BAGHDAD — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki on Sunday to stop Iran from flying arms across Iraqi territory to the beleaguered Syrian regime, but found him unwilling to give ground.
In a visit to Baghdad that was not announced in advance, Kerry told Al-Maliki that the almost daily flights have become a lifeline for Syrian President Bashar Assad that is undermining the efforts of the United States and allies to negotiate the departure of Assad and an end to the 2-year-old Syrian civil war. And Kerry warned that many in the United States are wondering how, after Americans "have tried so hard to be helpful" in rebuilding post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the country could stand in its way.
"The overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain Assad," Kerry said after the meeting, which he described as "spirited."
But al-Maliki repeated Iraq's view that there is no proof that the cargo is arms, rather than humanitarian aid as the Iranians contend. Kerry was left to say that he will gather more information to prove his point.
The overflights have become an increasingly important issue for the Obama administration, which believes they have reinforced Assad's desire to stand and fight even as his military fortunes crumble.
Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials have unsuccessfully pressed Iraq to halt the flights, or at least begin ground inspections of the Iranian cargo. "The number of flights shows that they can't possibly be humanitarian flights," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivity.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which worries that it could be targeted next if Sunni rebel fighters sweep Assad from power, has conducted only two inspections since last year in response to U.S. pressure. Both of them revealed only humanitarian aid, it says.
Some in Congress are outraged.