Background Briefing on the Vice President's Trip to Iraq
9:00 P.M. (Local)
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: So, if I could get everybody’s attention just for one second. This is going to be a background briefing, as a senior administration official or officials, in this case, only, not -- so senior administration officials traveling with the Vice President, you can say.
Q Just at the top, since this is on background, the Associated Press would like to formally request that you put this on the record and reconsider the background rules.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I hear you, but no, we’re going to keep it on background. Thank you.
Q And also, just before we start -- hi, I’m from National Public Radio -- is there going to be any opportunity for us to have a press conference with the Vice President? Because it’s a long three days, and to have absolutely no press opportunities and no way to ask questions seems a little bit -- I hate to use the word “undemocratic.”
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We have no plans for a press conference at this time. But we’ll be here for a little while, so we’ll see what happens. But why don’t we do this briefing now, and I’ll turn it over to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say a few things at the top, then I’m happy to take questions.
As my colleague said, this is the Vice President’s fourth trip as Vice President. He took a trip, as some of you may remember, right before the inaugural in January, so it’s -- five trips as either Vice President-elect or Vice President. And the purpose of this particular trip and the focus is really twofold. Mainly it’s to be here on the Fourth of July with our troops and also with the folks who are working incredibly hard in our diplomatic mission. And as you know, tomorrow he’s going to have a chance to do what he did last year, because he was here on the Fourth of July last year, which is take part in a naturalization ceremony for folks who have been fighting with us and who are about to become American citizens.
And for those of you who were here last year or have seen the ceremony before, it’s an incredibly powerful thing and very moving. So he very much wanted to take part in that again, and in that time also to meet with a number of the senior military American leadership here working with General Odierno, and have lunch with troops in the dining hall here at Camp Victory tomorrow.
And then we begin the second piece, which is meeting with virtually the entire senior Iraqi leadership, in terms of the folks who are both leading the government now and/or playing a part in the formation of the next government. So those are really the two points of focus for the trip.
I think there are just a couple of things that are worth pointing out in terms of what the Vice President is likely to say. The first is he’s going to underscore to the Iraqis with whom he meets our long-term commitment to Iraq. It’s a message that he’s carried in the past; it’s a message that he continues to carry with them going forward.
You read somehow in the press occasionally that we are not focused or disengaged from Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is going on, as I think all of you know, is not that we’re disengaging but the nature of our engagement is changing. We’re moving from a prominently military lead to a civilian, diplomatic and economic lead. As our military presence ramps down, our diplomatic, political and economic engagement is ramping up. And there’s a major transition underway as we make good on the commitments of the United States to end our combat mission in August, but also to significantly increase our diplomatic, political and economic engagement going forward. So it will be a focus on that and on that particular message.
In terms of government formation, which is on everyone’s minds, he’s really here to listen. He’s here to listen to the Iraqis, to get a sense from them of where they are and where they think things are going. Let me just be very clear, there’s no American plan, there’s no secret plan. We don’t have a slate of candidates, we don’t have favorites. This is up to the Iraqis.
And the one thing that’s become extremely clear over the last year and a half is that, as the Vice President likes to say, politics has emerged in Iraq. Virtually every time there’s been a roadblock or a so-called crisis, the Iraqis have found a way forward. It hasn’t always been easy. It’s taken time. But using a political process, Iraqis have found a way to advance their interests.
We’ve seen this time and time again. We saw it before the election with the difficulties over the election law; the Iraqis worked through it. We saw it with the concerns about de-Baathification; the Iraqis worked through it. We saw it with concerns over recounts; the Iraqis worked through it. We’ve been able to be helpful, but this has been an Iraqi lead.
I think the other thing that’s increasingly clear and that the Vice President has commented upon, and we may see it again as we fly into Baghdad tomorrow, is just the tremendous change that you see on the ground. And some of it is anecdotal, some of it isn’t scientific, but it’s very real. Last time we were here, flying it at night, from here, from the airport into Baghdad, the level of activity in the city, whether it was traffic jams, whether it was restaurants open and people congregating, was demonstrably higher than it had been in previous trips over the years. And so we’re really seeing the reemergence of Iraq.
Other than that, we’re really going to get -- hope to get a sense from the Iraqis of where things are, where they think it’s going. And we’re here to be helpful if we can. But again, we’re not here to offer a plan, a solution. We’re here to hear what the Iraqis have to say and offer our advice if they want it, if they choose it.
Let me stop with that and take any questions.
Q What’s the Vice President’s thinking if Ramadan comes and goes and the August 31st deadline comes and goes and there’s still no leadership seated or agreed on?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: There’s a linkage between these events that we think really shouldn’t exist for a number of reasons.
Of course we would like to see -- the Iraqi people would like to see -- a government as expeditiously as possible. And they’d like to see, and we’d like to see, a government that is inclusive, that brings in the major groups, that’s representative of the results of the election.
But that said, in terms of our own plans on the military side -- that is, ending the combat mission on August 31st, drawing down to 50,000 troops, the relationship between that and the existence or lack of a permanent government really isn’t there, for a number of reasons.
First of all, there’s a caretaker government in place, and it’s doing exactly that. It’s taking care of business. It is providing security. It is, for the most part, providing services, despite the problems we’ve seen with electricity. It is answering the basic needs of the Iraqi people. So that’s there. And in previous -- 2005, 2006, it was a very different situation.
Second, while the combat mission will be ending, the presence of combat troops will not. We’ll be at 50,000 troops. That’s still a significant number of troops. And these are folks who will have combat capability.
Third, we are not flipping a light switch on August 31st. The transition that is taking place, moving from a combat mission to basically stability operations, which involve advising and assisting the Iraqis, working in partnered ways with them on counterterrorism, protecting our own forces, and also protecting the PRTs and NGOs and so forth, that’s been a process that started, actually, a year ago. We got out -- remember, we got out of the cities in Iraq exactly a year -- almost exactly a year ago. And the Iraqis have been in the lead in the cities ever since.
So this has been an ongoing process. And really, on August 31st, what we’re already doing is what we’ll be doing now -- we’re already in this advise and assist posture. And the only difference on August 31st is that there will be some fewer number of troops on August 31st than there are today. For all of those reasons -- it’s a long answer -- whether or not there is a government doesn’t change the plans that we have to end the combat mission and to be down to 50,000.
Q Don’t you think it could change the tempo? I mean, isn’t there some impact? Or it doesn’t matter, the caretaker government will be here --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We just spent time, Andrea, with General Odierno. And he expressed, as he has in the past, absolute confidence in the plan. We’re actually ahead of schedule, in terms of moving equipment out. We’re moving people out very much on schedule. And he told us he sees absolutely nothing that would move us off of that plan.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me add to that, he also has expressed a great deal of confidence in the performance of Iraqi security forces as they continue their operations. And he’s quite pleased -- and you can ask him, and I won’t speak for him -- but he seems to be quite pleased with the progress they’re making and the kinds of operations they’re carrying out.
Q And yet, even so, so many of the ISF don’t want American troops to start withdrawing. They say that they don’t feel ready, and the fact that Maliki remains in government and remains -- especially the Sunni-based ISF feel like it’s a flash point that could cause more violence.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, it’s not as if we’re going to be at zero, and it’s not as if we’re not going to have combat troops here on August 31st. Fifty thousand Americans will still be here. And again, they’ll have combat capability. But the mission that they will formally be undertaking is the mission that, as a practical matter, they’ve already transitioned to, which is essentially advising and assisting the Iraqis.
This is about putting the Iraqis in the lead, having Iraqis take responsibility for their own country, which is exactly what they want to do. So we really don’t see a tension there, as my colleague said.
It’s striking that in the last two to three months, not only despite the spectacular and terrible attacks that we still see, the level of attacks is at, overall, is at historic lows. And second, we got through the election with the Iraqi security forces in the lead providing security and doing a very good job. And third, the senior leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq over the past two months was either killed or captured with the Iraqi forces in the lead, acting on intelligence developed by the Iraqis. The number one, two, three and four, depending on how you count, senior members of al Qaeda in Iraq have all been taken off the field by the Iraqis. So they’re doing, as my colleague said, quoting General Odierno, a very good job.
Q A lot of senior government officials in the past two weeks have told me, in this caretaker government, that there’s a definite link and that it would be a disaster if the U.S. stayed on track if there’s no government come September 1. They called the policy here right now weak, disengaged on the diplomatic side, and they said that it’s being seen as a sign of weakness to countries like Syria, Iran and the Taliban. Can you explain --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’d be very curious to know the names of the officials, because --
Q Well, I have one named in my story right now, Fawzi Hariri in the Ministry of Industry, and there’s others -- you’re not going on the record now, but senior officials are saying this, and it’s not one or two, it’s a lot.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ll see what they say to us in the next couple of days. It’s certainly not what we’ve been hearing from them. We’ve been, as you know, with our ambassador, with General Odierno, and with their respective teams, engaged very intensely with Iraqis across the board every day, every hour. And that’s not what we’ve been hearing from them. So it will be interesting to compare notes, but that’s certainly not what we’ve heard. And the professional judgment of our senior general, General Odierno, as well as our ambassador, is that the plan that we’re on makes sense, and we’re not seeing anything to change that assessment.
And again, let me just emphasize one thing, because I think it’s very important -- we’re not flipping a light switch on August 31st. This change in mission has been underway for a year. And it’s largely already occurred. That is, our troops are already in an advise and assist posture, and that’s where they’ll be on August 31st. So there’s no dramatic change.
Q Is there a legal obligation that you have to leave in the end of August, because --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s the President’s policy, and let me tell you why it’s important. We’ve made commitments to the Iraqis over time. We said that we would have our troops out of the cities last year. We said that we would end the combat mission on August 31st. We said that all U.S. forces will be out of the country at the end of 2011. And when we demonstrate that we’re good on our word, that we make good on our commitments, we build trust and confidence with the Iraqis that makes a huge difference in the relationship.
A lot of Iraqis did not expect that we would be out of the cities last summer when we said we would. We did it, and I think they -- that paid tremendous benefits. We kept our word. I suspect there are some who don’t believe we’ll end the combat mission or be down to 50,000 on August 31st. Barring events that are right now totally unforeseeable, we will be. And again, that’s a demonstration that we keep our commitment. We have a policy that’s stated; we stick to it. And we will move forward for the end of 2011.
Q So you can’t rule out building back up beyond 50,000 should violence increase after the August 31st --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about the future. I can’t rule out lots of things in life. What I can tell you with great conviction is that we have a plan, we’re following it, and I don’t see anything that would take us off that plan.
Q Will you talk with Prime Minister Maliki or others about, for instance, this secret prison in Baghdad that had over 300 people who were tortured and were the force that detained these people in the city of Mosul and brought them to Baghdad? You know, they were attached to the Prime Minister’s office. It doesn’t mean the Prime Minister knew, but that’s an aspect, I think, to think about as we have U.S. forces in advise and assist mode. I mean, there are actually U.S. forces on that facility where the prison was, and they didn’t know.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re engaged in these kind of issues on a regular basis. Again, when something like this comes up, we have our ambassador, our general and others who are very much engaged with the Iraqis on this. In this particular case that you’re referring to, what was particularly striking is this came to light as a result of the Iraqi government finding it out and then taking corrective action. That doesn’t excuse at all what happened, but again, it is illustrative of the fact that increasingly, Iraqis are finding a way to use the political system both to correct things that should absolutely not be happening, and also to work through their problems.
Q Are you concerned that U.S. forces could end up in a position -- like, there was a case in The Washington Post about, in a town in Anbar, where the soldiers, who had U.S. advisers, were brought -- they detained over 100 people over the course of several hours and beat them as they were looking for some insurgents who had killed a few soldiers, and the U.S. advisers in The Washington Post story had no idea. I guess what I’m wondering about, are you concerned in this next period, as you lose sort of a real overview of what’s going on, U.S. forces are going to be in a position where they’re backing up troops that sometimes really commit human rights abuses? How do you address that, then, because it’s -- it can hurt the credibility of the United States?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: In the first instance, again, Iraqis increasingly are developing their own institutions and abilities when these kinds of situations arise and problems arise, to find them out and to correct them.
We are extremely vigilant in everything we do. That vigilance is not going to go away. I don’t think it’s dependent on the number of troops who are here. It’s something that’s built into what we do.
Q But do you think you’ll know less? I mean, obviously you’ll be knowing less of what’s going on as the footprint shrinks.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s possible that we’ll know less in places that we’re not. I think we’ll know just as much in places that we are. So the idea that our troops would somehow unknowingly become involved in something -- and it’s more likely that that would happen because there are fewer of them in the country -- doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because I think if -- wherever the troops are, they will be vigilant about the mission and about the requirements of the mission.
Q Part of the problem now is that, delaying that government, the fear is that could this destabilize the country, that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does not want -- he has ambition for another term or does not want to step down. Is the Vice President, when he meets him, is he going to try to convince him to step down and leave the way to Iraqis -- you know, the one who actually won the election?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, we have no favorites, we have no candidates that we’re either for or against. We have no plan. This is up to the Iraqis. They had an election; they now have to form a government. That’s their responsibility. If we can be helpful to them, we’re prepared to do that, but we’re not proposing anyone. We’re not promoting anyone. That is absolutely up to the Iraqis.
In terms of the concerns about the lack of a government, there are two sides to the coin. I think on the one side, as I suggested earlier, there is a functioning caretaker government that for the most part is doing that, it’s taking care of the necessary functions of government. And what we haven’t seen, despite the violent attacks that continue -- that occasionally do occur, and despite the lack of a permanent government, we have not seen a rise in sectarian tension or violence. We have not seen a rise in the lack of confidence in the political system or governance.
So to that extent, we haven’t seen a problem emerge. On the other hand, here’s why getting a government in place is so important and why we hope that Iraqis can act expeditiously on it. There are, as you know, a number of very important outstanding issues that need to be resolved for Iraq to move forward, including laws on how to deal with hydrocarbons, the disputed internal boundaries and the status of Kirkuk, the integration of various forces into the Iraqi military, constitutional reforms -- all of these issues are unlikely to be resolved with just a caretaker government in place. They require a full-time, permanent government. And until we get to -- Iraqis get to that point, it’s going to be hard for them to move forward on these basic and serious outstanding issues.
It’s also going to be harder for us to move forward with them on what we’re committed to doing, which is building a long-term partnership and bringing the strategic framework agreement to life. That is, developing increasingly not only political ties and diplomatic ties, but economic ties, cultural ties, scientific ties. People want a climate to engage in that they’re confident in. And that comes with a permanent government, and it comes with Iraqis moving forward on these outstanding issues.
So that’s why it’s so important to get there. But I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that the absence of this government has created the kind of vacuum that many people feared that would lead to a lot of bad things happening. Thus far, that hasn’t happened.
Q Do you have any idea when you’re going to announce a replacement -- when the White House is going to announce a replacement for the commander of CENTCOM? There’s a big, gaping hole there right now.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not.
Q Can I ask an Iraq-related question? So he just told us that he expects to see a government that’s inclusive, that’s representative of all the parties. What’s his thinking on this super Shia government that kind of came in post-election and grabbed more seats than Iraqiyya, even though Iraqiyya won more seats in the actual vote?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, we’re not here to comment on Iraqi internal politics. We just have, I believe, what is the same desire and perspective that, as far as we can tell, the Iraqi people have, which is they would like to see a government that reflects the results of the election, and that means an inclusive government that brings in the major blocs. And that’s important, both in terms of the actual government formation process itself -- we think everyone should be in on the formation process -- and it’s important in terms of the outcome, that is, we think, an inclusive government that brings in all of the major players is the best reflection of what the Iraqi people want. That’s as far as we go. We’re not -- again, we’re not picking parties, we’re not picking candidates. That’s not our business.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: And I would add to that that our sense is that that’s where the Iraqi leaders are as well, that they understand the need for an inclusive government.
Q Yes, the sense -- the fear here, I wonder if it’s mirrored or echoed in Washington, is that if this stands and Iraqiyya has to take a back seat, despite having won more seats than any other coalition in the vote, it will further alienate Sunnis and this will create more destabilization and lead to more violence.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: As my colleague just said, our strong sense is that the need for an inclusive government is one that seems to be shared more or less across the board by Iraqis, never mind what we think. But not only the Iraqi people, but also the political leaders for precisely the reason that you cited, that is, there’s an understanding that a failure to do that could be very destabilizing, and that the way forward for Iraq is to be inclusive.
Q Have you gotten a commitment from Maliki on that?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We haven’t talked to --
Q Okay. Can we circle back with you afterwards?
Q What does Biden bring -- the Vice President bring to the table with this trip? How can he help? What does he offer?
Q I mean, if you’re saying we’re not here to comment on internal Iraqi politics, I mean, no offense, but what is he doing here?
Q Yes, what can he do for them? What is his being here -- how does it help?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m certainly not here to comment -- what he can do is to do virtually everything I suggested. One is to reaffirm our strong commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq, which is something the Iraqis want. Second, it’s to listen and to hear from them where they are on the process of government formation. And if they ask us to be helpful in any way, we’re open to being helpful. But we haven’t met with them yet. So let’s see what they say.
Q I mean, how could they hypothetically ask you to be helpful?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Because you said hypothetically -- (laughter.)
Q Sir, one other thing. We were really hoping that we could get some time with the Vice President while he’s here as the Baghdad press corps. I think it is a bad message in a way not to do that while you’re here in this country, where you’re helping promote democracy, and it would be --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll see what happens. He’s got a terrifically busy schedule, as you can imagine --
Q Just a chance, five minutes --
Q Ten, 15 minutes.
Q Photo sprays? It’s not helpful for The Washington Post and The New York Times, but we’re sacrificing a lot of our time and we’re getting none of his time.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I completely understand, having been in your line of work for 21 years, till 18 months ago. So I understand. Thank you.
9:25 P.M. (Local)