On an unannounced visit to Baghdad, US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday urged Iraq’s leaders to halt Iranian overflights of weapons and fighters heading to Syria, and to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the US-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
In meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior officials, Kerry told them to stop Iranian aircraft from using Iraqi airspace to fly military personnel and equipment to support the Syrian government as it battles rebels. Iran and Iraq both say the flights are laden with humanitarian supplies, but the US and others believe that they are filled with weapons and fighters to help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In the absence of a complete ban on flights, the US would at least like the planes to land and be inspected in Iraq to ensure that they are carrying humanitarian supplies. Former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities, US officials say.
The overflights have long been a source of contention between the US and Iraq, and Kerry was to tell the Iraqis that allowing them to continue would make the situation in Syria worse and ultimately threaten Iraq’s stability.
One senior US official said the sheer number of overflights, which occur “close to daily,” along with shipments trucked to Syria from Iran through Iraq, was inconsistent with claims they are only carrying humanitarian supplies. The official said it was in Iraq’s interest to prevent the situation in Syria from deteriorating further, particularly as there are fears that al-Qaeda-linked extremists may gain a foothold in the country as the al-Assad regime falters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly preview Kerry’s meetings, said there are clear links between al-Qaeda linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are also carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory with increasing regularity.