Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joey Hood and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq David Copley, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs On the Recent U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue
MR BROWN: Thank you. Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining us today for this on-the-record briefing on the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue which, as you’ll recall, Secretary Pompeo hosted just this past week. Briefing us today are two senior officials from our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joey Hood and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq David Copley.
We’ll begin with opening remarks from Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Hood and then we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many of you possible in the time we have, which will be about 30 minutes.
As a reminder, the contents of today’s briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. For the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to ask a question, I’d invite you to go ahead and get in the queue by dialing 1 and then 0. And with that I will turn it over to you PDAS Hood. Go ahead.
MR HOOD: Good afternoon, everyone. I thought I would start with some relevant background. On June 11th we held a virtual U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue. And then on August 19th we had a meeting where the U.S. and Iraqi sides in person here in Washington reaffirmed our commitment to a long-term strategic partnership. We reiterated our respect for Iraqi sovereignty, and Iraq pledged to protect us and other intentional guests from attacks by Iran-backed militias.
Our goal for this in-person dialogue was to consolidate the progress we made in the virtual session and translate our shared vision into a more detailed roadmap for strengthening our partnership. I’m pleased to report that last week’s strategic dialogue accomplished just that. And we anticipate holding several smaller follow-up meetings called joint coordination committees in the coming months to maintain momentum.
That the United States hosted such a logistically complex in-person summit in the midst of a global pandemic speaks to our commitment to a stable, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq. We covered a broad range of political, security, economic, and cultural issues, from preparations for Iraq’s elections to the challenge posed by ISIS.
Over the course of seven breakout sessions, we had productive discussions on Iraq’s preparations for credible elections, protecting civil society, helping Iraq’s religious and ethnic components recover from ISIS atrocities, ensuring the last defeat of ISIS, ensuring that international humanitarian actors have the access they need to deliver critical services, expanding bilateral trade, implementing reform, improving Iraq’s business climate, and improving Iraq’s energy production and electricity infrastructure.
The dialogue wasn’t merely talk. The Iraqis signed nine deals or MOUs touching on development, finance, health, and energy. And our announcement of $204 million more in humanitarian assistance and $10 million for UNAMI’s election support efforts further illustrate our commitment to helping Iraq’s most vulnerable citizens and supporting the reforms demanded by the Iraqi people.
We didn’t only host the dialogue last week as you saw in the news. We also hosted Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi along with his ministers of foreign affairs, finance, defense, electricity, and oil. The fact that the prime minister led such a high-level delegation speaks to Iraq’s good-faith efforts to meet the needs of its people and embrace the international community. The day after our dialogue, President Trump and Prime Minister Kadhimi met and reaffirmed that our strategic partnership between our two countries is based on a mutual desire for security and prosperity.
Apart from the White House visit, the PM’s delegation had a number of other important engagements here at the State Department, at the Departments of Treasury, Defense, Energy, and Commerce. As Secretary Pompeo said, we’re committed to helping Iraq achieve economic prosperity, freedom from foreign meddling in its internal affairs, and improved relationships with its neighbors as well. That’s what the Iraqi people want, too: a stable, prosperous, independent Iraq; an Iraq which is for Iraqis. And the Iraqis who protested last year and are continuing to do so now couldn’t have made that any more clear.
And with that, we’re happy to take your questions.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our first question let’s go to the line of Joyce Karam.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi. Thanks for doing this. And having followed the visit and also events happening in Iraq, on the issue of countering Iran-backed militias, what do you expect to happen next? I mean, we have heard these commitments being said over and over. When you speak to activists on the ground, they are still being targeted and assassinated. Rockets still target joint bases and other foreign embassies in the country. So what should we expect tangible on that front that you were able to get from Kadhimi while he’s in D.C.? And can you – if you can offer anything on the issue of U.S. redeployment or withdrawal. Is there a timeline set for that? Thank you.
MR HOOD: Thank you, Joyce. And apologies to everyone here that – we can’t see you face to face, so the interaction will not be quite as warm as I’ve been used to with you in the past. And it also takes us a second or two for us to decide between David and me who’s going to answer which question, or which part. And you had several parts there, Joyce.
So in terms of what to expect, I mean, the prime minister was clear that he sees a continuing need for support from the coalition, including the United States. And much of our discussions were focused on what that continuing support needs to look like. And so he understands better than anyone that, as invited guests in his country, he has an absolute obligation under international law and our agreements and, indeed, in Arab culture, to protect us. And so that is exactly what we expect to see from the prime minister and the forces under his control.
We absolutely find the assassinations and the attempted assassinations of activists and journalists in places like Basra completely abhorrent. We have condemned those publicly, and we know that the prime minister joins us in that condemnation. Indeed, when he returned to Iraq, the first place he went to was Basra to reassure the families of those innocent victims that they – that justice would be brought to their killers.
Over to you, Dave.
MR COPLEY: Yeah. I’ll tag-team in for the second half of the question here. This is David Copley. We had a lot of really good discussions with our Iraqi partners about security during the dialogue and in a lot of the bilateral meetings. Our focus is really jointly working together to defeat ISIS and to build out the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. I think the prime minister said it well when he told The Washington Post that the joint security relationship between the U.S. and Iraq is really something to be proud of.
We are currently transitioning to a new phase in the campaign that’s focused more on our advisory and training work, as well as providing critical enabling capabilities like ISR and close air support to the Iraqi security forces. And certainly we all look forward to a day when the coalition’s forces are no longer required. The President has directed us to get our forces down to lower levels as quickly as possible, but as Secretary Pompeo noted the other day in the Oval Office, we’ll stay until the mission is complete.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question. Let’s go to the line of Joel Gehrke.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I wonder, you talked about the need for a guarantee that the Iraqi Government would protect U.S. positions from militias and other threats. I wonder, what’s your thoughts on the government’s – an operation that happened in June where the government detained a number of Kata’ib Hizballah fighters? I think it was 14 people were arrested, and then a few days later they were released. In the interim, there was – there were threats – at least in the press there were threats from Kata’ib Hizballah’s security spokesperson directed at the prime minister. What do you make of that sequence of events? Were they released for legitimate reasons? Are you aware of how many of the group were released? And what does that – what did you learn from that incident about the – both the prime minister’s ability to impose – to assert himself vis-a-vis these militias and also the limits of his ability to do that?
MR HOOD: Thank you for the question. I would have to refer you to the Government of Iraq with regard to the number of detainees, the judicial process, how many of them are still being held, what the process of trying them may be. But in terms of what we expect – I think part of your question was what we would expect from groups like Kata’ib Hizballah. Well, they’re a designated terrorist group and we expect them to act like terrorists. And so that’s why we all need to work with the Iraqi Government as closely as possible to deter and defend against that threat as much as possible.
In terms of the Iraqi Government’s ability to assert itself – well, look, militarily, they have now one of the most capable counterterrorism forces in the region. And if that force was able to take on and defeat, with our assistance, ISIS, then clearly the prime minister has a very powerful tool at his disposal for getting control of armed groups that are resistant to his command as commander in chief. And so we expect to see the Iraqi Government increasingly asserting itself as it turns its focus from entirely on ISIS to getting sovereign control over all of its territory again from all groups, no matter what they look like.
MR COPLEY: And this is David here. I would just add that I think the Iraqi Government understands that these lawless, Iran-backed militias are a threat to their sovereignty and a threat to what we’re trying to accomplish. As they look to counter the economic crisis, the presence of these lawless groups makes it a lot harder to attract business investment and attract support from the international community. So it’s making it a lot harder for the United States and our international partners to assist the Iraqi people in getting back on their feet again.
MODERATOR: Next let’s go to Nadia Charters.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) you for doing this. I believe both the President and the Secretary expressed confidence in the current prime minister, Mr. Kadhimi. However, do you believe that you can peel him off from the Iranian influence, considering that the first foreign trip was to Tehran that he took? And secondly, did you discuss also in this current meeting last week any fostering of relationship between Iraq and the Gulf states in particular, considering that they were deteriorating during his – the time of his predecessors? Thank you.
MR HOOD: Thank you for the question, Nadia. No, indeed, the President and the Secretary expressed confidence in the partnership with the prime minister. We understand that Iraq is going to have relations with all of its neighbors, and we have nothing against that. We just want those relationships to be in the best interests of Iraq, and we think the prime minister does as well. And I think you can see that from his public statements while he was in Tehran and shortly afterwards. We understand that he is in Jordan right now as part of a meeting with the government there and counterparts in Egypt. This is all to be commended.
And we are working to support reestablishing those ties that you talked about to the Gulf countries, because that’s extremely important for investment in Iraq and for things like infrastructure, the electricity grid for example. Iraq should be able to, at some point, produce enough of its own electricity and even be able to sell excess production to the GCC and to purchase electricity when it needs it. And so we are looking very closely with our friends in Kuwait and in Iraq and other countries in the GCC about how we can support greater investment in the interconnection between the GCC countries and Iraq on the electricity side.
MR BROWN: Next let’s go to Lara Jakes.
QUESTION: Hi, gentlemen. Hope you’re having a good day. I have two questions, one a little more narrow than the other, but I’m sure you’ve seen the report that Turkey’s forces are moving into northern Iraq to attack the PKK. Prime Minister Kadhimi has been declaring this a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Can you talk to me a little bit about how that’s going to play out, what the United States is doing to dissuade Turkey from continuing these incursions?
And then also on that, I’m just curious: How would you contrast how Mr. Kadhimi works with you all in comparison to some of his predecessors? What’s he like?
MR COPLEY: So I think – this is David. I’ll take the first question. Look, we’d like to see Turkey and Iraq work closely together to address concerns about the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq. It’s important to respect Iraqi sovereignty. It’s also important to recognize that Turkey has legitimate security interests. We think the best way to solve these problems is for both parties to work together, and hopefully maybe we can play a role in potentially making this happen in a way that’s good for stability and for both parties.
I’ll let Joey take the second question.
MR HOOD: Thank you, and just to add on to the first one, there is no place better for the parties to start than Sinjar. If you could have the Kurdistan Regional Government, the federal government in Baghdad, and Turkey working together with advice and support from the United States and other coalition countries, you could see where maybe a place like Sinjar could be cleared out of militias, including the PKK, and you could put a civilian administration in there that would work for the people and be accepted by the people so that Yezidi IDPs, victims of genocide could actually go home, which they can’t do safely and voluntarily right now. And we are talking to all parties about this at a high level.
The contrast with the other governments – that’s an interesting question because this is – by my count, this was something like the sixth or seventh higher coordinating committee meeting under the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008. And I was certainly present for a few of the previous iterations, and what struck me about this was it’s as if we were all on the same team reading from the same talking points, totally agreed on the goals, and then just talking about how we can work together to achieve those goals. It was – I wouldn’t say that previous governments were necessarily adversarial, but this government absolutely had a very constructive attitude and clearly shared goals across the board, and that was striking.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question, let’s go to Michel Ghandour.
OPERATOR: I apologize. That line seems to not be in queue right now. Oh, she’s back.
MR BROWN: He’s back.
OPERATOR: He’s back. Thank you for the correction. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, regarding the electricity, is the U.S. ready to offer another waiver for Iraq to import power from Iran? And what’s the importance of the oil deal that the U.S. made with Iraq at the strategic level?
MR COPLEY: Yeah, with regards to the waiver, that’s at the discretion of the Secretary, and I’m not going to comment on that at this time, but I think generally, what we’ve always been looking for is for Iraq to make progress in working towards energy independence. This is something that’s really good. It’s in Iraq’s self-interest. They should be a net energy exporter. They have their own natural gas. They don’t need to be exporting it. I think they’re taking a lot of good steps right now to move in a direction that’s really going to help their own economy, and that’s what we’re really looking for.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next let’s go to the line of Jared Zuba (ph).
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I was wondering how you gentlemen balance asking Prime Minister Kadhimi to – when necessary, to defend U.S. forces, to move against Iran-linked groups in Iraq With President Trump’s assertion that U.S. forces will not always remain there, that seems to be putting quite a tall order on the prime minister. But yeah —
MR HOOD: Jared, do you want to reword that question in some way? Because I’m not sure that we really understand what you’re getting at there.
QUESTION: Sure. I’m wondering how the U.S. essentially balances asking the prime minister to move against Iran-linked groups when President Trump is saying that U.S. troops won’t always be in Iraq. That seems to me that it puts – or could risk putting the prime minister in a very difficult position once U.S. troops leave Iraq, given that Iran’s influence in Iraq, being a direct neighbor, is bound to continue beyond U.S. troop presence in the region. And I was wondering how you guys approached that with the prime minister.
MR COPLEY: This is David. I think the need for security sector reform in Iraq is basically unrelated to any sort of U.S. troop presence there. Rule of law, combating corruption, fighting against sectarianism – these are all things that are absolutely in Iraq’s own interests, and it’s something they’re going to need to work on if they’re ever going to have a stable state. This is a country with tremendous human capital, tremendous natural resource wealth, and what they need is rule of law in order for them to be able to put those resources to good use, and that’s certainly going to involve security sector reform and getting arms back under the control of the state.
MR BROWN: Okay. I think we have one last question in the queue. Ahmet (ph), go ahead.
MR BROWN: Yep, are you on mute?
QUESTION: Hello, I don’t know if you are mentioning my name. My name is Aness (ph).
MR BROWN: Yeah. Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. No problem. So you mentioned that there is, like, a $10 million contribution from the U.S. to support the election maybe next year. I would ask: Have you discussed how the Iraqis are going to spend or use this money given the situation there are – many parties in the parliament are supported by Iran.
MR COPLEY: Hi. This is David again. So that contribution is actually for the UN assistance mission in Iraq. They have an expanded mission of technical electoral assistance to the Iraqi Government that’s passed through the UN Security Council. And as part of their expanded mission, the United States – and I believe other international partners – are going to help them resource so they can assist the Iraqi Government in running a credible and fair election. So the money is being directed towards the UN.
MR HOOD: Yeah. Just to be clear, it does not go to the Iraqi Government. It does not go to political parties.
MR BROWN: Great. I think we do have time for one more question if someone wants to jump in the queue. Otherwise, we’ll call it here. I’ll give it a few seconds.
All right. Last question, let’s go to Moat Al-Ahmri (ph).
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. The U.S. has promised to end its presence in Iraq, and the President Trump told the Iraqi prime minister that the withdrawal of all the troops will get out of Iraq in three years. The two parties have signed (inaudible) agreements between the Government of Iraq and the American companies. I’m wondering: How would the U.S. will protect its interests in a region that is full of tension without any military presence?
MR HOOD: Well, thank you very much for the question. We obviously have a longstanding security presence throughout the region. And so no matter what the configuration of the security relationship that the Iraqi Government wishes us to have in three years or five years or ten years, we are confident that we will be able – with the partnership with the Iraqi Government – to protect our interests in Iraq.
And just to be clear, our vision is an Iraq in which you have thousands and thousands of American tourists every year, where you have American military training at your staff colleges as well as ours in the United States, just like in any normal close ally and strategic partner that the United States has with several countries all around the world.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thank you all for – to our briefers for taking time out of their day, and to everyone who joined the call. This concludes the call, and so the embargo on the contents is lifted. Have a great afternoon.