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The dilemma of arming Iraq

The dilemma of arming Iraq

Iraq depends on imported arms for its defence and in the fight against Islamic State, but its purchasing plans have been in trouble, writes Salah Nasrawi

The celebrations at the Balad Airbase in north Baghdad on 13 July to mark the arrival of four F-16 jets that Iraq had bought from the United States spoke volumes about Iraq’s arms acquisition programme, as the country remains gridlocked in the war against Islamic State (IS) militants, communal tensions and growing regional turmoil.

While the Iraqi security forces are in dire need of advanced weapons to fight the IS terror group and face up to increasing threats from neighbours, the government has been apparently helplessly caught in a trap of arms sales’ restrictions, foreign policy restraints, local sectarian struggles, and severe budget shortages.

Corruption and inefficiency in the security forces are well-known additional problems for Iraq’s arms supplies. When IS militants seized large swathes of the country last year, the army abandoned huge amounts of military vehicles and weapons. Large quantities of equipment were also lost to IS when the jihadists captured Ramadi in May.

The dilemma of arming Iraq is expected to undermine plans to drive back IS and in the long run to block efforts to restore stability to the war-torn nation and stop its neighbours from interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

The case of the F-16 jets is just one example of how Iraq has been unable to build a defence procurement programme appropriate to its security needs some 12 years after Washington dissolved the Iraqi army after the US-led invasion of the country.

Baghdad ordered 36 of the $65 million Lockheed Martin planes in 2011, but deliveries were delayed several times despite Iraq’s repeated requests to speed up the transfer to boost its ability to defend its airspace and borders.

The decision to send four F-16 warplanes was made only after Iraq threatened to cancel the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) it signed with the United States in 2008 which obliges Washington to help Iraq enhance its ability “to deter all threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.”

More crippling hurdles surfaced shortly after the Iraqi air force showed off the first delivery at the Balad Airbase, when Kurdish officials revealed that the deal had come with strings attached and that it did not give the Baghdad government free rein to operate the planes.

A media outlet close to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s ruling party said this week that the Kurds should have a say on how the planes would be operated. It claimed that the US had made it clear to Baghdad that it could not operate the jets in combat missions over Iraqi towns and cities.

“The jets are ready to use, but they will not be used against IS for the time being,” Rudaw quoted a Kurdish MP as saying. He said that “no Iraqi F-16 combat missions are allowed without Kurdish pilots.”

Rudaw quoted another Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) official as raising concerns that the newly acquired jets could be used to attack the Kurds in the event of a Baghdad-Kurdish conflict. Neither Baghdad nor Washington has reacted to these reports.

Like the Kurds, Israel and Iraq’s Arab neighbours have put pressure on Washington not to deliver the planes. As a result, the jets were downgraded to the F-16IQ Block 52 type that have lesser capabilities than the more advanced F-16C/D Block 52 base systems which many other Middle Eastern nations have.

For example, the jets to be shipped to Iraq will not have sophisticated air-to-ground weapons like GPS-guided JDAMs, or advanced air-to-air missiles, and this has been designed to alleviate Israel’s and the country’s Arab neighbours’ fears.

Such revelations have increased doubts that the jets can provide Iraq with an air-defence force that can deal with threats from its neighbours having more advanced air forces, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or have at least some of the equipment required to handle serious threats.

Iraq is now believed to have some 137 military aircraft, down from the some 950 planes shortly before the 1991 Gulf War that dislodged former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. Iraq’s current fleet consists mostly of transport and training planes, with only about 15 Russian-made Su-24 Sukhoi bombers in its arsenal.

On 6 July, a Sukhoi dropped a bomb accidently on a Baghdad neighbourhood, killing at least eight people and wounding others. The Iraqi air force said the jet, returning from a bombing raid against IS militants, had experienced a “technical problem” that had caused the bomb to fall.

Iraq has been relying heavily on US-led coalition warplanes to carry out airstrikes against IS targets. There have also been reports of Iran’s air force attacking IS targets in Iraq after the jihadi group captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in summer 2014.

Nevertheless, the current dilemma is not only about planes. Iraq has also complained of receiving downgraded or overused weapons coming from US army stockpiles. Other complaints include severe political conditions attached to the deals and overpricing.

The US newspaper US News & World Report reported last week that Baghdad had accepted only 300 of the some 3,000 pieces of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected combat trucks, or MRAPs, that the US had offered to provide it with.

The MRAPs were part of a delivery of vehicles that was made up largely of equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan and stockpiled in Kuwait. It is not clear why the US has been reluctant to provide Iraq with new types of trucks.

To show how serious the problem is, Iraq has signed some US$15 billion worth of arms orders with the United States, but many of them still need to receive the green light from government agencies and be approved by Congress.

In response to these hurdles, Iraq has sought to diversify the sources of its imports of weapons and technology and reduce its dependence on the United States. By inviting more players, such as Russia, China and the Czech Republic, to the table, Iraq hopes to dissuade Washington from exercising a monopoly over Iraq or of trying to blackmail it.

Last week, Iraqi defence minister Khalid Obaidi travelled to Moscow to sign a new deal with the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), the country’s biggest arms supplier.

Neither Baghdad nor Moscow revealed details about the deal, but FSMTC head Alexander Fomin told Russian media that Moscow was committed to helping Iraq strengthen its military capabilities in the light of current terror threats.

Moscow and Baghdad have also been expanding their military cooperation. In 2012, the Baghdad government signed a deal with Russia’s Rosoboronexport that has been variously estimated at US$4.2 to US$5 billion to provide Iraq with Mi-35 and Mi-28NE attack helicopters plus mobile SA-22 Pantsir low-level air-defence systems.

Russian officials, including president Vladimir Putin, have said that Moscow is ready to supply weapons to Iraq to aid the fight against the militants. The Russian-made helicopters have been extensively used to fight, seize and defend land retaken from IS.

Since IS advances last year, there have been reports that many other countries have sent weapons, ammunition and equipment to tackle the militants’ push, but the claims of the arms shipments appear to have been exaggerated.

The situation, however, remains dire, with evident serious weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces and a lack of the necessary equipment to defeat IS or to defend Iraq against regional threats.

Undoubtedly, the Iraqi government and military command bear primary responsibility for the mismanagement of the country’s armaments programme, largely due to their failure to rebuild an efficient Iraqi army.

Incompetence and corruption have played a large part in worsening this problem despite an annual military expenditure of some 25 per cent of the country’s gross national product (GNP) since post-Saddam Iraq had its first elected government in 2006.

The country’s economic crisis due to the sharp fall in oil prices and the subsequent shortage of funding is expected to hit the armaments programme hard and with it the Iraqi security forces’ performance in the war against IS.

However, by relinquishing their responsibility to arm the Iraqi security forces the world, and in particular the United States, is walking away from Iraq, allowing the war against IS to drag on and putting time on the IS side.

Until they rethink their overall strategy in fighting IS, including a review of their modest weapons supplies to Baghdad, the world powers will stand accused of failing to defeat the terrorist group and of preventing Iraq’s collapse.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Aug, 6, 2015