The landing of a mysterious Russian plane at Baghdad airport has added to suspicions that Islamic State is acquiring weapons through the illicit sale of oil, writes Salah Nasrawi.
The news was first broadcast by a Jordan-based television channel owned by an Iraqi Kurdish tycoon known for his involvement in dubious business deals. A Russian cargo plane carrying tons of weapons had reportedly landed at Baghdad airport on 2 November.
According to Al-Tagheir TV, the plane landed in Baghdad after being denied permission to land at Suleimaniya International Airport in the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
The delivery of weapons and ammunition to a country in a state of war would not have made the headlines, except that the story surrounding the plane started growing more mysterious after the Baghdad government distanced itself from the shipment.
The reports must have also raised concerns with the US administration, which is leading an international coalition to support Iraq in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group that has seized one third of Iraq’s territory.
Details about the plane and its cargo gradually began emerging, highlighting suspicions that the weapons on board may have been on their way to IS.
According to reports in the Kurdistan media, the Russian plane was approaching Suleimaniya when it was denied permission to land at the city’s International Airport, which is under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main parties in the region.
Kurdish media outlet Awene quoted the airport manager, Tahir Abdullah, as saying that permission to land was refused because the airport had no prior knowledge of the plane’s arrival.
Awene also quoted a PUK official, who said the plane was carrying 44 tons of weapons, including anti-tank rockets, guns and night-vision equipment.
Basnews, another Kurdish news outlet, quoted Atta Sarawi, a local Kurdish official, as saying the plane had been expected to land at the airport. “There was coordination in this regard, but there were communication problems with Baghdad. So the plane continued its flight to Baghdad,” Sarawi said.
A translated version of the Basnews story appeared on the Arabic news outlet Elaf on 12 November and quoted Sarawi as saying the weapons on the plane had been sent to the Kurdistan Region.
On 15 November, Basnews posted another story on its website, this one saying that the weapons “might have been sent to a senior Kurdistan Democratic Party official.” It quoted “unofficial” sources as saying that the pilot of the Russian “military plane,” which had started its journey from the Czech Republic, had told Turkish air traffic controllers in Adana in southeast Turkey that the plane’s cargo was a cigarette shipment bound for Iraq.
In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials kept silent about the plane and its cargo until the news leaks started, setting off a flurry of speculative reports. The Iraqi Ministry of Transport, responsible for civil aviation, said permission for landing at the capital’s airport was granted after the pilot informed the tower that the plane was running out of fuel.
“The decision to grant the plane permission to land was in line with the Chicago Agreement on International Civil Aviation in order to avoid the risk of its falling out of the sky,” the ministry said on 15 November.
It said the pilot was instructed to land on a runway used by the army. The plane then parked in an area under the Ministry of Defence’s control and the weapons were seized, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Transport.
Both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government said they were conducting investigations into the case. Neither Moscow nor Prague, however, reacted to the news. The US military, which is involved in defending Baghdad airport and the control of Iraqi airspace, made no mention of the incident.
In yet another version of the story that was widely circulated on social networks and TV programmes, the weapons in the plane were being sent to a prominent Suleimaniya-based Kurdish businessman who is closely connected to the PUK, which is headed by Iraq’s former president Jalal Talabani.
According to these reports, the businessman, known to have made his fortune through illicit deals and contracts, is also accused of conducting trade with the IS terror group. A well-known Iraqi analyst told the Baghdadiya TV channel this week that the Kurdish businessman was also responsible for supplying IS with at least one shipment of pick-up vehicles that are now being used by the militants in their fight against Iraqi soldiers and the Kurdish forces known as the Peshmergas.
Another Iraqi television network, Al-Sharqiya, reported on its website that “several officials in a big Kurdish-owned mobile company, as well as their sons and a middleman close to one of the main [Kurdish] parties, are suspects” in the plane case.
Conspiracy theories now abound that the same entrepreneur runs the investment portfolios of the Kurdish parties and has business relations with top officials in the Kurdistan and the Baghdad central governments.
The shadowy role of businessmen in Iraq has grown since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. Many of these businessmen were involved in scams involving US reconstruction projects following the invasion, and before that, in the UN-led oil-for-food scheme during the rule of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Billions of dollars are believed to have been skimmed off the two programmes, going mostly into the pockets of businessmen and corrupt politicians.
Since it is hard to confirm such reports, some observers are demanding that the Iraqi authorities and the Kurdistan Regional Government end the secrecy surrounding the plane and reveal who ordered the shipment and what its final destination was.
Allegations surrounding the plane and its cargo are so serious that Kurdish Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani, referring to the case, said: “It is considered high treason.”
The disclosures come at a time when the Baghdad authorities and the Kurdish government have been gridlocked over oil, budgets and weapons delivery to the Peshmergas. The Obama administration has been putting pressure on both sides to resolve their disputes and work together to fight the IS terror group.
The Baghdad government suspended support for Kurdistan from the state budget, including the Peshmergas’ salaries, after its government started independently exporting oil produced in the region. Under an interim deal, the central government agreed last week to pay $500 million to the Kurdistan government from the state budget, while the Kurds will provide the Iraqi government with 150,000 barrels of oil per day.
On Saturday, Hawal, a Kurdish news outlet, said the Peshmergas are refusing to take part in the fight against IS unless their full salaries are paid. It quoted Dleir Mustafa, deputy head of the Peshmerags Committee in the Kurdish parliament, as saying that another precondition for the Peshmergas to fight IS is to allow direct weapons deliveries, rather than routing such deliveries through the Baghdad government.
Since IS captured Mosul and several other key Sunni-populated cities in June, there have been reports of Kurdish oil traders smuggling oil from IS-controlled areas in Iraq and Syria into neighbouring countries as far away as Afghanistan. According to Western intelligence reports, the smuggled oil is sometimes sold for as little as $20 per barrel.
The US Treasury Department estimates that IS takes in millions of dollars a month from oil sales. Other estimates range between $274,000 to $3 million a day. However, the trafficking may have been affected by US-led coalition air strikes on oil production and refinery targets in IS territory.
Last week, Kurdish Interior Minister Karim Sinjari disclosed that Kurdish security forces have arrested 11 individuals charged with smuggling oil with IS. Turkish officials have denied or downplayed reports about the smuggling of IS oil through Turkey.
Hawal reported last week that large amounts of money are being transferred through the Kurdish-controlled areas to towns taken by IS. It quoted Nouzad Barzanchi, head of the security department in Kirkuk, as saying that transactions were being made to people in Mosul and Shirqat, which are under IS control.
Baghdad media report that several bureaus in the capital are being investigated for transactions made to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and France. Iraqi intelligence believes that the beneficiaries of these transactions are connected with IS.
Some of the money being transferred through licenced exchange bureaus is believed to be payments for other smuggled goods, such as wheat, barley and cattle seized from farmers.
Corruption in Iraq has been endemic since the US-led invasion nearly 12 years ago. State officials have been acting as enablers for corrupt deals in a number of ways, and involving a range of businesses.
There have been reports of corrupt professionals and army officers selling arms and intelligence to IS and other terrorist groups, which later use these weapons and insider information to carry out attacks on government offices and security forces.
As in many previous cases of corruption, it may be many years before the secrets of the Russian plane are known. The revelations of the oil-for-weapons deals have, however, shone a spotlight on a number of deeply corrupt politicians, terrorists and dubious businessmen who are not only involved in stealing the wealth of the country, but are also banding together to destroy it.
source: al Ahram weekly