Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 79

Earlier this week Russian Defense Ministry officials denied that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and his Iraqi counterpart, Lieutenant General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, had discussed arms dealings during Ahmad’s surprise visit to Moscow last weekend. But it was unclear exactly what the Iraqi defense chief and a retinue of senior military officials had done during their April 14-16 stay in the Russian capital. Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency had announced the secret visit by Ahmad on April 16. The official Iraqi news agency, INA, followed a day later with an announcement of its own. Ahmad’s visit was reported to be the first official foreign trip by an Iraqi defense minister since the 1991 Gulf War. Reports said it was also the first time that Iraq had openly declared its military links with any foreign country. The issue is a sensitive one because of (1) international sanctions which continue to be in effect against Iraq and (2) Baghdad’s unwillingness, for over a year now, to allow the UN to undertake weapons inspections in Iraq. According to some reports, Ahmad and the Iraqi delegation had stopped in Moscow en route from Baghdad to Belgrade (UPI, April 16; AP, April 17; Russian agencies, April 18).

The Russian newspaper Izvestia, claiming to be quoting top Russian defense officials, repeated official assurances that Ahmad’s talks with Sergeev had not touched on the topic of military cooperation. The newspaper’s innocuous description of Ahmad’s alleged itinerary in Moscow was a bit hard to believe, however. It said that Ahmad had traveled to Moscow as a tourist, and that much of the “courtesy visit” had been taken up with an “unprecedented cultural program, consisting of visits to the Military-Historical Museum, excursions around the Kremlin [and] various receptions.”

Of perhaps more interest, the newspaper said that Rosvooruzhenie, the Russian state arms trading company, remains interested in dealing with Iraq. It also said that the company could theoretically maintain contacts with the Iraq Defense Ministry without violating UN sanctions, though it did not say whether that was in fact the case. Izvestia also implied that Ahmad’s trip to Moscow was connected to the recent seizures by the U.S. navy of two Russian ships alleged to be illegally carrying Iraqi oil. The newspaper maintained that this was a “last straw” for Moscow and that Ahmad’s visit had included talk about possible military cooperation between Iraq and Russia “if this is possible and required.” There was no elaboration (Izvestia, April 19).