DUBAI (Reuters) - Iraq will ask Syria-bound Iranian planes passing through its airspace to land for random inspections after Washington said they could be ferrying arms to Damascus, the Iraqi foreign minister said in an interview.
U.S. officials had raised their concerns over the past few days on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, Hoshiyar Zebari told the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.
“We have informed Mrs Clinton (U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and U.S. officials that the government plans to bring planes down and conduct random inspections,” Zebari said in the interview published on Sunday. He confirmed he was referring to Iranian planes.
Washington had already said it was asking Iraq about Iranian flights suspected of carrying arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Iranian ally fighting an 18-month-old revolt against his rule.
Iraq has said it would never allow any arms to pass through its airspace to either side in the conflict.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi‘ite Muslim, is close to regional Shi‘ite power Iran. Iran is one of the main allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who follows an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
Maliki has opposed demands by Sunni Muslim Arab Gulf nations that Assad step down to end the escalating crisis.
Zebari said the U.S. officials had said any flights carrying weapons to Syrian would break U.N. Security Council resolutions, and demanded Iraq stop them.
Washington had provided no specific intelligence of such flights, he added.
Iranian flights over Iraq had begun in March and stopped after Iraq asked that they be halted, the minister told the newspaper.
“They resumed again towards the end of July and they said these flights contain no weapons or hardware, and that they transport pilgrims, visitors and so on. But to verify their shipments, we will ask these planes to land,” he said.
Zebari said Iraq opposed any foreign intervention in Syria and favoured a negotiated solution that would ensure a peaceful transition in Syria, starting with an immediate ceasefire.
He added Iraq had proposed holding another meeting of world powers on Syria as a follow up to the talks held in Geneva in June.
“What we have proposed to (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov is perhaps there is a need to convene a ‘Geneva 2’ to activate mechanisms for implementing what has been agreed upon and not to reopen the discussions,” he said.
The Geneva meeting agreed a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but the major powers were at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens