Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Iraq

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
September 9, 2014


MODERATOR: This is on background, previewing the Secretary’s trip to Baghdad. This will be embargoed until we land. And so [Senior State Department Official] is going to just --

QUESTION: You will do a transcript?

MODERATOR: Yeah, we’ll do a transcript. [Senior State Department Official] is going to start by just giving a quick overview and then we’ll take your questions. And [Senior State Department Official] has only about 25 minutes here. Let’s go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thanks, [Moderator]. I’ll just – I’m going to walk through just a bit of background, kind of where we’ve been since right after Mosul fell and what we tried to do then and where we are now on the security and the political side, which should just give you some context as you begin your trip here.

When Mosul fell the 9th and 10th, as most of you know, we had a number of very detailed National Security Council meetings with the President, the Secretary, Vice President on down about the situation and immediately on the security side put some really critical enablers in place. We surged our intelligence surveillance reconnaissance missions over Iraq and, importantly, we set up joint operation centers in Baghdad and Erbil, and of course we did the very detailed assessment – field assessment – of Iraqi and Kurdish units with our special forces teams in that timeframe.

That was really critical to set a baseline foundation in the event additional decisions were made to take action against ISIL, and that really started getting moving in the mid-June timeframe, and it built – it really built up over the summer. So that was step one.

At the same time and in parallel, we had to get the Iraqi political process on a stable track. As I’ve discussed before, when Mosul fell and when ISIL launched that attack, it came at a time in which we were about two months out from an Iraqi election on April 30th, but the old parliament was not formally out yet and a new parliament had not been convened. In effect, the election had not even been certified. So it happened at a time in the political process where there was a real political void and a lot of question marks about where the country was going to go.

We had to work immediately with the Iraqis to get the election certified, convene the parliament, and start the political process to form a new government. So if you now go through the timeline, you can kind of see how that all happened and made sense. On June 16th, the election was certified. That required getting all the Iraqi judges back into Baghdad, even in a very tumultuous period. They came back, certified the election on June 16th. The new Iraqi parliament, with 328 members of parliament who were elected, they convened on July 1st. And that was important because it set out a number of timelines under the constitution for forming a new government.

For example, within 15 days, they had to name a speaker of parliament and on – around July 15th, they chose Speaker Salim Jabari by a unanimous consensus, a very distinguished speaker, and he’s doing a very excellent job in terms of running the critical institution now. That happened on July 16th. That then set out a timeline for choosing the next president of Iraq. On July 24th, they named the president of Iraq, President Fuad Masum, who the Secretary will see when he’s here tomorrow. And he’ll also see the speaker.

That then set out a timeline most critically for choosing the next prime minister of Iraq, and that was obviously a very difficult political struggle. Prime Minister Maliki did very well in the election. He wanted to retain his post, but he also had serious political opposition. And on August 11th, a new prime minister was nominated, Haider al-Abadi, because Haider, now the Prime Minister al-Abadi, was able to get a collection of votes within his own coalition, which basically allowed for him to be the nominee. And President Masum nominated him formally on August 11th.

That then kicked off a 30-day window for Abadi to name a cabinet and then go to parliament and get the cabinet certified. Hold on one second.


Okay. Can I call him back in like 10 minutes? Sorry, I have the Vice President calling here.

So that then kicked off a timeline to get the cabinet certified, and then that just happened yesterday. So Haider al-Abadi formed his cabinet and presented it to the parliament, and last night he won certification, took the oath, and he is now the prime minister of Iraq. So we had a peaceful transition of power here in Iraq under extremely difficult circumstances, and it’s a real milestone.

Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister, had his first cabinet meeting today. He’s having a number of national security council meetings with his military and intelligence officials. And we’re, of course, in close touch with him. And he will see the Secretary tomorrow.

Now, at the same time, as you know, when ISIL launched the offensive in the north, the President authorized limited missions against ISIL to prevent major humanitarian catastrophes and also to protect our own people and to support Iraqi forces in furtherance of those objectives and Kurdish forces in furtherance of those objectives. And now, to date, there’s been about 148 strikes. These strikes have been highly precise. They have been strategically effective. And they have been precise and effective because of the platforms that we put in place back in June.

So all of this is part of a continuum, when you go from where we were in June, where we were when some of you were here last time with the Secretary, to where we are now. And now with those strikes taking place that are effective and precise and with the consensus emerging against ISIL, we’re now at the stage of beginning to build a broad-based coalition against ISIL. So I don’t want to just repeat what you already know, but the elements of this coalition – there will be critical components and lines of effort for the coalition. There’s, of course, military support, and that’s everything from logistics and intelligence and airlift and all the things it takes to conduct an effective military campaign.

There is counter-financing, that we want to dry up all of ISIL’s financial resources. There is counter-foreign fighters. The foreign fighters are the lifeblood for ISIL, and we want to dry up the foreign fighter flows. They are still able to get a number of suicide bombers into Iraq regularly in somewhat staggering numbers, and we want to dry up that flow. All the suicide bombers, we assess, are foreign fighters from outside Iraq and Syria.

Fourth is counter-legitimacy. Any religious legitimization of the doctrine and theories on which ISIL claims to have legitimacy have to continually be countered and discarded. And then, of course, diplomatic and economic support for the Government of Iraq, which is in a real struggle against ISIL and other extremist groups. And now that we have a new government, we think we can begin to move forward on that.

So the Secretary will be talking about Iraq’s role, obviously, which will have a critical role in this effort to have a global coalition to begin to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, and that will be the main focus of his talks tomorrow. He will see Prime Minister Abadi. He will see Speaker Jabari. He will see President Masum and Foreign Minister Jafari.

So that is the context of the visit. The visit comes under circumstances in which there are real opportunities. The last time the Secretary was here, it was very much in the midst of forming the government and even – we hadn’t gotten to the stage of choosing the speaker yet, so we’ve come a long way since then, based upon this plan that we really put in place back in June, and we’re now at the stage of beginning to take it to the next level, and that’ll be the focus of the meetings tomorrow.

I can answer a few questions but then, unfortunately, I’m going to have to run.


QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], the Administration’s made clear that government formation was an important step in the precondition for expanded assistance. Well, Secretary Kerry, during his visit, announced expanded security assistance may be the beginning of an effort to train the Iraqi forces. Will there be a development of that kind now that the government’s been formed? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of anything the President’s going to announce, but everything that we do here is under very close consultations with the Iraqis. It’s their country. It’s a sovereign country. The days of when we were an occupying power here are over. So everything we do here is with their consent and concurrence, and we are acting in furtherance of their request to help them under our Strategic Framework Agreement, which is a permanent agreement to help them in their own national defense.

So certainly, in the course of the conversations with the Secretary and the political leaders here, the kind of initiatives that we would be prepared to undertake will be part of the discussion with the Iraqis. We have been having that discussion with the Iraqis constantly over the last 90 to 120 days. The Secretary was here a few months ago. General Austin has been here a number of times. All senior leaders in Washington – President, Vice President, Secretary – are on the phone quite regularly with the Iraqis. So the Iraqis are very much well versed in terms of the capabilities that we can help them with, and everything that we will be doing will be with their consent.

So that’ll be part of the conversation. But many of these conversations, of course, have already been had with the Iraqis over the past few months.


QUESTION: How specific, [Senior State Department Official], do you think he’s going to get in terms of his asks right now? I mean, one of – I’m not sure how specific – we’re not necessarily expecting that much specificity from the President, but what Arab diplomats are saying is without kind of concrete – a concrete blueprint for the type of campaign you envision, it’s going to be hard to sign on.

And then also, I mean, I think part of the – what the Arabs are looking for is a wider discussion about post-ISIL. Obviously, this is going to take a really long time, but they’re saying, look, we’re having other threats in the region in Yemen, in Libya, in the Sinai, and unless you’re willing to have a larger conversation about countering violent extremism as a whole, we’re not going to just sign on to your limited, narrow-focus campaign.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first, I don’t think it’s limited and narrow, and the focus of that conversation will, of course, be on a follow-on stop in Saudi Arabia. I can speak to Iraq and in terms of the day after ISIL and what we’re setting up.

So as part of the national program that the Iraqi Government has approved, now approved through the cabinet, is the principle of a functioning federalism and a real devolution of security responsibilities to provinces. And Prime Minister Abadi in his address last night in the parliament discussed the concept of national guard units which would be grown from the provinces, so that means locally recruited, answerable to governors. And basically, they would have the primary security responsibility for the provinces.

And one thing Abadi has said repeatedly since he was named the prime minister is that he is not going to stand up military units from the south or take military units from the south and go into areas in the north and west to take on ISIL. The people of Anbar will take on ISIL as they’re doing now in Haditha, the people of Ninewa will take on ISIL in Ninewa, and they will have assistance from the national army when they need it.

So the core principle in Iraq of what comes after ISIL is now pretty well laid out. It’s going to be a very difficult, long road to get there, but it’s something that the region and our partners in the Gulf can play a really important role in. And there’s a number of different ways that they can do that, both in terms of just their relationships, in terms of their encouragement, in terms of their financial contributions, in terms of lifting the burden that the government here has and that local governments here have in terms of reconstruction, in terms of humanitarian crises, because it is truly quite staggering even for a country that’s still exporting about 2.6 million barrels of oil a day. The financial toll of the crisis is quite staggering.

So there actually are a number of specifics as we begin this campaign. And of course, we’ll be ready to discuss other issues, but I think the focus of it here is on ISIL, which unlike other extremist groups is effectively an army controlling a large swath of territory and establishing what is a de facto state. So we have to begin to push back against that now, and through pushing back on it a number of other opportunities might open and we’ll certainly be ready to seize those opportunities and we engage in a constant conversation with our partners as opportunities arise about what else we might be able to do.


QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official], it’s Anne Gearan from the Post. I just have a super basic question. So what gives you confidence at this point that this time is going to be different? I mean, you’re betting on an Iraqi Government that on its face isn’t hugely, hugely different in makeup than the last one. The prime minister is promising the same things the last one did at the outset, and you’re banking a fair amount of the strategy on an Iraqi Government that hasn’t been able to stand up to anyone’s satisfaction, including their own. So what is it about this moment that makes it different?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, I think you’ve got to put it in context. We’re not in Scandinavia. We’re in the middle of the Middle East here and we just had a peaceful transition of power with a government that had been in place for years with a prime minister who won a substantial number of seats in the election but clearly wanted to secure a third term. He had political opposition and he was not able through the political process to hold onto his seat, and now we have a new prime minister.

That’s actually a very significant development on its face, but then when you look at some of the key personalities – take oil policy. Oil policy has been in the hands of the same people over the last eight years. Eight years is a long time. Prime Minister Abadi wanted to change faces and the kind of outlook of how to manage the oil file. The oil minister is an economist named Abd al-Mahdi, who’s one of the most distinguished and respected figures here in the political class. That’s very significant.

The Kurds – you now have a Kurdish finance minister. The Kurds for the last eight years, more than eight years, have had the finance ministry. They have – they now have – I’m sorry. They have had the foreign ministry. They now have the finance ministry. That’s also quite significant. If you have followed Iraq over the last eight years and the issues of oil and financial resources and revenue sharing, having a new oil minister and a Kurdish finance minister with a different prime minister who has some key goals in terms of increasing the economic capacity of the state and the oil production and revenue sharing, and also on the security side, it’s a pretty significant change. I won’t go through all the details.

And certainly, the road ahead is daunting. I mean, this is just a start. But to get to this point is significant. I don’t think it means that the future is on a linear track of progress; that’s certainly not the case. This is going to be extremely, extremely difficult. The problems that are confronting Iraq are incredibly challenging. And when you look at them day to day, they are so daunting that sometimes they can be – you ask yourself where do you possibly go from here. And if you look at where we were in June to where we are now, you can kind of see how – you got to set a roadmap and then the Iraqis do their process, are able to make progress. Sometimes it’s halting progress and sometimes they take a big step forward like they did last night, but the aim here is to just help them continue on an upward trajectory, because that’s in their interests and our interests. And our military engagement over the past month has also, I think, helped give them confidence. It has blunted the momentum of ISIL, certainly, and the President will then be talking tomorrow night about some additional things that we could do.

So again, I would say nobody – anyone’s been working on this for some time. Nobody says, oh great, this is all – the road ahead is going to be simple. It’s going to be extremely, extremely difficult. But if you look at what happened last night, it’s significant. The peaceful transition of power and a real shakeup in the cabinet and key portfolios of issues that have bedeviled the leaders and that there hasn’t been much progress on in eight years – there is a chance. So there is a chance now. If we were talking two months ago on a lot of these issues, it was hard to even see how you get a way forward.

But now that there’s a new government, a new prime minister with a very different outlook – he has set very clear objectives. The devolution of security responsibilities is a very important, potentially kind of strategic shift in terms of how to manage the security responsibilities of the state and really empowering local actors. So whereas tribes had been empowered before in terms of like awakening units and something that was kind of outside the structure of the state, now we’re talking about recruiting locals and in some areas there will be tribes which are mobilized, and then incorporating them into the formal security structures of the state. That means that those who were recruited into those structures have salaries, they have pensions, they have livelihoods for their families on a permanent basis – not an ad hoc basis – and they are responsible for controlling their own communities and making sure that groups like ISIL then cannot penetrate and establish a safe haven.

So look, very long way ahead, but there’s a roadmap now that is possible and is achievable, and the Iraqis will have to make some hard decisions and do some things on their own. But they cannot do it on their own. We can’t do it on our own. This has to be a real coalition effort, of course, with the Iraqis leading it, and that’s what the Secretary will be discussing tomorrow.

So [Moderator], I unfortunately have to run.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I’m really sorry. I can take one more.

MODERATOR: One more, okay.

QUESTION: Hey, it’s Lara from AP. Just quickly, as you know, last night, they didn’t seat a defense or an interior minister. I’m just wondering what you’re being told about that and why. And also, how long do you think it’ll take to set up this national guard, and what kind of support can they expect not only from the Iraqi army, but from, I guess, for lack of a better term, coalition forces or U.S. forces in places like Fallujah and Tikrit where you know that it’s very hard for the Sunni Sahwa forces right now to come together without outside help?

And anything on Iran?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Just on your – on the local forces, you hit on a key assumption. One of the assumptions is that locals on their own cannot defeat ISIL. We’ve seen a number of times where tribes tried to take them on, and they oftentimes lose in fairly horrific fashion, because that’s just how ISIL does things. So locals need help. But with some help and with a program and with a way to train and collect them – and the national guards would be trained on Iraqi army bases, paid by national funds, equipped from national resources. So it’s a national plan, but with locally-based security structures.

And on the defense and interior ministers, extremely close, but Haider Al-Abadi could have put them on tomorrow, but he wanted to have a real consensus around the names, which I think was a very wise move. And so he’s actually working on that as we speak. So more to follow on that.

MODERATOR: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official], very much.