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Daily Press Briefing (Corrected)
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
November 17, 2008



SOFA / Iraqis Government Taking it Through Political Process
Iraq is a Democratic Government/Iraq is a Sovereign State
SOFA the Result of Give and Take Negotiations


IAEA Investigation into Uranium Enrichment in Syria


Status of Emanuel Zeltser


President Karzai’s Proposal for Political Reconciliation
Taliban Violence Against School Girls
Rewards for Justice Award Remains in Place for Mullah Omar
Differences Between Iraqi and Afghan Insurgents


Protection of Shipping from Piracy


U.S. Response to Islamist Extremists


View Video

10:45 a.m. EST

MR. MCCORMACK: Good morning, everybody.

QUESTION: He’s still here.

MR. MCCORMACK: That’s right. He is still here. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It’s only Monday.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I know. I know. I don’t have anything to start off with.

QUESTION: The AP has given up on you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, I have a feeling that happened a long time ago, Arshad. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So listen, let’s start with the SOFA. Beyond sort of the boola-boola, ra-ra thing, do you think that this will actually get passed by the Iraqi parliament?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, they have their processes that are still working. I’m not going to lay odds on that. We think it’s a good agreement. We – obviously, we wouldn't have signed it and the Iraqi Government wouldn't have signed it. They now will work through their processes, and I’m in no way going to try to predict the outcome. We certainly hope it’s positive.

QUESTION: Do you think – but regardless of predicting the outcome, which I’m not asking you to do, if the outcome is negative, you need to have some kind of a legal framework for the presence of U.S. troops there, which would therefore mean, you know, an extension of the Security Council mandate.


QUESTION: And we’re now six weeks away from the expiry of that – expiration of that. You know, are you – you’re still optimistic this will get done by the end of the year?

MR. MCCORMACK: We’re still focusing all our energies on this. Like I said in response to these questions before, I’m not aware of any Plan B or anybody putting pen to paper about Plan B. So the hope is that this will move forward. This is an important step that happened today. But I have to emphasize there are still steps that need to be taken on the Iraqi side.

QUESTION: What else besides parliamentary approval? Is there anything else that --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think two basic steps. There’s the debate and – in the parliament, and one would hope approval in the parliament. And then I think it has to be ratified by the Presidency Council as a final step.


QUESTION: Let’s say things do go well and they do approve it at the end of the process. How much of a milestone will it be in this long ordeal in Iraq?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think it’s – it would be an important step. Think about where we started back at the beginning of this Administration, then you will have – if this does go forward and you have the Iraqi parliament passing it and it’s approved by the Presidency Council, you will have had an agreement signed between the United States and a democratic Iraq, a democratic Iraq that is in the heart of the Middle East. And that will change the Middle East forever, for the positive.


MR. MCCORMACK: Why? Because you have a large, important – historically important nation in the heart of the Middle East that is a elected democracy that is also committed to moving forward with free market reforms. That can have an effect on the rest of the region. Others will say we want to be able to vote for our leaders as well, we want to have freedom of speech, we want to have all our citizens be able to vote. And that’s a positive example for others in the region.

Now, change will occur at different paces in different countries throughout the region. But a democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East, that changes the Middle East forever, for the positive, and for the reasons I explained.


MR. MCCORMACK: Those are just a few reasons. I guess we can go on and on, but that’s the capsule, and by the look on your face, I don’t think you want the extended version – the extended play version. (Laughter.) Oh, no, no, no, you can keep going on and on.


QUESTION: And what are the chances you get this democratic Iraq by 2011?

MR. MCCORMACK: A – well, you already have a democratic Iraq. You – last time I checked, Iraq’s leaders were elected by the Iraqi people. Look, you know, Secretary Rice is very fond of talking about the evolution of our own democracy, which is taking a couple of centuries to get to the point where we are now. We have a black American that has been elected president of the United States. That’s quite a journey. And you know, Iraq as well as other democracies around the world are going to go through their own journeys as well. But you do have a democracy in Iraq.

QUESTION: So it means you are satisfied with their sharing of power of oil, of their --

MR. MCCORMACK: It’s not a matter of our being satisfied. It’s a matter of the Iraqi people being satisfied.

QUESTION: So it is --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, it is a democracy. I’m not sure how else you might categorize it. You know, does it look like our democracy? Does it look like France? Does it look like Italy? Does it look like Japan? No, but nobody is expecting it to. They are going to arrive at their own political bargains regarding resources and energy and fundamental questions about, you know, the relationship – the power relationship between the center and the provinces and localities. Those are for – all questions for them to answer.

Now, of course, we encourage them to address those issues. We have. But the particular answers that they come up with now and in the future are going to be only theirs to write.

QUESTION: Do you see it tilting towards Iran and that undermining American interests in the region?

MR. MCCORMACK: What, Iraq?


MR. MCCORMACK: I think you’re dealing with a sovereign state that has its own interests, separate and distinct from Iran. And if you look historically through – in the region, that it’s quite clear that those interests are separate and distinct.

QUESTION: Can we talk about dates for a second?


QUESTION: You know, it calls for the – as Sylvie alluded to, it calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in 2011, and it also talks – calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas by June 30th of next year. This President has always strenuously opposed any kind of a date certain for the withdrawal of forces, arguing that it would embolden opponents of the Iraqi Government and of the U.S. presence there, that it would make it harder to leave, that it could accelerate violence, et cetera, et cetera. And I realize that these are not mandatory withdrawal dates; there’s some room there for maneuver. But do you not find the idea that – of these kinds of timelines disturbing?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, obviously not. We agreed to it. We signed the agreement. And without commenting on any of the particulars of it – I don’t think we’ve released the agreement in public, but it’s out there being reported, some of the details of it – look, each side gave in coming to this agreement. The Iraqi side gave. The American side gave. That’s the nature of negotiation. You never were going to get an agreement that was wholly produced in Washington or wholly produced in Baghdad. And that was a healthy process to go through, you know, because it – I think the process affirmed the idea that these were two free sovereign states that were dealing with one another and came to an agreement, and, by the way, two sovereign states that had to answer to their publics. That was very clear from the Iraqi side. I think it’s obvious for our side as well.

And so going through that process actually confirmed what we said going in about it, that it was going to be when you – if you got to an agreement – going to be an agreement that both sides thought was useful and beneficial to one another, and that it was going to be a real negotiation, not some phony negotiation in which one side was dictating to the other.

QUESTION: So I mean, just to get back to the issue of dates and the President’s longstanding opposition to setting timelines for this – I mean, he must have said that a thousand times over the last few years. I mean, clearly, you either believe that you had no choice but to do that or you believe that the Iraqi forces are now sufficiently stood up for there to be even such notional or aspirational dates to be set. Otherwise, presumably, he – you have the same view that he had before, which is that this just lets the militant and opponents of the presence – sort of, it gives them a date certain by which they can then, you know, hold out until and then, you know, the gloves come off.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, very clearly, the Iraqi forces have become a lot more capable, as have many, many Iraqi institutions. They still have a ways to go. But nobody – first of all, the Iraqis – are going to do anything that might undermine the progress that they have made to this point in taking back control of their country. And certainly, we didn’t want to do anything that would undermine all the progress that had been made, and also, frankly, the investment in blood and treasure that the United States had made in helping the Iraqis get to that point as well. So again, it just circles back to that basic point that I was making. Both sides gave something in negotiating this agreement.

Okay. Anything else on Iraq and the Iraqi SOFA? Anything else in general?

QUESTION: I want to talk about Afghanistan again.

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t know. Why don’t we let Nina --

QUESTION: I’m happy to --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, why don’t we let Nina have a crack and --

QUESTION: Can I just ask about these IAEA findings that uranium – traces of uranium were found at this Syrian suspected nuclear site? Any reaction to that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the IAEA will speak for itself in terms of what it has found, and it’s a continuing investigation. But if accurate, certainly, that would indicate that there was some basis for this investigation and that it should continue until a full picture is able to be drawn by the IAEA as to what exactly happened at that site.

QUESTION: But it doesn’t necessarily prove they were enriching uranium at the site. I mean, it could have been that some other Syrian officials who were working at other sites in the country were enriching uranium there.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, at other undeclared sites in the country, right. Look, the IAEA is investigating this, and, you know, we’ll let them investigate it. Quite clearly, this is a serious effort on their part which we as well as others support.


QUESTION: Apparently, Mr. Zeltser in Belarus has been hospitalized. Is there concern about that?

MR. MCCORMACK: We have been quite concerned about his health for some time and ask the Belarusian Government to release him on medical grounds. I don’t have – I have to say I don’t have an update within the past 24 hours. I’ll check for you on that.


QUESTION: The – President Karzai has made an offer to safeguard or to guarantee the safety of Mullah Omar if he were to be willing to engage in negotiations. What does the Bush Administration think about such an offer?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well – and I have his transcript here as well, and he was talking about this in terms of political reconciliation in Afghanistan. And he makes quite clear in the transcript that in order for there to be political reconciliation or even to have discussions, the Taliban or others need to be willing to abide by the laws and the constitution of Afghanistan, to put aside their – you know, their arms, you know, to forego violence against Afghanistan and the Afghan state.

And it’s quite clear that the Taliban has not made that decision. Whether it’s Mullah Omar or on down, you have numerous examples of the fact that they have not turned away from violence, they have not turned away from trying to subvert the progress Afghanistan has made, and they have not turned away from using violence against Afghan citizens. There was just a terrible incident within the past week or so where the Taliban threw acid at schoolgirls, just – you know, just an awful, awful attack, the kind of – that brings back memories of the kind of violence that the Taliban perpetrated against the Afghan people while they had control of Afghanistan.

So, you know, President Karzai, as I read the transcript, was laying out a set of conditions, and a set of conditions whereby if individuals met them, then there would be the possibility of this reconciliation. But he makes quite clear when he says here, “But we are not at that stage yet. Right now, I have yet to hear from the Taliban leadership that they are willing to have peace in Afghanistan. They have to prove – they must prove themselves.”

So, you know, in a sense, that is – you know, that sort of hypothetical in no way addresses the current situation you have in Afghanistan or the – in Afghanistan. And so, in that sense, I don’t interpret his – President Karzai’s remarks as offering some sort of amnesty or safe passage to Mullah Omar.

QUESTION: Well, but I mean, here’s the thing. I mean, the way my colleagues, you know, interpreted it and the way it has been reported was that he was offering some kind of safe passage or a guarantee of safety. And the thing that I find perplexing is, given you just alluded to the violence perpetrated by the Taliban against his own people, let alone, you know, 9/11, I don’t understand why the Bush Administration, which has a $10 million reward out on Mullah Omar, would find it remotely acceptable, the idea of bringing someone like him into --

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not saying we do.

QUESTION: Well, but do you or don’t you?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not – we’re not negotiating with the Taliban, and the Rewards for Justice program that you mentioned concerning Mullah Omar still is very much in place.

QUESTION: So you would oppose this?

MR. MCCORMACK: we are still fighting against those who would attack us and threaten us. We are still fighting against those who are threatening and attacking the Afghan state.

QUESTION: Right. So why are you reluctant to say yes, we oppose this, this is a man we hold responsible partly – or partly responsible for the deaths of, you know – you know, 3,000 American and other citizens in 2001?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, we are – you know, we are going after the Taliban and that includes Mullah Omar, as evidenced by the Rewards for Justice program. There’s no evidence that the Taliban is turning away from violence. You know, all of that said --

QUESTION: Well, shouldn’t you --

MR. MCCORMACK: All of that said, there – you know, President Karzai insists and – that there needs to be a reconciliation, a political reconciliation within Afghanistan. You know, we have seen in other places, like Iraq for example, that political reconciliation is important. Now, the Iraqi example and the Afghan example are completely separate in terms of the facts on the ground and the situations. But this is something that President Karzai thinks is important trying to lay out the possibility of a reconciliation. You know, for our part, we certainly are not going to negotiate with the Taliban.


QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the capture of a Saudi oil tanker off East Africa? There’s been yet another pirating incident.

MR. MCCORMACK: This is the piracy?


MR. MCCORMACK: I haven’t seen the particulars of this, but we have been very engaged with our friends in the region, as well as our NATO allies on this issue of piracy in the – off the Horn of Africa. And I believe that some NATO countries and European countries have actually taken up the – as well as Russia, taken up the effort to try to provide some protection for shipping in those areas.

Now there are some thorny issues related to, you know, protection of vessels on the high seas and freedom of operation that I know that are being – they’re trying to address them up at the UN as well. So there are a number of different issues that intersect here, but the immediate one is trying to help provide some protection from piracy in that Horn of Africa region, and that is being done. It’s very difficult to do when you have these small boats that are operating and very difficult to detect as well.

QUESTION: But what is the U.S. doing? I mean, what --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we have – look, we have counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa that are separate from protecting against piracy. Now, we have operations in – ongoing in the region. And if there are – and there are laws that govern requirements in terms of response by government vessels, you know, in territorial waters, as well as on the high sea. But this has been an issue where certain countries – I’ve noted a few, some of the European countries, Russia – have specifically dedicated assets to fighting the piracy in the region, and we fully support that.

QUESTION: This is also within the context of the growing power of Islamists in Somalia, which is --

MR. MCCORMACK: Sue, that’s been a problem for a long time, going back – you know, going back, you know, more than a decade. So the tragedy that is the situation in Somalia has been one that extends back, you know, prior to this Administration. We have made efforts to try to support the transitional government there as well as to work with responsible people who want to try to build a different kind of Somalia.

Those efforts continue, but there are real threats that are posed by violent extremists who want to operate in Somalia for their own purposes and perhaps use Somalia as a base of operations to try to use violence against others outside the borders of Somalia. So it’s a real concern for us. I – you can talk to the DOD about their operations in the Horn of Africa which are robust.

For the part of the State Department, we work closely with countries in the region. We work closely with the UN on trying to address the threats and concerns from, kind of – from immediate issues like piracy, and then also try to work on longer term solutions as well.

QUESTION: You say it’s a real concern for the U.S. here. Can you spell that out a bit? Is it – do you fear that they’re going to take back the country and that the transitional government will fall?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it’s – the institutions in Somalia, legitimate institutions are weak. So it’s always a very fluid situation, but we are working to – we have been working, we’ll continue to try to work with those who want to – who see a different kind of future for Somalia.

QUESTION: I want to go back to Afghanistan for just one second. Have you – you aren’t willing to say explicitly, I guess, that you oppose the notion of safe passage for major Taliban figures, but you seem to suggest that you have misgivings about the idea given that --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, let me just say, under current circumstances, and one can’t imagine the circumstances where you have the senior leadership of the Taliban, that there would be any safe passage with respect to U.S. forces. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine those circumstances standing here right now.

QUESTION: Have you raised your concern about this with the Afghan Government?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think we have an ongoing dialogue with the Afghan Government about the issues related to political reconciliation as well as institution building in Afghanistan, constructing Afghanistan. I say that because, you know, when we got there, there weren’t a lot of – there wasn’t a lot to reconstruct. So we – look, we have a great relationship with President Karzai in Afghanistan. We have a common interest here – we, as well as the international community. And in terms of the Taliban, I think I’ve made pretty clear how we see the situation.

QUESTION: Well, I know we’ve already talked about this beforehand, but why can’t this be like the Iraq model where you kind of worked out things with Sunni – some would consider extremist tribal leaders in certain areas, and they kind of changed their ways in an effort to stabilize their country? They were supporting al-Qaida and they turned away from al-Qaida, so why can’t that happen in Afghanistan?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, I’ll – there are others who are more expert in being able to compare the history of Afghanistan and Iraq, but I’ll give you one, you know, major difference here is that those Sunni extremists were targeting largely the U.S. forces, multinational forces; whereas, in Afghanistan, the violence is being perpetrated not only against us but in large part against Afghans themselves. So President Karzai is going to have a significant say in how that is addressed. There’s also a history there where this particular group and this particular leadership is trying to make a comeback. And – well, anyway, those are just a couple of the differences that we see.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 11:05 a.m.)
DPB # 194

Released on November 17, 2008

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