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Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk’s Remarks Iraq Counterterrorism Conference

March 12, 2014

Introduction

Prime Minister Maliki, Foreign Minister Zebari, Mr. Chief Justice, Deputy Prime Ministers, parliamentarians, ministers, ambassadors, distinguished participants, thank you for inviting me to speak this morning.

At the outset, on behalf of the United States, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences for the thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives in acts of terror and extremism over the past decade. I would also like to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Americans who fought here, many of whom died here, or were wounded here, to give Iraq and its people a chance to build a better future.

Our partnership with Iraq – which, under the Strategic Framework Agreement, is permanent – was built on this shared purpose and sacrifice. We will never forget those who have lost their lives, and we all must continue to work to provide aid and comfort to those who have been wounded in body and spirit. It is pursuant to this shared sacrifice that we now confront together the many challenges before us – first and foremost, the challenge of international terrorism and its impact on Iraq.

In my brief remarks, I would like to define the challenge from terrorism in Iraq; the strategy for combatting it; and the international response that is required.

Defining the Challenge – ISIL

Terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. And in Iraq, the government and people are confronting one of the most serious terrorist threats in the world. Foremost among these threats is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

ISIL is well known to the United States. It is a manifestation of al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), which was led shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi launched a sectarian campaign of mass murder in Iraq, fueled by suicide attacks against population centers, prominent clerics, and holy places.

Together, the Government and people of Iraq, with support from the United States, degraded AQI to the extent that it no longer posed a serious threat to the stability of the Iraqi state. Today, however, AQI – through ISIL and its other offshoot, the al-Nusrah front in Syria – is seeking resurgence in the region.

These networks constitute a direct threat to the region and to the entire world. Here in Iraq, vehicle and suicide bombs have risen steadily over the past 14 months, nearly all of them attributable to ISIL. Suicide bombs in particular are a primary tactic used by ISIL to instill fear in the population and take innocent life, targeting markets, restaurants, mosques, and even playgrounds.

We assess that nearly all of the 30 suicide bombers per month in Iraq are foreign fighters who enter Iraq from Syria. Just last week, ISIL boasted about attacks north of Baghdad by suicide bombers from countries across the Middle East region and in Europe. In short, this is an acute international crisis, requiring a coordinated and comprehensive response at the local, national, regional, and international level.

Define the Strategy – Holistic

Here in Iraq, ISIL’s strategy is to collapse state authority, create a vacuum, and establish a self-governing safe haven from which to expand operations throughout the region. It is attacking Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis, Shabaks – all in an effort to tear the delicate fabric of this ancient land.

This is clear proof that ISIL takes innocent life regardless of identity or politics – and sectarian or political divisions must never be an excuse for terrorist acts. At the same time, all of those responsible for combatting terrorism must strive to create a political context and environment that deprives terrorists of oxygen.

In this regard, the United States has encouraged the Government of Iraq to develop a holistic strategy to isolate ISIL from the population. This requires a combination of political, security, economic, and cultural measures – focused on mobilizing the population from the bottom-up to protect local communities and force terrorist groups into non-populated areas where they can be captured and killed.

We know how difficult it can be to synchronize political, security, and economic measures – but this is the only strategy that will work over the long-term. In this regard, we are encouraged by the 13-point plan enacted on by Iraq’s Council of Ministers on February 18. Among other things, this plan calls for:

  • Incorporating 10,000 fighters from local tribes into the security structure of the state to protect the local population;
  • Allocating $17 million for families displaced from the fighting and now residing outside of Anbar province;
  • Allocating $17 million for those internally displaced within Anbar province;
  • Allocating nearly $1 million for restoring damaged property; and,
  • Addressing local grievances through an inclusive political process.

The United States will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to encourage rapid and effective implementation of this program. We will also encourage all Iraqi leaders to build a united and national front against ISIL – comprising local leaders and national leaders, especially during this season of elections.

We will further call on the Government and the entire international community to support the heroic efforts of UNAMI in responding to the humanitarian situation in Anbar province and ensure that those displaced from fighting are cared for, and ultimately able to return to their homes once the fighting is over.

Finally, the United States will continue to provide security assistance to the Iraqi forces who are bravely confronting ISIL in the field. We know as well as anyone how difficult this enemy can be, and our experts assess that ISIL is better funded, better armed, and better trained, than the AQI that we confronted years ago.

U.S. assistance includes weapons and security equipment – which we have surged since the first of the year – information sharing, operational advice, and military training. This support, provided pursuant to our Strategic Framework Agreement and in line with a holistic strategy, will be ongoing and steadfast.

We will also continue to note when tactics are counter-productive. In Anbar province, for example, defeating ISIL will require methodical, synchronized, and patient efforts. ISIL and other extremists will only gain from missteps, such as imprecise operations, indiscriminate arrests, or mobilization of militia groups.

Accordingly, we are encouraged that the Government of Iraq has reiterated its commitment to the approach outlined in the February 18 Council of Ministers’ resolution: to mobilize the local population in the fight against ISIL, and to avoid tactics that might further exacerbate the security situation.

Pursuant to this plan, the United States will stand with the Government and people of Iraq as they work to isolate ISIL and restore stability to populated areas.

Regional Situation

Iraq cannot operate in isolation from the region, and the ongoing conflict in Syria continues to have a dangerously destabilizing impact on Iraq. Syria is now an incubator of extremism on both sides of the sectarian divide. But this conflict is not primarily a clash between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam – rather, it is a clash between extremists within each branch, and the vast majority of moderates who seek to realize the promise of economic and political modernization.

The United States stands strongly on the side of moderates on all sides, and we seek to work with the international community to isolate extremists regardless of sectarian affiliation. Indeed, we have absolutely no interest in taking sides in a sectarian contest, whether in Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else in the region.

As President Obama has stated:

“What we are trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government, and over the long term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.”

In pursuit of that objective, we renew the call to all regional states and throughout the world to police and deter the travel of anyone seeking to fight in Syria. These foreign fighters, if they are not killed in Syria, will inevitably return home, or travel to neighboring states – especially Iraq – to conduct acts of terrorism.

There is now an international consensus, backed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2139 which, among other things: “demands that all foreign fighters immediately withdraw from Syria” regardless of cause or affiliation.

In line with this Security Council demand, we hope that Iraq can take actively deter its young people from fighting in Syria on either side of the conflict. This young generation is desperately needed in Iraq to rebuild its own country. 

Finally, we will continue to encourage Iraq and all states in the region to strictly adhere to UN Security Council Resolutions regarding the transit of weapons to terrorist groups, or to and from designated states; the financing of international terrorist networks; the transit of terrorist leaders across borders, or their safe haven within borders; and media incitement or glorification of terrorist acts.

Conclusion

Iraq faces enormous challenges over the months ahead but we must never lose sight of the potential. In Iraq today, Sunnis, Shia, Christians, and Kurds, are engaged daily in a democratic political process, interacting with one another peacefully – albeit, sometimes, noisily – to resolve extremely difficult issues.

Terrorist groups for ten years have sought to ensure this democratic experiment failed – but thus far, it is they who have failed. Iraq now faces a general election in six weeks, and with support from the United States, the United Nations, and the rest of the world, we can help the Iraqi people continue on their democratic path, and defeat once and for all the terrorists groups who seek to derail it.

Thank you again for the opportunity to address this conference, and I look forward to the discussions to come.