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Downing Street Briefing On Iraq - 28 August

Wednesday 28 August lobby briefing
[28 August 2002]


LOBBY BRIEFING: 11AM WEDNESDAY 28 AUGUST 2002


IRAQ

Asked whether the Prime Minister had spoken to President Bush recently about the Johannesburg Summit or Iraq, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Nor was he aware of any imminent plans for them to do so.

Asked to explain the benefits of the Prime Minister's special relationship with President Bush, the PMOS said that the Afghanistan experience showed the value of our continuing conversation with the United States. Following September 11, people had predicted that the Americans would rush into Afghanistan and then rush back out again without staying to see in a new government or be part of the ISAF operation. However, that had not happened. The US had proven that it was there for the long term and was willing to help resolve the problems in Afghanistan by showing real political, as well as military, commitment. We had a mature relationship with the US. There was no 'tick list' on our part. It was all about exchanging ideas, developing thoughts and working together to resolve any problems. As the Prime Minister had noted on several occasions, the President had shown that he was patient, that he was prepared to work through the issues and that he wanted to work together with the US's allies, including the UK.

Asked to verify Richard Holbrooke's claim in yesterday's Washington Post that a senior British official had voiced his concern that the UK was receiving nothing in return for its 'unstinting support' for President Bush, the PMOS said that we never commented on unnamed sources whether they happened to be in London or Washington.

Put to him that Vice President Cheney's recent comments about Iraq were not in line with Jack Straw's view which he had expressed yesterday, the PMOS said that he had no intention of providing a running commentary on what might or might not have been said by members of another Administration. Our position on Iraq was clear and remained as set out by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on numerous occasions in the past. The issue of weapons of mass destruction was one which had to be dealt with - and weapons inspectors was one way to do that. On the other hand, it was important to remember that Saddam Hussein had not complied with UN Resolutions on weapons inspections. That was why it was necessary to begin the process of thinking through what might happen if he continued to pursue that policy. That said, however, it was important for people not to get too ahead of themselves. As we had said at the beginning of the summer break, this process would go at its own pace. It was not helpful if people constantly 'ramped up' expectations that something was going to happen in the short term. Asked if he was referring to the media or the Vice President, the PMOS said he was talking about the media. Of course he was not saying that people had no right to express their legitimate points of view and legitimate concerns about Iraq. Obviously they had every right to do so. His point was that it was wrong to heighten expectations by reporting that decisions had been taken when they had not.

Put to him repeatedly that our position on weapons inspections was out of kilter with the US Vice President's recent speech in which he had appeared to set out the case for pre-emptive action against Iraq, the PMOS repeated that it was not for him to respond directly to comments made by members of the US Administration (or, indeed, any journalist's interpretation of those comments). It was his job to set out the British Government's position which - as he had already underlined - was clear. We agreed 100% with the US that we could not bury our heads in the sand over the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Obviously it was something we had to deal with. Equally, as the Prime Minister had emphasised, there was a way for Saddam to resolve the issue - by complying with UN Resolutions and giving unfettered access any time, any place, anywhere, to UN inspection teams. Challenged that the UK's 'clear' position on weapons inspections was 'clearly' at odds with the very 'clear' position of the US on this issue, the PMOS said that he would disagree with the premise of the statement. We agreed 100% with the US Administration that the problems of weapons of mass destruction had to be dealt with in a way that gave clarity to the issue. That was why the question needed to be approached logically and rationally. So, on the one hand we were pressing for the resumption of weapons inspections, fully cognisant of the fact that Saddam had played games on this issue in the past. On the other hand, we needed to think through the consequences if he continued to act this way. This was precisely what the Foreign Secretary had been spelling out yesterday.

Asked if the Prime Minister would agree with Donald Rumsfeld's comparison of the US's current position with that of Winston Churchill before World War II when he had given thought to taking 'lone action', the PMOS reiterated that it was not his job to comment on what might or might not have been said by members of the US Government. We agreed 100% with the US that the issue of weapons of mass destruction was something which had to be dealt with. The way to do that was clear - UN weapons inspections had to resume, but at the same time we had to think through what would happen if Saddam continued to refuse to comply.

Questioned as whether Saddam's compliance - to the satisfaction of the UN inspections team - would obviate the need for regime change, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had set out the position clearly in Crawford in April. As he had said at the time, much as he would like to see a regime change in Iraq because be believed the world would be a better place without Saddam, the primary concern was the issue of weapons of mass destruction since that was the principal threat. Put to him that the US had passed a law committing themselves to regime change in Iraq, the PMOS pointed our that the legislation in question had been passed during the Presidency of Bill Clinton.

ENDS

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