Background Briefing on the Vice President's Trip to Iraq
8:29 P.M. (Local)
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you guys for hanging with us today. It was a long day of celebration and business for the Vice President. And as you know, we had a fantastic ceremony, the naturalization ceremony, and then a couple of important meetings today. And once again, we’re senior administration officials. I don’t see the AP reporter but I’ll pretend she’s here --
Q There’s a different one.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, I’m sorry. I know you guys register your usual thing, and I understand, but we’re going to keep this on background, okay?
Q Okay. Just consider it registered.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I understand. I understand. I do appreciate it.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague, senior administration official number one.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m number one? Okay. Well, thanks for gathering here, and apologies to anyone whose dinner we interrupted. We managed to do a five-minute speed buffet at the ambassador’s residence, so we’re feeling charged up.
Let me just describe briefly the meetings that the Vice President had today, first with the head of the Iraqiyya coalition, Mr. Allawi, and then subsequently with Prime Minister Maliki.
I’m happy to also take any questions about what happened earlier, the naturalization ceremony, his meeting with the commanders, and then lunch at the DFAC with troops that I think you all saw most of that. But I’m happy to entertain questions about that.
In the meetings with both Mr. Allawi and Prime Minister Maliki, the Vice President really made very, very similar points. And I think the two main ones were this: First, to both of them, he reaffirmed our commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq. He made it very clear that while, as you all are witnessing, we are drawing down our military operation, we’re ending the combat mission August 31st, we’ll be down to 50,000 troops. We’re not disengaging from Iraq. The nature of our engagement is changing. We’re moving from a military lead to a civilian lead. And, in fact, as we draw down the military force, we’re ramping up our diplomatic, political and economic engagement. And we’re working hard to bring to life the strategic framework agreement signed between our governments.
And so in both meetings, the Vice President reaffirmed that commitment. And I think that’s something that was appreciated by both Mr. Allawi and Prime Minister Maliki.
Second, he asked them for their assessment of the status of government formation, where things were going and how they saw it. And I don’t want to characterize the responses of either of them; that wouldn’t be appropriate. But let me just say what the Vice President said to them about government formation.
He made it very clear that we have no candidates, we have no preferred outcomes, we have no plan. We only have really three interests, and he expressed the same interests to both of them. One, we believe that there should be no outside interference in the process of forming a new government in Iraq. That goes for us, and it goes for all of Iraq’s neighbors. Second, he expressed his conviction that the Iraqi people would like to see an inclusive government and so would we, because that is the path to stability and progress in Iraq; it’s the path to being able to resolve outstanding differences that the new government will have to contend with.
And third, he expressed the hope that whatever the new government is, the ministries are put in the hands of people who will be effective and competent managers because, again, that’s what the Iraqi people are looking for, and also, that’s the interface with the United States in bringing the strategic framework agreement to life.
And so the effectiveness and competence of the ministries is something that’s important. But there was no discussion of individuals. There was no discussion of who gets what job. There was, again, no discussion of any American plan for Iraq because there isn’t one. And mostly the Vice President listened to both of them talk about how they saw this process moving forward.
And that was really the heart of the discussion. The Vice President did spend some time one on one with both Mr. Allawi and Prime Minister Maliki, and we actually have not gotten a readout of those conversations, although I would say I suspect that even if we had a readout there’s not much that we would be able to convey because they were private conversations.
But let me leave it at that and then try and entertain any questions.
Q I understand the message -- we all understand the message that there is no American plan and that we want to be helpful and we’re not dictating outcomes here. But his meeting with Maliki was so extended. So can you give us more of the flavor? Was there some push there to overcome certain -- some of the residual problems?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I got a very, very, very brief readout from that. I really didn’t get any kind of detailed readout. And all I can tell you is, he, the Vice President, is not pushing anything. He was in listening mode. He was trying to learn from the Iraqis how they saw this playing out.
It’s -- all I’ll say is it’s a very -- putting this government together, coming to an agreement, is like that old Rubik’s Cube game, and aligning all the sides is difficult, but it’s up to the Iraqis to do it, and what he was trying to understand from them is how they might see aligning the sides. And I’m not going to describe what we heard from them; it’s only appropriate for them to comment. And he was not telling them in the least how to do it. He was really listening, and that’s -- that was the extent of it. But as I say, I also didn’t get a detailed readout.
Q Is there anything to read out from the VP’s afternoon meeting, that he’s confident that this -- that the government formation could be expedited before August as some officials --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We didn’t talk about any particular time frame. I think what he said yesterday very much holds after these meetings, which is that he’s confident the Iraqis will get the job done.
When, we don’t know. But this confidence is borne out of experience, and that’s the experience of the last year and a half. In the last year and a half, there has been what was described as crisis after crisis, and yet, in each instance, the Iraqis were able to see their way through and see their way forward. There was first the question of the Kurds holding a referendum on their constitution, which people predicted would lead to disaster; the referendum didn’t happen. Then there was the question of the election law and the stalemate that set in, and people said the election was never going to happen but the Iraqis worked through that. Then there was the de-Baathification crisis. And again, everyone was predicting gloom and doom and the sky is falling; it didn’t happen. The Iraqis worked through that.
We were helpful. We listened. When they asked for advice we gave it. But they worked through each of these problems. And then after the election there was the whole question of actually getting to the point of certifying the election and convening the Council of Representatives. And again, there were lots of predictions of an eternal stalemate, and again, the Iraqis worked through it.
So based on that experience, as well as the conversations that he had, I think the confidence the Vice President expressed in the Iraqis moving forward with a government holds. But I can’t give you a time frame on that.
Q Does he have any reaction to the suicide attack in Ramadi and the violence in Mosul today? Was that of any unusual concern?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ve seen two things, I think, in recent months. And I discussed this at length with the Vice President, with Ambassador Hill, with General Odierno and others. You have seen, tragically, these spectacular attacks that take place and that kill people and do damage. But what you’re also seeing is when you look at the picture of the overall level of violence in this country and violent attacks, it has been at a historic low for the past year, and it’s stayed down.
So that’s the larger picture. And the other important picture is that in recent months, with the Iraqi security forces in the lead, working off of intelligence that they developed, the senior leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq has been killed or captured.
And so what we’re seeing, we think, in most cases, are efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq to show that it’s still alive and still kicking but its abilities have been vastly diminished. And maybe the most important point of all is this: To the extent that the objective of these violent attacks is to sow sectarian violence or to undermine confidence in the government or in the government formation process, they clearly have not succeeded. The sectarian fuse has not been relit. People continue to have confidence in the basic abilities of the government to deliver. There have been obviously some questions about services with electricity, but basically we haven’t seen the kind of dangerous vacuum that many people predicted develop.
So I think that’s the big -- these attacks take place in that much larger context.
Q Was there any indication or did the Vice President get any indication that either Dr. Allawi or the Prime Minister were willing to give up their right to be the Prime Minister or that they were ready to compromise on that, or put forward another candidate?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I really can’t comment on any things the Iraqis said. You’d have to go to them. And again, he was in listening mode about how they saw this process playing out. But I really can’t comment on what they said.
Q Did the Iraqis ask for intervention from the U.S.? I mean, I think for that minute that we were in we heard that -- Allawi at that point was saying United States is capable of siding with its friends.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn’t hear that comment so I’m not sure what that was in reference to.
Q But did they ask for intervention --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I can’t comment on what they said or what they did or didn’t ask for. I would ask them for their -- for what they said in the meetings.
Q I mean, in general, can you say they were satisfied with the level of U.S. involvement in this process, they wanted more, or they wanted less?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I think what we heard -- and I don’t want to characterize their views. I think I can say that, generally speaking, we’ve heard from the Iraqis that we’ve been talking to that there’s a strong desire for the United States across the board to remain engaged in Iraq and to build up the partnership that’s imagined in the strategic framework agreement. And the Vice President reaffirmed our intent to do just that.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Anybody else? We’re good?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Exhaustion sets in.
Q You keep us locked up in a van for enough hours --
Q In 130-degree heat.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s all part of a plot.
Q That’s right, your diabolical plan.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: All right, thank you very much.
Q Thank you for doing this.
Q I just have a question. In January when the Vice President came here, there was some kind of a briefing with the President Jalal Talabani after he met him. Will that happen this time as well?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, did they do a joint -- I can’t remember, they did a joint press statement?
Q Yes, they did it in January.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: There’s nothing -- we don’t have --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we don’t have anything planned.
Q What is tomorrow --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: What do we have tomorrow?
Q Would it be possible to have like five minutes like last time, because especially after he meets the President, just to brief on his visit or something, a couple of questions?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll look at tomorrow and we’ll see. But we don’t -- we definitely do not have any joint pressers, press conferences, scheduled with any leader. Over the process here he’s meeting with everybody and not doing something special with one or the other.
Q Would it be possible that he himself might brief the press?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll have to see what the schedule looks like tomorrow.
Q Because especially like -- we’re not flying back with him --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I know, but people aren’t going to interview him flying back either. We’re all going to sleep.
Q Is there going to be -- we’re all going to sleep -- but is there going to be any availability with the Vice President tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know that yet. We don’t have one planned.
Q Is there a particular reason why there wasn’t? It’s a three-day trip. Seems kind of long to not be able to talk to him at all.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Two days.
Q It went over three days. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Forty-nine hours instead of 47.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it’s slightly over.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, there’s no particular reason why except the schedule is pretty punishing in terms of everything he had to do in a short period of time.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I just -- I just want to add one thing, which I meant to say before, which is, it’s been very interesting to read some of the stories about the United States and Iraq, because one group of stories seem to suggest that we’re abandoning Iraq and that we’re disengaged. Another group of stories suggests that we’re interfering too much in Iraq’s business, which suggests to me that sometimes the porridge is just right.
And I kind of think that’s where we are. And what we’ve heard from the Iraqis that we’ve met with, but more to the point, the Iraqis that our embassy is engaged with every single day, that our military is engaged with every single day, is that they appreciate the efforts we’re making to build a partnership. They appreciate the fact that we’re not trying to dictate outcomes the way some of their neighbors are trying to do, and that, as I said, maybe we actually have the balance where it should be.
And it really is this interesting phenomenon of some of the stories we see -- it’s like the blind mice with the elephant. It depends which part of the elephant you are. It depends who you’re talking to.
But the big picture that we’re seeing, we think, is that thus far the approach has been okay.
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: And could I just add on that, I was hearing about a report today on an American outlet -- I don’t think the offending journalist is here -- where it was declared that America is leaving Iraq and Iraqis are upset about that. And I would just suggest that if you looked around where you are at this compound and you investigated slightly the amount of effort that’s going into expanding and deepening the engagement of the United States in Iraq at the diplomatic, military, political, cultural, scientific, educational level, and stood back and accepted -- acknowledged the fact -- examined the fact that 50,000 American troops is a tremendous number of combat-capable troops, that it is preposterous to suggest that the United States is leaving Iraq or withdrawing from Iraq.
Q See, the thing is, when you talk with Iraqi officials, they either say, like, so we’re talking about, like, let’s say a Sunni Iraqi official, or from the Iraqiyya, they say always -- they always say America is not doing enough, not interfering, but they’re not doing enough. And the other thing is that when he talks to some other Iraqi official, they’re saying, well, American companies are not doing enough, despite --
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there’s two separate answers. If we could go off -- can we go off the record here?
8:48 P.M. (Local)