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John Kerry urges Iraq to inspect Iranian overflights to Syria (+video)

Secretary of State John Kerry tells Iraq it must curb Iran's use of Iraqi airspace to aid Syrian regime, but a shrinking US presence is leaving it with less sway over postwar events.

By Staff writer / March 25, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Sunday, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. He said he told the prime minister that Iranian flights over Iraq are 'helping to sustain President Assad and his regime' in Syria.

Jason Reed/AP

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New York

Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise stop in Baghdad Sunday made him the highest-ranking Obama administration official to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq where it took place.

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But Secretary Kerry’s visit had little to do with marking a milestone and much to do with invoking what dwindling influence America still has in postwar Iraq on two important issues for Washington: Iraq’s acquiescence at least to Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to ferry arms to forces fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and worrisome signs of a resurgence of sectarian divides and political power-grabbing in Iraq.

The United States wants Iraq to rigorously inspect Iranian cargo flights destined for Syria for arms shipments. And on the domestic political front, the US wants Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to reconsider a decision to suspend provincial elections set for next month in two provinces with important Sunni populations. More broadly, it wants Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do a better job of upholding democratic principles and promoting an inclusive political system.

The rub for the US is that despite a nearly $2 trillion war and occupation in Iraq, its rapidly shrinking presence in the country leaves it with little sway over events – much less already, say many regional experts, than that of neighboring Iran.

From Baghdad, Kerry proceeded to make a second surprise stop Monday, in Kabul, where he held a meeting with another problematic US partner: Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Kerry has experience dealing with the often-prickly Afghan leader, having served as President Obama’s periodic envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the president’s first term. But US-Afghan relations have recently hit a rough patch over details of the US military drawdown set to be completed at the end of 2014.

In Baghdad, Kerry appeared to acknowledge the modest prospects for US influence on Mr. Maliki’s decisionmaking, saying that he held out “hope” for progress and that his discussions with the Iraqi leader had been “spirited.”

On the Iran overflights, Kerry said he reminded Maliki that “success” in governing a country includes “the resolve to defend the sovereignty of the country and its airspace.”

He said he told Maliki the overflights are “helping to sustain President Assad and his regime,” and made clear to the Iraqi leader that many in Washington, including growing numbers in Congress, are wondering “how it is that Iraq can be doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals.”

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