11:00 A.M. EST
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. We are pleased to have with us Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Corbin, who is going to speak about the formation of the new Iraqi Government. We’ll open it – he’ll make a couple of quick remarks and we’ll open it up to questions. And we’ll just go ahead and turn the time over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Corbin.
MR. CORBIN: Thank you very much, Matt. That was very kind. What I’d like to do today is give some brief remarks and then address your questions on what is an extremely significant development in Iraq, which is the formation of the government that occurred yesterday. And what I’d like to do is open it up to questions so I’ll be very brief. But we’re in a constantly evolving situation there. What I’d like to make very clear is what we saw yesterday in terms of the Council of Representatives session meeting with the three major leaders together in the front row of the Council of Representatives was, as President Obama said, another historic milestone in Iraq’s forward progress.
This is extremely significant because for the last almost eight months, the Iraqis have been working to come up with an inclusive government that represents all the different ethnic and sectarian communities that have long histories, as you know very well, of enmity in Iraq. And what we saw yesterday was these communities and their leaders coming together and opening a session where a framework has been worked out. There will be challenges. This will be a continuing process. But those Iraqis who on March 7th of this year, 62 percent of the electorate, voted for the two largest coalitions, the coalitions that are most secular and most representative of the broad spectrum of Iraq’s communities, the State of Law coalition led by Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqiya coalition led by Iyad Allawi. Those two coalitions came together and yesterday formed a government with the help of the Kurds.
This is extremely significant because there were many other options at the Iraqis could have chosen. In 2006, violence was the option when neighborhoods had to defend themselves against the terrorists who struck at night, when militias were the order of the day. In today’s Iraq, we see a political compromise as the path that all the political leaders are choosing.
And it’s taken a while for them to get to this government, but what we’ve seen is an inclusive, representative government where the first official who was elected was the Sunni speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, who is a prominent Sunni leader in the country and was one of the top three vote getters in the election, the other two being Prime Minister Maliki and Iyad Allawi. He was the first one elected in the COR. The COR then chose a president, and the president nominated Prime Minister Maliki. They now have 30 days to form a government, and as we saw, there will be challenges, there will be theatrics. This is a hard task for any parliamentary system. These are – this is a coalition government that brings together all the people in the tent. And there are issues that were addressed through a separate process led by head of the Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, where issues such as de-Baathification, the powers of the office of the prime minister, and other such significant issues for Iraq were addressed.
What we see is that Iraq has taken this step of politics and compromise on its way to being better placed to be a partner both with the region and with the international community, completely different from what Saddam Hussein did to Iraq, where Iraq was a source of violence, of terrorism, of starting wars in the region. Iraq, with this government, has the opportunity to address a partnership with the rest of the region based on trade, based on cooperative ties, based on rebuilding the Iraq that we saw in the ‘50s when Iraq was a leader in education, in health, in agriculture in the region.
Part of the discussions that led to this government included the formation of a National Council for Strategic Policies. This is significant because it represents efforts to address the needs of all the communities in a way that security decisions are not made by one community but are made in consultation with all the communities. We also see, as I mentioned, discussions of issues such as de-Baathfication. These are hard issues and there will continue to be challenges. But what we saw yesterday in the COR session represents another step forward as Iraqis choose politics rather than violence on their way to integrating into the region.
I think with that I’ll open it up for questions, as I’m sure you have many.
MODERATOR: And please remember to wait for the microphone and also to say your name and your news organization. We’ll start right here up in the front and we’ll work our way back.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador Corbin.
MR. CORBIN: You promoted me. (Laughter.) Deputy Assistant Secretary.
QUESTION: I think you deserve to be Secretary probably in the future. I just came fresh from the region and I may have many questions for you, so forgive me if I throw them all at you at once, since there’s not many people here. And I hope I will not take too much time.
You describe it as a forming the government. I think a little bit optimistic if we want to be very precise, because the government – there’s assignment now for the prime minister to form the government. And my question here would be: Is it going to take seven days, seven months, or more to form that government?
The other issue is the National Council for Strategic, is it going to be another government competing with the official government in a way, and how are they going to sort things out?
The last thing I would say, the statement by the State Department talking about the Strategic Framework Agreement to expand and cooperate under the Strategic Framework Agreement, is that agreement going to be confirmed, going to be expanded in the timeframe also going to be adjusted? Or it’s going to be – remain the same as a basis for the cooperation between United States and new government in Iraq?
Thank you very much.
MR. CORBIN: Thank you. First of all, under when the prime minister will form his cabinet, as it’s called in Iraq the Council of Ministers, the prime minister has 30 days from yesterday to form that cabinet. We believe that now there has been the progress of a deal to come up with a framework of the new government, that the prime minister has the ability to form this government. Of course, there will be challenges as we go forward, but the basic framework has been agreed to. And that is the critical issue.
When we look at 2006, there were – most of the Council of Ministers was able to be formed quickly and there were just a few ministers that weren’t chosen until the end, but it was a very different time, and as I said, violence dominated rather than politics. We think that a lot of the political work has been done in this period so we will see and expect the constitution to be recognized as we go forward.
In terms of the National Council on Strategic Policies, this is extremely important in balancing the different communities and the different positions in a way that allows security decisions and national security decisions to be made by the representatives of all the communities in the governance rather than one community or one position. And there were intense negotiations on how this national security council would be formed – or National Council for Strategic Policies would be formed, and we believe it will be an effective way to address the key issues that Iraq faces as it moves forward.
Finally in terms of the Strategic Framework Agreement, this is a partnership that has already been launched. This is a partnership that already has committees that are working. This is a partnership that involves the traditional areas of cooperation, in trade, in economics. And with the interim government, we continue that cooperation. We welcome the formation of a new partner in the new government to work on the Strategic Framework Agreement, but we see broad support from Iraqis to expend and to continue the activities under that agreement. And that is what we intend to do as we transition to a more civilian-led rather than security-led relationship with Iraq. And that’s what the Embassy and the other civilian agencies that are in Iraq are focused on now as we go forward.
MODERATOR: We’ll go right here in the middle.
QUESTION: Jean (inaudible) Monitor. Mr. Corbin, you described this step as an historic step forward. However, Mr. Allawi has been described as a Saudi boy in more sense than one. Does this mean that Mr. Maliki and his newcomers into the government are going closer and closer towards Iran now that the Saudis have less power to play?
And also, among the tasks that you described this government needs to achieve, I did not hear anything about delivering the most important services that Iraqis are suffering from, which is electricity and of course security. And while we’re on the security issue, how does the United States Administration view the task of this newly formed government, when it’s finally formed that is, as far as accountability is concerned for the recent massacre at the church in Baghdad.
MR. CORBIN: Thank you very much. First of all, I would reiterate and emphasize that this was an Iraqi solution for the Iraqi elections. It wasn’t mad in Tehran, it wasn’t made in Ankara, it wasn’t made in Riyadh. This was an Iraqi solution that was hammered out in Iraq. The Iraqis have chosen to move forward in a way that uses politics to settle their issues rather than violence.
And you raise a very good point in terms of the issues that are before the Iraqi leaders as they move forward. I didn’t mention all of them. Of course, the Arab-Kurd issues are significant, the issues of displaced persons who have remained out of their houses, the issue of refugees who are outside of Iraq who need to come back – there are many issues that the new government needs to address.
But clearly, when the Iraqi electorate voted on March 7th, they were talking about services, about electricity, about security, about having a government that’s responsive to the Iraqi people. And our belief is the only government that could be responsive to all the communities in Iraq is the type of inclusive government that the framework deal has brought about, and that this is the path forward in terms of responding to those – to the Iraqi electorate. Remember, the Council of Representatives – most of the members are new. They were elected to represent their constituents in the different provinces around Iraq. And combating corruption, providing services, providing resources are issues that all Iraqis want the new government to face.
On your last point, clearly security remains an issue. Clearly, as the President said, this was a solution for those who seek an inclusive and cooperative path forward for Iraq, not those terrorists who seek to divide and seek to re-ignite sectarian tension. The attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church the Sunday before last was a heinous, awful humanitarian tragedy, and the terrorists who did it have no goals other than to seek to attack vulnerable communities and stir up sectarian passions, which we do not think the Iraqi people will respond to.
We worked with the Iraqi security forces for many years to improve their capabilities. We’ve worked with the government on the incredibly important role of the minorities in the fabric of Iraqi society. And we will continue to do that with the new government just as we did with the old government. And we saw all the leaders condemning the attacks on the church, but also on religious pilgrims that happened the next day or the day after. We see the terrorists will continue to do everything possible to undermine a cooperative, inclusive solution, and that’s where we stand with the Iraqi people as they resist these efforts to undermine an inclusive and cooperative process.
MODERATOR: We’ll go right in the back in the red.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mohamed Wafa from Middle East Broadcasting Network. We saw yesterday the – two-thirds of the Iraqi bloc walking out of the parliament before electing Talabani. Now this – the unagreement – the disagreement among Iraqiya themselves, the Iraqiya bloc, might prolong the formation of the government or even endanger the formation of the government. My question is: Do you have any – does Washington talk with any Iraqiya bloc members to alleviate the differences? And if you do, with who?
My second question is about the security, the Council of Strategic Policies. You said there had been intensive discussions about the council and what will be. Do you know by now exactly what will be the powers of Iyad Allawi, what will be the policies he will conduct, how he is going to cooperate or conduct his job?
Thank you very much.
MR. CORBIN: On the first question, we’re in touch with all the political leaders in Iraq in a supportive manner. That includes the members of Iraqiya, as yesterday demonstrated that the long-held concerns that that community have will be reflected in the political process. In every parliament, you have the possibility of walkout as a form of peaceful protest. You have different parliamentary means of addressing grievances. We’ll continue to see the different blocs working and we are, of course, in constant contact with all the political leaders, especially those political leaders who feel the process is not responding to their needs. But we’ve already seen indications that Iraqiya is working to find a way forward on their concerns, which were technical concerns yesterday, on the process that’s unfolding.
In terms of the National Council for Strategic Policies, this is something that was worked out in intense negotiations in the Barzani process, and that’s – we’ll leave that to the Barzani initiative and the Iraqi Government to clarify that as they go forward. But you can be sure that this was a subject of intense negotiation and there were agreements on how this would be formed.
MODERATOR: We’ll go right here.
QUESTION: Mahmoud Hamday from Al Jazeera TV. I just have a general question about the power-sharing issue. And this was in the statement. Can you just briefly elaborate on why was it important from the U.S. perspective to have revisions to the de-Baathification process? Why did you think that was critical?
MR. CORBIN: As you know, each community in Iraq has specific concerns and grievances. The Kurds are very concerned about the disputed internal boundaries and the Article 140 process. The Shia are concerned about terrorism that targets Shia and the possibility of problems for the Shia communities in Iraq. The Sunnis are very concerned about what was called the Accountability and Justice Commission and the process which all Iraqis agree that those individuals who were tied with Saddam Hussein and with his crimes be dealt with in accordance – in a process that’s agreed to by all.
So the issue of de-Baathification is, of course, critical for the Sunni community because they want to participate in the future of Iraq and they want to have a process whereby those who are criminals are not participating but those who actively believe in the future of a new Iraq can participate.
And we believe that the discussions that were held addressed these issues. They will continue, of course, to be an issue, as we saw in South Africa, as we’ve seen in Northern Ireland. These are issues that in very different contexts need to be addressed by these countries. But de-Baathification is one of those significant issues that will be addressed by the new government.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go right back here.
QUESTION: Thanks. Mina al-Oraibi, Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. Good to see you. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions, more clarifications. The first is about this new National Council on Strategic Policies. I know you said that they’re being worked out, but this has to be legislated. So until there is legislation that actually gives powers to this council, what does Allawi do? I mean, is he just a regular MP until that happens? Is there a timeframe for where it – when it comes in?
And what are the sorts of checks and balances that we keep hearing U.S. officials talking about that this provides? Because, I mean, do they have veto powers and are you worried that this is going to cause further stalemate between the different political parties or different politicians in actually getting things done in Iraq? Because I think you’ll find for most Iraqis. The problem is that they’re not actually getting things done. So that’s my first long question. And my second one is just about the de-Baathification process. I don’t understand. I mean, what agreements were actually reached. I know that there’s efforts to get the (inaudible) like (inaudible) and (inaudible) off the list. But beyond that, could you just clarify, because even the Secretary, in her statement, spoke about it, but we’re not really clear on what that is. Thank you.MR. CORBIN: On the first question, the National Council on Strategic Policy does need to be legislative and there was agreement on how to move forward. Yesterday’s session of the COR was to focus on the first steps that the COR must take that the Council of Representatives must take under the constitution. There will be action on the issues that have been agreed by the parties as we go forward and that will be coming in conjunction with formation of the new government, which is a process that obviously will take – the prime minister has 30 days and that will be a complex process of negotiation. But whether it will lead to stalemate or how it balances powers, I think it’s very clear that the National Council on Strategic Policies is an attempt by Iraqis to address the fear of different communities that one community or ethnic group not make decisions that affect all the communities or that are specifically targeting another community.
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