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WASHINGTON – The Iranian-backed regime of the Shia Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently has been taking steps to orient his government more toward Moscow and rely less on Washington or any other Western influence, according to Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
The move helps to improve Moscow’s relations with Iraq as well as Iran as it continues to defend Iranian ally Syria. The goal is to preserve the relationship as well as recast its own influence in the Middle East.
The extension of Russia’s influence in the Middle East also allows Moscow to assert more leverage in the region against the U.S.
In recent weeks, Maliki concluded a $4.2 billion dollar arms deal with Moscow that includes some 30 Mi-28 attack helicopters and 42 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems while discussions continue for Iraq to acquire MiG-29 fighter jets and armored vehicles.
The signing of such a deal followed a recent visit Maliki made to Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Now, Maliki intends to replace ExxonMobil with the Russian companies LUKoil and Gazprom Neft in one of its oil fields. Sources suggest that it was Maliki who raised the prospect in his recent meeting with Putin, who still is considering the offer.
Baghdad’s shift toward Moscow comes at a time when the Shiite regimes of Iran and Iraq are under increasing pressure from Sunni Salafists, particularly in Iran’s relations with the Shiite Alawite regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For Washington, it raises concerns that Maliki is beginning to strengthen Iraq’s ties with Russia.
Such strengthening is all the more perplexing since Moscow-Baghdad relations have not fared well since the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who made Russia one of his primary sources of arms.
Moscow did not take sides during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, since the Kremlin has good ties with Iran. However, Russia backed the arms embargo against Iraq when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
While some analysts see Iran today as a competitor with Russia for influence in Central Asia, other analysts see the relationship as complimentary, since Moscow needs Iran to help offset the growing Sunni Salafist influence in the region and particularly along its own southern flank in the North Caucasus region.
The Shiite regime of Maliki now sees itself threatened by a more assertive Sunni Turkey that is seeking to spread its influence throughout the Middle East region in competition with Shiite Iran.
However, Iran is seen as competing with Turkey in Iraq, especially in the country’s northern Kurdish area where there are large oil reserves which Turkey needs. Turkey also hopes to cultivate the Kurdish government to allow it to place troops there to intercept the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which seeks to establish its own independent homeland.
For the U.S., Russia’s reassertion of its influence in Iraq is intended to check any effort by Washington to do the same, more so now because influence especially in the wake of the Arab Spring is very low among the new Islamist governments emerging from it.
“Over the past decade, Russia has benefited greatly from U.S. involvement in the Islamic world, especially since it diverted Washington’s focus on cultivating influence among former Soviet states,” the open intelligence group Stratfor said in a report.
“This led to a resurgence of Russian influence in parts of its former empire and allowed Moscow to bolster defenses in other parts,” the report said. “However, the end of the Iraq War – along with the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – means that U.S. attention on the Middle East is dwindling.”
In asserting leverage successfully over Washington, the Kremlin sees it has more influence in pursuing its own policies toward such issues as ballistic missile defense in Europe and the expansion eastward of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“A relationship with Baghdad would allow Moscow to continue shaping its positions in the region regarding Turkey, Israel and the United States without directly challenging Europe’s interests in the region,” the report added. “For Baghdad, Moscow could balance Iraq’s security need for the United States without raising concerns from Iran or Syria.”
The U.S. recently finalized its own arms sales with Iraq, including F-16s, in an effort to remain relevant in Iraq and offset Iranian gains. However, the effort is assessed by analysts to be limited, especially in a country ruled by a prime minister sympathetic to Iran.
At the same time he made the multi-billion dollar arms deal with Russia, Maliki said the deal with Russia would be made without jeopardizing its ties with Washington.
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