For several months, the U.S. government has been urging the Iraqi government to stop Iran from supplying arms to the Syrian regime through commercial flights over Iraqi airspace, but a larger amount of supplies is now crossing Iraq via convoys on the ground, Iraq's exiled Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told The Cable.
Hashimi has been living in Turkey following his indictment and subsequent conviction in absentia by Iraqi government courts that he says are working with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Central Criminal Court of Iraq sentenced him to death last month for allegedly participating in acts of terrorism against his own political opponents,, charges widely seen as political in nature.
But Hashimi is still technically the vice president and he is fighting for what he calls a "fair trial." He argues that Maliki has hijacked the Iraqi political system and become beholden to Iranian interests, which include supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hashimi said he has evidence and reports from politicians, from officers in the Interior Ministry, and from Iraqi intelligence officials, all pointing to a growing and active ground transport route from Iran to Syria. The route crosses through the Zarbatia checkpoint on the Iran-Iraq border, west of the Iranian town of Mehran, flows through the city of Karbala, and crosses over to Syria via the al-Qaim border crossing, he said.
"The transit is not only aerial using Iraqi airspace, but the ground transit is becoming a phenomenon. Munitions, heavy arms, and even militias are passing checkpoints without any sort of obstruction," Hashimi said in a telephone interview. "I am very afraid the U.S. and the international community is only focused on the aerial transit and leaving behind the ground transit. Everything should be checked now."
"The convoys from Iran continue on this route without any checking. A huge number of busses and trucks are passing the checkpoints all the way from the Iranian border to the Syrian border, passing through al-Anbar [province] without stopping at the checkpoints," he said. "If these convoys are carrying ordinary passengers, they should stop at least to stamp their passports. If they are carrying food and medicine, why are they not stopping at the checkpoints?"
A U.S. administration official confirmed to The Cable that the U.S. government suspects Iraq is still allowing Iran to ship supplies to Assad via both air and land routes, but that there's no way to prove that Maliki is lying when he says the shipments contain only humanitarian supplies.
"The U.S. administration has enough evidence to prove that al-Maliki is violating his obligations not only towards the U.S. but towards the U.N. and the Arab League," Hashimi maintained, adding that when Iraq does inspect the occasional commercial flight from Iran, Tehran is warned in advance so that those specific flights don't contain military supplies.
Maliki's continued and often vocal support for Assad is a clear indication that he is aligning Iraqi foreign policy toward Iran and away from U.S. and Western interests, Hashimi said.
"The American administration should be aware that because of unique ties with Iran, the Maliki government will never be able to resist any sort of demand coming from Tehran. This means that the foreign policy of Iraq is now being geared politically and religiously to be aligned with Iran policy. This is just a matter of fact," he said. "We should expect many, many, many , many attempts to bypass and circumvent sanctions against Iran and Syria by Iraq."
Since 2006, Maliki has not only been cozying up to Iran, but he has also ignored his commitment to pursue power sharing in the Iraqi government and now acts as the prime minister, commander in chief, minister of defense, minister of interior, and head of intelligence, Hashimi said.
The United States has lost significant influence in Iraq but still has both the ability and the responsibility to urge Iraq to continue down the road to becoming a stable, moderate, democracy governed by the rule of law, he said.
"At the end of the day, you have paid a cost and we have paid a cost, and what was the result of that? That Iraq should just become an ally of Iran?" Hashimi said. "If the mission has not been fulfilled, the U.S. must continue to fulfill its ethical and moral obligation and the Iraqis are very much still in need of their help."