BAGHDAD, March 24 (UPI) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Sunday rebuffed a U.S. call for Iraq to stop Iran from using Iraqi airspace in sending weapons to Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, told Maliki shipments of arms from Iran are undermining U.S. efforts to bring the Syrian civil war to an end. He said many Americans do not understand how Iraq would allow the shipments to go on after the United States "tried so hard to be helpful" in helping rebuilding Iraq following the war that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Kerry told reporters "the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping [Syrian President Bashar] Assad" but Maliki said there is no conclusive proof that the shipments contain anything but humanitarian aid.
A senior official traveling with Kerry, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters the number of overflights "is, in itself, an indication that these can't possibly be only humanitarian flights" and Kerry is convinced the flights " include weapons and fighters and that this is absolutely contrary to the international goals with Syria and is dangerous for Iraq."
Kerry said the United States agreed to provide the Iraqi government with more information on the Iranian cargo, CBS News reported.
Speaking at a news conference at the American Embassy in Baghdad, Kerry said Iraq allowing the Syrian flights -- and supporting Assad -- is "problematic" and not representative of "common goals" between the United States and Iraq, The New York Times reported.
Kerry said there are members of Congress "who are increasingly watching what Iraq is doing."
Kerry's meeting with Maliki was part of his first visit to Iraq as secretary of state and the first visit of a U.S. secretary of state to the country since Hilary Clinton in 2009, The Washington Post reported.
Since he landed in Baghdad, Kerry has suggested Maliki do more to appease Sunnis in the Shiite-ruled country. Sunnis in Iraq have staged protests in recent months over their political and societal marginalization. U.S. officials have expressed concern that Sunnis may rise up in an armed protest.
Fearful that the overthrow of Assad could lead to Sunni control in neighboring Syria and embolden Iraqi Sunnis could be seen as a reason for Maliki tolerating Iranian flights, the Times reported.
Kerry also met with Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, as well as had a telephone conversation Sunday with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Times reported.