Kerry warns Iraq's Prime Minister on Iran-Syria overflights

BAGHDAD (AFP) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq to stop allowing Iranian flights apparently carrying military equipment through its airspace headed to Syria, on a surprise visit to Baghdad on Sunday.

Mr Kerry warned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that Washington was "watching what Iraq is doing", the highest-level criticism yet of Baghdad for not inspecting flights Teheran insists are carrying humanitarian supplies.

The one-day visit, the first to Iraq by a US secretary of state since 2009, also focused on American concerns that months of protests in the country's Sunni-majority provinces will give militant groups including Al-Qaeda room to manoeuvre. It comes just days after the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein amid concerns of flagging American influence barely a year after US forces withdrew.

"I made very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President (Bashar) al-Assad and his regime," Mr Kerry told reporters in Baghdad after meeting Mr Maliki. He added that he told Mr Maliki that American politicians were "watching what Iraq is doing" and noted that anything that helped Mr Assad was "problematic".

"So, my hope is we will be able to make some progress on this," he said.

For months, Washington has accused Baghdad of turning a blind eye as Teheran sends military equipment through Iraqi airspace, calling on the authorities to make random, unannounced inspections. Although American officials have often expressed frustration with Iraq's lack of inspections, Mr Kerry is the most senior official yet to criticise Baghdad.

Iraq announced two inspections of aircraft, both in October last year, but the New York Times reported in December that Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, so helping Teheran avoid detection.

Iran has remained a steadfast ally of Mr Assad's regime despite the conflict in his country which according to the United Nations has killed more than 70,000 people since it erupted in March 2011.