BAGHDAD -- Despite regular U.S. objections, Iraq continues to allow Iranian flights to Syria to use its airspace and has not searched an Iranian plane since October, an American official says.
“We object very strongly to the overflights, which we believe carry weapons,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. The decision of the Iraqi government to not inspect Iranian flights was brought up regularly with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, he added.
“We speak to him all the time,” the official said. “Yes we raise it with him.”
The Americans believe the flights provide key weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad whose forces have been at war with Syrian rebels for two years.
Maliki’s government told U.S. officials in the fall that the Iraqis would search Iranian aircraft going to Syria, but it has since conducted only two searches, both of them in October.
The first inspection was of a plane coming back from Syria to Iran after dropping off its cargo. The Iraqi government said that inspection was an error, but the Americans remain deeply skeptical.
“Maybe, maybe not,“ the same U.S. official said, as he expressed frustration over the Iraqi government’s lack of action.
Two senior Iraqi politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity, confirmed separately that the Iranian aircraft were regularly carrying weapons to Syria with tacit support from Maliki.
“Just go to the Baghdad international airport and see how many Iranian aircraft are being inspected,” one of them said. The politician added that any previous inspection by the Iraqis had likely been coordinated with the Iranians.
Those within Maliki’s party said Iraq cannot prevent Iran from flying through its territory as long as its neighbor seeks permission. “This is under international law. We’ve done all that we can do. We cannot stop them from flying,” said lawmaker Hanan Fatlawi, from Maliki’s political bloc.
Iraqi’s Shiite Muslim majority remains deeply fearful of the Sunni Muslim-led uprising in Syria. They worry that if Assad falls, he will be replaced by a radical Sunni regime hostile to Iraq’s Shiite population and likely to encourage Iraq’s Sunnis to violence.
In an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press, Maliki warned that a rebel victory in Syria could trigger sectarian conflicts in his and other nations. “If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq,” he said.
The Syrian conflict has degenerated into a regional proxy war, with Iran supplying weapons to Assad, who is friendly to Shiite-governed Iran, and Sunni Arab states backing the rebels, whether through official channels or private means.