Briefing with Senior State Department Official On the Visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani

Briefing with Senior State Department Official On the Visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani

MODERATOR:  Okay, good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you all so much for joining today’s background call on Iraq.  Today’s briefing is on background and attributable to a senior State Department official, and it is embargoed until its conclusion.  For your information only and not for reporting, joining us today as our speaker is [Senior State Department Official].  I will turn it to her to offer some opening remarks, then we’ll take it to you all for questions.  And with that, [Senior State Department Official], I’ll turn it to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, thank you, [Moderator].  Really appreciate the opportunity to talk to everybody this afternoon about a very important visit that we will be having next week with the prime minister of Iraq.  He is coming to have a range of meetings with – across the U.S. Government, including with the President.  And this is very much an opportunity for us to talk about the future direction of our bilateral relationship and build upon the comprehensive 360-degree partnership that we have and we continue to want to develop and expand under the 2008 U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement.

So we’re looking at the following areas to advance our cooperation in the range of discussions we’re going to have.  We want to talk about our educational exchange opportunities.  We want to focus on energy, water, the business investment – U.S. businesses investing in Iraq – and we want to talk about the private sector and the banking reforms that we have been working on.  We want to cooperate to develop business and investment opportunities, increase our trade and fiscal transparency, improve – and work on projects that are going to improve services to the Iraqi people, which is very much part of Prime Minister Sudani’s agenda, and opportunities for us to expand that 360 relationship.

We have an opportunity to talk about preserving the cultural heritage, climate – mitigating climate change issues, doing water projects are – is also going to be on the agenda.  We want to help increase energy security for us and for the Iraqis, and also to help in their efforts to build their energy independence in the region and be able to rely on themselves and on their country and their resources to do more of that.  And obviously we also want to strengthen – continue to strengthen the democracy and the rule of law work that we do.

Part of the visit is going to include the second Higher Coordinating Committee.  The first one we did last February of 2023, where we covered some of the same subjects.  We’ll have a chance to check in with progress we’ve made, and we’ve added obviously another range of issues in the HCC.  That HCC is co-chaired by the Secretary of State, and this year the minister – the deputy prime – deputy prime minister and minister of planning will co-chair the HCC.

It’s – for us, the HCC is the Strategic Framework Agreement’s premiere forum, and it really is an opportunity for us to really expand those areas of the 360 relationship that we have not been able to do in previous years, largely because of the security situation.  But now we’ve been working quite a bit on that, given that there has been an improvement in the security situation over the last – oh, I would say two years or so, notwithstanding the attacks that we did take on our forces both in Iraq and Syria.

So with that, I am going to stop and see if there – take questions.  And I’ll turn it back over to you, [Moderator].

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  And just as a reminder in case anyone joined late, just to reiterate, today’s call is on background to a senior State Department official and embargoed until its conclusion.  If you would like to ask a question, please use the “raise hand” function in Zoom, and I will select you and allow you to unmute.  And with that, let’s please go to Michel Ghandour from Alhurra.  Michel, you should be able to speak now.

Michel, if you’re talking, we can’t hear you.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me now?

MODERATOR:  Yes, yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.  [Senior State Department Official], will there be any announcement regarding the U.S. presence in Iraq during the meetings next week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, I will say that the – there will be discussions about the U.S. defense and security relationship as part of the discussions.  The prime minister will be meeting – obviously this will come up in – with the President, but it will also – he’s meeting with the Secretary of Defense, so that’s likely to be a very important part of our – of the discussion.

We just had, as many of you know – we just had a meeting of the principals of the Higher Military Commission on April 8th, and that is a process to determine with the Iraqis and the U.S. and the coalition members how the coalition’s military mission will transition on a timeline based on certain factors.  So it is not the primary focus of the visit.  As I said, the visit expands the 360 partnership and relationship and areas for cooperation, but it is almost certainly going to come up.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you so much.  Let’s please go to Laurie Mylroie.  Laurie, you should be able to unmute now.

QUESTION:  Okay, I unmuted myself and hopefully you can hear me.

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, [Senior State Department Official].  A question on the relations between Baghdad and Erbil.  To what extent, how much will repairing those relations be an aspect of these talks, and specifically regarding Kurdish oil exports through the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline to Türkiye and the rest of the world?  To what extent do you think you’re making progress on getting that issue resolved?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you for the question.  Yes, we expect that there will be a discussion about the importance of having good relations between Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and Baghdad, obviously.  It is important to have good relations, obviously, for the security and stability and sovereignty of Iraq.  So we will – that will – those will be discussions on the – you talked about – you asked about the pipeline and the discussions both on the pipeline – and there’s been progress made on discussions and efforts to try to reopen that.  They – this is all part, of course, on efforts to – towards energy sufficiency.

The – it is important that not just the pipeline opens but there has been progress made on the discussions about salary and budget allocations for the – for Iraqi Kurdistan out of the federal budget.  And we’ve also been very actively engaged in trying to also ensure that the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan are going to take place in a timely manner that will help strengthen their own democratic institutions, including their parliament.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  Let’s please go to Jeff Schogol.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I just wanted to clarify something that you had said.  You talked about the ongoing discussions to transition the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq based on certain factors.  In layman’s terms, does that mean these discussions are about the end of the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq and how the U.S. will phase out its current military presence in Iraq?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  These discussions under the – as we said, the HMC is – are designed to really look at how we continue our discussions and our efforts at building a strong bilateral security relationship.  After 10 years of our work, the enduring defeat of ISIS, under our Operation Inherent Resolve with our international partners, we see an opportunity where we can, again, continue and transition to a stronger bilateral relationship and partnership.  Whether that ends up as a – adjusting our forces there or how we do our work, that’s really – all of that is being discussed in the – in this HMC.

And there will be – this is going to be recommendations and assessments from the experts about how we will transition into that and what is going to be important for the – us and the Iraqis to continue to do with respect to supporting security and stability and making sure that we can continue the enduring defeat of ISIS and deal with the – those issues.  So at this point, I’m really not going to – I can’t really speculate on what that – where we’re going to end up because those are very much things that we’re talking about now.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Let’s please go to Nadia Bilbassy-Charters.

QUESTION:  Thank you, [Moderator].  Hello, [Senior State Department Official].  ISIS seems to re-emerge again.  Can you give us an assessment of this surge, and do you believe the Iraqi Security Forces will be able to deal with them should NATO forces or the U.S. withdraw?  And second, if you allow me, there was reports that Iran attack or the possible attack could come via the proxies.  How much is the U.S. satisfied with the Iraqi Government reining these proxies, especially in Iraq?  Are you happy with the way that it’s been controlling them basically in the last few months?  Do you think more can be done?  And do you still believe that they can be actually a tool for the Iranians in this anticipated attack?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Going to the first part of your question, with respect to ISIS in Iraq – and I will focus on Iraq and where ISIS is – I mean, we have, again, been very satisfied with the partnership and the cooperation and collaboration that we’ve had with the Iraqi Security Forces to continue the enduring defeat of ISIS.  We are – one of the factors under consideration and discussion in the HMC is how we evaluate the threat from ISIS, also what are the operational environment requirements and the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces to continue the defeat of ISIS or the – how we continue to work against that, do the counterterrorism mission there, and that’s – and we have seen over the last 10 years, first of all, significant defeat of ISIS, but we have also in our work together – we’ve also seen steady improvements on the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces.

But at this point this is – this is what is – what we are discussing under the HMC, and building on those discussions is really how we determine when we will do those – the transition to a bilateral security arrangement.

And on the discussion about possible responses that may take place, I’m just really not going to speculate on that.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  Let’s please go to Diyar Kurda.

QUESTION:  Thank you, [Moderator].  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this.  [Senior State Department Official], in the last few days you have met with almost all Iraqi leaders, including the Kurdish leaders and IKR president.  So what’s your thought and takeaway from those meetings on the prime minister’s visit to D.C.?  Is there a concern or overall common understanding among the political parties on that visit?

Second, I want to add that:  Have you urged the Iraqi prime minister to settle down the disputes with Erbil before coming to the White House, as we recently saw some good progress to that matter?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks for the question.  So yes, I do meet regularly, as many of you know, with the framework leadership, with the leadership in the – in Kurdistan and also among the Sunni leadership as well.  It’s important that we hear the issues from all sides of the political spectrum in Iraq.  The last week or so that I did meet was essentially to help – to appreciate the importance that they place on a strong U.S.-Iraqi relationship as we move forward.  I have to say just about everybody realizes that it is important that Iraq has strong relations with the United States.  Some obviously have strong views on what it would – should look like, some – all the way from we need more U.S. private investment all the way to, gee, I wonder if we can make adjustments on U.S. presence here, and that’s part of that conversation.

So I also spent – as you remarked on – speaking with the leadership in Kurdistan to try to encourage them to support upcoming elections and to take – that they – so that they could take place.  There have been, as you noted, some steps that both sides have taken to improve the relationship or, what I would say, to actually come to solutions that have been under discussion for quite a while.  And I think that that is – that is encouraging, and we will continue and I personally will continue to encourage creative solutions and urge them to remain in dialogue to find those solutions to build the security and – in Iraq and Kurdistan.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  Let’s go to Hiba Nasr from Asharq.

QUESTION:  Thank you, [Moderator].  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official].  I want to just understand, because I was trying to track your answers when you were asked about the U.S. military presence.  So you don’t rule out a military withdrawal from Iraq, if I understood you well?

And my second question, Iraqi prime minister today – he wrote an op-ed in Foreign Affairs.  He said: “The decision to make war and peace must be an exclusive matter for the state, and no other party can claim this right.”  But he said: “Iraq has a long and challenging road ahead.”  So how do you assess the Iranian influence in Iraq now?  Is it at least less than it was before?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, we are in the middle of a very important discussion between our two militaries about how we shape the future of our cooperation and our partnership.  And I really am not going to speculate about what that’s going to look like, because I – we are leaving this to the experts, to our military experts, to come to an understanding of what that relationship should look like in the coming years.  And to sort of speculate on what it is before they’ve had a chance to really sit down and talk to that would be really undermining our ability to make the right decisions for our defense and security partnership based on the threats and the issues that we’ve been working on.

So it’s a robust conversation.  It’s going to lead us to most likely a second joint security cooperation dialogue later this year, where we – which we kicked off last August.  So this is – we have a much more structured discussion about the kinds of security and defense relationships we want, and we’ll have to see how it plays out.

On your second comment about the Iranian presence in Iraq, there are two things to consider.  One, it is – Iraq is – Iran, excuse me, is – has been a neighbor, is a neighbor, and there are cultural, educational, and economic ties at the same time that are part of Iraq and Iran’s relationship and society for a long time.  On the other hand, the ability of the – of Iraqis to make their own decisions and to build their sovereignty and to respect that is something that is very important.  And we want to make sure that those kinds of decisions on their energy, their relationships with their neighbors, the direction that the prime minister wants to take, is free of any undue influence from the neighbors.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  We’ll go to Andrea Mitchell from NBC.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you very much.  And thank you, [Senior State Department Official].  I’m wondering if the – if any U.S. officials on this trip will raise the issue, particularly Monday’s meeting with the president, of Elizabeth Tsurkov, who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2023.  She’s a Princeton University doctoral candidate.  She’s being held by Kata’ib Hizballah, and I know the family is – her sister is going to be coming to Washington on Monday and is, of course, advocating very urgently for the U.S. Government to help them in trying to get her out, a journalist and a Princeton University graduate doctoral student.  Are you familiar with the case?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Andrea, yes, I am familiar with the case.  Elizabeth Tsurkov, who is an Israeli-Russian citizen, was conducting research in Baghdad at the time of her abduction, and yes she is affiliated with a higher education institution in the United States.  We are concerned by and closely tracking this case.  We have strongly condemned her abduction, and we have urged – including myself – and I continue to urge senior Iraqi officials to find Elizabeth and to secure her release as soon as possible.   So I expect that this will be raised, and again, as I said, we are closely tracking this case.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Let’s go to Joseph Haboush, please.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yes, yes.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Thanks, [Senior State Department Official].  Just two questions.  You mentioned increasing Iraq’s energy independence.  Can you talk about any progress you made in the last few years?  We’re still seeing sanction waivers provided from Treasury when it comes to their dealing with Iran on that sector, which has obviously been a main point of focus for Washington.

And then just second, I wanted to go a little further on the principals meeting that – they met, I think, on Monday.  Can you talk – without getting into any hypotheticals, can you just tell us whether Baghdad has made any direct request during those meetings or any other meetings for U.S. troops to leave?  And the – I mean, do you expect announcements to be made at the scheduled joint security cooperation, which is, as you also mentioned, slated to be held this summer?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  On the – on progress, you asked about progress on the energy – on the energy front, I would say that there has – there has been progress.  I mean, you remember there was a – the Iraqis signed a very large contract with TotalEnergies that has a very clear focus on gas capture capabilities, and how they – which is something that will give them the kind of energy independence and also use this kind of – this resource that’s really just been escaping in the atmosphere, where they can turn that into electricity.  The – our U.S. company, GE, also has been working on the overall power system that provides – that’s going to – again, to upgrade their grid.

The Iraqis themselves, there are three regional connections for electricity that – that are at various stages of development.  One can – electricity line between Iraq and Jordan has come online and is providing at least initially 40 – I think it’s megawatts of power.  It can go – it can – I it will be able to increase over time as they continue to test the lines.  There’s also the GCC internet connector that is in the final stages of discussion.  And then I know that there are also discussions to put in some electricity lines between Iraq and Syria – excuse me, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

So there is an interesting statistic that as they have made – as they have found ways to improve their energy sufficient – efficiency, they have cut their imports of Iranian electricity by more than half.  It’s – they still rely on electricity from Iran, but it’s – it has significantly decreased in the past year.  So yes, I think there is a lot of progress that they’re – made, but these – these mega projects do take time.  We expect that by 2030 they will be in a much, much better position to have a whole – a range of resources, including pretty much self-sufficient, if they stay on track.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  We have time for one more question, and that will go to Haik Gugarats.  Sorry.  Okay, you should be able to unmute now.  Go ahead.

Now if you’re talking, we can’t hear you, unfortunately.  Try to unmute again?  Okay, unfortunately, we still can’t hear you.  Okay, well, sorry about that, Haik.  We’ll try to get you in the next call.

Thank you all so much for joining us.  [Senior State Department Official], do you have any closing remarks before we finish up?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Just to say that as – I hope it was pretty clear that we’re going to have a full range of discussions about our relationship and where the – where it’s going, all the way – mostly focused, as the prime minister wants, on the economic and energy and educational climate environment, and how the United States can better support services and development for Iraqis.  There will be a discussion, as I mentioned, on some of the defense issues, but we have been very much involved in those over the last six months.  So the emphasis this trip is really on the economic piece.

There is – I forgot to mention at the beginning that there will be also a lot of work done and meetings done with the U.S.-Iraqi Business Council, and there will be opportunities for American and Iraqi business – businesspersons to get together and talk about opportunities that we already have seen increase over the last couple years, but see if we can jumpstart even more some of those, anywhere from franchises to private sector to large projects that can support what the Iraqis are looking for.

So it’s a robust visit and it’s one we have been looking forward to for a long, long time and been working steadily on how we can advance this relationship that has been codified, frankly, since 2008 and supported by the Iraqis and us.

So thank you very much for listening, and we look forward to the – our discussions next week.

MODERATOR:  Thank you all so much. Thank you to our senior State Department official.  As a reminder, today’s call was on background to a senior State Department official.  It is now concluded and the embargo is lifted.  Thank you all so much for joining us, and have a great day.  Goodbye, everyone.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/briefing-with-senior-state-department-official-on-the-visit-of-iraqi-prime-minister-mohammed-shiaa-al-sudani/

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