SUNDAY TELEGRAPH ISSUE 1360 Sunday 14 February 1999
Revealed: Russia's secret deal to re-arm Saddam By Con Coughlin, Foreign Editor
RUSSIA has signed arms deals worth more than £100 million with Saddam Hussein to reinforce Iraq's air defences. The move will pose a serious threat to British and American planes enforcing Iraq's no-fly zone.
In a blatant breach of the UN arms embargo, the Russians have agreed to upgrade and overhaul Iraq's ageing squadrons of MiG jet-fighters and restore Iraq's air defences to combat readiness, diplomatic sources in Moscow have told The Telegraph.
The arms deals constitute a serious challenge to British and American attempts to force Baghdad to honour its commitment to dismantle Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It will also strain Moscow's relations with Britain and the US at a time when President Boris Yeltsin is desperately seeking international assistance for Russia's beleaguered economy.
British and American jets have been involved in almost daily military confrontations with Iraq since Operation Desert Fox, the air strikes unleashed against Saddam's military infrastructure by Britain and the US at the end of last year.
The Iraqi armed forces have so far failed to shoot down any Allied warplanes because they have to rely on out-dated and unreliable equipment. However, the Russian deal to upgrade Iraq's air force and anti-aircraft missile batteries will bring Iraq's air defences up to pre-Gulf war levels.
Apart from earning much-needed foreign currency, Russia's decision to provide Iraq with military assistance was approved by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in retaliation for Operation Desert Fox. Russia bitterly opposed launching air strikes against Iraq to punish Saddam for not co-operating with UN weapons inspectors.
The Foreign Office said yesterday that it had received reports of the arms deals, which were being investigated. Officials privately confirmed that the deals had been approved by Moscow. A senior Foreign Office official said: "It is almost beyond belief that a permanent member of the security council could authorise such a flagrant breach of the UN arms embargo. It indicates that Russian relations with Iraq have become a great deal closer since Mr Primakov became prime minister."
Officials expect Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, to raise the issue of Russia's arms sale to Baghdad when he embarks on his much-delayed trip to Moscow. Mr Cook was to fly to Russia in early March, but the trip was yesterday postponed because of his commitments to the current round of peace talks over Kosovo.
Details of the arms deals between Moscow and Baghdad have also been passed to the State Department in Washington, where officials have already been alerted to be on the look-out for evidence of arms trading between Russia and Iraq. A spokesman said: "Any attempt by Russia to violate UN sanctions will be a matter of the deepest concern."
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry refused to comment, while officials at Mapo-MiG, one of the beneficiaries of the arms trade, denied any knowledge of the deals. Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, the Iraqi Transport and Communications Minister, signed the arms deals in Moscow on January 13 and 14 after a visit to Russia by Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, in December, days before Operation Desert Fox was launched.
* Additional reporting by David Wastell in Washington and Marcus Warren in Moscow
Russia and Iraq - the deadly friends By Con Coughlin
Revealed: Russia's secret deal to re-arm Saddam
TWO weeks before British and American warplanes launched a series of devastating air strikes against Iraq last December, Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, flew to Moscow on an urgent mission.
The official reason for Aziz's visit was to lobby Russian support for Iraq in its stand-off with United Nations weapons inspectors. As Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, Aziz had been sent to justify Iraq's refusal to fulfil its post-Gulf war commitment to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and to ensure that the Russians vetoed any attempt by the UN Security Council to authorise punitive bombing raids.
Following a preliminary round of discussions at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Aziz was taken to meet Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's newly-appointed prime minister. This was one occasion when the Russian prime minister could dispense with the formalities of high office. The former Soviet spymaster and Arabist is no stranger to Saddam's inner circle. As a young diplomat in Baghdad in the 1970s, he became a personal friend of Saddam Hussein. The friendship blossomed after Saddam became president in 1979, even though Primakov suffered no delusions about Saddam's true character.
He later wrote: "I could not help being struck by Saddam's toughness, that often verged on cruelty, a will that often bordered on wilfulness, a readiness to push his way towards his goal at any price, combined with a dangerous unpredictability."
During that period Primakov also became well-acquainted with Aziz, so that the veteran Iraqi negotiator was guaranteed a warm welcome at the Russian prime minister's office. Ostensibly, Aziz wanted to discuss the looming crisis with Unscom. But Aziz also had another, equally important issue to raise. If, as seemed likely, Iraq's policy of non-compliance with the UN resulted in air strikes against Saddam's military infrastructure, it was essential, Aziz argued, that Iraq had the means to defend itself.
An all-embracing arms embargo against Iraq was unanimously agreed by the UN Security Council - with Moscow's wholehearted support - in August 1990 in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Under the terms of the embargo, all member states agreed not to supply Iraq with arms.
But during the Cold War the Soviet Union had been the main military supplier for the Iraqi armed forces; it was logical that Baghdad should turn once more to Moscow to supplement the MiGs and anti-aircraft missile batteries that provide the backbone of Iraq's air defence capability. Primakov was only too ready to agree.
As he was later to state publicly once the air raids commenced, Primakov was firmly against military action being taken against Iraq. "We condemn the United States, and nobody should doubt our negative attitude," commented Primakov once the bombing began. If the Americans and British were going to bomb Baghdad, then Primakov's old Cold War instincts easily persuaded him that Russia should back Saddam.
It was at that meeting in Primakov's office on December 7 last year that approval was given for the arms deal which will shortly provide Iraq with the means to pose a serious military threat to British and American warplanes attempting to enforce the UN's no-fly zone. According to well-informed diplomatic officials in Moscow, Primakov gave Aziz the go-ahead to commence negotiations on a wide-ranging arms deal with Russia's most prestigious arms manufacturers, details of which are published exclusively today in The Telegraph.
A month before Aziz's visit, a comprehensive shopping list of Iraq's military requirements had been submitted to the permanent representative in Baghdad of Rosvooruzheniye, the Russian government arms export concern, by the Iraqi Military Industrial Commission (MIC). Senior members of MIC travelled to Moscow as part of Aziz's delegation and, with Primakov's approval, were allowed to visit the headquarters of the Mapo-MiG Company, makers of Russia's legendary MiG jet-fighters, and Avtoexport, a major exporter of military vehicles and spare parts.
The talks in early December, however, were mainly exploratory. It was only after the US, with Britain's active backing, launched Operation Desert Fox later in the month that the Iraqis and Russians moved quickly to complete the deal. Officially, Primakov demonstrated his extreme displeasure with the Anglo-American action by withdrawing Russia's ambassadors from London and Washington. Unofficially he approved a £100 million plus arms deal with Iraq. On January 10 this year, Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, Iraq's Transport and Communications Minister, flew to Moscow with representatives of Iraq's MIC.
During the next four days the delegation visited a number of Russian defence plants, including three factories in Nizhniy-Novgorod that manufacture MiG spare parts, and Fazotron in Moscow, which develops weapons-control systems.
Murtada then signed a number of arms contracts which were personally approved by Russian First Deputy Premier, Yuri Maslyukov. The contracts, if honoured by the Russians, will bring Baghdad's air defence capability to a level not achieved since the Gulf war.
In what amounts to a wholesale disregard of UN sanctions, the Iraqis have been able to sign at least two deals with Mapo-MiG which provide, among other longer-term commitments, for the overhaul and upgrading in Iraq of all Iraqi MiG combat aircraft, with special emphasis on MiG-23s and MiG-29s, as well as the supply of avi-onics systems, oils, engines and other aircraft parts.
In addition, agreement was reached on training Iraqi technicians in aircraft assembly and maintenance, as well as stationing a Mapo-MiG technical expert in an Iraqi air force base for a period of six months in order to provide technical support, advice and guidance. The Iraqis are also discussing with Mapo-MiG the possibility of a separate contract for leasing combat-ready planes and purchasing new, advanced air defence batteries and surplus batteries from the Russian army.
Top secret talks on these and other subjects are currently taking place between MIC officials and the Rosvooruzheniye representative in Baghdad, with a view to signing further agreements. The total cost of the deals signed between the Russians and Iraq last month is more than £100 million.
When confronted with details of these deals, officials at Mapo-MiG firmly denied doing business with the Iraqis, while Avtoexport and the Russian Foreign Ministry both refused to comment. An official at Mapo-MiG did, however, admit that the company would be glad of the business. Western diplomats estimate that the deal with Mapo-MiG alone is worth more than £60 million.
But Foreign Office officials in London are not convinced by the Russian denials. "They would say that, wouldn't they?" commented one official. "With a seat on the security council, the Russians can hardly be seen to be actively defying the UN arms embargo."
British and American diplomats are already deeply suspicious about Russia's close relations with Iraq, especially after it was discovered that Russian members of Unscom tipped off Saddam Hussein about which locations particularly interested the weapons inspectors, giving the Iraqis time to move banned equipment before the inspectors arrived.
With American and British warplanes involved almost daily in military confrontations with Iraq, these arms deals will enable the Iraqis to pose a serious threat to British and American air crews. Since the commencement of air strikes against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox, Allied aircraft have regularly been targeted by Iraqi anti-aircraft missile batteries - so far without success.
The Iraqis are unable to hit British and American jet-fighters because the shortage of spare parts and technical expertise means most of their MiGs are not operational. Much of Iraq's air defence missile system was destroyed during the Gulf war.The wide-ranging arms embargo against Iraq has made it impossible for Saddam to buy effective replacements.
There is nothing that would please Saddam more than to be able to shoot down an Allied aircraft, capture its crew, and parade them before the Iraqi media, as he did with the two RAF crewmen - Flight Lieutenants John Nichol and John Peters - shot down over Iraq during the Gulf war. The deals signed in Moscow last month, which are to be implemented later this year, will give the Iraqis that capability.
The only serious obstacle standing in the way of a speedy implementation of the arms deals is Iraq's ability to pay. While Moscow's decision to re-equip Iraq's armed forces was taken in retaliation for Operation Desert Fox, Russia's arms industry desperately needs the business. At present it is estimated that Iraq owes the Russians seven billion dollars - mainly for civilian supplies provided since the imposition of UN sanctions.
To ensure that Iraq fulfils its part of the deal, the Russians have insisted on a cash-on-delivery arrangement. Saddam will raise the hard currency to pay for Russia's military technology by increasing Iraq's oil-smuggling operation, details of which were given exclusively to The Telegraph last year by Iraqi defector Sami Salih. Since Salih's defection, Saddam has changed the smuggling route from Iran to Syria, but the arrangement remains highly lucrative.
Salih revealed that Saddam's primary objective in setting up the smuggling operation was to finance arms purchases by Iraq's Military Industrial Commission. Those funds, so far as Iraq is concerned, have now been put to good use. * Additional reporting by Marcus Warren in Moscow