Baghdad: Iraqi Prime Minister Noori Al Maliki set off for Moscow on Monday to boost defence and trade ties, but events in Syria loom large over talks between two states criticised over their support for Damascus.
Al Maliki’s visit, his first to Russia in three-and-a-half years, comes with Baghdad and Moscow accused of helping prop up embattled President Bashar Al Assad during a nearly 19-month uprising which according to a watchdog has left more than 31,000 dead.
The two countries have persistently called for a political solution to the conflict, and have avoided explicitly pushing for Al Assad to give up power as Western and Arab leaders have argued for.
“The stance of Iraq calls for finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and it is opposed to violence... for solving the crisis,” Al Maliki said in a recent television interview.
“Iraq has not intervened in Syria on behalf of the regime’s interests, or for the interests of the armed opposition,” he continued.
Iraq has pushed its own proposals for ending the conflict by calling for an end to violence by all parties, the holding of new elections and the formation of a transitional government in Syria, with which it shares a 600-kilometre border.
Moscow, meanwhile, has used its veto power within the UN Security Council to block resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s use of force.
“Syria will be on the negotiating table during the PM’s visit, they will discuss a way to solve the current conflict there,” said Ali Al Haidari, a Baghdad-based security analyst.
“The international community has a problem when it comes to the Syrian opposition, which is made up of a mixture of Al Qaida and the civilian and liberal opposition,” Al Haidari added. “The question is, who do we deal with? And how?”
The Iraqi premier is travelling with the ministers of defence, foreign affairs, oil and trade, as well as the head of the country’s investment commission and the chairs of the parliamentary committees on security and foreign relations. His trip also includes a visit to the Czech Republic.
Besides Syria, Al Maliki will also be keen to solicit Moscow’s investment in Iraq’s fast-growing energy sector, where Russian energy giants Lukoil and Gazprom are already major players, and to boost defence ties in a bid to help improve Baghdad’s fledgling security forces.
In an interview with state-controlled English-language network Russia Today, Al Maliki said he would discuss “military cooperation, and efforts to address the equipment needs of the Iraqi army” during his visit.
“Our efforts are focused on anti-air equipment, and equipment related to fighting terror,” he added.
Iraq’s security forces are regarded by officials as largely capable of maintaining internal order, with violence dramatically lower than during the peak of the country’s bloody sectarian war, though regular bombings and shootings still leave hundreds dead every month.
Baghdad’s forces are, however, widely seen as unable to secure the country’s borders or airspace after US forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of last year.
Iraq currently relies on Washington for the bulk of its security purchases, totalling around $12 billion (Dh44 billion) in acquisitions of tanks, helicopters and the planned delivery of F-16 fighter jets.
Russia has pushed for stronger defence ties with Iraq, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for greater collaboration in security relations during a May 2011 visit to Baghdad.
Al Maliki’s spokesman Ali Mussawi said that the premier would also broach “investment, energy and oil” with his Russian hosts.
Russian energy giants Lukoil and Gazprom have made major investments in Iraq’s energy sector, with the former holding exploration and extraction contracts in the south and the latter leading a consortium of companies working at an eastern oil field.