Last Updated: Thu Sep 06, 2012 09:31 am (KSA) 06:31 am (GMT)

U.S. urges Iraq to inspect Iran planes heading to Syria amid arms fears

Senator John McCain reported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (R) as saying that the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had vowed Washington would give Baghdad proof of the administration’s fears, but no evidence had been handed over. (AFP)
Senator John McCain reported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (R) as saying that the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had vowed Washington would give Baghdad proof of the administration’s fears, but no evidence had been handed over. (AFP)

The United States on Wednesday urged Iraq to ensure that Iranian planes flying over its territory land and face cargo inspections, amid concerns Tehran is shipping arms to the Syrian regime.

“We expect Iraq as a member of good standing in the international community, as a strategic partner of the United States, to meet its international obligations,” acting State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.

“The easiest way we think is for them to require these aircraft to land and be inspected in Iraqi territory,” he said, adding that Baghdad had full control of its airspace since U.S. troops withdrew in December.

Tehran has told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the planes flying over Iraqi airspace were carrying humanitarian aid to Syria, where the opposition has been fighting since last year to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

But three U.S. lawmakers visiting Baghdad told Maliki that Washington believes the planes were ferrying military equipment to the Assad regime.

“The prime minister has said that he had testimony, or promises from the Iranians that they were just flying humanitarian assistance, but we believe otherwise,” Senator Joe Lieberman said.

“I think we should present him (Maliki) with... as much evidence as we can, to show why we believe those Iranian cargo and commercial planes... are carrying items... that enable Assad to kill his own people.”

Senator John McCain said Maliki had told them that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had vowed Washington would give Baghdad proof of the administration’s fears, but no evidence had been handed over.

Ventrell refused to be drawn on what evidence the United States might have to substantiate its allegations, but insisted “the Iranians have been very clear, and they’ll stop at nothing to continue to support the Syrian regime, and they’ve been very open about that.”

Under U.N. Security Council resolutions all states have a responsibility to “seek to prevent the export of Iranian arms, moreover... all states need to inspect all cargo to and from Iran in their territory if they have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe the cargo contains prohibited items,” he added.

Arms resume on July ?

Another U.S. official said Wednesday that Iraq had shut down the movement of Iranian aid to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad earlier this year, but that suspected arms deliveries resumed in July. And three U.S. senators warned Baghdad that it risked damaging relations with the U.S. if it is allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to Syria.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the information publicly.

Iraq’s government said Iran had assured it that the flights to Syria were delivering only humanitarian aid, and challenged the U.S. to prove otherwise.

It was the latest example of Baghdad’s warming relations with Tehran and weakening ties with Washington, after a decade in which the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost almost 4,500 lives after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and tried to stabilize the country.

McCain said he believed flights resumed after a July 18 suicide bombing on a heavily guarded security headquarters in Damascus killed four top Syrian regime officials, including defense minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

In March, Baghdad informed Tehran it would not permit arms shipments to Syria to pass through or over its territory after Washington said it was concerned about Iranian cargo flights through Iraqi airspace.

“We think all of (Iran’s) destructive assistance should stop whether it’s materiel or whether it’s direct training and assistance to help sort of stage-manage the repression,” Ventrell added.

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