ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah to all those who are celebrating.  The Secretary started out the year in Cairo talking about America as a force for good in the Middle East.  I thought I would highlight some of the accomplishments of the Near East Affairs Bureau over the past year under the Secretary’s leadership, particularly in successfully confronting major foreign policy challenges, the struggle against ISIS in Iraq, in Syria, and other places.

While we’ve had successes over the past year as a result of the administration policies, we of course recognize that challenges remain.  These include Iran’s persistent malign influence in the region and globally.  I know that in 2020, we’ll also be seeing an increase in U.S. efforts to counter Russian meddling and Chinese extortion in the region.

Before describing this year’s successes and future challenges, I wanted to speak briefly about my travel to Egypt last week.  And anyway, by the way, there’s a whole bunch of, sort of topics in this statement that I’m not going to read but will get to a couple of them right now.

I had a productive trip to Cairo and the Sinai.  The U.S. and Egypt share many mutual objectives.  Egypt plays a vital role in regional security and stability, administering the Suez Canal would be a counterterrorism cooperation and its historic role as a leader in the search for peace.  The Secretary has met with Foreign Minister Shoukry several times this year and raised concerns over regional issues, freedom of expression, in particular, for members of the press, human rights, and Americans detained in Egypt, including Moustafa Kassem.  I continue to raise these concerns – I continued to raise these concerns while on my trip as well as concerns about Egyptian detainees such as Esraa Abdel Fattah.  In addition, I had meetings with Arab League officials and with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai.

Like I said, I’m going to skip – I’m just going to cover Lebanon and Iraq.  In Lebanon, Under Secretary Hale was there this past weekend, and you saw that he called on leaders to commit to and undertake meaningful and sustained reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous, and secure Lebanon.  The historic demonstrations over the past two months underscore the people’s desire for meaningful change.  America supports that call, and we believe it’s time for Lebanon’s leaders to put aside partisan interests and act in the national interest, advancing reforms and form a government that’s committed to implement them and to fighting corruption.

We stand by the Lebanese people and will continue to help them build a stable, secure, and sovereign country free from foreign interference.  We urge all sides to restrain – refrain from violence or provocative actions.  Lebanon’s government, army, and security system services must continue to guarantee the rights and safeties of protestors.  America and the international community are ready to help Lebanon enter a new chapter of economic prosperity and good governance.

Finally, Iraq.  David Hale was also in Baghdad last week.  In Iraq, we remain committed to our bilateral relationship with one of America’s most strategic partners in the region.  We remain shocked and deeply saddened by the killing, maiming, and kidnapping of peaceful protestors by armed actors.  We have urged the Iraqi Government to take immediate steps to protect the protestors and address their legitimate grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

As I mentioned, Under Secretary for Political Hale visited Baghdad last week where he delivered this message, as the Secretary said:  We will continue using our sanctions authorities to reinforce our support for the Iraqi people.  You saw some of this on December 6th when we announced sanctions against several people responsible for human rights violations and corruption in Iraq, cutting them off from the international financial system.

U.S. Department of State

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