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Middle East Digest - January 30, 2009


January 30, 2009

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Bureau of Public Affairs
January 30, 2009

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 January 30, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Happy Friday, everyone.

QUESTION: You bet.

QUESTION: Happy Friday.

MR. WOOD: Oh, I see the weekend coming up. Now, now. I don’t have anything.

QUESTION: What’s the situation with Blackwater now in Iraq? Have you gotten any clarification from the Iraqis on when exactly they’re going to have to leave? And have you made any further – or have you made any decision about what – how it is you’re going to proceed in terms of protecting the people over there?

MR. WOOD: Well, we have yet to receive further clarification and details in that regard from the Iraqis, but we are talking with them. To answer the question that was posed yesterday, yes, Blackwater is still providing protective services on the ground for us.

QUESTION: Another George – has she spoken to Senator Mitchell since he’s been out?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know if she’s actually had a chance to speak with him. It may be – I know that certainly there have been communications. I don’t know if they have been telephonic, but I know that there’s been some contact while he’s been out in the region, but I can’t say if they’ve actually spoken by phone.

QUESTION: Speaking about Mitchell, do you have any announcement on the aid for Gaza? (Inaudible) Mitchell announced it.

MR. WOOD: Yeah. I think Senator Mitchell made an announcement earlier today. Let me give you an update on his schedule. Senator Mitchell was in Jerusalem this morning. He had meetings with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Social Welfare Isaac Herzog. Senator Mitchell also held a roundtable with humanitarian agencies at UNRWA – at the UNRWA compound, in which he was briefed on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Special Envoy Mitchell announced that President Obama has authorized the use of $20.3 million from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to address critical post-conflict humanitarian needs in Gaza. U.S. Government support for humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees and conflict victims now totals nearly $120 million in FY 2009, including nearly $60 million in Gaza. And that’s what I have.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

QUESTION: So does – does it mean --

MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: -- that from now on, this – the Middle East will be treated directly by Senator Mitchell, with the agreement of President Obama and not by the State Department?

MR. WOOD: No, no. Of course, the State Department is engaged daily on the Middle East through its various embassies. The Secretary, of course, has a great deal of interest in trying to bring about a two-state solution. So I think what you can say is that the Department is – to borrow an expression from the Secretary – firing on all cylinders in terms of dealing with, you know, the Middle East issue.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Gaza. Yesterday, the Turkish Prime Minister and the Israeli President had a verbal fight in a panel in Davos, Switzerland about the Gaza conflicts. Do you have anything to say on this or, more generally, Turkey’s position on the Gaza crisis? And second, it seems George Mitchell is not going to Turkey, although earlier Turkish officials said he was expected there on Sunday. What’s the situation?

MR. WOOD: Well, what I would say is -- regarding the incident in Davos, it was unfortunate. But it was a very good sign to see that President Peres and Prime Minister Erdogan had a subsequent conversation. And so with regard to the issue of a visit, as I may have mentioned to many of you, that the reason why we weren’t able to – that Senator Mitchell was not able to go to Turkey was because of basically scheduling issues and nothing more than that.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Why was it – that it was unfortunate? What?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, apparently, just – they had, you know, some very sharp exchanges, and I believe that the Prime Minister walked out. But – and that type of thing, of course, is unfortunate. You don’t want to see that happen. But again, as I said, they had a subsequent conversation, and we’re very glad to see that because, you know, Turkey and Israel are important allies for the United States. And they’re key players in the region. And so it’s important that we have good cooperative relationships amongst all of the various key players in the region, and that’s how I would describe it.

QUESTION: Robert, on this – still on the Middle East. When the President was here last week introducing Senator Mitchell, he made some reference to – about how U.S. money – U.S. assistance to the Palestinians would go through the Palestinian Authority. This money, $20.3 million from today, is going to UNRWA and OCHA and ICRC.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Has there been a decision made not to funnel money through the Palestinian – not funding money for Gaza though the PA?

MR. WOOD: Well, right now, this particular amount of money that Senator Mitchell announced earlier today is going to UNRWA, ICRC, other organizations, because they are the primary conduits of assistance to the Palestinians. At some point, with regard to the Palestinian Authority, we hope to be able to do that. But at this point, with regard to this amount of money right now, that’s going through those organizations that I mentioned.

QUESTION: I asked you yesterday about the letter of the congressmen to Secretary Clinton. Did you receive – did the Secretary receive a letter from 60 members of the House of Representatives?

MR. WOOD: Sylvie, I’m sorry, I don’t remember that, but I’ll check for you. I apologize if you did raise that with me. I don’t remember. We’ll – I’ll look into that for you.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Let me --

QUESTION: Robert, what are --

MR. WOOD: Let me --

QUESTION: What are the hopes for the Iraqi elections?

MR. WOOD: Well, our hopes are that, basically, the Iraqis have a free, fair, transparent election, free of violence. We think this is a – this Iraqi election is a milestone in Iraq’s democratic development. We will have observers there from our Embassy in Baghdad and from our – members of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

And you know, again, we think this is a real important step on the way to Iraq becoming a very mature democracy, so I think it’s something that we should all applaud. When you look at the violence that took place in previous elections and compare it to what we’ve seen up until now, I think it’s a very positive sign. Iraq has a long way to go, there’s no mistake about it, but we think this is a very, very positive step.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MR. WOOD: On this?

QUESTION: If I can follow up, the (inaudible) of the three Sunni politicians in Iraq, they have been killed – three yesterday, three Sunnis politicians in Iraq.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I was making a comparison. When you look back at the elections that took place a couple of years ago, there was a lot of violence. And I think the situation is much different today. There is still violence going on, there’s no question, and we don’t want to see that type of activity happen. But I think if you look at where we are today in Iraq as compared to where we were, the situation is much, much better on the ground for not only the possibility of carrying out a free and fair and democratic election, but for the overall well-being of the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: I have a question on Iran.

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Robert Gibbs said that it wasn’t clear to the U.S. who the U.S. might engage with in the Iranian Government. Is part of the review taking a look at who might be in the Iranian Government as someone the U.S. could talk to? Are you identifying those individuals now?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to get into the substance of the review, but you can imagine we’re looking at a wide range of things with regard to engaging Iran. But I really don’t have more for you on that, Libby, at the moment. Let’s let the review run its course, and then we’ll have a lot more to say about it.

QUESTION: Is there – are you thinking of waiting until after the elections before announcing any big Iran policy?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have a timeframe for you on it.

Let me go to Goyal.

QUESTION: A couple questions, Robert. One, going back to Secretary Shultz, yesterday he was in the panel at the CSIS and you were talking about nuclear issues and Afghanistan and so forth, (inaudible) Afghanistan and the nuclear issues were going on in the region in Afghanistan. So today’s meeting with Secretary Clinton, you think those issues will come because he’s expert as far as Afghanistan and nuclear issues are concerned – and terrorism, of course? I’m sorry.

MR. WOOD: Well, it’s hard for me to say at this point. These issues could come up because, as I said, the Secretary very much respects the guidance – the wisdom of George Shultz, a very distinguished individual. But I just can’t give you with any certainty what topics are going to come up. But we’ll certainly try to let you know how that meeting went and what was covered.

QUESTION: And second, General Musharraf is in town. He has been here for some time, in the U.S., and with tight security. Who is paying for all his security and visits and all that, and whether he’s going to meet anybody, unofficial or with any officials?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not aware of meetings that he may have with officials of other departments of the U.S. Government. You know, maybe one place to start would be the Pentagon.

In terms of who’s paying for, you know, his security in town, he’s a former head of government, head of state, I guess, and I just – you know, I’m not sure of all the particulars. I’d first refer you to the Pakistani embassy. They can probably give you some more details on that. You know, again, I don’t know who he’s seeing within the U.S. Government, so that’s something you’ll probably have to check out, so –

QUESTION: And finally, Afghanistan is now – certainly has become a focus. And it was already before, but now, certainly, everybody talking about Afghanistan anywhere and everywhere you go, in think tanks and all that in the government. Something has happened now, or there’s major policy changes coming as far as U.S. in the region, or as far as role of Pakistan in the future under the new Administration?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, Afghanistan -- as the President has said and the Secretary of State has said, you know, Afghanistan is a very high priority for the Administration. The problems on the ground are very serious, and we want to come up with a comprehensive strategy that deals with all elements of the situation on the ground. And we want to get, as I’ve said before, the right mix of political, economic development, military, so that we can be effective.

The review is still underway, and once we have more to say about it, I’ll be more than happy to talk about it from here. And others will certainly be more than happy. But let’s give it a little time.

QUESTION: Do you have any more details on Holbrooke’s travel?

MR. WOOD: No, nothing. No further update than I had yesterday.

Warren.

QUESTION: As far as the Shultz visit --

MR. WOOD: Can we just go back and then we’ll – yeah.

QUESTION: No changes in George Mitchell’s travel, as far as you know?

MR. WOOD: No, nothing. No changes that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Can I go back to Iran for just a moment?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: One of my colleagues had an interview earlier today in Davos with the Iranian foreign minister. And he – this is what he said: “We want to see practical steps before we decide whether we want to talk. Regarding Iran, we have a long history of measures against Iran by the United States. We want to see what kind of changes President Obama is going to make in those areas.”

I guess it’s – I know it’s hard for you to react to something you haven’t read in print, but it does come a few days after Ahmadinejad’s remarks about the U.S. needing to apologize for things that had happened. And I guess what I’m wondering is whether there is a sense of disappointment that the initial response of the Iranians to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton the other day hasn’t been more positive.

MR. WOOD: Well, again, I can’t speak to, you know, what the Iranian leadership is thinking, what it’s trying to communicate. I can just say to you that what we’ve wanted to do is to try to find ways to engage the Iranian people. We have a great deal of respect for Iran – the Iranian people, Iran’s culture and history. You know, it’s an important regional player. But the review is underway. We’re working to formulate a policy on Iran. But with regard to the motives of Iranian leaders and their responses, I just can’t give you an answer on that.

Dave.

QUESTION: A follow-up.

MR. WOOD: Oh, a follow-up? Hang on one second, Dave.

QUESTION: Yeah, forgive my ignorance because I haven’t covered this that specifically, but I know there was a democracy fund under the Bush Administration. Does that still continue for Iran?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t know, but what I can tell you is that our overall Iran policy is being reviewed. So, again, not speaking for the previous administration, but what we’re trying to do within this review with regard to Iran is to figure out the most appropriate framework for engaging the country. And so let’s just stay tuned and see how that review comes out, and we’ll – as I said previous times, we’ll have plenty to say about that when the time comes.

Let me go back here to Nina.

QUESTION: Robert, can I go back to Iraq, specifically on translators that have been working for the American Government, particularly people employed by Global Lingual Solutions. Now all their personal details (inaudible) are being handed over to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance. Are you concerned about the safety of these people? Have you been offering more visas? Can you give me an update on how many visas have gone to these people?

MR. WOOD: Unfortunately, Nina, I don’t have an update for you on that. Sorry.

QUESTION: Were you – but is this a source of concern?

MR. WOOD: I don’t – I’ll have to look at the issue on that in order --

QUESTION: Can you take it as a question?

MR. WOOD: Sure, we’ll take a look and see if we can get you something on that.

Dave.

QUESTION: Yeah, there’s a story in the press this morning sort of quoting Indian diplomats as sort of proudly suggesting that they were able to wrest away the Kashmir issue from the portfolio of Holbrooke. I’m just wondering whether that sort of lines up with your impression of things.

MR. WOOD: Well, as we’ve said before, that Kashmir was not going to be a part of Ambassador Holbrooke’s portfolio. We’ve made that very clear. And I would just say to you that, of course, India has a lot of interests in Afghanistan. Ambassador Holbrooke, other officials will be consulting with India. But you know, that story in The Washington Post is not true. It was never being considered.

QUESTION: Robert, can I just go back to your – you said The Washington Post story is not true?

MR. WOOD: I’m saying that – well, that headline specifically is not true.

QUESTION: Well, what are you saying? Are you saying that the Indian people – the Indian officials who are quoted in there are not --

MR. WOOD: What I’m saying to you, Matt, is that in terms of Ambassador Holbrooke’s portfolio, Kashmir was not going to be a part of that portfolio. It’s been focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan. He’s coordinating our entire U.S. Government effort to try to improve the situation on the ground.

QUESTION: Was it, at some point, a broader portfolio?

MR. WOOD: It was always focused on, you know, Afghanistan-Pakistan.

QUESTION: Mr. Wood --

MR. WOOD: Let me go to Charley. He hasn’t asked.

QUESTION: Egypt announced that it plans to have a donor conference for Gaza in March. Will the Secretary attend? Is – and also, are you look – how much money do you think the U.S. will pony up for this?

MR. WOOD: Well, we were informed by the Egyptian Government of this conference. We certainly will have – we’ll send a representative to it. I don’t know who that person will be at this point. But we’re obviously very pleased and welcome very much the efforts of the international community to coordinate assistance to – assistance flows to the people of Gaza. You know, one example is what Senator Mitchell announced earlier today, the 20.3 million that we would provide.

Thank you all.

QUESTION: Thank you.



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