Iraqi efforts to block Iranian overflights 'not enough': U.S. official

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad January 12, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Iraqi government needs to do more to prevent Iran from flying weapons and fighters through its airspace en route to Syria, a U.S. official told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been accused by the United States of allowing Iran to fly planes through Iraqi airspace and send support to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington blames for a nearly three-year-old civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people.

"The issue of overflights is something where the Iraqis have not done enough," the State Department's Brett McGurk said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

"We continue to press this issue. Inspections go up, inspections go down. It's very frustrating," he added.

His comments come as the Obama administration is seeking to expedite delivery of a range of U.S. weaponry to Maliki's government as it fights a resurgent militant threat.

Both Iraq and Iran have Shi'ite Moslem majorities, and Maliki's Shi'ite-led government has maintained close ties with Tehran before and after U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011.

McGurk, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, said it is difficult for the United States to get specific intelligence about the flights, but that military equipment is believed to be transported from Iran on civilian aircraft.

"It's a problem that we focus on all the time. It's the one area where I can say Iraq is simply not doing enough," he said.

McGurk, who has traveled twice to Iraq in the past month, said Maliki is balancing pressure from Iran and elsewhere in the region. Iran is pressing its neighbor on a range of issues, but Iraq is still primarily acting in its own interests, he added.

"So far, we have seen the Iraqi government resist the Iranian efforts to have a direct security role in Iraq," even though the United States still believes that Iran controls some militia groups in Iraq, he told lawmakers.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Missy Ryan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)