“They are permitting overflights to deliver weapons . . . to support regime forces” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the escalating U.S.-Iraqi tension.
An Iraqi spokesman said his government has assurances from Iran that the cargo includes only humanitarian aid and that the United States should provide evidence if it believes otherwise. Iran is Assad’s principal backer in the region.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which rejected a recent Arab League call for Assad to resign, has said it does not want to be drawn into a sectarian war in which majority Sunnis make up the bulk of the rebel forces fighting to oust Assad. Assad’s Alawite sect is a subgroup within Syria’s minority Shiite community.
“All nations have a responsibility . . . to seek to prevent the export of Iranian arms,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “Iraq has taken steps in the past to meet that obligation and it must continue to do so.”
Three U.S. senators who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday said they told him that he risked damaging relations with the United States, as well as losing U.S. aid under a 2008 U.S.-Iraqi agreement signed before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops last year, the Associated Press reported from Baghdad.
“Bottom line, this kind of problem with these Iranian overflights can make it more difficult to proceed with the [agreement] in the manner that the prime minister and we would like to see happen,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters after the meeting.
Lieberman is on a fact-finding trip to Iraq, along with Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). All three have called on President Obama to provide U.S. arms and take other military measures in support of the Syrian opposition.
Graham said Obama’s “amazing lack of leadership” had left Iraq “in a pickle” in terms of choosing sides in Syria. “The reason they’re probably not pushing back on Iran is because they don’t see how this ends,” he said of the Iraqis.
The administration, which has long been concerned about Shiite Iran’s influence in Iraq, has a less benign view of Baghdad’s motives but is reluctant to provoke a public breach. While officials expressed sympathy for Iraq’s limited air defense capability to stop the flights even if it wanted to, and for Iraq’s concerns about sectarian spillover from the 18-month-old Syrian conflict, officials said they are determined to enforce Iran sanctions.
In 2007, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting Iran from supplying or selling any weapons abroad. A further resolution in 2010 “recommended” that all states inspect cargo coming to or from Iran.