Kerry's visit to Iraq on Sunday was the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2009. He came at a time when concerns are growing over Iraq's role in the crisis in Syria, and when the United States' influence in Iraq has been dwindling.
The State Department has been sharply reducing its huge presence here, and its diplomats have seemed powerless to affect the course of events on two of Washington's pressing concerns: Iraqi tolerance for the Iranian weapons shipments to Syria and issuance of arrest warrants for certain Sunni leaders by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
The Obama administration has been less engaged in Iraq lately, as it has sought to "normalize" relations, and the Iraqis have distanced themselves from their former occupiers. And there is a sense among many Iraqi officials that the Americans are no longer willing to marshal the influence they still have.
"The Americans are not using claws or teeth," Mowaffak al-Rubaie, al-Maliki's former national security adviser, said shortly before Kerry's visit.
A headline Sunday in the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada referring to President Barack Obama's trip last week to the Middle East read, "Obama Visited the Region but Ignored Iraq." The article noted that "Iraq was not even mentioned in Obama's speeches to the region" and said that "all the protests and bombings in Iraq haven't come to the attention of Obama."
The Iranian flights, which are vitally important for Assad's forces, represent a major challenge for U.S. strategy concerning Syria. Kerry has repeatedly said that the Obama administration wants to change Assad's "calculation" that he can prevail, and persuade him to relinquish power and agree to a political transition.
But Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria and the senior State Department official dealing with the Syrian opposition, told Congress last week that Iran has been "plussing up" its aid and strengthening Assad's belief that he can defeat the rebels militarily. A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said that planes carrying Iranian arms reach Syria almost daily.
U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted to Iraq that it should request that the Iranian flights land and be inspected. But the Iraqis have done so only twice since July, the State Department official said. In one of those cases, the plane was on its way back to Tehran from Syria, and its cargo was already delivered.
Iran has said the flights carry only humanitarian aid.
As a senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry suggested that the U.S. consider linking its support for Iraq with al-Maliki's willingness to order inspections of Iranian flights.
"If so many people have entreated the government to stop, and that doesn't seem to be having an impact," Kerry said in September, "that sort of alarms me a little bit, and seems to send a signal to me, maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response."
But as a secretary of state, Kerry has been less confrontational.
In his meeting with al-Maliki on Sunday, Kerry argued that Iraq ought to have a role in international discussions about Syria's post-Assad future, but to secure that role, it was important that Iraq stop facilitating aid for Assad.
"We agreed to try to provide more information with respect to this," Kerry said afterward, alluding to Iraqi demands that the U.S. government share with Iraq its intelligence on the Iranian flights, to show that they were carrying arms.
Whether that will sway al-Maliki is unclear. Iran has an enormous stake in Syria: It is Iran's staunchest Arab ally and a conduit for supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist movement.
Iraq, too, has a lot at stake there. The prospect of a rebel victory in Syria and the rise of a Sunni-led government, al-Maliki fears, might embolden Sunnis in Iraq. So his Shiite-dominated government has increasingly sided with Assad as well.
U.S. promises to help shape a stable democracy in Syria have been met with skepticism by some Iraqi officials. In an interview late in 2012, Sheik Humam Hamoudi, the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament's foreign affairs committee, recalled a visit in September from A.
Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
"What she said was that they would educate the Syrians on how to be a democracy," Hamoudi said, adding with a hint of sarcasm, "just like what happened in Iraq."
Concerning Iraq's fraught domestic politics, which lurch from crisis to crisis, Kerry encouraged Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers to cooperate, and pressed the Iraqi government to reconsider its recent decision to postpone provincial elections in two Sunni-dominated provinces Anbar and Nineveh where street protests have erupted in recent months.
"Everyone needs to vote simultaneously," Kerry said Sunday, adding that "no country knows more about voting under difficult circumstances than Iraq." The elections had been scheduled for April 20.
Kerry also asked Sunni leaders to give up their boycott of participation in the Iraqi Cabinet. He met with Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni who is the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and spoke by telephone with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish regional government, who is in Erbil.
"It's an important moment," Kerry said at the start of a meeting with al-Nujaifi, alluding to the stalled efforts at political reconciliation. "There's a lot happening, and a lot not happening."