BAGHDAD Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Iraq must take steps to stop the flow of Iranian weapons and fighters to Syria through Iraqi airspace. But a nearly two hour long "spirited discussion" between Kerry and Maliki failed to produce any immediate agreement.
The U.S. believes that Iraqi allows Iran to use its airspace to deliver arms to the Assad regime on an almost daily basis. In a press conference following their meeting, Secretary Kerry said that the overflights from Iran are "problematic" and that they are "helping to sustain President Assad and his regime."
Kerry said that he agreed to provide more information on the Iranian overflights and their lethal cargo to the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government maintains that the Iranian planes are only delivering humanitarian support. A senior U.S. official traveling with John Kerry said that there is "substantial" intelligence that contradicts that claim but declined to detail how that intelligence was gathered or how many of these Iranian flights have taken place.
The Secretary of State also mentioned that there are members of Congress and others "who are increasingly watching what Iraq is doing." That comment recalled remarks by then-Senator Kerry who suggested last September that Congress should consider making U.S. aid to Iraq dependent on their compliance.
Kerry's visit to Iraq, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in nearly 4 years, comes amidst concern that U.S. influence is waning and that Prime Minister Maliki's government is growing closer to neighbor Iran. Maliki has long-standing relationships with Iranian and Syrian officials from his time as Shia dissident. He built those relationships during the late 1970s in an effort to get their help to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since Maliki became Prime Minister, those ties have proved useful to maintain his own hold on power. However, they are problematic for the U.S. and its efforts to isolate Iran and cut off the regime of Syria's Bashar al Assad.
The U.S. believes that the Iranian army and Iranian-backed fighters like Hezbollah have been fighting alongside Bashar al Assad's military during the past two years of the Syrian civil war. The U.S. is also concerned that Al Qaeda fighters have been entering Syria across the Iraqi border. A senior U.S. official cited the recent fighting between an Al Qaeda in Iraq column and the Syrian military as evidence of the spillover.
Prime Minister Maliki has publicly stated his fears that the fall of the Assad regime will cause a political vacuum and that the sectarian tensions and violence of the Syrian civil could spillover into Iraq. During his meetings in Baghdad, Kerry warned Prime Minister Maliki that Iraq's influence in the future of Syria will be limited unless his government cuts off support for the Assad regime.
The visit by Secretary Kerry came just a week after the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Secretary Kerry acknowledged the "remarkable sacrifices by so many Iraqis and Americans who gave their lives" in war to oust Saddam Hussein. While the U.S. has spilled much blood and treasure in Iraq, U.S. officials quietly acknowledge that their leverage is diminishing.
There are no remaining U.S. troops in Iraq and the U.S. diplomatic presence has also shrunk. U.S. Embassy Baghdad, the largest diplomatic compound in the world, has seen staff reductions. By the end of 2013, there will be 5,100 personnel who are direct U.S. government hires. There were 16,000 employed last year.