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Middle East Digest - August 19, 2009


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August 19, 2009

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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 August 19, 2009

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I want to open my part of the briefing today with a statement on events in Baghdad. You’ll see that Ambassador Hill and General Odierno issued a joint statement with – that tracks very closely to my statement today.
The United States strongly condemns this morning’s coordinated attack against the institutions of government in Baghdad resulting in the deaths of dozens of people and the wounding of several hundred others. We understand the foreign ministry in Baghdad sustained serious damage with multiple deaths and injuries. An attack on a diplomatic facility and all those working for peaceful relations through dialogue and diplomacy is an attack on the entire international community.
We extend condolences to the families of the victims and to the Government of Iraq.
These terrorist attacks are an attempt to undermine the progress that Iraqi institutions and security forces have worked hard to achieve. We believe that they will not deter Iraqis from continuing their efforts to build a peaceful and prosperous society.
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Libby.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea who might be responsible for the bombing?
MR. KELLY: No, we don’t have that information at this time.
QUESTION: Iraqi officials are saying it’s al-Qaida in Iraq. You don’t --
MR. KELLY: Well, we do know that it was – these attacks were coordinated, and I think judging on past experience, this kind of coordinated attack has been the hallmark of al-Qaida’s activities. But I don’t have any hard information that it was al-Qaida.
QUESTION: Doesn't this indicate to you that the Iraqis may not be up to providing adequate security, especially in Baghdad, and the fact that the foreign ministry was targeted and hit?
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, I wouldn't draw that conclusion. I think that’s the conclusion they want you to draw – the very fact that they hit these government institutions – but I wouldn't necessarily draw that conclusion.
QUESTION: Why isn’t it the fact that they were able to hit these institutions that is of concern?
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, I think that, unfortunately, these kinds of attacks, this kind of – the – especially the attacks on the two ministries, are difficult to counter. These were vehicle-borne explosive devices. And – but I – again, I wouldn't necessarily draw the conclusion that they’re not up to the job.
QUESTION: If these types of bombings continue, though, do you think you might need to reevaluate the U.S.-Iraqi security arrangement that you agreed to last year?
MR. KELLY: We are there to support the Government of Iraq. We have an agreement with them that we are abiding by. We want to make sure that Iraq succeeds and does become a peaceful and prosperous country. And at this point, that’s the stance that we’re in, that we want to support them.
QUESTION: But that doesn't really answer the question.
MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, it’s really – it’s up to the Iraqis. It’s up to the Iraqis to decide what kind of support that we can give them.
Yeah, Kirit.
QUESTION: I don’t know if I missed – if I missed in your statement about American casualties. Did you --
MR. KELLY: No, there were no deaths or serious injuries among other U.S. personnel or American citizens in Baghdad.
QUESTION: When you say that you’re – it’s up to the Iraqis to decide what kind of support, are you having discussions with them about – in the wake of this renewed violence about whether that you need to rethink the agreement?
MR. KELLY: No, I wouldn't – I’m not aware of those kinds of discussions. I know that we – of course, we’re in constant discussions with them in general about the security situation. But no, we’re not opening any kind of official discussions on this or anything.
QUESTION: Just one more.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you know if U.S. forces were asked to respond?
MR. KELLY: I’m not sure about that. I’ll – if I can find that out for you, I will. I mean, we certainly would be prepared to extend assistance.
QUESTION: How has this latest bout of violence affected the work, the diplomatic work, that you’re doing in Iraq? Previously, during the cycles of violence in Iraq, your work was seriously curtailed, especially outside of Baghdad. PRTs couldn't get out and about because of the risks, the personal risks. What’s the situation in terms of your staff? Are you able to get around and do your business, or --
MR. KELLY: Well, I think you know that it’s – under the best of circumstances it’s a challenging environment to conduct business. I’m not aware that we have – that we have adjusted our security stance. I think at this point, we’re trying to assess the damage. Of course, the safety of our own personnel is paramount, but I don’t have any specific information about how this has directly affected how we do our business.
I will say that our main interlocutor in a diplomatic sense is the ministry of foreign affairs, and that place was very hard hit today.
QUESTION: But – but – yeah.
MR. KELLY: With dozens of people injured and pretty severe damage. So I think just at a pure logistical level, that would affect our ability to deal on a bilateral basis.
QUESTION: But two months ago – eight – seven or so weeks ago, Ambassador Hill was the target of an attack himself. So are you sensing that you’re under – that there are further – there are more risks, that you’re facing many more risks there?
MR. KELLY: Well, it’s a very risky environment there. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues who are serving out there under extremely challenging conditions.
QUESTION: Do you think you were a little too optimistic a few months ago that Iraq was, you know, on the right road? Are you feeling that maybe you spoke too soon?
MR. KELLY: No, I don’t think so. I think, as I suggested in the statement, we have faith in the political will of the Iraqi people to develop into a strong and prosperous society, and we have faith that these kinds of attacks won’t deter them from that path. I think you all remember that – I forget which election there was, but there was one election that was conducted in an environment where we had multiple attacks on a daily basis, and there were a lot of predictions that this would hold down the turnout. In fact, it was a tremendous turnout. So there is a tremendous desire of the Iraqi people to have a normally functioning system. And these kinds of attacks are, of course, horrific, but we do have faith that that won’t deter the Iraqis from --
QUESTION: But you – there’s a difference between having faith in their political will and having faith in their capability.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, do you have faith in their capability to continue to prevent or ward off such attacks? I mean, they’re getting – the frequency of them and the horrific nature of them is only increasing.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, we saw these kinds of horrific attacks when we were responsible for security as well. I just – I think that the important thing here is that Iraqis want to be responsible for their own security and we are there to support them to try and deal with these kinds of situation. I think that we’re all impressed at how restrained the response has been. Some of these attacks, of course, are designed to try and provoke a sectarian response. And so I think that the Iraqis should be – I think we should all be pleased at this – the refusal to be drawn into kind of sectarian divisions.

ISRAEL STAMPS
QUESTION: A follow-up on the PA-only stamp issued by Israel to U.S. citizens going into Israel, just to follow up on that. I saw that you guys released --
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- something. You said that you’re engaged with the Government of Israel. Just more clarification. Have you complained to them about this specifically? Have you asked them to stop issuing it to your U.S. citizens, and do you consider it a violation of the Oslo Accords?
MR. KELLY: Oh, well, the latter – the latter issue that’s, I think, something that I probably would want somebody else to pronounce on if it’s a violation of the Oslo because I’m not familiar enough with the Oslo Accords to be able to make a judgment one way or the other.
As our note said last night, we have made it quite known to the Israeli Government, and this is, I think, really on the diplomatic level, that we expect all American citizens to be treated the same regardless of their national origin. And this kind of – these kinds of restrictions we consider unacceptable. And I’d refer you to the Israeli Government for – in terms of their --
QUESTION: So you don’t know if they’re going to stop doing it or not, or if you specifically asked them to stop issuing these specific stamps?
MR. KELLY: We have told them that we think this is – that we cannot accept this kind of practice.
QUESTION: Do you know at what level – do you know if – how many Americans have complained to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem? How --
MR. KELLY: No.
QUESTION: -- serious you consider this?
MR. KELLY: No. I’m not aware of the kind of numbers of – the number of people who have complained.
Libby.
QUESTION: Different topic.
QUESTION: Wait, wait. Can I – can we go back? First of all, what does that mean we cannot accept this kind of practice? You also can’t accept, you know, continued building of settlements, and they seem to be doing that.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: So what exactly does that mean?
MR. KELLY: Well, it means that this kind of practice is something that the U.S. Government believes should not be done. This is not --
QUESTION: Yeah, but you say we can’t --
MR. KELLY: -- something that we can accept.
QUESTION: But it’s not – you have to accept it, if that’s what they’re doing.
MR. KELLY: Well --
QUESTION: What are you going to do if they don’t stop?
MR. KELLY: We will continue to protest.
QUESTION: But that won’t make any difference --
QUESTION: That – I mean, it’s not a question of whether you can accept it or not. They’re doing it.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: So?
MR. KELLY: It is what it is. We don’t like the practice.

IRAN-AMERICAN HIKER ABDUCTION

QUESTION: Just an update to see if you have anything on Iran – the three American hikers?
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Have you made any progress in getting consular access --
MR. KELLY: No, they’re --
QUESTION: -- securing their release?
MR. KELLY: The short answer, unfortunately, is no. We haven’t made any progress. Our protecting power, Switzerland, has not been granted consular access to the three American hikers. Iran has also not provided information about their location and whether or not any charges have been filed against them. As you know, there are families in the U.S. who are very, understandably, worried about the health and safety of their loved ones in Iran.
Once again, we remind Iran of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, and we urge Iran to grant consular access to the Swiss to these three American citizens. And we are deeply concerned about their safety and welfare.
QUESTION: Do you know if the families have had any contact with them?
MR. KELLY: I’m not aware if they have. I would highly doubt it.
QUESTION: So there’s no indication of their health or how they’re doing or where they’re being held or any of that?
MR. KELLY: Through our channels, we don’t have any information on it.
QUESTION: Have you asked any other government other than the Swiss, like the Iraqis, for example, to press Iran on the case?
MR. KELLY: I believe we have, actually. I believe that the – maybe I ought to take that question.
QUESTION: Didn’t the Iraqis make a kind of official --
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, that’s what I’m thinking of.
QUESTION: But I mean, you said before that wasn’t at your behest, so I’m kind of curious if that’s changed.
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Let me just take the question, because that just happened when I was not here.
QUESTION: So you’re going to send another envoy to Iran? I mean, it seems silly --
MR. KELLY: We’re not planning on sending an envoy to Iran.
QUESTION: When was this? When was the first envoy to Iran?
MR. KELLY: Sorry?
QUESTION: She said another --
QUESTION: You would send another envoy --
QUESTION: Another envoy to Iran?
QUESTION: Like President Clinton .
QUESTION: Oh, oh.
QUESTION: -- you said North Korea, Burma --
QUESTION: That’s all right. I thought we missed some --
QUESTION: One final on this. When was the last time the Swiss tried to go in and request information or request, you know, information on the location or for consular access?
MR. KELLY: Yeah. I don’t have a quick answer to that. I imagine that it’s a pretty – it’s a pretty continuous --
QUESTION: Could you let us know?
MR. KELLY: If I – if we can get that information, I will.
QUESTION: Do you know – have they been charged with any crime or --
MR. KELLY: I don’t know.
QUESTION: -- do you have any indication of why they’re being held?
MR. KELLY: No.
QUESTION: Nothing. Okay.
MR. KELLY: I mean, nothing official.
QUESTION: Anything unofficial you want to share?
(Laughter.)
QUESTION: New topic?
MR. KELLY: Although I don’t have anything unofficial either, but --
QUESTION: Can we have a new topic, Afghanistan?
MR. KELLY: Yeah. I’m sorry, did you have something else on this?
QUESTION: It’s already answered.
MR. KELLY: Okay.

AFGHANISTAN-PRE-ELECTION VIOLENCE

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, if you can talk about the pre-election violence. Also, the government – the Afghan Government doesn’t seem to want the media to report on the violence going on there. Is that something that you did in – that was done in coordination with ISAF forces? And what do you think this says about the Afghan – well, the Afghans are going to be in the lead in security for the election. Do you think that they’re ready?
MR. KELLY: Well, let me just say, and first of all, about the elections, we’ve been very encouraged by the very vigorous debate that we’ve seen in this – in the run-up to tomorrow’s elections. We’ve seen thousands of Afghans, despite all the intimidation, come to rallies. And we’ve seen also a number of debates on radio and television. As I say, these are very vigorous debates on the issues that are facing the Afghan people.
Now, of course, there are also a lot of challenges. There’s the – they’re trying to conduct these elections in a conflict zone. There are challenges like weak infrastructure, lack of access, difficulty in just getting around. There are problems of illiteracy. But I think the important thing is that this is the first election in Afghanistan that has been organized by Afghan institutions. It’s – we have, of course, provided a lot of support to develop these indigenous institutions, but I think that that’s an important fact in itself, and it’s really a milestone in the development of Afghanistan.
On the issue of the – I’m sorry, I think you --
QUESTION: Violence.
MR. KELLY: Sorry?
QUESTION: Violence.
QUESTION: Violence.
MR. KELLY: Violence, in general. Well, I think you heard the Secretary yesterday that we’re obviously very concerned about the violence. We’re concerned that there’s an attempt here to intimidate people, to try and discourage them from showing up at the polls. I think you have the same kind of dynamic going on in Afghanistan that we saw today in Baghdad that’s an effort to undermine people’s faith in institutions.
But we feel that, again, because of this very strong will of the majority of people in Afghanistan to be responsible for their own destiny, to have a responsible elected government in place, that because that this will is so strong that the people who are trying to intimidate people and deter them from showing up to the elections, that ultimately they won’t be successful.
QUESTION: Can you --
QUESTION: Well, what about the government banning reporting on the violence?
MR. KELLY: Oh, yeah, that. Well, of course, we recognize the sovereign rights of the Afghan Government to --
QUESTION: Put restrictions on the media?
MR. KELLY: Yeah, to – let me finish my sentence. Well, we recognize the sovereign rights of the Afghan Government and note their intention to encourage Afghans to turn out and vote. We believe that the free media reporting is associated with the credibility of the elections themselves, and it’s important that this – that the media be able to cover the elections. And of course, we have told the Afghan Government that they should also support responsible reporting and support the free press.
QUESTION: Does that mean that if they don’t allow it, then this will not be a credible election?
MR. KELLY: No, I’m not saying that at all.
QUESTION: That’s what you say when you say it’s associated with the credibility of the election --
MR. KELLY: It’s associated with. Yeah. I mean, it’s another – it’s a factor in people’s perception of the election.
QUESTION: But that’s a – that’s kind of a weak word.
MR. KELLY: Yes.
QUESTION: You say “fundamental” to the credibility of the elections, instead it’s just kind of an adjunct?
MR. KELLY: No, it’s not an adjunct. The – a free and unfettered press, I think, is the – is a fundament of a free society.
QUESTION: When you say responsible reporting, are you saying that some are not being responsible? Is that why you put the word “responsible” in?
MR. KELLY: Well, I --
QUESTION: No, really, I’m asking --
MR. KELLY: No, I think – I mean, you, as a journalist, know that that – I mean, there are – while we reject any kind of fetters on the media, we also think that journalists themselves should adhere to certain standards of reporting, particularly when it comes to acts of violence. And I mean, you know yourself that there are certain kinds of pictures that you’re not going to show, and you’re not going to reveal the names of people who have suffered from violence before the next of kin are notified. That’s what I mean by responsible reporting.
QUESTION: Okay.
QUESTION: Are you talking about self-censorship of the media? Is that what you’re – it sounds like that anyway.
MR. KELLY: No, I’m not talking about that at all.
QUESTION: Encouraging us not to publish names and pictures.
MR. KELLY: No, I’m talking about ethics and standards of journalism.
QUESTION: Are you insinuating that the media doesn’t have ethics and standards?
MR. KELLY: Of course not.
Other issues? Yeah, in the back.

TRIPARTE COMMISSION-U.S. SYRIA AND IRAQ TO OVERSEE IRAQ-SYRIA BORDER
Dave, did you have –
QUESTION: Do you have anything on a report about the creation of a tripartite commission involving the United States, Syria, and Iraq to oversee the Iraq-Syria border?
MR. KELLY: No, I don’t. Do you want me to see if we can find out information?
QUESTION: If you would.
MR. KELLY: Okay.
QUESTION: There’s a report in the – in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, saying that the Israelis had concerns about the (inaudible) of IAEA data on Iran and perhaps some things about the Iranian nuclear program aren’t actually getting out, and being quite critical of the role of Mr. ElBaradei. Are those concerns that the U.S. shares? Are those concerns that the U.S. is aware of? Is there a concern about the credibility of the information coming out of Iran?
MR. KELLY: The short answer to that is I’m just – I’m not aware of – I just don’t have the information to be able to answer that question.
QUESTION: Ian, on Friday in London, there’s going to be another hearing in the Binyamin Mohammed case. And as you are aware, there’s this controversy over whether the court will – if the judges will release these – what is it, seven paragraphs of information. What is the latest on that? Has there been any contact between this building and the Brits recently about what will happen if – in terms of intelligence sharing if the judges do release this material?
MR. KELLY: Well, I guess I’d make a couple of points, both of which I think you’re already quite aware of. I mean, we are – we’ve had a very longstanding, very clear, and very public position that Mr. Megrahi should serve out –
QUESTION: I know, I know.
MR. KELLY: I’m sorry, this is the wrong –
QUESTION: Yeah.
MR. KELLY: Okay. Let’s start over.
QUESTION: This does not have anything to do with Lockerbie.
MR. KELLY: Nothing to do with Lockerbie? Okay. Let’s start this one over. I’m sorry, what are you – what are you asking?
QUESTION: I’m asking about the case that I asked about. (Laughter.)
MR. KELLY: My twin boys would say, “Fail, Dad.”

BINYAMIN MOHAMMAED
QUESTION: Binyamin Mohammad, this case --
MR. KELLY: I’m going to take this one, because I don’t know this case. Sorry. Sorry about that.
QUESTION: You were ready on the other one.
MR. KELLY: I sure was. I had it all ready to go.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. KELLY: Sorry. Yes, thank you.
Dave, did you have –
QUESTION: Do you have anything on a report about the creation of a tripartite commission involving the United States, Syria, and Iraq to oversee the Iraq-Syria border?
MR. KELLY: No, I don’t. Do you want me to see if we can find out information?
QUESTION: If you would.
MR. KELLY: Okay.
QUESTION: There’s a report in the – in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, saying that the Israelis had concerns about the (inaudible) of IAEA data on Iran and perhaps some things about the Iranian nuclear program aren’t actually getting out, and being quite critical of the role of Mr. ElBaradei. Are those concerns that the U.S. shares? Are those concerns that the U.S. is aware of? Is there a concern about the credibility of the information coming out of Iran?
MR. KELLY: The short answer to that is I’m just – I’m not aware of – I just don’t have the information to be able to answer that question.
QUESTION: Ian, on Friday in London, there’s going to be another hearing in the Binyamin Mohammed case. And as you are aware, there’s this controversy over whether the court will – if the judges will release these – what is it, seven paragraphs of information. What is the latest on that? Has there been any contact between this building and the Brits recently about what will happen if – in terms of intelligence sharing if the judges do release this material?
MR. KELLY: Well, I guess I’d make a couple of points, both of which I think you’re already quite aware of. I mean, we are – we’ve had a very longstanding, very clear, and very public position that Mr. Megrahi should serve out –
QUESTION: I know, I know.
MR. KELLY: I’m sorry, this is the wrong –
QUESTION: Yeah.
MR. KELLY: Okay. Let’s start over.
QUESTION: This does not have anything to do with Lockerbie.
MR. KELLY: Nothing to do with Lockerbie? Okay. Let’s start this one over. I’m sorry, what are you – what are you asking?
QUESTION: I’m asking about the case that I asked about. (Laughter.)
MR. KELLY: My twin boys would say, “Fail, Dad.”
QUESTION: Binyamin Mohammad, this case --
MR. KELLY: I’m going to take this one, because I don’t know this case. Sorry. Sorry about that.
QUESTION: You were ready on the other one.
MR. KELLY: I sure was. I had it all ready to go.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. KELLY: Sorry. Yes, thank you.



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