Press Conference by Special Presidential Envoy McGurk in Baghdad, Iraq
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS
MR. MCGURK: So thanks for coming. I’ve had a very good visit to Baghdad. It’s always great to be here. I was just last here a few weeks ago. I had a very long and detailed meeting with Prime Minister Abadi last night. And of course our commander of Central Command, General Votel, was here a day before me. Just part of our regular senior engagement with the Iraqi Government, a critical strategic partner of ours.
So we had a good meeting with Prime Minister Abadi, also a good meeting with other political figures here, with Speaker of the Parliament, Salim Jabouri. I spoke with the Speaker about the importance of after the battle with Daesh, what’s going to come next year, making sure that national elections are well prepared. And the parliament has a lot of work to do that seems to be underway, and that’s good. We very much support having elections well prepared and on time. Had a good discussion with the Speaker on that.
It is also a time here in Ramadan, I think, to reflect a little bit of how far we’ve come in this fight against Daesh. But thus far, in this campaign against Daesh, in operations that we, as a coalition, have supported in Iraq and Syria, Daesh has now lost almost 55,000 square kilometers of territory that it used to control. Over four million people that used to be living under Daesh are now free. And perhaps, most importantly, particularly here in Iraq, 1.8 million Iraqis who were displaced from their homes by Daesh are now back in their homes.
From Fallujah to Tikrit to Ramadi, on the east side of Mosul, people are coming back to their homes. And that is really a critically important statistic, and we have worked very closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, with local leaders, and with the Government of Iraq on stabilization programs to try to set the conditions to allow people to come home. And, of course, the Global Coalition is now 69 nations and 4 international organizations supporting Iraq’s effort in this, and we have been very proud to be a part of this.
Briefly on Mosul, as you know, because you follow this every day, the Mosul campaign has been long and difficult. This has been one of the most difficult urban battles in decades. And we give tremendous compliment and pride to – in working with the Iraqi Security Forces who have performed heroically, I know have sacrificed to defeat ISIS and Mosul, really, on behalf of the entire world.
The battle is really down now to the last part of western Mosul. We are working very closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, through our military colleagues, to complete that final phase of the battle. It will be difficult. It will be difficult because Daesh, which is an enemy that is suicidal and barbaric, killing people in – teenagers in music concerts in Manchester, people going about their daily lives in London, children going out for ice cream here in Baghdad. And now, in Mosul, they are using snipers to shoot and to murder civilians that are trying to free Mosul.
And, according to the United Nations, in the last week alone, 163 civilians in Mosul were killed by Daesh trying to free Mosul. So we are working very closely with the Iraqi Security Forces on the plan to ensure that we defeat the remaining fighters in Mosul while also doing our utmost to protect the civilian life that Daesh is so aggressively trying to take.
But it’s a really important reminder of what’s happening right now, of the true face of this enemy. They are mass murderers, they are barbaric, they are a threat to all civilization, all humanity, and those civilians in Mosul trapped, being held hostage by Daesh, we will do everything we can in supporting the Iraqi Security Forces to free them.
Of course, on the east side of Mosul and other areas cleared by Daesh, we are aggressively pursuing our stabilization projects to make sure that clean water is getting back into people’s homes. I visited a water treatment plant just outside of Mosul a couple weeks ago. We have, through coalition-supported programs, now cleared almost 41,000 kilos of explosive material. Because, as we know, what Daesh does before they leave an area, or before they’re defeated, they put IEDs, explosive materials, in people’s closets, people’s homes. So we are making sure that territory can be cleared so people return to their home.
So again, in Iraq, 1.8 million Iraqis are back in their homes and areas have been liberated from Daesh. In Mosul alone, 140,000 IDPs are back in their homes. More than 250,000 children in Mosul back in school. These are children 6 months ago that were living under Daesh, now are back in school. So we will do all we can, in working with Iraqi authorities, to make sure that these trends continue, while mindful of the extraordinary difficulty of this battle, and what lies ahead.
Let me briefly move over to Syria, because yesterday was a very important day in Syria. Yesterday was the formal launch of the campaign to liberate Raqqa. So we’re now in day one of this campaign. And, as you know, everyone who has followed Mosul, this will be a difficult and very long-term battle, and we’re prepared for that. But it is significant now that the forces we’re working with, the Syrian Democratic Forces, now have a foothold in the city of Raqqa. That happened yesterday. This is a very important benchmark in the ultimate defeat of Daesh.
So, if you think about it, their twin capitals were they have planned such mayhem against the Iraqi people, against the Syrian people, and against the civilized world, they are down to their last neighborhood in Mosul, and they are now – they have already lost part of Raqqa. And a Raqqa campaign from here will only accelerate.
In Raqqa, similar to Mosul, while it’s far more difficult, we are also working very hard on the ground to prepare the humanitarian and stabilization response plan. About 200,000 displaced people from the environment around Raqqa, from the operations that have been going on, the Syrian Democratic Forces have moved towards Raqqa. These Syrians are fleeing into the lines of Syrian Democratic Forces, and we are doing all we can to prepare the ground to take care of them. We are helping to deliver food assistance, working with local authorities, local NGOs in the UN.
And the town just to the west of Raqqa, called Tabqa, which was liberated about six weeks or so ago, already 15,000 Syrians have returned to their homes in Tabqa. And we have been working to clear land mines and explosive materials from critical infrastructure sites in these areas. For example, the Tabqa Dam, we are clearing land mines to make sure the electricity and water can be restored to these areas.
So, similar to Mosul, the Raqqa campaign is now underway. These are critical elements in the ultimate defeat of Daesh. But this will be a long-term effort. Daesh will not just disappear. They will try to become a subtler organization: car bombs, suicide bombers. And that is why we are committed, through our Strategic Framework Agreement with the Government of Iraq, to continue to support the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi people to make sure that they maintain relentless pressure on this enemy, which is also an enemy to all of us.
So, with that, it’s great to be back here in Iraq. I wish you all, again, Ramadan Mubarak. And with that, I’m happy to take some questions before I need to, unfortunately, depart.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.) Thank you.
MR. MCGURK: I think it’s an excellent question. Keep in mind, as I mentioned in my opening, that Iraq and Iraqis are not in this alone. This is the largest Global Coalition of its kind in history, and it continues to grow, is fully supporting this effort. And it’s not just the defeat of Daesh, it’s about what comes after Daesh. And that is why we focus so hard on not just the military campaign plan, but also the stabilization plan for what comes after the battle. And that will continue.
So, in July, just next month, we will convene in Washington. Representatives, again, from all members of our Coalition are coming to Washington. Secretary Tillerson did this in March at the level of foreign ministers. This will be at a lower level, kind of a more working level, to really roll up our sleeves about what’s coming in the next phase. We anticipate good participation from the Government of Iraq to lay out its own plans and agenda for stabilization and reconstruction. And we will work assiduously, we will work very hard with the Iraqi Government, World Bank, other international institutions, to make sure what comes after Daesh, that these gains are sustainable and sustained.
And, of course, the elections will be an important piece of this. We support the elections on time. The elections have to be well prepared. And that is why I was encouraged by what I heard from Iraqi political leaders yesterday, including the Speaker of the Parliament, Salim Jabouri.
MR. MCGURK: Yeah, thanks for the excellent question. I discussed this a little bit with Prime Minister Abadi yesterday and some of the other leaders I saw. Three years ago, around this time, Daesh, ISIS, was moving rapidly towards Baghdad. Mosul fell. Seven divisions of the Iraqi Security Forces simply disintegrated. Daesh then broke through at al-Qaim in Syria, were coming down the Euphrates Valley. And many of the headlines at the time was Baghdad about to fall, Baghdad Airport was about to fall. And those of you – of course, many of you are here – remember that.
At the time, how do you recover from that? How does the country recover? It looked almost impossible. And many were saying, well, this is the end of Iraq. And I, of course, I knew that was not the case. The Iraqis are some of the most resilient, courageous people I’ve ever met. And so, we worked very closely with them on a joint plan. And the joint plan was to begin to restore the Iraqi Security Forces, and to begin to push back, step by step.
And so, to date now, we have taken an Iraqi Security Force that was really on its back three years ago. As a Coalition, we have now trained over 100,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces. Every single military engagement, an Iraqi security unit, that we have supported as a coalition against Daesh, Daesh has lost and often lost badly. I think it’s safe to say the Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi Army, Counter-Terrorism Service forces, the forces that we have helped advise are now some of the most proficient, battle-hardened, combat-tested in the entire region.
So I think the record, militarily, speaks for itself. But then also, most significantly, we looked at this three years ago. What does it take, in a crisis like this, not only to defeat an enemy, but also return people to their homes? And that’s one of the hardest things to do, historically. And so we developed a plan with the Iraqi Government and with the UN and with local leaders about, before you do a military operation, what are the critical sites, stabilization, to make sure people can come back to their homes. And starting in Tikrit and some of the other early battles, when you saw the tipping point of people returning to their homes, that was a very significand moment. And we’ve made sure that that trend continues.
So I think the statistics now speak for themselves: 100,000 Iraqi Security Forces trained, some of the best fighters now in the region. Again, they have put civilian protection at the top of their plan. This is not a perfect record. This is extremely difficult. Where there are violations, people have to be held to account. But for the most part, the record is quite good: 55,00 square kilometers, total, cleared; 4 million people liberated; 1.8 million Iraqis back in their homes. So I think the trend lines are good.
But now we have to work just as hard to make sure that we sustain those gains. And so that’s one reason I stopped in today and General Votel was here yesterday. Not just these final phases of Mosul, but also what comes next. And this will be an ongoing discussion we have with the Government of Iraq.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Via interpreter) Can you tell us what happened yesterday, especially the second of its kind?
MR. MCGURK: Yeah, thank you. Good question. So, actually, it’s fairly simple. So our mission is to fight Daesh, full stop. That stretch of southern Syria, for some time, has been almost lawless and controlled by Daesh. So, some time ago, working with some Syrians in the area that want to fight Daesh, we set up a facility to help them do that, and to make sure that Daesh cannot encroach upon those areas of the Iraqi border and the Jordanian border. Our mission is simple: to fight Daesh.
At the same time, where we have U.S. personnel on the ground, we will protect our people. We have an inherent right of self-defense. And we have been very clear, through the Russians – and we talk to the Russians every day – about the deconfliction area around that site, to make sure there is no misunderstanding. And there is an agreed perimeter around that site which has been violated. And so, when artillery pieces enter into that site pointing into the direction of U.S. personnel, that’s a serious problem. So these incidents are unfortunate, but we also have a very clear agreement, the deconfliction area.
But the mission is to fight Daesh. When the fight against Daesh is over, we won’t be there. And so we talk to the Russians every single day about this to try to deconflict that space. And obviously, we will continue to do that. But as Secretary Mattis has stressed, the mission here is to defeat Daesh. We are not expanding the military mission. At the same time, we will, obviously, protect our people.
And so, we really do depend upon the Russians through our deconfliction channel, military-to-military channels, to help work these things out. And so we hope, obviously, that that will not happen again.
MR. MCGURK: Just talk.
MR. MCGURK: So, thank you. That is – of course, that issue is one of the many topics I discussed.
A very important element of the success of the Mosul campaign has been really unprecedented cooperation between the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Peshmerga, and between the Regional Government and the Central Government here in Baghdad.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes, being up there around Mosul. I’ve visited a hospital where Iraqi Army soldiers are recovering with Peshmerga, saying to each other, “We’re brothers. We want to get back into the fight.” I mean this is kind of really unprecedented cooperation. And we want that spirit of cooperation to continue, because I think that’s critical to making sure that extremist groups like Daesh cannot return.
It was very important and encouraging that Mansour Barzani came to Baghdad just the other day to have a very good and detailed discussion with Prime Minister Abadi. And our position on the Hashd al-Shaabi has been very clear for some time, has not changed. All security operations against Daesh should be under the command and control of the Iraqi Security Forces. That’s a chain of command that runs through the CJOC here in Baghdad and up to the Prime Minister.
Any armed group – and this is the policy of the Iraqi Government, not with the United States – we’re happy to agree with it – any armed group that is operating outside of the command structure of the Iraqi Security Forces is a serious problem. It’s a serious problem on the ground, it’s a serious problem to the Government of Iraq.
So, up there in that difficult area – of course, those areas, where the heart of Daesh – it’s a scene of unbelievable atrocities against the Yazidi population. And so, obviously, it is a positive that Daesh is being defeated, but we have to work very hard to make sure that the future security arrangements in that area are well coordinated and agreed upon between the Regional Government and the government in Baghdad. And in my consultations here I was encouraged by the discussions that are ongoing. And we will, of course, support the arrangements that can be agreed upon as a partner under our Strategic Framework Agreement.
So there is more discussion to be had here. Most important, Daesh is defeated, and that the permanent security architecture in that region are Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, with the joint security arrangement that’s agreed between Baghdad and Erbil. And obviously, that’s something that we are willing to help support with both Baghdad and Erbil. So that will be an ongoing discussion.
MR. MCGURK: So I think I’ve said this from this podium before. Everything we do in Iraq is at the request of and with permission of the Government of Iraq, the sovereign Government of Iraq. So these are decisions for the Government of Iraq to make. And, of course, we will be in discussions with them.
We have a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq, which passed the Iraqi Parliament. There is an education plank, there is commerce, culture, energy, economic plank in that agreement, and there is a security plank. So the future of our relationship to train, advise Iraqi forces will be an ongoing discussion with the Iraqi Security Forces. I think it’s safe to say we’re kind of at the height of what we’d be doing now, given the very difficult battle of Mosul – again, one of the most difficult urban combat environments in decades.
But I would emphasize the battle against ISIS is not over. ISIS still controls significant territory: Mosul, Tal Afar, Hawija, al-Qaim, as you know. And so we want to help the Iraqis gain control of its sovereign space and -- acting pursuant to their wishes. But this will be a discussion that, of course, we will be having with the Government of Iraq. And anything we do here will be with their permission and with their consent, because it’s a sovereign country.
MR. MCGURK: So it’s a very good question. And the question up in Sinjar kind of exemplifies this. I mean if you talk to the people up there about what happened in 2014, you get a sense of how difficult and deep-seated the emotions are about what happened.
And I’ve told this story before. Before the liberation of Sinjar, a very senior Peshmerga commander went and talked to the Yazidis about this very issue. We want to make sure there isn’t a cycle of revenge. And the story that was told to me was an elderly Yazidi man stood up and said, “These terrorists came and took my wife, my mother, my daughters. I will never see them again. And all I have left in my life is my revenge against those people.” And I think, given what Daesh has done, these feelings are something that I think we have to appreciate, understand, and account for.
Ultimately, this will be up to the people of Iraq to help with. What we want to help do is make sure that the post-Daesh environment is as stable as possible. That’s why we focus our coalition investments and resources on stabilization projects: water, electricity, schools, local police. So local people are controlling their areas, connected to the Government of Iraq.
And we are also -- very importantly, we have been encouraged that the Government of Iraq is looking beyond Daesh about, basically, just improving the situation of Iraq in the world. So I will give an example of that, because I’ve seen it, I heard about it here, when I’ve been in Iraq, these kind of conspiracy theories that the United States wants to control this part of Iraq or that part of Iraq, we want to control your highways or something. And I just have to say these kind of – this is ridiculous.
Coming from the United States of America, we’re very focused on improving our own highways. So the Government of Iraq, ministers of Iraq, with the government – Jordan, for example, has contracted with an American company, which has no relation with the U.S. Government whatsoever, to help restore that important highway between Baghdad and Amman.
Over a million dollars a month in commerce. And the whole point of that is for jobs, so Iraqis can be put to work, to improve the border crossing, to improve the road. For security, Iraqis are securing that road. Iraqi security firms, Iraqi Security Forces, all approved by the Iraqi Government, would secure that road. And the economy, because tolls on that road would be reinvested into Iraq. It’s the kind of thing that countries do to improve their situation, improve the lives of the people. And also, importantly, to connect Iraq to the world, it’s a very important connection to Jordan and to the outer world.
So this is the kind of project that -- the Iraqi Government’s idea. I’m actually on my way to Amman this afternoon. I will see King Abdullah about a whole host of different issues. But it was negotiated between the Iraqi Government and Jordan. We think it’s a good idea. It has nothing to do with anything the U.S. Government is doing in Iraq in the future. It’s about improving the situation here in Iraq post-Daesh. So it’s the kind of thing that I think we think is a good idea.
Anyone that is opposed to it, I think is either a criminal, a smuggler, or has an agenda to try to keep Iraq isolated from the world. It’s just an example, to your question, about the future and how to make the future better. And the government has been doing some things, these types of projects, which I think are very beneficial, and which will improve the situation in Iraq, generally, which can then help overcome these very deep-seated passions that Daesh has brought upon.
I mean we can’t imagine in the United States – it’s very difficult for us to appreciate what it’s like to have the number of suicide bombers that have come into Iraq from over 100 countries all around the world to blow themselves up in your ice cream parlors, mosques, and what that does to ordinary people. And so I think the world owes Iraq support to help you overcome this. But there is only so much we can do. It’s really up to the people of Iraq, the Government of Iraq, to do the things to help improve the situation here in Baghdad.
I will just say one final point, I know we’re running out of time. When you fly into Baghdad now – for those of you who have been flying in and out for the last decade – the city is incredibly lit up. And that is because of some pretty good decisions the Government of Iraq has made. Some American companies have been involved in that, such as General Electric – GE. Of course, we’re proud of that, and we want American companies to prosper here. But these are decisions that have been made by the government. And they’re the types of things that can help ensure that these terrorists have no room to come back.
But we have to stay at it. These terrorists will be around and will try to do suicide bombs and car bombs, and we have to help the Government of Iraq try to get a handle on that and increase pressure on these networks for the long term, help Iraq close up its border with Syria, so they know who is crossing. That is very important. And we, outside Iraq and Syria, have a job as a global community and a global coalition, to stop the flow of these terrorists into Syria and Iraq.
We’ve largely done that: 40,000 came in to Syria from 110 countries around the world, almost impossible for them to get in now. So we will do our part, but ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis and the Government of Iraq, and I leave here today fairly encouraged by my meetings. But I look forward to being back and seeing you all again soon. So thank you very much.