MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I want to welcome you this afternoon to the U.S. Embassy, and present the Special Presidential Envoy for Combating ISIS, Brett McGurk.
BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS: Thank you, everyone, for being here. I will talk at a measured pace, so we can make sure the translator gets everything. But I’m really honored to be here. I think there is no braver, more courageous group in the world than Iraqi journalists who are covering this very important story as your country rises up to defeat ISIS on behalf of all of us, on behalf of the entire world. And, of course, your Western counterparts are also incredibly courageous to bring the world this story.
And it’s great to be back in Baghdad. I arrived here yesterday after visits to Abu Dhabi and Amman, where I met, respectively, with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and His Majesty King Abdullah, together with their national security teams, to discuss our common efforts against ISIS here in the region.
Here in Baghdad I have already seen Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jaafari, Speak Jabouri, other national security officials, including Minister of Defense Hiyali, and Minister of Interior, al-Araji, And I was joined in those meetings by our terrific and incredibly hard-working ambassador, Doug Silliman, and Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, who is leading our efforts in supporting Iraq as they take the fight to ISIS.
Tomorrow I will be in Erbil, where I look forward to seeing President Barzani and other leaders of the Iraqi-Kurdistan region.
And a common theme in all of my meetings thus far has been the extent and depth of our bilateral strategic relationship with Iraq. As our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, noted last week, Iraq is an important ally in the fight to defeat ISIS, with brave Iraqi soldiers fighting in close coordination with American men and women in uniform. And, as the White House has announced, Prime Minister Abadi will visit Washington next week for meetings with President Trump in the Oval Office and members of our national security team. And we are very much looking forward to that important visit.
Also next week in Washington — this is not the week we are in, but the week of the 20th, just to be clear — Secretary of State Tillerson will convene all 68 members of our global coalition to defeat ISIS. And we look forward to Prime Minister Abadi addressing that gathering as we work to further accelerate the destruction of this terrorist organization which threatens not only Iraq, but the entire world.
The momentum now here in Iraq is clearly on the side of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi people. The United States of America and our entire coalition has been proud to support Iraq as it takes back their country from these terrorists.
The statistics speak for themselves. ISIS has now lost over 60 percent of the territory it once held here in Iraq, and is losing more every day. In total, in Iraq and Syria, coalition-enabled operations — that means our coalitions supporting local partners, including Iraqi Security Forces, have cleared 50,000 square kilometers of territory from ISIS. None — none — of that territory has been retaken by ISIS. All of this liberated ground, 50,000 square kilometers, has held. And it’s not just the territory we have taken back. But, most importantly, it’s the people that we’ve helped free.
To date, coalition-enabled operations in Iraq and Syria have freed 2.5 million people who would have been suffering under the grip of these barbaric terrorists. In addition, here in Iraq, we have seen nearly 1.6 million who had been displaced by ISIS return to their homes. That includes almost the entire population of Tikrit, more than 300,000 people in Ramadi, and nearly 300,000 people in Fallujah and its surrounding areas.
So this is really a remarkable record, and it’s not due to happenstance. It’s due to the meticulous planning and partnership that we’ve done as a coalition, but most importantly, with the Iraqi Government and local leaders in these areas who are suffering under the boot of ISIS.
These statistics of returning this many people to their homes in a conflict like this is almost historically unprecedented on the timeframe that we have been operating in. And we’ve done it because we’ve pioneered a concept with Iraqi leaders, which we call stabilization. And our coalition has supported Iraqi-led efforts working with the UN to bring immediate projects and assistance to areas, as they are cleared of ISIS.
What ISIS tries to do in areas that it controls is it tries to make sure that life can never return to the streets, even after they are defeated. They plant land mines and IEDs on the streets, and people’s bedrooms, in dresser drawers, so that when people return to their homes, they are killed in their homes.
We have worked very hard to accelerate the process of de-mining and clearing areas as they are cleared of ISIS. More than 10 nations of our coalition have donated tens of millions of dollars to this effort, and these funds have helped clear now more than 1.6 million square meters in Anbar Province, alone. In Ramadi alone, brave Iraqis in the streets that we have helped train and pay for, as a coalition, not just the United States, have cleared 26,000 kilos of explosive material that ISIS had left behind to kill the people of Ramadi as they return home. All that material is now out of the streets.
Similarly, we have cleared five towns in the Nineveh Plains, and clearing of land mines and IEDs in Eastern Mosul will begin this week. This is all done in partnership with the Iraqi Government and with contributions from our global coalition.
If you think the lead-up of Mosul last July in Washington, our coalition raised nearly $2 billion to support destabilization programs, de-mining, and humanitarian needs to get ready for that major operation.
In total, there have been about 320 of these stabilization projects. This is very different than the type of activities we used to do in the past. This is not reconstruction, this is not nation-building. This is asking local people in their areas, “What do you need to have done to allow people to return to their homes?” And the record, I think, is quite successful.
Every stabilization project to date — there has been about 320 — have helped people return to their homes. They have all been done on time and under budget, and we are going to keep it that way.
The military campaign, of course, has set the conditions for this progress that we are seeing. And here, too, we, as a coalition, and the United States of America, we have been proud to be a partner of Iraq in this difficult fight. Twenty-three coalition partners from all around the world are now working here in Iraq to support the military effort.
Many of you were probably here, of course, in 2014, when the Iraqi Security Forces nearly collapsed, and ISIS retook Mosul. Since then, our coalition has trained nearly 90,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces — that is Iraqi Army, that is Counter-Terrorism Service forces, that’s the Peshmerga, it’s police, it’s tribal volunteers — and we’ve supported these courageous fighters as they have retaken Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit, Rutbah, Makhmur, Kayara (ph), and now Mosul.
Not only have we trained these fighters, but I think the performance that many of you have seen with your own eyes, these are now — some of the units are some of the best Counter-Terrorism Service units in the world. So we are very proud of this initiative. Your security forces are professional, they are brave, they are courageous, and they are fighting on behalf of all of us.
Our coalition air campaign is supporting your fighters on the ground. This air campaign is the most precise air campaign in history, and it has been relentless. We have killed 180 leaders from ISIS, including nearly all of Abu Bakr, al-Baghdadi’s deputies, including a so-called minister of war, information, finance, oil and gas, his chief external operations deputy — that means the guy that was planning terrorist attacks all around the world, including the attacks we saw last year in Brussels and Paris, Mohammed Anani (ph), and we are continuing to kill these leaders every day.
In addition, our air campaign has removed hundreds of millions of dollars in bulk storage sites, which ISIS was using to fund its activities. We’ve destroyed oil-producing facilities, trucks delivering their oil, and we significant reduced their revenue stream.
Make no mistake: this pressure will only increase over the coming weeks in both Iraq and Syria — which brings me to Mosul. As I mentioned, I was here when Mosul fell to ISIS. And I’m particularly proud to be here today as Mosul’s liberation is increasingly in sight, albeit with very difficult fighting ahead. The success we’ve seen in Mosul, again, was due to six months of very meticulous planning at the military level, at the humanitarian level, and at the civilian level. We’ve seen unprecedented coordination and partnership between Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga forces, between the Government of Iraq here in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. And, most significantly, this cooperation continues to grow.
I just spoke with Prime Minister Abadi about a fruitful visit that he made to Erbil just last week to meet with President Barzani, and I look forward to seeing President Barzani, as I mentioned, tomorrow, particularly about joint security architecture between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga in diverse areas to bring life back to devastated communities, such as Sinjar.
In East Mosul, while the situation remains difficult due to ISIS’s occupation over the last two years, the territory has been cleared. And we are seeing some positive trends. Sixty thousand people have been able to return to their homes in East Mosul. Thirty-two thousand girls and boys are now enrolled in temporary schools. These are girls and boys who only a few months ago were living under ISIS. Rubble and IEDs, as I mentioned, are about — are being cleared, are about to be cleared, with support from our coalition.
So, all of this work is underway, and is going to accelerate, and I look forward to seeing — after this press conference, I will be meeting with the UN team here in Iraq, Jan Kubis (ph), and Lis Grande (ph), to discuss how our coalition can help, best help continue to support these efforts.
In West Mosul, as we speak, Iraqi forces are courageously reclaiming some of the most difficult ground that we knew would have to be reclaimed. They are doing this in a dense urban environment facing a suicidal enemy that’s using civilians as shields. But Iraqi forces have now cut off every road out of Mosul. ISIS is trapped.
Just last night, the 9th Iraqi Army Division up near Badush, just northwest of Mosul, cut off the last road out of Mosul. So it’s a matter of time now before ISIS is totally defeated. But I do not want to understate the very difficult fight that lies ahead. And nobody can put a timeframe on how long this will take. But the Iraqi Security Forces will complete this mission.
So we commend the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, for the extent to which they have not only taken the fight to ISIS on behalf of all of us, but also for the protection of civilians and the care for those who have been displaced.
Iraqi forces in this operation, and the Peshmerga forces in this operation put protection of civilians at the very top of their military set of priorities. We are very proud of that fact, and we have been very proud of the way that they have meticulously conducted this campaign in a dense urban environment, with a population still living in the city.
We are, of course, continuing to track the humanitarian situation on a daily basis, and our embassy team here is engaged with this, hour by hour, with the Government of Iraq, the United Nations, and other NGOs. As of today, the reports as of today, there have been a total of about 225,000 displaced from the fighting in Mosul. Of these, now approximately 180,000 are in camps, a little more than 35,000 are sheltered in local communities. Thanks to the planning that went into this effort before the fight, there was excess capacity available. Currently, 60,000 additional spaces are available, and that number continues to grow.
As I mentioned, our coalition last summer raised almost $2 billion to help support this effort. We prepositioned tens of millions of dollars of equipment and material to plan before the operation kicked off, and this is something that is ongoing. However, in a dynamic environment like this, you cannot anticipate every event. And life, of course, is extremely difficult for the civilians who are escaping from ISIS.
To conclude, for the United States of America, helping Iraq defeat ISIS is among our top national security priorities. Momentum is on our side, and we’re going to make sure that it continues. But the U.S.-Iraq relationship goes far beyond our shared goal of defeating ISIS. It is an enduring relationship that will continue to be strengthened on many levels under our Strategic Framework Agreement. And our Strategic Framework Agreement, of course, includes not only military cooperation, but also economic, educational, cultural, and diplomatic ties. So these are all subjects that I’ve covered in my meetings here over the course of the last two days, and they’re also subjects that will continue to be discussed in Washington, when Prime Minister Abadi and his team makes this very important visit to Washington, which we are looking forward to.
So, with that, I am very pleased to be here, honored to see all of you, and I’m happy to take a couple questions.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: So, thanks for your questions. On — whether it’s Hawija, whether it’s al-Qa’im, the areas in which ISIS is still occupying, we will, at the request of the Government of Iraq, we will continue to help support Iraqi Security Forces until they liberate every inch of their territory, period. So I will leave it to the military experts about the pacing, and where those operations will proceed, but that is all, of course, being planned.
As I mentioned in my statement, the United States of America has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. That agreement was signed by President Bush. It was passed by the Iraqi parliament. And that is a permanent agreement. So we have an enduring strategic relationship with Iraq across a number of fields.
So, again, everything we do here in Iraq, everything we do, is with — at the request and with the consent of the Iraqi Government. And so, so long as the Iraqi Government wishes that relationship to continue — which I believe it does — we very much look forward to engaging in a very serious discussion with them about our future relationship. And I am quite certain that that relationship will endure.
QUESTION: Hi, there. I am Susannah George, with the Associated Press. I have two questions for you.
One on the overall strategic to defeat IS. We have heard a lot about a new strategy under the Trump Administration, and I’m wondering if you can explain a little bit about how exactly that’s different from what we saw under the Obama Administration.
And then a quick question about Syria. We’ve heard statements from Assad that government forces might be moving in on Raqqa, and I’m just wondering what the coalition response to that would be.
MR. MCGURK: On the first one, I will just say President Trump delegated to Secretary Mattis a 30-day review period of our counter-ISIS campaign. That was an inter-agency review. All departments and agencies participated in that, looking at the entire aspect of the campaign. So not just here in Iraq and Syria, but globally. How are we doing against foreign fighters? Against counter-finance? Against counter-messaging? How are we integrated as a government? How are we working with coalition partners? What’s working, and what can we do better?
And Secretary Mattis reported to the White House on February 27th. And with that, it’s a classified report, so I’m not going to get beyond it. But I will just say, as President Trump said in his State of the Union address, we are committed to demolishing and destroying ISIS. And so, make no mistake, that’s what we are going to do.
On President Assad, he’s said a lot of things over the years, so I’m not going to react exactly to the statement that he made. We are, of course, very actively focused on Raqqa, and the Syrian Democratic Forces now are about 10 kilometers outside of the city, so — and we are, of course, helping to enable those operations. So that’s something that — Raqqa remains their administrative capital. It’s where we think a lot of their leaders are located. It’s where we think they are planning a lot of attacks around the world. And we have to get ISIS out of Iraq.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Thank you so much. I get that question a lot: How much are we providing? Let me — it’s not — sometimes it’s not always easy to quantify. I’ll give you an example.
The Iraqi Government faced a dire fiscal crisis last summer, given the falling price of oil, and given the increasing costs of your war-fighting and humanitarian costs. We helped, through the G7, provide some economic assistance in a support package. But, most importantly, we worked through our experts here in the embassy, working with your government and with the IMF to put in place a standby arrangement which has really helped provide a foundational — a foundation to Iraqi’s macroeconomy, and help ensure stability here in the future. And that was done by — under our Strategic Framework Agreement, the manner in which our two governments cooperate across a number of fields.
And so, that’s the type of thing that’s going to continue, it’s very important, so long as that is something that is desired by the Government of Iraq.
I am as — in my role as the envoy to the global coalition, I want to stress to the global coalition — and we will do this next week in Washington — that we need the entire world to help defeat this enemy, which threatens the entire world.
And so, as I mentioned, last summer, in the lead-up to the Mosul campaign, the coalition came together to raise almost $2 billion to support that campaign and other aspects of the fight here, in Iraq. And that’s the kind of thing that will continue. It’s not just the United States of America. It is, most importantly, our international coalition. And when it comes to stabilization and humanitarian support, and these type of — the non-military elements of support, about 75 percent of that support comes not from the United States, but from the global coalition. And we’re going to make sure that that continues.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: So it’s a good question. Let me just be very blunt. You had 40,000 people, 40,000 of these people, these indoctrinated people, poured into Syria over the last 5 years to join groups like ISIS. And many of them came here to Iraq. And sometimes here in Iraq you have had almost 100 suicide bombers a month. Coming here to Iraq from all over the world to blow themselves up and to kill Iraqi citizens. This is something that, obviously, is totally unacceptable, and we have to stop it. And so, I want you to know what we’ve done from the United States, but also trying to lead the international community against this effort.
First we went to the UN Security Council to pass a Chapter VII binding resolution for every single member state of the UN to pass laws and to restrict the flow of these — what we call foreign terrorist fighters.
We also went to every country from which these people were coming from and said, “You have to share information of who is getting on your airplanes and traveling to places, particularly like Turkey,” because they were going to Turkey and then infiltrating into Syria.
We also worked very closely with Turkey, and Turkey has been a critical partner in this campaign to stop the flow of these foreign fighters and to close its border. And it’s a two-way street. Turkey needs information from where the people are coming from, and then Turkey shares information to these countries, so we can understand who these people are.
Since we started this global campaign, the Turkish border now is completely inaccessible to ISIS fighters. Can some of them infiltrate in and out? Sure. But it is very difficult for them to move in and out. So if someone wants to join ISIS, they are actually being told by ISIS in their own publications, “Don’t come to Syria, it’s too hard. Stay home and be a terrorist at home.” That’s what they’re telling people who might want to join ISIS. So that has significantly reduced the flow of these barbaric terrorists who are coming here into Iraq.
We now believe that we are killing to many of their fighters that they are not able to replace them. That was not the case even a year ago. So the flow has gone down. We are going to continue to tighten it up. And any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they are going to die there, because they’re trapped.
So, we are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape. And that will be similar to other battles that will be forthcoming. We want to annihilate this enemy, we want to destroy it, to make sure that it’s no longer a threat to you or a threat to any of us.
But you hit — your question raises a very important point. We have to do better as a global coalition at tracking these people as they cross borders. We now have databases to make sure that it’s easier to catch them. I mentioned there are 68 members of our coalition coming to Washington next week as part of our coalition. The newest member, the 68th member, is Interpol. And Interpol, of course, is a transnational organization designed to help countries. If a policeman makes a traffic stop, there is a database so we know that guy was in ISIS, and he’s going to jail. If a guy who was in ISIS is trying to cross a border, we’ll catch him.
So we are tightening the net against these people. Not just here in Iraq and Syria, but around the world. But most importantly, we have significantly reduced the flow of these guys to get into Syria and Iraq, which will help protect you. And we are helping — working very closely with the Iraqi Government, in terms of sharing information we collect on the battlefield about who these people are and where they came from.
But they came from about 110 countries all around the world. But I will just say with confidence that that flow is stopping.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: So, again, a great question. Thank you. The visit here by Foreign Minister Jubeir a couple weeks ago was a real break-through. It was the first visit by a Saudi foreign minister in almost three decades to Baghdad. It was something, obviously, that we have been encouraging for some time.
And Secretary of State Tillerson took a personal interest in this in his earliest days as Secretary of State to help encourage to make this visit happen. And so it’s very important to the United States that Iraq has friendly relations here in the region.
But most importantly, you just mentioned your deputy foreign minister is on his way to Saudi Arabia for very important follow-up meetings. This was an initiative that came about at the initiative of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. So we can help as friends of both countries facilitating, but it came about because of that initiative. And it was very important.
And I was in touch with Foreign Minister Jubeir after the visit, and he was very pleased with the visit, as he stated publicly, and the Iraqi side is also very pleased. And now we hope to see significant follow-up. So I think it’s very important, and very encouraging, and it’s obviously something that we favor.
And if you look ahead a little bit, the defeat of ISIS, I think, will provide real opportunities for Iraq and its relationships in the region. And what I am picking up is that Iraqi leaders are thinking big about the post-ISIS future. There is a highway from Baghdad to Amman that used to be open, but it hasn’t been traveled in some time because it’s been fairly dangerous. The Iraqis are looking and working very closely with the Government of Jordan to open that road, make sure that it’s secure, with tolls to reinvest in the community.
They are also looking at very ambitious infrastructure projects and pipeline projects that are very important. And, obviously, we will encourage them in that direction, because I think that is a very important opportunity for Iraq, for the people who are living under ISIS, such as the people out there in Anbar Province, for Jordan, and to help integrate Iraq not only into the region, but into the entire world.
So, these are the types of things that are very important. They sometimes don’t get a lot of attention. But, obviously, here in our embassy team, and under our Strategic Framework Agreement, they are the types of things we work on day to day. But we are also obligated under the Strategic Framework Agreement to help support Iraq, develop positive relations with countries here in the region and all around the world.
And so, the visit by al-Jubeir was encouraging. And we hope to see positive developments flow from there.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Again, two good questions. So, Iraqi politics are issues for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi political leaders. We support a united federal pluralistic and democratic Iraq, not because that’s U.S. policy, but that’s what’s enshrined in your constitution. And there seems to be broad support for that vision. And so we will continue to support those efforts.
I met with your — the speaker of the Iraqi parliament today about important laws that we hope to see passed in the Iraqi parliament here over the coming months. So we will continue to support the political process. We want, obviously, a healthy, vibrant political process.
One principle that Prime Minister Abadi has continued to emphasize since the moment he came into office is decentralization, and empowering people at the local level who know their communities, who know their neighborhoods. And we support that policy. That is the policy of the Iraqi Government. And it’s actually paid off, because, I think, through our stabilization efforts, which I mentioned, it focuses on asking local people what their needs are.
So I think that model of decentralization is a good one, and it gives responsibility to people in their areas to take responsibility for their areas, with the support of the Central Government. So that’s something that will, obviously, continue.
With respect to your second question, Iraq lives in a difficult region. What I hear from all Iraqi leaders is that they support a strong, sovereign, and independent Iraq, in which there is no meddling from any outside power without the consent of the Iraqi Government. And all I will say is that the core principle of U.S. policy is that everything we do here is with the consent of the Iraqi Government, and every country in the region should live by that same principle, because that is the policy of the Iraqi Government.
MODERATOR: Last question.
QUESTION: (Speaks in Arabic.)
MR. MCGURK: Again, you raise an excellent question, and it’s something that should not be left just to the Iraqi people, or it’s not for the United States. It’s for the United Nations and the international community to help.
And you’re right. I think it’s hard to even imagine the psychological trauma that many people who have lived under ISIS have gone through. And I’ve told a story before. Before the Battle of Sinjar, before we launched that battle, as I mentioned, before any campaign we do a lot of political work to make sure that the conditions are set, to the extent possible. And a senior Peshmerga official, who went to Sinjar to speak to the Yazidis — the point we were trying to make, we want to try to make sure there isn’t revenge attacks, because you can get into a cycle of revenge that can be very dangerous.
And he told the story of an elderly Yazidi man who said, “These people, these terrorists came, and they took my wife, and they took my daughters. I may never see them again. And all I have left in this life is my revenge against these people.” And I think we all need to understand that very human emotion that is very deep here in Iraq by people who have suffered under these terrorists. So many Iraqi families have lost loved ones in the fighting or in terrorist attacks, not to mention those who have lived under ISIS.
So, what I can say has been encouraging is that, so far, we have seen, in areas that have been cleared — and it’s far from perfect, and Sinjar remains particularly problematic — but we have not seen this cycle of revenge. And the Iraqi Government has been very measured and very professional in screening the populations, and making sure that people can return to their homes. And this is something that we want to continue.
But I think this is something the international community will need to really focus on to make sure that we are providing the support that Iraq desires and needs, and this will be a long-term effort. Thank you. Thank you very much.