Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders on March 24, 2013, after traveling with President Barack Obama on his Middle East trip.
SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon. As-Salāmu `Alaykum. I'm glad to be here with all of you, and it's a pleasure for me to be able to be back in Iraq. I haven't been able to be here for a little bit of time now, so the difference for me is very noticeable in the reduced energy, if you will, and presence of personnel.
I was very pleased to be able to have a chance to affirm to the Iraqi leaders that I met with that the United States continues to stand with the people of Iraq as they work to establish a democracy and a better future. And we are particularly grateful for the efforts of those people who remain so committed to political activity, to engaging in the constitutional process, and who are working for the rights that are guaranteed by the constitution.
This past week, both of our countries marked the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war here in Iraq, and we were, all of us, reminded of the remarkable sacrifices of so many Iraqis and also so many Americans who, together, gave their lives in a common fight to try to build the civil state that the people of Iraq have chosen for themselves.
Iraq today continues – and I saw this in my meetings and felt it in the discussions that I had – continues to face some tough challenges on fulfilling that promise. It is difficult and – it is difficult for some to find the way to strengthen their democratic institutions and develop its full economic potential, and now that our forces are gone, to ensure that it's going to be able to stand on its own two feet with respect to the security challenges. I want to assure the Iraqi people today that as you recover from four decades of war and dictatorship, and as you courageously face down lingering menace of terrorism, the United States is going to continue to uphold our end of the Strategic Framework Agreement.
It's also important to recognize where there is, in fact, progress that is measurable. Iraq had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2012, and while inflation stayed at single digits at the same time. For the first time in the lives of many Iraqis, people are now free to express their opinion, they're free to organize politically as they wish. And anti-trafficking laws have been put in place, a human rights commission is now in place to work to try to protect fundamental freedoms, though we know there is a lot more to do in this arena. New bilateral relationships are strengthening Iraq's place in the world.
But it would be disingenuous not to come here and say that there is a great deal of work yet to do. The United States is clear-eyed about the challenges that are still presented here in Iraq, including matters of transitional justice, reconciliation, division of authority, allocation of resources, and advancing the rule of law. We know from our own experience how difficult the work of democracy is and can be. Democracy, I would say to our friends in Iraq, is about inclusion and about compromise. When consensus is not possible, those who are dissatisfied should not just walk away from the system, should not just withdraw, just as those who prevail should not ignore or deny the point of view of other people.
If the Iraqi democratic experiment is to succeed, all Iraqis must work together so that they can come together as a nation. We will continue to build the partnerships between our security and our defense sectors. But we're also working to build partnerships in education and culture, energy and trade, finance, technology, transportation, and the rule of law. And I will be encouraging companies as they deem appropriate to do business here; firms like Ford, Boeing, General Motors, General Electric are doing so right now, and they have done well.
Fundamental to any democracy anywhere is an election. And the United States is working very closely with the Iraqi electoral commission and with the United Nations in order to ensure the will of the Iraqi people can be reflected through the provincial elections this next month, and then, of course, through the national elections next year. In my meetings today, I stressed our concern that local elections in two provinces have been delayed, and I urged the cabinet to revisit this decision. And the Prime Minister said it was appropriate to revisit it with the cabinet.
Iraq's success will take enormous cooperation. It'll take dialogue and it'll take courage. It'll require the resolve to defend the sovereignty of the country and its airspace. It will take a commitment to being a good neighbor in a difficult neighborhood. And as Iraqi leaders make difficult decisions in these areas, we are going to work to try to help them succeed. We all want to see Iraq succeed. There's such an enormous investment of our treasure, our people, and our money in this initiative. The world has an interest in seeing Iraq take a leading role in the region as a functioning democracy, and I believe that if Iraq remains inclusive and cohesive, it has the best chance of succeeding. And as it grows stronger in that format, working to enforce its constitutional rights, it will find that the United States will work with it to achieve those goals.
MODERATOR: We'll take three questions today. The first will be from Paul Richter of the LA Times.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us what you told Prime Minister Maliki about the flow of Iranian arms through Iraq into Syria, and what specific commitment you got from him to try to start doing something about that?
SECRETARY KERRY: We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the overflights. And I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold with a transitional government according to the Geneva Communiqué, for those of us engaged in that effort, anything that supports President Assad is problematic. And I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.
So we agreed to try to provide more information with respect to this, but I also made it clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful – how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the Prime Minister with respect to Syria and President Assad.
So my hope is that we'll be able to make some progress on this, and I'm taking some homework back to Washington with me, and I think the Prime Minister will have discussions here.
MODERATOR: The second question will be from Sohar Hamudi from Amar-Iraqiya.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Just one minute, please.
QUESTION: Yes. (In Arabic.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Are you talking about the elections? Okay.
Well, there are two provinces I mentioned, both in Ninewa and in Anbar, where the election – the provincial election has been suspended. And from the perspective of the United States, we strongly urge the Prime Minister to take this issue to the cabinet and to see if it can be revisited, because we believe very strongly that everybody needs to vote simultaneously. The fact is that while security has been put forward as a rationale for that postponement, no country knows more about voting under difficult circumstances than Iraq.
The first election here was conducted under the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but Iraqis came out and voted. So we believe very strongly that all of the countries should vote at the same time in these provincial elections, and we hope that the Prime Minister, through his cabinet, will be able to revisit this issue. There is still time for that election to take place in those provinces.
MODERATOR: The final --
MODERATOR: I'm sorry, there's – we can't do follow-ups.
QUESTION: No, what is my question (inaudible).
MODERATOR: My apologies. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. (In Arabic.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, that's why I asked you if you were referring to the elections. I apologize. With respect to demonstrations, we believe very strongly that every citizen has the right to have their voice heard. And under the constitution of Iraq, people have a right to be able to affiliate, to express any political view, and nobody should be penalized for that.
So we urge people to demonstrate peacefully if they choose to demonstrate. We do not want to see, nor do we advocate anything but peaceful demonstration, but we urge the government to respond to those demonstrations in an appropriate way – not with violence, not with repression, but rather with the openness that a democracy merits. The country will be stronger for people having the right to be able to express their views in a peaceful way.
MODERATOR: The final question will be from Anne Gearan from The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Moaz al-Khatib has announced his resignation as head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition today. What is your view of that move and the internal divisions within the group that led up to it? And are you worried that the group is essentially disintegrating?
And secondly, since this is the first we've seen you since the President's trip, can you tell us how optimistic you are that the Israelis and the Palestinians are really ready to sit down and bargain? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, Anne. With respect to Moaz al-Khatib, I'm personally sorry to see him go because I like him on a personal level, and because I have appreciated his leadership. But the notion that he might resign has, frankly, been expressed by him on many different occasions in many different places, and it is not a surprise. We have worked very closely with the newly chosen Prime Minister Hitto. We've worked with him in the delivery of aid. We have confidence about his abilities and the abilities of the Vice President's and others around him. And it's almost inevitable, in the transition of a group such as the opposition, for these kinds of changes to take place as it evolves.
We view this as a continuum. It's not about one person. It's about President Assad. It's about a regime that is killing its own people. It's about an opposition that is bigger than one person. And that opposition will continue, and I am confident personally that ultimately, President Assad is going to either negotiate his way out of office through the Geneva process, or, if he leaves people no choice, the opposition will forcibly change this regime. But I think that is going to continue, and the United States will continue to support the opposition.
Thank you all.
QUESTION: With respect to --
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, with respect to the Mideast process, I think the President's trip to the Mideast was historic in every respect, and I know that the folks in Israel felt its impact. They were impressed by him, impressed by the vision that he expressed, and I think that his words even after he has left are reverberating. People are debating and talking, and that is precisely what the President sought to do.
So I think it was an extremely successful visit, a moving one for Israelis. I know for Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom I saw last night, he felt very strongly that it was an outstanding meeting. And I know from the President, before he left, that he was very impressed by the discussions he had. He felt they were the best that he has had to date, and I think the stage has been set for the possibilities that parties can hopefully find a way to negotiations.
Now, I think all of us have learned in the course of the last years, through many presidents and many secretaries of States, there has been no more intractable problem. And so expressing optimism when you don't even have negotiations would be foolhardy. What I have is hope. I have hope that the President's words kindled a sense of the possible in the people of Israel and the region and the Palestinians. I think that he has charged me and others with the responsibility of trying to find out what the way forward is. And I engaged in some of that discussion yesterday, both with President Abbas as well as with Prime Minister Netanyahu and some of his team.
We have to keep working at this. We've just begun those discussions. I wouldn't characterize them in any way except open, candid, and a good beginning, and that's where I'll leave it. Thanks, appreciate it.