BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said on Friday it has denied permission to a North Korean plane bound for Syria to pass through Iraqi airspace on suspicion it could be carrying weapons, and the United States stressed the need to prevent any such arms transfers.
Iraq has also denied a Western intelligence report that Iranian aircraft had flown weapons and military personnel over Iraqi airspace to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his 18-month-old fight against rebels seeking to end his rule.
U.S. officials said earlier this month they were questioning Iraq about Iranian flights in Iraqi air space. On Wednesday, U.S. Senator John Kerry threatened to review U.S. aid to Baghdad if it does not halt such overflights to Syria.
“Continuing the Iraqi government policy to investigate the passing of weapons to Syria through Iraqi land and air space, the Iraqi authorities prevented a North Korean plane from going to Syria, after they suspected that the plane was shipping weapons,” Ali al-Moussawi, media advisor to the Iraq’s prime minister, told Reuters.
Moussawi said the scheduled North Korean plane’s itinerary, which was due to travel to Syria on Saturday, had aroused Iraqi suspicions but that there had been no contact between Baghdad and North Korea on the issue.
He said that despite repeated requests from the Iraqi side, the United States had not presented any evidence that Iranian civilian aircraft were shipping arms to Syria via Iraq.
“We have told the Iranians that we could search their planes any time, randomly, and whenever we get any evidence (that they are shipping weapons),” he said. “We will seriously stop these plans (from passing through Iraqi space),” he added.
Although charges that Iraq has allowed Iran to send arms to Syria are not new, the intelligence report said the extent of such shipments was far greater and more systematic than has been publicly acknowledged, thanks to a deal between senior Iraqi and Iranian officials.
The report also said Iran was dispatching trucks overland via Iraq westwards to Syria.
The White House said on Friday that Vice President Joe Biden discussed in a telephone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki the need to prevent Iraqi territory and airspace from being used to ship weapons to Syria.
Maliki’s office said the prime minister assured Biden that Iraq refuses to be used for any weapons transfer to either party in the conflict in Syria.
“The prime minister expressed the Iraqi government’s dissatisfaction at allegations by some informal American circles raising suspicions about Iraq’s position towards the Syrian crisis,” the statement said.
Iraq’s leaders dismiss claims they support Assad, but they also fear a nightmare scenario: his downfall brings a hostile Sunni Muslim regime to power and emboldens disenchanted Sunnis in Iraq’s own fragile sectarian mix.
Syria’s upheaval is politically tricky for Iraq’s Shi‘ite Muslim-led government. Close to Assad’s ally, Shi‘ite Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining Western and fellow Arab calls for the Syrian leader to step down while also calling for a reform process in Syria.
Baghdad has reinforced key points along its 680-km (420-mile) desert border with Syria.
Additional reporting by Baghdad newsroom; editing by Sami Aboudi and Diana Abdallah