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Iraq says it will stop and search more aircraft bound for Syria to check for weapons

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BAGHDAD - Iraq says it will stop more aircraft moving through its airspace and vehicles travelling overland to search for weapons being sent to the Syrian civil war, a senior Iraqi official said Friday.

Government spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said Iraq would conduct more random searches to check for weapons heading for the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad or rebels seeking to topple his regime.

In a telephone call to The Associated Press, al-Moussawi said Iraq refuses to be a "conduit for weapons for either side of the conflict."

"The government has no interest in arming any side of the Syrian conflict," he said.

The announcement came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during an unannounced visit last Sunday that shipments of Iranian weapons and fighters through Iraqi territory must stop. Iranian planes flying to Syria over Iraq have long been a source of contention between the U.S. and Iraq. American officials fear the near-daily flights are weapon runs.

U.S. officials were hoping for a ban on Iran-Syria flights over Iraqi territory. But they had said during Kerry's visit that they would at least want the planes to land and be inspected in Iraq to ensure they were carrying humanitarian supplies, not weapons.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a pledge from Iraq to inspect the flights last year, but since then only two aircraft have been checked by Iraqi authorities, U.S. officials said during Kerry's visit.

It was not immediately clear when, and how more plane and vehicle searches would be conducted.

Al-Moussawi said part of the problem was the porous nature of Iraq's long border with Syria that stretches some 600 kilometres (370 miles).

Rebels of the militant Islamic Jabhat al-Nusra are mostly in control on the Syrian side of the border. Iraqi officials say the militant group's ideological parent, al-Qaida in Iraq, has also been growing more powerful in the western Anbar province that abuts the border.

Al-Moussawi said truck inspections in particular, would help halt weapons to militant rebels.

"It is a big border and we can't fully control it," he said.

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