Secretary of State John Kerry confronted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for continuing to grant Iran access to its airspace, warning that Baghdad's behavior was raising questions about its reliability as a partner.
"I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see [Syria's embattled] President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold … anything that supports President Assad is problematic," The Associated Press quoted Kerry as saying at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after meeting with Maliki at his office.
"And I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime," Kerry said, adding he and Maliki had "a very spirited discussion" on the Iranian flights, which Washington believe is ferrying weapons and fighters intended for the Syrian government.
Iraq's politics had largely been dominated by the Arab Sunnis until the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Now the federal government of Iraq is governed by Shi'ite parties led by the Islamic Dawa Party. Syria's President Assad is from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
Iraq and Iran claim that the flights are use only to carry humanitarian goods, but U.S. officials say they are confident that the planes are being used to arm the Assad regime.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry pointed out that if only humanitarian supplies were being carried, why the overflights would occur "close to daily," along with shipments trucked to Syria from Iran through Iraq.
The official was quoted as saying that 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 Assad regime falters. The anonymous source added there are clear links between al-Qaeda-linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are also carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory.
While President Assad is supported by Iran as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah among other Shi'a groups, sections in the opposition movement are supposedly aided by Saudi Arabia and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists.
Kerry said Baghdad's implicit support of Iranian overflights left Americans wondering how an ally would undermine U.S. efforts, particularly after the enormous sacrifices made by Washington in liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein's autocratic rule.
"There are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful, how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the prime minister with respect to Syria and President Assad," Kerry said.
Kerry's visit to Iraq is the first by a U.S. secretary of state since April 2009 when Clinton toured the country.