the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Vice President
For Immediate Release

Briefing to the Press by Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President

MR. BLINKEN:  Good evening.  Thanks for coming out.  As Jay said, we just arrived with the Vice President about 45 minutes ago.  I think as many of you know, this is the Vice President’s sixth trip to Iraq since January 2009.  You may remember he took a trip to Iraq as Vice President-elect before the inaugural in January.  And counting that one, this is now the sixth trip.  So he is a frequent flyer and frequent visitor here.

The main purpose of the trip is for the Vice President to take part in ceremony marking the change in mission and change in command here in Iraq, an important moment, a momentous moment that he thought was important to mark here in person.  But he’ll also take advantage of being here to meet with Iraq’s senior leaders.  They’ll be seeing, among others, Prime Minister Maliki, Dr. Allawi, President Talabani, President Barzani, Vice President Hashimi, Vice President al-Mahdi, and His Eminence, al-Hakim among others.

And with them, he is going to take the opportunity to preview the President’s speech to the nation on Tuesday night to give them a look at what the President is going to say and to reinforce two points that will be in the President’s speech.  First, that the President and this administration are making good on our commitment to end the war in Iraq responsibly and to help build a stable, self-reliant, and sovereign Iraq, but just as important, this administration’s commitment to an ongoing relationship with Iraq. 

We’re not disengaging from Iraq.  The nature of our engagement is changing with this change in mission from a military lead to a civilian lead.  And even as we draw down our troops, we are ramping up our engagement across the board -- diplomatic, political, economic, cultural, and so forth.

In short, we are determined to build a long-term partnership with the government of Iraq and with the Iraqi people.  But to build a partnership, you need a partner.  And so the Vice President, I am sure, will also in his meetings talk about the government’s formation process when he sees Iraq’s leaders. 

In many ways, the length of time it has taken to get a government in place in Iraq was not unexpected.  I think most of us predicted it even possibly on the record before the election.  After all, the last time around it took six months.  This time, the Iraqis had an incredibly close election with two seats dividing the two leading parties and no one getting anywhere near the majority needed to form a government alone. 

Unlike last time, however, we have not seen a dangerous vacuum develop in which those bent on destruction would change the dynamic in Iraq.  To date, that has not happened.  And instead, we’ve had a caretaker government that for the most part has been able to take care of the basic business, whether it’s security services, or the disbursement of the budget, which is a critical element as well. 

Obviously, there have been issues and problems, but by and large what many fear in the absence of a government formation -- a really dangerous vacuum developing -- has not happened.  That said, this is not a durable solution for Iraq.  There was an election.  The Iraqi people would like to see the results of that election made real by the formation of government. 

We sense some frustration among Iraqis that this process is now taking a considerable amount of time.  And significantly, without getting to the elected government, it’s going to be very hard for Iraq to do two things.  One, it’s going to be hard for Iraq to tackle the big, outstanding issues that remain, whether it’s dealing with the question of disputed internal boundaries or the status of Kirkuk, whether it’s dealing with the production and distribution of energy resources, whether it’s dealing with constitutional reform and so on.  All of these big, outstanding issues require the elected government.

Similarly, when it comes to building up our own partnership with Iraq, it’s very hard to move forward in the absence of this elected government.  And so I think there’s some sense, growing sense of urgency that government formation move forward.  And that’s -- certainly, the Vice President is going to urge the leaders to bring this process to a conclusion.

Two other quick points and then we’ll take questions.  Let me just make it very clear there is no United States plan.  There is no United States candidate in terms of the next Iraqi government.  The Iraqis don’t want anyone, any outsider dictating outcomes or trying to influence the direction of their country or their government. 

What we do have is a conviction shared by the Iraqi people for a government that reflects the results of the election and is inclusive of the leading coalitions, including Iraqiyya State of Law and the Kurdish Alliance. 

And so that’s where we are.  That’s a very broad outline of the trip.  Let me stop there and take any questions.

Q    You talked about wanting an inclusive government and not picking a candidate.  But the Sadr Movement has the biggest single bloc in Parliament now.  So how would the administration feel about a government that was truly inclusive and actually had them in a leading role?

MR. BLINKEN:  What we want to do and what we believe the Iraqis want based on our many interactions with them is to strengthen this partnership that is set out in the Strategic Framework Agreement.  And given that, it would seem to be in the interest of the Iraqis -- and certainly in our interest -- to have in the government partners who want to build a partnership with us. 

And so I think we -- again, this is up to the Iraqi people.  It’s not our decision, but we would hope that the government that results will include in its leadership positions parties and coalitions that are interested in building a long-term partnership with the United States.  And that’s what we’re looking at and so you can make up your own minds whether one party, one coalition or another is interested in that or not.  But it’s hard to build a partnership if you don’t have a willing partner.

Ultimately, that’s up to -- again, up to the Iraqis, up to their government.  If that’s not something they want, that’s their decision.  But every indication we have from the people we talk to across the board is that that is something the Iraqis want.  That is something they want to build.  That is something that’s contained in the Strategic Framework Agreement.

Q    Can you talk a little bit about what sort of leverage the United States has to convince the Iraqi officials to form a government?

MR. BLINKEN:  I don’t think it’s our leverage.  I think it’s the leverage of the Iraqi people who are looking for their leaders to bring this process to a close.  And it’s been five months now.  That’s less time than last time.  But there’s in a sense a higher expectation after an election that went forward remarkably well that was deemed credible by the international community.  Some aspects of the election were challenged.  The challenge went forward.  The election was certified.  This is a very good process.

And I think as a result of that, in a sense -- as a result of the success of the election, there’s a heightened expectation that the political leaders will in a sense match the courage and sacrifice of the Iraqi people who have been through an awful lot.  So that’s one.  I think they’re feeling more and more pressure from their constituents to get on with this.

Second, as I mentioned a moment ago, there are a lot of issues on the plate for the next Iraqi government, issues that the Iraqi people care about deeply, whether again it’s the question of disputed internal boundaries in Kirkuk, whether it’s how to deal with energy resources, whether it’s some constitutional changes they may be looking at, whether it’s the integration of security forces and also moving forward in terms of dealing with their neighbors, dealing with the United Nations.  All of these things really require the elected government to be in place.

The caretaker government is able to do the critical basics -- that is basic security, basic services, and disbursement of the budget.  But in terms of making big, strategic decisions, every caretaker government is going to feel constrained in doing that.  So for Iraq to move forward and to deal with the issues that are out there, it needs this government.  So those are the reasons.  It’s not a question of our influence or our pressure.  It’s what the Iraqi people want and what Iraq needs them for.

Q    Could you drill down on that a little bit more?  You said that in order for there to be a partnership with the Iraqis, you need to have somebody to be a partner with.  So what is it the United States can’t do now in terms of getting aid or assistance or advice or whatever that it will be able to do once there’s a government that’s been seated?

MR. BLINKEN:  Well, there are a few things.  There are a number of things that the Iraqis are looking for assistance with that’s more difficult to do in this context than it would be with the full-time government in place, for example, moving forward with helping Iraq get out from Chapter 7 of the United Nations and moving forward its relationship with Kuwait.  These are things that will be much -- it will be easier to do more effectively once the full-time government is in place.  And we can be helpful.  We pledged to be helpful.

Similarly, in continuing to build up relationships with all of their neighbors, I think some of the neighbors are waiting to see the government form before moving forward more forcibly with engagement with Iraq.  Again, we can be helpful, since we have relationships with virtually all of the neighbors.  And that too will benefit from having the government in place.

There are a number of things we’re looking to do in terms of building up the trade and economic relationship, building up the cultural and educational relationship.  All of these things benefit from the greater certainty you get from having the elected government in place and not a caretaker government. 

So it’s not that things are on hold, but it’s that they are moving more slowly than they would if we had the full-time government in place.  So those are the kinds of things that we’re looking at.

Q    You spoke about some pretty complicated, complex issues dealing with internal borders, about sharing resources.  And a lot of people are saying it’s very difficult to make any headway on these issues in the next say year or 16 months.  Already, we’re hearing talk from a lot of Iraqi officials that the U.S. must remain deeply engaged, deeply involved in Iraqi affairs.  There was even talk -- there was a comment by the Iraqi Army Chief of Staff about the readiness of Iraqi forces.  I mean, there’s even talk now that the U.S. may ultimately have to delay or postpone a full withdrawal.  Is that a possibility?

MR. BLINKEN:  We committed to the Iraqis to be out of Iraq’s cities last summer on a deadline, and we were.  We committed to change the mission, end our combat mission and be down to 50,000 troops by August 31st, and we are.  And we have an agreement with the government of Iraq to remove our forces, all of our forces from Iraq, at the end of 2011, and we will.  We are bound by that agreement and we will make good on it.

Let me just make a quick comment about a couple of things you mentioned in the question.  I think all of you know, but it’s just important to underscore, that we’re not flipping a switch this week.  The process of ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq has been just that, a process that’s played out over a year.  This has been a lengthy transition to Iraqi responsibility. 

As I mentioned, we were out of the cities more than a year ago, and so Iraqis have had lead responsibilities in the cities for a long period of time.  And what we’ve seen -- and I would refer you to General Odierno and U.S. Forces Iraq -- but we have seen a growing capacity on the part of the Iraqi security forces to handle security.  And the evidence of that has been in the way the elections themselves were handled, the efforts to kill or capture extremist leaders, which have been quite successful in recent months. 

Of course, none of this means that extremist groups of one kind or another do not continue to pose a threat to Iraq.  Clearly, they do.  And we’ve seen evidence of that in just the past week.  And these attacks continue to kill innocents. 

But what they haven’t done thus far is achieve what we believe are their fundamental objectives.  One, to re-light some kind of sectarian fuse -- that has not happened -- two, to fundamentally undermine the credibility of the Iraqi government.  That too has not happened.

All of that said, again, the sooner the Iraqis get a permanent government in place, the elected government in place, I think the easier it will be to continue to move forward with the Iraqi security forces.

Let me add one other quick thing.  We will continue until the end of 2011 to have as many as 50,000 troops here.  As, again, I think all of you know, the combat mission ends, but the presence of combat troops does not.  And so we have -- we will continue to have a significant number of troops here whose primary mission will be to advise and assist the Iraqis, to continue to help train them to do partner counterterrorism operations and also to protect their own personnel who are here.

And so we think that over the next year and a half, our ability to continue to help the Iraqis increase the capacity of their security forces will be very significant.  And then, as part of our long-term relationship with Iraq, we will be setting up within the embassy an office of security cooperation, as we have in embassies around the world, that will be the real link between our military and theirs in terms of continuing to provide advice and help the Iraqis -- for example, become familiar with any equipment they may buy from us in the future.

So, again, let me just emphasize this has been a process and will continue to be a process.

Q    I have two questions.  First question is don’t you think as the end of combat operation comes at a time that is very critical for Iraq -- I mean, they don’t have a new government and it’s already on alert for more attacks from al Qaeda.  So do you think that the -- like the end of combat operations now might be actually inviting more attacks by insurgents?  This is the first question.  The second question is what is the time and what is the deadline when you see that this is a critical time for Iraq to have a new government?  I mean, it’s been already almost six months so far.  So is this a critical time or is there a certain deadline?

MR. BLINKEN:  In terms of the first part of your question, the end of mission -- of the combat mission was planned out over a long period of time.  And as I said a moment ago, it’s not a flipping of the light switch.  It’s been a process that started well over a year ago with removing U.S. forces from the cities, giving Iraqis responsibility for the cities and increasingly transitioning over the last year to lead Iraqi responsibility. 

So it’s not as if we’ve had an arbitrary deadline that we suddenly had to meet.  This has been a very planned process, a planned transition, keyed to the amount of time we thought was required to develop -- help the Iraqis develop sufficient security capacity to take lead responsibility.  It was not keyed to the election per say. 

Second -- again, as I mentioned, even though the combat mission is over and that’s very significant, U.S. combat forces will remain in Iraq to advise and assist the Iraqis, and there will be 50,000 of them.  So that’s a significant number of troops who can help handle contingencies if any arise.

And then, the other point that I think is critical, which we talked about a moment ago, is it’s not as if Iraq does not have a government.  There is a caretaker government in place.  Again, it’s not satisfactory for dealing with Iraq’s long-term problems.  It’s not satisfactory in terms of the desire of the Iraqi people to have a government in place that reflects the courage they took in going to the ballot box.  But it has also enabled the Iraqis to make sure that a dangerous vacuum doesn’t develop in Iraq.  So for all of those reasons, I think while this is a critical time, there’s this linkage between the change in mission that some would make and government formation we don’t see.

As to your second question, we don’t have a deadline for the Iraqis.  It’s not our place to suggest a deadline, to impose a deadline, to ask for a deadline.  It’s not the business of any foreign country to do that.  What we are doing and can do is to suggest to the Iraqi leaders that both in terms of the desires of the Iraqi people to see a government form and the ability to get on with the important business of moving Iraq forward, forming a government is critical and getting that done as quickly as they can is critical.  But there is no timeline, deadline.  That has to be up to them.

We have seen significant forward movement in recent weeks in terms of the discussions among the leading Iraqi parties and coalitions, very, very detailed discussions over power sharing.  That’s encouraging.  But they’re not there yet, and it’s up to them to get there.

Q    You said you have no preferred plan -- there’s no U.S. plan, there’s no U.S. candidate.  But there is a preferred U.S. formula if you like that everybody knows about, and it’s been out there for some time.  And you kind of hinted at it when you said we want to see a government that reflects the outcome of the election.  Could you elaborate a little bit more on why it is that you consider that formula the best one for Iraq at this moment and why you think it reflects the election results?

MR. BLINKEN:  Well, the election results were clear in one sense and not clear in another.  They weren’t clear in the sense that there was no outright winner.  Several parties did very, very well.  And, again, as you know, the top two coalitions were separated by just two seats -- one had 91, the other had 89.  You need 163 to form a majority in Parliament.

And so given that, it seems a couple of points are obvious.  One, is that the next government in Iraq, by definition, has to be some kind of coalition government, because no single party or existing coalition can get to a majority on its own.

Second, this was a democratic election, and we believe, again, that the election was credible.  It was challenged.  The challenges went forward.  The election was certified.  Given all of that, it would seem important to have an outcome, in terms of government formation, that reflects the basic results and those basic results had among other things, the Iraqiyya coalition, the State of Law coalition being the two leading coalitions, the Kurdish Alliance performing very strongly, various Shiite parties also performing strongly. 

And so based on that, we believe that to reflect the results of the election, which are the best gauge of the will of the Iraqi people, having a broad-based coalition in place is the way to do that.  And less important than what we think, that seems to be not only what the Iraqi people are thinking, but what Iraq’s leaders are thinking, because the discussions that we’ve seen going forward involve these very groups.

But, again, it’s not for us to say how this should come out.  We are simply expressing what we believe is the preference of the Iraqi people as reflected in the election results.

Q    You have specifically promoted that it should be State of Law, Allawi Alliance dominating this government, with a preference for al-Maliki remaining as Prime Minister.

MR. BLINKEN:  We have expressed no preference for who should be Prime Minister.  We have said that we believe that as the two leading coalitions in the election, Iraqiyya and State of Law should be we think at the foundation of the next government along with the Kurdish Alliance.  But how -- the details of how that government would be composed and in particular who holds what seat is not for us to say.  It’s not something we have said.  Let me repeat, we have no preferred candidate.  We do believe, again, that the two leading coalitions should be at the heart and foundation of the government.    

Q    Do you rule out that Allawi could be Prime Minister?

MR. BLINKEN:  We haven’t ruled in or ruled out anything.  Again, that’s up to the Iraqis.  All we’ve said is that the election should reflect -- the government should reflect the results of the election, it should be inclusive.  And we hope that whoever is in a position -- in positions of leadership in the Iraqi government are people who would like to build on the Strategic Framework Agreement and build a partnership with the United States.  If that’s what -- if the Iraqis choose not to do that, again, that’s their choice.  But we believe that reflects a pretty broad-based will of people and leaders here.  And so we hope that any government we’re dealing with reflects that desire and reflects that interest. 

It’s hard to build a partnership if you don’t have partners who want to do it.  So that’s -- those are only working assumptions.

Q    Is there any -- has there been any talk or consideration on what happens in the six months if they hadn’t been able to sort out --

MR. BLINKEN:  No.

Q    What steps might the U.S. be able to take?

MR. BLINKEN:  I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about the future.  Again, I think we’ve seen negotiations being -- moving into from neutral, to first to second to third gear.  There’s a lot of movement.  There are a lot of conversations.  There are a lot of negotiations that are ongoing.  And given that, it’s our assessment that the Iraqis will get there.  And, again, that’s what reflects the will of the Iraqi people. 

The wonderful thing about having a democratic election and institutions is that you increasingly have to be responsive to the desires of your constituents.  And the constituents would like to see a government.

Thank you.

END