Iraqi PM cancels Czech visit, talks on L-159s to go ahead

PM Nouri al-Maliki will not come to Prague this month, but possible sale of Czech L-159s to Baghdad remains on bilateral agenda 

Petr Nečas (left) and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, May 2011 foto: © vlada.czČeská pozice

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has cancelled his planned official visit to the Czech Republic due to a spate of attacks in mostly Shiite neighborhoods, raising fears of sectarian violence following the withdrawal of US troops in December, but an Iraqi delegation will still travel to Prague for talks on Jan. 23-24 about a possible deal on fighter jets and other bilateral business opportunities.

Czech government spokesman Jan Osúch told the state news agency ČTK that the Iraqi prime minister could visit at a later date. Meanwhile, topping the agenda for talks in Prague is the proposed sale of 20 Czech light fighter planes of the L-159 ALCA model, and bilateral cooperation in Iraq’s energy and transport sectors.

As Czech Position has previously reported, the Iraqis are keen on buying the new, two-seat versions of the fighter planes, whereas the Czech Ministry of Defense and the manufacturer, Aero Vodochody, are offering only slightly used, but older one-seat models owned by the ministry.

Dog fight for Iraqi skies

Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) had travelled to Iraq in May 2011 to lobby for the L-159 deal. The Czech offer faces competition from the British Hawk light combat and training plane manufactured by BAE Systems, and the T-50 Golden Eagle, developed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin of the US together with Korea Aerospace Industries and Korea’s Agency for Defense Development.

Like the L-159 and the Hawk, the T-50 Golden Eagle is a training plane and light fighter plane but is the only supersonic model of the three. In the end, price, rather than technical attributes, could be the determining factor. Aero Vodochody boss Ladislav Šimek said last year the Iraqis were interested in acquiring Czech planes in exchange for oil.

Nečas’ trip to Iraq was the first by a Czech prime minister since Saddam Hussein’s government fell in 2003. The previous highest ranking official to visit was then-Defense Minister Karel Kühnl (Freedom Union, US-DEU) who in 2005 went to visit with Czech troops and medics deployed there.

Planting the seeds

As for the Iraqi energy sector, after decades under the rule of Saddam Hussein and a series of devastating wars, the country is still rebuilding and modernizing its oil sector infrastructure. It is also building up its agriculture sector, which lacks quality irrigation systems.

The Brno-based tractor maker Zetor signed an Kč 800 million contract with the Iraqi State Company for Mechanical Industry during the May 2011 trip for the delivery of 1,500 components for assembly in Iraq. Zetor had developed a new model, the Antor, specifically designed for the sandy geological conditions of the Middle East and arid climates.

Former Civic Democratic Party (ODS) chairman and ex-Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek was also a member of the business delegation, as general director of the private engineering firm VAE Controls that he founded in 1991, before entering politics. He was on its board of directors from 1996 to 2003 and returned to the company after stepping down from office in 2009.

VAE Controls, which designs and implements comprehensive supplies of technology and control systems for the petrochemical, water management and industrial sectors, remains keen to secure contracts in Iraq. Topolánek now heads the Association for District Heating (ADH ČR), whose 87-strong membership includes some of the Czech Republic’s biggest energy companies.