US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Iraq on unannounced visit

BAGHDAD (AP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Iraq on an unannounced visit to urge Iraqi leaders to stop Iranian overflights of arms and fighters heading to Syria and to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Mr Kerry flew into Baghdad on Saturday from Amman after accompanying President Barack Obama to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Officials traveling with him said he would press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior officials on democratic reforms and directly urge them to stop overflights of Iranian aircraft carrying military personnel and equipment to support the Syrian government as it battles rebels.

The overflights have long been a source of contention between the US and Iraq and Mr Kerry will tell the Iraqis that allowing them to continue will make the situation in Syria worse and threaten Iraq's stability.

A senior US official said the sheer number of overflights, which occur "close to daily," as well as overland shipments to Syria through Iraq from Iran was inconsistent with Iranian claims that they are only carrying humanitarian supplies. The official said it was in Iraq's interest to prevent the situation in Syria from deteriorating further, particularly as there are fears that Iranian-backed extremists may gain a foothold in the country.

The official said there are clear links between Al-Qaeda linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory with increasing regularity.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but the official said that since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities.

Mr Kerry will tell Mr al-Maliki that Iraq cannot be part of the political discussion about Syria's future until it clamps down on the shipments.

As Iraq approaches provincial elections next month, Mr Kerry will also stress the importance of ensuring that all elements of society feel enfranchised, the official said. A recent decision to delay the polls in Anbar and Nineveh provinces is a "serious setback" to Iraq's democratic institutions and should be revisited, the official said.

Mr Kerry also plans to speak by phone with Mr Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government based in Irbil to encourage the Kurds not go ahead with unilateral actions - especially involving oil, like a pipeline deal with Turkey.

He will not meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari because he is in Doha for an Arab League meeting.

He will stress the "importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq," say that "separate efforts undercut the unity of the country" and that "The Kurdish republic cannot survive financially without the support of Baghdad," the official said.

Mr Kerry's visit is the first by a US secretary of state since Mrs Clinton went in 2009. During Mr Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to Vice President Joe Biden.

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