(newsweek) -- During a visit to Moscow, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki told Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Baghdad may be "prone to new political developments in light of regional interferences" and to avoid a "foreign political entity" from forcing its agenda, according to Kurdish media outlet Rudaw. Since overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in 2003, the U.S. has played a major role in the country's internal affairs, something Maliki has fought in the past. As Russia asserts its own influence in neighboring Syria, Maliki reportedly seeks to play Moscow's economic, political and military power against Washington's in Iraq.
"Historically, Russia has close relations with Iraq. That is why we would like to see Russia’s visible presence in our country, both in terms of politics and defense," Maliki said following a meeting with Russian upper house of parliament speaker Valentina Matviyenko, according to the state-run Tass Russian news agency. "It would create [the] balance the region, its nations and countries need.
"Iraq wants to strengthen strategic cooperation in such areas as electricity generation, oil sector, research cooperation, university training, economy and trade, as well as political and military spheres," he added.
The U.S.'s quick success against the Iraqi military in 2003 was followed by nearly a decade and a half of battling an insurgency led by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which ultimately served as the basis for a larger enemy, ISIS. The extremist organization swept through major Iraqi cities in 2014, compelling a second U.S. intervention that was largely carried on the ground by a refurbished Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and majority-Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran. Now that ISIS has been declared defeated by the Iraqi government, U.S. officials have campaigned for a prolonged presence in the war-torn nation, something that officials like Maliki are deeply critical of.
Maliki has instead praised the efforts of the U.S.'s primary international rival, Russia. After staging a military intervention to support the embattled Syrian military and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against ISIS and other extremists, Russia's own armed forces managed to turn the tides of war for the Syrian government. This has proved a major complication for separate, U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate ISIS by teaming up first with various rebels, and later Kurdish militants.
After meeting with Lavrov and Matviyenko, Maliki flew to St. Petersburg to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself to discuss a major purchase of T-90 battle tanks in a contract that could exceed $1 billion, Reuters cited Russian military officials and analysts in local media as saying. Maliki also thanked Putin for Russia's role in combating ISIS and other extremist groups in the Middle East.
"Russia has made a tremendous contribution, in particular in Syria and Iraq, to prevent the disintegration of the region. We sincerely thank you," Maliki told Putin, according to Tass. "Were it not for your role, the map of the region would have changed now, and negatively for us."
The move comes just two days after a series of diplomatic exchanges between Iraq and Iran, an ally of Russia in Syria and another traditional foe of the U.S. Iran has contributed extensive resources to fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria in a way that, like Russia, has challenged U.S. interests. Majority-Shiite Muslim neighbors Iraq and Iran pledged closer cooperation in tackling "terrorism and extremism," among other defense endeavors.