

Kurdish media outlet Awene quoted Head Manager of Suleimaniya International Airport Tahir Abdullah as saying the airport refused to grant permission for landing because it had no prior knowledge of the plane’s arrival. Awene quoted a PUK official as saying the plane was carrying 44 tons of weapons, including anti-tank rockets, guns and night vision equipment.

Basnews, another Kurdish outlet quoted Atta Sarawi, a local Kurdish official, as saying the plane was expected to land in Suleimaniya airport. “There was coordination in this regard but there were communication problems with Baghdad. So, the plane continued its flight to Baghdad,” Sarawi said. A translated version of Basnews story appeared on the Arabic news outlet Elaf on 12 November quoted Sarawi as saying the weapons on the plane were sent to the “Kurdistan Region.”

On 15 November Basnews came with another story on its website saying the weapons “might have been sent to a senior Kurdistan Democratic Party official.” It quoted “unofficial” sources as saying that the pilot of the Russian “military plane” which started its journey from the Czech Republic told Turkish air traffic controllers in Adana, southeast Turkey, that the plane’s cargo was mainly a cigarettes shipment bound to Iraq.

In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials kept their mouths shut about the plane and its dangerous goods until the news finally came out setting off a flurry of speculative reports. The Ministry of Transport, which is responsible for civil aviation, said permission for landing at the capital airport was granted after the pilot informed the tower that the plane was running out of fuel.

“The decision to grant the plane permission to land came in line with Chicago Agreement on International Civil Aviation in order to avoid a risk of falling,” said the ministry in a statement on 15 November.  It said the pilot was instructed to land on a runway in the airport used by the army. The plane then parked in an area under the Ministry of Defense’s control and weapons were seized, the ministry said.

Both the centeral government and the Kurdistan Region’s authority said they are conducting an investigation into the case. Neither Moscow nor Prague, however, reacted to the news. Also, the US military which is participating in defending the Baghdad airport and participate in air control of the Iraqi airspace made no mention of the incident.

Yet, in another version of the story widely circulated on social networks and TV programmes, the weapons in the plane were sent to a prominent Suleimaniya-based Kurdish businessman who is closely connected to the PUK, which is headed by Iraq’s former President Jalal Talabani.

According to these reports the businessman, who is known to be a hugely rich man who has made his fortune in illicit deals and contracts, is also accused of conducting trade with the IS terror group. A well-known Iraqi analyst told the Baghdadiya television this week that the Kurdish businessman was also responsible for supplying IS with at least one shipment of pick-up vehicles now used by the militants in fight against Iraqi soldiers and the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmergas.

Another Iraqi television network, Al-Sharqiya reported on its website that “several officials in a big a Kurdish-owned mobile company, their sons and a middleman who are close to one of the main (Kurdish) parties are suspects” in the plane case.

Conspiracy theories abound that the same entrepreneur runs investment portfolios of Kurdish parties and have business relations with top officials in Kurdistan and the Baghdad cenetral government.

The shadowy role of businessmen in Iraq has grown since the US invasion in 2003. Many of these businessmen were involved in scams in the US reconstruction projects following the invasion and before that in the UN-led oil-for-food scheme during Saddam Hussein’s era. Billions of dollars are believed to have been skimmed in the two programmes and went mostly into the pockets of these businessmen and corrupt politicians.

Since it is hard to confirm these reports, eyes are now turned toward the Iraqi authorities and the KRG to unveil the secrecy surrounding the plane, who was ordering the shipment and which is its final destination. The allegations are so serious that prompted Kurdish Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani to tell reporters that “it is considered high treason.”

The disclosure comes at a time when Baghdad’s authorities and the Kurdish government are gridlocked over oil, budget and weapons delivery to the Peshmergas. The Obama administration has been putting pressure on both sides to resolve their disputes and work together to fight the Islamic State terror group.

The Baghdad government suspended allotments of Kurdistan in the state budget, including the Peshmergas salaries after its government started exporting oil produced in their region independently. Under an interim deal the central government agreed last week to will pay $500 million to the KRG, from the state budget while the Kurds will let the Iraqi government receive 150,000 bpd of the oil produced by the Kurds.

On Saturday, Hawal, a Kurdish news outlet, said the Peshmergas are refusing to take part in the fight against IS unless their full salaries are resumed. It quoted Dleir Mustafa, Deputy Head of the Peshmerags Committee at the KGR parliament, as saying that another precondition for the Peshmergas to fight IS is to allow weapons delivery direct and not through the Baghdad government.

Since IS captured Mosul and several other key Sunni-populated cities in June, reports emerged of Kurdish oil traders smuggling oil from IS controlled areas in Iraq and Syria into neighbouring as far as Afghanistan. According to Western intelligence reports the smuggled oil is sometimes sold for a price as low as US $20 per barrel.

The US Treasury Department estimates that IS takes in millions of dollars a month from oil sales. Other estimates range between US$274,000 to three US$ million a day. Trafficking might have been cut down by US-led coalition air strikes on oil production and refinery targets in IS territory.

Last week KRG Interior Minister Karim Sinjari disclosed that Kurdish security forces have captured 11 individuals charged with smuggling oil with IS and for investigation. Turkish officials have denied or downplayed reports about smuggling IS’s oil through Turkey.

Hawal, the Kurdish news service, reported last week that large amounts of money are being transferred through the Kurdish controlled areas to towns taken by IS. It quoted Nouzad Barzanchi, head of the Security Department in Kirkuk as saying transactions are being made to people in Mosul and Shirqat which are under IS control. Baghdad media have reported that several bureaus in the capital are being investigated for transactions made to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and France which the Iraqi intelligence believes went to beneficiaries connected with IS.

Some of the money which is being transferred through licensed exchange bureaus are believed to be payments for other smuggled goods such as wheat, barley and cattle confiscated from farmers and raisers.

Corruption in Iraq has been endemic since the US invasion nearly twelve years ago. Iraqi state officials have been acting as enablers for corrupt deals in a number of ways involving a range of businesses. In many cases there have been reports of corrupt professionals and army officers who are selling arms or intelligence to IS and other terrorist groups which are later used in attacks against government offices or security forces.

Like many previous cases of corruption before we may not know the secret behind the Russian plane. Yet, the revelations of the oil-for-weapons deal have unveiled a trio of deeply corrupt politicians, terrorists and dubious businessmen who are not only losing the country’s significant proportions of its wealth, but they band together to destroy it.

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