U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister… (Jason Reed / AP Photo )
BAGHDAD – Secretary of State John Kerry began an unannounced trip to Iraq on Sunday to urge the government to halt the Iranian supply of arms and fighters through its airspace to Syria, and to implore it to share more power with its alienated Sunni population.
Kerry, in the first trip as top diplomat to the Arab state, met with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and Parliament Speaker Osama Nujayfyi, and was scheduled to speak by telephone to Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the country is teetering between prosperity and a possible explosive new confrontation between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. U.S. officials see the country as key to the fortunes of the broader Middle East, but their influence on it has ebbed as U.S. troops have departed and aid has declined.
Topping Kerry’s agenda is the flow of Iranian arms and fighters, which is helping Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power. A senior administration official said before the meeting that Kerry would be "very direct” with Maliki about the need to stop the overflights, or at a minimum to begin inspecting the cargoes.
While Iraqi officials have maintained that the flights carry humanitarian supplies, the volume of flights suggests that “they can’t possible be only humanitarian flights,” the official told reporters.
The administration is facing congressional pressure to punish the Iraqi government for its unwillingness to halt the arms flow. During a hearing last week, U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford heard a call from House members for the United States to impose “consequences” on the Iraqi government.
But the administration official said that it is not trying to sway Maliki with threats but with promises that Iraq will be better able to influence events in Syria if it joins world powers in trying to negotiate creation of a new order in Syria.
Iraqi officials, however, fear that if Sunni fighters are able to topple Assad, the next target may be their regime. They have resisted calls from a lengthening list of U.S. officials on the overflight issue.
Kerry and Maliki shared a joke before their meeting about the influence of American leaders.
Kerry joked that his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had told him "you're going to do everything I say."
Maliki shot back though the translator: "We won't do it."
Following the meeting, Kerry told reporters that he had had a "spirited" discussion with Maliki on the issue.
He said he planned to provide the Iraqis more information to bolster the U.S. position. But he gave no sign that Maliki relented.
Kerry warned that Congress and ordinary Americans are struggling to understand how Iraq, a recipient of billions in U.S. aid, would work against it on Syria.