ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Great, thanks. Good morning, everybody. It’s been an eventful couple of weeks since we last spoke. Well, actually, since yesterday, but since we talked about the broader Middle East. I appreciate how flexible you’ve been with the President’s response he has taken to address this public health emergency. We’re adapting, as I’m sure you are, but at the same time we continue to work hard on important issues facing our region.
Certainly we remain very concerned about the spread and impact of COVID-19 in terms of the impact on our citizens abroad as well as our personnel serving in our missions abroad and on our partner countries. Since the announced closure of normal commercial air traffic from Morocco, the team at U.S. Mission Morocco has fielded over 3,000 emails and deployed a bank of consulate staff to answer hundreds of phone calls, all the while providing emergency consular services to U.S. citizens visiting the consulate. Today, as we speak, Mission Morocco is supporting the repatriation via charter flight of more than a thousand American citizens who became stranded in Morocco as that country halted its air, land, and maritime links in an effort to slow the virus spread.
MS ORTAGUS: Hey, I’m sorry, Schenker, to interrupt. Guys, we really need you to mute your phone, please, if you’re not speaking. There’s some background noise.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you. We anticipate repatriation flights will continue tomorrow and, for that matter, for the next coming days. This is the most important duty that our embassies and consulates perform, and I’m continually proud of the work done to ensure the safety and well-being of American citizens abroad.
In terms of our efforts to aid governments in the fight against the virus, USAID has committed nearly 100 million in emergency funds for countries affected by COVID-19, including for Morocco and Iraq, via the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, DTRA, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, is delivering testing kits in Iraq through the end of the month. While these funds are moving, we continue to work closely with our colleagues in the interagency to determine the most effective way to commit the nearly $1 billion in supplemental foreign assistance dollars Congress has appropriated to address this emergency.
Moving on from our efforts to address the pandemic, I wanted to recap recent developments in Iraq. I hinted at some of these yesterday. Even as two Americans were killed fighting ISIS along our Iraqi partners last week, Iranian-aligned groups escalated attacks on coalition facilities, killing three coalition personnel, including two Americans, in a cowardly attack. As a result, we have been forced to take defensive actions to protect Americans and – American and coalition lives.
The Iraqi Government is at a decision point. If it doesn’t take steps to hold accountable those responsible for the attacks on coalition forces, which are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, the U.S. will be forced to continue to protect our forces proactively.
If he succeeds in forming a government, the new prime minister-designate, Adnan Zurfi, has an opportunity to meet the many challenges facing Iraq. A government that prioritizes Iraq and heeds the legitimate demands made by Iraqis for a sovereign and corrupt-free nation will receive U.S. and international support.
And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks so much. I’m going to let Ruben handle this, since you guys are texting him. Just everybody, please, please, big reminder: Look at your phones. Make sure you’re on mute if you’re not talking, please. That will really help us while we’re doing the transcript of this. And for anybody that dialed in late, please note that this is on embargo until the end of the call. Go ahead, Ruben.
MR HARUTUNIAN: First question from Courtney McBride.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Are you able to provide any further insight on the repatriations? I know you mentioned about a thousand U.S. citizens from Morocco, but are there any similar efforts in other countries? And then I believe that the purpose – the stated purpose of this call was Iraq, so any further insight you could provide us on how relations are going with the government in Baghdad, particularly some of the resistance to U.S. efforts there? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. Well, let me start with the repatriation flights. So I mentioned that we had thousands of emails, and we’ve got this phone bank of consulate staff that we deployed, and usually it’s our experience that there are several times as many individuals who want to get out and evac’d than actually contact us. So the number eventually turns out to be much larger. And we’ve arranged flights and it’s been a large logistical effort. It’s taken a little time to get it together, and we’ve had to work with the Government of Morocco to get this all set up. But we are expecting in the coming days half a dozen if not more flights, and we’ll see what the demand is going forward.
This is the only country in the region so far where we’ve done this effort and gotten this kind of demand, but we understand in countries like Egypt that there are tens of thousands of American citizens, and dual nationals, et cetera. So we’ll be looking at what the demand is and what the request is and how to best serve our fellow countrymen going forward.
As for relations with the Government of Iraq, Courtney, is that the question, how we’re doing with the Government of Iraq right now?
QUESTION: That’s correct, particularly with some resistance to coordinated military movements, positioning of weapon systems, and the Secretary had some strong words regarding strikes on U.S. installations, and the government’s apparent failure to prevent such actions.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, it’s no secret that we’ve been, I think, enormously disappointed with the performance of the Government of Iraq in fulfilling its obligations to protect coalition forces, particularly American forces, who are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, and the Secretary has spoken many times to the prime minister, the caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, about this. So that remains a point of contention. We have been told from the Government of Iraq that they will investigate thoroughly and bring to justice those individuals responsible for the most recent attack that killed two Americans and a Briton. And they did, in fact, do some operations to go arrest people. But I think the proof is in the pudding. We’ve heard this so many times before from the Government of Iraq, so we’re looking forward to them fulfilling their responsibilities.
In this regard, once again, this is a difficult issue between the United States and the government. I would state that the Government of Iraq is in caretaker status right now. There is a new prime minister-designate, somebody who – Adnan Zurfi, somebody who we know well. It is far from certain, given the nature of Iraqi politics – it’s unclear, given the nature of Iraqi politics, whether Mr. Zurfi will be able to form a government. And you know the same – there was – his predecessor, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, tried very hard to do so and wasn’t able to. What we’re looking for, as I said earlier, is a Government of Iraq that will hold those accountable in Iraq who have killed over 600 protesters – demonstrators calling for their basic rights – accountable, but also be interested in putting Iraq first and demonstrating that they are an Iraqi patriot and wanting to have Iraq be a sovereign nation rather than a vassal state of Iran.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Kim Dozier is next.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing (inaudible). I wanted to ask, what is happening to U.S. foreign policy goals in Iraq and the region right now because of COVID-19? Is there any update to the discussion of NATO possibly taking over the mission? Also, I saw the announcement that training activities by the coalition are suspended because of coronavirus, but you also had this week the – what was reported as a planned withdrawal from al-Qaim, which had previously been strategically very significant to the coalition mission. So how does that fit into the larger U.S. goal in Iraq and what you’re looking forward to?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, no, thank you. Those are all good questions – those are all good questions.
First of all, the decision to suspend the training mission should not come as a surprise to anyone. Given the spread of COVID, I think it’s a good decision. At the same time, about the repositioning of forces, the U.S. has planned – needs some changes and consolidated our positions in Iraq. This was going to happen for some time. This was planned that we were going to pull out of – the Combined Joint Task Force was going to pull out of Qaim, Qayyarah West and Kirkuk, and move to some other – several other permanent or semi-permanent Iraqi bases going forward. This is in part because consolidation makes sense. It’s in part because the Iraqi forces that we have been training are better ready to stand on their own feet and do the work, and therefore we don’t have to be – have so many people and so dispersed across Iraq. And last but not least, in that this – in the era of corona, we’re looking for maybe fewer bases with fewer people on them.
So all these things, I think, are prudent and within our plan, and we had been talking about this for some time with our Iraqi counterparts, and I think – anyway, so let me leave that at that.
As for the foreign policy goals, listen, first of all, in terms of the State Department, we are really – concerned about the safety of our people and the safety and health of our people is the main priority. So we’ve been working to ensure our posts have what they need. We had a global authorized departure, so we’ve been working to get out individuals who may be compromised for one reason or another who want to – health compromised, and for one reason or another may want to come back to the United States – people that are pregnant, et cetera – you can imagine. This was unprecedented and we did this across the globe, bringing back the Foreign Service, nationals. But our foreign policy goals largely remain the same, and we’re working with our allies to help them better combat the virus, but we remain committed and focused narrowly on the maximum pressure campaign, on Iran, on securing our interests, the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq and throughout the region, in Syria, and counterterrorism operations continue in Yemen. We remain engaged on Libya, trying to prevent the next escalation there. We had an evacuation, a medical evacuation of an American citizen yesterday from Lebanon.
So we are doing what we – what we always do. In some cases our interlocutors are limited since some countries in the region, the governments are not working. I know that here at the State Department, we have gone dramatically to telework. I’m calling you from my desk right now, but most of us are teleworking when they can. So no, we continue to pursue the U.S. national interest abroad.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, Nick Schifrin is next.
QUESTION: Hey David, thanks so much for doing this and thanks for having this call. One small question – sorry.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Who is this? Nick?
QUESTION: Yeah. Nick Schifrin from PBS NewsHour. Hey there.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hey.
QUESTION: One small question about test kits and then a larger question about Iraq.
First of all, on the test kits, you talked about DTRA delivering test kits through the end of the month. Who are those for? Are those for Iraqis? Are those for U.S. forces? Are those for U.S. citizens in Iraq?
And then the larger question: Obviously we’ve seen yet another attack on Camp Taji. There has not been, as far as we know, any kind of offensive response. You said that if the Iraqi Government doesn’t take action, the U.S. will be forced to protect our forces proactively. As much as you can, can you talk about the nature of how you believe the U.S. should be responding to the ongoing threat of these militias that are firing into Iraqi and U.S. bases? And going forward, what does that mean – the U.S. will be forced to protect our forces proactively? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. My understanding is the test kits that are going to Iraq are for the Iraqi people.
As for – I missed part of your last question, but how we’re handling the ongoing threat and what I mean by proactively defending ourselves?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, I think we have been proactive throughout this whole thing, whether this is going out and targeting KH facilities, whether this was to go after Qasem Soleimani proactively before, the not letting of a planned attack be perpetrated. We will take what steps that we see necessary on the way to retaliate. We can go out and be proactive about our defense, in defense of our people and our facilities, whether it’s military or diplomatic.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Kylie Atwood, CNN.
QUESTION: Hey there, thank you so much for doing this. Two quick questions.
First, just with regard to the Americans who are trying to get home, you mentioned thousands of emails, perhaps tens of thousands of Americans in Egypt. Could you give us a ballpark for how many Americans total have contacted Consular Services who are in the Middle East asking for help getting back to the U.S.?
And then I just have one more question. This one is on Iraq. Just to put kind of a finer point on what folks have asked you about, how has coronavirus impacted the U.S. response to the recent Iranian attacks on American or coalition service members in Iraq, given some of the reporting that President Trump nixed a more aggressive response – is there any truth to that – due to coronavirus? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: First of all, we are working 24/7 in the field to handle the inflow of requests, of information requests. And mind you, that is in some cases with consular staff that has left on authorized departure for health reasons. So just the volume in this unprecedented situation, it’s hard to contend with, and we’re doing our best. And I think our people out in the field are doing an amazing, amazing job.
As – so I don’t have a number for you as to how many people have – how many American citizens have contacted our consulates. If you have specific requests, you can get that to Morgan or Stefanie and we’ll – or Pablo, and we will look that up and see if we can get that for you.
As for how corona has impacted U.S. response, I’d have to direct you to DOD on that. I think we are being aggressive in our self-defense and the defense of our people and facilities abroad. And we continue to be – continue to do so.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question is from Said Arikat.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ruben. Thank you, Mr. Schenker, for doing this. I need clarification on what you said, sir, about al-Qaim. Is that permanent repositioning? Are you completely out of that area, or is this just temporary?
And on Adnan Zurfi, ISCI or Ammar Hakim, they’re saying they’re not going to support him, or at least that’s what has been reported. Are you trying to rally the support of ISCI for Adnan Zurfi? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Said. Actually, I was on the phone with the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem this morning. I was thinking of you because they told me that the Palestinians and the Israelis are having excellent cooperation and exchanges on COVID-19, and so I was thinking of you —
QUESTION: Oh, excellent.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: — when I heard that.
QUESTION: Well, maybe we can have a conversation about that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Absolutely. We’ll take it offline.
But listen, about the prime minister-designate, through it all, regardless of whether this was Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, whether it’s Adnan Zurfi, we have taken a step back and we are just focused on principles, not individuals. Whether you have a prime minister of Iraq who is dedicated to Iraqi sovereignty, to holding people to account, to fighting corruption, to providing the kind of services that average Iraqis – that the demonstrators, for example – are demanding, this is what we want for a prime minister of Iraq. We’re not talking about individuals.
And once again, unlike Qasem Soleimani, who was, around the time that he was killed, he was sitting in Baghdad much of the time determining who the next Iraqi prime minister would be. We are not Iran, right? We want the best for Iraq. We are not meddling in Iraqi internal politics. And we’re dealing with, I think, with the situation in a very principled way.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, David. I just had a quick question on COVID. Are you also getting emails and calls from Americans in other Gulf countries? I mean, there have been broader airport and border closures – Bahrain, for example – basically throughout the region. Can you give us a sense of the demand from countries beyond Morocco and Egypt? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Nick. I personally haven’t gotten any calls from Americans in Bahrain or throughout the region. I am sure that our embassies are getting calls about the best way to handle the situation on the ground, what their options are moving forward, and we will make, I think, decisions going forward based on demand and what we can provide American citizens. We always want to do everything we can for American citizens abroad, and this is a fluid situation. Sometimes some of these airports in these countries close down with a day or two days’ notice. So undoubtedly, there are some people who want to get back to the States, and we are going to do our best to help them get back here.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Michel Ghandour.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this. I have a couple of questions on Lebanon, Mr. Schenker. First, did you put any pressure on the Lebanese Government to release Fakhoury?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Michel, you should have been there yesterday when I talked about Fakhoury. You – weren’t you there?
QUESTION: No, I haven’t. I haven’t heard you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Did you put any pressure on the Lebanese Government to release Fakhoury, or did you give them any financial or economic incentives? And did you talk to Hizballah regarding his release, especially that you said yesterday that some in Lebanon even tried to leverage his arrest for some sort of prisoner exchange?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Mr. Fakhoury was released by competent judicial authorities. We do not – we believe that he was detained wrongfully, and you can look at the – my transcript from yesterday on this. We did not —
QUESTION: I’ve heard you yesterday, but I wanted to ask you if there is any pressure that you put on the government – on the Lebanese Government – or did you give them any promises for economic or financial aid? And did you talk to Hizballah too?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay. Michel, no deals were made. No promises were made. We did not promise money, we did not promise to release prisoners, we did not promise not to designate any Lebanese officials, and we absolutely don’t talk to Hizballah, period.
QUESTION: And what did you mean by some in Lebanon have tried to leverage —
MS ORTAGUS: Hey, sorry. We’re about to (inaudible).
QUESTION: — his arrest for some sort of prisoner exchange?
MS ORTAGUS: Sorry, Michel. Thank you. We’re going to go to the last question, which is Jane from NPR.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for this. Regarding Adnan Zurfi, the prime minister-designate, a lot of opposition seems to be because he’s seen as too close to the United States. I was wondering how entrenched you feel that is. And if it is putting him at risk of putting together a government, what’s your outlook for Iraq if he fails? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So I’m not – I don’t want to comment on the prime minister-designate one way or the other. I was in Iraq maybe a month ago before this COVID thing started, and I met with Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, and he said all the right things about fighting corruption and about providing services and holding people accountable.
Zurfi, he’ll have a challenge one way or the other. Anybody right now in Iraq who is the prime minister-designate will have enormous challenge establishing a government. This is a fractious country with divided politics, and there’s an enormous amount of Iranian meddling and threats that is just counterproductive. And so the Iraqi political system has internal and external challenges, and I think I’m going to leave it at that.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much, Dave, for doing this call. We’ll have the transcript out as soon as possible. Thanks to everybody for dialing in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Morgan.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Thanks, guys.