Iraq searches Syrian-bound Iran flight, finds no arms

BAGHDAD Sun Oct 28, 2012 10:58am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has stopped and searched an Iranian flight bound for Syria to check for weapons being shipped to President Bashar al-Assad, but found only humanitarian aid, authorities said on Sunday.

The search was the second carried out by Baghdad since Washington warned Iraq not to allow Iran to ship weapons through its airspace to help Assad in his battle against a 19-month-long revolt.

"Yesterday morning we stopped an Airbus plane from Iran heading to Syria... but we found humanitarian aid, like tents and first aid gear," said Samer Kuba, the deputy head of Iraq's Civil Aviation Authority, told Reuters.

Kuba said the Iran Air flight was allowed to continue on to Syria later on Saturday.

The flight checks illustrate the delicate balancing act Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki faces over Syria where an increasingly sectarian conflict threatens to widen Sunni-Shi'ite Muslim divisions in the Middle East.

Close to Shi'ite power Iran, Maliki has refused to back Sunni Gulf Arab nations calling for Assad to step down. But he must also keep strong ties with Washington which is a key supplier of arms to Iraq's military.

A Western intelligence report in September showed that Iran has been using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons almost daily through Iraqi airspace to aid Assad.

Iraq rejected charges it allows Tehran to ferry military equipment or fighters through Iraq. In September, Baghdad said it would subject Syrian-bound Iranian flights to random checks and refused a North Korean plane permission to fly to Syria across Iraq on suspicion it carried arms.

(Reporting by Aseel Kami; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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