Reuters rolled out what it’s calling an exclusive story Wednesday evening, reporting that Iran has secretly been transporting “large quantities of weapons” and military personnel under the cover of civilian aircraft – via Iraqi airspace – to aid embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he battles insurgent forces.
The news agency’s reporting is based on a Western intelligence report it obtained. It reports:
Earlier this month, U.S. officials said they were questioning Iraq about Iranian flights in Iraqi airspace suspected of ferrying arms to Assad, a staunch Iranian ally. On Wednesday, U.S. Senator John Kerry threatened to review U.S. aid to Baghdad if it does not halt such overflights.
Iraq says it does not allow the passage of any weapons through its airspace. But the intelligence report obtained by Reuters says Iranian weapons have been flowing into Syria via Iraq in large quantities. Such transfers, the report says, are organized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"This is part of a revised Iranian modus operandi that U.S. officials have only recently addressed publicly, following previous statements to the contrary," said the report, a copy of which was provided by a U.N. diplomatic source.
"It also flies in the face of declarations by Iraqi officials," it said. "Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels."
Shi’ite Iran is an ally of Syria’s minority Alawite regime – an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. The Iraqi population is also majority Shi’ite, making the three natural allies. The intelligence report said Iran also continues to send trucks overland via Iraqi territory to Assad’s forces. Reuters reports:
Although the specific charges about Iraq allowing Iran to transfer arms to Damascus are not new, the intelligence report alleges that the extent of such shipments is far greater than has been publicly acknowledged, and much more systematic, thanks to an agreement between senior Iraqi and Iranian officials.
Ali al-Moussawi, media adviser to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, calls the allegations untrue. He tells Reuters:
"Iraq rejects baseless allegations that it allows Iran to use its airspace to ship arms to Syria," he said. "The prime minister has always called for a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict and ... the need for a ban on any state interfering in Syria whether by sending arms or helping others to do so."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry at a hearing Wednesday urged Iraq to avoid "fanning the flames of violence" by allowing Iran to use its airspace in support of Assad.
The alarm has been voiced to Iraqi counterparts on repeated occasions. Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) recently raised the issue with the Iraqi prime minister on a visit to the Middle Eastern nation. The State Department has also discussed this with Iraqi authorities. CNN reports:
During a confirmation hearing of the nomination of Robert Beecroft as ambassador to Iraq, Kerry said the issue was an important test case for Iraq.
"It's not surprising that Iraq seeks neighborly relations with Iran. But the reports of Iran using Iraqi airspace to resupply Assad's ruthless regime are troubling," Kerry said.
"Just this week, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps acknowledged that Iran is providing assistance and training to groups inside Syria, begging the question of how else Iranian materiel might get into Syria. This is a problem, and it will only grow worse if not addressed."
The designated ambassador Beecroft told the committee, “We are pressing them to force the flights to land and be inspected.”
AP quoted Sen. Kerry saying Iraq can’t have it both ways: on the one hand benefiting from U.S. aid and on the other, allowing Iran to transport weapons via its airspace and overland.
Also on Wednesday, the Treasury Department sanctioned 117 Iranian aircraft it believes are ferrying weapons to Syria. Reuters says that the intelligence report it obtained included two Boeing 747s and their tail numbers which were on the Treasury Department list.