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Belarus: How Close Are Military Ties With Iraq?

  • Valentinas Mite

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Abdel-Tawab Mulla Huwaish, who is also the country's minister for military industrialization, today continues his six-day visit to Belarus. The Belarus Foreign Ministry says Iraqi and Belarusian officials are discussing bilateral trade and humanitarian aid, not military cooperation. But U.S. authorities allege that Belarus may be supplying Iraq with military equipment.

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A delegation of Iraqi officials now on the tail end of a six-day visit to Belarus has aroused the suspicions of U.S. authorities.

The delegation includes officials from Iraq's industry, health and transport ministries. It is being led by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Abdel-Tawab Mulla Huwaish, who is also the country's top military industrialization official. This is Huwaish's second trip to Belarus in the past three months.

Reports from Minsk on the Iraqi delegation's visit offer little insight into the purpose of the visit, saying only that the two sides are discussing trade and humanitarian aid issues.

But some U.S. observers say they doubt this is the true focus of the visit. Timothy McCarthy is a senior analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. McCarthy, who served with the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1994 to 1999, tells RFE/RL he finds Huwaish's Belarus visit puzzling:

"I don't want to speculate. But I would simply say that Huwaish has a main task -- he is the head of the military industrial corporation in Iraq, which is indeed the entity that runs the defense industrial base in Iraq. This is a fact. So perhaps he is [in Belarus] on political mission. I don't know. But I think one should be especially careful."

McCarthy says he has no evidence that Belarusian authorities have sold military equipment to Iraq -- which would represent a violation of the 1990 UN resolution imposing an embargo on trade with Iraq of all items except those used for humanitarian purposes.

However, he says Belarusian companies may have sold Iraq certain "dual-use" equipment that are not prohibited by UN sanctions and that could be applied in Iraq's military programs:

"Certainly, equipment has dual purposes in many, many, many cases. But when one deals with Iraq, one has to be very concerned and understanding of the situation in Iraq. [That is], how they [in many, many cases] use certain equipment -- dual-use equipment, especially quality equipment, that one could buy from Belarus, the United States or somewhere else -- in their weapons programs." Aleksandr Alesin, a military analyst with the independent Belarusian weekly newspaper "Delovaya gazeta," echoes McCarthy's concerns.

He tells RFE/RL he does not think the Belarusian government is selling Iraq heavy military equipment like tanks, antiaircraft weapons or fighter jets -- deals he says could not be made "unnoticed." But he says there is the possibility that Belarus is selling Iraq certain dual-use products:

"The only things that you can discuss seriously [in terms of Belarusian sales to Iraq] is dual-use computer software and electronics. [These products] are not narrowly specialized, [and they can be used for both military and civilian purposes)."

Alesin also says that Belarusian manufacturers may be selling Iraq certain types of dual-use precision machinery not prohibited by the UN sanctions.

Belarus has aroused suspicion in the past for allegedly violating sanctions by selling Baghdad forbidden machinery. UNSCOM inspectors in 1996 and 1997 discovered that Iraq was using Belarusian (Visoky Vakuum) plasma spray machines to protect nuclear weapons components from corrosion. The machines had been smuggled to Iraq via Jordan. McCarthy, the former UNSCOM inspector, says the incident caused tremendous concern in the West.

Belarus is denying that Huwaish's current visit is tied to military cooperation between Minsk and Baghdad. Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushko tells RFE/RL that Belarus seeks only to explore avenues of economic cooperation with Iraq:

"Belarus is interested in developing trade and economic relations with Iraq. Last year, Belarusian exports to Iraq were worth $26 million. From January to June this year our exports have been worth $15 million. I must stress that all trade and economic ties between Belarus and Iraq are developed according to the resolutions of the UN Security Council."

Latushko says agricultural machinery and equipment make up the bulk of Belarusian exports to Iraq.

Iraq is one of the few Arab countries to maintain direct diplomatic relations with Belarus; most Arab nations use their Moscow mission as a base for their relations with Minsk. But despite the apparently warm relations between the two countries, some analysts say it is unlikely Minsk can offer Baghdad much in the way of military support, if only because Belarus is simply too economically and technologically feeble to have much that would be of worth to the Iraqis.

Aleksei Malashenko is an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center:

"I don't think that contacts between Iraq and Belarus, [and any] military assistance which [Belarus President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka is able to provide, can in any way change the situation in the Iraqi army. It's silly to think that it could. The weapons that Belarus has are not high-quality weapons and cannot possibly compare to those which Iraq may have to face [in the case of a U.S.-led invasion]. On the whole, I very seriously doubt there are large amounts of weaponry in Belarus that could be useful for Iraq. At best, they can use some spare parts."

Malashenko says the Iraqi deputy prime minister's visit to Belarus is an opportunity for political posturing on both sides. Lukashenka, having lost any advantage in talks over the Russia-Belarus union, may want to show Moscow that he is still the leader of an independent state and is free to create his own foreign policy. Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, may simply be eager to demonstrate that he still has friends.

But even if Belarus is unable to supply Iraq with heavy equipment and weaponry, the U.S. remains concerned that military ties still exist between the two countries. Last March, a State Department official (Deputy Secretary Steven Pifer) said the U.S. had credible evidence that a group of Iraqi officers traveled to Belarus last year for training in the use of S-300 anti-aircraft systems -- systems that could be used to shoot down British and U.S. jets patrolling no-fly zones in Iraq.

The U.S. concerns regarding Belarus come amid allegations by Washington that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in 2000 agreed to sell Baghdad the sophisticated Kolchuha aircraft detection system -- which could likewise pose a threat to Western jets operating in the no-fly zones. Washington last week temporarily suspended $54 million in aid to Ukraine pending further investigation. Kuchma has strenuously denied the allegations.

(Radio Free Iraq and the Belarus Service contributed to this report.)