MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. I have Dave Copley – well, sorry, I wasn’t supposed to introduce Dave Copley. I have Dave Schenker with me, assistant secretary for NEA. He will be introducing Dave Copley, a new DAS that we have, who’s also a friend of mine. This briefing we’re going to focus on Iraq. Several of you who were at the announcement that the Secretary gave on Tuesday know that we announced the strategic dialogue towards the end. Obviously Schenker can ask any questions – answer any questions about the Middle East as well.
This is going to be embargoed, please, everyone, until the end of the call. This call is going to be on the record, so per usual, just dial 1 and 0, go ahead and get yourself in the queue. We’ll start with Schenker’s opening remarks and then we’ll go right into Q&A. Dave.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone. Hope everyone is staying healthy, avoiding unnecessary travel, and practicing social distancing. I’m talking to you today from an undisclosed location and I can assure you no one is within a six-foot radius of me. But in all seriousness, I’m happy to get the opportunity to engage with all of you despite these unprecedented challenges, and I look forward to seeing everyone once again back on the second floor of main State.
Until then, however, I wanted to telephonically introduce you to someone new, an accomplished addition to our front office, Mr. David Copley, our deputy assistant secretary for Iraq. He’s somewhere close but not too close listening and eager to meet every one of you in person as well.
So there’s some news in Iraq that I should address right off the top. What we’ve said consistently about the Iraqi political process is simple: Iraqis are facing many challenges and they need a strong, independent government to be formed quickly for the sake of the Iraqi people and so that we have a partner to work with in confronting these challenges.
Now the Secretary’s announcement of the U.S.-Iraqi strategic dialogue – as you’ll recall, we indicated back in January that we needed to have a strategic dialogue with Iraq to discuss our financial, economic, security, and diplomatic partnership. This is keeping with previous dialogues based on our 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement. The last one of these dialogues occurred in Baghdad in January 2018 and was led by then-Deputy Secretary Sullivan, so it’s certainly not out of the blue nor should it be interpreted as a signal of withdrawal from our partnership by any means.
As the Secretary noted in his briefing, the Iraqi people are urging their government for change and reforms, and indeed they’re demanding it. Before the pandemic, Iraqis were gathering by the thousands on a daily basis demanding a new path forward, free of the old sectarian ways and free of the Iranian regime’s meddling. We stand with Iraqi people in this endeavor. We seek a sovereign, prosperous Iraq that is free of corruption and terror. We seek to continue to build on our strategic partnership with an Iraq committed to Iraqis and their best interests. The strategic dialogue between the U.S. and Iraqi governments we believe will help in this noble endeavor.
America is a force for good not just throughout the region but in Iraq in particular. What do we mean when we say this? We are a friend Iraqis can trust in bad times or good. The United States is aiding Iraq’s response to COVID-19. The funds that we provide will prepare laboratories, implement public health emergency plans for points of entry, activate case finding and event-based surveillance for influenza-like illnesses, and more. This new assistance that we’re providing will build on long-term investment in Iraq, our long-term investment in Iraq, including nearly $4 billion in health alone and more than $70 billion in total U.S. assistance over the past 20 years.
Furthermore, unlike some other donor nations, we are committed and longstanding partners to Iraq. Our support is not a PR stunt and our generosity is unmatched. We are a brand you can trust, so to speak. For example, our department’s Bureau of International Security, Nonproliferation, among many things they do, have built and trained a network of health security fellows across Iraqi ministries and universities. These students conducted various workshops related to the outbreak, including management, prevention, and control of COVID-19 for approximately 124 faculty doctors and health care workers to increase awareness and raise the importance of the outbreak prior to the first case being reported in Iraq, and this – the international security and nonproliferation network has provided chemical and biological protections and decontamination equipment and training for security forces within the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan regional government for several years now.
The U.S. is also the largest donor to demining, clearing over 86 million square meters of land since 2015. The U.S. has provided more than 2.6 billion in assistance, including food, water, medicine, and shelters since 2014, making it Iraq’s largest humanitarian donor. The U.S. currently leads a coalition of over 70 nations and five international organizations to stand alongside Iraq in rebuilding its security forces and defeating ISIS. The U.S. provides $15 billion a year to support 5,200 U.S. military forces stationed in Iraq to help defeat ISIS. The U.S. has also provided 5.4 billion to strengthen Iraqi security forces, including armored vehicles, support for the counterterrorism service, and border security infrastructure improvement.
In short, we’re a true friend to Iraq, and as the Secretary said, quote-unquote, “With the global COVID-19 pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues threatening an Iraqi economic collapse, it’s important that our two governments work together to stop any reversal of the gains we’ve made in our efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country.”
And with that, I’ll take your questions. Thanks.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks. If you just got on the phone, remember you – you press 1, 0. Let’s go over to Francesco Fontemaggi.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to ask you about the strategic dialogue with Iraq. Are there any red lines on the U.S. side on troops withdrawal? I noted after the January events you’ve been saying that the U.S. had no intention to leave Iraq, for the U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Are you now open to discuss some staged, condition-based timeline for withdrawal, or not at all?
And also on Yemen, I wanted to ask you as – I saw the Secretary’s statements, but it seems the Houthis have rejected the ceasefire. I wanted to have your reaction on that. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you. Listen, as the Secretary said, we are going to discuss all aspects of our relationship. We want to be a partner of Iraq. We are a partner of Iraq. We have an important strategic relationship. We believe that we bring a lot to Iraq. But it is on the Iraqis, if they value that relationship, to take certain steps, and that includes providing protection to the coalition forces who are in Iraq if they want those forces to remain. We are a partner. We bring all sorts of security assistance. We bring economic assistance. We bring trade, and there are so many good things that come to Iraqis out of that relationship. We will be willing to discuss a broad range of topics with them – these are economic, these are politics – and that includes the future presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.
As for the Houthis, you saw the statement that we issued today, that the Secretary issued today. We think it’s laudable that the Saudi-led coalition has declared a ceasefire, that it is following the guidance of the UN which has called for a humanitarian COVID ceasefire. We think this is incredibly productive, and we think it’s really problematic that the Houthis aren’t following suit. We think it would be very productive and helpful if the Houthis also declared a ceasefire to facilitate the talks that the Saudis are looking to hold with the Houthis moderated by Martin Griffiths.
We also think it would be productive, especially during the time of COVID, if the Houthis started abiding by standard international best practices for humanitarian assistance. They continue to obstruct humanitarian deliveries, to skim from these deliveries to fund their own war effort. This is just exacerbating the pain and suffering of the Yemeni people, and so we encourage them to, one, join the ceasefire; and two, to end their problematic humanitarian practices.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Now we’ll go over to Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much, David.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hey, Nick.
QUESTION: Hey. I just had a question on Lebanon, whether you could give us an update on whether the U.S. is any closer to possibly being willing to support a financial aid package for Lebanon. It’s (inaudible) they’re talking about asking for help from the IMF. Is that something the U.S. would be willing to support? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. So the United States – I’m just looking. I had a fact sheet that was provided to me. The United States is doing, I think, just incredible work with Lebanon with all its provision of assistance, whether that’s in helping the Lebanese Armed Forces with equipment, with dealing with PPE, with a broad range of – let me see if I can find this here.
Yeah, we have provided Lebanon with something like 2,000 rapid response COVID test kits. We’ve provided the LAF with 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 19,000 COVID-19 prevention guidance cards, 17,000 medical masks, 120,000 medical gloves, 2,000 – 20,000 hygiene kits were distributed to LAF personnel. We’ve given 400,000 to UNICEF to procure masks, disinfectants. We’ve given up to $500,000 in funds from USAID for equipment, technical assistance, technology, and small grants to Lebanese companies that make PPE, detergents, ventilators and hand sanitizers. We’re looking at other funding for – direct funding for the Lebanese American University Hospital and the American University in Beirut Hospital. So we’re doing an awful lot already to help Lebanon deal with this pandemic. We’re all in this together, and so we’re supporting the efforts of the Government of Lebanon and the international community to see how we can best deal with this crisis.
Was there anything else specific, Nick, that you’re looking for?
QUESTION: More broadly about their efforts to seek a bailout. Given the economic crisis the country sort of looking beyond COVID and specifically their desire or potential desire for IMF – an IMF loan.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, listen, we support the Lebanese Government in its efforts to pursue reform and to extricate Lebanon from this financial crisis. They put out a plan today that we’re reviewing. Ultimately, we are looking for this government to demonstrate its commitment to reform, to fighting corruption, and to – not only to planning reforms but to implementing them. In the end, we do not support a bailout. If Lebanon is committed, if it requests, for example, a program by an international financial institution of one sort or another, we’ll look at that. I think that would demonstrate a real commitment to reform. But as far as a bailout, we think that Lebanon would likely end up in the same place where it is right now – this is a few months or a year from now if that happened. And so we don’t support that.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Okay, let’s go to Michel.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. I have one on Iraq and one on Lebanon, if you don’t mind. On Iraq, how do you view the nomination of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the head of the intelligence agency, to form the new government? And on Lebanon, Hizballah is saying that the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon makes visit to Lebanese officials and tells them Washington’s nominee for the post of the Central Bank deputy governor. Is that accurate?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. Listen, as far as Iraqi politics, I think the Secretary said it best from the podium yesterday, day before. We’re looking for a government that we can work with that will be responsive to the legitimate demands of the people of Iraq, a government that is committed to reform, a government that wants to fight corruption, a government that values Iraqi sovereignty. In this process, as we’ve watched over recent months, you saw before his death Qasem Soleimani was a regular visitor in Baghdad, telling the Iraqi people, Iraqi politicians who their next prime minister should be. In the fine tradition of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranians continue now with the – their next – the next IRGC commander, Ghaani, and others, proxies and – in Iraq, in Iran, who are visiting or residing in Iraq, trying to influence and interfere in the Iraqi political process. We think this is counterproductive.
So you saw recently a new development with the nomination of Mustafa Kadhimi, and Kadhimi is the former director of the national intelligence services. He did – we think he did a fine job over there. If Kadhimi is an Iraqi nationalist, if he is dedicated to pursuing a sovereign Iraq, if he is committed to fighting corruption, this would be great for Iraq, and I think it would be great for our bilateral relationship.
As for the post of deputy governor of the Central Bank, listen, I think it’s important for Lebanon’s economy right now that there should be people in posts who generate the confidence of the international community. And so certainly the United States is not telling Lebanon who they have to appoint, but certainly we want to be able to work with Lebanese institutions and have qualified individuals in those institutions and in key positions. We – once again, Lebanon is a country. We’re not telling Lebanon what to do, but we want to be able to work with the Government of Lebanon on a broad range of topics. And if, for example, these positions were allocated on the basis of political affiliation, as – representing the traditional type of Lebanese patronage politics that have resulted in the crisis that Lebanon is facing today, we think that would be counterproductive.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Let’s go to Kim Dozier from TIME.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask since al-Zurfi is the third prime minister-designate this year, who do you negotiate with in June if he hasn’t formed a cabinet? And then the second question is: Could you update us on the threat to – from Iranian-backed militias to U.S. targets in Iraq, especially with the recent rocket attacks against the U.S. oil firm? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Kim. Well, June is still a couple months away. There – when we look at – we’re talking now about the composition of our delegation. I know the Secretary noted that Under Secretary Hale will lead the U.S. delegation. I think David Copley, who’s on this call, will also be on the delegation, but this will be from other agencies as well, including the Department of Defense, Treasury, and others.
And so we are going to look at and talk to the Iraqis – of course, they’re going to decide who’s going to be their representative, but about the kind of positions, the kind of positions within the interagency of the Iraqi Government, about what types of positions would be appropriate to be represented at the dialogue. So we’ll see how this progresses, but I know that the prime minister – the acting prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and others in Iraq are looking forward to having this dialogue with us because we have so many interests in common that they will move ahead and pick an appropriate delegation.
As for the threat (inaudible) U.S. forces, it continues to be significant. We noted that Kataib Hizballah last week listed on their website the ceasefire declaration, saying it would abstain from attacking U.S. forces. We take these things with a grain of salt. We would of course welcome if Kataib Hizballah did not attack us, but we still see a significant threat to U.S. personnel and forces, military forces in Iraq and that persists.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. Matt Lee. Matt?
QUESTION: Hi. Sorry. Yeah, sorry, I was on mute there. Just tried to get off. Listen, I know this is a much broader question, but I’ll try and drill it down just to the NEA. When did you guys get religion on foreign aid? This administration came in with Mick Mulvaney and others saying (inaudible) we’re going to cut this all and we’re not going to give them – we’re going to spend all this money at home. And now – what gives? When did you guys decide that it was actually important? That’s my question. Thank you. But specifically to the NEA region. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, as you know, we have in NEA, what, like $11 billion budget. It’s – an enormous proportion of U.S. foreign assistance goes to NEA, so I disagree with the premise of the question. We are – we give out an enormous amount of economic support funds, foreign military funds – FMF and ESF. And that has been I think – that has been something that has largely been uninterrupted. But we do have a special time of crisis and we have partners in the region that we are looking to support and recognize there are special challenges attendant to the COVID-19, and so we’re looking to support them. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we’ve just found religion. We’re looking to strengthen allies and partners throughout the region and enable them to better endure and deal with this health emergency.
That said, I think the general view here – as we found out, this virus originated in Wuhan, in China, and it found us. And so we are all in this together. So we’re going to support our friends and partners in the region. I don’t think that’s something that’s brand new for this administration or for NEA.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, for the next question – sorry. Cale, for the next question can we go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk, please.
QUESTION: Hi. Hello. Thanks. I have two questions. One is about Iraq; the other one is about Yemen. On Iraq, our team, Reuters team, last week reported that the official Iraqi figures for coronavirus were not accurate and the real number was much higher, between 3,000 to 9,000. I’m curious if the U.S. has an assessment of what the actual infections are in the country. And how do you explain the discrepancy between the official figures and what the doctors on the ground are reporting?
And on Yemen, I’m just wondering about the aid efforts. After the ceasefire, do you expect the aid situation to improve a little bit? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you. Listen, I don’t think we have a great number on cases in Iraq. We know that Iran certainly kept on sending people into Iraq. And so we would have expected that as a regional epicenter of the virus that Iraq would be significantly affected, much like we’re seeing in Syria because of Iran and also Lebanon. But I don’t have good numbers on that. We did see your story. I think there – some governments across the region don’t necessarily have a good handle on the exact numbers themselves, but I couldn’t comment on the motivation for either lowballing the numbers or otherwise.
As for Yemen, listen, we want to do more. We want to provide assistance for COVID, for – and humanitarian assistance. This is a grave crisis here, an enormous amount of Yemenis facing food insecurity and that is something that has been going on for years. There were efforts before this crisis and discussions about a donor conference. But we really can’t in good faith move ahead with that when the Houthis are really just obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance, interfering, preventing the monitoring and evaluation, and of course skimming to fund their war effort, as we said earlier.
A ceasefire as well as a Houthi commitment to start following standard best international practices on the delivery of humanitarian assistance I think would help enormously in the (inaudible) humanitarian crisis there. But first steps first. The Houthis have to accept and join in with the Saudi-led coalition’s humanitarian ceasefire that they have put in place unilaterally. This should be a bilateral endeavor for it to work and for everyone to benefit.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, can you open the line of Lara Jakes?
QUESTION: Good afternoon, everyone. So David, in the last week, there were – there was pressure in Iraq for U.S. troops to leave, pressure on Zurfi. And also, Esmail Ghaani, as you noted, was in Baghdad about a week ago pleading for political parties to reject Zurfi. Now, Zurfi is stepping aside. I’m wondering if you see this as a success for Iran. These are two things that Iran had wanted. And with Zurfi now no longer in – trying to put together a government, that seems something that Iran would be happy about.
And then I wanted to clarify something you said about the June discussion with – about the SFA. And you didn’t seem to shut the door on the thought that this might be a first step to withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. Can you clarify that, please? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah. So listen, it’s – this goes back on the question about Zurfi. It’s clear that Ghaani was there doing what Iranians have done, what the regime does with meddling in, destabilizing, playing in, undermining the sovereignty of regional states. This – I mean, if I was an Iraqi, I would be furious at the role that Iran is playing and the role that Iran proxies are playing by basically doing the bidding of the IRGC. So if it’s a defeat for anybody, it’s a sad defeat for the people of Iraq that Zurfi did not get a chance after being designated to present his slate of ministers to the COR, the Council of Representatives.
But listen, I – we – this is an issue for the Iraqis. Once again, Kadhimi has shown himself at the – in his job as an Iraqi patriot, as somebody who is competent. The work – the ministry of the Iraqi National Intelligence Services – sorry – has improved its performance under Kadhimi. I think he was a human rights activist before he got there. He’s a journalist. He’s impressive in his own right. And if he is an Iraqi patriot, which he appears to be, and is going to be fighting for reform against corruption and for Iraqi sovereignty, as the Iraqi patriot that he is, then this is something that’s also going to create problems for Iran, undoubtedly.
As for the Strategic Dialogue, as I said, we’re – we are willing to discuss the broad range of issues with Iraqis. It is an important strategic relationship, and our military cooperation and our troop presence can all be on the agenda, but I’m not going to preview what direction this is going. I think the Iraqis recognize the benefits that the – that United States presence provides.
MR BROWN: Okay. Let’s open the line for Ali Rogin.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing the call. I have one question on Syria and one on Yemen. There is a report today that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi tried to pay the Assad regime to restart its military offensive in Idlib province. I’m wondering if you’ve seen those reports and if you have any comment.
And if I can follow on the Yemen question, can I get you to respond directly to the criticism that cutting off humanitarian aid to Yemen at this particular point when they’re also dealing with the coronavirus crisis is simply going to exacerbate the health situation there by orders of magnitude?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. So the report that you referred to, I read it. I can’t comment on its veracity and I don’t know. It seems to me that it would – if it were true, that would be – let’s say, if it were true, it would be unfortunate.
So Yemen. Listen, I think that the onus for the flow of humanitarian aid or the stationing of humanitarian aid is on the Houthis, right. They are the dominant military force in much of the country, and we just can’t work in this environment. The humanitarian providers, the humanitarian assistants in Yemen, are being harassed. It’s not an environment where we can do our work.
We will continue to look at providing assistance in other parts of the country. And as I said before, we are a huge donor of humanitarian assistance in Lebanon – sorry, in Yemen, and we’d like to continue with that. But we’re going to need the Houthis to change the way they do business and not use the humanitarian assistance as a weapon against their own people.
Likewise, we, along with the Saudis and other Gulf partners, are looking to once again provide very high levels of humanitarian assistance. Last year, I think the Saudis gave something like 500 million at the conference in September at the – at UNGA and would likely be willing to do the same. This is on the Houthis, really.
MR BROWN: David, do you have time for one more?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, one more.
MR BROWN: Okay, last question. Open the line of Jennifer Hansler, please.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. On Iraq, there was an additional drawdown of diplomatic personnel a few weeks ago, and I was wondering if there is any situation you see in the near future in which those numbers might go back to earlier presence there, if that might be a part of the discussion in June.
And then on Saudi Arabia, there’s been some reports that the Saudi Royal Family has positive cases of coronavirus. The governor of Riyadh is reportedly in the ICU. Is this something the U.S. has confirmed and is tracking? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Jennifer. So we did – the State Department did a globalized authorized departure for individuals serving at embassies around the world if these people identified as being a higher-risk population or more vulnerable or for any reason that they wanted to get home. I mean, there were diplomats who had their children in private schools in the United States which closed and needed to come home to take care of their loved ones. And so we sent that out and many diplomats left.
We did an ordered departure, and I think related to just the fact that we have an embassy there which, while large in size, people are on a compound together all the time, and so if you did have a COVID outbreak it could be very difficult to contain. So I think this was sensible and that was obviously driven by the ambassador (inaudible), but was a wise thing to do to get our numbers down for the crisis – for the health crisis, as well as with the security concerns in the region and the repeated targeting of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq. So that’s Iraq.
I too have read the reports of large numbers of the Saudi Royal Family being stricken with COVID. I can’t independently confirm that. The Saudi officials that I’ve spoken with say that the Saudi Royal Family is taking their precautions, self-isolating, practicing social distancing. But I have no special insight to how many members of the Royal Family may or may not have it. I wish them all good health.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thanks for taking time out of your day, Assistant Secretary Schenker, to do this briefing, and thanks to everyone for joining the call. Now that the call is concluded, the embargo on its content is lifted. Thanks and have a great day.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Great. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.