While for many in the Middle East the sum of all fears is an Iranian-inspired nuclear arms race, this terrifying specter should not distract from the very real scramble for conventional weapons that is already in play across the region. The visit of the Iranian president to Lebanon will refocus attention on the capabilities of Hezbollah, yet Iraq remains the most contested strategic prize with would-be allies in both Tehran and Washington engaged in a high-stakes tug of war.
When it comes to influence, nothing says "be my friend" better than brand new shiny weapon systems. Indeed, despite Iraq's experience of a months-long democratic vacuum and playing host to a series of dangerously unresolved issues around the future identity of the state, western arms continue to be snapped up by the interim government in Baghdad -- whose estimated oil reserves have recently increased from 115bn barrels to 143bn barrels.
Following the recent record-breaking deal to sell $60.5bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Financial Times reported at the end of last month that the Pentagon proposed to sell weapons worth $4.2bn to Iraq, including 18 F-16 fighter aircraft, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, laser-guided bombs and reconnaissance equipment.
This deal is the latest in a series that has seen Iraq purchase more than $5bn worth of US weapons since 2006, and inherit a significant amount of equipment left behind as part of the US redeployment. According to UPI, the Pentagon stated that the deal would make Iraq "a more valuable partner in an important area of the world as well as supporting Iraq's legitimate needs" regarding self-defense.
While UN security council resolution 1546 theoretically continues the embargo on arms and related material against Iraq, it provides exemptions for equipment required by the government of Iraq or the multinational forces. After all, the US exit strategy from the country relied on building Iraqi security forces over 664,000 strong in order to control the country. Britain also subscribed to such a strategy; according to Foreign Office documents, some 29 military "standard individual export licences" worth £3,542,484 were issued last year.
There are numerous dangers in empowering an Iraqi military in the current national and regional environment. Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen warned last year that Iraq was witnessing the "classic conditions for a military coup" -- where a venal political elite divorced from the population lives inside the Green Zone, while the Iraqi military outside the zone's walls grows both more capable and closer to the people, working with them and trying to address their concerns.
A Rand report into the US redeployment from Iraq recognized that "there is a risk Iraq's political and military leaders could be emboldened by the departure of US forces and their own growing strength to seize control".
The record-breaking hiatus in forming a government will only have furthered Iraqis' contempt for their politicians and empowered the hand of the military.
Another danger is that while empowering the Iraqi military may allow for a smoother US exit from the country and provide it with a potential card to use against Iran, it creates a very real sword of Damocles that threatens the Kurds. Historically, Baghdad has always looked to make peace with the Kurds when it is weak and attack them when it is strong, a lesson very much in the minds of Kurdish politicians today.
Indeed, at the recent party conferences in Britain, there were fringe events organized by the Kurdish Regional Government's representative to the UK, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman. While the theme was a warning to British business not to be left behind by not investing in the safe haven that is the Kurdish north, during the Q&As Rahman, along with members of the British All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, argued passionately against weapon sales to Baghdad.
The Kurds are aware that despite their support of the US over the years, Kirkuk remains out of their hands and even their energy independence is threatened. Despite an estimated 45bn barrels of oil reserves and six trillion cubic metres of gas scattered across the KRG, last month the Turkish energy minister, Taner Yildiz, affirmed that only those exports approved by Baghdad would be accepted - a serious blow to Kurdish quasi-independence.
Often the fraught politics of the Middle East are caused by short-term thinking, whereby one solution creates a multitude of new problems. Until it is tied effectively to a representative and responsible government in Baghdad, the arming of Iraq's military should be put on hold.
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