The Washington Post has reported that three C-130 cargo planes delivered small arms and ammunition from Bulgaria to Iraq in September. Three U.S. military officials indicated that the weapons shipment procedure did not comply with Iraqi government regulations. Kurdish officials declined to answer questions about the shipments but released the following statement: "The Kurdistan Regional Government continues to be at the forefront of the war on terrorism in Iraq. With that continued threat, nothing in the constitution prevents the KRG from obtaining defense materials for its regional defense” (Washington Post, November 23).
The news has sent a shock wave to interested parties in the region. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry immediately denied the report through Bulgarian National Radio: “Bulgaria did not sell arms to private individuals or non-government organizations, and no such transaction ever took place” (www.sofiaecho.com, November 24).
A day after the article was published, KRG officials changed their original response, which had appeared in the Washington Post and had emphasized that the Iraqi constitution did not prevent the KRG from obtaining materials for its own defense. On November 25 KRG officials categorically denied the allegations of arms purchases from Bulgaria. Jabbar Yawer, the Undersecretary for Peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces) Affairs in the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq, said that “As a region we don’t have the right to buy any weapons without the consent of the central government, and they haven’t allocated any amount in the budget for buying weapons” (Sofia News Agency, November 25). Yawer added, “Those airplanes would have to use several countries’ airspace to reach Sulaymaniyah. Moreover, U.S troops search the airplane loads at Sulaymaniyah airport. Thus, it would not be possible to deliver all these weapons to the KRG region without their [the troops’] knowledge” (ANF News Agency, November 24).
The Iraqi government has ended its criticism toward the KRG that appeared in the first Washington Post article: “…the Iraqi government has no objection to semiautonomous Kurdish authorities purchasing weapons and ammunition to arm their security forces, but it wants to be informed, a government spokesman said” (Washington Post, November 25).
The background of the arms deal is interesting. The Washington Post indicates that the weapons were delivered to the Kurdish region in September at a time when the KRG and the central government in Baghdad were disputing the issue of arms deals. President of the Kurdish Regional Government Mesut Barzani said, “Unfortunately, we seem to be still under the influence of a totalitarian regime. The one that takes over power thinks that he has the last word in everything and that it is his right to make decisions without consulting others. He forgets the coalitions, the commitments, and the constitution” (Asharq Al-Awsat, September 3).
When the central government in Iraq revealed its intention to purchase 36 F-16 fighter jets in September, Adnan al-Mufti, the speaker of the Kurdistan National Assembly (Parliament), delivered a speech on the arms agreement, showing that a crisis of confidence existed between the Kurdistan region and the central government. “Al-Mufti has called on the United States in particular and the arms-producing major powers in general not to sell arms to Iraq unless conditions and specific restrictions are attached to such deals prohibiting the use of these arms against the Kurds in the future” (Asharq Al-Awsat, September 11). In response Ali Al-Dabbagh, the official spokesman of the Iraqi government, said, "All we can say in this regard is that Iraq is a sovereign state. The subject of arming, training, and building the capabilities of the army is one of the rights of the federal government” (Asharq Al-Awsat, September 11).
This debate clearly underlines the mutual distrust between the KRG and the central government. At the same time the KRG officials were vehemently opposing the central government’s arms purchases, the KRG government was having weapons delivered to the region.
The information about the Kurds arms deal was apparently leaked to the media during the course of yet another conflict between the KRG and the government in Baghdad. Barzani recently criticized the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and referred to those who supported his support council plan as “enemies” (see EDM November 20). Brigadier General Tony Thomas, the top U.S. commander in Mosul, observes that the Kurds are nervous about Baghdad’s growing unilateralism. Maliki "sees the Kurds, specifically the Peshmerga, as a militia, unauthorized, shouldn’t be there. …They say, ‘we must be armed because as soon as you leave, we see this coming … [Maliki] is going to attack us as soon as you turn away,’” Thomas said (Reuters, November 12).
Given the possibility that the U.S. may have leaked the Kurdish arms deal story to the media, one can assume that American officials may be unhappy about Barzani’s assertive policies toward Kirkuk and other areas where potential problems could lead to civil war after the U.S. withdrawal.
Another aspect of the arms deal is the route that the three C-130 cargo planes used to deliver those weapons. Given that Turkey has its own concerns about the KRG in the region, it would not open its territory to such a weapons transfer. Other countries with possible alternative routes, that is, Syria and Iran, also do not want the Kurds to have such weapons. The question is: how did the Kurds under these circumstances manage to obtain the weapons with the three cargo planes?