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Middle East Digest - November 1, 2010

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Washington, DC
November 1, 2010


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 November 1, 2010

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1:42 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: Turning to Iraq, we strongly condemn the events of Sunday which led to the taking of hostages at a Christian church in Baghdad and the loss of many innocent and vulnerable Iraqi lives. We mourn the loss of life and extend our condolences to the victims’ families, friends, and communities The events that unfolded on Sunday were particularly reprehensible, as a place of worship was specifically involved after a nearby robbery attempt was unsuccessful. The United States stands with the Government of Iraq and the people of Iraq as they continue to demonstrate courage and determination in battling terrorists that only want to move Iraq in the wrong direction.

And finally, before taking your questions, Special Envoy Scott Gration in Khartoum today met with several Sudanese officials, including Vice President Taha and presidential adviser Dr. Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani. He plans to travel to Juba tomorrow to meet with Southern Sudanese leaders. Among the topics discussed today, Special Envoy Gration informed Khartoum about the decision made by the President which was announced a few minutes ago extending sanctions against Sudan for another year.

QUESTION: Question on Yemen and the mail bomb plot.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: What is the State Department’s role from this point forward in dealing with – working with Yemen on counterterrorism and other – whether it be aid programs or any other programs, in light of what’s happened?

MR. CROWLEY: Ambassador Feierstein and the Embassy in Sana’a is fully engaged with the Yemeni authorities as it takes action in light of Friday’s incident. As you know, John Brennan at the White House has been in touch with President Saleh as well. We will continue to evaluate our ongoing assistance programs to Yemen. For the fiscal year just ended, total assistance to Yemen approached $300 million – about $296 million, to be more precise – which involves security, humanitarian, and bilateral assistance. We do expect the level of assistance to Yemen for this coming year to be roughly in the same ballpark, although obviously we will continue to evaluate how we can best support Yemen in its fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which obviously has a dramatic impact on the United States.

QUESTION: When you say evaluating the program, do you mean you’re considering either expanding them or contracting them, based on what’s the trend of events?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re not going to contract them. We think that the increasing investment in Yemen has paid dividends. If you look back on the trend over the past three or four years, we have steadily increased our assistance to Yemen to the level that I just mentioned to you. We believe that Yemen has made significant improvements in its security and counterterrorism capability, but obviously that stems from a still limited capacity that Yemen has. It’s the poorest country in the region, and our efforts are geared towards steadily increasing Yemen’s ability to deal with violent extremists who are a threat to Yemen as well as a threat to the United States.

QUESTION: But this review that you’re talking about, was that already underway prior to the package bomb incidence, or has that been – are you doing the review because of that incident?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I wouldn’t call it a formal review. We will obviously – I mean, we are working with Yemen as a government in the aftermath of Friday’s episode, and I would say that we are pleased with the cooperation that Yemen has shown in the last 72 hours. And – but as we go forward, we’ll obviously learn from this incident, just as we learned from the Christmas Day bomber 10 months ago, and adapt our programs appropriately.

QUESTION: P.J., on that score, how can you really guarantee that the money the United States sends will be used by President Salih to do what the United States hopes he will do, which is to fight al-Qaida, as opposed to fighting his enemies – political or even physical enemies, which are the people who are engaged in that rebellion?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the fact is that the Yemeni Government has done what we have asked it to do. Yemen is a very complex society. It’s got a history involving a former division of the country into north and south Yemen. It does have a variety of conflicts that are going on inside its borders. Yemen is sovereign and has to deal with what it believes to be threats to its own security.

We have worked with Yemen and we are satisfied that Yemen is paying close attention to the threat posed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a threat to Yemen as opposed to – in addition to being a threat to the United States and others.

QUESTION: Just on the score of their cooperation, they have a history of apprehending people and then letting them go. Is that resolved in your mind or is that still an issue that needs work? And I’m thinking about people related to the bombing of the Cole, for instance.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, there is – again, let me go back to the issue of capacity. Yemen has a limited governmental capacity, and we have worked hard to improve its capabilities so that it can secure Yemen for its own people as well as for others.

There’s no question, as John Brennan mentioned in his comments yesterday, that while we have seen improvement, more has to be done, because I think we recognize that going back to the Cole 10 years ago, Yemen is still a country with limited capabilities. And that is why we are investing increasing aid to help Yemen not only on the security front, but part of the solution to Yemen is to help make improvements on the civil society and development front as well.

QUESTION: Do we know what the status of the investigation is within Yemen for finding the bomb maker? Like, how are they proceeding?

MR. CROWLEY: For that, probably a better question directed to the Department of Justice or to the White House. Obviously, they are leading this investigation. We will support this investigation both in our own counterterrorism activities as well as through the Embassy in Sana’a.

QUESTION: What is Secretary Clinton doing on this score?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that she’s had any particular conversations. She’s staying up on the intelligence that has come from this particular incident, but I’m not aware that she has made any specific calls at this point.

QUESTION: On the Middle East?

MR. CROWLEY: Are we – okay.

QUESTION: There are some reports that there will be a change of the peace envoy to the Middle East – Dennis Ross is going to replace Mitchell and American former ambassador to Israel is going to – is one of the – of those nominated for the --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is the monthly rumor about George Mitchell’s departure. I’m not aware of any plans for George Mitchell to depart.

QUESTION: But there is no departure? He’s not going to the --

MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on that, though?

MR. CROWLEY: You may.

QUESTION: His team, though, is getting smaller. There are several people that have left or are leaving. It’s been moving back to Washington. Can – is there any sign that you’re rethinking strategy and how to go about --

MR. CROWLEY: I know of one person who has left. Do you want --

QUESTION: One person’s left. There’s another rumored to be going to USAID shortly. That’s pretty far along. And there’s others that have come back from Washington – to Washington.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, without confirming that necessarily, to actually continue to work on developing the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority, which is fully consistent with what Senator Mitchell is doing.

QUESTION: But are there – are you rethinking strategy now, I mean, given that there’s – it’s been two years basically?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we’re intensively trying to get the parties back in negotiations. So we believe that we have the right strategy, which is only through a direct negotiation can the parties actually resolve the conflict once and for all. What we need to see is actual movement by the parties back into direct negotiations, and that is something that we are still intensively trying to achieve.

QUESTION: P.J., same --


QUESTION: -- same subject. Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary General, gave an interview over the weekend, a radio interview with Fox, and he said that although they still have confidence in the U.S.-led process, it’s time to think about alternatives. And he asked, rhetorically, what’s wrong with going to the United Nations to get some sort of a General Assembly or a Security Council declaration for a Palestinian state. Is – what is wrong with that, in your opinion?

MR. CROWLEY: It doesn’t solve the conflict. The only way to end the conflict is to resolve the final status issues. The only way to resolve the final status issues is through a direct negotiation. Unilateral declarations or unilateral actions on one side or the other does not end the conflict. That is our goal.

QUESTION: But a Security Council or a General Assembly vote of some sort wouldn’t be a unilateral act.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, you have – we have a process that involves multiple tracks. Our objective here is comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Comprehensive peace in the Middle East can only be resolved through direct negotiations where the parties agree to end the conflict.

QUESTION: Are you encouraging them not to go that way?

MR. CROWLEY: We are encouraging them to return to negotiations.

QUESTION: Former President Carter said that if you declare through the General Assembly a Palestinian state this will help the Palestinian to unify and it could be a building step for the negotiations. Do you disagree with this?

MR. CROWLEY: President Carter is entitled to his views.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Netanyahu is due to be in New Orleans next weekend and the President is going to be overseas. Do you expect that the prime minister will meet any other U.S. officials either here or in New Orleans on this trip? Specifically the Secretary or down the –

MR. CROWLEY: We have had a conversation with the prime minister’s office. So the Secretary, as you know, will be overseas for another week, but we are looking to see if their schedules will overlap and we just don’t know.

QUESTION: What do you mean by that? You mean, when she gets back to Washington or she would go to New York or what?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, there’s an interest in getting together, but right now we’ve got – we’re just checking to see how elastic the prime minister’s schedule is, how long he’s going to be in the United States.

QUESTION: I’m (inaudible) from TV2 Norway. I have some questions –

MR. CROWLEY: How are you?


MR. CROWLEY: Welcome to the State Department.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m not here every day, so I’ll just state my name. I have some questions about security around your embassies. You have something who is called the surveillance detection program. What’s the background for that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the surveillance detection program is something that we’ve put in place over the last decade. We recognize that our posts around the world are prospective targets and tragically there’s a lot of intelligence and actual attacks to back that up, not the least of which were the bombings in East Africa a decade ago. So we work with the host government to do everything that we can to protect our diplomatic posts around the world, but including in Norway.

QUESTION: And you have a database called SIMAS who is connected to this program. Who can end up there?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have cooperation across our posts. We share information both with host governments and across our posts. It is possible when you look at a networked entity like al-Qaida that they might be casing a post in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, and so we have a database that shares intelligence and assessment – ongoing assessment of threats.

QUESTION: Going back to the Middle East. Late Friday and Saturday headlines of the Israeli media was Israel now major threat for Turkish national security. And on the other hand, countries like Syria and Iran are off the list now for Turkey. My question is: And this –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure – what list is that?

QUESTION: This is for national security list and these reports have not been denied or rejected by Turkish –

MR. CROWLEY: I just don’t – I’m not familiar with whatever list you’re talking about. I mean, obviously we are very aware that there are tensions between two very close friends of the United States – Turkey and Israel. Their cooperation in the past has been very valuable to both countries, to the United States, and to the region. And we certainly hope that the two countries can find a way to resume that cooperation.

QUESTION: Do you have any information about the two hikers that are still in detention in Iran – their trial being moved, the date being moved?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know that we’ve been formally notified about that. Obviously, we believe that the hikers should be released and not put on trial.

QUESTION: P.J., I think there was something – forgive me that I don’t have all the details – but that the mothers are now going to be permitted to talk to their sons. It just came out this morning. Is that – are you aware of any –

MR. CROWLEY: We would obviously welcome that opportunity.

QUESTION: But you’re not aware of that?

MR. CROWLEY: We consult with the families on a regular basis. I just can’t say whether we – when the last time that we have chatted with the mothers.

QUESTION: Same subject, P.J.


QUESTION: Same subject P.J. – one of the reports today suggested that Sarah Shourd is considering returning to Iran for a trial. I’m just wondering what advice is the Department of State giving?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll leave that advice private.

QUESTION: Regarding the Omar Khadr case, can you tell me what if any interaction or communication there was between the Canadian and U.S. Governments on the deal that was reached --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are --

QUESTION: -- or announced on the weekend?

MR. CROWLEY: The plea bargain was worked out between the prosecutors within the military commission and Omar Khadr’s defense lawyers. But it – the State Department was in touch with the Canadian Government and there was an exchange of diplomatic notes that helped pave the way for that plea bargain.

QUESTION: Do you think – did Canada sign off on the deal? Would you characterize it as that, Canada signing off on the deal?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Canada is aware of the details of the plea bargain, but as I think Canadian officials have made clear, this is – this, up until now, has been a matter between the United States Government and Mr. Khadr through the military commission’s process. Now, in the plea arrangement, Mr. Khadr will serve a year, at least a year, at Guantanamo. He has the option during that time to petition for a transfer to Canada. As Canada has indicated, there’s been no application yet and it will consider that application should it be made.

QUESTION: What was Secretary Clinton’s role in all this negotiating?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we mentioned, she did have a conversation with Foreign Minister Cannon. There needed to be an exchange of diplomatic notes to help with the plea arrangement. And following her conversation with Foreign Minister Cannon, there was that exchange of diplomatic notes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:13 p.m.)

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