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Iraq reconsiders $4 billion Russian arms plans


BAGHDAD » Iraq is reconsidering plans to buy more than $4 billion in arms from Russia, officials said today, throwing the proposed purchase into question just weeks after it was announced.

The turnaround follows the ouster of Russia’s defense minister earlier this week, and allegations by Iraqi lawmakers and local media that the pending deal is tainted by graft.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Moscow in October and outlined plans to buy the weapons, including helicopter gunships and air defense missiles.

The deal would have strengthened Russia’s ties to oil-rich Iraq at a time when the ruling regime of longtime Mideast ally Syria risks falling in the country’s civil war.

It now appears unlikely the sale will go through as previously planned.

“When the prime minister returned from his trip to Russia, he started reviewing the deal as a whole,” the prime minister’s spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, said today. “The deal now is under investigation. So far, nothing has been proven. A new committee has been formed to avoid any suspicions.”

The comments came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin reshuffled the nation’s top military brass following the removal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov earlier in the week.

Putin tied Serdyukov’s removal to an inquiry into alleged military corruption, though many in Russia believe he was fired because of a brewing battle over the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of defense spending over the coming years.

Officials from Russia’s defense ministry and Rosoboronexport, the country’s arms export company, were not available for comment today.

Iraqi media reports, including one that aired this week on the private al-Sharqiya TV channel, have suggested impropriety such as kickbacks by people involved in brokering the deal.

Lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament’s security and defense committee and is affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc, said al-Maliki expects to negotiate a new deal with Russia that would seek additional equipment and new prices.

“There was clear corruption,” he said.

Iraq’s acting defense minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, echoed the suggestion that the government plans to renegotiate the deal, seeking better terms.

At a news conference in Baghdad, he insisted no money has changed hands so far, and said the existing proposal “has become meaningless.”

Russia and the Soviet Union were key suppliers of weapons to Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator who was ousted during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The United States is now the largest supplier of arms to Iraq, which has agreed to buy a range of American-made weapons, including tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

A small number of U.S. military personnel remained in Iraq after last year’s troop withdrawal as an arm of the American embassy. They are responsible for facilitating Iraqi arms purchases and training the Iraqis how to use and maintain the weapons.

Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed reporting.

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