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Originally published September 4, 2012 at 8:34 PM | Page modified September 5, 2012 at 6:24 AM

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Iran getting military gear into Syria via Iraq airspace, U.S. says

Military experts say the flights have enabled Iran to provide supplies to the Syrian government despite the efforts Syrian rebels have made to seize several border crossings where Iranian aid has been trucked in.

The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — Iran has resumed shipping military equipment to Syria over Iraqi airspace in a new effort to bolster the embattled government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Obama administration pressed Iraq to shut down the air corridor that Iran had been using earlier this year, raising the issue with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq. But as Syrian rebels have gained ground and Assad's government was rocked by a bombing that killed several high officials, Iran doubled down in supporting the Syrian leader. The flights started up again in July, and to the frustration of U.S. officials have continued ever since.

Military experts say the flights have enabled Iran to provide supplies to the Syrian government despite the efforts Syrian rebels have made to seize several border crossings where Iranian aid has been trucked in.

"The Iranians have no problems in the air, and the Syrian regime still controls the airport," said a retired Lebanese Army general, Hisham Jaber, who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Research in Beirut.

Vice President Joseph Biden, who has played the lead role on Iraq policy for the Obama administration, discussed the Syrian crisis in a phone call with al-Maliki on Aug. 17. The White House has declined to disclose details, but a U.S. official who would not speak on the record, said Biden had registered his concerns over the flights.

The Iranian flights present searching questions for the United States. The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebels or establish a no-fly zone over Syria for fear of being drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict. But the aid provided by Iran underscores the reality that Iran has no such hesitancy in providing military supplies and advisers to keep Assad's government in power.

And al-Maliki's tolerance of Iran's use of Iraqi airspace suggests the limits of the Obama administration's influence in Iraq, despite the U.S. role in toppling Saddam Hussein and ushering in a new government. The U.S. influence also appears limited despite its assertion that it is building a strategic partnership with the Iraqis.

Al-Maliki has sought to maintain relations with Iran, while the United States has led the international effort to impose sanctions on the Tehran government. At the same time, the Iraqi prime minister appears to look at the potential fall of Assad as a development that might strengthen his Sunni Arab and Kurdish rivals in the region. Some states that are the most anxious to see Assad go, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have poor relations with al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government.

Iraq could take several steps to stop the flights, including insisting that cargo planes that depart from Iran en route to Syria land for inspection in Baghdad or declaring outright that Iraq's airspace cannot be used for the flights.

Iraq does not have a functioning air force, and since the withdrawal of U.S. forces last December, the U.S. has no planes stationed in the country.

Several airlines have been involved in ferrying the arms, according to U.S. officials, including Mahan Air, a commercial Iranian airline that the U.S. Treasury Department said last year had ferried men, supplies and money for Iran's paramilitary Quds Force, and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group backed by Iran.

One former U.S. official said it was not entirely clear what cargo was being sent to Syria before the flights stopped in March. But because of the type of planes involved, the nature of the carriers and the Iranians' reluctance to have the planes inspected in Iraq, it is presumed to be tactical military equipment.

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