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: Thanks, everyone. It's great to be back. I will speak at a measured tone for the translation.
So given the pace of my meetings here, I haven't prepared an opening statement, but I will just give some highlights and top lines, and then take some questions.
So I arrived here in Baghdad last night. It's really great to be back, as always. I think it's about a month or so ago since I was last here. A very, very good meeting with Ambassador Silliman and our team and Prime Minister Abadi last night, spent about three hours with the Prime Minister last night.
Today I have seen Speaker Jabouri to talk about the very important work that's ongoing in the Iraqi Parliament; of course been consulting with our team; and I want to thank again Ambassador Silliman and our terrific embassy team here who has done such a tremendous job, in addition to our CJTF colleagues, General Townsend, who is down in Kuwait. We really have a unique civilian-military team here in Baghdad that I think has demonstrated results in supporting the Government of Iraq.
I will be heading to Erbil later today, and I will be in Erbil tomorrow, before some follow-on stops on this trip.
This campaign against ISIS, Daesh, has now been into not quite three years. Let me just give some overall statistics.
Summer of 2014, when we were here, ISIS was growing, expanding. Its catch phrase was "Retain and Expand the Caliphate." You remember the propaganda that it was going to spread all across the Middle East, spread into Northern and Southern Europe? ISIS at the time was committing unspeakable atrocities against the Iraqi people: acts of genocide in the north against the Yazidis, Christians, and other minority groups, massacring almost 1,700 young Iraqi cadets north of here, near Tikrit.
Since then, the Iraqi people really rose up and fought back, and we have been very proud to help them. We have now cleared 65,000 square kilometers that ISIS used to control. But this is not just a war for territory, it's to liberate people, most importantly, about four million people. Four million people who are living under ISIS just a couple years ago are no longer living under ISIS.
And critically particularly here in Iraq, the rate of people returning to their homes in areas that have been cleared from ISIS is historically unprecedented. It is now approaching 2 million: 1.9 million Iraqis have returned to their homes. I was just looking at some of the statistics today. We're in touch not only with our humanitarian team here, but also with the United Nations and the Iraqi Government. In Anbar Province alone, a year or so ago, we were in the middle of a major military campaign in Eastern Anbar Province—940,000 Anbaris have returned to their homes.
Significantly, every single square kilometer that has been retaken from ISIS in coalition-enabled operations, Iraqi Security Forces and across the border in Syria, with the Syrian Democratic Forces, all of that ground has held. ISIS has not been able to come back and reclaim any of that territory. That is quite a significant statistic. And that is because, when we help the Iraqi Security Forces with the military campaign, we don't just focus on the military aspects. This is very important. We focus on the local political components, we focus on the stabilization element, and we focus on what will come after ISIS.
So Mosul is really a case in point. And Mosul of course is in the news as we speak, because we are in the final stages of the Mosul campaign. I don't want to get ahead of the Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi Government, but the last time I looked we are about 250 meters or so left in Mosul against a suicidal enemy that is barricaded with civilians in buildings. Almost every ISIS fighter we are finding now has a suicide vest on. They are killing civilians to defend themselves. This has been ongoing for months. So even 250 meters will remain difficult, but this is going and will culminate soon.
The Mosul campaign has been a political campaign, a military campaign, a humanitarian campaign, and a stabilization campaign. The military campaign, I think at this point, speaks for itself. This has been a year-long campaign. It really started when the Iraqi Security Forces recaptured the Qayyarah West Air Base south of Mosul. That was about a year ago, and that has proceeded almost precisely on the plan that the Iraqi commanders and Prime Minister Abadi laid out, and laid out for our generals. And we have been very proud to help them. Step by step, this has proceeded almost according to plan.
The Iraqi military has put civilian protection at the top of its campaign plan. This is one of the most difficult urban battles—and I defer to my military experts, many of whom are combat-hardened veterans. One of the most difficult urban campaign battles we have seen since World War II, particularly in the western side of the city, in these last phases of the campaign. Many of my military colleagues were recounting last night they have never seen anything like it. The heroism of the Iraqi Security Forces, which are fighting to liberate people in Mosul, taking casualties to liberate their citizens, and continuing to advance, has been remarkable and heroic, and we are proud to work with them.
So I want to congratulate the Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, all the people of Mosul who participated in this campaign. While it has not finished, they have come a remarkably long way. As soon as the Iraqi Security Forces finish the campaign, of course the Government of Iraq will have more to say on that, we will echo exactly what they say.
On the humanitarian side, almost 920,000 Moslawis have fled Mosul during the course of this campaign. Because of the preparation that went in to preparing the ground on the humanitarian side—again our UN colleagues today told us that nearly every single Moslawi that fled the battle has either retained shelter or direct aid, based upon the humanitarian campaign plan that was put together. This has not been perfect. If you talk to those who are experts in humanitarian responses, any time you get more than 80,000 people in a crisis, it can become very difficult to manage. And we have had almost eight times that amount in Mosul.
But the planning that went into this Mosul campaign -- months and months of effort on the humanitarian side -- again, I think has paid dividends. I really give tremendous credit to those who helped put that plan together, particularly Iraqi Government here in Baghdad, the local provincial authorities in Nineveh, the United Nations, and other humanitarian organizations.
The stabilization plan. Stabilization is the buzz phrase that we use to help prepare the ground for people to return to their homes. So what ISIS, what these terrorists do, as you know, is they plant land mines, they plant IEDs, they put them in children's cribs, they put them in people's closets, they put them in refrigerators, they put them on toilets, so that when people return to their homes they are killed. We have seen this now for a couple years, and that is why, in stabilization, we prioritize demining, clearing the IEDs, identifying critical infrastructure at the local level.
The local people tell us what are the critical electricity nodes, water pumps, where the rubble needs to be removed, and then we work through our global coalition and through the Iraqi Government to make sure that those projects get underway to allow people to return to their homes.
So even in Mosul, where the battle is just in the final days, 213,000 people are back in their homes. Mosul University, which was being used by ISIS as a laboratory for chemical weapons to terrorize not only the people of Iraq, but the entire world, we now have the demining program underway at Mosul University. This, of course, will continue.
ISIS was using the critical infrastructure of Mosul. There is a hospital just north of the old city. They were using that hospital as a killing tower to assassinate Moslawis trying to flee ISIS into the arms of the Iraqi Security Forces. And Iraqi Security Forces liberated that hospital after much effort, just over the course of the last week.
So overall in Mosul and East Mosul, 350 of these stabilization projects are ongoing, 70 are about to get underway in West Mosul. About 40 tons of explosives have been cleared in Iraq. And again, as I mentioned, this is really getting underway now in Mosul.
Our global coalition, almost 73 members, will gather next week in Washington, D.C. with a focus on continuing to support the Government of Iraq in this very difficult effort, and continuing to support these very important stabilization programs. And the Government of Iraq next week, in Washington, before the World Bank and also before our coalition, will have an opportunity to lay out its own long-term plan. We discussed this with the Prime Minister last night, what it calls their Vision 2030 about economic reform, about critical reconstruction needs. We are working under our Strategic Framework Agreement that we have with Iraq to support those efforts.
I just saw Speaker Jabouri today. The Iraqi Parliament is working through a very difficult but very important amendment to their budget, which is part of the IMF program that Iraq has with the IMF, which will unleash almost $1 billion in necessary financing for Iraq, as Iraqis recover from the scourge of Daesh.
So a number of things here going on, and we will talk about some of them in Washington. And we talked about a lot of them today in Baghdad.
Let me briefly jump across the border in Syria. I was in Syria last week. The campaign to liberate Raqqa is now underway. Syrian Democratic Forces have penetrated into the old City of Raqqa. Similar to Mosul, very difficult fighting, but step by step, block by block, ISIS is being defeated, and we are very confident in how that is going. ISIS is now totally isolated and surrounded in Raqqa.
We have also worked out very important what we call de-confliction arrangements with the Russian Federation, which is helping to enable and speed up the overall campaign against ISIS, and that is going fairly well. I think you saw in the news yesterday, particularly after the very important meeting between President Trump and President Putin in Hamburg, that we concluded, together with our close partner Jordan, an arrangement for a ceasefire in Southwest Syria. This is the first step in a process for a more durable arrangement in Southwest Syria that we are looking to end the war in that very important part of the country.
This is a very important initiative. It took months to put together, and it was very painstaking work. But we are very pleased to finalize that process yesterday, and now we have to make sure that we pressure all sides to stop the fighting, allow humanitarian aid to flow, and people to get on with their lives. That came about yesterday, and we found that encouraging.
I will just say that engagement with Russia on Syria is something that nearly all of our partners here in the region have encouraged, including our friends here in Iraq. So that engagement, of course, will continue. There is much work left to do.
Briefly -- I alluded to it, but next week in Washington, D.C. we will have our entire Coalition coming to Washington to talk about the next phases of this campaign against ISIS. Since President Trump came into office, this campaign has accelerated fairly dramatically, and we are working to keep pace, not only on the military side, but also on the stabilization and the humanitarian side. So some of the key contributors will be coming to talk about and to talk with the Government of Iraq about the next phases of this campaign, and some of the critical needs, to make sure these trend lines that I mentioned early on in the briefing continue.
This is not just about defeating ISIS. It's about defeating the ideology that ISIS represents, it's about liberating the population, and it's about working with local actors to return people to their homes after ISIS. And so far, the trend lines are good, but there is a lot of work ahead. Of course, restoring these communities, reconstructing these communities, is something that will take many, many, many years. The Government of Iraq will be in the lead for that, here in Iraq, but we have a Strategic Framework Agreement with the Government of Iraq which includes economic cooperation, cultural cooperation, educational cooperation, and that is something that, through our embassy here, of course, we very much look forward to continuing.
So, with that, I will turn it over to some brief questions. I'm sorry my time is more limited than I would like. But I am happy to address your questions.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Thank you. So as I mentioned, we have a Strategic Framework Agreement here with Iraq. That's a permanent agreement that was ratified by the Iraqi Parliament. There is a security component of that plan that allows us, at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, to train your forces, to advise your forces. So this is a discussion, obviously, we will have with your government.
I want to emphasize a couple things. The United States is committed to our Strategic Framework Agreement, committed to a unified, federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq. And everything we do here in Iraq is with the permission and consent of the Iraqi Government. So these will be sovereign decisions of the Government of Iraq. And, of course, we will be very eager to engage in those discussions.
We are very proud of the work that we have done with the Iraqi Security Forces, not just the United States but other coalition partners who are here. From where the Iraqi Security Forces were in the summer of 2014 to where they are now is a remarkable transformation. And the Iraqi Security Forces now I think are some of the most proficient, actually, in the world, some of the most proficient combat-hardened forces in the world.
When you talk to our military experts about what they have been able to do, some of the elite units in particular, in battle is really quite remarkable. And I think it's due to our close military-to-military relationship, and the training that we have helped provide. So that will be a discussion that we have with the Government of Iraq in the future. And, of course, under our Strategic Framework Agreement, in terms of training Iraqi forces, that's something that, if the government were to request that, that's obviously something we would strongly consider.
QUESTION: I am (inaudible) News Agency.
MR. MCGURK: Good morning, how are you?
QUESTION: Good. How are you?
MR. MCGURK: Good.
QUESTION: Do you have any expectation about the end of the Mosul operation? Is it going to take more days? What's your expectation from, like -- maybe from the air? Is there still lots of militants in the city, the old city?
Other thing I want to ask about Tal Afar. Lots of rumors reported. Tal Afar has kind of argument between U.S. and Iran regarding who -- which forces will enter to Tal Afar and break through. Is it Hash'd Shaabi? Do you accept Popular Mobilization enter to Tal Afar? Do you have any rejection for this? Thank you very much.
MR. MCGURK: Thanks, Amar. So, again, I don't want to get ahead of anything in Mosul. Obviously, it's down to the very last stage here. Fighters we are finding in Mosul -- again, almost all of them in ISIS -- are wearing suicide vests. Large concentration of foreign fighters: Chechens, Uighurs, others from all around the world that came in here to Iraq to terrorize the Iraqi people are now holed up in this last section of Mosul. They are using civilians as human shields.
So the pace of that will go according to the Iraqi Security Forces on the ground, and I will let the Iraqi Government lead any announcements in terms of the overall pacing. But obviously, it's in the very final, final phases.
You brought up Tal Afar. That's a good reminder that, even after Mosul, the fight against Daesh is not over. It is the mission of the Government of Iraq to restore all of its sovereign territory, and reclaim all of its sovereign territory from Daesh. We are committed to helping Iraq reclaim all of its sovereign space. So we will help the Iraqi Security Forces in future operations, including, of course, in Tal Afar.
Tal Afar has always been a sensitive site, given some of the ethnic makeup of the town. So obviously, that's something that will be done very carefully. But I have found -- we have found, particularly the Iraqi commanders who have led these very difficult operations, they understand Iraq better than we do. And so we will defer to their judgements on a lot of this. And when they come up with their plan, we will be prepared to support it.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: So I think that's similar to the last question. You're putting your finger on the fact that Mosul has been a city of over a million people that was totally occupied by these terrorists, including thousands from all around the world, an extremely difficult military, political, humanitarian stabilization challenge.
But after Mosul, which will be a tremendous achievement by everybody that participated in this campaign, there is more work to do. There is Tal Afar, there is al-Qaim, there is Western Anbar, where ISIS still retains a presence, and there is Hawija. So the one thing I will guarantee -- and I think our record now speaks to this -- ISIS will lose. Any territory they are still holding they will lose.
I mentioned this: inside Syria it is our mission to ensure that any foreign fighter, anyone that came around the world thinking they would be able to sit here in Iraq or in Syria and terrorize the Iraqi people or the Syrian people, or plan and plot attacks against the United States, against our partners, against concert-goers in Manchester, against people trying to take a train, against people eating ice cream here in Baghdad, if they thought they were going to come here and then be able to go back to their home and live a safe life, they are mistaken.
It is our mission to ensure that any foreign fighter that joins this organization in Iraq and Syria dies in Iraq and Syria. We are not just going to push them from one area to another. We are working to -- as Secretary Mattis has explained -- envelope and annihilate. So we are doing that in Mosul, as we speak. The Iraqi Security Forces are doing that. Raqqa, they are completely surrounded. And foreign fighters that are in Raqqa now cannot escape. They will die in Raqqa. And for those who are sitting in Hawija and think they might get out, we are going to do everything we can to make sure they can't get out, working with the Iraqi Security Forces, who are the lead element on the ground in liberating their territory. And al-Qaim will be the same story.
So not going to put a timeline on the sequence of events, not going to say when each step will happen. But rest assured, ISIS will lose these territories. And we will then work to empower and strengthen the local communities in these areas which have been terrorized by these barbarians to restore their communities. We want local people to be in charge of their areas. That means local police, local leaders, connected to the Iraqi Government. And that's the policy of Prime Minister Abadi. It's one that we very much support. I think the record is pretty good, and so we will continue.
So this campaign will continue at the pace set by the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi commanders, and they will succeed.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Thank you. So I was in Turkey last week, had very good consultations with Turkish counterparts about the situation in Syria and the situation about ISIS writ large. And let me say one thing about that. Of course, here in Baghdad we are in the final phase of the Mosul campaign, so that's the immediate focus. But this campaign against ISIS is global.
One thing that kind of fueled ISIS, particularly here in Iraq, was this injection of foreign fighters. Almost 40,000 foreign fighters from all around the world came into Syria. Many of them came into Iraq. These are mostly the suicide bombers, the snipers, the very hardened kind of units that we see on the battlefield. Many of these are foreign fighters. We have largely stopped the flow of foreign fighters flowing into Syria, and Turkey has been quite instrumental in that. And we continue to work very closely with them.
On the particular question you raised, we did discuss it. It's very important to us that we maintain focus on the Raqqa campaign. Raqqa is where ISIS was planning attacks against many coalition partners, including Turkey. That's one reason we approached the Raqqa campaign with urgency, and that we feel pleased that they are surrounded and it's ongoing now. So we would not want to see anything happened that would set back that very good progress.
That part of Syria is a part of Syria where we have no presence, very different than the portion of Syria where we're working with the Syrian Democratic Forces. But I know the Russians have also been engaged in those conversations.
So right now, what we want to see in Syria is a de-escalation of the overall violence, and a focus on Daesh, which is the common enemy to all of us.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: What's our approach to Iraq? We support a unified, federal Iraq, as defined in the Iraqi constitution, and that's something that will not change and will continue.
In terms of the Iraqi Security Forces, as I mentioned, if you just look at the record from 2014 until now, I think it's a pretty good one. Not just the United States, but coalition partners who are here also to help train. France, Canada, Denmark, the UK, a number of critical coalition partners have been vital to this.
And the Iraqi Security Forces, we were discussing a little bit with the Prime Minister last night, whenever a recruiting message goes out, "Join the Iraqi Security Forces," or, "Join the Counter-Terrorism Service Forces or the Special Forces," there are more volunteers than there are to fill the slots. And I think that shows the real pride in the Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi Army, the Counter-Terrorism Service, the federal police, the Iraqi security forces that have helped to vanquish Daesh, the recruiting numbers are very positive. That shows that young people here want to be a part of this force. And that's something that I think is a testament to the professionalization of the force, and what everybody can see with their own eyes.
I mean you've seen these incredible images of -- whether Iraqi Army or federal police or Iraqi Special Forces -- risking their lives to rescue young children in Mosul. I mean these are now -- these videos are replete, and it's happening every day. Our soldiers are seeing it up close with the units that they are helping to advise, and the units that they helped train, and we are very proud of that. So, obviously, that is something that we'd like to continue.
And again, this will be a discussion with the Government of Iraq. And under our Strategic Framework Agreement, based upon their request, we will be willing to consider future missions here. But those future missions will be only with the permission of the Government of Iraq, and consistent with our commitments under the Strategic Framework Agreement and the Iraqi constitution.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: I've been doing this for a few years. I've seen what works against ISIS and what does not. And you don't really fight this enemy with ballistic missiles. So it's kind of an odd tactic. I think it's something that calls into question various commitments under UN Security Council resolutions, but I will leave it with that.
But the effective tactics against Daesh require intelligence, local knowledge, a very good military plan on the ground to root them out. You don't fight this enemy with ballistic missiles.
In terms of your other question, again, what I hear from the Government of Iraq and Iraqi leaders is they want to regain control of their sovereign space, and that means regaining control of their borders. And so, that's something that we very much support. And we're doing things on the Iraqi side -- I'm sorry, on the Syrian side of the border, but while Daesh tries to move back across the border, we've worked very hard to make sure that we sever those linkages. And I think it's important for those linkages to remain severed.
QUESTION: Hi, Excellency, welcome to Iraq. My name is Zeal Zubaidi, and I am senior correspondent of al-Hurra Channel.
I am asking, sir, about how is that American situation from the referendum of -- because the -- yes, of course. And this referendum is going to be -- go forward from Kurdistan region.
And are you talking today with Salim Jabouri about the conference, Sunnis conference, that is going to be next Thursday? Thank you.
MR. MCGURK: So on the referendum, I think we've made our opposition to holding this referendum on September 25th quite clear. And we've called on the Kurdistan Regional Government to reconsider the decision. And we urge on the pursuit of dialogue with the Central Government on the basis of the Iraqi constitution. All eyes right now must remain fixed on the enemy of Daesh, which is not defeated. And Hawija alone will be a very complicated campaign. And so anything that would distract against completing this mission is something that we will not support. And I think we've made that quite clear.
What was your second question? Ah, right. Yes, so I had a very good meeting with Speaker Jabouri today. These are the types of questions that are the sovereign decisions of the Iraqi Government, and political questions like that are really up to the Iraqis. But we obviously support -- and that's one reason we've worked very closely with the Government of Iraq, to make sure that the Sunni component of the country, which has been targeted by Daesh for the last three years, that people are -- can return to their homes. That is critical to reconciliation, and that is something that the Government of Iraq has fully put its full weight, authority, and resources behind, and something we've been proud to support, as a coalition.
And what the Government of Iraq does to help knit up the different components of society here, I think there is a real opportunity in the wake of ISIS. We have seen an Iraqi nationalism and Iraqi patriotism arise in the course of this very difficult campaign. But those are decisions that will be made by the Iraqis.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: I would just say, if you look around Iraq, there is a lot of work to do here in Iraq. So these are decisions individual Iraqis will make, but there is an awful lot of fighting left to do against Daesh here in Iraq. And there is an awful lot of rebuilding to do here in Iraq. That is everything from removing rubble in the streets to rebuilding buildings to helping the psychologically traumatized to helping these children, these cubs of the caliphate that these ISIS terrorists tried to brainwash. There is a lot of work for Iraqis to do to overcome what has been a very traumatic three years.
And so, I'm standing here in Iraq, and we have a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq, and we are prepared to help the Iraqis pursuant to that agreement. But I would just say there is an awful lot of work to do in Iraq. And so, all these brave, patriotic Iraqis who rose up to fight Daesh, the Government of Iraq I think is talking now.
Part of its program is 2030 Vision, about making sure that people can work, whether it's local police or whether it's local council members, to help restore their local communities. And this will be a very long-term effort. And so I think the more that Iraqis are focused within the borders of Iraq, restoring this great country, the better off they will be.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Yeah, thanks. So a question on the ideology of this barbaric organization and the flow of foreign fighters. As I think I mentioned, the flow of foreign fighters is down remarkably. So it is very difficult for ISIS fighters to get out of Syria or Iraq, and even harder for them to get in.
So, three years ago, if I was standing here, frankly, they were pouring into Syria, thousands of this jihadi foreign fighters. Sometimes here in Iraq you had almost 90 suicide bombers in a single month. And I try to remind people. Imagine if you had in your country 90 people coming into your country to try to blow themselves up in a marketplace or, as we saw a month ago, in an ice cream shop, or a year ago in a shopping mall, where people were enjoying the Eid. These people came from all around the world.
So, we have worked very hard, not just here in Iraq, but as a global coalition, to shut down the routes by which these terrorists were fleeing. And not only that, we have built up a database of who these people were. When we find information on the battlefield with a list of names, we do the research and we keep a database. We are building that database with INTERPOL, which is an international organization, to make sure that these people, those who were here and did get out, will be tracked, will be identified before they can do damage to another community.
So this is a problem that, as a global community, as a global coalition, we have taken extremely seriously. And the progress in the last three years, I think, has been quite encouraging. Every single capital I go to now, this is a top-tier national security priority: making sure foreign fighters can't move across borders; and, if they're identified, making sure that they are tracked. Every country has different laws and rules about how to deal with the problem within their borders, but it's something that everybody is focused on.
But most importantly, here in Iraq, much harder for these people to come in. And we want to make sure that they can't get in at all.
I can take one more, because -- yeah?
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Yes, so I can't talk about the specifics of any specific example, but it's our view that anybody operating here in Iraq should follow the rules and regulations of the Government of Iraq. So that's part of the deal for doing business in Iraq. But I'm not going to comment on any specific case.
We are very proud of the work that American companies do here in Iraq. We want to see even more American companies come into Iraq. Some of our biggest, like General Electric, have multi-billion-dollar deals here, to make sure that power electricity generation, which has continued to increase year by year, continues to go up. So we are very proud of the work American companies do, and will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to get even more American companies in here. Part of our Strategic Framework Agreement.
But obviously, I can't comment on any specific case. But the laws and regulations of Iraq are something that are part of the sovereignty of this country, and something that we follow, and that everybody should follow.