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U.S. Concerned By Iraq's Relationship With Iran


Secretary of State John Kerry is putting his diplomatic skills to the test this week. He is dealing with some difficult partners and trying to revive Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. Kerry spent the day yesterday in Baghdad. He's nudging the Iraqi government to stop letting Iran use Iraqi air space to send weapons into Syria. The United States does not have much leverage, however, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: With U.S. troops gone, Kerry said Baghdad looked different to him. It might have felt different too as he tried to influence Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki on domestic and international issues diplomatically, with no military force behind him. Kerry had a long list of concerns, urging Maliki's government to press ahead with provincial elections across the country in April.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We all want to see Iraq succeed. There's such an enormous investment of our treasure, our people and our money in this initiative.

KELEMEN: But for this, as Kerry puts it, democratic experiment to succeed, all Iraqis - Shia, Sunnis and Kurds - must work together.

KERRY: And I believe that if Iraq remains inclusive and cohesive, it has the best chance of succeeding.

KELEMEN: But Kerry says some of his old colleagues on Capitol Hill are beginning to question where Iraq is heading 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Of particular concern is Maliki's relationship with Iran. U.S. officials say Iran has been using Iraqi airspace to send weapons and fighters to help Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Kerry says he had a spirited discussion with Maliki about that.

KERRY: And I made it very clear to the prime minister that the overflights from Iran are in fact helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.

KELEMEN: Last year, Iraqis said they would ground and search some Iranian shipments to Syria, but U.S. officials say Iraq did that only twice. Kerry says he has some homework to do on this issue and he seems ready for a tough slog. That also appears to be the case with Arab-Israeli peacemaking. After visiting the region, President Obama asked Kerry to follow up on what the new secretary admits is one of the world's most intractable problems.

KERRY: And so expressing optimism when you don't even have negotiations would be foolhardy. What I have is hope. I have hope that the president's words kindled a sense of the possible in the people of Israel and the region and Palestinians.

KELEMEN: Over the weekend, Kerry spent four hours in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and held talks here in Jordan with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He calls this a good beginning and says President Obama's speech is still reverberating in the region. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Amman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.