Press Availability in Baghdad, Iraq

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy Baghdad
Baghdad, Iraq
April 8, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon everybody, and thank you for your patience. I really appreciate it.

I have had a very productive series of conversations, a day of meetings here in Baghdad. And I want to thank Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jaafari, Speaker Jibouri, and KRG Prime Minister Barzani, all of them, for the time they gave today, for the serious conversations we had, and for their partnership as well. I also want to thank our terrific United States Ambassador Stu Jones for his leadership here during a very busy and very complicated period of time.

I want to pay tribute to the Iraqi Security Forces and the people of Iraq for their bravery and fierce determination in the fight against Daesh. And I want to thank our extraordinarily capable, brave U.S. servicemen and women as well as others from the coalition, our partners – all of whom are joined together to fight Daesh and improve the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces.

When I was last in Iraq, shortly after Prime Minister Abadi was sworn into office, Daesh was approaching Baghdad and launching offensive operations across Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din provinces. Many people thought that Daesh was inevitably going to come into Baghdad, and people were clamoring for the United States to do something about it and asking for our airpower or whatever power it was we could bring to bear to try to save Baghdad and save Iraq. I said then when I was here in Baghdad that we would push Daesh back, we would stop the onslaught, and together, I can say we have. Today the situation is completely different.

And while many battles still lie ahead, the strong ties between the local forces on the ground and the global anti-Daesh coalition are turning the tide. Daesh is getting weaker by the day, and the coalition strategy of supporting the Iraqis with training, with equipment and airstrikes is working.

The fact is in Iraq, Daesh fighters have not been on the offensive in months. They are losing ground, including more than 40 percent of the territory that they once controlled in Iraq. And last spring, the Iraqi forces liberated Tikrit, and 95 percent of Tikrit’s families have resettled back in Tikrit in the time since then. In November, Daesh crumbled in the face of the advance on Sinjar. And in December, the ISF – the Iraqi Security Forces – seized and now holds Ramadi. And this month, we have seen important gains around Hit, in Anbar province and Makhmur – the starting point for the liberation of Mosul. And just yesterday, the Free Syrian Army reclaimed from Daesh one of the last key crossings that the terrorists had controlled on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Since the coalition was formed in 2014, Daesh has lost tens of thousands of fighters, and coalition airstrikes have taken out more than a hundred senior and mid-level leaders, including their so-called ministers of war and finance.

Our strikes have also had a serious impact on Daesh’s cash flow. We’ve hit more than 1,200 targets – oil targets, reducing by 30 percent the organization’s ability to generate revenue from oil. And we have demolished cash storage sites – including six in Mosul alone. Millions of dollars that would have been used to finance terror have instead gone up in flames, and Daesh has been forced to slash its budget and cut by half the salaries of some of its fighters.

So Daesh is unequivocally losing ground, losing leaders, losing fighters, losing cash. And not surprisingly, members of its rank and file are also now losing hope.

We see increasing evidence that terrorists are disobeying orders, fleeing their positions, and even trying to escape by hiding among civilians.

Daesh is on the defensive – that is clear. But its capacity to inflict suffering regrettably still remains. That is also true. And we take very seriously the threat that it still poses.

This is something that the Iraqi people know only too well and too tragically. There are terrorist acts in Iraq on nearly a daily basis – individual acts. Recently, Daesh sent a 15-year-old boy to blow himself up at a youth soccer game near al-Iskandariya. Enlisting children to kill themselves and to kill other children – this is the depravity that we are up against, and it has no place in the modern world – not in Baghdad, in Brussels, in Istanbul, in Paris, in San Bernardino or anywhere else.

As a coalition, we and our partners recognize the need to stay united, to keep sharing information, and to improve every aspect of our capabilities. And we will not be complacent at any point in this campaign.

In the coming weeks and months, the coalition will work with Iraq to turn up the pressure even further. We will continue targeting and taking out Daesh’s leaders, and we will train local forces to take and hold more ground.

I want to underscore that we share Prime Minister Abadi’s goal of liberating Mosul as quickly as possible. And earlier today I was pleased to hear from the prime minister the importance that he places on empowering local forces to help take back their city, as well as his plans for post-liberalization stabilization. And as we’ve said before, this will be an Iraqi-led operation with coalition support.

The coalition will also continue to provide much-needed aid for the Iraqi people, including refugees who have been devastated by Daesh. The United States has provided more than 623 million just to Iraqi refugee situation, and this is in life-saving humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people since the start of the crisis. And today, I am pleased to announce an additional sum of nearly $155 million for Iraqis affected by the ongoing violence, bringing our total humanitarian contribution to nearly 780 million since the start of Fiscal Year 2014.

As more and more territory is liberated from Daesh, the international community has to step up its support for the safe and voluntary return of civilians to their homes. This is a point that I stressed very strongly in my meetings yesterday with representatives of the GCC – the Gulf Cooperation Council – and a message that I know the President will also reinforce in his engagements with international leaders both at the GCC summit at also at the G7 summit.

Now, we know that displaced Iraqis are going to need help rebuilding the communities that they were forced to flee. There’s a terrible level of destruction and devastation in many of these communities, much more than people thought might have existed – buildings destroyed, electricity destroyed, infrastructure that doesn’t work anymore. And so in addition to the humanitarian aid the United States is providing to Iraq, we are also contributing to the Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilization. And this program, led jointly by the UNDP and the Government of Iraq, has facilitated the return of over 100,000 Iraqis to their homes in Tikrit. And it is embarking on the difficult challenge now of clearing Ramadi of land mines and IEDs so that its population can return home as well.

Our support for the Iraqi people is part of our larger commitment to a future Iraq as defined in its constitution, an Iraq that is unified, pluralistic, federal, and democratic. And we’re also working closely with the government as they address critical economic challenges due to the falling price of oil. I just met a few minutes ago with KRG folks who also have suffered from the price fall of oil, and this is placing pressure on Iraq as a whole and is something that we need and will help to address. The United States fully endorses the work that the government has done to date with the IMF and the World Bank, and we are working with Iraq to provide technical support as the country diversifies its economy.

Before I take a few questions, let me reiterate my thanks, and particularly I want to reiterate the support of President Obama, Vice President Biden, myself as Secretary, and the entire Administration in the United States for Prime Minister Abadi, who has demonstrated critical leadership in the face of enormous security, economic, and political challenges.

We urge all of the parties in Iraq to work together, to come together, to advance the political process in ways that for certain advance the interests and the aspirations and hopes of the Iraqi people. We stand ready to assist the Iraqi Government in any way that we can as partners and as friends.

Daesh’s days are numbered here in Iraq, in Syria, and wherever it exists. We knew from the start that this fight was not an easy fight, and that victory was not going to be achieved overnight. We said that again and again. This is not going to happen overnight; this is going to take a period of time. Obviously, there remains much to be done. But I made very clear in every one of the meetings that I had today that the United States is determined that together with our friends and allies in Iraq and the coalition, we will succeed. And the evidence on the ground indicates that we are in fact doing that now.

I am convinced that together, we will not only defeat Daesh, but we’re going to help the people of this country to be able to recover and to go forward and to live a life in peace and tranquility, which is what they desire.

Thank you all very much. I’m happy to take any questions.

MR KIRBY: We only have time for a couple today. The first one will come from Pam Dockins, Voice of America.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you for doing this. First of all, today in your discussions with Iraqi officials, were there any talks about putting more U.S. troops on the ground? And a related question: What’s the status of the offensive in Mosul? Is there a pause? And in your opinion, are the Iraqis ready for this offensive? And you mentioned the political situation. How concerned are you that if the cabinet reshuffle and reforms are not approved, that it will jeopardize the fight against Daesh?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think we’re doing this consecutive. Is that correct? Simultaneous. Oh, okay. That makes it easier. Thank you.

There – first of all, whatever troops we have in Iraq, whatever troops are committed to this effort, are at the request of the Government of Iraq. And at this point in time, I’m not aware that there’s some additional request. I think there’s been some discussion about some additional operations, specifically from DOD. But there’s no – there was no request from Prime Minister Abadi today for some new infusion of troops at this point in time, and nor did we discuss that.

With respect to Mosul, the Mosul operation is in what people call the shaping of the operation, in military parlance. And that means that the groundwork is being laid, the prelude is being set for this operation, and there are some priorities that need to be achieved in that context, and I leave it to the military and the Government of Iraq to lay this out. Our role in this operation is a support role. This is an Iraqi-led effort, Iraqi-defined. We did talk about it today, certainly, but what Prime Minister Abadi said to me was clear, unequivocal, that this is a major priority – his major priority. He has his own timeframe in mind, and we are quite confident that with the good work of our commander out here, General MacFarland, and the coalition that is working with him, that there will be continued focus on Mosul and ultimately Mosul will be liberated.

Now, I’m not going to go into the timeframe. I’m not going to go into the details of what constitutes that shaping. But I will absolutely confirm without any doubt whatsoever, because we support that priority that Mosul is at the top of the list in terms of priority. But there are things happening right now that are helping to shape the particular operation, and I’ll let the Government of Iraq describe when they are ready what they intend to do and how they will do it.

With respect to the potential shift in the cabinet, the prime minister made it very clear to me that he has ideas in mind for what he wants to do in the next days, hours. He’s holding his meetings, he’s reaching out and talking to people, as is appropriate. We don’t play a role in that. That is entirely up to the prime minister and the Government of Iraq. And he will make whatever announcements he has to make regarding it at the appropriate time.

What we certainly did indicate to him – because it is in our interest – was that it is important to have political stability. And it is important to have a unified and functioning government as rapidly as possible in order to move forward so that all of these operations are not affected, and so that we give confidence to the coalition and to those who are thinking about supporting the stabilization of those communities already liberated that the government is in place and ready to work appropriately in order to make that stabilization process effective.

So I am confident that given the priority the prime minister expressed about Mosul, given the priority that he expressed about their economic challenges here in Iraq, I have no doubt that the prime minister is extremely focused on making certain that there is a strong government in place that has the ability to move forward and address all of the issues of concern.

MR KIRBY: Second question comes from Amjad from Al-Iraqiya.

QUESTION: (In Arabic.)

MR KIRBY: Sir, they’ll translate. They’ll translate, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Go ahead. Oh, you’re going to do it? Okay, good.


SECRETARY KERRY: I thought I was going to put myself to test here and try – (laughter).

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) I have a couple of questions. My first question: You know that Prime Minister Abadi has a set of reforms that are stumbling and that there are a lot of objections from Iraqi sides regarding these reforms. And I know that you met, Mr. Secretary, with the prime minister of the Kurdish region and also met with Prime Minister Abadi and possibly going to meet with the speaker of the parliament. Are you playing any role in mediation and trying to help the Iraqi sides reach an understanding in that new arrangement for the new government?

And my next question about the campaign against ISIS: We see that there are – there are a lot of advances by the Iraqi forces toward the west of Iraq. We see that Anbar province is – most likely will be liberated and cleared very soon. On the Syrian side of the borders, we see also advances from the Syrian side supported by the Russian air force against ISIS. And of course, here in Iraq, it’s supported by the international coalition and the American airpower. Is – there is any coordination or cooperation between these four sides? What I mean by that is Syria, Iraq, the international coalition, and the Russians.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much. Appreciate both questions.

As I mentioned earlier – and let me repeat this – we are not a mediator. That is not our role. We are a supporter of Iraq and of Prime Minister Abadi and his government as they address enormous security, economic, and political challenges. And our message is the same to everybody – that the issue of a cabinet change is an internal political matter, and we realize how difficult internal political challenges are, because we have our own at home and we don’t ask other countries to come mediate them, nor does Iraq ask us to come and mediate here.

That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to make clear – this visit, by the way, was scheduled well before any issue came up about a change in the government. So this has been on the schedule because I have periodically come out here in order to continue to coordinate our efforts to fight Daesh and to build a strong, independent, sovereign Iraq.

And what we – my message to everybody I met with was very straightforward. We urge everybody to work together. We urge everybody to put the interests of Iraq writ large ahead of personal interests or sectarian interests and to find this – in this moment of crisis a way to be able to join together to come out strong and provide us with an ability to advance the interests of the Iraqi people. It’s that simple. And the United States, we have said many times, values its partnership with the Government of Iraq. It’s a partnership that’s built on trust and respect for each other’s sovereignty.

And what we have signaled very clearly today – and I’ve said it a moment ago – is we support Prime Minister Abadi and his government as it addresses these very complex security, economic, and political challenges. And it’s up to the prime minister to make the choices as to what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. He knows how we feel about it.

I also stressed to them that with the fiscal crisis that Iraq faces because of the drop in the price of oil, and with the urgency of moving on Mosul and finishing the job of defeating Daesh, this is a time for unity, it is a time for people to come together and support the larger interests of all Iraqis who want peace and stability in their country. So that really sums up why I’m here.

With respect to the coordination issue, given the cooperation between Russia and the United States as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group, and co-chairs of the cessation of hostilities task force, inevitably of course we are talking to each other and working to make the cessation of hostilities work more effectively, and also to try to be able to implement the goals of the International Syria Support Group, which is a political settlement with respect to Syria according to the outlines set forth in the Geneva communique of 2012. That’s our goal.

So we have a task force that is meeting every single day in Geneva. And we have a coordinating office that is meeting every single day in Amman, Jordan. And there we do discuss what happened the day before, what is happening with al-Nusrah or ISIL, where they may be, what – we also discuss, obviously, any accusations of a violation of the cessation, and we try to chase that to find out what happened and to prevent it hopefully from happening again.

So that information is clearly going to be dissected by both sides. And of course, we communicate with the full array of all of our forces that are out here trying to beat Daesh if there’s anything we learn through that process that helps us to be able to be more effective. So in that sense, clearly there is an effort now to make the cessation of hostilities work and to be able to implement the Vienna communiques and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, and we’re working to that effect.

And we are not, obviously, coordinating in terms of what is happening on the ground with respect to Assad because we have different points of view about Assad. The Russians support the Assad regime and the United States does not. In fact, we believe very, very deeply that there is no way to have peace in Syria while Assad is still calling the shots for the regime. And as I’ve said many times in these meetings, that’s not because we are exercising discretion that just decides we don’t like him and he ought to go. It’s because you simply can’t stop the war while Assad is there. And most people have come to understand that he is a block to peace and he is a magnet for jihadis, for terrorists who come there and fight using him as an excuse for their acts of terror. So we are – as well as attracting moderate opposition who fight him, who do not engage in those acts of terror but who are opposed to Assad.

So it’s a very complicated battlefield, a very obviously complex set of choices, but I think we are at this point making progress on all fronts, and we need to see what happens obviously with respect to the Geneva talks that will reconvene shortly, at which the issue of transition will be squarely on the table, which begins to get to the heart of any potential settlement.

Thank you all very much. Think that’s it. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.