Russia boosts ties with Iraq in challenge to US influence
BAGHDAD – Russia is ready to sell civil airliners to Iraq and keep providing it with military aid to fight Islamic State, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on Thursday, accompanied on a trip to Baghdad by the biggest Russian delegation in years.
The mission by nearly 100 government and business officials was part of a drive by Moscow to strengthen commercial and security ties with Iraq, potentially eroding U.S. influence in one of the world’s most critical regions.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said discussions had revolved around providing military assistance to defeat Islamic State militants, also known as Daesh, who seized a third of Iraq in 2014 and want to redraw the map of the Middle East.
“We need international support from multiple sources, be it from within the international coalition or outside of it,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led coalition which has launched thousands of airstrikes and provided training and advice to Iraq’s military.
“We need support, training and intelligence-sharing,” he told reporters. “Intelligence plays an important role in the war on Daesh, and we’ve been coordinating for a while now with the Russian side to place this information in the hands of Iraqis.”
Russia has invested millions of dollars in Iraq’s energy sector and last year opened a command center in Baghdad under an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran and Syria aimed at combating Islamic State.
Rogozin said he had met with his country’s envoy to the command center, thought to be a one-star general. He said through a translator that Moscow would continue providing Iraq with military equipment which had helped “raise the combat readiness of the Iraqi armed forces”, but provided few details.
He told Russian news agency TASS he hoped military aid would help Iraq retake the northern city of Mosul and other areas held by Islamic State.
Frustrated with the pace and depth of the U.S.-led military campaign against the militants, Iraqi officials have said they would lean heavily on Russia in the struggle to defeat the Sunni Muslim jihadists. The command center has shared intelligence for air strikes in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Four months of Russian air strikes in Syria have tipped momentum toward President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s five-year-old civil war, undermining U.S.-backed efforts to revive peace talks.
The officials signed a wide-ranging memorandum of understanding that included measures to more than double bilateral trade and boost Iraq’s electricity production, which only meets around 60 percent of its peak demand during the hot summer months.
Trade last year was nearly $2 billion, mostly made up of Russian exports, according to TASS. Rogozin said Russia could provide Sukhoi Superjet airliners for Iraq’s civil aviation.
He proposed holding the next meeting in Mosul, which Iraq’s government has vowed to recapture from Islamic State this year.
“Economic cooperation must coincide with settling security matters,” said Rogozin. “The faster you liberate this city, the sooner we can get (back) to Iraq.” –Reuters