BAGHDAD -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday to stop Iran from flying arms across Iraqi territory to the Syrian regime, but found him unwilling to give ground.

In an unannounced visit to Baghdad, Kerry told al-Maliki that the almost daily flights have become a lifeline for Syrian President Bashar Assad, undermining the efforts of the United States and allies to negotiate Assad's departure and an end to the 2-year-old war.

Kerry warned that many in the United States are wondering how, after Americans "have tried so hard to be helpful" in rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 war, the country could stand in its way. "The overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain Assad," Kerry said after the meeting, which he described as "spirited."

Al-Maliki repeated Iraq's view that there is no proof the cargoes are arms, rather than humanitarian aid, as the Iranians contend. Kerry was left to say that he would gather more information to prove his point.

The overflights have become an increasingly important issue for the Obama administration, which believes they have reinforced Assad's desire to stand and fight even as his military fortunes crumble. Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials have unsuccessfully pressed the Iraqis to halt the flights or begin ground inspections of the Iranian cargo.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which worries that it could be next if Sunni rebel fighters sweep Assad from power, has conducted only two inspections in response to American pressure. They say both of them revealed only humanitarian aid.

At a House hearing last week, lawmakers have told the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, that the United States should slap Iraq with unspecified "consequences" for acting as an arms conduit for the Iranians.

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U.S. officials say they have no plans to penalize the Iraqis. Instead they are offering them the incentive of a "seat at the table" in future international negotiations over the fate of Syria, if Iraq will cooperate in halting the arms traffic.

U.S. officials argue this will give Iraq more influence over the future of its western neighbor.