NBC "Andrea Mitchell" - Transcript: Situation in Iraq

Interview

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 24, 2014
Location: Erbil, Iraq

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for doing this interview. You come here as part of your mission to hold Iraq together, yet Barzani says right off the bat that there is a new reality, a new Iraq; they want independence. What do you say about that?

SECRETARY KERRY: That a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and our policy is to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq as a whole. And President Barzani understands that, particularly right now. At this moment, he is going to participate in the government formation process. He is committed to trying to help yet again to find a means of having a unity government that can bring people together and deal with the dual crisis of the political dissension and division within Iraq and the security challenges that is posed by ISIL.

QUESTION: He opposes Prime Minister Maliki.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he does. Yes, he's opposed to Prime Minister Maliki. Some others are. And it's up to Iraqis to decide their future leadership. That's not for the United States to determine.

QUESTION: Even though it is not for the United States, obviously, to determine, as long as these powerful leaders -- if the Kurdish leader and others are against Maliki, how can he survive? How can he lead a new coalition?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that's -- honestly, Andrea, that's really what this government formation struggle is about. And we need to leave Iraqis the space to make their choices. What I tried to encourage people on behalf of President Obama and our country is it is in our interest to have them make that decision rapidly, to get this done and create a government, because any choices that might be in front of the President with respect to ISIL and military action or anything else really will depend on the capacity of the government to follow through. If there's no legitimate government here, anything else can be wasted, and we don't want that to be the case. So we need the government formation even as we are concerned about the advance of ISIL.

QUESTION: All of the leaders said that they got the message from you, yet in the past it took more than nine months last time around. If it drags out that way, are you going --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don't have nine months. There are no nine months here. There's no nine months of play time.

QUESTION: So what happens?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we've made that very clear to them. There are no nine months. And I think they view the threat of ISIL as a realistic reason to move quickly. The proof will be in the pudding. Words are cheap. Promises have been made previously and have been broken, so nobody is sitting here taking words to the bank. The next week is going to be critical in their own discussions, in their own coalitions and alignments and decisions, and the proof will be in the pudding as of July 1st and thereafter as to whether or not they get the job done and get it done quickly.

QUESTION: Opposition leaders here today said they don't want American intervention, even as our special forces are beginning to embed in small groups with the Iraqi command.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that's not intervention. What we're trying to do is help the -- and I understand what they don't want, and President Obama and the American people don't want that either.

QUESTION: Doesn't it put our troops at risk to have so much opposition to them being here?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think there is actually a great desire, otherwise they wouldn't be here. The government and everybody has asked them to be helpful with respect to planning, advising, some training and assisting. But we are not here in combat role. We are not here to fight. And the President has no intention -- none whatsoever -- of returning American combat troops to Iraq to go back to where we were. That's not in the cards.

What we're trying to do here is assess what are the capabilities of the Iraqi military, what is the situation on the ground, what is ISIL, how much of it is there, and all the different options with respect to what you might do about them. And that will inform the President and the national security team to be able to make judgments.

QUESTION: There's a new poll today that has an all-time high 58 percent of Americans polled are opposing the President's foreign policy, a 10-point jump in the last month alone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well I think -- sure, I think that's a focus on the crisis in Iraq and the difficulties that we're seeing with conflict. I mean, there's no question about it. But we just had an enormous success yesterday in completing the task of getting chemical weapons out of a country. If you ask Israel, the prime minister will tell you that is a huge positive accomplishment that makes Israel safer.

QUESTION: Yet more people are dying not from chemicals. As dreadful as chemicals are --

SECRETARY KERRY: I understand that.

QUESTION: -- the death toll is Syria is horrendous. You know that.

SECRETARY KERRY: We do know that, and the President is well aware of that. And that is why the President has increased the assistance that is going to the moderate opposition in Syria. They are getting additional equipment, additional aid, sustainment. And there are some things that the United States obviously has considered and may or may not do, depending on what happens in the next months. But I think that the President is clear about his intention to provide additional assistance. We are also the largest donor in helping to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

QUESTION: Before we run out of time, I wanted to ask you about the Ayatollah Khamenei, who came out very strongly against an American role here. Iran is already in Baghdad and elsewhere fighting against ISIS with Qods Force help, with Suleimani and the guys we think are the bad guys.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think the last thing that's going to happen is -- I mean the last thing would be Iran dictating or having some influence on American foreign policy. The President of the United States will do what he believes is in the interest of our country and in keeping with our promises and responsibilities to our allies and our friends.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.

QUESTION: Appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks.