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Briefing On Upcoming Iraqi Elections and U.S.-Iraqi Relations


Special Briefing
Christopher R. Hill
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Washington, DC
February 17, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. We did leave a handful of your colleagues behind last night in Jeddah, but I think they’re making their way back through various means, through Frankfurt, London, and Paris. So I hope your colleagues will be returning here before the end of the day.

This is a very important year in the history of Iraq and in the history of the relationship between the United States and Iraq, a very important election coming up in just under three weeks time, and an important transition that will be happening this year as we move from a relationship based on military presence to a relationship based on a robust civilian presence in Iraq in the future.

During the Secretary’s bilaterals in her recent trip to the region, Iraq came up in every meeting. And in her meeting with the Secretary General of the OIC, she expressed gratitude for OIC, who’s going to provide some election monitors for the election coming up here. But we thought that with the election coming up and then various events happening in the subsequent 18 months, with our able Ambassador Chris Hill in town, we thought it was a good opportunity to bring him back to kind of describe at ground level what is happening now in the run-up to the election, and then how, once the government is formed, we see events moving over the subsequent 15 months. But just standing here with two Red Sox fans, we’ve got pitchers and catchers reporting tomorrow, so we’ll be happy to take questions on that as well.

Chris, welcome back to Washington.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Thank you. Thank you very much, P.J., and it’s a pleasure to see some familiar faces here who probably want to ask me about North Korea, but no, we’re out of that business. (Laughter.)

But it’s a pleasure to come here to the snow capital of the world and really have an opportunity to meet with people as we enter what is the last three weeks – or actually, two and a half weeks now before the Iraqi elections. I came back the same time with General Odierno and earlier today we met with the Secretary of Defense, and just this afternoon we met with the President and with his advisors. On Friday, I’ll meet with – we’ll meet with Secretary Clinton and also with Vice President Biden in two other meetings.

We’re here really to report on where things stand with three weeks to go. I think anyone who follows Iraq knows that there are twists and turns to any destination in Iraq. Certainly, de-Baathification was a major issue and a very tough issue, a very emotional issue, but I think we’ve gotten through that issue. The campaign has really started in earnest. There are campaign placards all over every surface in the country, it seems, right now. There are some 6,172 candidates. There are 18.9 million registered voters. There are 300,000 poll station workers. There are 50,000 polling stations spread over 9,000 polling centers. There will be out-of-country voters and they’re prepared to handle that in 16 different countries, voting that will actually start on March 5th.

We are working very closely with the UN and with the U.S. forces to help secure having 26 four-person monitoring teams. These are actually just U.S. monitoring teams to be spread out over 18 provinces, including four in Baghdad and 22 in other provinces. We’ll have extra teams in some of the sensitive areas in Anbar, Basra, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninawa. There will be nine diplomatic missions who are represented in the overall monitoring, including from – those from Turkey, UK, Denmark, Canada, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland. The European Union will have five or six journalistic embeds. We’ll also have special needs voting that begins on March 9th – March 4th, rather. And our teams will be deployed about March 1st and return March 9th.

So this is a major undertaking. It is an election that in many respects will determine the future of Iraq, the future of the U.S. – and also the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq. For us, this is a very important election because it’s an important election that will enable us to continue to develop what we see as a long-term and very important relationship, strategic relationship, with the Republic of Iraq.

To be sure, we have forces on the ground and this is an important year in which we will draw down those forces, so that by the end of August, we’ll have some 50,000 troops in Iraq and who will be engaged in – or grouped in advise-and-assist brigades and will no longer be engaged in combat operations. Security remains a challenge in Iraq, but the long-term trends are very clear toward a better security situation. Politics is something one has to monitor and one has to buckle one’s seatbelt for in Iraq, but we do see a country that is not only embracing politics but one that is also embracing democracy.

Iraq has made important strides in its economy in recent months. They’ve reached some oil lease deals with many of the major oil companies in the world. So if all of these go well in the next some 10 years, we will see a country producing some 10 million barrels of oil per day. I mean, this is a substantial amount. This will put Iraq in the category of or in the sort of orbit of a country like Saudi Arabia. It will make Iraq an oil exporter to the tune of some four times what Iran is currently exporting.

So all of these developments are happening as we speak. There are more and more oil infrastructure companies coming in to get ready for this, and I think we can see that Iraq is really taking its rightful place on the world stage.

We will have continued difficult times as we get to the election. We will also have difficult times getting through government formation. I think everyone is aware of the complexity of putting together coalition governments. At the end of the day, I think we will be looking at a government that has a Shia representation, that it does indeed have Sunni representation, and will also have Kurdish representation. Now, what particular configuration, which parties those three identities will be represented, well, that will be up to the Iraqi voters on March 7th.

So with those sort of introductory comments, why don’t I go to your questions or comments or complaints or whatever.

QUESTION: Thanks. Hi, Andy Quinn from Reuters. On that last point about the gap between the election itself and government formation, I know this morning you were talking about saying it could be a question of months rather than weeks before we actually see a government in place. And I’m just wondering to what degree that represents to you a dangerous political vacuum. Do you think that there are risks that during that period when there isn’t a government actually sitting, we could see things begin to backslide, as it did the last time around?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, first of all, we’ve worked very closely with Iraqis on the issue of making sure that the interim government continues to fulfill all its responsibilities, especially in the security area. Secondly, I don’t think it’s safe to predict at this point how long it will take. There have been discussions ongoing already about what a government will look like, which party coalitions will contribute which ministers.

But I think realistically speaking, it will – it’s something that one – that will be difficult to foretell before the election. So our hope is it will be done as soon as possible, but I think it’s important that they have good governance and a good government. And we think a good government is more important than a speedily or hastily put-together government.

I would be cautious about comparing these elections to those in 2005. You’ll recall in 2005 we had a Sunni boycott. There are no signs whatsoever of a boycott by any of the communities at this time. In fact, all of the communities have been urging their voters to – their members to get out and vote. But I don’t think it’s really productive at this point to speculate how long it will take, whether it’s a few weeks or whether it becomes more than a month. I just don’t know at this point, except to say that I think the Iraqis understand the challenge and understand the need to try to put together a government as quickly as they can, but a government that nonetheless is as durable as possible.

Elise.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the idea of the Baathists and the election – on the banned candidates? You spoke earlier this morning about the sensitivities about the Baathist issue, but more from the kind of whole Iraqi population. I was wondering if you think that there’s any danger of not a resurgence of the Baathists, but a kind of backlash by pro-Baathists in terms of, you know, more violence or anything like that as a result of this.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, the country, there’s no question there are Baathist elements in the country and there’s no question that some of these Baathist elements are very unhappy with the current state of affairs. I will say that the – in terms of violence, we have a government that is increasingly capable of handling violence, and we did not see any signs of insurgency of the kind that we saw back in the wake of the ’05 --

QUESTION: Right.

AMBASSADOR HILL: -- elections. So what we see are acts of terror that are – have already happened; in many cases, in our judgment, happened because of al-Qaida elements. But we don’t see that this issue of excluding Baathist candidates is one that is leading to violence. Frankly, they were able to come together and work out a solution, and I think it’s a solution that most people are living with.

QUESTION: But if I could just quickly follow up, I mean, some of these banned candidates were, if I’m correct, previous – some of them were even in parliament previously; is that right?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah.

QUESTION: And so, I mean, do you think that there’s a danger that they feel like they used to have the political process and now they feel disenfranchised --

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well --

QUESTION: -- and that’s a kind of, you know, formula for, you know, being bored and not having a lot to do and being kind of bitter and, you know, turning back?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, being bored is not a formula for getting elected, but --

QUESTION: Well, you know I’m being – well, but you know what I’m saying.

AMBASSADOR HILL: I think it’s important to understand that there are candidates who are unhappy at having been on the list, but there was a process by which they were able to appeal, there was a sequestered panel of judges from the cassation court that looked at these cases. In some cases, they ruled that the people should be able to stand for office; in others, they ruled against it. We know that some of the candidates who were disallowed or not permitted to run, they have accepted the result and they’ve called on their – on people to vote.

So we don’t see a sign that this type of dissatisfaction is of the quality that would cause an outbreak of an insurgency. But obviously, we track these issues very closely. We’re in very – we really follow these things. We’re in touch with all the politicians. And this is going to – this is, to be sure, a rocky road, but I think we can – we have every reason to believe that we’ll get through this election process.

Yeah.

QUESTION: I have two questions. My name is (inaudible) from Iraq TV. The first one is: President Obama met many of Iraqi leaders for like, one months, like the Vice President Abd Al-Mahdi, Tariq al-Hashimi, and Massoud Barzani. What is the purpose, like, from this invitation to these leaders? This is the first question.

And the second question is: Al-Qaida in Iraq threat that they will be increased. You know Omar al-Baghdadi, one of al-Qaida leaders, has said he will, like, increase from his operation, terrorist operation to strip the election in Iraq. Is there any cooperation with Iraqi forces to prevent that?

AMBASSADOR HILL: To prevent – I’m sorry, what?

QUESTION: The operation, terrorist operations before the election?

AMBASSADOR HILL: I can assure you Iraqi forces are very busy doing all they can to forestall any terrorist operations – we cooperate very closely with the Iraqi forces in this regard – and to try to minimize the risk that these terrorist events will take place. So we are working on that very hard. I can assure you this is one of General Odierno’s top objectives to not only work with the Iraqi forces, but work to prevent these kinds of terrorist activities.

With respect to the Iraqi politicians who have been here in recent months, as you know, during this – during the past calendar year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton met with Prime Minister Maliki twice. They have also met with President Talabani. They met with Vice President Hashimi. They met with Vice President Abd Al-Mahdi. They also met with President of KRG Barzani.

Rather than go into the reasons why they met with each, I would urge you to simply understand it in the context of our senior officials being very interested in the political processes in Iraq and very much supportive of positive elections and supportive of the developments in Iraq’s democracy, and, in particular, being very supportive of the idea of developing a long-term strategic relationship with Iraq.

I think you should see those visits in that context. It is not enough just to speak to the – President Talabani and President – and Prime Minister Maliki. It’s important to consult with other opinions and I think you should see – anytime you are concerned about developing a long-term strategic relationship with a country, you want to develop as many contacts as you can.

So – yes.

QUESTION: Warren Strobel with McClatchy Newspapers. Good to see you again, Chris.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Good to see you.

QUESTION: Is there any circumstance or combination of circumstances that would delay or halt the U.S. combat brigade withdrawal from Iraq? And I’m just curious, what are you telling – you and General Odierno telling the President in this – Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton about circumstances for withdrawal?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah. Well, first of all, what we say privately or our advice to the President and the Secretary of State is something we give to them in private. I would say, though, that everything is on schedule for the reduction of forces to figure around 50,000 by the end of August and standing up of advise-and-assist brigades.

I don’t want to engage in a hypothetical question of what would change that schedule, except to say that I think things are moving forward. But I also want to be very clear that our interest in the election is not in order to withdraw troops. Our interest in the election is to develop this long-term relationship that I just spoke to.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy magazine.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Oh, you’re Josh Rogin.

QUESTION: I’m Josh Rogin.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Very nice to meet you.

QUESTION: Good to see you in person. Yesterday, General Odierno accused two Iraqi officials – let me read the names – Ali Faisal al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who were both key members of the Accountability and Justice Commission, of being clearly influenced by Iran. I’m wondering if you agree with General Odierno’s comments, and are you concerned with Iran’s influence over this process concerning the candidates and the election in general?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah, I absolutely agree with General Odierno on this. And absolutely, these gentlemen are affected by – are certainly under the influence of Iran. These were people, or in the case of Chalabi, he was named by the CPA administrator, Ambassador Bremer, back in ’03 as the head of the de-Baathification Committee. It was a committee that went out of existence two years ago, replaced by the Accountability and Justice Committee. Everyone else understood that they – that that would – that their terms expired with the expiration of the committee, except for Mr. Chalabi, who assumed by himself the role of maintaining his – a position in a new committee to which he was never named.

The issue of de-Baathification was – came up in the context of the actual election process being underway. It became a very emotionally charged issue. I think Americans need to understand that if you’re an Iraqi, very few people are indifferent to the issue of de-Baathification. After all Baathists pretty much destroyed that country, destroyed many families, destroyed many hopes in Iraq. So understandably, people are very concerned about ensuring that there is – that Article 7 of the constitution is lived up to and that there is action against Baathists.

That said, it has to be a process that is understood as not being politicized and a process that’s understood as being – as following a due process, really. And so this is where the question of Mr. Chalabi’s behavior – and I don’t need to relate to you or anyone else here the fact that this is a gentleman who has been challenged over the years to be seen as a straightforward individual.

So I absolutely agree with General Odierno on his specific comments with respect to those two individuals, and I also agree with his comments about the fact that we are – we remain concerned about Iran’s behavior in – toward its neighbors. Iran should have a good relationship with its neighbor, but it needs to do a much better job of respecting its neighbor’s sovereignty.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that real quickly? Sorry. Does the U.S. Government still maintain contact with Chalabi? This is a guy, after all, who, five, six, seven years ago was sitting in the Gallery at the State of the Union address, had a big role in this town. Do we still talk to him or --

AMBASSADOR HILL: I didn’t know he was in the Gallery at the State – Walter, you track a lot of (inaudible). (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Wasn’t he in the Situation Room, though? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR HILL: Was he in the Situation Room?

QUESTION: I’m kidding.

MR. CROWLEY: Yours or with ours?

QUESTION: Both.

QUESTION: Wolf Blitzer.

QUESTION: Both. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR HILL: I think people in the Embassy have had contacts, as we do with all the political figures in the country.

QUESTION: But I mean, considering that he let – was very involved in the kind of run-up to the war in terms of the dealing with the Administration and making the case to go to war against Saddam Hussein – I mean, he was a major political figure at the time – are you saying that you’ve kind of moved on from him?

AMBASSADOR HILL: “Kind of moved on” is probably a good way to put it. (Laughter.)

Yes.

QUESTION: As long as you’re agreeing with other General Odierno statements, yesterday, he also said that because of Iran’s meddling in the election and the potential disqualification of these candidates, a lot of the Sunni Iraqis could feel disenfranchised or could come out of the election feeling unhappy, and that could lead to potential instability, additional sectarian problems. Do you – I mean, do you agree with that?

And then he also went even further and said if there is instability, it could ultimately lead to the U.S. presence not declining as quickly as it’s on track for. Do you agree with any –

AMBASSADOR HILL: I’m sorry, I haven’t heard all those comments, but I will say that one of the risks of the de-Baathification process, even though it was a process that there were Shia on that list as well as Sunnis, but certainly one of the risks would be that the Sunnis would feel that this process is politically motivated and targeted against some of their candidates. And to be sure, there are people who believe that.

One of our jobs was to make clear our views on this and why we felt that the process needed to be dealt with consistent with obligations under the rule of law. I think we have made our views clear on that, and I think ultimately the process was dealt with and I think we’re moving on now to the main event, which are the elections on March 7th. We see no sign of any boycotts from any groups. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, today there was an agreement among the five major blocs on a code of conduct in pursuing the elections.

So I think that’s where we are now. I met with the sheikhs in Anbar who are, by and large, Sunni sheikhs. I met with other sheikhs in – tribal sheikhs in Baghdad. I had them over to my home for lunch. And the Sunni tribal sheikhs all said that they are very much in a get-out-the-vote mood. So we do not have a problem as of now in terms of Sunni nonparticipation.

QUESTION: And did you mention that Anbar was one of the places there’d be additional election monitors, I think?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah, we’ll make sure that we have --

QUESTION: Why Anbar?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Some of this has to do with terrain, about where the particular – we have two major cities there, so we need some people in Fallujah, we need some people in Ramadi. So I wouldn’t make any major conclusion from where we’re actually putting these people. We do it for a number of reasons. But in some of the areas, there are problems that have taken place in some towns and we want to have some visibility there. The point is that we are really trying to cover as much as we can with the resources that we have.

We are also working very closely with the UN. And as I said this morning, I think when the U.S. and the UN work very closely on issues such as Iraq, we can really move mountains. We can do a lot when we work together, and that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: You just mentioned there is no sign of boycott on these elections, so is that your assessment that the Iraqis are now moving towards a political reconciliation?

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, we’re going toward the election and they’ve agreed that elections are the way to solve their – to address political issues, and I think that’s very encouraging. I’m not going to stand here and say that there isn’t some problem that will emerge tomorrow; and once we help them solve that problem tomorrow, there may be another problem the next day. But certainly, I think the trend is toward participation, full participation in the elections, and that’s what we’re all gearing up for.

QUESTION: Yeah, but I mean, with all due respect, that really doesn’t answer the question.

AMBASSADOR HILL: With respect to whom?

QUESTION: To you.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Oh, to me. Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: That doesn’t really answer the question, though. I mean, yes –

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, that’s not a very respectful tone. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, I said it in the most respectful way possible.

AMBASSADOR HILL: That’s great, Elise. Keep it up. All right.

QUESTION: However, I mean, taking part in a political process doesn't necessarily mean political reconciliation.

AMBASSADOR HILL: No. And --

QUESTION: And I mean, they’ve had elections before, but part of the problem is that you’ve seen this dramatic decrease in violence over the – since like, 2006, but it never really – it was supposed to give space for this kind of political reconciliation that still seems uneasy after all these years.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, I think there are political reconciliation issues across the board. I mean, it is – I think it’s something that we try to be helpful with the Iraqis. But I think increasingly we’re seeing the Iraqis try to deal with these issues. And to see how the – some of the Shia parties reached out to the Sunni during the election law issue, where we had Shia and Sunni in the same room working on the law – in fact, working off the same piece of paper and trying to make adjustments on that piece of paper, showed that the election process, difficult as it is, is making people work together. So I think that – I think elections, if they’re well done, can be a source of political reconciliation.

Obviously, we have other issues in Iraq that need to be addressed and need to be addressed beyond the elections. For example, we have the issue of the disputed internal boundaries between the KRG – that is, the Kurdish areas – and the Arab areas. There’s 15-some features there. Kirkuk is probably the best known. This is something that the UN is going to be very engaged in and we are as well. So reconciliation is a tough proposition in Iraq, but it’s something that we are all committed to trying to achieve.

So we will – after the election, we’ll see what kind of – who has the most votes. That party or that coalition will then choose a prime minister and try to work the other positions. And it’s going to be a tough issue, but we have every reason to believe that they will be able to form a government from it.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HILL: Thank you very much.



PRN: 2010/182



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