Kerry asks Iraq to stop Syria arms flow
The Obama administration has been unable to persuade Iraq to block such flights or even to perform regular inspections, and Kerry didn’t make much headway.
“We had a very spirited discussion,” Kerry said afterward, “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 added that he warned Maliki that some members of Congress are beginning to question how Iraq, after receiving so much American help, could be working against the United States now. He told reporters that he and Maliki agreed to “try to provide more information” about the content of shipments from Iran.
Iraq claims that Iranian flights over its territory carry only humanitarian supplies for the civil war in next-door Syria, and the only two known inspections of Iranian aircraft showed only those supplies.
The United States claims that the sheer volume of flights and overland vehicle traffic crossing Iraq points to regular arms shipments. A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said there are flights nearly every day. The official would not say how the United States is certain the planes are carrying weapons for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, but repeatedly asserted that is the case.
“We know” the contents, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Kerry’s argument to Maliki, a prickly and often difficult leader whose recent consolidation of power worries his American backers.
Kerry also suggested that Iraq could play a greater role in a post-Assad Syria if the country cooperates to reduce the arms flow to Assad now, the official said. Iraq is not part of a U.S.- and European-led group of nations backing the Syrian rebels.
Kerry also pressed Maliki, a Shiite, to reconsider a decision to postpone local elections in two Sunni-majority provinces, the official said, and to share power more equally with Sunni and Kurds.
Kerry invoked Iraq’s first free election, in 2005, to urge Maliki to revisit the election issue.
“No country knows more about voting under difficult circumstances than Iraq,” Kerry said at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy.
Iraq remains badly divided along sectarian lines, with near-daily killings and terrorist attacks attributed to sectarian rivalries. The Shiite-led cabinet last week postponed the elections scheduled for April 20 for up to six months in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, citing threats to electoral workers.
Kerry pressed Maliki to do more to appease the Sunnis, who have been staging large protests for months, complaining about their political and societal marginalization. U.S. officials have been watching the protest movement with concern, fearing that it has the potential to devolve into a new armed Sunni uprising.
Kerry began the session with Maliki joking that he had been assured that Maliki would “do everything that I say.” Maliki had a good-natured reply: “We won’t do it,” he said through an interpreter. Both men smiled.
Kerry’s visit comes at a low point for American influence 10 years after the U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. The Obama administration was unable to negotiate a long-term security agreement with the Maliki government, leading to the departure of all U.S. forces and most civilians.
The mammoth U.S. Embassy in downtown Baghdad, the largest and most expensive in the world, is downsizing from more than 16,000 employees to about 5,000 this year. Only about 1,000 of those left will be diplomats.
The United States also is dismantling the vestiges of a police training program once envisioned as its signature contribution to postwar Iraq, having come to terms with the fact that Iraqis have no interest in a multibillion-dollar investment designed to bolster the country's troubled judicial system.
Kerry’s trip is the first to Iraq by an American secretary of state since Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled here in 2009, and it comes amid growing criticism from Iraqi officials who say the United States has not done enough to build a strong postwar relationship with Baghdad.
Washington negotiated a so-called strategic framework agreement with Iraqi leaders in 2008, a deal that was contemplated as the civilian counterpart of an accord to keep troops in Iraq past 2011. After the latter fizzled because of a dispute over whether U.S. troops would have immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, the civilian cooperation component has lagged, Iraqi officials say.
“On the ground, nothing happened,” said parliament member Sami al-Askari, a close ally of Maliki. “Just minor things, but nothing real has happened.”
Askari was part of a delegation of Iraqi officials who traveled to Washington recently to push U.S. officials to play a bigger role in the new Iraq.
Iraqi citizens, “instead of seeing American soldiers, want to see American engineers, American companies,” fellow lawmaker Yassin Majeed said.
American officials say they are committed to building a stronger relationship with Iraq and have cited the country’s deadlocked politics, security concerns and endemic corruption as factors that have hindered U.S. investment.
Overall, Ambassador Stephen Beecroft said in a recent interview, the United States has made significant contributions to the country, the many missteps of the war notwithstanding.
“It’s a vastly different place,” Beecroft said, reflecting on the U.S. legacy here a year after American forces invaded Iraq. “It basically took Iraq from a very limited society that had very limited options and opportunities for its people and opened those up to a democratic system that provides much more in the way of freedom and choices and opportunities.”
Many Iraqis have a dimmer view of today’s Iraq, citing a stubborn insurgency, rising sectarian tension and a political crisis that has led Sunnis and Kurds to boycott Maliki’s Shiite-run government.
No Kurdish leaders came to Baghdad to meet Kerry.