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UK PMOs Briefing On Iraq And Cheney

LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 11 MARCH 2002

DICK CHENEY/IRAQ

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) went through the itinerary for Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Downing Street today. Mr Cheney would be met by the Deputy Prime Minister on his arrival and the two would have a half-hour meeting. Among the issues expected to be discussed were Kyoto and climate change and the forthcoming sustainable development conference due to take place in South Africa later this year.

The Vice President would then meet with the Prime Minister before having lunch at which the Prime Minister would be accompanied by Jack Straw, Sir Christopher Meyer and Downing Street officials. Prior to the Vice President's departure, both he and the Prime Minister would take part in a short press event.

Asked whether the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister would raise the issue of US steel tariffs with Mr Cheney, the PMOS said that discussion was likely to be quite wide-ranging and would embrace Afghanistan, the war against terrorism, the Middle East peace process and steel.

He would not be surprised if Zimbabwe also came up at some point. Our view on steel tariffs was well known. We believed they were wrong and that the action the US had taken was regrettable. The matter would need to be taken forward in the appropriate fora, namely the WTO, and together with our European partners we were working towards doing so. No doubt the Prime Minister would want to make these points face to face with Mr Cheney in the same way he had made them in the House last week.

Asked about reports that the US was asking the UK to contribute 25,000 forces to help launch a military strike against Saddam Hussein, the PMOS pointed out that today marked the passing of six months since September 11. It was therefore particularly appropriate for the Prime Minister to be welcoming the Vice President today of all days.

A huge amount had been achieved in Afghanistan since 11 September, culminating in the establishment of an interim administration there. That was not to say that the action in Afghanistan had ended. Clearly it hadn't, as evidenced by the continued fighting around Gardez.

Nevertheless, we were far further forward on Afghanistan than we could have anticipated in terms of removing the Taliban from power and closing down the Al Qaida terrorism training camps. Six months on it was inevitable that memories would have begun to fade. However, it was important to remember the atrocities of September 11 and what they said about the world in which we were living - it was a dangerous place. The threat from global terrorism was real, as was the threat from weapons of mass destruction. They were not distant or remote from our own lives. Potentially they could have a very direct bearing on us in this country.

Since September 11, the Prime Minister had pointed out many times that a problem in one part of the world invariably meant a problem in our own country given the increasingly globalised world in which we lived. The Prime Minister had told the House on September 14 that weapons of mass destruction posed a very real threat. We might like to pretend they did not exist but they did and it was important to acknowledge that. In seeking a way forward, detailed discussion was vital, which was why we were continuing to discuss issues relating both to the war against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction with our coalition partners.

That said, it was important to underline that no decisions had been taken at this stage about Phase II. The idea that the Vice President was coming to the UK today with a request in his pocket for 25,000 UK forces was wholly wrong. There was a shared determination to address the issue and to do so in a calm, measured way which took account of all the different aspects. That was what we were doing. This was not a straightforward issue. It was something which had to be looked at in the round.

The Prime Minister was due to meet President Bush in April and that meeting - and today's meeting - was part of the ongoing conversations we were having. Asked whether the Prime Minister and Vice President would discuss what options were available, the PMOS reiterated that there was a shared recognition of the problem. However, no decisions had been taken in respect of how this issue would be taken forward.

Asked why Iraq had suddenly become the US' focus of attention, the PMOS said it was clear that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction capability. He had even used chemical weapons on his own people.

Put to him that Saddam might 'only' be in possession of chemical weapons rather than nuclear weapons for example, the PMOS observed that September 11 had shown us that you did not need to have sophisticated delivery systems to launch an attack with devastating consequences. The Prime Minister himself had underlined the futility of people putting their heads in the sand and pretending the problem did not exist. It did. We had to confront it and address it because if we didn't we could end up paying a much higher price further down the road.

As the Prime Minister had pointed out in recent interviews, over the last ten years - prior to September 11 - the international community had ignored the fact that Afghanistan had essentially become a terrorist training ground. As a result we had paid a very heavy price with devastating and murderous consequences on the streets of New York six months ago. Clearly the international community could not afford to make the same mistakes again.

Pressed as to whether our policy on military action against Iraq had changed over the last few weeks given our insistence post September 11 that we would not attack if there was no proven link with Al Qaida, the PMOS repeated that no one was talking about action against Iraq at this stage. People shouldn't get too far ahead of themselves. It was important to keep a sense of perspective and let the discussions that were taking place continue at their own pace. It was clear that Saddam was in breach of all the UN Resolutions made against him.

He had kicked out the Weapons Inspectors three years ago and was someone who had shown through his deeds, not just by his words, that he was prepared to use the weapons he had even against his own people. Those weapons also posed a threat to us. We recognised the threat, that it posed a danger and that we needed to address it. That was the stage we were at. We were only at the beginning of discussions on the matter, not at the end. Therefore, it was important not to get too far ahead of ourselves.

Put to him it was inevitable that something had to be done to stop Saddam using the weapons of mass destruction which he had acquired and that to do so would require an 'invasion' involving British forces, the PMOS said that the position remained as he had set out. We recognised there was threat from weapons of mass destruction and we recognised it had to be confronted and addressed. However, no decisions had been taken about how that might be done. That was where we were at the moment. Journalists might want to force him down a particular road but he wasn't going there as it wasn't where we were at.

Asked if we would back down if Saddam would allow the UN Weapons Inspectors to return or whether it was too late for that now, the PMOS pointed out that we had stated from the outset that we wanted the Weapons Inspectors to go back in and be allowed to do their job properly and unhindered.

Asked if allowing them back in would be considered a satisfactory way to confront the threat, the PMOS said that journalists were trying to draw him into commenting on different scenarios in different places. We were not there yet. Discussions were currently ongoing about how we could address the issues and face up to them. He didn't want to go any further than that. How that would be addressed and discussed would unfold in the weeks ahead.

Put to him that it was odd we didn't appear to have a strategy to deal with a problem we had known about before September 11, the PMOS said that we had tried to get the UN to put in place a whole new sanctions regime in recent months which would target more specifically Saddam's military capability and allow Iraq to import more food and medicines.

Unfortunately that had not been passed by the Security Council in November so the existing regime had rolled over for another six months. We hoped to try again in due course. At the moment, the threat posed by Saddam was contained. However, we could not say that it had receded. Asked whether the threat from Iraq was increasing over time if it was not receding, the PMOS said that the threat was there. It wasn't going away.

Pressed as to whether we were expecting the threat to grow more serious in the months ahead, the PMOS repeated that the fact a threat was contained did not mean it had disappeared. There was no point in pretending it did not exist. It did and we needed to address it. Ignoring it could lead to potentially bigger problem further down the track.

Asked who was burying their head in the sand, the PMOS said he was making a general comment. He was not personalising the issue. Questioned as to whether he was referring to Tam Dalyell, the PMOS said he was not going to play the journalists' games.

Asked if the Prime Minister would agree with David Blunkett's prediction of problems relating to 'social cohesion' in the UK if the matter was not tackled properly, the PMOS said that there appeared to be a tendency at the current time to interpret comments by members of the Cabinet through a prism of hawks and doves and splits and divisions.

He noted that Clare Short's interview yesterday had been a very thoughtful contribution to the particular discussions taking place. It was clear there was a range of different issues which would have to be thought through and addressed, as was entirely right and proper. David Blunkett had focussed on one. The Prime Minister, Jack Straw, Robin Cook, Clare Short and David Blunkett had all spoken to the media in their own way or to Parliament underlining the threat that weapons of mass destruction posed. That was where we were at the moment. We were no further forward than that.

Asked how much pressure the Americans might put on the Israelis as a card that had to be played in the wider fight against terrorism and whether it was part of our agenda, the PMOS said it was right to look at what was happening against the backdrop of the Middle East.

Clearly the peace process was in some difficulty and efforts were continuing to try to move things forward as best we could. In relation to the British Government, Jack Straw had spoken to Shimon Peres, Colin Powell and Javier Solana over the weekend. The General Affairs Council was taking place today which would no doubt discuss the Middle East.

Vice President Cheney would be visiting the region this week and the US Special Envoy to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni, was also due to return there. Obviously we wanted the cycle of violence to end, we wanted a de-escalation of the tension and we wanted to put in place a political process which could help move the issues forward. Clearly that was easier said than done, as everyone would recognise.

However, efforts were continuing and we would play what part we could. Questioned further about the Prime Minister's active position on the Middle East, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had always believed that moving the Middle East peace process forward was a very important part of the equation.

Put to him that a tough line on Iraq was likely to destabilise international action to help the Middle East peace process, the PMOS reiterated the point that at this stage we were only talking about the threat from Iraq and dealing with it. The UN Security Council recognised that this was a very real problem.

However, no decisions in relation to action had been taken. How we dealt with Iraq was still up for discussion. He pointed out that many people had believed the US would offer a unilateral knee-jerk response to the September 11 atrocities without consulting with its allies. They had been proven wrong with the establishment of the international coalition. Likewise, in this case too, we had to let the discussions continue at their own pace.

Asked what we were doing to prevent the Arab element of the coalition against terror collapsing in the face of the US' increasingly threatening stance towards Iraq, the PMOS said the fact that Vice President Cheney was embarking on an extended tour of the Middle East following his visit to the UK was significant. Although the Prime Minister himself had no visits to the region planned at this stage, he would also continue to speak to Arab leaders.

Asked the Prime Minister's reaction to the fact that a number of European leaders were making it clear that they wanted nothing to do with US military action against Iraq and whether he would raise the issue at the Barcelona Summit, the PMOS said that issues relating to the Middle East would doubtless be discussed at the GAC today and also at Barcelona at the weekend. He repeated that no decisions had been taken in terms of action against Iraq.

Discussions were ongoing and would no doubt involve other European countries as well, including the UK. We had an interlocutor role to play inasmuch as we were close to the US and EU in a way that others were not.

Asked about the CIC document which had been published today, the PMOS said it was an update of September 11 six months on. It was underlining the range and scale of the coalition effort in tackling the threat of international terrorism, in particular Afghanistan.

Asked whether another document would be published relating to the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, the PMOS said that he couldn't point to anything at this stage but were that to be the case journalists would be the first to hear about it.

Asked why high level discussions about Iraq were suddenly taking place, the PMOS said that post September 11 we had stated that the initial focus would be on Afghanistan but that there would be a second phase to the war on terror. As the Prime Minister himself had said in the House on September 14, we recognised that while there was a threat from global terrorism there was also a threat from weapons of mass destruction which we had to face up to. No one was saying that military action in Afghanistan was over. Far from it, as the deaths of the American servicemen only a few days ago showed.

However, we were much further forward than anyone could have predicted at the outset when some had said that any real action would have to wait until Spring and the end of the Afghan winter. Phase II and the need to deal with weapons of mass destruction had always been on the radar. If people were now focussing in on these issues in a way that they had not done before then that simply meant we were moving on.

Put to him he seemed to be implying that the Government's pre-September 11 policy on Iraq which focussed on deterrence was no longer considered satisfactory and that we were now pursuing a more aggressive policy, the PMOS said he was not saying there was a link between Iraq and September 11. There wasn't as far as he was aware. The no-fly zones had been put in place to protect the Iraqi people from their own leader. The threat from Iraq had not receded. It might be contained but we could not ignore it. If September 11 had shown us one thing it was that the world was a dangerous place and that we to face up to that.

How we did so was a matter for discussion. The Prime Minister had made it absolutely clear to the House that weapons of mass destruction were an issue which had to be dealt with by the international community.


ENDS

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