Coming Raqqa Offensive May Net Russia an Iraqi Air Base

Russian president Vladimir Putin has never stopped hassling Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi for an airbase to strike out against the Islamic State, after it overran large swathes of the country. He stepped up the pressure in the fall and winter of 2015 after embarking on the formidable Russian military intervention in Syria in October.
Moscow had its eye on the Al Taqaddum airbase at Habbaniyah in central Iraq, which has two 3,700-meter long runways and lies about 74 kilometers west of Baghdad. But the Americans objected to their Special Operations units having to share the facility with the Russian air force; and, Iran, while working with the Russians in Syria, had no wish to find them entrenched in Iraq, Tehran’s back door and land bridge to Syria.
For lack of a way-station in Iraq, Moscow had to ask Baghdad for permission before its warships were able on to shoot 26 cruise missiles through Iraqi air space on October 8 from the Caspian Sea against anti-Assad targets in Syria.
This happened again in the last week of December. Baghdad let Russian Tu-160 bombers fire through Iraqi air space 24-foot-long, two-ton KH-101 “White Swan” cruise missiles at ISIS targets from a Russian base around 10,000 kilometers away.
That attack was payback for the Islamic State’s blowing up of the Russian Metrojet over the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31, killing all 224 Russian holidaymakers and crew aboard.
Despite the leeway granted by Baghdad for these operations, Moscow never gave up on its wish for an air base in Iraq. It is now eyeing Imam Ali airbase, about 310 kilometers southeast of Baghdad and 20 kilometers southwest of the city of An Nasiriyah (see map). This 30 sq. km facility, known also as Tallil airbase, served the US military up until December 2011. It is located near Iraq’s main oil fields.
A 22-kilometer security perimeter surrounds Tallil and its two runways, which are 12,000 feet and 9,700 feet long and supported by an advanced landing system and an upgraded airfield lighting system. Within its perimeter too are the ruins of the ancient Babylonian city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Its tall ziggurat, stands high on the skyline alongside the modern air traffic control tower
Russian political and military strategists believe Moscow’s chances of procuring a military foothold in Iraq are better than ever before, in view of four recent developments:
1. The Obama administration’s objections to a Russian presence in Iraq are fading under the benign influence of their working cooperation for resolving the Syrian issue. Washington had anyway given up on plans for pro-American forces to seize Raqqa from the Islamic State, and is more than ready to hand the task over to Russian-backed forces, like the Kurds.
By the same reasoning, Washington may also be leaning towards letting Moscow and Russian air might take on the heavy lifting necessary for the liberation of Mosul, the Islamic caliphate’s center of operations in Iraq.
2. Furthermore, the Obama administration is not adverse to the Russians taking Tehran down a peg or two by planting their warplanes and special forces in the heart of the Shiite region of Iraq, which Iran regards as its sacrosanct power base in Iraq.
Transposing the “Syrian model” to Iraq is therefore under close scrutiny in Washington, say DEBKA Weekly’s sources. After successful US-Russian teamwork put Tehran’s influence in the shade in Damascus, why not apply it to Baghdad?
4. This tactic would capitalize on the widening rift between the Iraqi Prime Minister and Tehran. Even pro-Iranian elements of the Iraqi Shiite community are up in arms against Tehran’s bid to dominate the country, and are pushing Abadi towards a more pro-American orientation.
Giving the Russian air force a berth at the Tallil base would serve the Iraqi premier in two ways: he would win the backing of two world powers, and be equipped to fend off allegations that he is handing the reins of power to America.
The fly in the ointment for Baghdad is Moscow’s deepening ties with the Syrian Kurds and willingness to arm them against ISIS. The Iraqi government is apprehensive of this largesse being extended to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Therefore, Abadi may demand Moscow’s guarantee not to arm the Iraqi Kurds as his price for the use of the Tallil air base.

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