Press Conference With Local and Western Media

Press Conference
Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Baghdad, Iraq
September 14, 2016


DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good afternoon. Thank you all very much for being here, and I'm sorry to keep you waiting. And to everyone here let me, just, besides thanking you for joining me today, wish everyone in Iraq Eid al-Adha Mubarak, and express my gratitude for the welcome, again, that we've received here in Iraq.

I'd like to begin also just by reflecting briefly on the attacks in previous days that, again, have killed and injured so many Iraqis, attacks that have, unfortunately, become all too frequent. We stand together with the people of Iraq in their fight to defeat these forces of terror, and we express our deepest condolences to those grieving for the loved ones that they've lost.

The United States remains deeply invested in a future for Iraq that is united, stable, secure, prosperous, democratic, and inclusive of all communities. During my visit this week I am grateful for the opportunity to reaffirm this commitment and commend the people of Iraq for their determination and resilience in the face of tremendous challenge. I look forward a little later this afternoon to meeting with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and will deliver that same message of U.S. commitment.

We strongly support the prime minister's leadership on reform, reconciliation, and the effort to defeat Daesh. We are proud of our work together to support economic stability and reintegrate Iraq into the global economy, to redevelop links between our scientific and academic communities, to preserve Iraq's extraordinary cultural and historic heritage.

Now, two years ago Iraq, Baghdad, and Erbil, in particular, were under imminent threat from Daesh. Today, in a partnership with a global coalition of 65 countries, Iraqis have retaken 50 percent of their territory, the territory that Daesh once controlled. We've helped liberate communities and enabled people to return home from Tikrit to Karmah. Indeed, just over the last year, nearly one million Iraqis have been able to return home to liberated communities and cities. And now we are preparing for the greatest battle yet against Daesh: the liberation of Mosul.

Ultimately, however, victory against Daesh on the battlefield is necessary, but not sufficient to give citizens the confidence, the support, the services they need to return home. Today I am pleased to announce that the United States is providing more than $181 million in additional life-saving assistance to help meet critical humanitarian needs of those displaced by conflict, including those who will be affected as Mosul is liberated. The additional funding brings humanitarian assistance from the United States to Iraq to over $1 billion since 2014.

The United Nations anticipates that the upcoming offensive could result in the displacement of more than a million people from Mosul and surrounding areas, exacerbating what is already a dire crisis that has left an estimated 10 million people, nearly one-third of the country's population, in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 3.3 million Iraqis displaced inside their own country as a consequence of Daesh's brutality.

The new funding that we're announcing will enable humanitarian workers to pre-position emergency food supplies and basic relief items. It will help provide basic health care, including maternal and child health care services, as well as education, camp management, psycho-social support, and gender-based violence prevention and mitigation programs. This money will also provide displaced Iraqis with safe drinking water, clean latrines, shower facilities.

In addition, the U.S. will support efforts by the UNHCR and other agencies to provide assistance to the estimated 230,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. I think, as most of you know, the United States recently hosted more than 30 countries for a conference that raised more than $2 billion in pledges for humanitarian assistance, for demining, and stabilization in Iraq. I am also very pleased to announce that, in keeping with our pledge, yesterday the U.S. Government transferred $83 million to the United Nations Development Program stabilization programs. These funds will contribute to reconciliation efforts within Iraq vital for national stability and prosperity.

As Iraqi forces and humanitarian workers prepare for the liberation of Mosul, this task must be matched by one equally as important, equally as urgent: inclusive political and economic progress. It will be this work, the painstaking work of reconciliation and governance, that will ensure that Daesh, once defeated, stays defeated. All Iraqis, be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian, or any other, have to be convinced that the state that they have been asked to fight for will stand up for their rights and their equities, that they can advance their interests more effectively as citizens of a united Iraq and as supplicants of other regional powers or members of isolated competitive blocks in a fractured and weakened state.

Ultimately, only the people of Iraq can make this future possible. Our role, as a friend, as a partner, is to help give them a genuine chance.

Thanks very much. I would be pleased to take any questions.

QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Just to take the second question first, as I mentioned a moment ago, U.S. humanitarian assistance to Iraq since 2014 now totals more than $1.1 billion. And that assistance is provided in many cases directly to the Iraqi Government to undertake important projects. It also in some cases goes through United Nations agencies that are responsible for undertaking these projects.

And I think when you look on the ground at what's been achieved, the reason, among other things, that nearly a million people have been able to return home to communities and cities liberated from Daesh is because this assistance, whether humanitarian or stabilization, was effective in creating the basic conditions to allow them to go home.

At the same time, beyond the assistance, what's so important -- and it's part of our Strategic Framework Agreement -- is to make sure that we're doing everything we can to advance trade and investment, and to help support Iraqi business. And there, too, we're working very hard, and I think making some progress.

But, of course, the horrific actions of Daesh have made it a more difficult environment for everything. And it's taken resources from the Iraqi Government which have been used to fight the campaign against Daesh. Oil prices, of course, have gone down, even as Iraqi oil production has gone up. That's had an impact on the budget. But we've been working very hard to help.

I should add, as well, Iraq recently concluded a very important agreement with our support and assistance with the International Monetary Fund. And, as a result of that agreement, resources from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and individual donors, including the United States, will add another $10 billion to the Iraqi budget. Ultimately, it is up to the government to provide services for the Iraqi people, and it's up to parliamentarians as well to focus on the needs of the people, and to make sure that the assistance being provided is used effectively. And we will work with the government, as it asks us to, to help do that.

On the larger question, that's a big question. I would say our approach remains consistent. We are helping partners in the region deal with the most immediate threat that everyone faces, and that is the threat from Daesh. And that effort is having major success. We've built a coalition of more than 65 countries. That coalition, at the request of the Iraqi Government, has been supporting its successful efforts to push back Daesh, to roll it back, to take back the territory. And we see the results, and it is very impressive over the course of a year -- or two years now.

But the final thing I would say is this: What's so important is that, even as we succeed together in this campaign against Daesh, the results will really only last if Iraqis come together and make the basic political accommodations necessary to convince all Iraqis to live in a unified, federal, democratic Iraq. That work also remains to be done.

QUESTION: Hi there. This is Suzanne from Associated Press.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hi.

QUESTION: I was -- you just mentioned that these results will only hold if Iraqis can come together to make political agreements that will hold the country together and be able to get buy-in from these different armed groups that will be participating in the Mosul operation.

What's the U.S. doing to try to help make those political agreements come into being, and with -- without a minister of defense and a minister of interior right now. So some would say that the political situation has deteriorated in some ways over the past two years, as these territorial gains have been won on the battlefield.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things. First, I think it's incumbent on all of us, Iraqis, members of the coalition, to focus on the wolf at the door. And that wolf at the door is Daesh, or ISIL. And we're now in a position where, as a result of the very good work that's been done through this comprehensive campaign over the past couple of years, we're now in a position where ISIL here in Iraq is increasingly on the run and on the ropes. And the urgent work ahead is to complete that effort. And Mosul, of course, is the big piece ahead of Iraq and ahead of us.

At the same time, as I said, ultimately, these kind of political accommodations that we're looking at are necessary if the results of this campaign are really going to last, because Iraqis have to feel a common stake in a common future.

So, look. You can look at it half full or half empty. The half full version is Iraqi politics are moving forward almost on steroids. And we see a very, very active political scene here in Iraq. But those politics need to be put at the service not only of defeating Daesh, but again, of finding basic accommodations so that all groups feel that their interests are being dealt with, but also put to the service of actually answering the needs of Iraqi citizens for better services, to end corruption, to create greater stability. That's our sense of what people want. And as politicians answer those needs, I think that will also result in greater political accommodation.

Look, there will also be, I think, an interesting test case with the liberation of Mosul. If the people who will unfortunately be displaced initially are well cared for and well treated, and then can return home because the city becomes stabilized, that's going to build, I think, a lot of confidence, as well, in the ability of Iraqis of all persuasions to work together.

But the bottom line is this: It's up to the Iraqis, it's not up to us, it's not up to anyone else. They have to decide what their future will be. And our hope remains that they can find that future in a unified, federal, democratic, and increasingly prosperous Iraq. But the choice is theirs.

QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. In Syria we're dealing with two challenges. One, as in Iraq, the fight against Daesh. And, indeed, it's one large campaign. And there, too, in Syria, the coalition has made significant progress in terms of retaking territory from Daesh.

But at the same time, there is in Syria a civil war that was started when the Assad government perpetrated outrageous violence against its own citizens. And now we have six years of Syrians fighting one another. We have felt an obligation for humanitarian reasons, for strategic reasons, to do what we can to end the civil war in Syria. So many people have been killed, so many displaced or made refugees. And, at the same time, if we don't end the civil war, it will be harder to defeat Daesh because Daesh will come into Syria in the chaos and to fill the vacuum.

So, this cessation of hostilities that was announced and is being tested for seven days is about creating the conditions to end the civil war so that political negotiations can start to do that. It's about taking the Syrian Air Force out of the skies, so that they don't bomb the civilians, as they've been doing. And it's about seeing if Russia will focus its efforts on what it says it's doing in Syria, and that is fighting Daesh, not propping up the Assad regime. So we're testing the proposition. But this is entirely about Syria, and focused on Syria, because of the unique circumstance there, which is a civil war that we're working to end.

QUESTION: Stephen Kalin from Reuters. I wanted to ask -- after the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State, what is the plan of the coalition? To remain in Iraq? Until what point? I mean has that been discussed? And if not the coalition, what is the United States thinking about doing and talking to the Iraqi Government about doing after Mosul battle?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, we are here, the coalition is here, at the request of and in support of the Iraqi Government. And let's not get ahead of ourselves; we're focused on Mosul, we're focused on defeating Daesh.

The United States also has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq that calls for cooperation across the board: security, but also trade, investment, education, and culture. And we'd certainly like to see that come fully to life. And once Daesh is defeated, there will be a better atmosphere and conditions in which to do that. But anything that we do in Iraq is at the request of the government. So we'll see where we are after the campaign against Daesh is completed, and we will look to the Iraqi Government to discuss what the relationship will be beyond that, whether it's with us or with the coalition.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I don't want to -- I'm not going to pre-judge any decisions. It is -- right now the focus is entirely on finishing the campaign against Daesh, dealing with Mosul. None of this is going to be easy. As I said, there are likely to be hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. There is going to be what the United Nations has called probably the most complex, difficult humanitarian situation to deal with. That's going to take time. Even after Mosul there will be other areas to deal with.

And, of course, one of the dangers is that even as Daesh is defeated in terms of controlling territory -- and we are well on the way to doing that -- it's likely to morph back into a more traditional terrorist group that undertakes individual terrorist actions. And Iraq will need to be in a position also to deal with that. If they look to us for support in that effort, we will certainly be prepared to provide it.

QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: We strongly support and believe in a unified, federal, democratic Iraq that is building increasing prosperity and stability for its citizens. It will be up to Iraqis to build that kind of country. It will be up to Iraqis to make the necessary political accommodations so that every community feels that it has a stake in a unified, democratic, and federal Iraq.

The prime minister and others have been, pursuant to the Iraqi constitution, been advancing the proposition of greater decentralization in Iraq. That can be a real source of stability, too, as basic decisions about everyday life are brought down to the local level, and citizens feel that they have a real stake and an ability to control their own destiny. But our position is strongly in support of a unified, federal, democratic Iraq.

As to the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil, we've been encouraged by the recent efforts that they've made together, both in working to coordinate the fight against Daesh, also to deal with the question of oil and oil revenues. And it really is up to the leadership to continue that effort. But I would say that we are encouraged by the efforts that have been made in recent weeks.

MODERATOR: One more question.

QUESTION: Ben Kesling from the Wall Street Journal. To follow up on the Erbil question, not just -- there is not just questions of oil going forward and how the U.S. is talking with the KRG. What's the discussion right now with some of the areas in disputed territories that have been taken over the past month and that could pose a problem post-Mosul, as far as what happens to those territories where -- like, sow the seeds for fragmentation in Iraq.

And then, related to that, we heard earlier this week from General Townsend that we're likely to see the start of the Mosul operation in October. Is that an accurate assessment? I know it depends on the Iraqi Government, but do you expect to see that happen? And is there a concern that a change in presidency in the U.S. will affect timelines if it doesn't start soon?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. In a sense, the answer to both questions is the same: These are Iraqi decisions. When it comes to questions about the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil, this is for Iraqis to decide. And there are constitutional provisions and a framework that they can follow to help make those decisions and, ultimately, to implement them. And if we are asked to be of assistance or support or advice, we stand ready to do that. But it is their decision to make, their process to develop.

But what's vitally important right now is that everyone focus on the urgent challenge at hand, and that is completing the mission against Daesh. As I said, that is the wolf at the door. And that focus, as opposed to thinking about the ultimate political disposition of Iraq, is really vital if we're going to succeed.

As to the campaign itself, with regard to Mosul, it is up to the Iraqis. It is -- it will be their operation, as all these operations have been, with our very strong support. So as to the start time, we're looking to them.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.