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Remarks by Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Antony Blinken at the Center for American Progress

March 16, 2012

"Toward a New Partnership with Iraq"

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Thank you, Rudy. It is great to be here at the Center for American Progress with you and with John Podesta, a great leader at the White House during the Clinton administration and the founder of this remarkable institution.

Like many in the Administration—including, I suspect, the dozens of your alumni among my colleagues—I look to CAP for sound policy ideas and analysis.

So it is pleasure to have the opportunity to try to return the favor and share some of our thinking with you.

Sunday will mark nine years since the start of the Iraq war, and three months since the last American troops crossed the border into Kuwait, ending one of our nation's longest, and most divisive, conflicts.

The wisdom of going to war in Iraq will continue to be debated for years —I'll leave that to the historians.

But what is beyond debate—and what news coverage of Iraq too often fails to acknowledge—is that Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous—and the United States more deeply engaged there—than at any time in recent history.

Those of us who have been working on Iraq for a long time—including Brian Katulis, Larry Korb and others from CAP—know that this progress, while far from complete, also was far from inevitable.

It was the result of the extraordinary, awe-inspiring success and sacrifice of our troops; the resolve and resilience of the Iraqi government and people; and the steady, intense engagement of our diplomats and civilians, which continues to this day.

I appreciate the opportunity to take stock of how far Iraq has come; the profound challenges that remain; and where we hope to go in building a new, more normal relationship between Iraq and the United States.

President Obama and Vice President Biden came to office with this commitment: to end the Iraq war responsibly.

Both parts of that sentence are critical.

"End the war."


That meant bringing our troops home after nearly a decade of war.

As important, it meant helping Iraqis build a sovereign, stable, self-reliant country, with a representative government that could become a partner in the region, and no safe haven for terrorists.

On our first full day of work after inauguration, President Obama hosted a cabinet-level meeting to begin to chart the course toward that goal.

A month later, when the United States still had 144,000 troops on the ground, the President determined to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by the summer of 2009; end our combat mission and get down to 50,000 troops by September 2010; and fulfill President Bush's Security Agreement with the Iraqi government by drawing down all of our troops by December 31, 2011.

Under the leadership of President Obama and Vice President Biden -- who the President asked to oversee our Iraq policy, and who has made 8 trips to Iraq since being elected -- we have followed that path to the letter.

At every significant step along the way, many predicted that the violence would return and Iraq would slide back toward sectarian war.

Those predictions proved wrong.

Over the past three years, violence has declined and remains at historic lows—even after we completed the drawdown of U.S. forces late last year. Weekly security incidents fell from an average of 1,600 in 2007-2008 to fewer than 100 today.

That is a credit to our troops—who succeeded, at great cost, in restoring a measure of stability when all looked to be lost; and who trained an Iraqi Army that is now, in defiance of the doubters, capably providing security for its citizens.

This created the time and space for what Vice President Biden calls the most important development in Iraq in recent years: politics supplanting violence as the dominant means of settling disputes and advancing interests.

Iraqis wrestled with a series of political crises—over the election law, the de-Baathification process, the election itself and government formation—that at an earlier phase of the conflict would have erupted into violence.

Each and every time, Iraqi leaders resolved their differences at the negotiating table and through the political process with the steady support of our Embassy, led today by one of our nation's toughest and smartest diplomats, Jim Jeffrey.

And in December, after more than eight wrenching years, President Obama kept his promise to end the Iraq war—responsibly.

Now, let me briefly describe a scenario that recently played out in Iraq:

A leading Sunni Arab political figure was charged with terrorism-related offenses by a Shia Arab-led government. Rhetoric escalated on all sides and a group of lawmakers walked out of the parliament, grinding the political process to a halt and sparking fears of a return to sectarian war.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should—it happened in the summer of 2007, when Culture Minister Asaad Kamal al-Hashemi, not to be confused with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, was accused of ordering the assassination of a fellow politician.

Now, as all of you know, a very similar series of events occurred in the wake of our troop withdrawal late last year. Iraqi Vice President al-Hashemi, and members of his security detail, were charged with terrorism-related offenses.

The rhetorical brickbats began to fly. The Iraqi government inflamed the already tense situation by televising confessions from some of Hashemi's guards. The predominately Sunni Arab Iraqiyya bloc walked out of the parliament and the Council of Ministers.

Once again, we heard dire predictions of an imminent civil war—and breathless, baseless accusations that American disengagement, or the absence of our military forces, was to blame.

Here is the reality.

The standoff sparked no increase in violence. The political process continued, with the parliament maintaining a quorum. Iraqi leaders, convened by President Talabani and others, continued to negotiate across the partisan and sectarian divide. And an independent judicial panel was formed to review evidence against the accused.

Meanwhile, our Embassy worked relentlessly with all sides to prevent escalation. And senior Washington officials, including the Vice President, made near-daily phone calls to Iraqi leaders urging calm; respect for the rule of law and Iraq's constitution; and support for the political process. Gradually, the tension defused and the crisis abated.

In the end, the main difference between these two episodes was that in 2007/2008, the boycott lasted eight months – at a time when the United States had more than 150,000 troops on the ground. In 2012, we had no troops on the ground, and the boycott ended after less than two months.

I provide this extended comparison because it offers context that has largely been missing from the public discourse on Iraq since the war ended.

Recent news coverage of Iraq would suggest that as our troops departed, American influence went with them and our Administration shifted its focus away from Iraq. For example, it's been reported that our ambassador can't get in to see the Prime Minister and that our diplomats can't leave the embassy compound.

The fact is, our engagements have increased—not decreased—since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December.

So far this year, Ambassador Jeffrey has met with Prime Minister Maliki nine times and with his top aides dozens of times — that's far more access to senior leadership than most of our ambassadors receive in other countries. Our embassy team is engaged with other senior Iraqi leaders – including President Talabani, President Barzani, Speaker Nujaifi – virtually every day.

Movements from the Embassy and Consulates have increased over previous years, to more than 1,200 in January of this year— or about 40 a day— after averaging about 900 per month in the last quarter of 2011.

Our engagement from Washington has kept pace.

The Vice President has made multiple trips and dozens of phone calls. At President Obama's request, he has also hosted a monthly Cabinet level-meeting on Iraq—an extraordinary, unprecedented level of engagement by the second-most-senior U.S. official.

To support those efforts, I, and other senior Washington-based officials -- including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman -- each made multiple trips to Iraq during this period.

In virtually every meeting, including when Prime Minister Maliki came to Washington in December, we have made clear to our Iraqi counterparts that continued U.S. support requires that they compromise across sectarian lines, respect the rule of law and uphold their constitution.

We know from these efforts that despite the troop drawdown, the demand for our engagement from Iraqi leaders of all political stripes remains undiminished.

I witnessed that demand first hand during the lengthy government formation process. The embassy team and senior officials from Washington shuttled among the parties for months. The President and Vice President were deeply engaged. And when the deal was finally sealed, there were four people in the room: Prime Minister Maliki, Iraqiyya Leader Allawi, Kurdish Region President Barzani – and the United States ambassador to Iraq.

During the most recent political standoff, the United States remained the indispensable honest broker and the only one trusted by, and in regular communication with, all of the leading blocs.

Much of this engagement takes place quietly, unadvertised. But just because you don't see it and we don't say it doesn't mean it's not happening.

Every day, we cooperate on the security threats Iraq still faces; on boosting and protecting Iraq's energy sector—the lifeblood of its economy and a key to the stability of global oil markets; and supporting Iraq's emergence as a member of the international community in good standing and a responsible regional actor.

There is progress on these fronts as well.

Oil production is now about 2.7 million barrels per day, up from about 1.8 million barrels per day in 2005 and heading toward over 3 million barrels a day by the end of this year. Oil exports provided much-needed revenue that enabled lawmakers to pass a $100 billion budget in mid-February.

We've also seen unprecedented steps toward reintegrating Iraq with the region:

  • The appointment of a Saudi Ambassador to Iraq for the first time since 1990;
  • Visits by Iraq's National Security Advisor and Ministers of Defense, Interior, and Justice to Riyadh;
  • Visits to Baghdad by senior Emirati, Jordanian, and Turkish officials;
  • Prime Minister Maliki's visit to Kuwait City that settled a thorny dispute over Kuwaiti aircraft confiscated by Saddam Hussein;
  • An agreement to settle Iraqi debts owed to Egyptian workers who fled Iraq during the Second Gulf War;
  • And plans to host the Arab League Summit in Baghdad on March 29.

And, while Iran and Iraq will inevitably be more intertwined than we, and many of its neighbors, would like, one thing we learned over more than eight years in Iraq is that the vast majority of its leaders, including the Prime Minister, are first and foremost Iraqi nationalists and resistant to outside influence from anywhere – starting with Iran.

Baghdad repeatedly has acted contrary to Iran's interests, including with its support for the Arab League and UN General Assembly Resolution on Syria; its pressure on Iranian-backed Shi'a militants to dramatically reduce attacks; and the patience it has thus far shown, despite repeated urging from Tehran, during efforts to relocate the MEK residents of Camp Ashraf.

All of this progress is real. But so too is the peril.

Iraqis face profound challenges about fundamental issues. We see them with clear eyes.

Finding ways to share power and holding all sides to the agreements they make; stamping out the violent extremists who continue to launch outrageous attacks on innocent Iraqi civilians and security forces, and foreign diplomats simply doing their jobs; resolving long-standing disputes about the country's internal boundaries; ensuring the necessary legal and financial frameworks are in place to allow the energy sector to further flourish.

The level of violence, while diminished, remains unacceptable to the Iraqis. Enhancing, and even maintaining, Iraq's commitment to democratic principles will require hard work and constant vigilance. Its regional relationships remain tenuous and fraught with mistrust. And the specter of Iran still looms large over Iraqi affairs.

These and other problems will not be solved overnight.

But a little perspective is in order.

Given the country's traumatic and recent past—more than 30 years of dictatorship, international conflict, economic isolation and sectarian violence just a few short years ago that nearly tore the country apart—discounting its progress toward a more normal political existence means turning a blind eye to the facts.

Going forward, we have the people and structures in place to deepen our engagement with Iraq.

Our Embassy— and strategically located consulates in Basra, Kirkuk and Irbil—will lead the effort to develop our strategic partnership with the Iraqi government under the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which, unlike our Security Agreement, continues.

To boost that effort, in December, Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Maliki co-chaired the first meeting since 2009 of the Higher Coordinating Committee, which oversees Joint Coordinating Committees led by senior officials from both countries, on Defense and Security, Energy, Trade and Investment, Education and Culture, Politics and Diplomacy, Law Enforcement and the Judiciary and Services, Technology, Environment and Transportation.

This work is well underway. To give just a few examples:

Through the Office of Security Cooperation, which is part of our embassy, we are helping the Iraqis acquire major weapons systems like F-16s, M1A1 Abrams tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery. Our goal is to enable Iraq to protect itself from external threats.

The Judicial Institute we helped the Iraqis establish has provided continuing legal education to more than 1,700 judges and judicial employees since 2010.

We funded the Iraqi government's anti-corruption strategy and provide training to anti-corruption bodies like the Commission on Integrity, which has played a key role in repatriating Saddam-era funds.

We helped rebuild the Iraqi Museum and preserve the historic site of Babylon, and we continue to support the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage.

We expect to bring 3,000 students on Iraqi scholarships to study in the United States this year.

And this year, for the first time since 1988, we participated in the Baghdad International Trade Fair. The U.S. Pavilion featured 85 companies with combined annual revenues of more than $1 trillion – the largest single country presence.

If that sounds less like a war-footing and more like the type of programs we have in countries around the world—that is exactly the point.

Our goal is a close strategic partnership with Iraq.

But we also seek a more normal relationship, between two nations bound together by shared sacrifice, common interests and a deep commitment to a better future.

Simply put, while our war in Iraq is over, our work in Iraq, and with Iraq—a country that remains at the center of so many vital American endeavors—continues.

Thank you all for listening.

Barack Obama, Remarks by Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Antony Blinken at the Center for American Progress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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