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Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Iraq Transition

FPC Briefing
Michael Corbin
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Foreign Press
Washington, DC
September 8, 2010

Date: 09/08/2010 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Corbin, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, briefs on U.S. Iraq Transition at the Washington Foreign Press Center on Septemeber 8, 2010.  - State Dept Image


3:00 P.M. EDT

MR. BUFFINGTON: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. We’re fortunate to have with us today Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Corbin here to talk on the U.S.-Iraq transition. Just as a quick reminder, before asking your questions, please wait for the microphone to have it in hand so that it can be picked up by our speakers, and also turn off your cell phones, please.

But I’ll just go ahead and turn the time over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Corbin.

MR. CORBIN: Thank you very much, Matt. My name is Michael Corbin and I’m the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq in the Near East Asia Bureau of the State Department. And just by way of introduction, I’ve been in this job for the last year. Before that, I served almost a year in Baghdad in charge of our political-military relations. Before that, I was head of our Embassy in Damascus. And I’ve served throughout the Middle East.

I’m what’s called an Arabist. I’ve specialized in that part of the world and I speak Arabic, although I’m not originally from that part of the world. I can therefore address questions on the regional aspects of Iraq, which I think may be of some interest.

But what I’d really like to focus on today – I’ll make some brief remarks and then get to your questions – focus on what’s really going on in terms of our relationship with Iraq and how we are building a partnership as we – as the President announced last week, as we end the combat mission and we build a partnership with the Iraqi Government and Iraqi people, and how we see the way forward.

Because certainly, this is not going to be an easy path; there are going to be lots of challenges. But what – I’d like to just frame my – or frame the opportunity for questions by pointing to this transition that we’re going through and how we believe we’re building a partnership with the Iraqis in a way that will be a positive and constructive partnership, and how we see that developing.

First of all, we’ve had a civilian presence in Iraq since the invasion of Iraq, and we’ve been building our civilian relationship over the years that we’ve been there. I would say that some people think that this transition from a military-based relationship to a civilian-led relationship is just happening now. In fact, our Embassy opened in January of 2009 and our – we opened full diplomatic facilities at that time. We moved out of the Republican Palace, which was significant because January of 2009 was also the end of the UN mandate for Iraq. This was a key date for Iraqis as they took over more sovereignty for their country.

What led to our civilian presence increasing has been sort of two developments. One has been the increase of the Iraqi security forces’ ability to take over their own security. And that was codified in the security agreement that was negotiated and signed in November of 2008 and went into effect when we opened our new Embassy in January of 2009.

And at the same time that we signed the security agreement with the Iraqi Government, we signed something called the Strategic Framework Agreement. And the Strategic Framework Agreement lays out the basis for a traditional bilateral diplomatic partnership, as we have with many of our allies and many key countries around the world and around the region.

So since that time, we’ve been implementing both the security agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement. We implemented the first date in the security agreement in June of 2009 when we removed U.S. forces from cities, towns, and localities. And I will honestly say, because I was there when this happened, that most Iraqis didn’t think we were actually going to do this because they thought we were so central to the security of the cities and towns, and we actually did move out by June 30th and leave the towns and cities to Iraqi security forces. So now, we’re having a little bit of the similar – of a similar discussion when we say the combat mission is over. We already did show that the Iraqis could take the lead in June of 2009 when we left the cities and towns.

We also have been implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement, and Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Maliki were here in the United States in July of last year and had what’s called the Higher Coordinating Committee of this Strategic Framework Agreement. And that includes the formation of committees and discussions in the areas of education, economy, services, culture, and it also includes a security component which has not been very much fleshed out so far because we have the other elements of the arrangement to flesh out and we have the security agreement still in place.

So we’re in – on the way of a transition, where the civilians and the diplomats build a traditional relationship that’s going to have many elements, and we’re developing all those elements with some of our traditional tools that you all are probably familiar with, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, we have the Department of the Treasury, we have the Justice Department, we have all those areas where we can have cooperative relationships. And we’re building and developing those in Iraq.

Now, as part of this transition, we have partners, and our partners are the Iraqis. And the reason we can get to the point we – where we are is because the Iraqis have had successful provincial and national elections. They have reestablished relations with the neighborhood and the region. The Iraqis have set up interesting issues like a relatively free media, they have decentralization in Iraq in that the provincial governors can make decisions about resources, they have one of the most forward-leaning nongovernmental organization laws, civil society laws, in the region. The Iraqis have made enormous steps forward, but there are enormous challenges as we go forward. And what I’d like to do is address some of those challenges and how they impact on this partnership that we’re building.

The initial challenge I would address is violence, and we certainly read about this in the media. Iraq is still a dangerous place. The terrorists are using both the August 31st end of the combat mission, the time – this is the Holy Month of Ramadan – and they are testing the interim government that has been in place in Iraq since March – the March 7th elections.

This means that violence continues, and the terrorists use every opportunity to make their mark felt. However, we would argue that their ability to maintain coordinated attacks is far diminished. We had a coordinated attack across the country last week, but that was the first one that we’ve had since May. We’ve had attacks on police stations before. We’ve had attacks on checkpoints. What we see is a pattern of violence that continues, and the terrorists will continue to use every means at their disposal, but they’re not achieving traction, they’re not getting support in society. They are trying to show that they’re still present. They’re trying to disrupt and destroy, and the senseless killing which we condemn of innocents, including journalists. And we roundly condemn the killing of an Iraqi TV journalist in Mosul yesterday – or today, and one in Baghdad yesterday. These actions are not gaining support for this type of violence, but we’re going to continue seeing that.

Now, what is there to balance that? What we see to balance that is the Iraqi security forces, who are able to carry out coordinated measures against this type of attack. We see the limited scope of where these terrorists can conduct their activities. We see the fact that they have failed in the past in their attacks on economic infrastructure and their attacks on the coalition forces when we had a coalition which represented a large group of countries in Iraq. We think that the Iraqi Government, even the interim government, can stand up to this type of attack and we can – we have declared our combat mission over because we have the seen the progress that the Iraqis have made with managing their own security.

Nowm other challenges. The fact that there isn’t a government formed, even though the election was held in March – March 7th – some people point to this as a sign of dysfunction. What we say is it actually reflects the fact that the two largest coalitions – the Iraqiya and the State of Law Coalition – came within two votes of each other. We went through a – after a UN-certified election process in which there was no wide-scale fraud, we went through a mandated recount in the whole of Baghdad, which is one of the most complex places to do this, and that recount was successful and was viewed again by the UN as being free and fair. It kept the vote count the way it was; the two seat difference between the two largest blocs remain the same. These two large blocs are engaged in intensive negotiations to form a new government, and there are developments every day which show the seriousness of the Iraqis’ efforts to come up with a government.

They have all called for a representative-inclusive government, and we think that’s a positive thing. But that makes it complicated to come up with a government, and we’ve seen signs of progress. We think we’ll continue to see signs of progress as we go into the Eid – Islamic holiday, and then after the Eid. And we think the Iraqis are on the way to forming a government. We’re actively working to support their efforts, but we’re not interfering and pressing them in one way or the other. We are just trying to help them as they move forward on forming a government. This is very different from the situation in 2006, the last time they formed a government, when there was incredible – there was a lot of violence, where there was sectarian – ethno-sectarian warfare in some areas and where the government that was formed was formed on the basis of strict ethnic lines, rather than on the basis of an inclusive representative government.

Other challenges, and then I’ll open it up for questions because I really want to get to your questions, the Arab-Kurd issues will remain to be one of the major issues that we have to deal with, and all sides are working together. Because of this effort to form a coalition government, there’s a lot of compromise and a lot of discussion going on that we haven’t seen in the past, so we’re encouraged by that. We’re encouraged by the steps the Iraqi Government has taken on the economic side, although we are worried about corruption. But when we look at the two oil bid rounds – international oil bid rounds that were let -- those two international oil bid rounds were free from corruption, and we see a wide variety of international oil consortiums who are involved now in the southern oil fields in Iraq.

There are other challenges that we will see – the rule of law. We want to see effective rule of law systems. Iraqi people are calling for that. But we see progress in all of these areas. Although people tend to focus on the violence, we see the Iraqi Government making steps forward.

Just to finish up, the – what we see happening in Iraq and the partnership we’re building is to see Iraq as a positive force in the region, not the negative force that it was, particularly in the last years of – or in the years of Saddam Hussein’s reign. We saw the war with Iran, terrifically costly to both sides. We saw the invasion of Kuwait. We saw low-intensity conflicts with Jordan and with Syria, and we saw problems with Turkey because of the PKK guerillas. We saw internal problems between – with Saddam Hussein’s repression of his own people, his treatment of the Kurds.

And we now see a chance for Iraq to develop as a positive force in the region. And we’re going to work with the Iraqis as they develop as a positive force. And we’ve seen good indications of this. Most recently, Iraq was chosen as the site to host the Arab League summit next year. And we see Iraq establishing its own strong relations with its neighbors and internationally. And the U.S. will continue to build this partnership, a civilian-led partnership, in – of traditional diplomacy as we go forward.

With that introduction, which – it’s a complex subject, so I went on a little bit longer than I might have, but I welcome your questions. And thank you for having me today.

MR. BUFFINGTON: Thanks. Please remember to state your name and news organization before asking questions. We’ll start off right in front.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Shimada of Tokyo Shimbun. Let me ask you about private security contractor in Iraq. It was reported the State Department is planning to increase a number of security contractors in Iraq from now. In that case, I think that State Department might change rules of engagement, ROE, to prevent the incident – Blackwater incidence – something like Blackwater incident. So could you tell us something about this issue?

MR. CORBIN: Yes. And the issue of private security contractors in Iraq is a sensitive one, particularly because of the Nisour Square incident involving the Blackwater private security company. But what we’ve seen is that those private security companies that have worked with the Iraqi authorities, particularly after January of 2009, to register with the minister of interior, to cooperate with the local authorities, to establish contacts with the Government of Iraq, are well integrated, as private security companies are in many countries around the world, with the Government of Iraq.

We will, as the State Department, be relying on private security, because, as I said, Iraq remains a dangerous place. But we believe that those companies that we will work with have established the proper relationships with the Government of Iraq authorities. Those companies that thought that the security agreement going into force would not change their situation – in other words, they could work directly with the U.S. military or coalition military – did not remain behind. Those ones that have established relations will. We don’t see any change of the rules of engagement. We will continue to work with our private security contractors the way we have since the Nisour Square incident, but we have a partner in that, in the Government of Iraq, which is monitoring, registering, and working with private security contractors throughout Iraq.

QUESTION: Hussain Abdul-Hussain with Al Rai newspaper. Do you share the assessment that if Mr. Allawi’s Al-Iraqiya was left out of the cabinet coalition, that there’ll be a resumption of the insurgency and the violence? Thank you.

MR. CORBIN: First of all, I would break that into two questions. The question of different blocs being included in the government, we see all the political leaders in Iraq calling for an inclusive government, which we think is a positive thing. We see every – whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd, the leaders are calling for a government that represents all of the blocs that were successful in the election.

Now, whether the – there is any chance of a resurgence of violence or an insurgency is a separate question. And as I said when I talked about our combat mission ending, we don’t see any indications of a large-scale support among the Iraqi people for anything the terrorists are doing. We see a big push for the economy, for jobs, for services. The electrical – the electricity provisions situation has gotten much better, but we still see people clamoring for better services, for water, electricity. We see the economy as being the key issue, and we don’t see the terrorists having large-scale support.

One of the goals of the terrorists is to try and cause ethno-sectarian conflict. We do not see them succeeding in that. We – in fact, we see quite the opposite. We see the terrorists turning off people with their indiscriminate slaughter of innocents outside of ministry buildings, for example.

MR. BUFFINGTON: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Thank you. Elcin Poyrazlar from Cumhuriet Turkish daily. Mr. Corbin, are you close to reaching an agreement with Turkey about the passage of the equipment from Iraq? And when do you expect this process to start?

MR. CORBIN: That’s really a military issue about how our equipment is leaving Iraq, so I can’t address the details of our military plans for the withdrawal. But that process is well underway. As you know, we – at a peak 2008 and 2009, we had up to 160,000 troops in Iraq. We now have 50,000. And much of the equipment and the presence that was there has left Iraq already, and that does involve arrangements with the neighboring countries where – for the transfer of that equipment. But that process is already underway, and I don’t see any big new developments in that area.

QUESTION: Just to follow up. As far as I understand Admiral Mullen, Joint Chief of Staff, the U.S. was in Turkey and passage of the soldiers, troops from Turkey was not a question, but the equipment only. Could you – do you have any detailed information on this?

MR. CORBIN: I’d have to refer you to the Pentagon on that one. But thank you for the question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. I want to ask you regarding the U.S.’s pledge to help Iraq with the Chapter 7 resolutions. We’re coming towards the end of the year quite quickly. And I know this is something you’ll have to work with the new government on; however, it’s still a very important issue that will be coming up. What sort of steps do you think you can take to help with that?

And following from that, again, the U.S. has said it wants to help with the reintegration of Iraq into the region. What tangible steps do you see towards that? Thank you.

MR. CORBIN: Thank you. On the Chapter 7 resolutions, the ones that we’ve worked – we’ve had tangible progress on so far are the weapons of mass destruction Chapter 7 resolutions, which refer to Saddam Hussein’s presumed holding of weapons of mass destruction, and we did see an IAEA declaration and a resolution earlier this summer that is moving towards lifting those sanctions. We believe that the Iraqis and the U.S. Government are working closely together to get those weapons of mass destruction Chapter 7 resolutions lifted, and we see progress on all fronts there.

More difficult are the Chapter 7 resolutions related to Kuwait and those obviously require discussions between the Kuwaiti Government and the Iraqi Government, and we’re working with both sides as they go forward, although we need a new government in Iraq in order to launch those discussions. But we support both the Kuwaitis and the Iraqis in resolving those particular Chapter 7 claims.

So we see an active role in supporting Iraq’s effort to end Chapter 7 resolutions, but it will involve different partners. On the WMD it’s the IAEA and on the Kuwait issues, of course, it’s the Government of Kuwait.

In terms of reintegrating Iraq into the region, I mentioned the Arab League Summit. We see relations with the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, as important. We see relations with individual countries in the region such as Egypt and Turkey – we see that Iraq has built very – has built strong and positive relations with both Egypt and Turkey. We will support the Iraqis through helping their foreign service, their diplomatic corps, for example. We’ve done training for diplomats. We’ve helped with the foreign ministry to help them better represent Iraqi interests overseas.

But the key issue is that they’re in the lead and we’re playing a supporting role. We will, as always, support Iraq in all the international organizations, including the UN and others, but we’ll be working cooperatively with the Iraqis on this issue.

QUESTION: Thank you. Journalist from China News Service. And after the withdrawal of American troops, do you foresee American forces left in Iraq? And White House said that (inaudible) mission is to provide support and a guide for the Iraq security personnel, but some critics argue that it has a high possibility for them to participate in a fight against the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. So could you just describe the prospects for the 50,000 American troops left in Iraq?

MR. CORBIN: Yes. And the 50,000 who remain in Iraq have – the main mission is to advise and assist the Iraqi forces. But as we saw in the last two days, when there was an attack on the old ministry of defense headquarters where there were U.S. troops, the U.S. troops helped the Iraqis in defending that against – that headquarters against the terrorists. Obviously, advise and assist means working in partnership with the Iraqi forces as they deem that partnership is important. And in that case where there was a direct terrorist attack on a ministry of defense facility, obviously, the U.S. and Iraqis work together.

But more generally, we will do a supporting role as we’ve done over the last seven years, but we will also work on specific joint counterterrorism activities when – at the request of the Government of Iraq, and the U.S. forces will continue to provide protection for U.S. personnel and international organization personnel such as the UN. So if those facilities are attacked, you can expect and you will see that the U.S. forces will defend those activities.

But the role of – the combat mission is over. The soldiers are still combat troops, but they’re working in an advise-and-assist role, not participating in large-scale joint operations. This will be only, as I said, in specific cases. So it’s a different role and we see – because of the abilities of the Iraqis to do this themselves, we don’t think that this is an issue. So I don’t see that this role for the U.S. forces will be subject to criticism either from the Iraqis or from others.

MR. BUFFINGTON: More questions? Okay, thank you, sir, for your time.

MR. CORBIN: No, thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m glad to talk about the transition.

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