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Middle East Digest - February 2, 2009

February 2, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
February 2, 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 February 2, 2009

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QUESTION: What -- can you tell us what you know about this American UN worker who’s been kidnapped in Quetta, Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have a lot at the moment, Matt. You know, we’re aware of the reports but, you know, there’s an investigation going on. And you know, once we have more details that we can provide, we’ll certainly let you know. But at this point, I don’t have very much at all.

QUESTION: Well, can you confirm that it happened?

MR. WOOD: I can tell you that basically --

QUESTION: The UNHCR has been out there saying that it’s --

MR. WOOD: Yeah. Well, I can’t say very much more than the fact that there is an investigation going on and we’re looking into it.

QUESTION: Well, what’s the – what’s the investigation going on into?

MR. WOOD: Well, to see – to see what happened to this individual.

QUESTION: Who has – so you don’t know that he’s been kidnapped?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have very much in the way of details. As I said, we’ve seen the reports, so we’re looking into it. I know there’s an investigation going on.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the State Department has been in touch with the United Nations about it?

MR. WOOD: I said, seen the reports, there’s an investigation going on. We obviously will be in touch with all the necessary authorities. But I just don’t have more for you at this time. So when we do have something, I’ll be more than happy to share it, as long as I’m allowed to share it.

QUESTION: Are you in touch with the kidnappee’s family?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know that information right now, Sue, to be very honest.

QUESTION: Will you – can you confirm that it is an American?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know that I can confirm that at the moment. So let – when we have some more information, we’ll be happy to get it to you. But let me just, you know, get the details.

QUESTION: On Wednesday, the political directors are meeting in – I think it’s Wednesday – in Germany. In her meetings with Steinmeier and Miliband – well, first of all, are they going to overlap, and do they plan to discuss Iran and how to proceed on Iran strategy?

MR. WOOD: Well, in both meetings, the Secretary is going to talk about a number of issues of concern to, you know, the United States and Germany and the UK and others, frankly. You can imagine they’ll talk about a number of issues. Iran, I suspect, will be one of those issues; Afghanistan, a whole host. So I don’t – I expect these will be very, very substantive meetings, and she looks forward to meeting with, you know, her counterparts from the UK and Germany.


QUESTION: There was an attack in Gaza this morning and one person was killed. Do you see the ceasefire still holding? And tell us a little bit more about what Senator Mitchell was supposed to do. Is he reporting to the President directly or to the Secretary? Or what he’s intending to do with (inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think I’ve said many times from here that, of course, the reporting structure is such that he will report through the Secretary to the President. So he’ll be reporting to both of them.

Now let me give you an update on his schedule. Special Envoy Mitchell was in Amman on January 31. He had meetings with King Abdullah II, Minister of Foreign Affairs Salah Al-Bashir, he also met with Royal Court Chief Nasser Al-Lozi. He then traveled on to Riyadh, where he had meetings with King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al Faisal. Special Envoy Mitchell arrived in Paris last night. Today, he met with Presidential Chief of Staff Claude Gueant and Foreign Minister Kouchner. He is currently en route back to Washington. He was scheduled to stop in London, but a snowstorm prevented him from doing so. So he’ll be heading back to Washington.

QUESTION: But I mean --

QUESTION: There was a snowstorm?

QUESTION: Yes, very bad.

MR. WOOD: You should follow the news reports.

QUESTION: So how is Miliband getting here? (Laughter.)

MR. WOOD: You’ll have to ask them. That’s actually a good question, but --

QUESTION: Yeah, I think he was (inaudible) actually. Didn’t he – it was Miliband coming. I mean, maybe he cancelled because Miliband was going to be here?

MR. WOOD: That’s – no, Miliband’s coming tomorrow, so --

QUESTION: Closed down. That’s right.

QUESTION: But Robert, do you see the --

MR. WOOD: Yes, you’re --

QUESTION: I’m sure it did, but how is he getting here?

MR. WOOD: He’s not taking a bus. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry, your question?

QUESTION: Sorry, do you see the ceasefire holding? I mean, is – one of the things that Senator Mitchell said that his main priority was to consolidate the ceasefire, but we’re seeing violation every day, more or less.

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I mean, this indeed is happening, and we’re very concerned about these violations of the ceasefire. And he’s talking – he has been talking with all of the relevant parties to try to see what we can do to consolidate it. Nobody said that was going to be easy. And the Egyptians are trying to work with the, you know, various parties to try to consolidate it.

But, you know, we weren’t kidding ourselves. We knew this was going to be a very difficult situation, and we want to try to build on that ceasefire and make sure that it is lasting. But, you know, again, we’ll be engaging, Senator Mitchell will be engaging to try to see if we can, you know, do everything in our power to try to make sure that this ceasefire continues. But, you know, as I said, it’s not an easy situation.

QUESTION: On the smuggling, there’s another Army Corps of Engineer team that went into Gaza, I think – well, in the last 24 hours or 48 hours. Is this part of the MOU that was signed by Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Livni?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say it’s part of our efforts to try to do what we can to help deal with this question of rearming Hamas. And it’s not just the United States, but other countries that are looking at ways that they can help stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza. So --

QUESTION: Do you know what – do you know what exactly they’re doing?

MR. WOOD: Well, let’s let – when Senator Mitchell comes back, I’m sure he’ll – hopefully, he’ll have an opportunity to maybe brief you guys. I don’t know that for sure, but we’ll certainly – I need to get a readout from him in terms of what those discussions --

QUESTION: No, specifically on this group, on these engineers who are there now, what exactly are they doing?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to get into the details of the work that they’re doing on the ground. But again, they’re trying to contribute to dealing with this question of rearming Hamas and trying to make sure that these tunnels are not going to be active and can be used, you know, to facilitate the rearming of Hamas. But I don’t want to go --

QUESTION: Have there not – on that, have there not been teams – other teams that have been there previously?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t want to get into, you know, which teams visited and when. But let me just say that that team has certainly – the team that you’ve pointed out is looking at ways that we can help contribute to preventing Hamas from rearming.

QUESTION: But weren’t they doing that before the whole crisis and got this Army Corps of Engineers team? Weren’t they doing that in Gaza before this whole crisis erupted, so aren’t they just resuming their work, really?

MR. WOOD: Well, there have been a number of officials that have been looking at this whole question of preventing the – preventing arms from going across the border into Gaza. This has been ongoing, as you noted. And so that kind of work will continue with this team, and there will be others, I’m sure, from other countries that will be involved in trying to help do this same thing that we’re trying to do.

QUESTION: Robert, one of my colleagues went to the border last week and wrote a very fine story describing the Palestinians who were rebuilding tunnels, including with heavy earth-moving equipment, doing so very openly in broad daylight, you know, digging out parts of tunnels that had been collapsed by bombing, putting in pre-fab materials to rebuild the tunnels and then using bulldozers to shove dirt on top of that so you couldn't see it anymore. Most of the people he interviewed did not want to use their full names, but they were perfectly open about what they were doing.

Doesn't this suggest that there is simply not any significant will on the part, particularly of the Egyptians, to put a stop to this?

MR. WOOD: No, I wouldn't characterize it in that way. Egypt is certainly well aware of this problem. We are working with Egypt, others are, to try to figure out a way that we can better secure that border so that these weapons cannot come through and that these tunnels just don’t – that are not rebuilt.

It’s complicated. I think the Egyptians will tell you that. And you know, and that’s why this Army Corps of Engineers team and others will be looking in, you know, the coming days and weeks to see what we can do to make sure that, you know, the smuggling stops, because that has to stop if we’re ever going to really, I think, tackle this issue of going beyond, you know, a short-term ceasefire.

QUESTION: Well, the thing that perplexes me is that, you know, a tunnel, by its very nature, has two ends, and you could put an Army Corps of Engineers to try to stop the digging of tunnels or to try to crack down of it sort of on the – well, on the Hamas-controlled Gaza side. But if the Egyptians were willing or able to stop it on their side, you wouldn't need Army Corps of Engineer people there, would you?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the Government of Egypt is well aware of the problem. In discussions that they’ve had with us and with other governments, they realize that it’s a problem. They’ve told us they’re doing what they can, and we expect that Egypt will do everything that it says it plans to do with regard to that. I can’t say much more beyond that, because it does take the cooperation of a number of countries, not just Egypt, but others, to make sure that this doesn't happen.

QUESTION: Robert –

MR. WOOD: Let me go --

QUESTION: On the same question --

MR. WOOD: The same? Okay.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, does the State Department have an accurate assessment of how much of these tunnels are used to smuggle in weapons, as opposed to just food and goods to Gaza?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think – I don’t have an assessment to give you right here, but I think that kind of an assessment is something that’s ongoing, and so I don’t have anything beyond what I just said to that. But it’s obviously a subject that we’re very concerned about, and we want to see the smuggling stopped. So – but I can’t give you a concrete assessment at this moment standing here.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about the Iraqi elections?

MR. WOOD: You gave me the chance.

QUESTION: Sure. The White House put out a statement on – when was that, Saturday? -- about the elections. I didn’t see anything from here, but I’m just wondering if you can give us your view, this building’s view of it, and if you think that the relatively peaceful nature in which they went off, what that might mean for the pace of withdrawal.

MR. WOOD: Well, just to go to the second part of your, you know, question first, I’m not sure what that will mean. Obviously, we want to see Iraqis take more control for their security and the running of their country, and so we’ll just have to see how that plays out. I mean, the elections clearly were a milestone in Iraq’s democratic development. There was a very high female voter turnout. I think turnout was roughly around 50 percent, and that’s – you know, as we know, not – unfortunately, not unusual for democracies these days.

It was pretty much, I’d say, violence free, particularly when you compare it to previous elections in Iraq. So this is a proud moment for Iraqis, and we want to send our congratulations to the Iraqi people. And it’s another, as I said, a key step on Iraq’s path to, you know, being a full, you know, and fruitful democracy.

QUESTION: Well, do you think that – that – do you think that it bodes well for plans to withdraw?

MR. WOOD: I’m not able to make that kind of a – you know, I can’t really draw that kind of a conclusion yet. I think certainly the President has said very clearly that we are going to conduct a responsible withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, and we will obviously do that in consultation with the Iraqis. But I’m not able to give you – draw that kind of conclusion.

QUESTION: Would you say it’s a vindication of the Bush Administration’s policy?

MR. WOOD: I’m – which particular --

QUESTION: Well, toward the end, after the surge –

MR. WOOD: Well, look, all of the kudos and congratulations go to the Iraqi people, and that’s where it starts. I mean, these are people who have braved very difficult conditions to try to get to, you know, the polls, not just now, but, of course, in the past. And so it’s really a credit to the Iraqi people and their willingness to endure difficult times and to come and vote. And that’s where the credit lies.

QUESTION: Robert, just staying in Iraq for a second, there seems to be some ambiguity about exactly when Blackwater will cease to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq. I know that the U.S. Government and the Iraq Government are trying to work this out. Do you have any sense of when it will be and whether there’s any possibility it could, for example, extend beyond the May expiration of the current task order for Blackwater?

MR. WOOD: It’s hard for me to say more than what I said on Friday about this. I mean, we’re in touch with the Iraqis to try to work out, you know, the modalities of this. But you know, as we noted, we informed Blackwater on the 29th that we did not plan to renew the company’s existing task force orders for protective security details in Iraq. But I don’t have anything beyond that, at this point, Arshad.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke, is he still leaving tomorrow? And do you have any further details about his trip and what he hopes to accomplish?

MR. WOOD: My understanding is he is planning to leave tomorrow. I don’t have an update, but I will try to get that, Michelle. I haven’t had a chance to look into this at all today. But hopefully, we’re going to get you something before the day is out on his itinerary.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on the P-5+1 talks this week?

MR. WOOD: No, it’s on Wednesday. I think Bill Burns is – he’s in Europe, en route. But I don’t have anything more than what I’ve said already on that.

QUESTION: Was the Secretary in the meeting this morning at the White House when Defense Secretary Gates briefed the President on Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: I’ll have to check and see if there’s anything I want to say about it. I know she was over at the White House this morning and in that meeting, but I’m not – I don’t have a readout.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Afghanistan?

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Because Gates last week said that it’s not going to turn into some Valhalla. This morning, President Obama said it’s not going to be a Jeffersonian democracy. I wonder if you see some tendency to back off from the big push for development and diplomacy, the two D’s that are run by this Department.

MR. WOOD: No. You know, as I said last week, Afghanistan – our overall policy toward Afghanistan is under review. Afghanistan is very, very complex. I don’t think we’re under any illusions about how difficult it’s going to be. Afghanistan has some major challenges that it’s confronting. We’re trying to do what we can to help support the Afghans as they go about trying to build a democracy. It’s not going to be easy.

And what we want to try to do in our review of our Afghan policy is to try to come up with a strategy that addresses those important pillars and try to find a way to make sure that all – the three pillars mesh appropriately so that we can get some results. Because this Secretary has said very clearly that our foreign policy is going to be results-oriented and we’re going to be consulting closely with our allies to see what additional value added they can bring, and of course, what we can bring to the situation on the ground. But we’re under no illusions about how difficult it’s going to be to get Afghanistan on the proper footing. But, you know, the review is underway, and we’ll see where it goes.

QUESTION: I have an easier question. On the Guantanamo prisoners, is the – is the State Department now actively talking with European allies and others about how to deal with them? What’s the state of play on that?

MR. WOOD: As I’ve said, I think, a couple of times last week, that we are in discussions with various countries around the world to see if they would be willing to take some of these Guantanamo prisoners. But I don’t have anything beyond what I said twice last week.

QUESTION: Can you shed any more light on these Iran/North Korea sanctions from this morning?

MR. WOOD: What specifically in regard to –

QUESTION: Non – missile and non – and proliferation sanctions?

MR. WOOD: (Inaudible.) Anything else?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: Thank you.

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