BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Iraq on an unannounced visit to urge Iraqi leaders to stop Iranian overflights of arms and fighters heading to Syria and to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the American-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Kerry flew into Baghdad on Sunday from Amman after accompanying President Barack Obama to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
Officials traveling with him said Kerry would press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior officials on democratic reforms and directly urge them to stop overflights of Iranian aircraft carrying 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 U.S. and others believe they are filled with weapons and fighters to help the Assad regime.
The overflights have long been a source of contention between the U.S. and Iraq and Kerry will tell the Iraqis that allowing them to continue will make the situation in Syria worse and ultimately threaten Iraq's stability.
A senior U.S. official said the sheer number of overflights, which occur "close to daily," as well as overland shipments to Syria through Iraq from Iran, 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-Qaida-linked extremists may gain a foothold in the country as the Assad regime falters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly preview Kerry's meetings, said there are clear links between al-Qaida linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are 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-Qaida in Iraq, 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.
However, the group has alienated secular-minded fighters, which is one reason the U.S. has not equipped the rebels with weapons. The Obama administration designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization last December
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but the official said that since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities.
Kerry will tell al-Maliki, a Shiite with close ties to Iran, that Iraq cannot be part of the political discussion about Syria's future until it clamps down on the Iranian shipments, the official said.
As Iraq approaches provincial elections next month, Kerry will also stress the importance of ensuring that all elements of society feel enfranchised, the 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.
In addition to al-Maliki, Kerry was seeing Iraqi parliament speaker parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, whose faction is at odds with Maliki's Shiia. Kerry also plans to speak 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 will stress the "importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq," say 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.
Kerry's visit to Iraq is the first by a U.S. secretary of state since Clinton went in 2009. During Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to Vice President Joe Biden.
Kerry's arrival came just three days after the anniversary of the U.S.-led war that began on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Hussein.
The invasion and toppling of Hussein sparked years of bloodshed as Sunni and Shiite militants battled U.S. forces and each other, leaving nearly 4,500 U.S. 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.
Earlier this week, an al-Qaida 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.