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Moscow Denies Selling Air Defense Equipment to Iraq

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Russia denied Monday a British newspaper report that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov recently approved a $160 million deal to sell air-defense and warplane-modernization equipment to Iraq in violation of the U.N. arms embargo imposed after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The London Sunday Telegraph, quoting diplomatic sources in Moscow, said the deal would allow Russia to "upgrade and overhaul Iraq's aging squadrons of MiG jet fighters and restore Iraq's air defenses to combat readiness" at a time when Iraq is engaged in frequent hostilities with U.S. and British aircraft enforcing "no-fly" zones in Iraqi airspace. The zones were established by the Gulf War allies to prevent the government of President Saddam Hussein from using air power to suppress restive populations in northern and southern Iraq.

The newspaper said the deal was signed in January during a visit to Moscow by Iraq's transport and communications minister, Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil a visit that followed one a month earlier by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Published reports at the time of the transport minister's trip said his mission had to do with the purchase of Russian-built civilian aircraft, ships and vehicles.

The Telegraph story said the deals were Russia's answer to U.S. and British bombing raids on Iraq, which Russia has strongly opposed. The story also noted that Primakov, an expert on Arabic affairs, has long-standing ties to Saddam. Primakov was a correspondent for the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda in the Middle East during the late 1960s and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, served as head of Russia's foreign intelligence agency.

"The information absolutely does not correspond to reality," said Valentin Zapevalov, a spokesman for the state arms-export agency. "It's a lie. Why is it a lie? Because we did not sign any contracts."

Primakov made no comment on the report, but a government spokesman reiterated Russia's long-standing claim that it fully adheres to the U.N. arms embargo on Iraq.

A Western diplomat here said attempts to learn more about any arms contract between Russia and Iraq had turned up no evidence to support the report. But he speculated the deals could be under negotiation in anticipation of the lifting of U.N. sanctions at some point. Other Russian companies, such as the oil cartel Lukoil, have already worked out trade agreements with Iraq for whenever the sanctions are lifted.

Despite Russia's protests that it would not break the U.N. arms embargo, Iraqi arms procurers have made repeated forays here in search of military hardware. In one instance, middlemen working for Iraq purchased ballistic missile guidance systems here and shipped them out of the country.

In another case, a delegation of top missile experts from Iraq went on a shopping trip to Russia in late 1994 and signed documents to acquire missile engines, technology and services despite the U.N. sanctions.