The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.
From the Daily Press Briefing of June 8, 2009
The United States congratulates the Lebanese people for carrying out a peaceful national election yesterday, a critical step towards Lebanon’s rightful achievement of true independence and sovereignty. We will continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon. We commend the Lebanese voters who turned out in impressive numbers on election day. We also congratulate the Lebanese authorities, including the armed forces and police, who assured the security necessary for voters to exercise their rights.
Welcome to the briefing. You don’t look happy, Matt.
QUESTION: It would be nice if we could have had a little announcement, maybe giving us some --
MR. KELLY: I’m going to roll it back, okay? Do you want me to read the statement from the top?
QUESTION: Sure, please.
MR. KELLY: The United States congratulates the Lebanese people for carrying out a peaceful national election yesterday, a critical step towards Lebanon’s rightful achievement of true independence and sovereignty. We will continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon. We commend the Lebanese voters who turned out in impressive numbers on election day. We also congratulate the Lebanese authorities, including the armed forces and police, who assured the security necessary for voters to exercise their rights.
In addition, several observant missions from the United States and elsewhere observed the elections, including from the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center. Their initial reports indicate the elections were carried out fairly.
With the voting over, the process of forming a government and developing a government program now begins. That is a process for the Lebanese to carry out in accordance with the election results and without outside interference. We look forward to working with the next government and hope it will continue along the path toward building a sovereign and stable Lebanon that is committed to peace, including full implementation of all United Nations Security [Council]* resolutions.
And with that, I’ll be happy to take your questions. Mr. Lee.
QUESTION: Does this have any impact on Senator Mitchell’s travel?
MR. KELLY: I have – I don’t have full information on Senator Mitchell’s travel. I believe he’s in Oslo today and he’s planning to go to Israel tomorrow. And that’s all we have right now. We may have some more information tomorrow.
QUESTION: Onward travel from Israel and the PA?
MR. KELLY: I don’t have any information on onward travel yet, but as I say, I hope to have information tomorrow.
QUESTION: Hezbollah won all of the states that it contested, even though it ended up on the losing side. Does the U.S. consider it a positive development that Hezbollah is trying to be more engaged politically? What else can the U.S. do to try to encourage it to give up its weapons and to renounce violence?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think on this first day after the elections, we’re very focused on congratulating the people of Lebanon for carrying out a peaceful national election. We look forward to working with the next government. I think in terms of the makeup of the government, I mean, we’ll just have to see what comes out of those decisions.
QUESTION: But in terms of the larger picture, you have both this political arm of Hezbollah and you still have this military arm. The U.S. Government has been very active this spring in saying: You need to lay down your weapons; we can’t have every political organization running around with its own militia.
MR. KELLY: Right, right.
QUESTION: You know, what is being done in that bigger picture?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think you know our policy regarding Hezbollah is unchanged. It remains a designated foreign terrorist organization. But as I said before, I mean, today, we’re focused on congratulating the people of Lebanon for conducting a fair and peaceful election, and we look forward to working with them.
QUESTION: But do you see the outcome of this election as a sign that Iran and Syria have less influence on Lebanon these days, or – I mean, do you see it as a positive development in terms of the – President Obama’s overall sort of Middle East plans?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think we’re going to try and get you together for a background briefing in about 40 minutes or so, and I think I’ll defer questions to our background briefer on that.
QUESTION: Just one thing. You said in the prepared statement that you read at the top that the United States will support an independent and sovereign Lebanon. Can we take that to mean that you would expect the U.S. Government, should Congress agree to go along with it as it has in the past, to continue financially supporting, in the rather generous way it has in recent years, the Lebanese Armed Forces? Is that – does that signal that when you’re saying we’re going to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, that you’re going to keep doing the kind of funding that you have done in the last couple years?
MR. KELLY: Well, yeah. I mean, it signals what it is. It signals that we support an independent and sovereign Lebanon. I don’t want to prejudge how we’re going to come out one way or another working with this government. We’ve got to see what government is formed. But we feel very strongly that Lebanon should remain a strong, independent, sovereign nation. But I’m not going to prejudge where we go because we want to – the government has to be formed first. So let’s take it one step at a time.
QUESTION: Sir, there were two high-level visits recently that took place to India and Pakistan. In India, Ambassador Nicholas Burns going there and also in Pakistan, Mr. – Special --
MR. KELLY: William Burns.
QUESTION: -- Holbrooke.
QUESTION: William Burns.
QUESTION: William Burns.
MR. KELLY: I’ve worked for both of them, but I --
QUESTION: Sorry, thank you.
QUESTION: Which one’s better? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: So what were the --
MR. KELLY: I like them both.
QUESTION: So what were the reasons – certain visits to these two countries now, and what happened? What did they --
MR. KELLY: I think we put out a media note on the Under Secretary’s travel.
QUESTION: It’s very scant.
MR. KELLY: Very scant.
MR. KELLY: Okay. So what you’re looking for is a readout of those meetings? Is that --
QUESTION: That would be helpful.
MR. KELLY: Let me see if I can get you a readout of those meetings.
QUESTION: Ambassador Burns is – he hasn’t traveled yet.
MR. KELLY: Oh, he hasn’t traveled yet. Well, he’s --
QUESTION: He’s traveling (inaudible).
MR. KELLY: Take a few days off and look what happens here. Never mind.
QUESTION: No, what I’m asking – what I was asking, actually, that – what is the reason now, several visits, sir? Is it something – because there were – you were waiting because the elections in India or now something new going on? Because of the – in Afghanistan or these (inaudible) going on?
MR. KELLY: Well, this region of the world is very important to us. India is very important to us, as the world’s largest democracy. They did just have elections. Bill Burns is our Under Secretary for Political Affairs. He regularly travels and carries out consultations and – but there was no specific triggering action for this trip as far as I know.
QUESTION: Are you expecting any visit from India?
MR. KELLY: Any visit here?
QUESTION: Yes, sir.
MR. KELLY: I’m not aware of it, and I just don’t have anything right now for – on that.
QUESTION: New topic?
QUESTION: Same subject?
MR. KELLY: Same subject, yeah.
QUESTION: What will be on his agenda when he visits Delhi this week, later this week – Under Secretary --
MR. KELLY: Bill Burns’s agenda. Well, I think it’s going to be the broad bilateral agenda that we have with India. As I say, I think it’s just one of his normal visits where he consults with his counterparts.
QUESTION: And is Ambassador Holbrooke back to the city?
MR. KELLY: I believe he gets back this afternoon.
QUESTION: And a different subject: Has the State Department sent to employees and/or editors of the Persian Service of Voice of America any instructions relating to the current election campaign in Iran?
MR. KELLY: I’m not aware that they have. And that doesn’t – I mean, that doesn’t ring true to me, but --
QUESTION: There is a report that the State Department has indeed sent such a letter requiring the Persian Service VOA employees to support reformists and to ban individuals and groups from VOA programs who would be calling for a boycott of the elections. Can you deny that?
MR. KELLY: I can’t confirm it or deny it. I’ll just have to look into it and get back to you.
QUESTION: Can you clear up the situation on the ground in Iraq with the arrest of these contractors? How many Americans are there and what’s the situation?
MR. KELLY: Yeah, I do have something on that if you’ll just hold on a second. Yeah, I think you saw yesterday that the Embassy confirmed that Iraqi authorities took five American citizens into custody on the 3rd. There haven’t been any formal charges filed at this time. The men were not arrested on suspicion of murder, but were detained on an unrelated matter.
As you know, protecting American citizens overseas is a high priority for us. And American Embassy Consular officers visited the men in custody to verify they’re being afforded their rights in accordance with Iraqi law. They appeared to be in good health. And the Embassy continues to follow their situation.
QUESTION: What were they detained on, then? It was an unrelated --
MR. KELLY: That’s all I have, is that they – it was an unrelated matter.
QUESTION: So it had nothing to do with the murder of the contractor?
MR. KELLY: During the investigation of the homicide of Mr. James Kitterman, Iraqi law enforcement personnel came upon possible evidence of an unrelated matter that resulted in the arrest of the five American citizens. None of the Americans were arrested in connection with the Kitterman case.
QUESTION: That’s a bit vague – unrelated matter. Can you find out what that is referring to? I mean, it could be that they, you know, stole some linens or something from the KBR. (Laughter.) But it sounds as if it might not be that.
MR. KELLY: I doubt I can get you more. But if I can, I will.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: No, no.
MR. KELLY: I thought you were going to call it.
QUESTION: There is an Israeli newspaper report that quotes an unidentified person that’s quoting Senator Mitchell as saying that the Israelis have been lying to us for years and years and this is now going to end. What – do you have anything to say about that?
MR. KELLY: I do.
MR. KELLY: I have a statement from Senator Mitchell:
The allegation is totally false. It is a complete fabrication. The supposed source for this article was, quote, “a prominent Jewish leader,” unquote, with whom Senator Mitchell met in New York on Monday. The only private meeting he had that day was with Mort Zuckerman, who is a prominent Jewish leader. Mr. Zuckerman has authorized me, Senator Mitchell, to include his statement as follows: The Ma’ariv article is absolutely false. I find it outrageous. I have met and talked many times with Senator Mitchell, and he has never made such a statement or anything that could be interpreted in this way. I share his dismay and welcome the opportunity to set the record straight.
QUESTION: Thank you.