Iraqi Students Visit U.S. to Study 'Respect for Diversity,' 'Community Engagement'

By Susan Jones | August 20, 2014 | 6:13 AM EDT

State Department Deputy Spokesman Marie Harf (AP File Photo)

( - At a time when racial tensions in Ferguson dominate the headlines, 26 Iraqi students have come to the United States to study "respect for diversity" and "community engagement."

"This week, 26 Iraqi high school students and their mentors are in Washington, D.C., to conclude a four-week exchange program in the United States on civic education, leadership development, respect for diversity and community engagement," deputy State Department spokesman Marie Harf told reporters on Tuesday.

"No stops in Missouri?" a reporter asked Harf.

"I told you they're in Washington now," she responded.

Harf said the 26 students are part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, which is designed to strengthen "people-to-people relationships" between Iraqis and Americans.

During the four-week program, the Iraqis were accompanied by 10 U.S. high school students and four Iraqi adult mentors. "Upon their return home, the Iraqi students will implement civic education plans developed through their time in the United States," Harf said.

The host communities for the program included Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The program is now concluding in Washington, D.C., with a four-day civic education workshop.

Asked about countries with poor human rights records that are now criticizing the U.S. because of the trouble in Ferguson, Harf said the United States "will put our record for confronting our problems transparently and honestly and openly up against any other countries in the world...and we of course would suggest that other countries do the same thing."

One reporter compared the treatment of journalists in Ferguson to that of a New York Times reporter who has been barred from leaving in Afghanistan because of an article he wrote, criticizing the presidential election there.

"Well, if you're asking about what's happening to that journalist, I will very strongly come out against what the government of Afghanistan has done in terms of imposing a travel ban on him," Harf said. "I mean, if we want to talk about the journalist in Afghanistan, I'm happy to comment on that now. But what I will say is that I don't think that people should make one-to-one comparisons between these situations (Ferguson and Afghanistan). When we have issues here in the United States, we deal with them openly and honestly and transparently.

The reporter followed up, asking if the treatment of journalists in Ferguson gives Afghanistan the right to ask, "Where does the U.S. get off by criticizing us when the very same thing is happening in one of your major cities?"

"Well," Harf responded, "I think when you hear the president of the United States stand up and say we need to get the facts about what happened here, journalists should be able to do their jobs, we've all been very clear about that, whether it's in Missouri or in Afghanistan. So I think you've heard from the federal government here how important we believe it is for journalists to do their jobs.

"And, again, I'm not going to wade too much into what's happening in Missouri here, because it's way outside of my lane. But I will say, we have stood up consistently for the same principles of freedom of expression, whether it's here in the United States or overseas, and we will continue to do so. "