Interview With Alexander Marquardt of ABC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Erbil, Iraq
June 24, 2014

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is Iraq already in a state of civil war, and if so is there really anything that the U.S. can do about it?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. I don’t think – I mean, it’s in civil strife. I don’t think it’s in civil war. It could get there, clearly. But at the moment, the Sunni leaders that I met with, the current leaders I met with this morning, and even some of the Shia leaders I met with yesterday are all determined to follow the constitutional process to try to form a government that can be a unity government and that can pull people together.

So there’s this shot, this opportunity, for Iraq to come up with its own choice that would avoid, actually, falling into civil war. But there is, obviously, the invasion of ISIL, which is a terrorist organization, that is pulling some people towards that potential. No question.

QUESTION: And are 300 American advisors enough to keep them at bay, and if not are you and President Obama ready to --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, America is not going to keep them at bay. That is not the definition here. America is going to help Iraqis keep them at bay. And what the President has asked me to do is try to assess what the political appetite here is to be able to put together the kind of government that can help reconstitute the army sufficiently that they have the ability to put it together, because if the President were to decide to do something abstractly and U.S. simply gauging without Iraq’s capacity to support that, it’s going to fail. And nobody wants that. At least…nobody… And we’ve already decided – the President has decided – and the American people have made clear: Nobody wants to see American soldiers coming back here in a combat role.

So you have to look to Iraq, to its government, to its military, to be able to make the decisive difference here, and we’re trying to find out whether or not they’re capable of doing that.

QUESTION: Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker has called ISIS al-Qaida on steroids. Al-Qaida itself has rejected ISIS as too extremist. Is ISIS more of a threat to Americans, to the world, than al-Qaida and Usama bin Ladin before 9/11?

SECRETARY KERRY: Look, I don’t want to create something out of ISIS that it’s not yet. Is it a serious threat? Yes, it is. Do we take it seriously? Yes, we do. I don’t think we need to make one comparison or another. They are a threat. And they are a threat to the region as well as to Iraq itself and the integrity of this country. We are committed to try to help Iraqis be able to fight back, but we need to be able to know that we have a government in place that is not going to exacerbate the sectarian divisions of this country. We need to know there’s a government that’s prepared to pull people together, share power, end the sectarian division, and focus on ISIL and on the long-term future. If that happens, then the Iraqis themselves have the best opportunity to be able to regain this.

President Barzani this morning said this very clearly, that the solution to the areas where ISIL is today is not going to be found in American military might. The real solution is going to be found – it doesn’t mean you don’t need some of it – but the real solution is going to be found in the Iraqis in those areas wanting their community back and wanting their lives back. And that’s what we have to encourage.

QUESTION: Are you afraid that ISIS could launch attacks against the United States from this territory that they’ve captured in eastern Syria, in western Iraq?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they have indicated a desire to do so. They’ve already indicated and the rhetoric has embraced attacks against the West.

QUESTION: Do you think they can?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not yet, but – and certainly one of the considerations we have is to make sure that they never can. But that’s exactly what the President is busy trying to determine now, is: What is the best way to approach that so that we are most effective and, frankly, in a way that is sustainable over the long haul?

QUESTION: You’ve said that only Iraqis can choose Iraq’s leaders, but do you have full faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki given the widespread criticism that he has only deepened the sectarian divisions? Do you think he can lead this country and bring it back together?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not up to – and look, if I answer that question, then I’m engaging the United States directly in their choice --

QUESTION: Should Iraqis have faith in him?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- and I’m not going to do that. It’s up to Iraqis. Iraqis have to make their decision, and they are. All the leaders I met with are busy engaged in the politics of government formation. And it’s up to – what we need to do is give them the space to do that over the course of these next days. In seven days, the Council of Representatives will convene, elect a speaker, elect a president of Iraq, and then elect the prime minister. And I have sensed in all of the meetings I have had a commitment to trying to do that with urgency and to find a way to create a unity government in which Iraqis can have faith.

I hope that can happen, and it’s imperative that that happens because that’s the key to really being able to be successful in fighting ISIL and in putting Iraq back together.

QUESTION: Have you found that Prime Minister Maliki is out of touch in thinking that he can unite the country?

SECRETARY KERRY: Again, it’d be inappropriate for me to comment on anything except that he is committed to – he says he is committed to the constitutional process, wants to see the parliament convene on the 1st of July, and will work to try to create a government of unity and a government that can bring Iraq together. It’s up to the Iraqis in these next days to make that choice, but it is an essential choice, and a prerequisite, frankly, to success against ISIL or to meet any of the other challenges that Iraq faces.

QUESTION: Before this crisis erupted, you had only visited Iraq once as Secretary of State quite briefly. Your predecessor, Secretary Clinton, had only visited once. There wasn’t a great relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki. And all that time Iraq was falling apart. Just this year, thousands of Iraqis have died. So my question is: Why hasn’t there been a stronger real diplomatic push until now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I would disagree with your judgment about how the – the sort of – what was happening over the course of the last few years. As everybody knows, Vice President Biden has had a very, very strong relationship and was managing that file for a period of time. And the – I think he’s visited here any number of times as Vice President. I came when it was appropriate within those intervals. And I think that – and --

QUESTION: But to not much avail.

SECRETARY KERRY: And Prime Minister Maliki visited Washington and we’ve had unbelievable contact at an unusually high level on a regular basis, because Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk has been here on a regular basis working with our ambassador, who’s been here for three years – two of the most experienced and capable diplomatic hands – and they’ve been here consistently working this.

We have plussed-up our assistance to Iraq over the last year. We’ve been deeply engaged in providing additional military assistance, additional economic and other kinds of engagement. So things have happened here that have been negative, absolutely. But most people here will tell you it’s not because of the absence of the United States. It’s because the Iraqi Government has not been responding adequately to the needs that have been expressed.

For instance, for eight or nine years now, people have been fighting to get an oil revenues law in place; it’s still not done. Constitutional reforms were supposed to be effected; they still have not been done. Promises that were made with respect to inclusivity were not fulfilled. Those are things that the government has to do here, and that’s one of the reasons why there is a strong movement now to try to create a unity government and a change that will reflect a confidence by all the political players and the people of Iraq that this is a new moment, a new set of possibilities, and they’re going to take advantage of it.

In the end, words mean nothing right now, today. It’s the actions of the next week and the next days that will make the difference. And as they say, the proof will be in the pudding, not in the promises today.

QUESTION: New actions means new leader?

SECRETARY KERRY: It means what the Iraqi people decide it means. It means a new direction, thats for certain. It means a new, inclusive process for certain. Whether the Iraqi people decide it’s going to be a new leader or not is up to them. But we need a new government that comes together with whichever leaders they choose in order to move the process forward. And that is the best and only way to have the kind of success in the long term that Iraq needs and deserves.

QUESTION: All right. Very good. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir.

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