Thursday, August 07, 2014

She doesn't know the meaning of precedent but wants you to trust her on Iraq

We'll note some of today's State Dept press briefing on Iraq in the snapshot tonight -- some.  There's a great deal.  So we're pulling the Iraq section and making it an entry all by itself.  Spokesperson Marie Harf (above) fielded the questions.

QUESTION: Okay. I’d like to start with Iraq.

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: ISIL seized this dam up in Mosul and I was wondering if you all could put that in perspective in terms of developments there. Also, what can you tell us about the Administration’s thoughts about how to help these trapped Iraqi civilians, these religious minorities that are kind of in trouble? There’s some discussion right now about humanitarian aid and whether or not that might include airstrikes or – what can you tell us about that?

MS. HARF: Well, I’ll start with the dam and then let’s go to the broader question. Obviously, the situation on the ground remains fluid, but the latest information is that ISIL has advanced on Mosul Dam and taken control of it. We are extremely concerned by this development. The dam is a vital part of Iraq’s infrastructure, as it controls water levels on the Tigris River. It is also a key source of water and electricity generation for the Iraqi people. So we’re closely coordinating with the Iraqis – with Iraqi officials in both Baghdad and Erbil to counter this development. But also writ large, I’d just say a few points. I know there’s a lot of interest out there on this today, a lot of questions and information floating around.

We are actively considering what we could do in support of Iraqi efforts – what more we could do – and particularly to provide additional support for the Yezidis, also the Christian communities we’ve talked about. Look, this is a huge humanitarian crisis. You have thousands and thousands of people at risk of death from starvation. We’re reviewing what more we can do. Obviously, we’ve talked a lot about this over the past few weeks. We’re working politically with the Iraqis on the government formation process. We’ve seen some progress, and hopefully we’ll see more. But we are right now actively considering what else we can do given the extremely grave humanitarian situation that we see on the ground. You’ve heard my colleague at the White House who I think just talked about this as well, so we’re looking at options.

QUESTION: What about aid? What about helping the Kurdish fighters? The --

MS. HARF: The Peshmerga?


MS. HARF: In what way?

QUESTION: Any kind of assistance whatsoever. Are you considering that?

MS. HARF: Well, we have – a couple things. We’ve obviously worked with them in a number of ways. I would note for people that we opened a joint operation center in Erbil, also one in Baghdad. But the one in Erbil works directly with the Kurds to share information to help them with this threat.

Look, we’re reviewing to see what more we can do, but we’re in constant consultation with both the Government of Iraq, also with the Kurdish Regional Government, about their requests for assistance and what more we could do. But we’ve been very actively engaged, especially through our foreign military financing and foreign military sales in terms of getting military assistance to the Iraqis.

QUESTION: You mentioned it’s a humanitarian crisis. How soon might we know what kind of decision you all are going to make?

MS. HARF: Well, look, we know this is a very urgent one. I think the President does and the Secretary does. So I would expect to see – I don’t have anything to preview, but I think we all understand the urgency and would expect to see some decisions about what we might do coming soon, but I don’t have anything to preview for you.

QUESTION: Like today, or --

MS. HARF: I don’t have anything to preview for you, Deb.

QUESTION: In the next several hours, maybe?

MS. HARF: I don’t have anything to preview for you, Deb.


MS. HARF: You can keep pushing.


MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the Peshmerga assistance question?

MS. HARF: Sure, and then I’m going to you.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Iranian Government had said – I mean Iraqi Government had said that after a lot of back and forth about whether the U.S. was doing any drone strikes on its behalf, that, no, it was in charge of doing any strikes on ISIL targets. Is the U.S. in the process of providing materiel to the Iraqi Air Force so that it can continue providing cover and carrying out missions in tandem with the Peshmerga?

MS. HARF: Well, Roz, that is not new news or breaking news that we have been working with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government to figure out how to best confront ISIL. We’ve done that in part through foreign military sales and through foreign military financing. Obviously, we know this is an incredibly serious threat, and the Peshmerga have played a critical role in addressing this threat. We have noted also that there’s been good cooperation between the Kurds and the central Iraqi Government on this.

So right now what we’re focused on – we put these joint operation centers in place. Right away, we increased ISR coverage so we had more eyes on the ground in terms of what was happening in Iraq. We got DOD assessment teams out there to see how more we could help. So all of those pieces are part of a puzzle that right now we’re looking at how we could do more, particularly given this incredibly grave humanitarian situation that’s --

QUESTION: Well, but --

MS. HARF: -- that we see on the ground.

QUESTION: But given that ISIL has taken control of the dam in Mosul, that has an impact on a large percentage of Iraq’s population.

MS. HARF: It does.

QUESTION: Where’s the urgency in dealing with that problem?

MS. HARF: Well, I can guarantee you that there are a number of people working around the clock on this issue, including today. And again, we understand the urgency and we’re looking for more ways to help. And if we – if and when we have more details about how we’ll be doing so, I’m sure we can have that conversation then.

Yep, Margaret. And then I’m going to you.

QUESTION: A few questions. Marie, on the question of the Yezidis, do we have any estimate of the – a number of people in peril?

MS. HARF: It’s a good question. I’m trying to get some information from our folks on that. We know it’s – there – I’ve seen reports of 15,000.


MS. HARF: I’ve seen a number of reports. I’m trying to get a little more clarity from our folks, and let me see if I can do that after the briefing. We do know it’s not just the Yezidis, though. It’s also these Christian communities. I mean, ISIL has come out and said they have a desire to kill people because of their sect or their ethnicity or their religion, and that they’ve been doing so. And so what we’ve seen on the ground is just really horrific, and that’s why right now, immediately, we are trying to find more ways to help.

QUESTION: And is – policy-wise, is stopping ethnic cleansing or is fear of potential ethnic cleansing a core national security interest of this Administration?

MS. HARF: I think you’ve seen throughout this Administration that when we have the ability to prevent humanitarian crises, or when we have the ability to help once there is a humanitarian crisis, ease the suffering of people through whatever means possible, right – we have a number of tools at our disposal – that has been a core principle for what guides our action. It’s certainly not the only one.

QUESTION: And another question for you: Given these meetings in Geneva – that have to do with Iran and the nuclear talks, I know – but in the past, there has been a precedent with Bill Burns bringing up --

MS. HARF: Just once.

QUESTION: Just once.

MS. HARF: I wouldn’t call once a precedent.

[Actually, once is what makes a precedent, Marie.  Whether in a court or in day to day life, things go as they have before repeatedly, then a single incident -- or legal judgment -- comes along and establishes a new definition or whatever.  A precedent is a single incident or ruling that changes everything.]

QUESTION: Well, it’s happened once before.

MS. HARF: Just once, yes.

QUESTION: Will it happen again? Will Iraq come up in these conversations?

MS. HARF: To my knowledge, it’s – it will not. Obviously, I think probably the people talk about things in the news, but in the way we talked about two rounds ago, I guess, when we said it had been raised on the sidelines – to my knowledge, that’s not planned for this round, which I think may now actually be over. People are headed back tomorrow.

Yes. Oh wait, I’m going here next.

QUESTION: So about Kurdistan. The region – this is the gravest crisis they’re facing, and recently it was reported by The Washington Post that ISIL has just now controlled even a town that’s like less than 30 kilometers away from Erbil. I was just talk to friends and people in Erbil. They were really panicking. People are leaving Erbil. So people are asking Kurdistan whether America is going to really act to protect its – Kurdistan has been one of the most pro-American allies in the region. Honestly, there are thousands of posts I read on social media. Everybody is saying is really America going to help us, or is it going to save us? Because Kurdistan just – I heard the Kurdish leader talking on Amanpour’s show, saying that the reason we are defeated because we are having outdated Russian weapons and ISIL has advanced American weapons. Is there anything more than statements --

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think ISIL has advanced American weapons. But setting that aside, I can guarantee you that we are – we are already assisting the Kurdish people and the Iraqi people – all of them – in their fight against ISIL.

QUESTION: Like in what ways?

MS. HARF: And we will continue to do more of that. We’ve already ramped up our military-to-military assistance; we’ve already worked through the central government. But part of that also has been working with the Kurds, particularly through this joint operation center in Erbil that we stood up. We’ve had assessment teams on the ground. We’re providing humanitarian assistance.

But as I said, I can’t underscore enough for you how seriously and closely and urgently we are looking at what more we can do, and that we understand that this is an incredibly dire situation, and that we are in a place where we’re looking at what we can do to help. I don’t have any announcements to make for you or timing to guess about, but I do know that we are looking very, very seriously at what else we can do, because we do understand how serious it is.

QUESTION: And about the Yezidis, more than like 60, 70 people have starved to death or have died from thirst in that, like, dry mountain.

MS. HARF: And the Iraqis --


MS. HARF: -- have tried to do some air drops --

QUESTION: But there has been nothing – has been – it’s been three days.

MS. HARF: Well, they’ve been trying. It’s a very difficult operating environment. So again, we have a situation there where there is an incredibly dire humanitarian situation and we’re looking at what more we can do to help in a very urgent way.

QUESTION: Are you – I mean, if I go on the, I can pull up a lot of statements in which the United States has said that it’s committed to the security and stability of Kurdistan and Iraq as well. Is – are you repeating that? Are you committed to the security of Kurdistan region?

MS. HARF: Absolutely. We’re committed to the security of the Kurdistan region; we’re committed to the security of all of Iraq. That’s why we are so deeply engaged to – that’s why again today, I guarantee you there are many, many meetings going on in this building and elsewhere about what more we can do. We’re looking at it in a very serious way.

QUESTION: How prominent is the discussion of providing material – military materiel as opposed to providing U.S. troop assistance?

MS. HARF: Well, I’m not going to outline any specific options or to take on or off the table any specific option. I think you’ve heard the President in the past speak about the fact that anything we do – first of all, anything we do has to be accompanied by political moves in Iraq; we’ve seen some moves toward government formation, but we need to see a prime minister named as soon as possible – that there’s no American military solution here.

Obviously, also talked about the principle of no combat troops on the ground. He’s outlined those in a variety of ways throughout the past few weeks. So those are sort of, I think, part of how decisions are made. But obviously, no decisions to talk about yet.

QUESTION: Call me stupid, but why does it matter whether there’s a new PM or whether Maliki is still in power?

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve said that a new government needs – because there’s been an election, first of all, and there needs to be a new government in place. And so we have a COR speaker, we have a president, and the next step in that process is a prime minister. We have said one needs to be appointed as soon as possible and to govern in an inclusive way. So there are consequences to elections, and we want to see them carried out here.

QUESTION: But ISIL could continue its advance. It could turn on the Yezidis; it could turn on the Christian minority.

MS. HARF: It already has.

QUESTION: It – yeah. Well, it could step it up.

MS. HARF: That’s true.

QUESTION: And it could actually attack the government in Mosul and in Erbil. So --

MS. HARF: -- that will work with the Kurdish Regional Government as we – as the Baghdad – as folks in Baghdad have done for many years now to increase their coordination and cooperation as they fight this threat together. But that’s a key part of it is getting a strong, inclusive government in place.

QUESTION: But trying to work out the logistics of installing a new government in the central – in Baghdad seems to be more of a priority, if you’re stating this correctly, than it is with dealing with the security issue in the northern part of the country.

MS. HARF: Not at all. I’m not at all – look, we can do more than one thing at a time. We believe they go hand in hand. That’s why even while there hasn’t been a new government in place, we have continued to up our assistance to the Iraqis throughout these past few weeks. We’ve provided – we’ve put more ISR coverage in place. We’ve provided these assessment teams. We did X, Y, and Z all while there was still government formation happening. So this has been an ongoing process, but they need to step up to the plate and uphold their end of the process as well.

QUESTION: Is there any plan to send heavy arms to the Peshmerga?

MS. HARF: I don’t have – I don’t want to take any options on or off the table. We’re looking at what more ways we could help on that.

QUESTION: Marie, on the government formation question, I think the PM selection is supposed to happen like 15 days after the president, so we’re right in that window.

MS. HARF: We’re right in the window.


MS. HARF: And I know the COR met today and I think didn’t name someone, so they need to do so as soon as possible.

QUESTION: What’s the U.S. assessment of this? I mean, is Brett McGurk still here? Is he in Baghdad? Is he --

MS. HARF: He is here in Washington. Ambassador Beecroft is in Baghdad. We’ve had folks, I mean, constantly on the phone with people. Nobody knows this issue better than Brett McGurk. And so we’ve had a number of senior people very, very engaged on it. And we – look, we think they’re going to get there. We just want to underscore the urgency with which we think they should do so.

QUESTION: So does this though – broadly speaking, does what’s happening on the ground with ISIL complicate the government formation process, or does it in some ways perhaps expedite it by creating leverage here, with the U.S. saying we can’t help you until you follow through?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think it’s leverage. I think it should create – particularly among the Iraqis – a sense of urgency that political squabbles are what they are, but we need to get a government in place that can deal with this in a united way. So I think that was more the word I would use is urgency.

Any – what else on Iraq?

QUESTION: Yes, please, for Iraq?

MS. HARF: Iraq?


MS. HARF: Okay, I’ll go to you next.

QUESTION: Is there any consideration on refugee policy, how this would affect our refugee policy?

MS. HARF: What was – a discussion?

QUESTION: The refugee policy – could there be any changes on that?

MS. HARF: Well, we’re certainly looking – I mean, obviously, no changes to outline, but there’s certainly been a huge number of internally displaced people already. We know this is a huge humanitarian crisis. There’s a very large refugee crisis in the region writ large, as we know, mainly from Syria but from other issues as well. So obviously, that’s one of the reasons we want to see what else we can do to help here.

QUESTION: Yes, please. Without making any announcement, do you – how do you see the – I mean, the situation there? Because as we can say from the reports of this – a lot of information floating there that there is new realities are shaped over Iraq, which is like the spread of ISIL all over the place. And okay, they are not coming to Baghdad but they are a lot of places. So what do you see? How do you see the situation? Is this – okay, you mentioned, for example, that it’s a humanitarian crisis. But from your understanding, from your assessment for the team that they are there of all these things you are doing, do you see that there is a confrontation to stop this ISIL spread?

MS. HARF: Right. It’s not just a humanitarian crisis. I mean, that’s certainly a key piece of particularly what we’ve seen over the last 48 hours, certainly. But there’s a huge security challenge – if you talk about the Mosul dam, if you talk about other places. ISIL is a threat not just because they kill innocent civilians because of their religion, but because they’re a huge security threat to the stability of certain parts of Iraq. And that’s why throughout this conflict you have seen us continue to ramp up our support and continue to look very urgently at other things we could do to help fight this threat, because at the end of the day we can help the Iraqis, but the Iraqis also have to stand up, they have to pull themselves together, with our help, because this is a threat that certainly they but no one else in the region wants to see grow any more.

QUESTION: I’m trying to understand – okay, I understand that you are understanding the threat. But the reality is changing. I mean, this is the thing that all reports are saying that borders are changing, people are displaced, churches are burned, whatever, houses are occupied. All these things are real or not real?

MS. HARF: No, they’re real. But look, that’s not the reality we want to see. So where there are people displaced, we want to help the Iraqis so they can do things, so people can return to their homes. Now, this is a really tough fight. This is an incredibly tough challenge, in part because of the sheer brutality of ISIL that we’ve seen over the past several months. So we don’t want this to be the reality. That’s why we’re so engaged here and why we’re looking to do more.

QUESTION: Are military escorts being considered?

MS. HARF: Again, I’m not going to put any option on the table or take any off.

QUESTION: So that means they are, then, and perhaps --

MS. HARF: That’s not at all what I said. You can misread my words, but what I said is I’m not going to put any options on the table or take any off in any way, shape, or form. Again, we’re looking at a range of options, and if and when we make decisions I’m sure we’ll talk more about them.

QUESTION: If everything’s being included, that would include that --

MS. HARF: I didn’t say everything’s being included. I said I am not publicly going to put any on the table or take any off. There’s a difference.


QUESTION: Do you also agree that if you – if the United States doesn’t take action fast, there could – the situation would be really much worse?

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve – let’s be clear, we’ve already taken some action here to help stem --

QUESTION: I mean military action against ISIL. If you don’t take military action, the situation could be much worse, like Syria.

MS. HARF: Look, I’m not going to get into any hypotheticals here. We’re considering a range of options; I’m not going to detail them here. But we are committed to seeing what we can do to help in the situation here, and I just probably don’t have much more for you all than that on this. I know there are lots of questions, but --

QUESTION: Can I ask you another question?

MS. HARF: You can.

QUESTION: As long as you are working another group that we cannot talk to them, are you considering any time to talk to ISIL?

MS. HARF: Not to my knowledge, no. I mean, I can check, but not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Or through other party?

MS. HARF: Well, certainly we talk to regional partners about the threat from ISIL, because it’s not just a threat the Iraqis face; it’s a threat that others face as well.

Anything else on Iraq? Yes. Okay, moving on.