John Kerry, the first secretary of state to visit Iraq in four years, urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop Iran from using Iraqi airspace to fly arms and fighters to Syria’s military, arguing that if Iraq wants a say in Syria’s future, it must help end the bloody conflict there.
Kerry, 69, said he also pressed Iraq’s leaders to abandon the factionalism and dysfunction among the Shiite ruling party, the Sunni opposition and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government. The U.S. says the discord has hindered Iraqi unity, economic reconstruction and foreign investment needed to exploit the world’s fifth-largest proven crude-oil deposits.
The trip, which for security reasons wasn’t made public until Kerry’s arrival, coincided with the 10-year anniversary this month of the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and followed a spate of coordinated terrorist bombings that killed more than 60 people last week.
Since the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011, the influence of neighboring Shiite Iran on Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has grown, as the U.S. ability to sway Iraqi politics and foreign policy has waned. Two years of so-called Arab uprisings across the region and the spillover from the ongoing conflict in Syria on Iraq’s western border have further complicated life for Iraq’s leaders.
Kerry told reporters he made it clear to Maliki that the U.S. considers Iranian flights delivering military aid to Syria “problematic,” because they are helping to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. He said he had a “very spirited discussion” with Maliki, and told him that Iraq’s reluctance to halt the flights has some in Washington questioning Iraq’s commitment to the U.S. partnership.
Pressure on Obama
The two-year-old revolt against Assad has become a source of discord between the U.S. and Iraq. President Barack Obama, who said early on that Assad must go, is under mounting pressure from European and Middle Eastern allies and some in Congress to do more to support Syrian rebels in a civil war that the United Nations estimates has claimed at least 70,000 lives.
The airspace over Iraq has become a main resupply route for Syrian forces, with almost daily flights by Iran to funnel weapons and fighters to prop up Assad, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Syria, Iran’s ally in the region, is a conduit for Iranian aid to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, according to the U.S. The U.S. and Israel designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group and have urged the EU to do the same.
Analysts have said Maliki may be turning a blind eye to Iran’s support for Assad, whose Alawite sect is affiliated with Shiite Islam, for his own reasons -- worry about the possible triumph of Sunni-extremist Syrian rebels or fear of reprisals if he were to oppose Iran, his eastern neighbor.
Kerry has embraced the Syrian conflict as a top priority in his first months in office, pledging to boost U.S. support to Syrian rebels and publicly reasoning that when Assad realizes he cannot vanquish the armed rebellion, he will have to negotiate a political transition. Until now, though, Iranian and Russian military support for Assad appears to have reinforced his belief that he can prevail, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Congress last week.
Under pressure from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Iraq agreed last year to conduct inspections of Iranian flights to Syria, though it has done only two searches so far -- one after a flight had left Syria, U.S. officials say. Iran says the aircraft ferry humanitarian aid, and Maliki has pressed the U.S. for proof that Iran is transporting lethal supplies.
While the end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq fulfilled a 2008 campaign promise made by Obama, the troops’ withdrawal was hastened by the failure of the two governments to renew a status-of-forces agreement to exempt American troops from local prosecution.
The war that toppled Hussein took the lives of more than 111,762 Iraqis, according to Iraq Body Count, a London-based nonprofit group, and 4,486 U.S. service members, according to icasualties.org, which tracks figures from the U.S. military and news organizations.
In his conversations with Iraqi leaders yesterday, Kerry paid tribute to the lives lost.
The Iraq invasion also cost the U.S. $823 billion in direct federal spending through 2012, the Congressional Research Service estimated in a new report. Only World War II had a higher direct cost -- $4.1 trillion in current dollars.
For that high price in lives and funds, the U.S. presence has diminished rapidly in both personnel and influence since the last combat troops withdrew. A year ago, the staffing of the U.S. mission throughout Iraq totaled 16,000, including direct hires and contractors, while staffing now is at 10,500, the State Department official said. By end of this year, it will be cut by about half, to 5,100.
In a report issued this month by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quoted as saying the withdrawal of forces had reduced U.S. influence over Maliki’s government.
Still, Kerry -- the first top American diplomat to visit since Clinton in 2009 -- tried to persuade Maliki yesterday to hold talks with Sunni and Kurdish political leaders to repair discord among the country’s sectarian groups.
“All Iraqis must work together so they can come together as a nation,” Kerry told reporters after his talks.
He urged Maliki to reconsider his decision to postpone April 20 elections only in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and to respect peaceful demonstrations. Kerry also queried what critics have called the politically motivated pursuit of opposition figures.
In a separate meeting with Sunni leader and parliamentary speaker Usama Al-Nujaifi, Kerry pushed Sunni politicians to end their boycott of the Iraqi cabinet, saying they will have more influence while inside the government.
Sectarian tensions, a dispute between the central government and the country’s semi-autonomous Kurds, and foreign investor concerns about fee-based oil contracts have complicated Iraq’s efforts to revitalize its most important industry.
The Kurds have sought a direct pipeline to Turkey that would undercut a unified Iraqi oil strategy.
Kerry spoke by phone with Kurdish Regional Government leader Massoud Barzani and urged him to abandon any direct deals with Turkey and focus having a national strategy for exporting energy.
Iraq overtook Iran last year to become the biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia. The country pumped 3.2 million barrels a day of oil in February, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and plans to boost output to an average 3.7 million barrels a day this year, Oil Minister Abdul Kareem Al-Luaibi told reporters in Vienna on Dec. 9.
Many U.S. energy companies interested in the Iraqi oil sector have been held back by the country’s failure so far to establish uniform contracting regulations, the State Department official said. The U.S. government has urged all energy companies to think about their investments in whatever region as part of a unified Iraqi oil industry, the official said.
Brent crude futures, a benchmark for more than half the world’s oil, ended the March 22 trading session in London at $107.66 a barrel. Brent has lost 3 percent this year.