SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So this is a background briefing previewing Secretary Kerry’s trip to Baghdad tomorrow. We have on the phone with us [Senior State Department Official One], who will be known here forward as senior State Department official number one. He’ll go do a quick overview of the trip and then we will take some questions.
With that, [Senior State Department Official One], go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official Two]. I’ll just give a quick – just a quick preview of the trip, starting with tomorrow. And the Secretary will see here in Baghdad – he will see Prime Minister Maliki; he will see foreign minister Zebari; Ammar Hakim, who is the head of a Shia party called the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq; he will speak to (inaudible), who’s one of the prominent Sunni leaders here; and also Deputy Prime Minister Salih Mutlaq, who also has a bloc of primarily Sunnis and won a number of seats in the most recent election.
So the stop in Baghdad has a couple of key themes. First of all, to emphasize our highest-level commitment to Iraq during this time of crisis. And that’s a commitment that is bedrock commitment under our Strategic Framework Agreement, and we’ll be discussing in more detail with the Iraqis the elements of our package, which the President announced the other day, some of the support we’ll be providing. And it’s also an opportunity for the Secretary to do person-to-person diplomacy with the key leaders and the key blocs as they work towards forming a new government along the constitutional timeline that they’re on.
And just a word on that. It’s important to kind of step back about where we are in terms of the political process as we approach the security challenges in parallel with the political process. And considering that Iraq had an election, and it was a very successful election with about 14 million voters, the election was certified about a week ago, which started a formal timeline of a process for forming a new government. That timeline requires the new parliament – there are 328 members who are elected to be in the new parliament on the 30th of this month. In that session, they should choose the speaker. That is what the constitution requires. And 30 days after that – within 30 days after that, they name a new president, and then within 15 days after that, a new prime minister. These timelines can be accelerated, but those are the deadlines. And we are encouraging them to act as swiftly as possible. So that’ll be obviously a key theme of the visit.
In all the meetings, obviously the Secretary will brief them on the conversations in Washington and what has transpired over the last two weeks as we’ve been managing the crisis from here, and again, just go into a little bit more detail about some of the assistance that we will be providing, and emphasizing – as he will have to, because the Iraqis emphasize this to us all the time – that they are united against ISIL, which is really an existential threat to all three communities here, all the three communities here, five principal communities here in Iraq, but also the (inaudible) minority communities including the Christian (inaudible) and others who are under a really mortal threat from ISIL.
So that’s a quick preview of the trip, and then I’m happy to address any questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Great. Want to kick it off, Michael?
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], since you’re on a background basis, if there’s going to be a government formation process, obviously it has to come from within. Can you please explain to us who are the potential candidates or alternatives to Maliki from within this Shia bloc or community or parties? And how you see the Iraqi players lining up at this point in time, recognizing that it’s a bit early?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thanks, Michael. I’m not going to go into names. And again, as the President said, it’s not up to us to choose who’s going to rule Iraq. This is a sovereign country and it’s up to them. We are encouraging them to form a new government as soon as possible that’s an inclusive government. That’s not only us saying that; most of the leaders here are saying that. Grand Ayatollah Sistani said that just the other day. And so that is what we are looking for.
Prime Minister Maliki’s bloc won 92 seats in the election. He did get the most votes of anyone, but he will need 165 seats to form a government, and it remains to be seen whether or not that can happen.
So first of all, it’s a step-by-step process and it’s very important for all three of the major communities to remain a part of that process, because that is how they can both form a new political foundation, build an inclusive structure, as difficult as that is. And also the constitution requires them to develop a political program as part of forming the government, and as part of that program, a lot of work has been done over the last six months in terms of some critical issues such as an amnesty, such as reform to the accountability and justice system. Some other key things which happened underway will likely be part of that program, as will discussion of devolution of authorities, which was also – before this crisis was a very serious discussion about federalism and how that should work in the country.
So all of this will be discussed through the crucible of the constitutional formation process. Again, I want to emphasize how difficult this is, particularly in the security environment. But all the leaders – and I think the Secretary, when here, what he will emphasize to them is the importance of moving rapidly down this track, and by moving rapidly then, the options for who might be the president, who might be the speaker and everything else will come to a head as the timelines come upon them.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Andrea?
QUESTION: Hi, it’s Andrea Mitchell. We were told by a backgrounder last night flying over that there were three key factors right now: the Sistani statement; what Iran might do, whether Iran would echo the U.S. position as to the need for more inclusiveness; and whatever influence – the influence that the U.S. has. Can you give me – give us your sense, now that the Ayatollah has spoken, as to how --
QUESTION: Khamenei has spoken.
QUESTION: Khamenei spoke, yeah.
QUESTION: Not Sistani.
QUESTION: No, I’m sorry, Khamenei. I’m talking about what happened today. We’re just all clarifying. We’re all talking about the same thing. The Khamenei statements today seemed very definitive. What is your impression? Does that mean that at least he, within Iran, is embracing Maliki and is not moving off of him?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’ll let the Supreme Leader speak for himself and the statement speak for itself. But the key decision is to be made by the Iraqis. Every time they’ve been through a government formation process, there’s always rumors about (inaudible) and all sorts of things, but it often comes down to the math and how they can actually put together a governing coalition.
What makes this one particularly complicated and difficult for anyone from the outside to kind of direct is that it is so fractured. So that is at best morally an unhealthy thing. The first election here years ago, there were only three choices: there was a big Shia bloc, a big Kurdish bloc, a big Sunni block. In 2010, there was two Shia blocs, one Kurdish bloc, and all the Sunnis were under the same grouping together with Allawi, kind of a nationalist-type bloc. This time, it’s totally different. There’s three main Shia blocs; the Kurds ran on four lists so that they are together for purposes of forming government; and then the Sunnis ran on three or four different lists; and then the Allawi’s, kind of a more secular oriented list, ran on its own, itself.
So the configurations for forming a government are almost endless. What we’re trying to do is encourage them to come together in coalitions where they can have some traction and try to make some progress. But again, if the prime minister can’t get 165 seats, he won’t be able to form a government. So that’s kind of a key – that’s the key variable. And – but what Grand Ayatollah Sistani said was a couple of things. He called for a new government as soon as possible, on the constitutional timeline, and that’s inclusive. And so a lot of folks here are reading kind of into that and what that means, and again, this is going to play out over the coming – really over the coming days.
QUESTION: And as to Tehran?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Excuse me?
QUESTION: And what role do you think Tehran is playing right now vis-a-vis Maliki?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, Iran has many different power centers and different elements of Iran are sending different messages and doing different things. They are definitely extremely interested in what’s happening here, to say the least. They consider the (inaudible) in the crisis really started to metastasize and the dominos were falling in the first 72 hours. We know that they were extremely concerned, as were we, about Samarra. We know that ISIL wants to attack the Samarra shrine. That’s the shrine that was hit in February 2006, which started the civil war back then. We know that that is an objective of theirs, and we know that from multiple information channels. And Samarra is right in the middle of Saladin province.
So we know the Iranians were deeply concerned about that for a number of reasons, because if something were to happen to that shrine, really it would lead to potentially irreversible consequences. So that is a real concern. And they’re also just concerned about given the fragility on the border. So there’s no question that they have real interests here and they definitely have real influence here.
And in this region, which is so complicated, there’s all sorts of overlapping interests, and so we are very focused on finding and pursuing our own vital interests and important interests (inaudible) in this country, and that’s kind of what the President laid out the other night in terms of how we’re doing that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Lara or (inaudible).
QUESTION: I’ve got one.
QUESTION: I’ve got one too.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.
QUESTION: So, [Senior State Department Official One], it’s Lara Jakes. I have a couple of questions. One, when I walked in, you were talking about how all the sects and the ethnic groups were united in opposing ISIL. And I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about what evidence you’re seeing of that and how outside groups or even inside groups might help people resist joining ISIL. I mean, you see the Naqshabandis and other groups that are gaining some power, and they’re not necessarily joining ISIL but they’re joining the larger fight, right? So if you could talk a little bit about why you think most people are united against ISIL.
And then also I just wanted to clarify. You said that – just now about Samarra, that you know that it is an objective of theirs in terms of attacking the al-Askariya Mosque. And I’m just wondering: How do you know that – is it just based on social media? Or how do you know, what have you seen that makes you think that ISIL for sure wants to attack the mosque again?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: First, with Naqshabandi, certainly when this thing started moving, all the kind of – the Naqshabandis, the Baath party, the Baath insurgency that’s led by (inaudible), they’ve been around for a long time. And when this thing really started moving, all the groups like that started kind of jumping on the bandwagon. There’s no question. And people are reaching out to us through all sorts of various channels.
However, as ISIL is wont to do, I mean, if you go back and read stories from when (inaudible) fell, and it says, “Oh, they’re treating everyone well and the women can show their hair,” and everything, fast-forward to now, and there’s a public crucifixion in the town square. That’s just what ISIL does. I was with a prominent leader from Mosul today. Ask him who’s in charge of Mosul – it’s ISIL. There’s an ISIL flag flying on the provincial council building. They are increasingly enforcing their brand of seventh century Islamic law. And so tensions are already starting to build. We have seen reports that you may have seen of ISIL kidnapping prominent Naqshabandi leaders from Kirkuk over the last 48 hours and executing them.
So there’s no question that there’s a tendency in some groups to kind of jump on the bandwagon and even use ISIL for other ends. That’s just a very dangerous game because once ISIL gets rooted in territory, in towns, it’s even harder to root them out. I mean, we have seen this repeatedly and we know these guys. It’s not – they’re not new. It’s Zarqawi and al-Qaida in Iraq, who we know extremely well. It’s the same (inaudible). They kill anybody that doesn’t agree with them. So (inaudible) fighting over the last 72 hours, the (inaudible) tribe was fighting them because they are kind of very strongly anti-AQI, and they now are ISIL, and frankly, they lost because of the firepower that ISIL is able to bear really overwhelmed them.
So we’re hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIL. They’re figuring out how to do it. A lot of them say – a lot of them keep saying, “Well be stronger if there’s a new prime minister.” Our answer to that is, “Look, you’ve got to pursue this in parallel. Political change comes through the government formation process, but it is not really responsible to let ISIL take over half the country, because once they do that you’re not going to be able to fight back.”
So this is an ongoing conversation, but an example of how we’re hearing that Sunnis are definitely not onboard with ISIL writ large, especially hear from local communities where they are, and also what they’re doing to a lot of the properties of some of the key leaders who we know have roots in the local community based upon just the election results. And there was over a million votes in Nineveh province on April 30th, one of the highest turnouts they’ve ever had. You can look at that and see who did well and who didn’t do well. And the prominent leaders that did well that had that popular support, now what’s happening? Their farms are being razed, their houses are being burned and their cattle is being stolen and slaughtered, and even worse.
So that’s just the kind of reality in some of these areas and it’s quite troubling. So Sunnis in particular are under threat from this group.
In terms of the shrine, just look at (inaudible). They (inaudible). They want to destroy any sign of Shia symbolism or anything else. Everywhere they go, they destroy tombs, they destroy mosques. When this offensive of dominance really started, the statements from ISIL and their public spokesman, who we think is credible in terms of actually being their spokesman, said, “We’re coming to Arbil, we’re coming to Najaf.” I don’t think they can actually get to Arbil and Najaf, obviously, but that’s the threat.
But they’re on the same playbook that they were in 2006. So the Samarra Mosque attack in 2006 came two months after a national election. It was timed directly to a point at which there was extreme political fragility. And we think this was very similar. So there’s no – this is no question that if they could get into Samarra and attack the mosque, they would do so. They have aspirations, they have plans, and then they have capabilities, and the question is their capabilities to get into that part of Samarra.
But just given where Samarra is if you look on a map, it’s right in the middle of Saladin, and therefore at least ISIL thinks that it is a more prominent and more possible target than some of the shrines down in the south.
QUESTION: Great, thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Jay? Oh, sorry. Margaret, (inaudible).
QUESTION: There had been a sense that sort of the blitzkrieg that ISIL had launched had sort of slowed in recent days. Can you give us an assessment of what’s happening on the ground right now? Who’s in control of supply routes and borders? Has Iraq made – the Iraqi Government made any headway?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sorry, Margaret, can you just – can you speak up just a little bit so I can – I’m hearing you a little bit but in and out.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: You want me to repeat it?
QUESTION: Yeah, can you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: She just asked if there’s been some sense that maybe ISIL’s progress has slowed a bit, and is there any sense that there’s been progress from the --
QUESTION: On the supply routes and the borders.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- on the supply routes and borders?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Here’s what is happening. Some have described it to me this way, and I don’t know if this is accurate, but – and I don’t know because I’m not a historian, but if you read histories of the crusades, they kind of came through, and armies collapsed, and then they, like, kind of were surprised and just kept going. And that’s what kind of happened on the first 72 hours here. And Saladin was the one who got organized and beat the crusades, so this is all – there’s some historic parallels maybe, but I’m not a historian.
So that’s kind of what happened. So Mosul collapsed and they just kind of kept moving, and then there was this mass collective panic and psychological dam that broke, which led to collapses of security forces even in areas where there wasn’t a heavy either ISIL or other insurgent presence, and the thing just really started to collapse.
So we immediately faced some things we had to do. We wanted to look for a circuit breaker to try to break that kind of domino from on and on. We had to ensure our own people were safe, which we did, and we did a number of things for that. We had to make sure that Americans that were in Balad were taken out of Balad safely. We did that. And then we had to work very closely with the Iraqis for an immediate and longer-term plan to reconstitute their security forces and also keep the political process on track and try to just stem this collective panic.
Since then, for a number of reasons, I think the progress towards Baghdad has definitely slowed. So the threat to Baghdad is not nearly as immediate as there was some concern in those early days about just how far this could go. And so what’s happening now is there’s kind of a static situation as you approach Baghdad – I don’t mean just the outskirts, but like far north of Baghdad, that there’s kind of a static situation there.
But ISIL, given their resources in Syria, has made a major push over the last 72 hours at the border. And the Iraqis, given their just lack of force density and having to move forces elsewhere, were very thin on the border. And so what we’ve seen in the last 72 hours are some key border crossings, such as al-Qaim, fall to ISIL. And that is pure ISIL. So it’s really important to understand that it’s an army, this group. So there are political grievances in this country and that’s a serious problem and we need to address them in order to mobilize the population to really stand up to these guys. But it’s an army. The al-Qaim battle lasted three days and started with artillery barrages every morning and then kind of three-pronged, very military proficient attacks. And they eventually overtook that border crossing. And then today they turned south and took a small – few of those small dusty towns that don’t have much security presence. And that’s what happens if 30 trucks with 50 caliber machineguns show up.
They took a small town called Rutba, and that is where the regional significance of this problem really comes into play and why the Secretary’s visit is so important both here and in the region. Rutba has this open highway to Jordan and to Saudi Arabia. So, I mean, this is a threat to everybody in the region, and it’s one reason why the Secretary in particular has been on the phone constantly emphasizing the regional nature of this threat and the need for a real collective focus and response.
So that’s the long answer to your question, but just in sum, kind of relatively static approaching Baghdad, but border region coming from Syria remains extremely serious.
QUESTION: Can I come back on that --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, Kim.
QUESTION: -- since we’re talking about holding ground. This is Kim Ghattas with the BBC. I’m not going to go into the history of the crusades, but they did hold territory for a long time, and ISIS now does hold territory and they, as far as we understand from the reports coming from Iraq, is they hold all the border crossings with Syria and they hold now one border crossing with Jordan. How do you even begin to reverse that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s a very good question, and from Rabiaa south, the border is – it’s controlled by ISIL. So again, extremely serious situation. One thing we’re doing, particularly since this crisis started, is a major increase, as the President announced, of our intelligence collection, so we have a better picture in these border regions than we’ve ever had before, and determinedly helping to enable the Iraqis in particular to be able to do some things out there which right now they can’t do. We’ll be delivering some additional supplies and things as early as Wednesday for them.
But first of all, those borders are incredibly remote. We used to be out there. They’re very hard to defend. And ISIL from Syria can mass – they can mass force. So they can mass hundreds of people and come over the border. And so they’re able to do this and then it’s a real problem. But their ability to then kind of mass force and hold territory in and then move on forward and (inaudible) is much more limited. But definitely, like I said, the situation in the border region is very serious.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Jay?
QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official One], this is Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. How do you look at kind of the historical dynamic between what Sistani looks at or what he is saying and what the Iranians say? Because they’re traditionally kind of in competition, or they’re definitely not in alliance. And we see Sistani kind of suggesting Maliki can go and then Khamenei today suggesting he should say. Is there a way you look at that kind of intra-Shia politic?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: A really great question, and there’s a huge historical difference between Najaf, where Sistani is, and Qom, where the – for Iranian tradition and where Khamenei came from. And so Khamenei, Zetour jurisprudence and the foundation of the whole Iranian system is the notion of clerical rule, that there’s a supreme leader that basically gives guidance in every sphere of life from politics to foreign policy to personal life, everything. And that is a total anathema to Sistani and Najaf. The school in Najaf is, as some of you are very familiar with, it’s quietism, which is people who follow Shia Islam, look to Najaf and Sistani for guidance in their personal lives and how to live a religious life. But when it comes to politics, generally speaking, Sistani and Najaf stay out of politics.
However, when the situation is quite acute, we have seen Sistani jump into the fray. It is rare, and therefore his statements since this crisis began are all the more significant. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, issues edicts all the time on everything, and that is because that is the kind of Khamenei-based system in which you have one supreme leader. So in that regard, Sistani and Najaf are kind of – are a bit of a threat to the Iranian system because they undermine it; they actually call into question the very religious foundation of the Iranian – of the religious legitimacy of the entire Iranian regime. They would never put it that way, but that’s just kind of true. They don’t believe that one supreme leader can give total guidance in matters of policy and foreign affairs.
So therefore, if you read Sistani’s statements very closely, they are subtle. They’re never totally directive. But at least for the people we talk to here, the statement on Friday about a new government, inclusive government as soon as possible, correct the mistakes of the past was pretty as clear as Sistani usually is, that at the very least it’s incumbent upon the leaders to move the constitutional process forward and to work diligently to form a new government that includes all component parts of Iraq.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And let’s just do a few more.
QUESTION: Can I go?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure.
QUESTION: This is Lesley Wrouhgton from Reuters. I was wondering what you – we’ve heard quite a bit from the Secretary what he is going over to tell Maliki, to govern more as an inclusive government and stuff like that. But what is the actual message he’s going to send them as far as what he – the movements? Or is there a plan or a strategy that he’s seeking from him in how he’s going to move forward on this? And what – is he seeking an assurance from Maliki that he’s going to move quickly on this? I mean, beyond the message that he’s going to send, I’m just trying to figure out what he’s hoping to get back from it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, no. Again, very good question, and you can (inaudible) the current situation very difficult, because it’s not as though – all the Iraqi leaders got together last week, last Wednesday I think. They all met for the first time in some time and they put out a very strong statement about the (inaudible) ISIL and their commitment on various issues, which was significant just given the current situation. But there’s no mechanism right now for any significant reforms, for example, to get through because there isn’t a government in place because it’s that constitutional vacuum period.
So the things that the Iraqis need to do to kind of pull their country together are really things that the next government needs to do. It’s a little late for the outgoing government, when there’s no parliament, to do things to kind of pull the country together. And so therefore, the focus is keeping the constitutional government formation process on track and making it clear that all the component parts, all the winners of the last election, those who won a substantial amount of seats will have a full say in that process and in choosing their own leaders.
It remains the view of most of the leaders here that the positions will be sorted out. This isn’t like Lebanon, where nobody says by edict that the prime minister has to be Shia, the president Kurdish, and the speaker Sunni here, but that has become the tradition. And we continue to hear from all groups that the Kurds do want to retain the presidency; the Sunnis do, at least (inaudible) last year, retain the speakership; and it’s recognized that the Shia, just given that they’re 60 percent of the country and just given the outcome of the election, will retain the prime ministership.
So – and it’s incumbent upon, therefore, each group and the Secretary will press upon them – because a lot of them, they’ll look to us to kind of direct the course of events or to choose somebody. And even if we tried to do that, we can’t. It’s not going to work. It’s really upon them. So the Kurds, for example, want the presidency. Well, they need to name a candidate. Once they name a candidate, most folks will accept the Kurdish candidate for president, whoever that might be, and it will be somebody who – the speaker – the Sunnis need to decide on a speaker candidate, and then they will have a speaker and also a vice president, because there’ll be a Sunni vice president. And then the Shia, amongst themselves, need to determine the best prime minister candidate who can actually rally the country and pull together a government.
So a lot of decisions really have to be made by Iraqis and they have to be made soon. And we recognize how difficult it is for them, but sometimes you hear, “Well, we’re not – we can’t make a decision until there’s a whole package in front of us.” And our answer is, “Guys, you just – you don’t really have time. I mean, you got to move on this.” So again, the Secretary, in kind of person-to-person diplomacy here and talking through these issues that myself and Ambassador Beecroft have been speaking with everybody here for the last 10 days or so on all of this, and having the Secretary here to not only echo what we’ve been saying but kind of bring it up to the next level, and having very serious conversations and a demonstration of the U.S. commitment, I think will be quite important and I hope influential.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Jo.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just following up on that, [Senior State Department Official One] – this is Jo Biddle from AFP. Given that it’s so difficult to form a government and the results of the election were so inconclusive, is there any constitutional mechanism or is there any way that there could be a plan for an interim government to take over, given that they’re faced with this threat from ISIL?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Not really. There’s a – I mean, right now there’s a caretaker government, which is not the most stable mechanism to have. So I mean this is why they keep the process on track. When this crisis really started moving, the election wasn’t certified yet. And to get the election certified, the court here, the federal court, had to meet and certify the book, and it was – they got 1,000 challenges and all this work had been done at the UN and they had like just finished – all the work had just finished when Mosul fell. And the court was going to collect itself and come back and it had a few other things to do. And our message to them, because their judges were all over the place, including other countries and one, his wife was sick – and so our message was that you guys have to get back and certify the election like now. And it wasn’t just coming from us; it was coming from everybody, including the leaders here. So they did. All the judges (inaudible). And I mean, it sounds like just a formality, but it’s a critical formality because otherwise you have no traction. And so I forget what they – maybe six days ago or so they came back; they did meet, had a quorum, which they need, and they certified the election.
That then started this clock – so you had a clock to formally move through the process to form a government, which pressurizes the system because just the tendency here is not to make any decisions until the last very possible moment, and that’s not really the best tendency when you’re in a situation like this. So they came back, certified the election. That kicked off a 15-day clock to form the parliament, and then they have to pick a speaker, president, everything else. So that’s kind of the process. There isn’t an alternative process for kind of forming an interim government or something.
There has been talk that, “Look, if we can’t choose a president or (inaudible) right away, we have like an interim president while we choose on the prime minister,” or something like that. I mean, it sounds a little weird to us, but so there’s talk about things like that, because everybody knows that the big position is the prime minister, and until there’s agreement on that it might be hard to agree on everything else.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let’s do one more. We don’t have one more? Are we done?
QUESTION: I can throw one in.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. One more.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], is there any indication that Maliki is not prepared to cooperate in good faith with the government formation process? By that I mean honor the timelines that have been outlined and perhaps declare a state of emergency or take some action in which he perpetuates his role as prime minister and there is not, in fact, a new government formed. Is that a concern?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, so far – so far, no. So there are rumors when this crisis started how to do a state of emergency; the parliament then couldn’t pass it. There were rumors that he was going to declare one. We went to see him, and he said, “No, I’m not going to do that, not going to do that.” Rumors that there would be some monkey business with the court not to certify the vote – that didn’t happen. Sistani – we had Sistani’s statement very clear about the constitutional timeline and sticking to it.
The hard part right now in a constitutional timeline is that they need to choose a speaker first. The speaker is likely to be one of the Sunni candidates, and the Sunnis are divided in terms of their candidate, who it might be. So that’s where we’re trying to work with them. Okay, well, if you have two or three people, who’s speaker, who’s vice president, you guys got to come sort it out. That’s a potential, at least in the immediate term about the next steps, that’s a potential wrench. But that’s something that the Secretary being here will be very helpful to kind of talk them through where they are and what the options are and emphasizing the need to move and recognizing when you only have one position to go around, not everybody’s going to be happy, but given where you are, the system has to move.
So I mean so far, Michael, no, we have not seen that. And whether there’s some concerns about, I think, again, if you look at Sistani’s statement pretty closely, he was – not that he gives instructions or anything, but the clear emphasis is to keep the thing on track. And just to make a point I made earlier, because he very rarely intervenes or gets involved in things like this, I think that should resonate very loudly.
QUESTION: And just a quick follow-up. Sunnis are divided between whom?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not going to name the names. It’s just – all the parties are divided between who should go where. So there’s just – there isn’t a – the Kurds don’t have a consensus, for example, on who the president should be. The Sunnis don’t yet have a consensus on who the speaker should be. And the Shia are talking amongst themselves about prime minister candidates.
QUESTION: Let me ask one quick question.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So our message is we can’t figure this out for you. Because I guarantee you, if we said Mr. X should be speaker, there would then be Mr. Y and Mr. Z who would say, “Ah, The Americans are trying to interfere.” And then – so our message is there’s urgency. There’s now a timeline. You guys really need to figure this out. If you want us to help be a neutral broker between you and somebody else, there’s nothing – we can do that, but we need to know the trade space and kind of what’s going on. And so that’s what we’re trying to do as we speak.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], let me – it’s Lara. Let me ask one very quick question for a very quick answer. I mean, you talk to Maliki all the time. What’s his public posture right now? I mean, how does he kind of carry himself? Is he defiant? Is he tired or exhausted? Is he depressed? Is he kind of contrite? I mean, is he trying to – how would you – you’ve seen him in all sorts of different ways. What’s his – where’s his head right now?
QUESTION: And is he angry at America?
QUESTION: Yeah. Is he angry? I mean, where is he?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All of them look to us for answers and solutions and like a magic wand. So there’s a lot of that. And they’re also very fearful of their situation. And a lot of people they’ve known, on the Sunni and the Shia side, over the last 10 days have been killed. So – and again, like I said, prominent leaders, their houses are gone. I mean, that’s just what’s happening, particularly on the Sunni side. Maliki – one day it’s Baiji refinery, one day it’s (inaudible), one day it’s Qaim. And the limitations of the Iraqi security forces is very apparent. Their lack of – and there are things that I’ve talked about before, but they’re very limited in the air. They have two Cessna planes that can fire Hellfire missiles. That’s it, and they can’t be everywhere at once. They have a limited number of helicopters. So their ability to respond to events when they are getting frantic calls from people who might be stranded or might be – it definitely takes a toll.
So it’s a sense of extreme anxiousness, also extreme focus on the situation, not just (inaudible) of everybody. And of course they see it through different prisms and they hear different things. And really looking to us to help. And so, again, just to repeat kind of what we’re doing, why it’s significant: If you combine the intel we’re doing with the operations center we’re going to set up, which is already starting, which will allow us to collect all that information in one place and share it, combined with making sure good Iraqi units are well supplied and equipped, making sure that the planes that I mentioned have the right munitions, the right – very accurate laser-guided munitions that they’re able to deploy very effectively, that, at least on the security side, can begin to make a little bit of a difference and restore a little bit of confidence, in addition to some of the advising we can do with some of the better units.
So that – again, and there’s no quick fix here. There’s no magic airstrike that’s going to change the entire situation. But they want to know that we see the threat, that’s a threat that we all share, and that we’re committed to helping them fight it.
On the Sunni side, they want to know that we’re not committed to helping them fight it in support just of the prime minister, which we’re not. I mean, we see this – as I said earlier, this is about our own interest here and the shared threat against this very dangerous terrorist group.
On the Shia side, there’s this extreme anxiety that these – ISIL wants to kill any Shia they find. And they’re looking around the world for support, quite literally, and they feel (inaudible) from that. Not just Maliki but also Hakim and others who the Secretary will see, they tell us they feel really alone and isolated, because the message they get from some quarters are don’t help them until Maliki’s gone. And so that – they hear that and they think we face an existential threat here. So there’s just a lot of anxiety, a lot of looking to the U.S. for help.
And that’s why one of the messages of the Secretary’s trip is our commitment and our engagement. And I just – it will be good to see the Secretary here in personal, because we – myself and Ambassador Beecroft – have been on screen with him over the last however long now, 12 days or so since this started, a number of times, in national security meetings and principal committee meetings, where we have gone through every possible option and the best way to respond in a strategic, deliberate, methodical and effective way.
So again, a long answer to your question, but incredibly focused on the situation. They’re getting reports from all over the country, many of which are extremely serious. And so they want to let us know what they know, ask how we can help. And we’re telling them, “Look, we’re going to help. And it’s also, though, incumbent upon you to try to take advantage of this moment, given where you are in the constitutional process to reset some foundation to pull the country together, recognizing how difficult that is.” But that will be a key message that the Secretary gives to everybody.
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