9 OCT, 2012
MOSCOW: Russia on Tuesday announced signing more than $4.2 billion in arms deals with Iraq that make it into the violence-torn Middle East nation's largest weapons supplier after the United States.
The groundbreaking deals were disclosed a day ahead of talks between visiting Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Vladimir Putin that offered Russia a rare chance to build up its dwindling contacts in the Middle East.
A joint statement issued after Maliki's talks on Tuesday with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev said the contracts were agreed during delegation visits this year and totalled "more than $4.2 billion."
Russian media said the deliveries -- agreed over the preceding few months and not in a package expected to have been unveiled this week -- covered 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems.
Further discussions were also said to be underway for Iraq's eventual acquisition of a large batch of MiG-29 fighters and helicopters along with heavy weaponry.
The joint statement said the deals were secretly discussed as early as April and revisited against in July and August during visits to Russia by Iraqi delegations that included Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi.
Russia is seeking to take its ties with Iraq to a new level and win almost certain support for its controversial position on Syria during the powerful Shiite prime minister's first visit to Moscow in nearly four years.
The battles ripping apart Syria threaten to unseat Moscow's sole unwavering Arab ally Bashar al-Assad and make it all the more crucial for Russia to forge regional alliances elsewhere.
Maliki came to Moscow voicing a position on the 19 months of bloodshed that was almost an exact reflection of Russia's.
"We support neither the Syrian opposition nor the government in Damascus," Maliki said in a speech at the foreign ministry guest house.
"Iraq and Russia should cooperate on regional relations so that we can find a peaceful solution to the existing crisis," Maliki told Medvedev.
The Putin meeting in particular should offer Russia an opportunity to create a new partnership 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 as the country in turn went on to forge its own new relationship with Iran -- leaving Moscow on the outside.
The more recent toppling of pro-Kremlin regime in Libya and rise of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have left Moscow viewing Syria as its last major Middle East outpost and a vital remaining access route to the Mediterranean Sea.
Maliki for his part will be returning home secure in the knowledge he has enlisted a brand new supplier of weapons that -- unlike the United States -- makes no political demands of him.
"As far as our arms-purchasing policies are concerned, we do not ask for anyone's advice first. We do not intend to be a part of someone else's (export) monopoly," Maliki stressed 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."
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.
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