Aboard Air Force One
En route Baghdad, Iraq
11:01 P.M. EST
MS. PERINO: Hi, everyone. We are on our way to Baghdad, Iraq. I’m going to have National Security Advisor Steve Hadley give you a few comments; General Lute will give you a few comments. They don’t have a ton of time, but they’ll take some of your questions.
MR. HADLEY: I thought I’d say a word about what the objectives of the trip are and what we’re going to do in Baghdad.
The reason for the trip is for the President to say thank you to the men and women in uniform who have done such a magnificent job and brought us to the point of where we are today — which is a pretty optimistic place. He’s also going to thank the full country team, because one of the things we’ve had both diplomats and military working together in a very integrated and pretty seamless way — not only in Baghdad, but also in the provinces, the PRTS, with embedded PRTs and all those things you know a lot about.
Second, he’s going to want to acknowledge and in some sense celebrate the conclusion of the SOFA/SFA. This, of course, provides a framework — the SOFA provides a framework for U.S. forces to continue their activities in Iraq, but in a way that gives greater deference and recognition of Iraqi sovereignty, and also provides a framework and a glide path for them to gradually over time complete their mission successfully.
This is a remarkable document, this SOFA — a public SOFA, I think the only one there is in the Arab world, and publicly debated and discussed in an elected parliament, and then adopted. A very difficult document, because while it reaffirms Iraqi sovereignty, it also provides a framework for U.S. forces to remain in the country, and that’s a difficult issue for any country to have foreign forces there.
And for those people who say that “When will you see political progress in Iraq?” — boy, this is a terrific example, I think, of that political progress — a very difficult thing for even the most mature political systems to do, and the Iraqis were able to do it.
Third, he’s going to mark that we are in a transition with Iraq, that our relationship with Iraq is now different — and I think this trip will look differently for that reason. And one of the things he’ll also emphasize is the importance, of course, of the second agreement, the strategic framework agreement, which is a framework for the United States to cooperate with Iraq and support Iraq, even as the military mission tails down.
Why is it important for the United States? Because we want Iraq to succeed. For the first time in Iraq’s history, and really the first time in the region, you have Sunni, Shia, and Kurds working together in a democratic framework to chart a way forward for their country — not with either Sunnis dominating Shia, or Shia dominating Sunnis, but them working together in a democratic framework. Important for that to succeed — important for it to succeed to Iraq, for the history of Iraq, important for it to succeed as an example in the region.
So those are the reasons he’s going. He will be meeting with, as you would pretty much expect, pretty concentrated program — he will meet with President Talabani and the other two members of the presidency council; he’ll have a meeting with them — brief arrival ceremony and then a meeting with them. He will then meet in pretty quick succession with the speaker of the Council of Representatives, Mashadani, with Abdul Aziz al-Hakeem, and also with Masoud Barzani.
He will also have a meeting, obviously, with Prime Minister Maliki. As part of that meeting he and Prime Minister Maliki will sign a document that really signifies — sort of a joint statement that signifies the completion of this SOFA/SFA process and marks that as an event.
The President will also go and have a troop event, to thank the troops directly for all that they have done. He will do that after sharing a meal with Maliki — he will have a troop event thanking the men and women in uniform for all that they’ve done for Iraq and to help Iraq succeed and to help make America safer.
Doug Lute, do you want to add anything about why the President is going and what folks are going to see?
GENERAL LUTE: I think I’d just underline Steve’s point about ’09 being a year of transition. It’s clearly a year of transition for us, we can see that going on in Washington day by day now; but also for the Iraqis. You know, they have provincial elections which will reset the political scene in the provinces at the end of January. And then in December of ’09 they have counterpart elections at the national level. So the complete Council of Representatives is reset and then the Iraqis will be into reforming a new government and so forth.
At the same time, ’09 is the first year of implementation of this new agreement. So while our troops on the ground don’t face a new mission, they do face new operating — a new operating environment, and that’s largely described by way of the terms of this agreement.
So ’09 is going to be a big year, so I think it’s really fitting that the President come here late in ’08, just on the cusp of that transition, say thanks to the troops, and pat the Iraqis on the back for all they’ve accomplished this last year.
Q: Is that why you said it would look different, Mr. Hadley? Explain why you think it looks different then.
MR. HADLEY: Well, I think you’ll see it. We’re going to arrive in daylight. There will be an arrival ceremony — I don’t think we’ve seen one of those before. And I think you’ll — as it unwinds I think you will see that it shows that we are moving into a different relationship, a relationship with Iraqis rightfully exercising greater sovereignty; we in an increasingly subordinate role and beginning to make this shift that General Lute talked about.
Q: Can I ask you one quick mission question, General Lute? And that is, in terms of getting permission for going out — I know General Odierno’s letter talked about going out and conferring with the Iraqis, but what does that mean day to day? How different is that in terms of, if the U.S. wants to go out on a convoy, wants to go out on a raid, they have to tell the Iraqis all the time?
GENERAL LUTE: Yes. This is probably one element of the SOFA which represents the least change from what we’re doing now. And that’s because virtually all of our operations today are Iraqi and U.S. combined. And as a result, they’re planned from the outset in combined headquarters and so forth.
So starting at Ray Odierno’s headquarters, all the way down, you’ll see American officers, Iraqi officers side-by-side. So this is one part that doesn’t represent a big change.
Q: But not side-by-side — I know they’ve been doing that. But in terms of if we have a Special Forces raid or something like that, you always have to get permission from the Iraqis to do that? Or do you do that now?
GENERAL LUTE: We don’t anticipate that we’ll be gaining mission-by-mission or raid-by-raid authorities, but rather that we’ll gain authorities for periods of time, particular locations and particular enemy sets. So for example, al Qaeda in Ninawa province and so forth. So it won’t be as detailed as, “tomorrow night at 0100” in a particular village. It’ll be broader categories.
Q: But General Odierno —
MR. HADLEY: But even that arrangement will be one that the Iraqis have to be comfortable with. That’s the point.
GENERAL LUTE: And they are today. I mean, we today take virtually all of our target sets to the Iraqis and gain approval at the appropriate level. And that level varies from the Prime Minister on some rare occasions, down through his chain of command.
So this doesn’t represent a sea change in terms of how we’re operating now.
Q: Although General Odierno mentioned that in his letter to the troops. So what —
GENERAL LUTE: Well, remember, the audience that he was writing to is an audience that he wants — he wants his soldiers to understand that things will be different on 1 January. He talks about it in terms of a different operating environment, but not a changed mission.
Q: Mr. Hadley, by saying that he’s arriving in daylight, are you making the point that it’s a more secure Iraq than at any other visit?
Q: He arrived in daylight last time, didn’t he?
MR. HADLEY: At Anbar, that’s true. In Anbar — but that’s kind of a different place. This is Baghdad.
And it is a different place. I mean, Doug and I were just talking earlier — there was — either yesterday or the day before there was not a single incident in Baghdad. I think I’m right about that. And a pretty modest number in the country as a whole. So the security situation is dramatically improved, and that’s partly by what we are doing, it’s increasingly a function of what the Iraqis are doing, but also the fact that people are moving out of this insurgency into the process of building a future Iraq. That’s a good thing. That’s what this has been all about, that’s what we’ve been trying to do. And that’s what you’re now seeing.
Q: And the statement that he is signing with Prime Minister Maliki, is that more ceremonial, or is there any diplomatic urgency to it?
MR. HADLEY: It will not represent by itself a new breakthrough, a new initiative, or anything. It’s kind of tying the ribbon on the box.
Q: So the President is feeling pretty good about this situation?
MR. HADLEY: Sure. If you’ve been through 2005 and 2006, it’s hard not to feel awfully good about 2008 and into 2009. And again, I’d emphasize we’re into a new phase for Iraq, a new phase in U.S. relationship with Iraq. And as General Lute said, 2009 is going to be a fascinating year.
Q: So what concerns would you still have there? What concerns you most there, even though you’ve made these great gains?
MR. HADLEY: I don’t think — I guess I would put the question differently. There’s a terrific opportunity now and you can see a way forward that has been charted. The relationship with the United States is now set. The pattern for increasing Iraqi security responsibility and a stepping back from our role and return on success is now clear in that document. And the political way forward is also clear, as General Lute described — provincial elections and then national elections.
So I think this is a terrifically exciting time. I think everyone will say that for the security progress and for all the political progress, we need to have more progress on services, and of course they have economic challenges, as well — you know, from $130 oil to $50 oil has a big impact on that budget, since they are so dependent on oil.
So there remain to be challenges, obviously, and I think they’ll be focusing on, and the government has talked about, services and the economic challenges. But I think this is a government that is increasingly showing its competence, its coming of age, being able to deal with those problems. And it’s going to need to continue to have support of the Iraqi people — and they will have a chance to express their views in these upcoming elections. So it’s going to be a very exciting year.
Q: Mr. Hadley, the President and the administration in general had strongly resisted the idea of setting any kind of timetable for troop withdrawal. We now have that in this agreement. Was this a concession that was made fully and openly, without any —
MR. HADLEY: You know, we’ve been through this before. What we have opposed was arbitrary deadlines for withdrawing troops. The impetus for which were not to try to succeed, but basically just get the troops home and get out of there. And we thought that was a serious mistake. And what we said was the withdrawal of troops had to be return on success, it had to reflect conditions on the ground that showed that we were succeeding, violence was going down, and Iraqis could increasingly take responsibility.
And that’s what we’ve seen over the last year, and it allowed us to enter into an agreement with the Iraqis which said, based on the conditions that we have seen and the progress we have seen, we think what is in that document is a reasonable expectation of what we’ll be able to do in terms of Iraqis stepping up and we stepping back.
Now it is in that agreement. Obviously, it is open to the parties if there is a deterioration of the security situation, or if things even go better than expected, the parties could make some adjustments. But we’re not looking for that and we don’t expect that. We think we’ve got an agreement and a framework going forward that reflects the progress that we’ve seen, the conditions that we have now, and reflects the conditions and the progress we will continue — we think we will continue to see over the life of this agreement.
Q: So is 16 months too fast? Is 16 months too fast?
MR. HADLEY: What the agreement provides is that we will — Iraqis will have taken responsibility in the cities by the end of June 30, 2009. We think that makes sense. As we turn over provinces — as we’ve done now, I think, 12 or 13 —
GENERAL LUTE: Thirteen.
MR. HADLEY: Thirteen of the 18 provinces have been turned over to Iraqis. General Odierno will tell you as that happens, we actually do get out of the cities into an over-watch — except as General Odierno talked about those small numbers of folks that are embedded with Iraqi units.
So that’s what we’re going to look at in terms of the cities by June 30 —
Q: — 16 months?
MR. HADLEY: The transition will then go, in terms of handing over provinces, and we expect that all to be done, as we said, by the end of 2011.
Q: But having all combat troops out, as President-elect Obama wants to do in 16 months — is that too fast in your view?
MR. HADLEY: Look, he said that — he’s talked about that, but the most recent statements I’ve seen him say, he said, but of course, it’s got to reflect — I will be listening to the advice of my commanders. He’s talked about it has to reflect the increasing capabilities of the Iraqis. He’s talked about how he doesn’t want to leave our soldiers unprotected. And he’s talked about how he doesn’t want to compromise the success we’ve had to date.
So it’s, yes, 16 months, and then with about four categories of things that he has said he’s going to look at. And we applaud him for that; we think that’s the responsible way to approach this problem.
Q: Thank you.
END 11:18 P.M. EST