Remarks  – John Kerry  – Secretary of State  – U.S. Embassy Baghdad – Baghdad, Iraq – June 23, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon. I have a quick comment I want to make on a topic other than the visit here to Iraq, and then I’ll proceed to make some comments about the visit here. And then I look forward to taking some questions.

Today, the International Maritime Task Force completed the extraordinary mission of removing the final 8 percent of declared chemical weapon precursors from Syria. So I want to congratulate the UN-OPCW Joint Mission and the entire international coalition, which operated under very dangerous conditions to remove more than 1,000 tons of declared chemical weapon materials from Syria. This effort emerged from an agreement reached last year between the United States and Russia. And many of our allies and partners played a very essential role in the removal effort. I want to thank all of those partners for their diligent efforts.

The world will really never forget the loss of more than 1,000 innocent Syrians who were senselessly killed with chemical weapons on the early morning of August 21st, 2013. It’s very important, however, even as we mark this moment of removing 100 percent of the declared weapons, that we understand that our work is not finished to ensure the complete elimination of Syria’s CW program. There are still some serious issues that remain to be addressed, and we are not going to stop until those have been addressed.

We remain deeply concerned about the reports of systematic use of chlorine gas in opposition areas. I want to emphasize: Chlorine gas – chlorine is not among the required declared chemical precursors, but when mixed in a certain way and when used in warfare, it becomes one of those prohibited entities under the chemical weapons treaty. So while all of the chemical weapons as declared weapons are removed, we still need to deal with this issue. And the Syrian regime, in addition to that, has dragged its feet on the destruction of some of the production facilities, which are required.

The international community has questions with regard to some of Syria’s declaration, and those still have to be adequately answered. So we are always going to remain truly appalled at the level of death and destruction that continues to consume Syria, notwithstanding the removal of these weapons. And that is something that is presenting the world with a continued grave humanitarian crisis, and we will continue to remain focused on that.

But I want to underscore and take stock of what has been achieved: the removal of all declared chemical weapons; the verification of the destruction of declared production, mixing, and filling equipment; the verification of the destruction of all declared chemical weapons delivery vehicles, including missile warheads and aerial bombs; and the diminishing of the strategic threat posed by Syrian chemical weapons program to our allies and our partners in the region.

Just yesterday in a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he brought up the degree to which this removal is vital to the state of Israel and vital to the region. And he congratulated all those involved on this accomplishment. For 100 years, the international community has deemed the use of these weapons to be beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct. And in the coming weeks, the United States stands ready to begin the destruction, which will be our responsibility, of a larger amount of Syria’s chemical weapons precursors. This is an unprecedented mission, and it will ensure that the weapons removed will never again be used against the Syrian people or against us, our allies, or our partners in the region or beyond. So while there is still some work to do, we signal this as a major accomplishment on a strategic level.

Now, President Obama asked me to visit Baghdad today to demonstrate America’s support for Iraq and its people during this time of crisis. This is clearly a moment when the stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer. ISIL’s campaign of terror, their grotesque acts of violence and repressive ideology pose a grave danger to Iraq’s future. ISIL is not, as it claims, fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq; quite the contrary. ISIL is fighting to divide Iraq and to destroy Iraq.

So this is a critical moment for Iraq’s future. It is a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders, and it’s a moment of great urgency. Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq’s leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands. The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks. And the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL – not next week, not next month, but now.

In each of my meetings today, I stressed that urgency and I stressed the responsibility of Iraq’s leaders to act, whether the meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, with speaker Nujaifi, with ISCI leader Hakim, or Foreign Minister Zebari, I emphasize that defending Iraq against ISIL depends largely on their ability – all of them – to form a new government and to do it quickly. It is essential that Iraq’s leaders form a genuinely inclusive government as rapidly as possible within their own constitutional framework.

It’s also crystal-clear that ISIL’s rise puts more than one country at risk. ISIL threatens the stability of the entire region and it is a threat also to the United States and to the West – self-declared. Iraq’s neighbors can bolster Iraq’s security, as well as their own, by supporting the formation of an Iraqi government that represents all Iraqis and also respects Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Now, President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will do what is necessary and what is in our national interest to confront ISIL and the threat that it poses to the security of the region and to our security in the long run. None of us should have to be reminded that a threat left unattended far beyond our shores can have grave, tragic consequences.

The President understands very clearly that supporting Iraq in the struggle at this time is part of meeting our most important responsibility: The security of the American people, fighting terrorism, and standing by our allies. Iraq is a strategic partner of the United States, with shared interests in countering the scourge of terrorism, maintaining stability of the global energy markets, and easing the sectarian polarization that plagues this region. That’s how we have to understand the stakes here in Iraq, and that’s why we have to understand the serious threat that ISIL poses to Iraq and the urgent need for Iraq’s security forces to therefore be well-supplied, well-equipped, and well-trained. That is why President Obama has prepared a range of options for Iraq, including enhanced intelligence, joint operation centers, steady supplies of munitions, and advisors to work with and support some of Iraq’s best units.

With this support, we are living up to our Strategic Framework Agreement. The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective. It will allow Iraqi security forces to confront ISIL more effectively and in a way that respects Iraq’s sovereignty while also respecting America’s and the region’s vital interests. The Strategic Framework Agreement also commits the United States to support Iraq’s constitutional process. That is specifically stated, and that is part of why I stressed in today’s meetings the importance of keeping the constitutional timeline and of forming a new government as soon as possible, because forming a new government is critical to the ability of Iraq to be able to make progress and be successful.

It is incumbent on Iraq’s leaders to convene parliament on time, and I might say to you that every single leader today committed that they are dedicated to meeting the July 1st deadline for the meeting of the representatives, the parliament. It is also incumbent on them to choose a speaker immediately, then to choose a president, and finally a prime minister and a cabinet. And to do so, they must effect a unity that rises above the traditional divisions that have torn the government apart.

So I encouraged the leaders today to start this process and to move along a path that is outlined by Iraq’s constitution itself. Nothing that the United States through President Obama sending me here today – nothing that we asked them to do or offered is outside of the constitutional process or without complete respect for the choices of the leaders of Iraq. The United States is not choosing any leader; we are not making any preconditions with respect to who can or can’t take part. That is up to Iraq. It’s up to the people of Iraq to make that decision. And what we asked for today is also very much in line with the message that Grand Ayatollah Sistani offered just a few days ago. As I told Iraqi leaders today, and as I’ve made clear to my counterparts in the region, neither the United States nor any other country has the right to pick who leads Iraq. That is up to the people of Iraq. So it is when all of Iraq’s people can shape Iraq’s future, when the legitimate concerns and aspirations of all of Iraq’s communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – are all respected, that is when Iraq is strongest. And that is when Iraq will be the most secure.

We are here today to demonstrate our support for those aspirations and to show our commitment to a stable and sovereign Iraq, which is what so many soldiers and others invested – many of them with their lives – to achieve in the interests of the people of Iraq and of this region. We stand with the people of Iraq as they meet this moment of great challenge in their effort to build a stronger, more viable, more prosperous, more representative Iraq in the days to come. So I’d be delighted to take any questions.

MS. PSAKI: The first question is from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Sir, you mentioned your meetings today with Prime Minister Maliki, and you’re meeting Shiite and Sunni politicians and Iraq’s foreign minister. Do you think Prime Minister Maliki has an effective strategy for dealing with Iraq’s security and political crisis, and what is that strategy? You mentioned the importance of forming a government in an expedited manner. Did you make any headway today on the process of government formation? Was any progress made, and what was that progress?

And lastly, ISIS, as you – has been noted, has been erasing the border between Iraq and Syria. They’ve taken the town of Rutba, which sits astride the highway to Jordan. American officials said that ISIS would like to attack the Shia shrine in Samarra, which could lead to an explosion of violence in Iraq. Given these security developments, can the United States really afford to wait until the government formation process in Iraq is complete before taking some form of action, potentially air strikes? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me answer the last part of that question first. President Obama has not declared that he will wait. He has made it very clear in his most recent statement that he is preparing with the increased intelligence and the work that the military is doing at this point in time, and the President is prepared to take action when and if the President decides that is important. Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important line. Historically, an assault on Samarra created enormous problems in Iraq. That is something that we all do not want to see happen again. And so the President and the team, the entire security team, are watching this movement and these events very, very closely.

The key today was to get from each of the government leaders a clarity with respect to the road forward in terms of government formation. And indeed, Prime Minister Maliki firmly, on multiple occasions because it was a great part of the conversation, affirmed his commitment to July 1st as the date when the representatives will convene and when they must choose a speaker and then a president and then a prime minister. And he committed to try to move that process as expeditiously as possible. And that was emphasized again and again.

With respect to the strategy for going forward, we agreed today that we will work very, very closely with the joint command. The joint command is now being set up. The additional advisors are coming in and dispersing through their various posts and brigades, and they will be making assessments, and that will help define the strategy on the security front. But make no mistake, the President has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting, and he has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any point in time if he deems it necessary strategically.

MS. PSAKI: The next question is from Abbas Qassim from Iraqiya TV.

QUESTION: (In Arabic.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, if you have proof of the last statement, we obviously would welcome your giving it to us. We are implementing a strategy now; we’re not waiting. The President has taken steps under the Strategic Framework Agreement – and let me emphasize, the President has taken these steps way back into the last year. There is additional training, there is additional material, there’s been additional support, and it has been building up as the crisis in Iraq has been looming. So this has been an ongoing process. It is not sudden to this moment that ISIL moved across the border. The fact is now it has accelerated because much of the Iraqi army didn’t fight, moved away and allowed the wholesale movement of ISIL into Iraqi territory. Now, that’s something that is being investigated, it’s being looked at. The leadership understands the problem it has created, but the result is that’s why the President wants to make an assessment in order to make a hard determination about the capacity of the military, to understand exactly what the stakes are and what the implications are of any decision he might make.

Now, that’s a very important evaluation. But in the meantime, the President is providing additional material and he has taken the measures to provide the United States with the ability, should he deem it necessary, to make the decision to be able to have a direct impact on ISIL. And today’s meetings were a very important part of the President’s decision-making process. He sent me here to evaluate in my discussions with the leadership what choices they are prepared to make and what will happen in terms of government formation. But clearly, if there is evidence that requires some kind of action prior to that process being completed, the President maintains the prerogative of making that decision.

MS. PSAKI: The final question is from Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

QUESTION: To follow up on that and on what Michael asked you, Mr. Secretary, did the other leaders with whom you met today indicate that they have the confidence that Prime Minister Maliki can change, and not only be inclusive, but stop taking direct action against his Sunni rivals, and that he could engender the support of the military? The military fled and took of their uniforms partly because there was no loyalty to a central government because of his own actions. Do you believe that he can lead a fight against this existential threat that ISIS is now posing, wiping out borders?

And to get back to Syria, for all of the success of the chemical weapon declared process, there is still the chlorine, as you mentioned. We don’t know what else is out there. ISIS and Al-Nusrah and other groups now control more and more of the territory. There is still a threat there. To what extent does the creation of ISIS also lay at the feet of the United States and other allies who did not take action sooner on Syria in supporting more moderate rebels?

And if I could also ask you, you were in Cairo yesterday meeting with President al-Sisi. You even suggested that the Apaches might be delivered, that they may have met the standard. Today, the Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison. Do we have real assurances that that process can be reversed, that this new leader – newly elected president really is going to stand up against the judicial system with these mass verdicts – mass death sentences, and now the sentencing of journalists?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well Andrea, that’s very, very fair question, and it’s an appropriate one today. When I heard about that verdict today, I was so concerned about it and, frankly, disappointed in it that I immediately picked up the telephone and I talked to the foreign minister of Egypt and I registered our serious displeasure at this kind of verdict under the circumstances of where we find ourselves today. Now, today’s conviction is obviously – it’s a chilling and draconian sentence. And it’s deeply disturbing to see in the midst of Egypt’s transition. It simply cannot stand if Egypt is going to be able to move forward in the way that Egypt needs to move forward, in order to respond to the extraordinary aspirations of those young people who twice came in to Tahrir Square in order to demand a responsive government.

So the success of Egypt going forward will depend on the protection of universal human rights, and it will depend on a real commitment to embracing the hopes of the people there that they’re going to see a judicial system that is responsive and modern and not one trapped in ideology or in this kind of extreme decision.

So today’s verdict flies in the face of the essential ingredients of a civil society and a free press and rule of law. And the president – President al-Sisi and I discussed this yesterday. We discussed these very cases, and I think it is going to be critical in terms of the objectives of his presidency for him to move quickly to try to address the international concerns that exist with respect to this kind of a decision.

Now with respect to Iraq and Prime Minister Maliki, I’m not going to comment on – it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the private conversations that I had with other leaders about their judgments or where they’re heading. But I will say this: All of the leaders that I talked with today, including Prime Minister Maliki, profess their commitment to meeting the date and their understanding that they need to move rapidly to form a government and that only by forming a government quickly will they be able to open up Iraq to the kind of embrace and support from the international community that it will need in order to fight ISIL going forward.

Now, you ask about ISIL and its movement across the border in Syria. ISIL was in Syria because of Assad, not for any other reason – one of many international groups and foreign fighters groups that have assembled in Syria in order to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. And the fact is, they have been funded by individuals and people from various parts of the world who are jihadists; they are more extreme than al-Qaida. Al-Qaida itself expelled them after they had a brief unity moment, and al-Qaida found them too troubling, but they are essentially al-Qaida in Iraq.

And the fact is that they do pose a threat. They cannot be given safe haven anywhere. Because given safe haven, they will continue to plot against governments locally, regionally, and abroad. And that is clear from their own communications and from our knowledge of them. So that’s why they pose a serious threat. They are destabilizing. There isn’t one country – not Iran, not Iraq, not Jordan, not Israel, not Turkey, not anybody in the region – who believes that ISIL is something that can be tolerated in this region. That’s why it is important to focus now on ISIL, and that’s why again I reiterate the President will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if the formation is not complete.

One thing I want to emphasize: If the President of the United States makes a decision that he has to do something with respect to ISIL because of the urgency, it has nothing to do with support for a specific government, or for – let me rephrase that. It’s not specifically support for the existing prime minister or for one sect or another. It will be against ISIL, because ISIL is a terrorist organization, and I think everybody today that we talked to understood the urgency and the ability to separate what the United States might do from their government formation process itself.

MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.

[This is a mobile copy of Press Availability on Syria and Iraq]