U.S Department of State
David Schenker, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
January 13, 2020
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It’s been an eventful couple of weeks here since I last visited the bullpen.
Before I start, let me just make a brief statement. I’m deeply saddened to learn today of the death of U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem, who had been imprisoned in Egypt since 2013. His death in custody was needless, tragic, and avoidable. We send our sincere condolences to Mr. Kassem’s wife and family at this painful time. I’ll continue to raise our serious concerns over human rights and Americans detained in Egypt at every opportunity, as will the entire team at the Department of State.
So last week, I traveled to Iraq and the UAE to discuss Iran’s attacks on the coalition facilities in Iraq and our defensive actions to protect American coalition lives. In Erbil, I met with several leaders of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. In the UAE, I was able to meet by chance with Iraqi Parliament Speaker Halbusi, who happened to be there, and UAE Minister of State Anwar Gargash.
In each of my meetings in Erbil, I thanked our Iraqi Kurdish partners for their steadfast support, and I made clear that the U.S. does not seek war and remains committed to de-escalation. My counterparts and I discussed strengthening our relationship with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan region specifically. We are proud of our partnership with the Iraqi Kurds and believe it is central to achieving many of our goals in the Middle East. Our conversations were about building on the strategic partnership we’ve had with Iraq’s Kurds going back to 1991. I emphasized that the coalition military presence in Iraq was solely aimed at continuing the fight against ISIS and training the Iraqi security forces to be prepared and well positioned to take on any lethal threat.
On this point, I want to condemn the attack on Balad Air Base yesterday, which left several Iraqis critically injured. The Government of Iraq must hold these Iraq – Iran-aligned proxies accountable. I also discussed the reform process and their – and the legitimate demands in the face of Iran-ordered attempts to suppress peaceful protests throughout lethal – through lethal violence. The U.S. consulate general in Erbil and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad are still under heightened alert, but our diplomats are as committed as ever to build upon the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Iraq.
I want to echo Embassy Baghdad’s condemnation of the assassination of Dijlah TV correspondent Ahmed Abdul Samad and cameraman Safaa Ghali in Basra on Friday during the peaceful protests. The ongoing assassinations, kidnappings, harassment, and intimidation of members of the press, social media activists, and pro-reform activists in Iraq by armed groups cannot continue to go unpunished. The Iraqi Government is responsible for upholding the right of freedom of expression, protecting journalists, and ensuring that peaceful activists can practice their democratic rights without fear of reprisal. This can only happen if the perpetrators are found and brought to justice.
Speaking of freedom of expression, we are closely monitoring the protests in Iran. The Iranian people suffered under the corruption and incompetence of the revolutionary regime for 40 years. The tragic downing of the Ukrainian plane is the most – the latest example of this incompetence, incompetence that is fed by the theocracy’s warped, revolutionary ideology which prioritizes violence, terror, and threats and devaluates humanity. The United States supports the Iranian people, who, like the rest of the world, want their leaders to stop spending money and resources on terrorism and nuclear ambitions. The U.S. calls on the regime not to use violence on peaceful protestors or restrict communications, closing the internet as they have done repeatedly. The Iranian people deserves better – deserve better, and we stand with them.
As President Trump said to the Iranian people on Wednesday, in what I believe was the most tweeted Farsi tweet in the history —
MS ORTAGUS: The tweet was this weekend.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: The tweet was this weekend?
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay, so it’s not that, then. Never mind. “We want you to have a future and a great future – one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world. The United States is ready to embrace peace with all [those] who seek [peace].”