Eastern Europe and Arms Sales Opportunities: Tom Owen Looks at Who Provided Military Ordinance to Iraq. (Iraq)
Owen, Tom, The Middle East
In the last Iraq war, as in this one, leftist commentators have made great play of the supposed arming of Iraq by the West. Yet there is scant evidence for this. A glimpse at the standard Iraqi armoury reveals vast quantities of Soviet-produced kit: T-55 and T-72 tanks, BMP and BRDM armoured vehicles, Scud missiles and the inevitable Kalashnikovs. Most of this obsolete equipment is a relic of Iraq's past as a Soviet client in the Cold War, yet recently an increasing weight of detail has emerged pointing to former Warsaw Pact and communist states continuing (in many cases in contravention of UN resolutions) to arm Iraq.
With Iraq desperate to replenish its armoury in recent years, it comes as no surprise that former communist states have seized arms sales opportunities. In the cases of Russia, Ukraine and several others, weapons remain one of their few viable export products. Penetration of state structures by individuals and groups of dubious honesty means that moral, legal and practical barriers to such exports can usually be overcome if the dollars are forthcoming. Yet there may also be, at least partly, an ideological motivation in some cases, as countries like Serbia see parallels between their own position and Iraq's, vis-a-vis the US.
So far the most visible diplomatic spat has been over Russian-supplied Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming systems. These systems are able to block the satellite signals that guide precision weapons such as Tomahawk cruise missiles, `blinding' them so that they miss their targets. Allegations surfaced in The Washington Post on 23 March claiming a company named Aviaconversiya had supplied five GPS jamming units to Iraq. Two other Russian companies were accused of selling anti-tank missiles and night-vision goggles to Iraq.
In what was probably a fit of pique, provoked by the failure of several Tomahawks, President Bush telephoned Vladimir Putin to complain about the sale. On 24 March, the day after The Washington Post story, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced that although Iraq had `repeatedly approached' Russia for arms `since October 2002', no equipment has been supplied in contravention of UN restrictions.
This is almost certainly true in the formal sense: controversial arms sales such as this are usually conducted through a third-party or `cut-out'. Indeed, both Aviaconversiya and KBP, accused of selling anti-tank missiles, are obliged to operate through the Russian state arms broker Rosoboronexport, which is unlikely to expose itself to allegations of sanctions busting. Interestingly however, KBP admits selling its missiles to Syria in 1998.
If Damascus is suspected of acting as a middleman for Russian arms supplies to Iraq, it will add weight to US allegations that Syria is arming Iraq. On 28 March Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted: "We have information that shipments of military supplies, including night-vision goggles, have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."
These are not the only allegations that Russia has covertly armed Iraq in recent years. In February, Newsweek reported that via a Belorussian cut-out, Russia had supplied Baghdad with the S-300P air defence missile system, one of its most effective products in this field. In the same month The Financial Times reported that unidentified Russian dealers had attempted to sell Igla man-portable surface-to-air missiles "in one of a number of transactions where the ultimate destination of Iraq was concealed by using `cover' purchasers in neighbouring countries such as Syria." To what degree such alleged sales have helped Iraq's air-defence effort remains unclear.
While Moscow at least observes diplomatic niceties when arming questionable regimes, Ukraine makes only a token effort. …