The Iraqi government has refused U.S. requests to stop Iranian cargo flights to Syria, despite being aware of credible intelligence that the planes are transporting up to 30 tons of weapons, according to a U.S. official.
The U.S. has made several requests in recent months to the Iraqi government, including directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to either stop allowing Iran to use its airspace or allow the planes to be inspected in compliance with international law.
Iraq has refused, saying the planes are carrying only humanitarian aid.
Iranian cargo flights to Syria were reported as the bloody uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad enters its second year and as Iran flouts international sanctions over its secretive nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Iraq is roiling with sectarian violence and political unrest in the aftermath of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in December.
According to the U.S. official, intelligence about the Iranian cargo flights was obtained through the interception of air traffic control communications. Manifests of the planes’ cargo have listed “agricultural equipment” and “flowers.”
A high-level White House official recently spoke directly with Mr. al-Maliki about the issue, the official said.
Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been accused of tilting his government toward its more powerful neighbor, Iran, which is governed under a Shiite theocracy. The day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, Mr. al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for the country’s highest-ranking Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, accusing him of terrorism-related crimes.
Situated between Iran and Syria, Iraq is an ideal transit route between the two Middle Eastern countries. But allowing cargo flights of weapons to Syria could mean that Iraq is in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1929 and 1747, which ban arms exports from Iran.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington said he could not provide immediate comment and that he expects to receive a response from his government in coming days.
In Syria, more than 8,000 people have been killed in the Assad regime’s year-old crackdown on dissent, according to a U.N. estimate. Syrian forces and opposition rebels, led by military defectors, increasingly are clashing in city streets in what many say is becoming a civil war.
During congressional testimony last week, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which monitors and conducts operations in the Middle East, acknowledged that Iran is sending weapons to Syria.
“In terms of Iran, they are working earnestly to keep Assad in power. They have flown in experts. They are flying in weapons. It is a full-throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppressing his own people,” Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“They are providing the kind of weapons that are being used right now to suppress the opposition,” Gen. Mattis said.
However, the Obama administration has rejected calls to arm the Syrian opposition, saying such a move would only worsen the situation. On Thursday, France also rejected a call to arm the opposition.
Still, U.S. officials have been reviewing diplomatic and military options to halt the violence in Syria.
“We are going to continue to keep the pressure up, and are looking for every tool available to prevent the slaughter of innocents in Syria,” President Obama said Feb. 24.
Iranian influence has grown in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion forced the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, with Tehran providing monetary aid and other assistance to Baghdad.
Iran is also Syria’s closest, longtime ally in the region. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria sided with Iran. Both Syria and Iran support the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and both are considered enemies of Israel.
Although there is a small U.S. military presence in Iraq, most U.S. troops exited the region precipitously last year, when negotiations on immunity for U.S. troops broke down.
Only a few hundred military personnel remain in Iraq, along with about 500 security contractors and thousands of staffers at the U.S. Embassy.