Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden on Iraq
The National Defense University
12:38 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: General Padilla, thank you very much for the introduction. And it is genuinely an honor to be here before such an incredibly distinguished audience. And, Ambassador Nesbitt, thank you. She is a senior vice president. I’m just a Vice President. (Laughter.) These days I don't like the word senior associated with my name. (Laughter.) Provost Yaeger, and finally I’d like to say to Ambassador Failly, the -- Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States -- it’s an honor to have you here, as well today. Military officers, men and women, and Brian McKeon -- how you doing, Brian? Brian doesn't want to tell anybody. He’s in the Defense Department now, but he worked with me since he got out of the University of Notre Dame, and that was 412 years ago. (Laughter.) But at any rate, it’s good to see you, Brian.
Next week, Prime Minister Abadi will make his first visit to Washington, D.C. And this provides us with an opportunity to take stock of where things stand right now. And that's going to be the focus, with your permission, of my remarks today.
Critics have made a number of claims regarding our policy in Iraq and the state of affairs in Iraq today. They say that Iraq’s fight against ISIL -- under the command of the Iraqi government, backed by America and an international coalition -— has stalled, has been stalemated. We read that ISIL remains in a commanding position inside of Iraq; that Iran and its proxies are leading the fight against ISIL, and that they are dominating Iraq; and that Iraq itself is likely to be a thing of the past, doomed to split apart because of sectarian violence.
There’s just one problem with these critiques: The claims do not reflect the circumstances on the ground. The claims do not respect and represent the circumstances on the ground.
They don’t reflect Iraq’s progress against ISIL -– incomplete but significant and growing; Iraq’s resilience and unity in confronting the crisis many predicted would split them apart; or Iraq’s resolve to uphold their sovereignty and their independence -– even as they look to their neighbors in all directions for assistance.
The jury is still out. That's the truth. It’s not over yet. But the momentum is in the right direction. I’d like to speak about that for a few moment’s today.
It is true that when ISIL swept into Ninewa last summer and took its capital, Mosul, we saw the collapse of the Iraqi army --we saw it melt away -- the horrific slaughter of innocent civilians; and the enslavement of women; ethnic cleansing of minority groups, including Christians who had lived in Mosul for over a thousand years.
ISIL gained significant amounts of money from the banks that they robbed, significant and sophisticated military equipment left behind by Iraqi forces, and manpower from brutal conscription and foreign fighters, and maybe most dangerously a sense of momentum, even a sense of inevitability which seemed to attract more foreign fighters.
That’s why, when Mosul fell, President Obama responded decisively. Within hours, he took steps with all of you, the military, to make sure that all our people in our embassy were secure. Within days, we put Special Forces into the field temporarily to better understand the battle space. We surged intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. And we set up a Joint Operations Center in both Baghdad and in Erbil -— all to prepare to help the Iraqis fight back.
We knew though that the first order of business was to make sure that Iraq had a functioning, inclusive government. For all the years I spent in dealing with Iraqi public officials and the Iraqi government, we knew for certain without a united Iraqi government, there was no possibility -- none -- of defeating ISIL.
When Mosul fell, Iraq had just held their national election. Fourteen million -- roughly 14 million Iraqis had shown up at the polls. But now they had to form a government in the middle of this chaos. And having been deeply, deeply involved, as Brian McKeon will tell you because he was with me, trying to help form the first government and being engaged, we knew this could be extremely difficult [sic].
During the term of the last government, distrust had deepened so profoundly between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds -— creating serious obstacles to a unified effort against ISIL and a questioned willingness of whether they were willing to literally stay together.
But the irony -- the irony of all ironies -- is that Iraq was actually -- helped form its government because of ISIL. ISIL the very outfit that intended to tear Iraq apart and establish a caliphate, it actually united Iraqis.
The Sunnis realized they preferred a united, federal Iraq under a new government to being at the mercy of ISIL or dependent upon the other Sunni states. The Kurds realized that withdrawing from Iraq was not a viable option, and they did not want a terrorist state on their doorstep. I don’t know how many conversations I had with President Barzani relating to this. And the Shia, they realized they didn’t want to take on ISIL alone or become a vassal of a neighboring state. Consequently, they each concluded they were better off if they were in this together. And to quote a famous American politician in an early war of ours, we either hang together or hang separately.
The Iraqis themselves recognized how badly the trust had been broken among them. Nothing less than a comprehensive change could deliver a united Iraqi government that could effectively take on ISIL, and many Iraqi leaders believed that the only way to do this, as I believed, was a wholesale change in leadership; that every interest in Iraq had to find different leaders this time to occupy the seats of power.
I remember speaking to -- with Usama Nujayfi, a proud son of Mosul, who had been the speaker of Iraqi’s parliament, and him deciding that in order to make way for a new wave of leaders, it was very important -- which he thought was important as well -- that he would have to step down as speaker.
And so there was a need, from the speaker to the Prime Minister to the president, to find new leaders. And the result was -- another widely respected Sunni, Salim Jabouri, became the new parliamentary speaker, and Iraq chose Fuad Masum, a well-respected Kurdish senior statesman, to be the new president. And he stuck to his convictions under enormous pressure -- because you know how the process works -- he, the president, is the one that then turns to one of the factions to form a government.
There was an enormous amount of pressure, but he stuck to his guns. And he named Haider al-Abadi, the Prime Minister, a Shia leader who had built up majority support within the Shia National Alliance, which won a majority of the votes. There was a consensus among these leaders that Iraq would need a much greater measure of functioning federalism, which is called for in the constitution. They all agreed to that. That common understanding backed by genuine acts of statesmanship has led to significant progress. And the chance of a long-term unity government here.
In just eight months, Prime Minister Abadi and other Iraqi leaders have formed an inclusive government, in record time, arrived at a national budget with equitable revenue sharing, forged an oil deal between Baghdad and Erbil. I don’t know how many times Brian and I sat there over the 23 visits into Iraq being told there’s an oil deal just over the horizon. Never occurred. But in the face of this crisis, they pulled that together.
They built a consensus and began to mobilize thousands of Sunni fighters to fight against ISIL. And just this past week, Prime Minister Abadi visited Erbil, met with President Barzani to discuss cooperation with the Peshmerga forces in a plan, coordinated by General Austin in part, to help liberate Mosul. Yesterday, he was in Anbar Province announcing the delivery of over 1,000 weapons for Sunni tribes in preparation for the liberation of Anbar, in part, as part of his commitment that he made to Sunni leaders in the formation of the government.
More efforts to organize, arm, and integrate the Sunnis willing to fight ISIL are going to be needed in the months ahead to liberate Anbar and Mosul. And the Prime Minister has also tried to improve relations with his Arab neighbors and Turkey. He’s visited Amman, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Ankara. And for the first time since 1990, Saudi Arabia has agreed to open an embassy in Baghdad at the invitation of a Shia Iraqi president.
These are only initial, but these are very -- I promise you having done this for the last 12 years -- very promising, promising steps. Obviously a great deal of work remains, including moving forward on the national guard legislation, legislation designed to advance national reconciliation including de-Ba’athification, continuing to mobilize and integrate and arm and pay Sunni forces, further integrate the Pesh into the Iraqi national security force, bringing volunteer forces under the command and control of elected Iraqi governments, empowering local governance and planning for reconstruction in the liberated areas consistent with their notion of federalism.
All of which, all of which we will be discussing with Prime Minister Abadi -- not that we haven’t discussed it a lot. He and I have probably spent more time on the phone than we have -- I have with my wife. (Laughter.)
The entire region -- the entire world -- but the entire region-- is watching this closely, and Iraqi leaders can’t afford to lose that sense of political urgency that brought them to this point.
And much hinges on the Prime Minister, but not the Prime Minister alone. Ultimately, this is about all of Iraqi leaders pulling together and they must continue to compromise. And it is hard. It is hard. Thousands of bodies have been strewn and lost in the interim. But they’re doing it. We knew that in addition to forming a united Iraqi government, the next challenge would be to help them put back together an ability to be able to position itself and succeed on the battlefield.
That started with helping Iraqis reorganize and reconstitute the security forces. For years, in the face of terrorism and insurgency, many Iraqis have fought bravely and given their lives. Thousands have given their lives in the fight against ISIL. That would challenge any army.
But as we saw last summer, some units, including those in Mosul, had been hollowed out with corruption, questionable leadership appointments, a lack of discipline, sectarian in-fighting. And the collapse helped make the fall of Mosul possible.
So we began to help Iraqi leaders rebuild their forces with hires based on competence, not on ethnicity. Abadi appointed a number of former military officers -- or, excuse me, relieved a number of former military officers, and appointed new officers. He appointed a Sunni from Mosul as Defense Minister. He replaced 36 commanders in November, and he continues to reform Iraq’s military leadership.
We sent our Special Forces to assess which Iraqi units could actually be salvaged. And under the leadership of General Austin, we began working with the Iraqi military to reconstitute their divisions. We are now training and have continued to train Iraqi forces at four different sites across the country. Six thousand have already graduated; thousands more are in the pipeline.
And we’re supplying weapons and critical equipment. Since the fall of 2014, the United States has delivered over 100 million rounds of ammunition; 62,000 small arms systems; 1,700 Hellfire missiles. Two hundred fifty mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles -- MRAPs -- were delivered in December that are now protecting Iraqi forces and Pesh forces from mines and homemade bombs. And 50 additional MRAPs with mine rollers will begin transfer to Iraq this week.
At Al Asad Air Force Base that many of you served in and were part of securing, we’re training, advising, and assisting Iraqi army forces who, in turn, are training and mobilizing Sunni fighters; Iraqi National Security Forces training Sunni tribesmen.
We also brought Iraqi pilots to the United States, who are in advanced stages of flight training in Arizona, to enhance their capacity to defend their country in the air.
And we’re not doing it alone. We led and mobilized a massive international coalition of over 60 partners -- NATO allies, Arab nations, and many others -- to help take on ISIL. It’s not just a military coalition. It’s a global effort to weaken ISIS across the board, from undercutting its messaging to tracking its foreign fighters.
And several nations are providing significant support in Iraq. Eight coalition partners have launched over 500 airstrikes in Iraq. The Spaniards, Australians, Danes, and others have provided trainers and advisors inside Iraq. The French, the Dutch, the U.K., Canada, Germany, Italy and others are working with us to train and resupply the Kurdish Peshmerga who have reclaimed a significant portion of the territory initially gained by ISIL. And several countries, including Japan and Saudi Arabia have also made significant non-military contributions in areas such as development assistance and humanitarian aid.
A majority within each of the Iraqi constituencies and communities supports this U.S. effort and these coalition efforts. Leaders from across the Iraqi political spectrum have publicly asked for our help and our continued help.
And we’re providing that help in a smarter way -- small numbers of advisors backed by a large coalition. And this large coalition is backed up by the most capable air force in the world. We are pounding ISIL from the sky, nearly 1,300 U.S. airstrikes alone. Thus far, thankfully, we have not lost -- knock on wood -- a single solitary U.S. serviceman to enemy fire, not one. But this is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous place.
With our assistance, Iraqis have made significant progress on the battlefield. Eight months ago, ISIL was on the offensive everywhere in Iraq. No force in Iraq or Syria had proven capable to defeating ISIL head on, but today in Iraq, ISIL has lost large areas it used to dominate, from Babil to Diyala, to Ninewa, to Salahadin -- excuse me -- Kirkuk Province. ISIL has been defeated at Mosul Dam, Mount Sinjar, and now Tikrit.
ISIL’s momentum in Iraq has halted, and in many places, has been flat-out reversed. Thousands of ISIL fighters have been removed from the battlefield. Their ability to mass and maneuver has been greatly degraded. Leaders have been eliminated. Supply lines have been severed. Weapons, check points, fighting positions, IED factories, safe houses have been destroyed. And reports of demoralization within ISIL ranks are rife. And some ISIL fighters refusing to fight; foreign fighters being killed by ISIL because they want to return home.
There’s still a long fight ahead. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture here. But the -- ISIL’s aura of invincibility has been pierced, and that’s important.
Let me give you once recent example, where Iraqi’s military capability was tested, as well as, quite frankly, its political leadership was tested.
Three weeks ago -- in every newspaper in the West and here in the United States and on the news -- the speculation was that the United States, the coalition, and Iraqi’s elected leaders had been sidelined in the fight against ISIL, particularly in Tikrit. Military forces backed primarily by Iran were running the show. And you saw pictures, and they made it clear, Soleimani made it clear that everybody would see he was there; the implication being, we now own Iraq.
Then something changed. The attack stalled. And minister -- and Prime Minister Abadi stepped up. He courageously stepped in, making it absolutely clear that the Iraqi government, him, as Commander-in-Chief, was in charge of this operation. When I spoke with him, he made it clear to me that he wanted the United States and the coalition to engage all over Iraq, was his phrase. And explicitly, he wanted us engaged and requested support in Tikrit. His call was joined by that of Sunni leaders as well as the most senior religious leader in the country, Grand Ayatollah Sistani who declared that the Iraqi government had to be in the lead; that the units had to be directly under the command -- all units -- under the command of the Iraqi government; and that Sunnis had to be included in the liberation of their own communities.
And we made clear-- General Austin -- that we were prepared to help in the battle with volunteers both Shia and Sunni fighting alongside Iraqi forces, but only if all elements in the fight operated strictly under the chain of command of the Iraqi military. Because that’s the only way we could ensure the safety of those on the ground and minimize the risk of friendly fire.
Today, Iraq’s national flag -- not ISIL’s -- hangs over the city of Tikrit.
But success brings new challenges: Holding liberated areas, policing them with forces that are trusted by the community in the community that they’re returning home to; transiting governing authority back to local officials, as envisioned in their federal system; restoring vital public services.
And in the face of reports relating to Tikrit that there was mass looting and burning of homes, the Prime Minister stepped up, took swift action. He condemned the abuses, ordering the militia out of the city, ensuring regular forces are patrolling those seats, and frankly acknowledged the degree of loss that had occurred, hiding nothing.
Once inside Tikrit, Iraqi soldiers uncovered execution grounds where ISIL murdered as many as 1,700 young men last summer and poured them into mass graves. And as I speak, mass graves are still being found, a stark reminder of the brutality of ISIL and the need for its defeat.
While this battle continues inside Iraq, we’re also taking the fight to ISIL in Syria. The international coalition has now launched over 1,300 airstrikes against ISIL and other terrorists inside of Syria -- bombed refineries that have been taken over by ISIL, the oil both refined and crude being used to fund their operations, eliminating that as a source of revenue. We’ve embarked on a train and equip program under the Defense Department to take on ISIL and protect Syrian communities. In Kobane, killing thousands of its fighters and providing ISIL -- and proving ISIL can be beaten inside of Syria, as well.
However, the regional challenge for Iraq extends beyond Syria. For years now, Iraq has risked being pulled apart by a wide range of sectarian competition internally and externally. But the reality is that Iraqis do not want to be drawn into regional conflicts. They don’t want to be owned by anybody. Everybody forgets there was a war not but a decade before where over 100,000 were killed, a war with Iran, their neighbor. They don't want to be puppets dangling on a string of anyone’s puppeteering in the region.
Don’t underestimate the power of Iraqi national pride, independence, and sovereignty. It’s only natural that Iraq will have relations with all of its neighbors, including Iran. The history is too long. The border is too long. And it’s a difficult neighborhood. But Iraq must be free to make its own sovereign choices under the authority of elected representatives of an Iraqi government.
We want what Iraqis want: a united, federal, and democratic Iraq that is defined by its own constitution where power is shared among all Iraqi communities, where a sovereign government exercises command and control over the forces in the field. And that's overwhelmingly what the Iraqis want.
So I go back to the focus on, Mr. Ambassador, on the Iraqi government. When the three major constituencies -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- are united in wanting a whole and prosperous Iraq, the likelihood of being pulled into the orbit of any single nation in the region is diminished exponentially because this would represent the only -- the only government in the region that actually is not based on sectarian dominance.
This is going to be a long haul. The ultimate success or failure is in the hands of the Iraqis. But as they stand up and stand together, this administration, this country, is committed to stand with them.
I need not tell this audience since 2003 more than 1.5 million American women and men, including my son, have spent significant amounts of time on Iraqi soil. Every single morning since I have been Vice President, before as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, we contact the Defense Department, and I ask the same question. Give me the exact number of Americans who’ve given their lives on Iraqi soil and Afghan soil. Give me the exact number, not a generalization, exact number of those who have been wounded and are lost in Afghanistan. Because no audience knows more than this -- every one of those lives, every one of those brave women and men represents a community. Represents a family and a larger family.
Only 1 percent of all Americans have waged these fights for us, but 99 percent of all America owes them support and recognition; 4,481 Americans have given their lives on Iraqi soil, including many who served alongside the people in this room. I’ll bet every one of you in uniform know somebody who was lost or wounded.
And although our mission is significantly different today -- you may ask why am I focusing on this -- although our mission is significantly different today than it was during that period, there are still men and women in uniform in Iraq making sacrifices as I speak from protecting our embassy, to training and equipping Iraqis, to flying sorties.
And all of you who wear the uniform know that one of the loneliest feelings for your family -- particularly if they don’t live on a base -- is while every other kid in school, while every other family at church, while every other family in the neighborhood thinks everything is fine, Dad or Mom is not home for that birthday. They're missing that graduation. They're not there for Christmas or to make a Thanksgiving toast.
We have an obligation. We have an obligation. And just because we no longer have 160,000 troops there, it’s an obligation that's intense and as real as it was when we had 160,000 troops there. They warrant our support. Their families warrant our deep gratitude.
And so, folks, as a country, our one shared obligation is to give them what they need on the battlefield and care for them when they come home.
Their blood and toil helped give Iraq another chance. Our mission now is to help the Iraqis themselves make the most of this.
Thank you all for listening, but most of all, thank you for your service.
May God bless the United States of America and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)