BAGHDAD - The U.S. has made clear to Iraq that it shouldn't allow Iran to use its airspace to ship weapons and fighters to Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Sunday during an unannounced trip to Baghdad.
Kerry's comments come as U.S. lawmakers are calling for President Barack Obama to do more to stop the bloodshed in Syria, including possible airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's aircraft fleet. U.S. officials say ongoing efforts to aid opposition groups in Syria have been undermined by Iran, which is using Iraqi airspace without objections by Iraq.
On Sunday, Kerry said Iraq's tacit approval of Iranian overflights left the American people "wondering how it is a partner."
"I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down ... anything that supports President Assad is problematic," Kerry said following a private discussion with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, on Sunday called for a greater U.S. presence in the Syrian conflict to prevent chemical and conventional weapons from falling into the wrong hands. He said the U.S. should create a "safe zone" in northern Syria that would give the U.S. more leverage with opposition forces.
"This doesn't mean the 101st Airborne Division and ships" are deployed, Rogers told CBS' "Face the Nation." "It means small groups with special capabilities reengaging the opposition so we can vet them, train them, equip them so they can be an effective fighting force."
Rogers' comments reflect an increasingly frustrated Congress that sees unrest in Syria as dangerous to U.S. interests. Last week, Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Obama in a letter to step up U.S. military efforts in the region, including destroying Assad's aircraft using precision airstrikes.
The overflights in Iraq have long been a source of contention between the U.S. and Iraq
U.S. officials say that in the absence of a complete ban on flights, the U.S. would at least like the planes to land and be inspected in Iraq to ensure that they are carrying humanitarian supplies. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton 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 U.S. officials.
One senior U.S. 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-Qaida-linked extremists may gain a foothold in the country as the Assad regime falters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, said there are clear links between al-Qaida linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are also carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory with increasing regularity.
In addition to al-Maliki, Kerry saw Iraqi parliament speaker parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, whose faction is at odds with Maliki's Shiia. 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.
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.
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 U.S. secretary of state since Clinton went in April 2009. During Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to Vice President Joe Biden.
Since Clinton's trip, the American diplomatic presence in Iraq has shrunk dramatically, most significantly since U.S. ended military operations in late 2011, according to officials. A year ago, there were 16,000 State Department employees and contractors in the country. As of Kerry's visit, that number had declined to 10,500 and it will drop to 5,100 by the end of 2013, officials said.