BAGHDAD — Secretary of State John Kerry told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a visit to Baghdad on Sunday that Iraq must take steps to stop the shipment of Iranian arms to Syria if it wants to participate in broader discussions about that country’s future.
Kerry’s visit marked the first by a US secretary of state since Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Iraq in 2009, and it came amid growing concern over Iraq’s role in the Syrian conflict.
Flights of Iranian arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace, which a senior State Department official said are occurring on nearly a daily basis, have been crucial for the government of Bashar Assad, which faces increasing pressure from rebel fighters.
Kerry said he had a ‘‘spirited’’ discussion with Maliki about the issue, but there was no tangible sign that the Iraqis would alter their position on the issue.
Speaking at a news conference at the US Embassy in Baghdad after meeting with the prime minister, Kerry said he stressed that supporting Assad by allowing the flights is ‘‘problematic’’ and not representative of ‘‘common goals’’ between the United States and Iraq.
The air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main route for military aid to Assad’s government, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, as well as Iranian personnel, according to US intelligence officials. There are supply lines on the ground as well.
Iran has an enormous stake in Syria, which is its staunchest Arab ally and has provided a channel for Iran’s support to the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.
The Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government, led by Maliki, has a great stake in Syria as well. Fearful that Assad’s overthrow would lead to Sunni control of neighboring Syria and embolden Iraqi Sunnis who oppose him, Maliki has been seen as tolerating the Iranian flights.
US officials have repeatedly insisted that the Iraqis demand that the Iranian flights land so they can be inspected. But the Iraqis have only carried out two inspections since July, the State Department official said. One inspection was of an Iranian flight that was on its way back to Tehran after delivering its cargo in Syria. Iran has insisted that the flights are merely carrying humanitarian aid.
Iraq has yet to develop an air force, and since the US military left the country in 2011, US warplanes no longer patrol Iraq’s skies.
Kerry’s comments in Baghdad come as US lawmakers are calling for President Obama to do more to stop the bloodshed in Syria, including possible airstrikes against Assad’s aircraft fleet.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, said Sunday the United States should create a ‘‘safe zone’’ in northern Syria that would give the United States more leverage with opposition forces.
‘‘This doesn’t mean the 101st Airborne Division and ships’’ are deployed, Rogers said on CBS’s ‘‘Face the Nation.’’ “It means small groups with special capabilities reengaging the opposition so we can vet them, train them, equip them so they can be an effective fighting force.’’
Last week, Senators Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, asked Obama in a letter to step up US military efforts in the region, including destroying Assad’s aircraft using precision airstrikes.
The Iranian supply flights pose a major challenge for US strategy on Syria. Kerry has repeatedly said that the Obama administration wants to change Assad’s ‘‘calculation’’ that he can prevail militarily and persuade him to relinquish power and agree to a political transition.
But Robert Ford, the senior State Department official on Syria policy, told Congress last week that Iranian and Russian military assistance has fortified Assad’s belief that his military can still win.
As a senator, Kerry suggested that the United States should consider linking its support for Iraq with Maliki’s willingness to order the inspection of the Iranian flights.
‘‘If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact,’’ Kerry said in September when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ‘‘that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response.’’
As secretary of state, however, Kerry has adopted a less confrontational approach.
On Iraq’s fraught political scene, Kerry pushed Maliki to reconsider a recent decision to postpone provincial elections in two Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, both the site of ongoing protests by Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslim community. The Iraqi government has justified the delay by citing security concerns.
Kerry said Sunday, ‘‘everyone needs to vote simultaneously.’’ The elections had been scheduled for April 20 and are to take place in the rest of the country.
Kerry also met with Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni who is speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. He spoke by telephone with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government, who is in Erbil.