Iraq considers deepening military ties with Russia

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq and Russia discussed prospects for deepening military coordination, Iraq’s Defence Ministry said, amid a strain in Baghdad-Washington relations after a United States (US) airstrike killed a top Iranian general.

The ministry statement followed a meeting in Baghdad between Iraqi army chief of staff Lieutenant General Othman Al-Ghanimi and Russian Ambassador Maksim Maksimov, as well as a newly arrived defence attache.

The meeting comes during an uncertain moment in the future of Iraq-US military relations, following the January 3 US drone strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, and Iraqi senior militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad airport. The attack prompted powerful Shiite parties to call for an overhaul of the existing strategic set-up between Iraq and the US-led coalition.

Al-Ghanimi praised Moscow’s role in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group, saying they had provided “our armed forces with advanced and effective equipment and weapons that had a major role in resolving many battles,” according to the ministry statement.

The statement said the sides discussed prospects for “cooperation and coordination”. Both parties emphasised the importance of exchanging information and coordination to prevent the resurgence of IS.

A US Air Force plane lands at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq. PHOTO: AP

Maksimov extended an invitation to al-Ghanimi to visit Russia and meet with his counterpart “within the framework of strengthening cooperation between the two sides,” the statement said.

There was no immediate comment from Moscow.

A senior Iraqi military intelligence official told The Associated Press that Russia, among other countries, came forward to offer military support in the wake of fraught US-Iraq relations following Soleimani’s killing.

“Iraq still needs aerial reconnaissance planes. There are countries that have given signals to Iraq to support us or equip us with reconnaissance planes such as Russia and Iran,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

In response to the drone strike that killed Soleimani, Iraq’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging a US troop withdrawal, and then caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi openly called for a troop withdrawal.

Since then, Iraqi leaders have scaled back the saber-rattling rhetoric. But behind closed doors, the bitterness has poisoned the partnership.

Senior Iraqi military officials told AP this week that Iraq told its military not to seek assistance from the US-led coalition in joint operations targetting the group and to minimise cooperation. Top US commander in the Middle East Marine General Frank McKenzie acknowledged recently that relations with Iraq were “in a period of turbulence”.