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Middle East Digest - March 19, 2009


March 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 March 19, 2009

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11:35 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: Can you discuss the apparent decision by the United States to attend the Shanghai group meeting, and whether Patrick Moon is actually going to meet with an Iranian there?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, my understanding is that Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon is planning to attend this Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference in Moscow on the 27th of March. It’s a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors. And as you know, we’re not a member or – nor do we send observers to this conference. But it’s an important one. We were invited. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Moon is going to go, and we look forward to attending.

QUESTION: This group was sort of cast as a grouping that was set up originally, I think, to kind of counter U.S. influence in that region. Is that over now?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the reason why we think it’s important to go to this conference is that it’s about Afghanistan and how, you know, the international community can try to better the situation on the ground, better coordinate our activities, see what types of things we can do together to help, you know, make things better for the people of Afghanistan. So we view it as important. Even though we’re not a member, we’re not an observer, we think it’s important, we’re glad we were invited, and we look forward to attending and, hopefully, we can get something constructive out of this conference.

QUESTION: Robert, it is my understanding that the Russians actually invited – I mean, they invited members – all NATO members, all members of the G-8, members of the OSCE who are non-member – who are non-members, non-observers to the Shanghai group. Do you know if the U.S. was invited? The U.S. is a member of all three of those – the G-8, OSCE, and NATO. Do you have any idea if the invitation to the U.S. was extended on – through its membership in one of those groups or was it extended separately?

MR. WOOD: It could very well have been. I don’t know. I just know that we received that invitation from the SCO. I just – I don’t know, to be honest.

We’ll get to you. Did you want to stay on this?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. WOOD: Please.

QUESTION: What sort of plans are there at that conference for any contact with Iran?

MR. WOOD: Well, there are no plans for any substantive meetings with Iran. You know, it’s not unusual for U.S. and Iranian officials to, you know, cross paths during a multilateral meeting, so I’m not going to rule anything in or rule anything out. It is a conference about Afghanistan and its neighbors. Iran is certainly a neighbor of Afghanistan, and so we’ll see. But as I said, there are no planned substantive meetings with the Iranians.

QUESTION: Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: Israel today arrested a number of Hamas representatives in the West Bank, including some of the members of the parliament, the Palestinian parliament. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t. I think I may have seen a report this morning about it. You know, as I said the other day, Sylvie, Hamas remains the principal problem in the region. And you know, we want to see Hamas change its stripes. We have not yet seen any indication that Hamas is interested in doing so. But beyond that, I don’t have anything more to say on it.

QUESTION: President Abbas said that this action by Israel was going to torpedo its effort for forming a union government with Hamas. Do you think it’s --

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not able to make that kind of an assessment because I don’t have all of the facts with regard to what was said. But you know, as we have said over and again, Sylvie, this is a difficult process. We want to try to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the table so that we can move forward on the two-state solution, and we’re under no illusions as to how difficult this is going to be. But we’re going to continue to push forward because we don’t believe there’s any other choice. And we would love to see Hamas be a positive force and contribute to the peace process. As I’ve said, so far it’s been unwilling to do so.

QUESTION: Did Mr. Suleiman convince Secretary Clinton to accept the union – the national union government in the Palestinian territories?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into the substance of the conversation that the Secretary had with, you know, Omar Suleiman, but to say that they did have a good conversation and it touched on a number of issues with regard to the Middle East, including Gaza. But I’ll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: But the --

QUESTION: Did they speak about this union government?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into specifics.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. Government changed its view that it does not wish to see Hamas members in any government unless Hamas changes its policies?

MR. WOOD: I was very clear yesterday, Arshad, about where we stand. The three elements – the three core elements that Hamas needs to do before we will deal with them, they remain the same.

QUESTION: But that’s different from – “before we will deal with them” is different from being in a unity government?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re speculating here, and I don’t want to speculate.

QUESTION: Well, we’re not speculating on what your policy is, though, right? I mean, your policy, I thought --

MR. WOOD: The policy is very clear.

QUESTION: -- that you won’t deal with them. But your policy is not that you don’t want to see them in a unity government unless they have abandoned those things?

MR. WOOD: Look, if Hamas wants to be a part of a unity government, if it wants to play a positive role, it knows what it needs to do. I’m not going to get involved in the political dynamics within these unity discussions that are going on except to say that Israel wants to have a partner for peace. And President Abbas has been that partner. There are certainly tensions within the Palestinian community. But what we are trying to achieve is that two-state solution. And we’re going to continue to push for it, as I said, because there is no other option. We need to move forward toward peace.

Here, please.

QUESTION: Back to Afghanistan. There are some media reports out that – of a possible surge in civilians going – of U.S. civilians going into Afghanistan. And I wondered if you could – if you could talk a little bit about that – about more private contractors going to Afghanistan, what their role might be, and would they be security contractors or --

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, as President Obama has said, we need to ramp up our engagement in Afghanistan.

And one of the things that we’re looking at, at this moment, is trying to increase the number of civilians. We’re looking at, as part of the review, the possibility of deploying an additional 51 civilians, some of which would be part of what we call the 3161 – I think a number of you are familiar with that. It’s – basically, these positions are one-year, temporary, non-career positions. And we would also – we’ll be looking to increase the number of Foreign Service officers. These people would be deployed to Kabul and to the PRTs that we have around the country. And so no final decision has been made on numbers, but this is what we’re considering doing.

QUESTION: Can you say what the 51 would be doing?

MR. WOOD: Well, it would be a wide range of activities. I don’t want to – we don’t want to get beyond that because we’re in the process, as I said, of discussing numbers, and then that obviously will impact categories of personnel. But again, we’re considering the deployment of these 51 civilians. And once we have some more information on that, we’ll be happy to provide it.

QUESTION: But just a --

MR. WOOD: Charlie, mm-hmm, sure.

QUESTION: -- categorical clarity. Fifty-one civilians is one thing. A number, which you have stated, of additional Foreign Service officers is another category that you would add to the people on --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, and that’s something that we’re looking at as well. We’re, again, not there with regard to numbers, but the 51 that I described are basically these 3161 positions that are one-year temporary positions.

On this subject?

QUESTION: Yes. Would those people be hired new? And if they haven’t had the security background checks, et cetera, when could they possibly show up there?

MR. WOOD: Well, I can’t give you, you know, dates on when people will show up. But these are temporary employees. They will be federal government employees. They will have to undergo various security background checks. But I don’t have any other, you know, information beyond that, Jill.

QUESTION: And the State Department people, where would they come from?

MR. WOOD: When you say State Department people --

QUESTION: The, you know, permanent staff of the State Department who would be going – Foreign Service officers who would be --

MR. WOOD: Well, there would be Foreign Service officers and I would not – there would likely be some civil servants who might be – who may be going. It’s just hard for me to say at this point because we’re still looking at that element of staffing.

QUESTION: Are you saying --

QUESTION: Just for clarity, are they existing Foreign Service personnel or are they – would they also be --

MR. WOOD: No, what I’m talking about here, the 51, 3161s, these are not Foreign Service employees.

QUESTION: Right.

MR. WOOD: Right. Now --

QUESTION: Are they federal government employees that are from outside the system?

MR. WOOD: They can be – that’s right, from outside the system. Let me see if I’ve got any other information on this. Let me clarify this. It’s saying here individuals hired under this are federal government employees, so --

QUESTION: But are they currently?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, see, that – let me get an answer to that for you.

QUESTION: Because there is a --

MR. WOOD: I want to make sure.

QUESTION: Because there is thought also of, you know, bringing people from Justice and Interior and --

MR. WOOD: Well, those people will certainly --

QUESTION: -- Agriculture and --

MR. WOOD: Well, there will be people from various U.S. Government agencies that will be deployed.

QUESTION: On top of the 51?

MR. WOOD: Oh yeah, I mean, from other agencies that will be going. There’s no question about that. We don’t have final numbers. And as I said earlier, we don’t have categories. I don’t have specific categories for you at this point.

Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: On Albania, Mr. Wood --

MR. WOOD: Hang on. On this subject?

QUESTION: Excuse me?

MR. WOOD: I’m going to stay on this subject for a moment.

QUESTION: So you don’t have a number – an estimate of the number of Foreign Service officers?

MR. WOOD: Not yet, no.

QUESTION: What can you say about the timeline for the decision to be made? I mean, it’s part of the review, but it’s --

MR. WOOD: It’s part of the review; soon, coming soon to a theater near you.

QUESTION: A theater?

MR. WOOD: Hmm?

QUESTION: A theater? Is that a war joke?

MR. WOOD: It wasn’t a war joke. Kirit, I thought you had a better sense of humor than that.

On this subject?

QUESTION: New subject, yes.

MR. WOOD: No, no.

QUESTION: New subject?

MR. WOOD: Same subject here.

QUESTION: So the 51 is not quite a surge of civilians, but if that – a surge would be from other departments as well?

MR. WOOD: That’s right. I’m just talking about this particular – our Department, and there will be an increase in personnel from around the U.S. Government who will be deployed to the country.

QUESTION: Back to Israel. The Israeli military said they’re going to conduct an inquiry into Palestinian civilian deaths and destruction of property during the war on Gaza. And I wondered if you’re going to look at their rules of engagement. Does the U.S. think that the Israeli rules of engagement were appropriate during that war?

MR. WOOD: I’m not able to give you that kind of a characterization. I think it’s – the Israeli Government feels it needs to do that, and it’s going to do so. And so I’m not going to give a characterization of what Israel has decided to do. We’ll have to see how that process goes, and then we’ll take a look at it.

QUESTION: During the war, you did express to the Israelis – to urge them to limit civilian casualties.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: So from that point of view, wouldn’t you want to follow up on it?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, we said to all sides that, you know, please take care to minimize any kind of harm to civilians. That’s something we say not just with regard to that conflict, but any other conflict. And we’re obviously very concerned about what happens to civilians, so that hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: Do you have any private estimate, independent estimate about how many civilians were killed?

MR. WOOD: I don’t. Unfortunately, I don’t.

Please.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:02 p.m.)




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