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Iraq blocks Syria-bound N. Korean plane, suspects weapons cargo

North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-Nam, center, at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, August 31, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)

BAGHDAD: Iraq has denied permission to a North Korean plane bound for Syria to pass through Iraqi airspace on Saturday because it suspects it could be carrying weapons, a senior official said on Friday.

Iraq on Thursday denied a Western intelligence report that said Iranian aircraft had flown weapons and military personnel over Iraqi airspace to Syria to help President Bashar Assad battle an 18-month-old uprising.

The allegation, reported by Reuters on Wednesday, said arms transfers were organized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"Continuing the Iraqi government policy to investigate the passing of weapons to Syria through Iraqi land and air space, the Iraqi authorities prevented a North Korean plane from going to Syria, after they suspected that the plane was shipping weapons," Ali al-Mossawi, media advisor to the Iraq's prime minister, told Reuters.

Moussawi said the scheduled plane's itinerary, from North Korea to Syria, was what had aroused suspicions but that there had been no contact between the Iraqi government and North Korea on the issue.

Mossawi said that despite repeated requests from the Iraqi side, the United States had not presented any evidence that Iranian civilian aircraft were shipping arms to Syria via Iraq.

"We have told the Iranians that we could search their planes any time, randomly, and whenever we get any evidence (that they are shipping weapons)," he said.

"We will seriously stop these plans (from passing through Iraqi space)," he added.

Although charges that Iraq has allowed Iran to send arms to Syria are not new, the report said the extent of such shipments is far greater and more systematic than has been publicly acknowledged, thanks to a deal between senior Iraqi and Iranian officials.

The report also said Iran was dispatching trucks overland via Iraq westwards to Syria.

Syria's upheaval is politically tricky for Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government. Close to Assad's ally, Shiite Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining Western and fellow Arab calls for the Syrian leader to step down while also calling for a reform process in Syria.

Iraqi leaders fear Assad's fall would fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq's volatile Sunni-Shiite mix.

Baghdad has reinforced key points along its 680-km (420-mile) desert border with Syria.

U.S. officials said earlier this month they were questioning Iraq about Iranian flights in Iraqi air space. On Wednesday, U.S. Senator John Kerry threatened to review U.S. aid to Baghdad if it does not halt such overflights to Syria.

 

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