Kerry Lands In Baghdad With Syria In Mind

Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Baghdad Sunday on an unannounced trip 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. On his agenda is urging Iraqi leaders to stop overflights of arms and supplies from Iran to Syria. Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Michele Kelemen, who is traveling with Kerry.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Baghdad today on an unannounced trip 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. troops have left but there's plenty for the top U.S. diplomat to do. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Kerry. She joins us. Michele, why take this trip now?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, you know, U.S. influence has really been waning ever since U.S. troops pulled out. And diplomats hope that by doing this trip, having a high-level trip by Kerry so early in his tenure, that could give the U.S. a bit more leverage. So, engagement is the buzzword of today's day trip - that's what one of his aides told us. Kerry's trying to encouragement Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated government to engage with Sunnis and Kurds. The U.S. is really worried that all sides are hardening their positions ahead of provincial elections that are scheduled in April. For instance, the cabinet recently decided to delay a vote in two Sunni-dominated provinces. U.S. officials call that a serious setback, and that's one of the things that Kerry's raising here.

MARTIN: Michele, what about the conflict in Syria? I mean, that is raging still. Is it something that's going to come up on Secretary Kerry's agenda while in Iraq?

KELEMEN: It's a big part of his stay here. The U.S. wants Iraq to prevent Iran from using Iraqi airspace to resupply Bashar al-Assad's government with weapons. Officials traveling with Kerry say that there have been almost daily flights, and the U.S. believes that these are weapon shipments, not humanitarian aid, going from Iran to Syria. Though they won't say how they know that. Iraq promised last year to ground and desert some of these Iranians flights, but it's done so only two times since last July. That's another sign of waning U.S. influence.

MARTIN: Secretary Kerry was already in the region with President Obama, who traveled to Israel and the West Bank and Jordan recently. How is Kerry trying to build on that trip that President Obama made?

KELEMEN: That's right. Kerry stayed behind in Amman, Jordan after President Obama left. He met the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, there yesterday, and he also spent four hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back in Jerusalem last night. The message that he's delivering is that peace is not only possible but it's necessary for both sides. He's obviously planning to invest a lot of time during his tenure as secretary of state to try to revive these peace talks and also to make sure that the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey remains on track. In the administration's first term, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks never really got off the ground. President Obama says he can't guarantee that this new effort will bear fruit, but he can guarantee that Kerry's going to spend a lot of time plugging away on it.

MARTIN: NPR's Michele Kelemen, who is traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry. Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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