Syria looms over Iraq PM's Moscow visit
BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki set off for Moscow on Monday to boost defense and trade ties, but events in Syria loom large over talks between two states criticized over their support for Damascus.
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 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 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," 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."
"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-Qaeda and the civilian and liberal opposition," Haidari added. "The question is, who do we deal with? And how?"
The Iraqi premier is traveling with the ministers of defense, 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, 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 defense ties in a bid to help improve Baghdad's fledgling security forces.
In an interview with state-controlled English-language network Russia Today, 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 in acquisitions of tanks, helicopters and the planned delivery of F-16 fighter jets.
Posted by: Steve White