the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Background Conference Call by Senior Administration Officials on Iraq

Via Telephone

June 19, 2014, 2:27 P.M. EDT

MS. HAYDEN:  Hi, everyone.  Thanks very much for joining us.  I appreciate your patience.  I know the schedule has changed a little bit today.  We have three senior administration officials to talk to you today about what you heard the President say in the briefing room.  They are on background as SAOs.  There is no embargo on this call.  And I’ll turn it over to our first senior administration official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call.  I’ll just very briefly review what the President said and then turn it over to my colleagues to go into a little bit more detail on the political and diplomatic side, and on the security side.

The President has been meeting regularly with his national security team over the course of the last week to both monitor and review options to respond to the situation in Iraq.  He has been guided by a number of priorities that include the security of our personnel operating inside of Iraq, our support for Iraq's stability and for an inclusive political process in Iraq, and to get at the safe haven that we do not want to allow ISIL to establish inside of Iraq. 

In that vein, you heard him point to several different lines of effort where we have made decisions and are moving forward with a range of different tools.  First, as you know, we have taken additional steps to secure our embassy and our personnel inside of Iraq.  And the President made clear that that will remain a top priority going forward.  Second, we needed to get a better picture and understanding of what was taking place inside of Iraq.  Therefore, we have significantly increased our ISR and our ability to get a better picture of the circumstances inside of Iraq, and specifically what is ISIL doing, where they are located, and what types of activities we must most closely monitor.

Then we’ve been focused on this question of how do we build the capacity of Iraqi security forces to provide for the security of Iraq to combat the threat from ISIL and, importantly, to provide assurance to all of the different communities inside of Iraq.  We’ve been steadily ramping up our training and equipping of those security forces over the last year. 

Today, the President announced some additional steps that we will be taking to include creating joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq that can facilitate our coordination with Iraqi security forces.  Also, a decision to send an additional number of American military advisors -- up to 300 -- who can help provide an additional assessment of how we can train, advise, and support the Iraqi security forces.  And my colleague from the Defense Department can speak in greater detail.

Importantly, I know many people have been focused on the question of whether the United States will take additional military action.  As the President said, we now have significantly more intelligence resources.  We also have prepositioned additional military resources that will enable us to make decisions going forward, both as we develop potential targets and as we determine whether that will be an effective course of action, given our belief that the best solution to the security challenges inside of Iraq are capable Iraqi security forces and an inclusive Iraqi government. 

But as the President made clear, we’d be prepared to do what is necessary if we make a determination that the situation on the ground requires U.S. military action. 

And then you heard the President speak to the fact that we want to engage in a diplomatic effort both inside of Iraq, where we are working to support an inclusive political process, and in the region, where we want to see all of our allies and partners and all the countries in the region more generally support an outcome that provides for a more inclusive Iraqi government and that pushes back on the threat from ISIL, which does pose a risk not just to the Iraqi people but to the surrounding governments as well.  And Secretary Kerry will be meeting with a number of our regional counterparts in the coming days as he travels to the Middle East and North Africa.

So I think the President gave a clear sense of what direction we’re headed in, in terms of building Iraqi capacity, providing additional resources so the United States has options to build Iraqi capacity and to take additional actions as necessary, and of course, supporting political progress inside of Iraq and in the region that can mitigate the risk of descent into civil war, and support a more stable Iraq going forward.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official] out in Baghdad, and I’ve been out here the last couple weeks, including during this entire crisis.  Let me just say a few words about the nature of ISIL and the threat.  This is an enemy that we know very well.  It is al Qaeda in Iraq, which used to be led by Abu al-Zarqawi, and it’s an outgrowth of that movement.

They have a specific agenda, which has been their agenda, as expressed in his earliest communications all the way back in 2004, which is to carve out his own authority in this part of the world, establish a caliphate from which to expand their influence.  At times, that agenda has sounded preposterous but you can see what they’ve done over the last 18 months, and they’re trying to move deliberatively to carve out what is effectively a zone of control and a state across the Iraq-Syria border.

If you just look at some of their attack statistics and take a comparison of how shrewd they are and how well-timed this most recent offensive was -- in December 2005, there was an election here that went very well.  And as the Iraqi leaders were getting on with trying to form a new government and we had large Sunni turnout during that election, the AQI at the time, al Qaeda struck the Samarra mosque at the end of February 2006, which started this slide into civil war here.

Similarly, the attack in Mosul, which led to a precipitous kind of psychological morale collapse of the Iraqi security forces, was timed directly at a period during the political calendar that was a time of really heightened vulnerability.  And if you look at their attack trends during the two comparisons, they’re almost dead even.  AQI back at the time -- we measured this by suicide bombs and vehicle bombs -- they were averaging about 80 a month.  And the three months before the April 30th election here, it was the same.  We saw almost 50 suicide bombers in the country the 30 days before the April 30 election.  And we assessed that nearly all of the suicide bombers in Iraq -- and there were nearly 300 last year -- are foreign fighters, global jihadis who had come into Iraq from Syria.

So what they’re trying to do is really rip apart the very delicate fabric of this country.  They prey on very legitimate political grievances, and they’re very effective at it.  So that is really what they’re trying to do.  What happened starting on Sunday with the collapse of the 2nd Army Division in Mosul, and then from there we had a kind of real precipitous -- two days of advance by these guys joined by Naqshbandi and some of the former Ba’ath elements was a psychological collapse in the country, particularly on the Iraqi security forces, and a threat increasingly to the capital here.

As my colleague said, we had some immediate responses, but first we had to make sure we were protecting our people -- our people both at the embassy and our sites, and also American citizens elsewhere.  And that required a big deal of our time and effort.  We also had to make sure that we were seeing better across the country, and that had to do with what the President discussed about our surge in ISR and our ability to see in this country is significantly enhanced.

Third, we had to think about how we could respond more aggressively, and the President laid out options and what we’re going to consider doing going forward. 

And finally, and most importantly, we had to keep the political process on track.  And this is just important to think about where we are.  On April 30th, the Iraqis had an election with about 62 percent turnout; 14 million Iraqis turned out to vote.  Over a million Iraqis turned out to vote in Nineveh Province, where the capital is Mosul.  The parliament, which has served for four years, went out of session for good just last week.  And at the time of this crisis when it began, we were in a bit of a constitutional vacuum period, in which one parliament is out, and until the election is certified there is no call for the new parliament to convene. 

So we had to work with the Iraqis very deliberately to get this federal court back in town and to certify the election -- that takes some time.  It took about four months in 2010 to certify the election; this time they did it much faster.  They finally did it last week.  And that’s the start ad-hoc to form a new government, as the President discussed in his statement.

The first step will be convening the parliament, and that has to happen no later than the 30th of this month.  It can happen sooner; they have to agree on a nominee for speaker before they convene and that is going on now.  After that, they will have 30 days to name a president.  Again, that can happen sooner if they coalesce behind a presidential candidate sooner.  And then the president will have 15 days to nominate a new prime minister.

So we had to keep that constitutional political process on track, and we think right now it is on track, both with the courts certifying the vote, with the national leadership meeting we had here in Baghdad about 48 hours ago with all the major leaders together and committed to the constitutional timeline.  And now we’re looking to convene the parliament really as soon as possible.

So a combination of keeping our people’s faith; trying to help the Iraqis figure out what’s going on in the country and how they can effectively respond; trying to keep the constitutional process on track -- because that’s going to be critical over the long term; and then determining what we can do effectively to respond in a more deliberate, methodical, and aggressive way has really been the core of our focus since this crisis began two weeks ago.

I’ll leave it there.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Just real briefly, sort of three areas that the President covered in his comments that I’ll just try to add a little context to.  One is intensifying our ISR support over Iraq.  This is something that really started in earnest at the request of the Iraqi government well more than a week ago, and we continue to add to the effort and to increase the effort, even this week.  It is a combination of both manned and unmanned aircraft, and we are now capable of around-the-clock coverage over Iraq of those areas of interest and we’re mostly focusing on those where we know ISIL is active.  So that’s the ISR effort.

The second piece was the President’s announcement that he is considering sending up to 300 advisors into Iraq.  And I just want to put some of this into context.  First of all, it’s just part of a comprehensive effort here to help Iraqi security forces break the momentum of ISIL.  The mission of these advisors is going to be to assess and to advise Iraqi security forces as they confront ISIL, and of course what we believe to be a very complex security situation on the ground.  They’re also going to help give us better visibility into that situation on the ground and to provide information and intelligence that we need to make any follow-on potential decisions regarding military options inside Iraq.

We’re going to start with small teams, several small teams of special operators.  The teams are about a dozen or so each.  They’re going to be embedded mostly at the higher headquarters level within the ISF, perhaps down as well at the brigade level.  And they’re going to be doing -- they’re going to help us establish these joint operation centers that the President talked about, the two of them.  They’re going to help us determine what the proper resources and staffing need to be for those things.

They’re going to assess the situation, as I said, and provide basic advice and recommendations.  But the first job is really assessing.  They’re going to go in there and get us a little bit better sense of the state, the cohesiveness, and the capability of Iraqi security forces, and then be able to give us some advice and recommendations about the future role of any additional advisors.  So we’re going to start small and then we’ll see what we learn from that.

And then lastly, just the President made it clear that unilateral military action and any strikes certainly remains a possibility, discreet and targeted, once we have better information.  And so I think it’s just important to remind folks about our presence in the region.  In the Central Command area of responsibility there in the Middle East, we have more than 30,000 troops at sea and ashore, including fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. 

As you know, we’ve bolstered our presence in the region in just the last several days.  As you followed over the weekend, the President and Secretary of Defense ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush into the Arabian Gulf.  She entered the Arabian Gulf over the weekend with two additional escort ships, warships -- a cruiser and a destroyer.  And then later on, earlier in this week, we ordered the amphibious ship USS Mesa Verde with more than 500 Marines onboard as well as Osprey aircrafts into the Arabian Gulf as well.

Now, these ships added to already two destroyers that had been on previously scheduled forward-deployed missions inside the Arabian Gulf and several supply ships as well.  So the naval presence has been bolstered. 

And then on the ground, as you know, we ordered 270 additional security force personnel to assist with security at the embassy in Baghdad and associated facilities -- sorry, 170 of them are actually in Iraq and 100 of them are being held outside of Iraq as a contingency force just in case we need them.

So we’ve done quite a bit in the recent past, but also over the last several months to continue to advise and assist the Iraqi security forces and to help them with their capabilities and their competence.  And that work will continue, and that’s essentially what these advisors will do.  They’ll help us learn more, and they’ll eventually help the Iraqis with their competence and capabilities in the field.  And that’s it for me.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Operator, we’ll move to questions.

Q    Thank you very much, gentlemen.  If I could ask whether the use of military force targeted, as you’ve described it, discreet and targeted, would be conditional upon a change of posture by the government and a more inclusive government -- something that Maliki has so far refused, barring some unforeseen emergency circumstance.  Is that what has to happen first before the President would seriously consider the next military steps?

SENIOR ADMINISTRAITON OFFICIAL:  I’ll take that, Andrea.  First of all, I’d say that as a general matter, the United States will take action if we believe it’s in our national security interest.  So for instance, if we see our personnel or our facilities threatened, or if we see a threat from ISIL – emanating from ISIL – that could endanger other U.S. interests or the U.S. homeland, as we would anywhere else in the region or the world, we’d reserve the right to take direct action, including military action.

So there is certainly a set of options available to the President as it relates to ISIL targets that would be very much in the United States’ interest if we felt that our personnel or our core interests were threatened.

With respect to the Iraqi government, I think we will be making an assessment, based on the intelligence that we’re receiving from this ISR and based on the additional assessment that we’ll receive from the military advisors who are going into Iraq, about whether there is targeted U.S. action that could support stability, that could prevent a descent into civil war, and, importantly, provide space for an inclusive government to form. 

And so I don’t want to suggest a strict conditionality on a set of Iraqi actions, but I do think it’s important that any action we take, whether it is increased training and equipping, or potentially targeted U.S. action, we would want to support the formation of an inclusive government -- that as my colleague outlined, we’re entering a window that is very important politically inside of Iraq over the next several weeks -- and all of the U.S. actions that we’ll be pursuing.  We want to be in support of the formation of a broad-based and inclusive Iraqi government.

So it’s something that we’ll be assessing on a regular basis, and it’s something that will include both our political and diplomatic efforts on the ground.  And it also will influence how we calibrate our military assistance.

Q    Just to follow up, I know that we can’t pick and choose, but are there viable alternatives to Maliki that are now being considered by his own coalition members?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I’d like my colleague in Baghdad to speak to that.  The only thing I’d say really quick is that we’re not going to put forward some preferred candidate of the United States.  We don’t pick Iraq’s leaders.  We have made clear what type of government we think is most likely to succeed, which is one that is inclusive. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, on April 30th, the vote was just certified.  The vote was for a parliament of 328 seats.  So it takes about 165 seats to form a government -- probably a lot more than that, just based on kind of the consensus-based nature of some of this.  Maliki’s party has about 91 or 92 seats.  So whether or not he can get enough to remain in office remains to be seen.

As I said about the steps, there’s a step-by-step process.  There’s the Speaker and then the President and then Prime Minister.  In past years, this has all been done as a single package at once.  This year, we’re encouraging the Iraqis to accelerate this as much as possible, just given the situation in the country. 

And I think as my colleague said, we’re not in the business of picking and choosing winners.  It really is an Iraqi political process, but certainly everybody now is engaged in this process, which is critical.  The National Unity leader meeting they had two days ago -- certainly, a meeting like this doesn’t change the world in one night, but it gets everybody together, including some pretty fierce political adversaries, because they have a lot to do in terms of bargaining and horse trading to form this government.  And so we are encouraging all of them to stay remained in the process and to figure out who is going to lead the country over the next four years.  This is the selection process to form a government for a four-year term, and it’s going to be vitally important.

But just as my colleague said and as the President emphasized, given the situation in the country, all leaders of all sides of all parties have to treat the situation with extreme urgency and begin in a very serious and concerted way the negotiations for the makeup of the government to lead the country over the next four years.  And that government, in our view, in order to provide stability in the country, has to be a broadly inclusive one, including the critical mass of all the major components in Iraq.

Q    Thank you very much.  Probably for the first senior official -- President Obama has ruled out sending American forces into combat in Iraq, and I’d like to make sure I understand how this should be interpreted.  Would this preclude the deployment of small teams of American Special Forces to call in airstrikes on behalf of Iraqi forces?  And such teams might not be in combat, but they could be on the battlefield, sort of on the model of Afghanistan.  So would small U.S. teams to call in airstrikes, or small teams with intelligence officers or contractors be permissible under President Obama’s guidelines?  Or is his statement really meant to preclude that?  Again, I’m not asking about future plans, I’m just asking how the President’s statement should be interpreted.  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’d say a couple of things, and my Pentagon colleague may want to add.  First of all, the principal purpose of the teams that are deploying to Iraq is to provide an assessment of both the situation on the ground and the state of the Iraqi security forces so that we can determine what is the best way that we can continue to train, advise and equip them.  So that’s the first order of business.

Secondly, I think the broad approach the President wants to pursue is one in which the Iraqis are in the lead for taking action against ISIL and providing for security in country.  Insofar as the U.S. considers taking direct military action, I think that would be in a more targeted and focused way if we felt that there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities.  So, again, not a situation in which we’re planning to establish the type of campaign that we have had in Afghanistan, for instance, that you referenced, but rather a capacity-building mission on the ground, a broader intelligence mission that includes a significant amount of ISR.  And then we’ll be making decisions about specific targets. 

So, again, the function of these teams is very much to assess and advise.  They will add to the broader intelligence picture that includes our ISR.  But we are not, with the decision the President announced today, embarking on the type of sustained campaign that we pursued in Afghanistan.

Q    Can I just ask -- I understand that’s not the purpose of these advisors being announced today.  All I’m asking is, would the President’s guidelines allow for sending small teams of Special Forces to call in airstrikes for the Iraqis?  Or would it preclude it?  Or is this something you simply haven’t made a decision on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, we have not decided to have essentially these types of teams, as you put it, calling in airstrikes.  However, it is the case that one of the things that you can do at a joint operations center or in partnership with Iraqis is share information and help them as they develop targets and plans for pursuing ISIL. 

So, again, clearly we’d be supporting their efforts in that regard.  But tactically speaking, it’s not an instance where their mission is to support that type of campaign.  But my colleague may want to add to that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think you handled it pretty well there.  I would just say that when they get their orders, their orders are going to tell them that their job is two-fold.  One is to assess -- assess both the state of the Iraqi security forces and assess the need and feasibility of any future advising teams.  And then, number two would be should we get to that point where we’re going to actively start to advise.  That will be the second component of the mission.

And I’d also just like to remind you that this is not unlike many other missions we perform around the world.  We have special operators in more than 70 countries all around the world, and they’re doing these kinds of advising, assisting and assessing in places like Africa, the Americas, even the Philippines.  So this is not an uncommon mission for these types of troops.  They’re well equipped, well trained for it.  And that is what their orders are going to read when they get them.

Q    So are these forces locked down in these joint operations centers, or are they going out into the field?  And do they have the legal protections you fought for at the end of 2011 and ultimately did not get?  Do you need a new status of forces for these guys, and did you get it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll say a couple of things and my colleague may want to add.  On the second question, we currently have some military advisory personnel in Iraq based out of our embassy.  They have the protections that are necessary for them to be there.  And we are confident that these additional forces would have the necessary protections and authorities to be there, particularly as the Iraqis have requested them.  Given the size and scope of this mission, this is not the type of thing that would require a new Status of Forces Agreement along the lines that was being negotiated in 2011 when we were in discussions about -- in the neighborhood of 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.  That obviously carries with it a very different set of necessary authorities and privileges and immunities.

So, again, I think our personnel who are already there, our military advisory personnel have the protections they need based on our agreements with the Iraqi government.  And we’re confident that these additional ones will, as well.

I’ll begin the second question.  Again, my colleague will probably want to add.  These teams will not just be at the joint operations centers.  The joint operations centers are one component of what we will be doing and adding to our advisory personnel inside of Iraq.  Some teams that will be deployed will also be working with Iraqis at the additional headquarters in brigade level.   

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That covers it pretty well.  Especially the first -- as they said, we’re going to start small with just several small teams of about a dozen each.  And they will mostly be at the higher headquarters level, perhaps down at the brigade level.  But we haven’t gotten to that level of specificity yet.

Q    I’ve got two for you.  The first one is these targeted, precise strikes -- are those confined to Iraqi territory or could they range in Syria?  And the second one is, have you guys elaborated any kind of rules of engagement as regards the presence of possible Iranian fighters on Iraqi turf?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me take your first question.  The President is focused on a number of potential contingencies that may demand U.S. direct military action.  One of those is the threat from ISIL and the threat that it could pose not simply to Iraqi stability, but to U.S. personnel and to U.S. interests more broadly, certainly including our homeland.

In that respect, we don’t restrict potential U.S. action to a specific geographic space.  The President has made clear time and again that we will take action as necessary, including a direct U.S. military action if it’s necessary to defend the United States against an imminent threat.  Clearly, we’re focused on Iraq.  That’s where our ISR resources have surged.  That’s where we’re working to develop additional intelligence.  But the group ISIL, again, operates broadly.  And we would not restrict our ability to take action that is necessary to protect the United States.

Again, we’ve taken action in this region in Yemen against AQAP; in Somalia against al-Shabaab.  Recently, we took a direct action in capturing Abu Khatallah in Libya.  So, again, we’re going to do what is necessary.  Clearly, we’re focused on Iraq in terms of these additional resources.  But we’ll continue to focus on the evolving threat of ISIL as we consider different options.

On the rules of engagement, I’ll let my colleague at the Pentagon address that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We typically don’t talk about the specific rules of engagement for obvious reasons.  But what I can tell you is that our troops will have, as they have elsewhere in the world, the inherent right of self-defense.

Q    I guess what I mean is, if you guys are going to launch a drone strike, is there any reason to have direct or indirect coordination so that you’re not hitting -- I mean, I’m not going to call them allied forces, but so you’re not hitting people who are also fighting ISIL?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’ve made clear that we are not going to coordinate military action with the Iranian government.  That’s not something that we are in the business of doing.  We rather would have a broader political conversation with them about Iraq’s -- about our efforts to support Iraq’s future.  So this is not a series of tactical discussions that we would have with the Iranians. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The only thing I would add is we’re not at the stage where we’re preparing for airstrikes, obviously.  The President hasn’t asked us to do that.  But whenever it comes to that, and where and when we do those kinds of things, we do them in a very precise, targeted, deliberate, measured way with the best possible intelligence that’s available.

And I would suspect that if it gets to that point in Iraq, then we will follow the same very rigorous procedures we follow elsewhere around the world.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And I should have added to that point -- part of the purpose of having the additional ISR assets, getting the additional situational awareness from these assessment efforts.  Again, that’s focused on Iraqi capacity-building and support for the Iraqis.

If there were to be a situation where we were to decide to take action, of course that would also provide us with the ability to be very careful that Iraqi security forces, civilians would not be put unnecessarily at risk.  So that’s part of the benefit of having additional intelligence.

Q    Great, thank you.  Two questions.  One, could you talk a little bit more about the advisors’ focus on the higher headquarters and BCTs?  Will this mostly be in and around Baghdad, or do you see them going farther north and west?  I think the President suggested that Baghdad has to be protected first and foremost to prevent the fall of the capital, so I’m just wondering if I’m interpreting this correctly, that they will mostly be around Baghdad.

And then if you could, in your -- I don’t know how many conversations you’ve had with Iraqi government officials over the last couple of weeks.  Have you seen any indication that Maliki is willing to step down?  And is it true that he recently banned the Mutahiddun political party from government?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So on your first question, exact headquarters locations haven’t all been worked out, but I think it’s safe to assume that initially, certainly -- because we’re going to be starting with just small teams at first -- certainly we’re going to be focused on Baghdad, in and around Baghdad.  I think that’s safe to assume, but I wouldn’t -- I can’t at this early stage rule out that there won’t be some advisors embedded in headquarters outside of Baghdad.  But clearly, Baghdad will be the main first focus.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just say all of these discussions come in a context of whether or not you can build a coalition to form a government.  And because the elections just certified, that’s all kind of just starting now in a very intensive way.  So the leadership makeup -- Speaker, President, Prime Minister -- will be determined through that process. 

No, it’s not true that -- I’ve seen that quote.  There’s really been -- the last two weeks has been a bit of a kind of a house of mirrors, and foggy with -- all full of rumors all over the place.  That’s one of them that is also not true.  The coalition remains a part of the government.  Obviously, very intense disagreements between all parties on all sorts of things, but the government is continuing to function. 

And the meeting that was held 48 hours ago had everybody from the head of the Mutahiddun to a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood Party here to the Prime Minister’s party to Shia opposition parties, Ammar Hakim to the Christian leadership -- I mean, everybody was in the room -- and committing to the constitutional process for forming a government, and also, basically making very clear in a statement that ISIL is a threat to all Iraqis and they are very much united against it.

And some of the things ISIL is already doing in Nineveh in terms of seizing all sorts of -- burning down churches, seizing land, mass executions -- has galvanized the political class here against this movement.  And then it’s about mobilizing popular forces, eventually to be able to take them on.  And one of those things to help do that is basically we have to be able to see better and enable better, and help them target more effectively and do things more effectively, and also reconstitute some of their security forces.

So a lot of the measures obviously we’re discussing on the call on the security side are all geared towards that end.

Q    Okay.  But in your many conversations the Prime Minister -- and I know you’ve had multiple over the years -- has he ever indicated that he would be willing to step down for the better of the country?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I meet with everybody here on all sides of the fence constantly.  And there was just an election, and the election -- I mean, the conversation is, let’s see how the election goes.  The election happened.  The election -- much of our focus over the last year was making sure the election actually happened.  It was quite a struggle to put all the pieces in place to have happen.

It happened.  It was a credible election.  The U.N. was very involved in this.  And we just had the vote certified.  And, again, nobody won a majority, so we’re going to have to see -- obviously, if you can’t form a majority, you can’t form a government.  And we’ll know this fairly soon because one of our messages to all parties is, try to accelerate this process as much as possible.  And the process will formally kick off, at the very latest, on the 30th of this month when the parliament convenes.

Q    Okay.  Well, let me try it this way -- this is my last one, I promise.  In 2011, around the Arab Spring time, as you know, the Prime Minister at that point said he would not seek a third term.  Has he ever repeated that since?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Publicly?  I don’t know.  You could look at the public record.  I’m not sure.  But I’m just -- I’m not going to get into my internal deliberations as there’s already some quotes in the press about some of my internal meetings here with the ambassador which are not true.  So I’m just not going to get into the internal deliberations.

Our message very clearly to all of them is, the constitutional process has to move.  It has to move rapidly.  It has to move on the constitutional timeline.  And all the Iraqi people who voted, many at great risk to their own lives -- and 14 million of them voted -- expect these newly elected leaders to come together and form a government as soon as possible that can move the country forward.

The country is in a serious crisis.  And it’s really incumbent upon all of them to come together.  And if it’s not possible to form a majority coalition, then -- if a prime minster candidate is trying to form a majority coalition and can’t gather the votes to do that, then obviously he won’t be able to form a government.

But I’m not going to get into our diplomatic communications out here.

Q    Okay.  Well since you brought it up, which parts of what’s been reported of your conversations are not true?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Some of the quotes that are in our conversations -- we are urging a new candidate or something like that, and it’s just not the case.  We are very much -- as my colleague said, this is a sovereign country.  There was an election.  The election was a credible election.  It reflected the outcome of 14 million Iraqis who voted. 

And so our conversations to all of them are about accelerating the process by which the new leadership of the country will be stood up.  It is not about saying, this guy must go, this guy must come in -- because we both don’t have the ability to direct that type of outcome, and doing so I think would be counterproductive.

What is critical is keeping the constitutional process on track, and the constitutional timelines on track.  And there was some question 10 days ago whether that would actually happen because the election had not been certified.  And the judges and the court who had to come certify the vote were dispersed and all over the place, and many of them were out of the country. 

So the court came back, election is certified.  That kicked off the formal timeframe, as I said, 15 days to form a parliament, choose the Speaker, 30 days to name the President, and then 15 days to name a Prime Minister.  Those are the outer reaches of the timeline; it can be accelerated, and we are encouraging all of them to accelerate that timeline.

Q    I do have a couple questions -- can you just help me with the number?  I didn’t hear it earlier when we were talking.  You said Maliki’s party has got 91 or 92 votes now, and he would need X number, 100 and some.  My other questions are can you give us any more [on the record] about Secretary Kerry’s trip?  Will he be meeting with the Iranians?  Can you detail who he is going to be meeting with?  You said to expect a resolution fairly soon on the question of Maliki, but I mean, what’s your timetable for how long you can wait?  And finally, who controls the oil refinery now, the largest oil refinery?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll start there and my colleague can speak I think more to the specific numbers associated with the State of Law party and some of the timelines, which he’s spoken to. 

And State will speak to Secretary Kerry’s travel.  Our expectation is that he will be leaving this weekend, as the President said; that he will have stops in both the Middle East and in Europe; that on those stops, he’ll have an opportunity to meet with many of his counterparts and many leaders from the region and many European leaders.  That would include, for instance, discussions with our Gulf allies and partners about the situation.  But I’ll leave it to State to provide more specifics about his travel.  I would not anticipate that he would be engaging with the Iranians as a part of that trip. 

With respect -- well, I’ll leave the other questions to my colleague, who is in the best place to handle them.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, I mean, if you want the numbers, it’s a parliament of 328 seats; it takes a majority of about 165 seats to form a government.  There are certain thresholds built into the system, such as a two-thirds requirement for choosing a President, but if there isn’t a President with two-thirds, you could still elect one by a majority.  But I think they usually try to hold to that two-thirds timeline. 

And just as of the numbers, yes, Maliki’s party, State of Law, has 92 seats.  And just to kind of put that in perspective, other kind of major coalitions here -- Mutahiddun which was mentioned earlier, which is led by Osama Najafi, one of the main Sunni lists, has 23 seats.  Another main Sunni list, Arabiyya headed by Saleh Mutlaq, who I saw today has 10 seats.  Some of Maliki’s rivals in the Shia camp, Ammar Hakim and Muwatin, which is an ISCI list, they have 29 seats.  The Sadrists, who are also another opposition among Shia parties, have 28 seats.  And then the Kurds have about a total of 62 seats divided among their different parties. 

And that’s the election, that’s kind of the political framework.  And it is a political system out here.  And if you break down the votes of the election, I’d be happy to get you those numbers, we have them all.  You can see kind of where the votes came from, who did well, who didn’t do well.  And that does kind of define the terrain.  But 92 seats is a good showing, but it is certainly not enough to form a government, and it’s going to require a coalition to do that. 

So I would anticipate that the leadership makeup of the new government will demonstrate significant changes.  And part of that is because the coalitions that ran in this election were far more diverse than anything we’ve ever seen before.  So it’s a much more fractured political class. 

As you might remember, Iraq has had three elections.  The first one in -- end of 2005.  There was really only like three choices -- there was the Kurdish list, the Sunni list, the Shia list.  In the 2010 election, that was a little more diverse.  There was a Kurdish list, there were two Shia lists, and there Iraqiya, which was all the Sunni parties together, and also Ayad Allawi’s party.

  This election was really completely different.  You had a whole array of Shia lists.  You had on the Sunni side about three or four main competing lists.  Ayad Allawi ran on his list and did fairly well, and then the Kurds also ran on some separate lists. 

So the permutations of the coalitions that can come together to form a government -- there are just a whole number of them.  But our message to all of them is you all have got to come together; you have to get into the parliament hall and begin to negotiate to form this government -- who is going to be the speaker is the first choice, who is going to be the President is the second choice, and who is going to be the prime minister.

  So all of this will be a lot of horse trading, but the country is in crisis and there isn’t that much time for the usual tug and pull of political jockeying.

Q    So just to clarify, I know that you’re saying that the U.S. is not wanting to actively remove Maliki and install someone else.  But are you also saying that the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. is not actually talking with any of the opposition politicians about alternatives to Maliki, or are you trying to do your homework to figure out who you may be dealing with?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No.  As I said, we talk to everyone all the time.  And if someone says, look, there’s no chance for Maliki to be the prime minister, obviously the question is okay, what is your plan, what’s the alternative path? 

So we’re talking to everybody about what they’re thinking about how this might go, and there is a number of different ways how it might go.  And our consistent message with everybody is to keep it moving forward, and -- because that is something the country desperately needs.  And this country is in a critical part of a very vital region.  And over the next coming weeks, when this process moves it’s going to be very important for Iraqis in the region and the world to see them moving this process forward.  I just cannot predict now how it’s going to come out.

Q    On the oil refinery?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, this is another question of kind of a lot of rumors and fogginess.  And there’s been a major battle at the oil refinery going on, and it has gone back and forth.  And it’s quite a large site.  And I just have not had a report over the last four to five hours on that.  The last one I saw, the Iraqi security forces had taken back part of the site but I just can’t confirm where it stands right now.  I’d have to go look again.

Q    Just two very quick on specifics.  When -- and forgive me if you answered this in the very beginning -- when will the first of these special forces be arriving in Baghdad?  And you mentioned that it won’t be the full contingent, 300 at first.  What’s your rough sense of how many are going in this first wave?  And how many locations are we talking about?  You referenced northern Iraq, Baghdad around a brigade headquarter level.  How many potential locations around the country are we talking about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We don’t have an exact number of the locations.  As I said to a previous question, the major focus of this initial tranche would be in and around Baghdad, but I can’t rule out that they would be sent to higher headquarters at several other places. 

Now, as I said, we’re going to start with several teams of a dozen each.  So the initial will be in the dozens, several dozens in the initial tranche here that are going in to assess the situation.  Most of these teams will come from units that are already in the central command area of responsibility.  I mean, they’re already in the region.  And I can’t give you an exact date when they’ll get there.  I mean, we can certainly provide that for you when we have a better sense but it will be very soon, because they will be largely coming from units and forces that are already in the region. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And I’d just add that we’ve had an advisory function at the embassy in Baghdad, so we already have a number of U.S. military personnel who have been able to provide advice and discuss our equipping relationship with the Iraqi government.  So this will build upon a foundation that is in place, but give us greater capacity to carry out the functions that the President spoke about that we’ve spoken about on this call -- again, without reintroducing U.S. forces into a combat mission in Iraq, but rather providing that assessment of the state of play of the Iraqi security forces and making determinations about how we continue to better provide them with training advice and equipment going forward. 

Look, thanks everybody for getting on the call.  I want to thank my colleagues, who were hugely helpful here.  This is obviously an ongoing process as we make assessments based on the steps that the President announced today, and as we respond to events on the ground in Iraq, and as we aim to work with Iraqi leaders.  I think in addition to tracking the deployment of these teams, Secretary Kerry’s trip will obviously be a very important diplomatic effort in the coming days.  So we will be looking to Secretary Kerry to be having those consultations with some of our key partners on this subject.  And he will be in frequent touch with the President throughout his travel, I’m sure.

MS. HAYDEN:  This is Caitlin.  Just a quick reminder, I know Margaret in her question asked for something to be on the record.  Just a reminder to everybody that this entire call is on background.  These were senior administration officials.  And if you need more help after this, you know how to find us.  So thanks.  Have a great day.

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3:17 P.M. EDT