By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi officials gave contradictory accounts on Tuesday about whether or not Baghdad had agreed to buy $195 million worth of arms and ammunition from Iran as reported by Reuters, a deal that if confirmed could damage Iraqi-U.S. relations.
The Defence Ministry denied any such deal had been done, while a senior Iraqi government lawmaker who heads parliament's security and defence committee said Baghdad had bought "some light weapons and ammunition" from Tehran.
The United States has demanded explanations from Iraq since such a deal would violate U.S. and U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program. An influential U.S. senator said the sale of 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq should be reconsidered until the matter was cleared up.
The United States has supplied weaponry to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to help it combat al Qaeda militants and related splinter groups.
However, Maliki's Shi'ite Muslim-dominated government has strong relations with Iran, the biggest regional Shi'ite power. Washington has been vying with Tehran for influence in Iraq since the 2003 fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein to a U.S.-led invasion. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011.
Reuters, citing documents it had obtained, reported on Monday that Iraq struck the arms deal with Iran at the end of November after Maliki returned from Washington where he had lobbied for extra weapons to fight al Qaeda.
Some in Washington worry about providing sensitive U.S. military equipment to a country they worry is becoming too close to Iran. Several Iraqi lawmakers said Maliki had made the deal because he was fed up with delays in U.S. arms deliveries.
The Iraqi Defence Ministry denied Reuters's report, saying it had used the issue "for political and media purposes".
The ministry acknowledged Iran had put in a bid for a contract to supply Iraq with night vision goggles and ammunition, but said that the tender was granted to other parties it did not identify.
"Bids were received from many international companies, including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, China, Ukraine and Pakistan, along with other companies," A ministry statement said. "The Iranian Defensive Industries Organisation submitted offers. However (our) reference was with other companies and no contract was signed with the Iranian company."
Two contracts seen by Reuters were agreed with the state-owned Iran Electronic Industries for night vision goggles, communications equipment and mortar-guiding devices.
IRANIAN DENIAL, U.S. CALL FOR EXPLANATION
The Iranian government denied any knowledge of a deal to sell arms to Iraq.
Hasan Suneid, a senior lawmaker from Maliki's Dawa Party who heads parliament's security and defence committee, said Iraq had bought weapons from Iran and insisted this was within its right and violated no international sanctions.
"The U.S. government is not the Iraqi government's guardian," Suneid told reporters at the national parliament.
"We have the right to buy arms from any state that is friendly and cooperates with Iraq. The arms we purchased from Iran are nothing more than light weapons and ammunition.
"We have the right to select different sources for weapons. Iran is a friendly, neighboring state just like Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia," he said.
On Monday, a spokesman for Maliki would not confirm or deny the reported sale, but said such a deal would be understandable given Iraq's current security troubles.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the Obama administration was seeking answers from Baghdad.
"We raised our concerns about this matter at the highest levels with the government of Iraq and reiterated that any transfer or sale of arms from Iran is in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions," Carney said. "The government of Iraq assured us they would look into the matter."
Washington has rushed Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to Iraq since January as Maliki has found himself embroiled in complicated battles in Anbar province with al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, as well as angry Sunni Muslim tribesmen resentful of their treatment by Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
Since the Anbar fighting broke out in January, the Obama administration has pushed to move ahead with the sale of 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, which had been held up for months due to concerns of U.S. lawmakers about how Maliki, who is increasingly at odds with minority Sunnis, would use them.
A Shi'ite lawmaker close to Maliki said the deal with Iran sent a message to Washington that threatening to withhold or delay arms purchases would no longer work.
The U.S. Congress has a 30-day period that ends Wednesday to hold up the Apache sale. Prominent U.S. Senator John McCain told Reuters on Tuesday the plan should be reconsidered in light of Baghdad's reported arms transaction with Tehran.
"The Apache sale has got to be on the table. We've got to discuss it," McCain said when asked about the Reuters report. "We've got to understand the ramification of this arms deal. We have to look at it a little more carefully."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Ned Parker and Mark Heinrich)