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Kerry wants Iraq to stop arms shipments to Syria. Why would Iraq agree?

A sharp divergence in Iraqi and US interests was on display in Secretary of State John Kerry's surprise visit to Baghdad.

By Staff writer / March 24, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the media aboard an Air Force C-130 on his way back from Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday. Kerry is calling for Iraq to stop sending arms to Syria.

Jason Reed/AP

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US Secretary of State John Kerry made a previously unannounced stop in Baghdad today, and in the process unintentionally highlighted the difficult job he's been assigned in advancing the US diplomatic agenda as regards to the Syrian civil war.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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The US would like to see the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad fall, and has been expanding "non-lethal" support towards that objective even as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been arming the rebels.

But Iraq is on the other side of the equation. After the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, a Shiite-Islamist government came to power in the country, with better current relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran than with the US. With Iran backing Mr. Assad, and the likelihood of Sunni Islamists coming to power if Assad falls, Iraq's interests and America's are sharply divergent.

To Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the people fighting Assad look very similar to the Sunni forces, many jihadi, that vehemently oppose his government and continue to carry out mass casualty suicide bombings in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq has already been working with some of the salafi rebel groups in Syria like the Jabhat al-Nusra (ironically on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations) and their dream would be to have a new friend across the border when the dust settles in Syria, arming and supporting them in their unlikely quest to restore Sunni Arab hegemony in Iraq.  

What's more, Iraq has oil. Lots of it. While it also has enormous social problems Iraq already has a fairly well-armed and capable military (Note: May have this wrong; knowledgeable folks on Twitter heavily dispute this and will do more research). There is very little Mr. Maliki needs from the US anymore (one of the reasons he, essentially, kicked US troops out of the country at the end of 2011).

So that's the context in which Mr. Kerry arrived in Baghdad today to jawbone Maliki over tacit support for Assad. Kerry told reporters after he met Maliki that the US would like to see that support end, particularly allowing Iran to fly through Iraqi airspace to help arm and supply the Syrian military. The US also alleges that arms-shipments are being trucked through Iraq from Iran to aid Assad.

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