US secretary of state makes impromptu visit to Iraq for meeting with PM Nouri Al Maliki.
Kerry urges Iraq to stop Iranian aircraft from using its airspace to ship arms
BAGHDAD // The US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday urged Iraq's leaders on an unannounced visit to Baghdad to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the American-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
As Iraq approaches provincial elections next month, Mr Kerry stressed the importance of ensuring that all elements of society feel enfranchised, a top US official said. A recent decision to delay the polls in Anbar and Nineveh provinces is a "serious setback" to Iraq's democratic institutions and should be revisited, the official said.
Mr Kerry held meetings with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and other top officials, urging them to stop Iranian aircraft from using Iraqi airspace to send troops and supplies to support the Syrian government as it battles rebels.
In addition to Mr Al Maliki, Mr Kerry saw the Iraqi parliament speaker parliament speaker Osama Al Nujaifi, a Sunni, whose faction is at odds with Mr Al Maliki's Shiites. Mr Kerry also spoke by phone with Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government based in Irbil to encourage the Kurds not go ahead with unilateral actions, especially involving oil, like a pipeline deal with Turkey.
He stressed the "importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq", saying that "separate efforts undercut the unity of the country" and that "the Kurdish republic cannot survive financially without the support of Baghdad," the official said.
Mr Kerry's arrival came just three days after the anniversary of the US-led war that began on March 20, 2003, with an air raid on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Saddam.
The invasion and toppling of Saddam sparked years of bloodshed as Sunni and Shiite militants battled US forces and each other, leaving nearly 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.
Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007. But insurgents are still able to stage high-profile attacks, and sectarian and ethnic rivalries remain threats to the country's long-term stability.
This week, an Al Qaeda in Iraq front group claimed responsibility nearly 20 attacks that killed 65 people across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Islamic State of Iraq said it unleashed the car bombs and other explosions to avenge the executions and "massacres" of convicted Sunni inmates held in Iraqi prisons. Its claim came on the 10th anniversary of the start of the war, although it made no reference to the significance of the date.
Mr Kerry arrived in Baghdad from Amman, where he had been accompanying President Barack Obama on his tour of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. His visit to Iraq is the first by a US secretary of state since Hillary Clinton went in April 2009. During Mr Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to the vice president, Joe Biden.
Mr Kerry also told Iraqi officials to stop Iranian aircraft from using Iraqi airspace to fly military personnel and equipment to support the Syrian government as it battles rebels. Iran and Iraq both say the flights are laden with humanitarian supplies, but the US and others believe they are filled with weapons and fighters to help the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
In the absence of a complete ban on flights, the US would at least like the planes to land and be inspected in Iraq to ensure that they are carrying humanitarian supplies. Mrs Clinton had secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities, according to US officials.
The overflights have long been a source of contention between the US and Iraq and Mr Kerry told the Iraqis that allowing them to continue will make the situation in Syria worse and ultimately threaten Iraq's stability.
The US official said the sheer number of overflights, which occur "close to daily," along with shipments trucked to Syria from Iran through Iraq, was inconsistent with claims they are only carrying humanitarian supplies. The official said 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 official said there are clear links between Al Qaeda-linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are also carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory with increasing regularity.
A group of fighters in Syria known as Jabhat Al Nusra, a powerful offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq that the US has designated a terrorist organisation, has claimed responsibility for most of the deadliest suicide bombings against regime and military facilities and, as a result, has gained popularity among some rebels.