BAGHDAD — A diplomatic dispute over whether Iran is using Iraqi airspace to ship arms to the besieged regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has highlighted differences between the Iraqi and American governments over what should happen in Syria.
U.S. officials last week raised concerns that a growing number of Iranian cargo flights crossing Iraq for Syria were carrying weapons and said that the United States had raised the subject with the Iraqis.
"Without getting into intelligence matters, we are concerned about the over-flight of Iraq by Iranian cargo flights headed to Syria," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "We are consulting with Iraq about them."
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki denied that any weapons were crossing over Iraq bound for Syria.
"Iraq does not allow its land or its skies to be a passage for weapons in any direction and from any source," Maliki said in a statement. He said shipments going through Iraq were "only carrying humanitarian goods, not weapons."
Iraq's position on the Syrian uprising has been controversial. Iraq abstained on an Arab League motion to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime, and Maliki has said he opposes forcing Assad from power, something the United States, which until December kept thousands of troops in Iraq, has called for.
"The killing or removal of President Bashar in any way will explode into an internal struggle between two groups and this will have an impact on the region," Maliki said in a television interview, referring to predictions of region-wide conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. "It will end with civil war and this civil war will lead to wider alliances in the region. Because we are a country that suffered from civil war of a sectarian background, we fear for the future of Syria and the whole region."
On Saturday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said Iran had assured the Iraqi government that no weapons were being flown to Syria over Iraq.
"We informed the Iranian government via two separate envoys that we do not agree to the use of Iraqi airspace to transport weapons to anyone," Dabbagh said in an interview with the Hurra satellite television channel. "Tehran assured us that it is not transporting weapons or fighters at all, but humanitarian aid, and we are satisfied with their assurances."
The issue of whether Iran is flying over Iraq to deliver weapons to Syria underscores the difficulties the United States faces in the region after the Obama administration's failure last year to win Iraqi agreement to let some Americans troops remain in Iraq after a Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline that the U.S. agreed to in 2008.
U.S. officials had argued that a residual force was needed in part to patrol Iraq's skies. Iraq has no air force of its own, though it has agreed to purchase a fleet of U.S.-built combat aircraft.
How many Iranian flights have crossed over Iraq to reach Syria is a matter of debate. A prominent Iraqi politician with personal knowledge of the issue said that "the Iranians have 34 flights a week to Syria from various Iranian airports," and that all those flights use Iraqi air space.
He said American diplomats had complained to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry but that "Maliki will have to agree (to the flights) because the Iranians will pressure him."
"The Americans want Iraq to force them to land inside Iraq, but of course Iraq didn't agree to this," the Iraqi politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the Iraqi government's sensitive role in the Syria crisis. He noted that Iraq and Syria are major trading partners, with Iraq purchasing more than a quarter of Syrian exports. He noted that with Turkey imposing a trade embargo on Syria, "Iraq is the lifeline to Syria now."
"If Iraq had not opened up this route, Turkey could've forced the flights to land there first for inspection of the planes," the politician said.
Iraqi officials have said that while they believe change is needed in Syria, they oppose toppling Assad.
"As we see it, there are three possible paths for Syria," said Humam Hammoudi, a member of the parliamentary bloc that put Maliki in power and the head of the Parliament's foreign relations committee. "For the Assad regime to continue. For the opposition to bring down the regime and bring about absolute, incalculable change, and this is what the Gulf states are pushing for and we are calling it the Gulf option, and lastly, for the Assad regime to bring about some reforms that are acceptable to the Syrian people including free elections to be held under international supervision and the people will choose their leaders in a democratic way."
The last path, he said, is the path acceptable to Iraq because while it is change towards democracy, it is also change "under control — far from chaos, chaos that would spill over into Iraq and destabilize the whole region"
Arab states that support the uprising in Syria have taken advantage of the Arab League summit that is scheduled to be held in Baghdad on March 29 to pressure the Iraqi government.
Hammoudi said Iraq has so far resisted that pressure to change its position on Syria.
"For Iraq, Syria is a matter of national security, and we cannot change our position on a national security issue according to the opinion of others," he said. "We cannot support change when we do not know what will come at the end of it, who will come at the end of it, and how it would affect our own situation."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2012