This is the Iraq section of Friday's State Dept press briefing. Spokesperson Marie Harf (pictured above at Thursday's briefing) fielded the questions.
1:48 p.m. EDT
MS. HARF: Hello. Welcome to a rare Friday press briefing during August at the State Department. I have three items at the top, and then we will open it up for your questions.
Just a travel update first. Secretary Kerry held meetings in Kabul today with both Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. I’m sure you’ve seen his press avail. After their meetings, both candidates signed a joint declaration outlining the path forward, reaffirming their commitment to the July 12th political framework agreement and agreeing on a path forward for finalizing the elections audit process, including a timeline for conclusion of the election’s audit and inauguration of a new president. We commend the candidates for continuing to work together in the spirit of collegiality and statesmanship to maintain national unity during this historic transition process.
The Secretary is currently on his way to Burma. The highlight of the Secretary’s visit there is his participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum. It’s an opportunity for foreign ministers from 27 countries to gather and discuss important regional issues, including maritime safety and security cooperation, nonproliferation, and transnational issues of common concern such as climate change. That will happen this weekend. He will meet with his counterparts from the 10 ASEAN member states, will also separately meet with the five partners in the Lower Mekong Initiative as well as with other donor countries as well. And he will also highlight support for the East Asia Summit as the region’s premier forum for addressing strategic and political issues, and guiding regional cooperation.
And then finally, all of you have, of course, been following the news on Iraq. As you know, yesterday the President authorized two operations in Iraq, the first a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food or water and facing almost certain death. The second was a series of targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and to assist Iraqi forces as they fight to break ISIL’s siege of the mountain and also to protect the civilians trapped there.
As you saw this morning, the Defense Department put out a statement that at approximately 6:45 a.m. the U.S. military conducted a targeted airstrike against ISIL terrorists with two F/A-18 aircraft dropping 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil that ISIL was using to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil, where, of course, U.S. personnel are located. As the President has made clear, the U.S. military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel or facilities.
With that, I’m sure there are lots of questions. Lara, get us started.
QUESTION: So --
MS. HARF: And presumably on Iraq.
QUESTION: Right. So thank you. I have many questions today and --
MS. HARF: Okay. Let’s just work through them all.
QUESTION: Great. Ask everybody’s indulgence on that.
MS. HARF: I’m wearing flats today, don’t worry.
QUESTION: I never worry about you, Marie.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: You said – first off, just to follow up on something you just said, you said that this strike comes as it would have whenever U.S. personnel are threatened. And I would just note that there have been attacks in Baghdad that are within hearing and feeling range of the U.S. Embassy there, and I wonder why this is happening now to protect personnel in Erbil, when U.S. personnel in Baghdad have been under threat for years.
MS. HARF: Well, first, what we’ve seen over the past several days really, but also several weeks, but really in the past several days is that there has been an ISIL fairly rapid advance towards Erbil. They’ve had access to heavy weapons. So basically, at this point, what we are trying to do is stop this advance, to give expedited support to the Iraqis as they fight this – obviously there’s a political process ongoing as well – also to provide humanitarian assistance.
And look, we’re focused on Erbil today because that’s where ISIL has been advancing. If – look, we have a very significant diplomatic presence in Baghdad, so, of course, the same principle would apply if we saw ISIL advances on Baghdad that would threaten our personnel as well. So obviously, it’s something we constantly monitor, but we’re focused on Erbil operationally right now.
QUESTION: But as you know, there have been ISIL bombings in Baghdad for years.
MS. HARF: There have been. But obviously, we look at the threat and look at the picture, and we saw here both a humanitarian situation where the U.S. military had unique capabilities to bring to bear that could be brought very quickly to bear in a very urgent crisis, and also a situation where you had ISIL advancing on Erbil, where, again, we have some military capabilities that we can use. I would also note that the Iraqis have been taking strikes of their own. We’ve been working in very close coordination with them out of our joint operation center at Erbil and the one in Baghdad as well.
QUESTION: I’ll go back to the humanitarian situation --
MS. HARF: Okay.
QUESTION: -- in a second. But first, just a couple of quick questions. How many American citizens are at the consulate in Erbil, absent the military presence right now?
MS. HARF: So we don’t give exact numbers. Let me just give a quick update. I know there are a lot of questions about the status of our consulate there. It is operating normally. There’s been no change to the current status of our consulate. We continue to monitor the security situation and will take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk to our colleagues. Obviously, we do this on a continuing basis. We don’t comment on specific numbers, are always reviewing staffing levels in light of the security posture. But I would note that the – one of the reasons, obviously, not just to protect Erbil but that we want to keep our people there is so they can keep working in this joint operation center to help the Iraqis fight this threat. We don’t want to have to pull them out. We’re constantly reevaluating the security.
QUESTION: I understand the reluctance to talk about specific numbers. I don’t need a specific number.
MS. HARF: It’s not a reluctance. We just never do it, as you know.
QUESTION: Well, we know there are about 5,000 people in the U.S. mission in Iraq right now. The vast majority of them are in Baghdad. So can you give some kind of – for example, I’ve been told somewhere between two to three hundred are in --
MS. HARF: I’m just not going to give any number ranges for security reasons. I understand the desire to have them. We do have a large presence still in Baghdad as well. You are correct on that.
QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the capabilities of the Peshmerga? There’s been some reporting that they have very strong capabilities. I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise, that they are not particularly armed very well, don’t have a lot of uniform uniforms, for lack of a better phrase. So could you talk about your assessment of their capabilities and to the extent that the U.S. is going to be helping them?
MS. HARF: Well, first, we have been advising and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish forces, including the Peshmerga, that are working to defend these areas broadly against ISIL. We have continued to have, for example, extensive ISR operations over Iraq. This is something we ramped up after we saw ISIL make some initial gains some weeks ago, as we talked about. And as well, as I mentioned, our joint operation centers in Erbil and Baghdad, they are sharing information with ISF, with Kurdish Peshmerga commanders right now. So those are very strong relationships.
And look, we’re in constant consultation with the Government of Iraq and the KRG about how we can best provide this urgent assistance. We are fully supportive and encouraged that today the Iraqis had offered to provide air support and ammunition to the Peshmerga. So they’re working together, really I would say in an unprecedented way – the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga – in a way we haven’t always seen in the past to counter this threat together. The Kurdish forces have played a critical role in addressing this threat. We understand their need for additional arms and equipment and are working to provide those as well so they are reinforced.
So we are bringing a lot of firepower to bear against this threat, mainly by helping the Iraqis, but as you saw today, with some strikes as well.
QUESTION: Okay. And so regarding the strikes, the President has said repeatedly these – and I think other Administration officials have said repeatedly these will be limited airstrikes. What is it that the Administration wants to see before it stops strikes? I know there’s only been one so far with the threat of more. What will it need to see before – from ISIL regarding some kind of retreat before it lays down that threat?
MS. HARF: Well, as you saw the President say last night, he has authorized the U.S. military to take targeted strikes in accordance with the principles he outlined and the guidance he outlined last night. The first priority – well, there are a couple first priorities. The first several priorities are really to stop the advance towards Erbil. And we’re not – we have personnel in Erbil, Erbil is a key city. That has been one of our top priorities. Also to provide expedited support to the Iraqis, to the Kurds, to help them do this.
I’m not going to outline tactically what we would need to see. I don’t think we’d want to outline for the enemy that we’re fighting what would make us take or not take airstrikes. I think we are confident that the combination of U.S. airpower being brought to bear against these targets and the Peshmerga really regrouping – giving them some space to regroup with the airstrikes, but also then regrouping and fighting ISIL will provide a check on their advance. That’s really, again, our primary goal right now.
QUESTION: And regarding the airstrikes, are – is the U.S. coordinating with Turkish air forces in terms of striking around this area as well? Are you familiar where that --
MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge, no. And we talk to the Turks quite a bit, but in terms of the airstrikes, no, not to my knowledge.
MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: And regarding what’s happening in Mount Sinjar --
QUESTION: Sorry. Before we go to the humanitarian, do you mind if we went back to the justification for the military action so we can close out on that?
QUESTION: Sure, Arshad.
QUESTION: So why does the principle of protecting U.S. personnel in Erbil justify the U.S. strikes not apply – justifying U.S. strikes not apply to the many other countries in the world where U.S. personnel end up being in places where they are threatened and the typical U.S. Government response, State Department response, as in Iraq two and a half weeks ago – as in Libya two and a half weeks ago, is to just remove your personnel? So why does this principle apply here but not in most cases?
MS. HARF: Well, it’s not a legal principle. It’s a policy principle.
MS. HARF: We can talk separately about a legal principle.
Well, first, every situation is different. Here, obviously, we believe it’s very important to keep our consulate in Erbil and our Embassy in Baghdad up and running and staffed, and particularly the joint operation centers up and running so we can help with this incredibly urgent threat. That’s the best way we can help right now. We also saw – I mean, they’re just first very, very different situations, but we in this case of Iraq saw a humanitarian need that we could address with military --
QUESTION: I – no, I wonder – just stick with the protecting, the --
MS. HARF: Well, but they’re related.
MS. HARF: So let’s --
QUESTION: So there are Americans who are on the mountain, or --
MS. HARF: No, Arshad. They’re related that when the President gives authorization to use military strikes (a) as we’ve seen today against ISIL, but also to help break the blockade at the mountain, which has --
MS. HARF: -- also been authorized, so they are related. But we are saw a discrete place where the United States military could bring specific resources to bear and would have the intended impact, we could keep our people there, and that’s why this is different.
QUESTION: So then on legal justification, I believe it is generally understood that under the Constitution, as part of protecting the United States of America, that that has historically been interpreted to include the protection of American citizens or American interests abroad. Correct?
MS. HARF: Correct, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Does the U.S. Government believe, or does the Obama Administration believe in this instance that it had – well, actually I’ll ask it more simply. Is that the legal authority that you would cite in this instance for the decision to carry out the airstrikes to protect American citizens, the constitutional one?
MS. HARF: So, two points on that. The first is this will trigger a war powers notification --
MS. HARF: -- that will come from the White House. It hasn’t come yet, but it will be coming. Correct. So in order to protect our people and personnel, we’ve also had extensive consultations with Congress on this issue of Iraq specifically throughout many weeks now, but also in the past few days and before we undertook action after the President had made the decision. So we had consultations with Congress before and after. They have been supportive, as we saw from bipartisan statements last night.
On the international legal side, the Iraqi Government and Iraqi leaders from all different parts of Iraq and different sects and different parties have invited us and indeed asked us for this assistance, so that is the principle that applies there.
QUESTION: Got it. And thank you for making the distinction domestic and international.
MS. HARF: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: On the international, who – because obviously, you could have lots of members of a parliament of some country asking you --
MS. HARF: I’m happy to name all of them for you.
QUESTION: No, no. Well, I – what I’m interested is: Who is the key – where do you – given that there is no formally constituted government post the election, although there is obviously an acting one, sort of who made the formal request for the United States to conduct airstrikes?
MS. HARF: Yep. So we have been in constant communication with Iraqi officials. We’ve been briefing them on operational decisions throughout our decision-making process. I will name some Iraqi leaders who we’ve talked to who have specifically requested U.S. assistance in action: Iraq’s president, Fuad Masum, who’s a Kurd; senior government ministers and lawmakers such as Prime Minister Maliki – as everyone knows, he’s a Shia – the current Foreign Minister Zebari; the acting defense minister; and former and current parliament speakers Nujaifi and al-Jabari, who are both Sunnis; as well as tribal leaders like Ahmed Abu Risha, who is a Sunni, and some others as well.
So it’s been really a broad spectrum.
QUESTION: And is any one of those regarded as the sort of controlling authority in this case? Is it the prime minister? And do you need a piece of paper, or is like a phone call good enough?
MS. HARF: Well, Nouri al-Maliki is still the prime minister of Iraq. As we know, they’ve named a new president. I don’t have more specifics for you on what the decision making looks like internally there.
QUESTION: And does the U.S. Government believe that it has authority under either the 2001 AUMF or the 2002 AUMF that was the legal – the domestic legal authority for --
MS. HARF: For counterterrorism operations.
QUESTION: -- for – well, for 2002, I think, was for Iraq. Correct? 2001 was – anyway --
MS. HARF: It was – yeah.
QUESTION: -- do you believe that you have authority under either of those for this operation in Iraq?
MS. HARF: I’ll need – the – I believe the answer to be no. Let me check with our lawyers on this. I don’t believe that’s what we’re operating under, but I should check with my lawyers on this. As we’ve always said, counterterrorism operations that would fall under the AUMF – or generally speaking we maintain the right to undertake them. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Those operations would be separate from the discrete things the President authorized yesterday, which is my understanding is a completely separate authorization.
QUESTION: Marie --
MS. HARF: But we should check with the attorneys and see what we --
QUESTION: Marie, a quick follow-up.
MS. HARF: Wait, let --
QUESTION: Can I follow up on his last point?
MS. HARF: Sure.
QUESTION: On this request, how broad was the Iraqi request? And I think this is going to get into some of the political concerns that are already rising about whether this could be an open-ended mission. We just heard your colleague over at the White House say that there’s no date for ending potential airstrikes, but in terms of the brief, how – of all the potential situations, is there something that spells out exactly what the Iraqis want the U.S. to do, and if so, did the President’s decision basically pick and choose from those options?
MS. HARF: Well, there – it’s not as easy as going down a checklist. We’ve had conversations with them over many weeks now about what assistance they’d like with ISIL. Over the past few days, obviously we’ve been very focused on this mountain and the humanitarian situation there and also the advance on Erbil. So there are broad conversations about what they might want and long-term assistance there also, and so the JOCs, the joint operations centers, are a good example of that. But there are also specific conversations about what we can do right now. I’m not probably going to go into more detail than that for you.
I think the President was very clear last night what our – that this is a discrete mission here, and I think that you’ve seen bipartisan support on the Hill and in the commentary world for the fact that we – that the President has authorized such action, then we started taking it.
QUESTION: So as you know, the government in Baghdad and probably even Erbil have been asking for months, if not years, for U.S. military help to combat ISIL. This isn’t --
MS. HARF: And we’ve been giving it to them.
QUESTION: Well, they’ve been asking for more lethal assistance. I think that is fair, and until today that hasn’t happened since the withdrawal.
MS. HARF: We provided them with a lot of military hardware, including Hellfire missiles --
QUESTION: Okay. Let’s – fine. Then I’ll say active military involvement, all right?
MS. HARF: -- which are fairly lethal, I think.
QUESTION: They’ve been asking for airstrikes; they’ve been asking for a lot more than Washington has been willing to give. Fair enough, right? So I’m wondering, given that there is this humanitarian crisis happening on Mount Sinjar, one might also argue that there’s been humanitarian crises happening throughout Iraq, that tens of thousands of Sunni – Shia have been killed by ISIS bombings, assassinations, other attacks for a very long time. So why is it now that strikes are going in to help Yezidis, and I don’t think there are any Christians up on Mount Sinjar, but I know the President --
MS. HARF: There are a lot of people who live in Erbil though. Let’s be clear, we’re also talking about protecting Erbil, not just the mountain --
MS. HARF: -- including the strikes today that were on an artillery piece near Erbil --
QUESTION: And the consulate --
MS. HARF: -- that ISIL was using to shell Kurdish forces.
QUESTION: Fair enough. But the point here is that they’ve been asking for help for some time to combat ISIL – many, many Sunni and Shia have been killed. Why is it now that we’re worried about Yezidis and Christians and not the two major sects that make up Iraq?
MS. HARF: Well, let me make a few points. First, we have consistently been increasing our support to Iraq. If you’ve seen over the past months, over the past years really – but really over the past months we’ve increased – we’ve expedited military equipment, hardware – look, some of this was held up by Congress, some of this was held up because the Iraqis hadn’t taken the steps that they needed to take to take ownership of it, just training of pilots and things like that. So there’s a lot of reasons why it took a long time. We have been increasing our support. You saw at the very beginning of this crisis we immediately increased our ISR coverage, so we had eyes on, so we could get more intelligence if we did take the decision to strike, because you need intelligence before you just start dropping bombs. So we needed that as well.
So I would disagree with the notion that we haven’t been supporting them and we haven’t been helping. There’s no military solution here from the U.S. side, certainly. We’ve also always said that. But you have seen in this case there is a discrete, dire humanitarian situation where we could bring resources to bear.
What actually happened first was the Iraqis tried to do an airdrop. We – they weren’t able to do it to the full satisfaction of them, I think, or us, certainly. And we had unique resources we could bring to bear on that, so then we decided to help. So they’re trying to combat this themselves, which is what eventually needs to happen here.
QUESTION: And they don’t have an air force, so – I mean, they have I think one jet and a couple of helicopters.
MS. HARF: And they’ve been taking some strikes recently, and we’ve been helping them with intelligence sharing at the joint operations centers from this ISR that we’re getting. Again, you need targets to strike and they’ve been improving and we’re working with them to do so.
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Fine. But wouldn’t you agree --
MS. HARF: Let’s not interrupt each other.
QUESTION: -- that hardware is different from airstrikes? I mean, I understand what you’re saying about hardware, increased assistance, all of that, but wouldn’t you agree that is different from airstrikes? That’s different from a no-fly zone?
MS. HARF: It is different, but also, look, we have provided assistance as we felt it was appropriate to help them fight the threat. This threat we’ve seen, quite frankly, on Erbil has happened very rapidly over the past several – really since Saturday, I think. We’ve provided assistance in response to the threat as it’s changed and as it’s grown more dire. But at the end of the day, one of the things that’s actually a key component of all this is training and helping equip the Iraqis to eventually be able to take on this fight on their own. And we will continue having conversations with them about what best to do, but I also think you heard the President say very clearly last night that it is not our – we cannot and should not fix every problem everywhere around the world or get involved every situation or do airstrikes or do a no-fly zone. We have to look at each situation individually, and nobody wants to get bogged down in some sort of long situation in Iraq.
QUESTION: Okay, but – fine, but why is the situation in Sinjar more dire than the situation in Mosul?
MS. HARF: I’m not saying it’s more dire. I’m saying the situation is operationally different for us to be able to provide airdrops to that mountain specifically.
QUESTION: What about strikes?
MS. HARF: Again, we make decisions based on the picture on the ground and what we think would be most effective and most helpful. In this case, we have a large U.S. consulate in Erbil, which is a key component driving all of our policy is protecting our people. That’s a huge part of what’s driving this decision now.
QUESTION: I’m not asking about the Yezidis specifically. I mean, they’re in Sinjar. That’s a far piece away from Erbil. Even Mosul is closer to Erbil than Sinjar is.
MS. HARF: Right, but the decision the President made yesterday was not just about the humanitarian situation in Sinjar. But let’s be clear: You heard him use the phrase referring to this potentially being genocide. We have a situation where tens of thousands of people could starve to death and we have the ability to do something. We’re going to do it.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re not doing it in other places.
MS. HARF: Let’s – wait, guys. Let’s do one question at – I’m not going to answer if we’re talking over each other.
QUESTION: But --
QUESTION: Marie, can we do Darfur for a second?
MS. HARF: We can do Laura, and then we can go around the room --
QUESTION: It’s exactly on Laura’s point, though.
MS. HARF: -- actually.
QUESTION: There are scores of places where the U.S. Government could have acted to prevent genocide; to mention just two, Rwanda and Darfur. And in Darfur, the Secretary of State explicitly before a Congressional panel asserted that he believed that genocide was taking place, and the U.S. Government did not act to prevent genocide. So the question is – and I think your narrow tactical explanation of, “Oh, well, we had unique capabilities in this particular place” – the U.S. military has unique capabilities to strike anything anywhere in the world it wants to. So the question, fundamentally, is – it’s Laura’s question, and it’s a good one: Why is it that you chose to stop a potential act of genocide in this one place, when you have signally chosen not to prevent things that you actively have described as genocide in other places?
QUESTION: And may I add to that that ISIL has --
MS. HARF: I can just leave if you guys want to do this yourselves.
QUESTION: No, no, no, but just – but it’s an important follow-up, because ISIL has declared war, genocide, the eradication of all groups they consider infidels --
MS. HARF: Absolutely.
QUESTION: -- which would include Shia, which would include Christian --
MS. HARF: Absolutely.
QUESTION: -- which would include Sunni that don’t follow sharia law to the extent that they want it.
MS. HARF: And we hit an ISIL location today that had nothing to do with the Yezidis. So don’t make this all about the Yezidis. Obviously, that’s incredibly important.
QUESTION: Well, you guys are making it all about the Yezidis.
MS. HARF: I’m actually not. I’m standing up here talking about everything we’re doing to fight ISIL. You are the ones who are so focused on it.
QUESTION: Why here and not elsewhere?
MS. HARF: Well, my job, Arshad, is to defend and talk about why we make decisions now today. I understand there are questions about why decades ago we didn’t take action. Those are historical conversations that I think are not inappropriate, but that aren’t appropriate for me to discuss or opine on from up here.
QUESTION: So --
MS. HARF: I can tell you why in this situation, we – the President, the Secretary, the U.S. military – believed there was a crisis that had the potential to get much worse. We were asked by the Iraqi Government to come in and help when they could not handle it themselves. We had the capability to do so and we did so. That’s what I’m up here to talk about today.
QUESTION: What is the endgame? What is the ultimate goal in this particular mission?
MS. HARF: Well, as I said --
QUESTION: How do you see it?
MS. HARF: As I said, it’s really to stop the advance of ISIL towards Erbil, (a) because, obviously, it’s a very strategically important city, and also because we have a large number of Americans there. It’s to give the Kurdish forces particularly, but the Iraqi forces writ large, the space to regroup; to give them expedited assistance so we can get them more things like weapons they can use to fight ISIL; and to help them really build up so they can push back what we’ve seen is a really quite rapid advance towards Erbil.
QUESTION: Okay. So if their advancement stops in a stalemate --
MS. HARF: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: If their advancement stops in a stalemate. They stay where they are, you push them back, the Yezidis go back to Sinjar and so on – do we pack up and leave?
MS. HARF: Well, I’m happy to talk about that if that actually happens. But I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about tactically what we might do in any number of circumstances.
QUESTION: Because you said you want to stop their advance. Suppose you stop their advance, okay? And then everybody stays in their own positions and so on. So the strike will be over?
MS. HARF: I didn’t say that. I think the Department of Defense has the ability to undertake strikes at the time and place of their choosing. They have been authorized by the President to do so in this case.
And look, we’re not going to outline when they may or may not take strikes. He’s outlined the criteria under which we will be doing so, and they will make those decisions tactically. I’m not going to address or – hypotheticals about what may or may not happen.
QUESTION: Is this an acknowledgment --
MS. HARF: And I will – one – I will – one point I will make on the humanitarian side, though, is you will likely see more humanitarian drops, more humanitarian assistance. We are – that is very likely something that will continue to happen as well.
QUESTION: Is this an acknowledgment that 11 years-plus of U.S. training of the regular Iraqi armed forces was all for naught, and what you have in Iraq today is a number of militias with the strongest militia being ISIL?
MS. HARF: Well, I wouldn’t describe ISIL as a militia.
QUESTION: Whatever it is. A group?
MS. HARF: I would describe ISIL as something much, much worse.
QUESTION: Okay. I mean, armed groups – that Iraq has really turned into a bunch of armed groups with the strongest one being ISIL. I mean, seeing how the Peshmerga just collapsed.
MS. HARF: Well, I wouldn’t – I would not use that term. This is a tough fight.
MS. HARF: That’s an ongoing fight, and obviously they are a very good fighting force and we are working with them to help them get better to be able to fight ISIL here.
We know the security challenge is an incredibly dire one. What we’ve seen from ISIL – there is no political solution here. There is only a military solution where the Iraqis – not an American military solution, but a military solution where the Iraqis are able to take the fight to ISIL. We are trying to help them do that. There are a variety of other factors at work in other places in Iraq. There are a variety of groups. We understand there’s a lot of factors at play here, but I want to make ISIL a very distinct problem from the rest of what’s happening in Iraq.
QUESTION: And my last question on this: Is this in a way – sort of divides Iraq into different, basically, power bases and so on into squares of here are the Peshmergas, here are this or is that?
MS. HARF: Well, one thing, as we’ve seen particularly over the last 24 hours, but recently is actually the Iraqi security forces working at an unprecedented level with the Kurdish forces to a level we hadn’t seen before, because they understand the shared threat and they know they need to bring as many resources to bear on this as possible, including providing air support and ammo to them today.
QUESTION: I want to come back to this question of Islamic State’s military capability. A senior Administration official said in last night’s conference call that a, quote, sophisticated response was needed to deal with them because they basically have shown that they are, for all intents and purposes, a fighting army. They’re not just a bunch of ragtag militants. Has the U.S. promised the Iraqi Government that while it tries to reconstitute chunks of its military, which basically melted away once IS moved from Syria into Iraq, that it’s not going to bring in U.S. forces and take their place, because soldiers just are not made overnight?
MS. HARF: That’s true.
QUESTION: But has the U.S. promised Iraq that it’s not going to do its fighting for the Iraqi people?
MS. HARF: I mean, the President, I think, said that very clearly last night. We’re not talking about putting troops back in Iraq. We’re not talking about fighting this fight for them. The Iraqi security forces have made quite a bit of gains. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done. The Peshmerga have traditionally been a very courageous and strong fighting force. We think with some time to regroup they will be up to the task of defending Erbil as well. So --
QUESTION: So that’s --
MS. HARF: This is not an American fight.
QUESTION: No, but the official also noted that this is not a problem that could be resolved in a number of weeks or even in a matter of months. So it goes back to the earlier question of, one, is there a deadline for the U.S.’ ability to carry out airstrikes of an offensive nature to protect its interests but as well to assist the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga?
MS. HARF: Well, there’s certainly not a deadline on assisting the Iraqis and the Kurds writ large. That’s going to be a very ongoing, long-term process, and we’re committed to that. In terms of this specific authorization the President authorized yesterday, I can check with the White House – not to my knowledge that there’s a, quote, “deadline.” But as we’ve all made very clear, this is not open ended, this is not America’s fight to fight. We’re going to help. We’re going to stand with you and try and help you, the Iraqis yourselves, fight this threat.
QUESTION: We know that the President spoke this morning with King Abdullah of Jordan.
MS. HARF: He did, yes.
QUESTION: Has the Administration been reaching out to other Arab countries in the region? Has it reached out to the Arab League? Has it talked with NATO, trying to find as many alternate sources of support, not just for the humanitarian mission to help the ethnic minorities who are being targeted, but more specifically to help the Iraqi military deal with what it has – is obviously a major problem in defending its country from outside attack? It’s apparent that after more than two months now having the JOCs on the ground, the U.S. military believes that the Iraqi military isn’t up to the job, and that’s why the U.S. has been called in to start carrying out airstrikes.
MS. HARF: That’s not at all – I would not use the words you’ve just used. I think we’ve seen gains made by the Iraqis. This is a really tough challenge though, so we’re working together. But I wouldn’t use that term.
In terms of outreach, I don’t want to get ahead of any conversations, but we are working closely with our partners in the region and in Europe to figure out what the best path forward is here – who else can support, who else can provide assistance. The Secretary yesterday spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, French Foreign Minister Fabius, Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh, Emirati foreign minister as well – also the Israelis, but that was unrelated to this. That was related to Gaza. So we’re in constant communication with our counterparts. The President, as you said, spoke to King Abdullah today. So this is a challenge not just for Iraq but for the whole region, and we are looking to see who else can bring resources to bear.
QUESTION: But of course, do you consider that – and we’re getting back to the legality question of the U.S. even carrying out these airstrikes in the first place. Yes, it’s one thing to cite Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution that the President has the duty to protect American interests, but there’s also this question of the U.S., going back to the Iraq war, going it alone. And --
MS. HARF: I’m not sure how those are related.
QUESTION: Well, it’s the question of not having a robust multinational effort to try to deal with a problem Islamic state that pretty much people in the region and in Western Europe and, of course, here in Washington agree is a fundamental threat.
MS. HARF: Right. And I would agree that there --
QUESTION: So --
MS. HARF: -- is an effort underway to multilateralize this effort broadly speaking. I’m not talking about airstrikes; I’m talking broadly speaking to help fight ISIL. Sam Power, our ambassador at the UN, has been incredibly engaged on this. We’re having conversations up there. The Secretary’s had conversations. But just fundamentally, it is completely different from what happened before in Iraq. The Iraqis have – the Iraqi Government has invited us in to help them. So that is the reason that we are there.
QUESTION: But even with --
MS. HARF: It has nothing at all to do with what happened before.
QUESTION: Yeah. But even with that, there are law of war experts who are already arguing that perhaps it would have been better had the Security Council not started today on the expert level to look at coming up with some sort of resolution to help codify everything on this.
MS. HARF: The Security Council members are certainly talking about this. They’ve having conversations about it.
QUESTION: Well, no, but there’s an actual draft now being considered --
MS. HARF: But when a country invites – when a country invites you in, Roz --
QUESTION: And there probably won’t be a vote for a week.
MS. HARF: When a country invites you in and asks for assistance, you are absolutely within your international legal rights to assist them. Now look, we want to multilateralize this and multinationalize it. We are talking to countries in the region about how else they can help. But let’s be clear: The Government of Iraq invited us to assist them. There’s no question there about that, so there’s not a legal question. And of course, when we’re talking about the duty to protect our people and humanitarian assistance, there was an urgency here. We’ve talked to members of Congress about it. They understand the urgency, so that’s underpinning that as well.
QUESTION: Could I change topics to --
QUESTION: No, no.
QUESTION: A follow-up on this --
MS. HARF: Anything else on Iraq?
QUESTION: -- Marie?
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: You’re emphasizing that the U.S. is protecting or working on protecting the Americans personnel in Erbil. What about the civilians, the Christians and the Yezidis, who are fleeing Mosul and other parts of Iraq and got killed by ISIL? Who’s responsible for their protection when the Iraqi Government is not capable to protect them?
MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, a few points I would make on that. We, of course, are also focused on stopping ISIL’s advance towards Erbil, which is not just about our people – that’s part of it – but also because it’s a key city. And that has to do with protecting innocent Iraqis as well. The same principle would apply to Baghdad, of course, too. If you look at what we’re doing humanitarianly around the mountain with the airdrops, which I expect there may be more of them, likely will be more of them, that is to help in a discrete situation where we have the ability to do so.
We’ve also provided a large number of assistance to nongovernmental and international organizations that are working on the very severe humanitarian crisis inside Iraq. The UN is doing quite a bit of work, particularly with internally displaced people. So we are providing a large amount of assistance to that effort as well. But the best way, right, we can help people return to some normalcy is to get the Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish forces able to fight this threat on their own to push back the advance of ISIL and see if we can bring calm back to some areas here. That’s obviously a longer-term strategy.
QUESTION: And what are you considering to do to help Christians and the Yezidis to go back to their hometowns?
MS. HARF: Well, just a statistic too. We’ve provided over $83 million in assistance for minority communities since 2008. This has gone to a number of things, including conflict mitigation, cultural preservation, community stabilization, and other efforts as well. We are the largest donor to the UN agencies who are working on assistance to displaced persons right now. So those efforts are ongoing. But it’s, again, a very serious challenge.
QUESTION: We’re talking about the latest events, not since 2008.
MS. HARF: Well, some of that has happened recently, so I would point you to the UN for some of the action they’ve taken. But also, all you had to do is see that last night the United States military did a fairly large air drop that could provide food and water for thousands of people that are stranded on a mountain. So that’s, I think, the biggest example of --
QUESTION: I have two more questions.
MS. HARF: Okay.
QUESTION: To what extent do you think that Erbil and U.S. personnel and facilities are still threatened by ISIL in Erbil?
MS. HARF: Well, obviously, we haven’t changed out status at our consulate there. That’s – this is exactly why we want to prevent ISIL’s advance towards Erbil because we don’t want them to be and we don’t want ISIL to advance any further.
QUESTION: And the Shiite leader Sami al-Askari, who is close to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, has said today that Mr. Obama’s call for airstrikes have come too late, and he accused the Obama Administration for being interested only in protecting the Kurdish Regional Government and Christians, not the rest of Iraq. What’s your reaction to that?
MS. HARF: Well, I think the huge amount of military assistance we’ve provided to Iraq should make very clear that we are interested in helping the Iraqis fight ISIL wherever they threaten Iraqis inside Iraq, and we will continue that effort. Again, this was a discrete situation where particularly with our people in Erbil we felt we had to take immediate action.
QUESTION: And Askari has said too that Iraqis must rely on themselves and their genuine friends like Iran and Russia. What do you think about that?
MS. HARF: Well, we’re the one who are taking airstrikes against ISIL right now and helping the Iraqis. I think that should speak for our friendship, as should the long history we’ve had over the past days, months, and – weeks and months in helping them fight ISIL.
QUESTION: Would you encourage Iranian airstrikes? I mean, with – you said that you are the ones that are taking – like this is a big responsibility.
MS. HARF: Well, the Iraqi Government --
QUESTION: So you’re not encouraging Iranian airstrikes?
MS. HARF: The Iraqi Government asked us to provide this kind of assistance.
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: The moderate rebels in Syria are facing a similar threat with ISIS that is currently being – that we are now engaged in airstrikes against in Iraq. So can you lay out what the differences are? Obviously, I know that this is on a case-by-case basis. What are the differences that make this situation so much different than the fight that the moderate opposition in Syria is undergoing?
MS. HARF: Well, I’d start with three points. The first is, again, there’s a central government in Iraq and a number of leaders throughout Iraq, in the Kurdish Regional Government as well, who have asked us to assist here. Obviously, that’s very different than in Syria.
Second, there was – we have a number of Americans in Erbil, which is driving a lot of our decision making. Again, that’s very different than the situation in Syria.
And thirdly, we have continued to provide increased assistance to the moderate opposition in Syria. Operationally it’s very different. What we see here is a city of Erbil and convoys of ISIL fighters advancing towards them. Operationally that’s very different than the full-scale civil war we see in Syria, where it’s just a very different operational picture.
QUESTION: But aside from the question of Americans being in danger, is – does – I guess what I want to ask is: Does the Administration see it as situations have to meet that trifecta of circumstances to warrant such a --
MS. HARF: Well, there’s a number of principles that could lead the President to decide to authorize military action. There’s not a checklist he goes through, but there’s a number of principles at work, some of which are at work here.
QUESTION: Yes, please. You mentioned more than one time this is not American fight to fight. So in that – with that concept, do you think the presence of ISIL in this area cross-border between Syria and the rapid movement doesn’t any way threaten, make – represent a threat to the American national security?
MS. HARF: Well, right. So my point in saying the first comment you referenced was that this is not – there’s not an American military solution that can solve this problem, but when America’s core interests are at play here, when there are certain core interests, the United States is going to protect. One of those is obviously the protection of our personnel and our facilities. Another is our humanitarian principle that if you see a potential act of genocide, as we’ve seen on Mount Sinjar, and we have the ability to act, when we can, we aim to do so. So there are some core principles that underline why we are involved here. But again, it’s not – we can’t impose an American military solution on this problem.
QUESTION: I’m not asking --
QUESTION: I’m not asking what you can or you want to do. I’m asking, do you consider the presence of ISIL in that area, cross-border from Syria to Iraq, and the possibility of going to Jordan and the rapid movement without even going to Erbil is a threat to the region and to United States national interests?
MS. HARF: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely.
QUESTION: You consider that?
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. My second question: Do you still believe that with the political solution that you are talking about it for the last two months, assuming that it’s going to be a political solution in Iraq?
MS. HARF: Well, there needs to be a political and a security solution.
MS. HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: This political solution is going to be able to handle the ISIL problem?
MS. HARF: Well, it needs to be matched with a security solution. So we’ve seen progress towards formation of a new government, and hopefully we’ll have a new prime minister for a new government very soon, hopefully. But it needs to be matched with a security strategy, and part of that is the assistance we can provide, part of that is governing in an inclusive manner and helping the security forces work together, like we’ve seen them already start to do. So they really need to go hand in hand.
QUESTION: So my third question regarding ISIL: Do you still believe that ISIL has to be confronted?
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: It’s not a matter of just to find channel of communication with ISIL?
MS. HARF: No. As I said, there’s not a political solution to the ISIL problem by working with them. This is a terrorist group, a barbaric group that, as Lara said, will kill anyone they encounter – moderate Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Yezidis. They have said they want to wipe some of these groups out of Iraq altogether. So this is a brutal group that needs to be confronted militarily, and that’s what the Iraqis are trying to do, and we’re helping them.
QUESTION: So when you say you have contacts with neighboring countries – or probably, let’s say, Sunni countries – those people are trying to help you or you are trying to coordinate with them how to confront ISIL? It’s not a matter of just find channel of communication?
MS. HARF: No, it’s working together to confront ISIL.
QUESTION: Marie, to follow up on something you just said a second ago – I’m not going to put words in your mouth, but you said something to the effect of that the U.S. believes has it a responsibility to respond in terms of a humanitarian disaster in Sinjar.
MS. HARF: If we – if the situation presents itself where we are able to do so, based on a whole number circumstances, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me --
MS. HARF: That is a core principle that underpins this policy.
QUESTION: So in July 2007, candidate Obama said in an AP interview that the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems, and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.
MS. HARF: Very different situation. He was talking about keeping tens of thousands of ground troops in Iraq --
QUESTION: He --
MS. HARF: -- and he still very much believes in that principle and made very clear last night that we were not going to return to what things looked like in 2007.
QUESTION: I don’t see ground force as part of this. He was talking about --
MS. HARF: The U.S. presence is ground troops in 2007, tens of thousands of them.
QUESTION: Well, he’s talking specifically about humanitarian problems and potential genocide in Iraq, which is what we’re facing now.
MS. HARF: But go to the second part of that quote, which is maintain a U.S. presence there to combat it. That U.S. presence he was referring to in 2007 was a large-scale ground troop presence, which is not what we’re doing today.
QUESTION: As we all know, there are 49 Turkish diplomats held captive by ISIL for about two months now. Are you taking into this the presence of Turkish diplomats when you are taking your strikes?
MS. HARF: I don’t have any update for you on that issue.
QUESTION: No, my question is, are you taking these Turkish diplomats into considerations when you decide to launch any strike on this ISIL? Otherwise, you’ll hit Turkish diplomats as well.
MS. HARF: Well, obviously, we would not want that to be the case. We’ve outlined what the targets would look like, broadly speaking, if ISIL is moving towards Erbil. So that’s what we’re focused on.
QUESTION: So you are saying that you have been talking to Turkish Government on this --
MS. HARF: In general, yeah.
QUESTION: -- in general. How about these diplomats within this conversation?
MS. HARF: I don’t have any more details for you on that.
QUESTION: Are you partnering with Iran, or do you have any objection with Iran fighting with the ISIL forces on the ground?
MS. HARF: We are not partnering with Iran on this.
QUESTION: Two things. Why is there no American military solution here?
MS. HARF: To the general ISIL problem writ large? Because, at the end of the day, the Iraqis need to be able to fight it themselves. We can make progress and we can make gains, but we – at
the end of the day, the Iraqis will need to take this challenge on themselves.
QUESTION: But – in other words, what you’re saying is that there’s no --
MS. HARF: But we want to help them be able to. That’s the point of this assistance.
QUESTION: Well, but – I mean, you’ve asserted there is no American solution, military solution to this. You mean there’s – it’s just inconceivable that the U.S. military could destroy ISIL if it chose to do so and was ordered by the President to do so?
MS. HARF: Look, Arshad --
QUESTION: Or is it that you just don’t want to do that?
MS. HARF: No.
QUESTION: Which is a perfectly understandable thing, given the last 10 years of history in Iraq. But --
MS. HARF: No, what I’m saying is, look, we can certainly make gains against terrorist groups in Iraq. I mean, you saw that when we were there and we had, again, tens of thousands of combat troops and a huge presence on the ground. But if the Iraqis at the end of the day aren’t able to step up and take care of this themselves, that’s the long-term solution. We cannot be doing this forever. There is no long-term American military solution to this problem.
QUESTION: Okay. And then second thing --
MS. HARF: That is a fact. Yes.
QUESTION: Second thing. You several times have said that it is – that your goal is for the Iraqis to be able to deal with this themselves and you’ve talked about U.S. assistance to them in that regard. What makes you think that the Iraqis will ever be capable of doing this themselves and of fielding a – an army capable of maintaining order throughout their country when they were unable to do so even after a decade of significant U.S. troops presence, training, financial assistance, political/diplomatic assistance – a decade, a lot of money, they couldn’t do it then, what makes you think they can do it now?
MS. HARF: Well, they actually did it for a number of years. We left in December of 2011 and for many of those months actually they did. But when they were – that’s a fact, too – when they were confronted with the overwhelmingly rapidly advance of ISIL that was a challenge they were not at the time prepared to face. But we believe working with us in a long-term, sustained way we can get them back.
QUESTION: But why do you think you can get them back there when – I mean, I grant that they were able to maintain security for a certain amount of time, but the point is three years is not a real long time in terms of the span of a country’s existence. I mean, what makes you think that they can actually durably do this with your help when they didn’t last even three years after you left?
MS. HARF: Well, I would turn it around and say why are you focused on these few months and not the three years?
QUESTION: Well, because --
MS. HARF: Which is an even shorter time in a country’s existence, these few months, when they haven’t been able to.
QUESTION: Yeah. But the point is they haven’t been able to, right?
MS. HARF: But they have been in the past.
QUESTION: Not in Diyala.
MS. HARF: And --
QUESTION: Not in 2000, November 13th.
MS. HARF: Not – look, there have been challenges, I grant you that. But we believe that working together we can. We can help give them the tools. This is not going to be easy. Nobody’s saying that, but we believe that we can.
QUESTION: But why – no, but I keep trying to get to why you think you can. And that’s what I don’t understand is why you think they can.
MS. HARF: From a specific military, tactical, strategic --
QUESTION: From any point of view, why do you think that they’ll be capable of doing this, given all of the ethnic divisions, given the manifest incapacity of the military – of the Iraqi military in the face of ISIL, given the political divisions, what makes you think this country and its government is capable of fielding an army to actually control its territory?
MS. HARF: Well, on the military side of it, I think we are very good at training people at doing this. It’s a challenge, but the United States military has a lot of resources they can bear in terms on the military side of equipping and training and arming. But there is a political part of this that we cannot force the Iraqis to make these decisions. It needs to be matched with tough political decisions on the Iraqi side as well. So we can’t force them to, but we believe they can get there if they make the decisions to do so. And we keep working with them.
QUESTION: Can we go to Gaza?
QUESTION: Just one more, quick, on Iraq?
QUESTION: Oh, one more.
QUESTION: Sorry, Said.
MS. HARF: Let’s do a few more on Iraq and then we are moving on.
QUESTION: Just real quick, do you have an update on the dam, the Mosul Dam?
MS. HARF: No, same as I said yesterday, ISIL has taken it. The situation’s very fluid though, so this is obviously changing. It’s a hugely strategically important location, so that is the update.
Yes. Just a few more on Iraq, and then we’re moving on.
QUESTION: Yeah. When you say ISIL and this – all these rapid movement is going on and nobody is confronting them, at least up to this moment, do you have an estimate or what is the latest estimate of their number?
MS. HARF: Of ISIL’s numbers?
MS. HARF: I don’t. Let me check with our team and see if I can get that.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh. And then I’m going to you in the back. Sorry.
QUESTION: Two more. Do you consider that Erbil is a redline that ISIL should not cross?
MS. HARF: Well, we’ve said that we don’t – we want to stop their advance towards Erbil. That is very important strategically to us both for our personnel there but also strategically for the Iraqis. So we’ve made clear.
QUESTION: That means you are drawing a redline --
MS. HARF: I am not going to use that term. You can feel free to use it yourself, but I’m not going to. So --
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Second, what changes can we expect from the U.S. after the formation of the new government in Iraq?
MS. HARF: What changes?
QUESTION: Yeah, in the political position or military --
MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think – I mean, I don’t you’ll see any changes. We will continue to increase our assistance, as we’ve said. And as the government takes steps and fully forms its new form, I think we’ll continue working with them and look at other ways we can help.
QUESTION: But you expect it to be more inclusive, correct?
MS. HARF: We have said that it needs to govern more inclusively.
I’m going to you in the back, I promise.
QUESTION: Thank you. I was just wondering, you said that this comes at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. What sort of leverage does that give you over Maliki? And then the second question is: Does it present a risk that the Iraqi Government will take this as a form of support, which will back off the pressure for political change in Baghdad?
MS. HARF: Well, we certainly have said we are broadly very supportive of the Iraqi Government, but that they need to move forward with government formation very, very quickly. We’ve made that clear publicly and privately in the many, many conversations we’ve had. So they have a new council speaker, they have a new president, and hopefully very, very soon we’ll have a new prime minister. I don’t think there is any doubt that the United States believes that they should form a new government as soon as possible. It’s not up to us to say who that is, but that’s what we need to see happen very soon.
QUESTION: And then the only other question I had for you is: What sort of support are you guys getting from the U.K. or France or any other European allies, and what do those consultations look like?
MS. HARF: Yep. So as I mentioned, the Secretary spoke with French Foreign Minister Fabius yesterday. I can see if there are updated calls from today. He may be making some on the plane right now. We’ve been consulting very closely with them, particularly at the UN, on next steps, what that might look like, trying to get humanitarian assistance in. So we’ve been working together very, very closely. No specific update beyond that.
QUESTION: Do you see them engaging in any sort of military action themselves?
MS. HARF: You’d have to ask them.
QUESTION: When you say new prime minister, do you mean someone other than Nouri al-Maliki, or do you mean a prime minister for a new government?
MS. HARF: A prime minister for a new government. I am not taking a position on who that should be. Thank you for allowing me to clarify that.
QUESTION: I’m just asking.
QUESTION: And final – one more question.
MS. HARF: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: Do you know more about who is financing ISIL? There are reports Saudis or Qatar. If you find out that they’ve been supporting these forces, would you consider putting some kind of sanctions on them?
MS. HARF: Well, a few points. First, much of ISIL’s funding comes from criminal activity like ransoms, like taking hostages, like robbing banks. We’ve seen them do this a number of times over the past several months. So much of their funding comes from that kind of criminal activity. We don’t have any indication that governments are – that you mentioned are funding it. Look, there are always a chance that private citizens in some of these countries might be doing so. Obviously, that would be hugely concerning. Obviously, they are also a designated terrorist organization in the United States, so we have imposed to the extent that we can some limits on how people could fund them.
QUESTION: And also would you consider taking any kind of rescue operation if you were to know where the Turkish diplomats are?
MS. HARF: I don’t think I would even venture to answer that hypothetical.
QUESTION: Treasury acted against a Kuwaiti citizen earlier this week whom I believe was funding ISIL.
MS. HARF: Great. I would refer you to my colleagues at Treasury.