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Graham, McCain, Lieberman Hold Press Conference in Baghdad, Iraq

Press Conference

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Location: Baghdad, Iraq

AMBASSADOR JEFFREY: Good morning, everybody. It's my honor here to introduce three distinguished American senators from the Senate Armed Services Committee. They are no strangers here in Iraq: Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman, and Senator Graham have been here many times. Senator Graham has done military service here. They are among the best supporters of Iraq that the United States has, and we are very proud to have them here today.

Sir?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Thank you very much, Ambassador, and we have been pleased to have another return visit of many that we have made over the years. Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman and I have had the opportunity to meet with the Ambassador, his team, and General Austin, and we continue to appreciate the outstanding job that they and the men and women who serve under them do for our nation and for the freedom of the Iraqi people.

We have also had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Maliki, Mr. Allawi, and Mr. Abdul-Mahdi. We obviously, like many others, have been disappointed at the lack of progress since the elections were held some eight months ago. Having said that, we are encouraged by the meeting that took place yesterday in Erbil, and then again this evening, here in Baghdad, at 6:00 p.m. We have stated the United States' position, and our position, which is the same, which is that we need a government that is both inclusive and is representative of the elections, so that the Iraqi people will have confidence in the government that is formed. We hope that in the next few days that there will be an agreement for both power-sharing and inclusion, and a government will get to work as soon as possible.

We express our deep sorrow over the massacre of the Christians and also the recent acts of terror committed by al-Qaeda in Najaf and in Karbala. These kinds of actions by al-Qaeda continue to anger us and, at the same time, demonstrate that the job is a long way from done.

Senator Lieberman?

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Well, thanks, Senator McCain. It's good to be back in Iraq. And I must say that the miracle of the emergence of a new Iraq continues on the ground. The economy is doing much better, notwithstanding the continued attempts by al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia extremists to disrupt the progress here. Progress is continuing. And now it's time for the results of the election that was held in March to be reflected in a new government.

It turns out, by a twist of fate, that the three of us are here this week at a very encouraging time. Based on the meetings that we have held yesterday with Mr. Allawi, Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, and today with Prime Minister Maliki, we are now on our way to Erbil to see President Barzani. I am encouraged to believe that the political leadership of this country is about to reach an agreement on a new government.

And what is as important as whether they reach an agreement on a new government and when is what the government is. And as Senator McCain said, I think it's very important -- who occupies what positions in the new Iraqi Government is obviously up to the Iraqi political leadership -- but most important, I think, from an American perspective, is that it reflect the results of the election in March, which is to say that it be broadly inclusive, and specifically that the leading parties, State of Law and Iraqiya, are represented in the top positions in the new government.

Secondly, we have said to our friends -- and they really are our friends in the political leadership here in Iraq; we have known them now for years, we have been through hard times and these are better times -- that, from the American perspective, it is critically important that the government that results be seen in America as an Iraqi nationalist government, not under any undue influence from Iran or any other countries outside of Iraq.

And so, we are encouraged today that that will be the case, and therefore will make it easier for us to continue to do what we have done over the years past, which is to be steadfast in our support of this emergence of a new self-governing, self-defending Iraq in the heart of a region which has, for a long time, been critically important to the national security interest of the United States.

Senator Graham?

[Helicopter heard overhead.]

SENATOR GRAHAM: Right on cue with the helicopter!

[Laughter]

From my point of view, the formation of the government is within sight, and possible sooner, rather than later. But we've got to remember what this opportunity presents for Iraq. It's a chance to solidify this country's future for decades to come. A lot of blood and treasure has been spent to get us to this moment. So I have urged every Iraqi leader to think about the future of your country in broad terms, not narrow terms.

What does it take for Iraq to survive in the future? It's got to be accepted by regional partners and players as a legitimate government. What we are talking about here is basically a Shia coalition, an Arab-Shia coalition, governing a Mideast nation for the first time in history. And it has to be broad, and it has to be inclusive. The Sunni-Arab states in this region have to look at Iraq as a friend, a partner, and an ally. And I do believe there is a tremendous amount of future investment potential for Sunni-Arab states in Iraq if the government is formed in a proper manner.

This country needs a healthy relationship with Iran. They are their neighbor. We all understand that. And a healthy relationship would be one where Iran respects the sovereignty of Iraq.

And the United States, in my view, needs an enduring relationship with this nation called Iraq. We have fought hard alongside the Iraqi people. We have lost over 4,000 young Americans in this fight for freedom. And I hope that we can have an enduring relationship that begins in 2012 with a new agreement that has political, military, and economic cooperation as far as the eye can see.

There is a lot of difficulty finding bipartisanship in Washington at this moment on the domestic side, but I am here to say that we have an independent Democrat and two Republicans who are very supportive of what President Obama and his team is trying to do here in forming this new government in Iraq. And I am very proud of what the Administration has been doing. And now is the time to get it done. And I do believe that is possible, if everybody will have a broad vision of Iraq, not a narrow vision of Iraq.

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Hear, hear!

QUESTION: Senator Graham, you talked about the best or next course beyond 2012 and how important it is for the U.S. to remain engaged here. Obviously, that will require Congress to approved funds for the remaining agencies...

SENATOR GRAHAM: That's a very good question.

QUESTION: ...for the military to remain on the ground, to keep the parties from getting at each others' throats.


SENATOR GRAHAM: Well, the one thing that we have told our Iraqi friends is that we have a new Congress. We had a sea-change election, and a lot of the Members of this new Congress really never spoke about foreign policy. There was never a real debate about what should we do, as a nation, in terms of our future involvement with Iraq?

The three of us are committed -- and we told Prime Minister Maliki, Abdul-Mahdi, and we will tell Barzani today -- that you need to help us. We're here to help both nations, Iraq and the United States, to make the case for a continued involvement in Iraq. We need to tell our colleagues at home that this new government is broad, inclusive, and it can succeed.

To the new Members of Congress: Please understand how important it is for Iraq to become the successful, stable state. It is a sea-change in world politics. This is the place where Muslims took up arms against al-Qaeda and delivered them a decisive blow. But the battle is not yet over, as you can see by the ballots.

So, I will do all I can, along with Senators McCain and Lieberman, to persuade our colleagues that we need a continued relationship and investment with this country politically, economically, and militarily. What's about to happen in Iraq is a game-changer that makes America much safer.

This is the place where Muslims stood up to al-Qaeda and said, "No." This is the place where you can have a democracy between Syria and Iran that will change the future of the Mideast. This is the place where Sunnis and Shia are sitting down together and sharing power, and having a common view of how to move forward with their Kurdish friends. What happens here in Iraq for years to come really is a vital national security interest to the United States. Now is not time to lose sight of that vision.

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Let me just add real, real briefly: it's no secret that there is budget pressure in the United States. And our ability to continue to deliver the support to Iraq that we need to support, both militarily and diplomatically, will be dependent on the actions of the leaders of Iraq this week, putting this new government together. It's got to be inclusive, and it cannot seem, from an American view, to be influenced disproportionately by Iran or any other outside government.

Secondly, why do I think we have to continue to support the emergence of the new Iraq? I always have in my mind the funerals that I have been to in Connecticut of men and women of the American military who have been killed in action here in Iraq, and the times that their family members, their loved ones, have said to me, "Please, don't let it be that my loved one died in vain in Iraq."

If we pull out of here too soon and don't protect the gains we have made, I don't think we are going to keep the promise to those who gave their lives in defense of freedom for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: [Via translator] Sir, you met all the political leaders here in Iraq. Do you think that the meeting yesterday in Erbil and the meeting today in Baghdad are going to produce a comprehensive and inclusive government here? Do you think that this is close?

SENATOR MCCAIN: We are very hopeful. We have reasons for optimism. But we also appreciate that there are still many obstacles. You know very well that yesterday was the first time since the election that all parties have gotten together. So we are guardedly optimistic that in the next few days there will be at least the beginning of a comprehensive agreement, and that obviously means the selection of the speaker, the prime minister and the president.

QUESTION: You have all spoken about the inclusivity of government. It appears that the Sadrists are going to play a fairly prominent role in this new government, behind Prime Minister Maliki. I wonder whether that raises concerns for you, given the role they have played in the recent past?

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Yes, right. Right. This question was about whether we're concerned about the Sadrists being part of the governing coalition. And my answer, of course I am, because of their history. Look, even now, today and this week, in my opinion, Sadrist-backed Shia extremists have been taking violent action against people here in Iraq, including firing at the U.S. embassy compound.

So, the relationship -- the longer-term strategic relationship -- between the United States and Iraq depends on mutual confidence. We said this directly to Prime Minister Maliki, and he was very reassuring to us, basically saying he is an Iraqi nationalist. He will not tolerate any foreign country influencing Iraq's governance of itself. And I took that specifically also to mean the Sadrists.

But we are going to be watching that very closely. And that's why I repeat again I think it's critically important that both Mr. Maliki -- Prime Minister Maliki's party and Mr. Allawi's party, Mr. Allawi and Mr. Maliki personally, be represented in the highest levels of this government. That's the kind of breadth we need to have the support of the United States and of the majority of countries here in this region.

QUESTION: And what of Mr. Allawi for the presidency?

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Well, that's up to the people who are negotiating now. But certainly, to me, that seems like a logical place to go. And the leaders of Iraqiya that we have met, the party, have been very clear that they hope that they are able to achieve the presidency and work together with Mr. Maliki in a unity government.

QUESTION: In case the government formation is delayed further, what is the role that the United States is willing to play?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Well, let's hope that they do make the progress that we anticipate. There are many options in case of failure, but we would consider all those if the situation does not improve. Right now, let's take the optimistic side and plan on agreement within the next few days.

We have to run up to Erbil to meet with President Barzani, and I apologize that we've got to go. Thank you very much.

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Thank you.


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