After invading Iraq with the goal of eliminating suspected weapons of mass destruction and sweeping Saddam Hussein from power, United States forces dissolved the Iraqi army in April 2003, opting to rebuild it from scratch.
Eleven years on, Iraq seeks a new partnership with South Korea, a U.S. ally, said its top diplomat here. Iraq celebrated a re-constituted and robust military ― now 1 million strong ― on Army Day with a reception in Seoul on Friday.
“Korea has a brand name in Iraq. Korea has a presence in every household in Iraq not only through its appliances, televisions and cars, but also through its dramas and music and movies,” Iraqi Ambassador to South Korea Khalil Al-Mosawi said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Thursday.
|Iraqi Ambassador to South Korea Khalil Al-Mosawi gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Thursday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
South Korean defense contractor Korea Aerospace Industries signed a deal
with Iraq to export 24 fighter jets valued at $1.1 billion. The deal to supply FA-50 aircraft also includes training for Iraqi pilots and other support for the Iraqi Air Force for the next 20 years. Those services could push the total value of the deal to $2 billion.
“This went into the decision to purchase these trainer jets. We have to have the best. The air force was attracted to the training that Korea will provide in this deal for aircraft that will have a dual purpose: a fighter jet and a trainer jet.”
The FA-50 is a light attack variant of the T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer that was co-developed by KAI and U.S. weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Al-Mosawi said the weapons purchase was not only strategic it was also a way to build a new bridge in the South Korean-Iraqi relationship. The Iraqi version of the FA-50 can be armed with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, machine guns and precision-guided bombs.
“There is a contract for 20 years to provide training to Iraqi personnel on piloting, engineering and other technical areas. This means there will be many Iraqis coming to South Korea and many Koreans going to Iraq. This creates many more contacts; this creates many more relationships,” he said.
Al Mosawi said that on Jan. 6 Iraq celebrates Army Day. On that day in 1921 Iraq’s first army unit was formed. In the new Iraq, commemorating the date has become more important because the legislature has been unable to select a date for the country’s national day.
“The army unit was named after Mosa Al Kadam, a respected Islamic Imam. Since then the army has developed,” said Al Mosawi. “It has developed its own internal educational systems, with many high-ranking Iraqi officers obtaining advanced degrees in Great Britain.”
South Korea has become an important partner for Iraq in re-building the country, and South Korean companies are leading construction projects, energy infrastructure and exploration deals, as well as transportation networks.
A high point in Al Mosawi’s diplomatic posting here, which began in August 2010, was the state visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in April 2011. Al-Maliki met with then President Lee Myung-bak.
During his visit, Iraq and South Korea signed an agreement for comprehensive cooperation in energy matters covering oil, gas and electricity, which also included the setting up strategic oil reserves.
The agreement provides 250,000 barrels per day of Iraqi oil to Korea in case of an emergency. Iraq has rapidly been increasing its oil production capacity in recent years. It produced 2.40 million barrels daily in 2011. Al-Mosawi said production could reach 6 million barrels a day by 2017.
The country is projected to export to South Korea about 280,000-300,000 barrels per day for 2014, Al-Mosawi said. Some 60 million barrels of oil were imported from Iraq in 2010, and 90 million in 2011. South Korea received 9.6 percent of its total oil needs from Iraq in 2012. According to media reports, South Korea now gets more oil from Iraq than from Iran, which technically remains under a U.S. imposed sanctions regime.
With the economic know-how of South Korea and the bountiful resources of Iraq, Al-Mosawi said the two nations can take the strategic relationship to the next level and boost people-to-people ties.
Diplomatic ties are relatively new. South Korea and Iraq established diplomatic relations in 1989, and even had direct flights connecting Baghdad International Airport and Seoul, but those ties were stymied two years later, when Hussein launched an invasion of neighbor Kuwait in 1991.
The two nations restored diplomatic ties in 2003. South Korea deployed soldiers to Iraq in support of the U.S.-led coalition forces from 2004 to 2008. Relations took another step backward when a South Korean translator, Kim Sun-il, was kidnapped and then beheaded in 2004. South Korea has since then banned its nationals from traveling to Iraq.
Al-Mosawi would like to see direct flights re-established and the travel ban lifted. He said Iraqi officials are scheduled to visit Seoul in the first half of this year for technical discussions with Korean Air and lay out steps needed to make direct flights available.
By Philip Iglauer (firstname.lastname@example.org)