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Cablegate: President Ben Ali Meets with a/S Welch: Progress

VZCZCXYZ1909
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHTU #0193/01 0631651
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 031651Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4520
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

SE C R E T TUNIS 000193

SIPDIS

NOFORN
SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/FO (WELCH, GRAY) AND NEA/MAG (HOPKINS, HARRIS)
STATE ALSO FOR S/WCI (WILLIAMSON, GOREY)
NSC FOR ABRAMS, YERGER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/28/2018
TAGS: PREL PTER PHUM PGOV KPAL KDRG KDEM TS
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT BEN ALI MEETS WITH A/S WELCH: PROGRESS
ON COUNTER-TERRORISM COOPERATION, REGIONAL CHALLENGES

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

-------
Summary
-------

1. (S/NF) President Ben Ali and NEA Assistant Secretary
David Welch discussed regional and bilateral issues in a
wide-ranging, warm and open meeting on Thursday, February 28.
In response to A/S Welch's remarks and requests, President
Ben Ali:

-- promised counter-terrorism cooperation "without
reservation," including US access to a terrorist in Tunisian
custody;
-- said the GOT would accept the ten remaining Tunisian
detainees in Guantanamo on the basis of the constitution;
-- welcomed the Annapolis peace process, adding that
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is "optimistic"
a deal will be concluded and plans to visit Tunis in March;
and,
-- said there is "no reason" for an Arab League Summit in
Damascus unless there is a Lebanese president and opined that
the meeting might be postponed or representation
downgraded.

2. (S/NF) Welch and Ben Ali also covered US-Libyan
relations, relations between Morocco and Algeria, the
situation in Iraq and the challenge of Iran. The
constructive session underscored again that Tunisia is
prepared to play a moderate, but not a leadership, role on
regional problems. Overall, Ben Ali was clearly pleased with
Welch's visit and it received wide media coverage. End
Summary.

--------------------
Meeting: The Setting
--------------------

3. (S/NF) During his February 27 - 29 visit, NEA A/S David
Welch met with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for one hour
45 minutes at the Presidential Palace in Carthage on
Thursday, February 28. Foreign Minister Abdelwaheb Abdallah
and Ambassador Godec were also present. The Director of
Tunisia's External Communications Agency (ATCE), Oussama
Romdhani, was the interpreter.

--------------------------------------------- ------------
Bilateral Relations: CT Cooperation "Without Reservation"
--------------------------------------------- ------------

4. (S/NF) Ben Ali began by emphasizing the excellent,
"strategic" relations between the United States and Tunisia.
He continued, however, that he understood the United States
had concerns about cooperation on counter-terrorism. Ben Ali
said he had ordered Minister of
Interior Rafik Belhaj Kacem and other senior officials to
cooperate with the United States "without reservation" on
counter-terrorism.

5. (S/NF) The President stressed that Tunisia cooperated
with the United States on terrorism out of conviction, and
said broader, deeper international cooperation is essential.
Many countries, he said, have suffered as the result of
terrorism. He expressed regret, however, over the human
rights criticism Tunisia has faced as the result
of its efforts to combat terrorism. Some governments have a
"double standard," he said, on the issue. He added "some
embassies" in Tunis and human rights groups had taken
positions that were "not friendly" over such cases such as
the imprisonment of activist Mohammed Abbou and of the
"Zarzis group." (NB. The "Zarzis group" refers to six
Tunisians detained in 2003 for allegedly preparing to commit
terrorist attacks. The six were pardoned by Ben Ali in 2006
following international pressure.) Ben Ali acknowledged that
there had been some problems with human rights in Tunisia,
but stressed the GOT is addressing them. For example, he
said, "tens" of police officers have been tried for
corruption and other abuses. He said he would welcome the US
Embassy receiving further information. He stressed that the
GOT is committed to freedom and human rights, but no one is
above the law.

6. (S/NF) A/S Welch thanked Ben Ali and expressed
appreciation for his commitment to cooperation on
counter-terrorism. He said he had two specific requests: 1)
access for US officials to interview Tunisian terrorist

Noureddine Taam and 2) a commitment to accept the Tunisian
detainees in Guantanamo on the basis of earlier assurances on
treatment. Ben Ali responded that the United States would
have immediate access to Taam. (NB. Additional details
reported in GRPO channels.) He continued that the GOT would
accept the detainees and do so on the basis of the Tunisian
constitution. (NB. The Tunisian constitution offers
guarantees on human rights, humane treatment and respect for
international commitments.) Ben Ali emphasized again that on
counter-terrorism and intelligence Tunisia would "cooperate
with the United States without inhibitions" and the
cooperation would be "total."

-------------------------------------
Libya: Trying to Improve US Relations
-------------------------------------

7. (S/NF) A/S Welch said the United States is improving
relations with Libya, but from time to time has difficulties
with leader Muammar Qadhafi. Welch asked that Ben Ali
communicate to Qadhafi that the United States wants to
continue to improve relations. Ben Ali replied that Qadhafi
also wants better relations, but there remain "anti-American
radicals" in the government. Qadhafi plans, according to Ben
Ali, a cabinet reshuffle that would address the problem and
we should see how the situation evolves. Qadhafi, Ben Ali
opined, is "not a normal person" and had experienced
disappointments over the failure of Arab and African unity.
Ben Ali promised to raise the US interest in improving
relations with Qadhafi in person or by phone.

--------------------------------------------
Middle East: The Peace Process Needs Support
--------------------------------------------

8. (S) Welch stressed that President Bush's highest priority
this year is progress toward two states, Palestine and
Israel, living side-by-side in peace. While Palestinian
Authority President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert genuinely
want peace, some of the Palestinian and Israeli people and
leaders are skeptical. Welch stressed that all countries
interested in peace need to make every effort to help move
the process forward.

9. (S) Ben Ali agreed on the importance of the Annapolis
process, adding he had spoken with Abbas who is "optimistic"
an agreement will be reached by the end of the year.
Nevertheless, progress will remain very difficult. Ben Ali
stressed Fatah and Hamas must try to reach an understanding.
He noted that Abbas will visit Tunisia in March and there is
a proposal for a Fatah-Hamas meeting in Tunis. Ben Ali said
he will wait to hear Abbas' views before proceeding on the
proposal.

--------------------------------------------- -------
Arab League Summit: Not Without A Lebanese President
--------------------------------------------- -------

10. (S) Welch asked Ben Ali about his views of Syria and the
proposed Arab League Summit. Ben Ali responded that Syria is
a source of concern. He said Syria is acting for Iran and
the latter is fueling regional problems. He said he had met
(on February 18) with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim
who handed over an invitation from President Bashar Asad to
attend the summit in Damascus. He said he told Mu'allim that
Syria should help resolve the problems in Lebanon. Ben Ali
emphasized the complexity of the situation in Lebanon, noting
the unhelpful involvement of many regional actors. He added
that there was some support for inviting Iran to the Damascus
Summit. Ben Ali said, however, that he saw no reason for the
summit unless there is a Lebanese president in attendance.
Welch agreed. Ben Ali continued the summit may be postponed,
or representation downgraded from the Chief of State level.
He noted other states in the region, including Morocco,
Jordan, and Saudi Arabia agreed. In any event, Ben Ali said
he would not attend such a summit.

---------------------
Iraq: Bleak Situation
---------------------

11. (S/NF) Ben Ali said the situation in Iraq is "bleak," but
we must face it. The only party benefiting currently is
Iran, and suggested that Turkey's current actions against the
PKK are making matters worse. Welch noted there is some
progress on the security situation and the political front in
Iraq.


-------------------
Region: "Explosive"
-------------------

12. (S) Looking more broadly, Ben Ali noted that Tunisia was
happy it was part of the Maghreb, and not part of Levant or
Gulf. He opined that the situation in Egypt is
"explosive," adding that sooner or later the Muslim
Brotherhood would take over. He added that Yemen and Saudi
Arabia are also facing real problems. Overall, the region is
"explosive."

-------------------------------------
Maghreb: Resolving the Western Sahara
-------------------------------------

13. (S) On the Maghreb, Ben Ali suggested extremism is a real
and growing problem. Morocco, he said, was at the "beginning
of the beginning" of its problem. It had
ignored, he added, the issue for too long and former King
Hassan II had refused to discuss it. Nevertheless, Morocco
was a strategic partner for Tunisia and the GOT was working
to strengthen cooperation. On Algeria, Ben Ali, said the
problem was a "little better" and may be at the beginning of
the end. Ben Ali said Tunisia has strong and direct
cooperation on counter-terrorism with Algeria. Welch noted
that Morocco and Algeria trust Tunisia more than they trust
each other. Welch agreed that there is a terrorism problem
in Morocco.

14. (S) On the Western Sahara, Ben Ali said the Algerians
are responsible for the ongoing impasse. Welch agreed,
saying the issue was blocking progress in the region. He
said the Algerians need to accept that there is not going to
be an independent state in the Western Sahara. Ben Ali said
the problem is complex, and will take years to resolve. He
added it cannot be settled through the UN Security Council.
He noted Tunisia had tried to convene a Maghreb meeting on it
in Tunis. While Morocco and Libya had agreed to attend,
Algeria refused, saying there was nothing to discuss.

--------------
Iran: A Threat
--------------

15. (S) Welch noted that President Bush considered Iran a
threat "yesterday, today and tomorrow." Noting the recent
National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, Welch underscored
that while the Iranians "may have put the gun in the closet,
they are still trying to make the bullet." Nevertheless, he
added, there are signs economic pressure is working. Ben Ali
concurred. Welch said the chances of a third Security
Council resolution are good and President Bush wants a
diplomatic option.

16. (S/NF) Ben Ali replied this is "quite wise" of President
Bush. He stressed he opposed the use of force, and that "a
second front is not needed." Economic pressure on Iran will
take longer, but it is working. Ben Ali added that he "does
not trust" the Shia.

----------------------------------
Invitation: President Bush Welcome
----------------------------------

17. (S) President Ben Ali closed the meeting stressing his
open invitation to President Bush to visit Tunisia before or
after his time in office. Welch expressed his appreciation
to Ben Ali for the meeting.

------------------------------
Comment: Warm and Open Ben Ali
------------------------------

18. (S/NF) Throughout the meeting, President Ben Ali was
warm, open, and occasionally animated (at which point he
sometimes slipped into Tunisian dialect). His quick and
strong assurances on counter-terrorism cooperation were
welcome, and may be an important step forward on what has
been a troubling issue. Significantly, the President's
promise was followed within hours by action from GOT
officials. The key test will be whether cooperation
continues and is both broad and deep. Similarly, the
President's commitment on Guantanamo detainees was welcome.

19. (S/NF) On regional issues, Ben Ali showed again that he

is a moderate. While the Tunisians will not take the lead on
foreign policy challenges, they will help where they can
(e.g., support for the Annapolis process). Finally,
President Ben Ali was clearly very pleased to see A/S Welch
and to exchange views with him. The meeting and visit got
broad, major media coverage in Tunisia. End Comment.

20. (SBU) A/S Welch did not have a chance to clear this
cable.
GODEC

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