Kerry threatens to restrict U.S. aid to Iraq over Syria

Kerry threatens to restrict U.S. aid to Iraq over Syria

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Congress might start restricting U.S. aid to Iraq if the Iraqi government continues to allow Iran to use its airspace to supply the Syrian regime.

Kerry’s warning came during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft, President Barack Obama‘s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Beecroft acknowledged during the hearing that the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to send supplies to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

"I have personally engaged on this repeatedly at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. My colleagues at Baghdad have engaged on this. We’re continuing to engage on it, and every single visitor representing the U.S. government from the Senate, recently three visitors, to administration officials has raised it with the Iraqis and made very clear that we find this unacceptable and we find it unhelpful and detrimental to the region and to Iraq, and of course, first and foremost, to the Syrian people," said Beecroft. "It’s something that needs to stop and that we are pressing and will continue to press until it does stop."

Kerry was skeptical that the Iraqi government would halt the flights and said that several members of his committee were keen on using U.S. aid to Iraq, which totaled $1.7 billion in fiscal 2012,as a lever to pressure the Maliki government to stop the flights.

"Well, I mean, it may stop when it’s too late. If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact, that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response," Kerry said. "I mean, it just seems completely inappropriate that we’re trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they’re working against our interest so overtly — against their interests too, I might add."

"Senator, I share your concerns 100 percent. I’ll continue to engage," said Beecroft. "And, with your permission, I will make very clear to the Iraqis what you’ve said to me today, and that is you find it alarming and that it may put our assistance and our cooperation on issues at stake."

Beecroft is currently the deputy chief of mission at the Baghdad embassy and charge d’affaires since the June departure of Jim Jeffrey. He previously served as ambassador to Jordan and before that had stints in Syria and Saudi Arabia and as executive assistant to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

In the SFRC hearing, Beecroft promised to continue to scale down the size of the staff at the Iraq embassy, which now totals about 14,000 including contractors, making it the largest U.S. diplomatic presence in the world.

Beecroft also said that the lack of an oil law in Iraq is a huge problem that the State Department has been engaging on, including during visits to Iraq this month by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and the State Department’s energy czar Amb. Carlos Pasqual. Beecroft pointed to recent meetings between Kurdish officials and the Maliki government as a sign that progress was being made.

"So, while it’s not the hydrocarbons law itself, these are issues which should smooth relations and allow for the hydrocarbons law to go forward in the future," Beecroft said.

"Well, inshallah," Kerry replied.

Kerry said he will push for the senate to confirm Beecroft before leaving town this weekend.

"This is not a time for delay. There’s no substitute for having a confirmed ambassador in place and ready to hit the ground running, especially at this critical moment in the region," said Kerry. "It’s my hope to move this nomination as rapidly as we can, in the next 48 hours, because we must have a confirmed ambassador. And it would be a dereliction of the Congress’s responsibility were we to leave here for the next six weeks and not have done so."