WASHINGTON (AP) — Top U.S. and Iraqi diplomats warned Thursday of a rising threat in Iraq from al-Qaida, which is carrying out suicide and car bombings with greater frequency nearly two years after U.S. troops withdrew from the country.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also discussed how to stop Iraqi airspace from being used to ferry weapons and illicit cargo from Iran to the embattled Syrian government and how to stem the flow of weapons and extremist fighters into Iraq from neighboring Syria.
"It's a two-way street. It's a dangerous street," Kerry said.
The two met on the same day that a wave of car bombs hit the Iraqi capital, killing 33 people and wounding dozens. More than 3,000 people have been killed during the past few months, including 69 who died last weekend in a series of car bombings targeting those celebrating the end of Ramadan.
"Iraq sits at the intersection of regional currents of increasingly turbulent, violent and unpredictable actions," Kerry said. "Sunni and Shia extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide throughout the region have an ability to be able to threaten Iraq's stability if they're not checked.
"And al-Qaida, as we have seen, has launched a horrific series of assaults on innocent Iraqis, even taking credit for the deplorable bombings this past weekend that targeted families that were celebrating the Eid holiday. And this al-Qaida network, we know, stretches well beyond Iraq's borders."
In 2011 and 2012 there was an average of five to 10 suicide bombings a month, according to a senior administration official familiar with Kerry's talks with his Iraqi counterpart. They have averaged about 30 in each of the past three months and it's suspected that the suicide attackers are mostly coming from Syria, indicating a fairly sophisticated al-Qaida network, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.
The official said the U.S. wants to share intelligence and help the Iraqis map the network and disrupt its financing. Also, the U.S. is encouraging Iraq to make precision attacks against perpetrators to avoid aggravating the fragile security situation in the country by rounding up too many people or targeting the wrong person.
The overflights in Iraq, which is sandwiched between Iran and Syria, long have been a source of contention between the U.S. and Iraq.
Iraq and Iran claim the flights are carrying humanitarian goods, but American officials say they are confident that the planes are being used to arm and support Syrian President Bashar Assad's fight against U.S.-backed opposition forces.
In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights, but until March when her successor, Kerry, visited Baghdad, only two aircraft had been checked by Iraqi authorities, according to U.S. officials.
Kerry said some progress has been made since then to curtail the movement of weapons but that he and Zebari agreed that "there is very significant progress yet to be made."
Congress recently was notified that a $2.6 billion air defense system was being sold to the Iraqis to help them better control their airspace, but it won't be operational for some time, the administration official said. The Iraqis also are getting a shipment of F-16 aircraft from the U.S. in the fall.
The official said that since March there has been a disruption in the overall frequency and number of what the U.S. suspects is illicit cargo transfers, but that much work is needed to curb the problem. The official said, however, that no illicit cargo or weapons had been intercepted.
Zebari emphasized that Iraq was neutral on the Syrian crisis. He said Iraq had not provided arms, money or oil to the Syrian regime and said Iraqis were not going into Syria to fight with the consent of the Iraqi government.
"Iraq is a reliable, a dependable ally and partner for the United States," Zebari said.
Violence has been on the rise across Iraq since a deadly crackdown by government forces on a Sunni protest camp in April, and attacks against civilians and security forces notably spiked during Ramadan. The surge of attacks has sparked fears that the country could see a new round of sectarian bloodshed similar to that which brought the country to the edge of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
Zebari acknowledged the upswing in violence, but said the nation was not undergoing a civil or sectarian war.
Kerry said he and Zebari talked about Iran and Hezbollah's efforts to fuel conflict in the region.
"We agreed that we cannot allow them to play on the sectarian divides to recruit young Iraqis to go fight in a foreign war, the same way that we cannot allow al-Qaida and other extremists to recruit young men from Iraq and elsewhere to join into their twisted version of jihad," Kerry said.