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By Matthew Lee, Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP)-- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Iraq on an unannounced visit to urge Iraqi leaders to stop Iranian overflights of arms and fighters heading to Syria and to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the American-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Kerry flew into Baghdad on Sunday from Amman after accompanying President Obama to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Officials traveling with him said he would press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior officials on democratic reforms and directly urge them to stop overflights of Iranian aircraft carrying military personnel and equipment to support the Syrian government as it battles rebels.

The overflights have long been a source of contention between the U.S. and Iraq and Kerry will tell the Iraqis that allowing them to continue will make the situation in Syria worse and threaten Iraq's stability.

A senior U.S. official said the sheer number of overflights, which occur "close to daily," as well as overland shipments to Syria through Iraq from Iran was inconsistent with Iranian claims that they are only carrying humanitarian supplies. The official said it was in Iraq's interest to prevent the situation in Syria from deteriorating further, particularly as there are fears that Iranian-backed extremists may gain a foothold in the country.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly preview Kerry's meetings, said there are clear links between al-Qaeda linked extremists operating in Syria and militants who are carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraqi territory with increasing regularity.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but the official said that since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities.

Kerry will tell al-Maliki that Iraq cannot be part of the political discussion about Syria's future until it clamps down on the shipments, the official said.

As Iraq approaches provincial elections next month, Kerry will also stress the importance of ensuring that all elements of society feel enfranchised, the official said. A recent decision to delay the polls in Anbar and Nineveh provinces is a "serious setback" to Iraq's democratic institutions and should be revisited, the official said.

Kerry also plans to speak by phone with Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government based in Irbil to encourage the Kurds not go ahead with unilateral actions - especially involving oil, like a pipeline deal with Turkey. He will not meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari because he is in Doha for an Arab League meeting

He will stress the "importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq," say that "separate efforts undercut the unity of the country" and that "the Kurdish republic cannot survive financially without the support of Baghdad," the official said.

Kerry's visit if the first by a U.S. secretary of state since Clinton went in 2009. During Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to Vice President Joe Biden.

His arrival came just three days after the anniversary of the U.S.-led war that began on March 20 with an airstrike on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Saddam Hussein.

The invasion and toppling of Hussein sparked years of bloodshed as Sunni and Shiite militants battled U.S. forces and each other, leaving nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.

Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007. But insurgents are still able to stage high-profile attacks, and sectarian and ethnic rivalries remain threats to the country's long-term stability.

Earlier this week, an al-Qaeda in Iraq front group claimed responsibility nearly 20 attacks that killed 65 people across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Islamic State of Iraq said it unleashed the car bombs and other explosions to avenge the executions and "massacres" of convicted Sunni inmates held in Iraqi prisons. Its claim came on the 10th anniversary of the start of the war, although it made no reference to the significance of the date.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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