2:30 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We’re very pleased today to have Ambassador Christopher Hill here to provide us with an assessment on Iraq prior to the upcoming elections. He’s going to start out with an opening statement and then we will open it up for questions.
AMBASSADOR HILL: Hi, good afternoon. Good to see you all. We are within about two and a half weeks of, I think, a very important election in Iraq, an election that I think is very important for Iraq’s future. But it’s also an important election for the future of U.S.-Iraq relations. We, the United States, very much desires a strong and long-term relationship with a democratic Iraq, and I think these elections will be a very important element of that relationship as we go forward.
To be sure, it’s been a bit of a bumpy road as we’ve gotten this far, but I think we are on schedule to have these elections take place on March 7th. We have some 6,172 candidates, we have 18.9 million registered voters, 300,000 poll station workers. We have some 50,000 polling stations spread out over 9,000 polling centers. There will be out-of-country voters in 16 countries and we’re expecting considerable turnout there.
The U.S. has worked with other diplomatic establishments on having monitoring teams that will be – international monitoring teams that will fan out all over Iraq in addition to the U.S. teams. We will have teams from Turkey, the UK, Denmark, Canada, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, the European Union. So we will – there will be some special needs voting that takes place on March 4th. We’ll have our teams out there from March 1 through the end of the voting after the election, right through March 9th.
We hope to see some preliminary results happen as early as three days after the election, and certainly by the end – by the beginning of April. We would expect to see some final vote – final tallies of the elections, and then at that point, we go to the all-important and what could be a difficult process of government formation. The Iraqi people, I think, are looking forward to this. If you visit Iraq these days, you’ll see election posters just plastered everywhere in Iraq.
I think it’s a very exciting time for Iraq. Obviously, we will be doing – we in the U.S. Government will be helping the Iraqis with security and doing all we can to make sure that this is a successful election and an election that will really, I think, propel Iraq forward. Iraq has, I think, a tremendous opportunity for an improved relationship within its region, but also a tremendous opportunity to make up for some lost time in terms of joining the international – being a full-fledged member of the international community.
This is really the vision of what the U.S. wants to do in our long-term relationship with Iraq – to help introduce Iraq to that international community and see that Iraq, this newly very democratic state, is one that will really take its appropriate place in the international arena.
So we have a lot of work to do. I’ve been here for the last few days. I’ve had the opportunity, along with General Odierno, of meeting with Secretary Clinton, whom we just met with a couple hours ago. We also met with Vice President Biden. We met Secretary of Defense Gates. And we also had a meeting with President Obama, who took the opportunity to talk to General Odierno and me about how we see the election preparations and how we see the course ahead.
So it’s been a great week of meetings and I’ll soon be heading back to Baghdad and resuming my duties there.
MODERATOR: Just a reminder, please wait for the microphone and state your name and your news organization.
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. I’m sure you are tired by any questions about – so many press availability you’ve done so far. It’s Nadia Bilbassy with MBC Television. Very often, the Americans complain about interference from neighboring countries, mainly Iran and Syria, in Iraqi affairs. To what extent do you see an influence from both countries on this current election?
And as you know, two prominent Sunni politicians have been disqualified from this election. Do you worry that ultimately, that will affect the Sunni votes in the representations in the Iraqi Government in the future?
AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, first of all, we have expressed our concerns about interference in some of the processes, especially the issue, as I think General Odierno laid out and I have also mentioned – the issue of Iran. That said, we believe we have a election mechanism that will indeed be free and fair. This has been – involved a considerable amount of planning in addition to the Iraqi high commissioner – high commission for the elections, we’ve had a very active and engaged UN operation in Baghdad.
So we are confident that we will have an Iraqi election that will be for and about the Iraqi people. So we’re pretty confident we’ve got a good mechanism and a proper election which will be all about Iraq and not about any foreign country.
On the second issue, obviously, de-Baathification has been a tough issue to go through. We had, obviously, some concerns about the transparency and the way that this whole process would appear to the Iraqi people. The Iraqi authorities have dealt with this. Their courts have dealt with this. The Iraqi senior politicians have dealt with it. And we really look forward to a good election. I know there continues to be some discussion about this. I know it was a very emotional issue for many people. But we believe the de-Baathification problems are, for the most part, behind. And we look forward to them getting on with the election and having the voters make their decisions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Mounzer Sleiman, Think Tank Monitor and New – Orient News. If we look past the election, can you give us a sense of how many troops – battle-ready troops, U.S. troops will be staying in Iraq after some stability that the election could bring? And what would be their mission?
AMBASSADOR HILL: Well, first of all, with respect to U.S. troops in Iraq, the conduct, the mission, the activities of the U.S. troops are laid out in the security agreement, the so-called SOFA agreement that was reached with the Iraqi Government at the latter part of the Bush Administration, so I’m talking about November and December 2008. So that lays out what the responsibilities and what the activities would be of U.S. troops. In addition, President Obama in his Camp Lejeune speech last February – so about a year ago – explained that – what our policy would be with respect to the numbers of troops.
So we are now looking at reducing the number of troops to be down to 50,000, the 50,000 level around – by August 31 of this year, 2010. From that level, 2010, to the end of December 2011, that is when the U.S. troops and the security agreement – the U.S. troops will depart and the security agreement will expire. And so that’s to the end of December 2011.
With respect to what the troops will be doing by the end of August, by August 31, 2010, all our troops will be engaged in so-called advise-and-assist brigades. That is, they will be there to provide assistance to the Iraqi forces as they are already doing. Indeed, we have a number of advise-and-assist brigades already there. But it is expected that at the end of August – that is, August 31, 2010 – our troops will no longer be engaged in any combat missions.
QUESTION: Can I follow up just on – you mentioned advise and assist. How – do you need 50,000 advisor? I mean, you mentioned that they’re not going to be engaged in combat mission.
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah.
QUESTION: But 50,000 must – you know, you won’t need all that 50,000 troops to advise and train --
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah. Yeah.
QUESTION: -- because the Iraqi forces should have been trained so far for --
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess you’re a bigger expert than I am, but my understanding is they need those – that number of troops because they need to be available or present in different parts of the country and to work with different units of the Iraqi forces. They will also be, from August 31, also working to help provide security to our Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We will have some 16 Embassy-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams which are spread out around Iraq. And one of the main missions of our troops will be to provide protection to those teams and to work with them as we continue to engage provincial authority.
So that is the concept of the troop-to-task ratios, but for further details, I suggest you go to the Pentagon. Thank you.
Hi. Thank you again for joining us. Heather Yamour with the Kuwait News Agency. I wanted to ask you, since you’ve spoken about preparation for the upcoming ballot, can you talk to preparation for after the ballot? I know that there are some U.S. officials who have raised concerns the election results could prompt political chaos and sectarian strife. Can you talk to – can you speak to that?AMBASSADOR HILL:
Well, first of all, I think when people have talked about these kinds of problems, what they are often doing is recalling the events of 2005. We believe Iraq, the landscape – the political, the security landscape in Iraq in 2010 is quite different from that – from the landscape in 2005. But certainly, one always has to be concerned that there is proper security in the country.
I think one of the first elements of all this is to make sure that the government that is still in place, that is a caretaker government in place pending the formation of a new government, will be properly and fully engaged on maintaining security. And so that is a focus of some of our contacts with the Iraqi Government, to make sure that police and other security apparatuses are really – are working during this – during that time.
I think there’s a lot of discussion about the fact that, by and large, one would like to see a new government formed quickly. But I think one has to be realistic about the fact that it could well take some time before there’s a new government formed. And I think what’s important is that there’s a good government formed. That’s probably more important than that there’s a quick government formed.
So we will be giving our advice consistent with our interests as a friend of Iraq and – but this will be a process that is really entirely up to the Iraqis to form their new government. The way it will work is you will have one of these coalitions, one of these some five coalitions, really, with their additional political entities running in the elections. No coalition will be so strong that it can form the government from entirely within its own coalition.
So they will – a coalition will be reaching out to other coalitions, and I think you will see – I think the best estimate of most experts is that you will be seeing an Iraqi Government that reflects the interests of several coalitions and probably reflects the interests of several communities. So that’s how it will operate.
Yes, sir, back there.QUESTION:
Thank you. Ali Ahmed, Al Hurra TV. Today -- AMBASSADOR HILL:
From, I’m sorry, which television? QUESTION:
Al Hurra TV.AMBASSADOR HILL:
Okay. Al Hurra.QUESTION:
Iraq National Dialogue Front, which headed by Mr. Mutlaq --AMBASSADOR HILL:
-- announced today they will not participate in the election. And my Iraq Coalition, which headed by Mr. Iyad Allawi, would consider the same step. To what extent this present as a concern to the United States?AMBASSADOR HILL:
Well, I think this is one of the elements of the sort of continuing high emotion of the de-Baathification process. I’m not going to give any political coalitions free political advice. I think they have to make their own decision on what they want to do. My sense is that boycotts in the past have not really been very satisfactory. But again, I think I’m not going to give advice to them. I think they need to decide what’s in their interest to do.
I think it’s going to be a good election. I think it’s – there’s been a lot of planning, a lot of international, UN involvement in the election. So I look forward to an election that is a very good election and one that is truly up to international standards.
Samir Nader with Radio Sawa. Now with the U.S. returning the ambassador to Syria, what impact do you think this improving the relation with Syria will have on the situation in Iraq?AMBASSADOR HILL:
I’m – I’ve got my hands full just dealing with problems in Baghdad, and so I don’t think I’m going to try to do Jeff Feltman’s job. So my suggestion is next time you see Jeff Feltman, ask him about that and tell him I suggested you do so.QUESTION:
(Inaudible) the last two days. I mean, like, you spoke about Iran. AMBASSADOR HILL:
Well, what we spoke about is our concern about the way the de-Baathification commission was managed. I want to be very clear, we believe the Iraqi election process is really 100 percent Iraqi. So we are pretty satisfied, as I suggested, with the Iraqi election process. But I’m not going to get into describing our – the hopes or the potential for U.S. relations with Syria. I’ll leave that up to Jeff Feltman.
Zaher Imadi, Syria Radio and TV.AMBASSADOR HILL:
Whoops, there we go. Yeah. (Laughter.) Ask me about North Korea.QUESTION:
Invasion of Iraq and the sectarian war in there has led to the departure of millions of Iraqis, refugees to Syria and surrounding countries, but mostly – most of them are in Syria, and Syria has been carrying a heavy, heavy weight, trying to provide them with the means of life and healthcare and education. But my question is: What are the new efforts that the United States and you in particular in Baghdad are – as you are trying to prepare the future of return of these refugees to their country?AMBASSADOR HILL:
Right, right. We work very closely with the UN high commissioner, the UNHCR, high commissioner for refugees, to try to make sure that we are doing all we can to provide for secure and safe return of refugees. We worked with the Iraqi Government and got the Iraqi Government to name a coordinator for refugees. I recently went out to Diyala and saw some of the actual UNHCR-built shelters, which are really small homes, but small homes that can be added on to for, obviously, larger families. I think – I went to one such place where there had been refugees and internally displaced people, and that they were able to come back and I was able to talk to people and see what their aspirations are and what their problems are.
So what I can assure you is we are very much engaged in this process. The United States very much wants to see refugees have the right of return. We want to make sure that they are able to recover their own property, wherever possible. And we want to make sure the Iraqi Government understands that this is a key objective not only for the United States, but also for the international community, which is why we’ve worked very closely with the UNHCR on this. QUESTION:
Thank you.AMBASSADOR HILL:
Yes, ma’am. QUESTION:
Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. Ambassador, I want to ask you, during the discussions for the formation of the new government after the ballot, do you expect the discussions to be raised just about formation of government, or to deal with the key issues that are still outstanding? For example, disputed territories or hydrocarbon law.
And if I may, a second question: You mentioned about Iraq being a full-fledged member of the international community again. The U.S. has said that it will help Iraq to get out of the Chapter 7 resolutions. Do you envision that possible this year?
Thank you.AMBASSADOR HILL:
I think – first of all, I think in the government formation process, this is an Iraqi process. And so as one coalition reaches out to another coalition to invite them into the government, the other coalition may make some demands or some requests, and then they have to work that out and see what’s possible.
Certainly, if you look at the security agreement that we were discussing earlier – the security agreement reached in the latter part of the Bush Administration – if you look at Article 25 of the security agreement, the U.S. obliges itself to be helpful to the Iraqi Government in overcoming Chapter 7, or getting out from under Chapter 7. And you’re correct to say that when I refer to a full-fledged member of the international community, I am referring to the Chapter 7 question. So we’re obliged to be helpful on that and we will indeed be helpful on that. I would like to see things done in that area this year in 2010.
Now, we – obviously, to some extent it will depend on the government formation, when there will be a government, and a new government in Baghdad that can make some decisions on the issue of meeting some of the UN Security Council resolutions on this Chapter 7 matter. So – but I would anticipate work being done this calendar year in 2010, and I’d like to see some progress on this issue in 2010 because, frankly speaking, I think the progress has been too slow.
Wait a minute. Let’s go to someone new. All right. Ma’am.QUESTION:
Hoda Tawfik, Al-Ahram newspaper. Thank you, Ambassador. You mentioned that you’re hoping for good elections in Iraq.AMBASSADOR HILL:
We’re doing more than hoping. QUESTION:
Okay. What is good elections and what is bad elections, and how would it affect the future of Iraq? AMBASSADOR HILL:
I have another question concerning, like – who spoke about Syria. The United States is encouraging the Arab world and the Arab countries to have good relations with Iraq.AMBASSADOR HILL:
Does this include Syria? Thank you. AMBASSADOR HILL:
I think we’re encouraging all of Iraq’s neighbors to have good relations with Iraq, relations that respect Iraq’s sovereignty and, frankly, respect the potential that Iraq represents in the region. So we’re encouraging everybody to have good relations with Iraq.
With respect to good elections, we think we need elections that are perceived by the Iraqi people as free and fair. We need elections in which the Iraqi people felt that they had a fair chance to make their – to vote and that the voting was properly done, was transparent, and that the voting was inclusive. And so, we have every reason to believe that this election will be perceived as free and fair. But the ultimate judge of whether it’s free and fair – there will be a determination made by the UN, of course – but there also will be a determination made by the Iraqi people, so --QUESTION:
What would be a bad election?AMBASSADOR HILL:
A bad election would be if the Iraqi people pursue – perceive that there was not a free and fair election, if they perceive that the election was unfair, if they perceive that they were unable to cast their vote in a proper climate – things like that. So we have really worked very hard to assist the Iraqis on security matters. We’ve worked very hard to ensure they will have some monitoring of the polling stations. We’ve worked very hard to make sure the ballots are being printed and distributed in a timely way, so that when people come to the election booth they will have ballots, they will – all the mechanics of the election will be in place. This is very important. And I think it’s very gratifying to see these – the efforts have gone into this. And I must say a lot of the efforts are Iraqi efforts because it’s for their election and for their future. So I have every reason to believe we’re going to have a good election.QUESTION:
And how would it affect the future of Iraq, the bad elections?AMBASSADOR HILL:
How would it affect the future of Iraq – the bad elections?AMBASSADOR HILL:
Okay. All right. Do you need me to answer that question?QUESTION:
Okay. Yeah. I think a bad election in which there is a perception that somehow the election was not free and fair would be rather a discouraging thing for Iraq’s democracy, and I think it would not be helpful to building a strong and secure and democratic Iraq for the future. So I think the answer is rather self-evident.
Thank you, Ambassador, for the second round. I appreciate that – your generosity.AMBASSADOR HILL:
You’re just lucky there were no other questions.QUESTION:
Yeah, I was going to ask you about North Korea, which is more --AMBASSADOR HILL:
Oh, I love talking about North Korea, but I don’t talk about it really.QUESTION:
You mentioned you met Vice President Biden. As you know, before he became vice president he advocated what’s so called soft partition of Iraq. Now, I – the perception now of U.S. policy is that encouraging almost three blocs, that depend each bloc, whether the Kurds, the Sunni or the Shiite, that each bloc will be depending on United States in some fashion. So the United States will maintain its upper hand in controlling the situation in Iraq.
Now, what if in this election, part of that three blocs did not participate, in boycott, and was able to do that. How you can form a government where the perception of now the Sunni faction – and I’m sorry to talk in terms – in those terms in Iraq because there is Iraqi people they don’t like that division or labeling. The perception is the United States is supporting now, after supporting the Shia now, and the Kurds now is supporting the Sunni, and the Sunni are not in a good position to be – in good position in the next election because of the de-Baathification, because it’s targeting them more than anybody else. So how are you going to see the situation if the election did not occur the way that you are anticipating to occur?AMBASSADOR HILL:
Well, first of all, I want to emphasize we have some 6,172 candidates who are registered candidates and who are running for office in the campaign. That’s a lot of people. To be sure, some candidates who were not allowed to run pursuant to Article 7 of Iraqi constitution, which prohibits candidates who held positions in the Baathist party from running. This is not something new. This is something that’s been in the constitution in Iraq for some time.
I would like to emphasize, though, to you, the United States is not trying to create some kind of dependency relationship with Iraq. We want to have a partnership for Iraq. We want to have a good, long-term relationship with a sovereign, strong, peaceful, democratic Iraq. We are not looking for Iraq to depend on us; quite the contrary. We look very much to have – to see an independent Iraq that is able to manage its affairs and manage its relations with its neighbors and manage its responsibilities within the international community. That is our hope. Indeed, that is our expectation.
With respect to the issue of boycotts – again, I must stress to you – we have worked very hard with the Iraqis to try to help them, and to work very hard with the UN to help the UN make sure that this is going to be a free and fair election. We believe we have the systems in place for that. We’ve worked very hard to make sure all the ballots are printed, all the mechanical aspects of the elections are handled, all the – we’ll have something like 50,000 – or, I’m sorry – 300,000 poll workers, that is workers who will be at the polling stations to make sure the ballots are properly handled.
So we believe it’s going to be a positive election and, therefore, very positive for the future, and may be an inspiration to other countries as well in the world.QUESTION:
Did the Vice President change his mind (inaudible)? AMBASSADOR HILL:
I think the Vice President has spoken numerous times about his views on Iraq. I don’t think you need me to amplify anything the Vice President has said. He’s made very clear his own support for a strong and independent and democratic Iraq and a unified Iraq. So I think he has made himself very clear on that, and I don’t think you need me to make it any clearer.MODERATOR:
We just have time for two more questions.AMBASSADOR HILL:
Yes, ma’am, back there.QUESTION:
Thank you. Christina Bergmann, Deutsche Welle German International Radio. Sir, speaking about the time after the election, what, in your opinion, will be the most important contribution of the international community, especially Europe, for Iraq? Thank you.AMBASSADOR HILL:
I think Iraq has made some very important decisions to open up its economy. It’s made some very important decisions to – really to welcome foreign investment as a means to develop the economy. So I think issues like that, that need to continue even while the politicians are working on government formation, I think it’s very important for all of us to work with the caretaker government that can make sure that these tasks are going forward, because Iraq’s economy has been very weak in the past. It has a lot of catching up to do. There are signs that it will catch up. There are signs that their – that the growth is beginning again in the Iraqi economy. And I think all of us, not just the European Union but the United States as well, will want to work very closely with the caretaker government to keep managing and keep managing these relationships to make sure we go forward.
Ultimately, the issue of who forms the new government, that is going to be an Iraqi matter. I mean, the Iraqis are going to have to work that out together. These various coalitions are going to have to come to some understandings of how to do those things. But to the extent that the Iraqis have taken on obligations with the international community, especially in the economic area, whether it’s WTO or various things like that, we would like to continue to work with them.
One more.AMBASSADOR HILL:
All right, one more. Boy, I always get in trouble when I do the “one more” question.” But, all right, ma’am.QUESTION:
Thank you. I have a question from Al Masry Al Youm Egyptian newspaper. I actually want to ask you about your evaluation about the security situation in Iraq as – taking into consideration Iraqis considered the first number-one ranking country in terms of violence and attacks and so on, what’s your evaluation?
And my other question is about Vice President Joe Biden. He’ll pay a visit to the regime in the 7th
of next month. Is there any consideration that he will give a visit to Iraq after his visit to Israel and Palestinians and Egypt? Thank you.AMBASSADOR HILL:
I’m not aware of any immediate plans to Iraq, so you’ll have to check with his office if there are any such plans. But I am not aware of any plans to visit Iraq.
With regard to security, Iraq is much improved in recent years. The overall levels of security – of violence have been down, and that’s been an important development in Iraq. The various terrorist groups that have, from time to time, engaged in so-called high-profile bombings are groups that are not supported by the population, by the public. They are terrorist cells and the Iraqi authorities continue to root them out and bring them to justice. So I think we can all be encouraged by the fact that the security situation has improved.
I can tell you that I’m – because of the improved security situation, I’m able to visit almost all of the Iraqi provinces already, and I plan to get to the remaining provinces in the near future. I’ve been able to visit --QUESTION:
How many?AMBASSADOR HILL:
I think I have visited some 14 out of 18, and I’ll try to get to the remaining four as soon as I can. I have been able to visit universities and talk directly to students. And we have been able to step up our ability to engage with the Iraqi public and to try to really lay the framework or the foundation for a long-term relationship. We desire a long-term civilian relationship with Iraq, consistent with our mutual interests and mutual respect and respect for sovereignty.QUESTION:
Thank you. AMBASSADOR HILL:
So thank you very much.
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