John Kerry urges Iraq to inspect Iranian overflights to Syria

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.

Jason Reed/AP
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.

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.

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.”

On Iraq’s political turmoil, Kerry said he reminded Maliki that democracy is “about inclusion and compromise,” and he asked that the cabinet reconsider its decision to suspend provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa provinces next month.

But he said he also told Sunni leaders, including the speaker of the parliament, that the Sunnis’ decision to pull out of the government had paved the way for the election suspension to take place.

Kerry said Maliki pledged to take the election suspension decision back to the cabinet.

The top US diplomat said he didn’t want to come off sounding too negative on the profound changes occurring in Iraq. Last year, the country had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, he said, and he noted that “for the first time in the lives of many Iraqis, they are able to express opinions” freely.

That said, “It would be disingenuous not to come here and say there is still a lot of work to do,” Kerry added.

A key challenge for the government is renewed terrorist violence. Noting there are “dozens of deaths every day,” a senior State Department official, speaking before Kerry’s meeting with Maliki, said the secretary would remind his Iraqi host of the “links between terrorist groups in Syria with groups in Iraq.”

Militants with Al Qaeda in Iraq are known to have crossed over in considerable numbers into Syria, and recently fighting has sparked along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Kerry wanted to underscore to Maliki that allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to deliver arms into Syria was putting him and his country “on a dangerous track,” the senior official said.

The problem for Kerry, and the US, is that American influence in the country is waning. The US has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq that established regular dialogue and cooperative efforts between the two countries. But the last US troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, and the substantial US-funded police training program that was to be the major US footprint in the country after the departure of combat troops has been scuttled and will shut down by the end of the year.

The shrinking US role in Iraq is evident in the precipitously declining numbers of Americans and diplomatic support staff in Iraq.

Today, 10,500 US diplomatic personnel and contractors are in Iraq – down from 16,000 a year ago, the senior official says. By the end of this year, the number will have been sliced in half – to about 5,000, with a once-huge diplomatic corps in Baghdad and throughout the country down to about 1,000.  

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