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Downing St Briefing Feb 17th - Iraq/War On Terror

Monday 17 February morning government press briefing
[17 February 2003]

PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 17 FEBRUARY 2003


IRAQ

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be attending the Special European Council in Brussels later today. Asked whether the Summit would publish any Conclusions, the PMOS said that the Summit presented an opportunity for Heads of Government to come together at an important time to discuss the issue of Iraq. Special Summits like this did not always produce a Conclusions text. We would have to see. Our starting point was 27 January when EU Foreign Ministers had put out a statement which had underlined that the Iraqi Government had "a final opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully" and had urged the Iraqi authorities "to engage in full and active co-operation with UNMOVIC and the IAEA". At a time like this, it was clearly better to talk than not to talk. We hoped that the EU would unite solidly behind this statement. Asked if the purpose of the Summit was to 'restate' the EU Foreign Ministers' statement in January, the PMOS said that no one was coming to the Summit with an expectation that matters would be taken very much further forward. He pointed out that January's statement itself was extremely significant because it underlined both the final opportunity for Saddam and the need for him to co-operate - two of the central tenets of Resolution 1441. No one was going to the Summit looking for conflict. The Prime Minister would restate his position as he had done on many occasions in the past with conviction.

Asked again about the contents of the Prime Minister's letter to the Greek Presidency, the PMOS said that the letter had been sent privately and its contents would therefore remain private. Essentially, it underscored the importance of adhering to the integrity of the UN process and Resolution 1441. Asked what was meant by the 'UN process', the PMOS said that there was a UN Resolution which spelled out that Saddam was being given a final opportunity and called on him to co-operate fully. As Hans Blix had made clear on Friday, no one was saying that Iraq was co-operating. As usual, the Iraqi regime had thrown out last minute cosmetic concessions to try to sap the will of the international community. Irrespective of some of the 'noise' over the weekend, no Government was seriously suggesting that Iraq was actively complying with its obligations. Hans Blix had yet to say that he was satisfied that Iraq had accounted for the UNSCOM leftovers in any way, shape of form, let alone seriously engaged in disarmament. So far we had seen, for example, the establishment of a Commission by the Iraqi administration to look for weapons they said they didn't possess. We would wait and see how successful that Commission would prove to be. But we could all guess.

Asked the Prime Minister's view about Saturday's anti-war demonstration in London, the PMOS said that we did not doubt the sincerity of the views that had been expressed. Clearly this was an issue about which people had strong opinions - and in a democracy it was their right to express them. We respected that. As we had pointed out, no such right existed in Iraq. The Prime Minister had used his speech on Saturday to counter some of the arguments being made. If people were underlining the morality of their particular argument, we were certainly not going to accept that there was 'one-way traffic' in this regard. It was important to recognise that there was another side to the moral balance sheet. There was no moral monopoly. We did not accept the view that if people were putting the morality of their case, then the opposite was immorality. That was clearly not so. The Prime Minister would continue to underline the barbaric nature of the Iraqi regime. He would continue to stress the nature of the humanitarian crisis within Iraq because it was serious and acute and responsibility for it lay directly at Saddam's door. We were not at the point of military conflict. No decision had yet been taken. However, if we did go to war, it was important for people to understand that it was not solely a question of lives being lost. If it lead to the removal of a dictator who ran his country like a butcher's shop, then it was clear that lives would be saved as well.

Asked if the Government's policy on regime change had been altered, the PMOS said that our policy had not changed. We wanted to see Saddam disarmed of his WMD. If there was genuine co-operation on the part of the Iraqi regime and if Saddam was really serious about disarmament, then - as we had said from the outset, and as Jack Straw had repeated last week - he could stay in power. However, we remained firmly of the opinion that he depended on his WMD for power and that he was not serious about disarming. This was about Resolution 1441, which was drafted to ensure that Saddam was disarmed of his WMD which were held in direct violation of countless previous UN Resolutions. The idea that we had suddenly invented a new argument was completely specious. People only had to look at the dossier we had published on Saddam and his WMD capability and read the paragraphs referring to the mistreatment of people in prisons and human rights abuses in Iraq to understand the point we were making. It was important to deal with Saddam not least because of the nature of his regime. This was not a benign dictator who had possession of WMD. This was a savage tyrant who oppressed his own people, and indeed used his WMD on them. That was why he was considered a particular threat. Asked if he was implying that as long as Saddam was disarmed of his WMD then the UN would not mind if he continued to brutalise his people, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had stated in the past, the issue was about Saddam co-operating with the UN in a genuine process of disarmament. However, it was accepted that the nature of his regime depended on WMD and that he was not serious about co-operation. At the end of his presentation to the Security Council on Friday, Dr Blix had said that there was a choice in how the job could be done. Either the UN could act as a monitoring agency in Iraq or it could do the job it was set up to do, namely disarm Saddam Hussein. In Dr Blix's view, the latter could be done quickly provided there was co-operation. This far, we had had no sign of that co-operation.

Asked if he was indicating that if Saddam was disarmed of his WMD then it would follow that his regime would collapse as a result, the PMOS said that we would have to wait and see how the process moved forward. We had always said that Iraq would be a better place without Saddam. It was also accepted by common consent that the regime depended on WMD as its power base. Put to him that WMD were not the only thing needed to sustain the Iraqi regime and that it was wrong to suggest that the Iraqis could rid themselves of Saddam in a 'peaceful by-election' once he was disarmed, the PMOS said that he wasn't suggesting that at all. It was important to go back to first principles. We were dealing with Saddam Hussein because he had flouted successive UN Resolutions over the last twelve years in relation to his WMD. That was why we were giving him a final opportunity to co-operate in a process of disarmament. As the Prime Minister had said many times in the past, it was important to look at the nature of the regime in terms of how it had used WMD, why it was so unstable and why it was such a threat. It was not unreasonable to highlight the fact that Saddam had gassed his own people with those weapons as an indicator that he posed a unique threat to the rest of the world as well. Put to him that the external threat was entirely different to the dynamics of the internal regime even though the Prime Minister had appeared to connect them in his speech on Saturday, the PMOS said he would disagree. The Prime Minister had been making the point that if people were saying that there was a moral case for stopping the war, it should be remembered that the easiest way to avoid conflict was for Saddam to fulfil his international obligations. If we did end up taking military action to disarm Saddam because he was unable to face up to his responsibilities as set out by the UN, we could do so with a clear conscience because it was not a choice between war with Iraq and peace in Iraq since there was already clearly no peace in Iraq. The PMOS said that all he was doing was drawing attention to the way the regime relied on its WMD. It was not for him to pre-empt or prejudge what might happen. At the moment, there was no great expectation that Saddam was serious about facing up to his obligations. We would have to wait and see how things panned out.

Put to him that the moral case to rid Iraq of Saddam remained even after he was disarmed of his WMD, the PMOS said that we would wait and see whether Saddam was prepared to face up to his obligations. There was no indication, belief or understanding from any of the EU Foreign Ministers or Heads of Government who had seen Dr Blix's second report that he was prepared to do so. In dealing with an issue of this nature, it should come as no surprise to anyone that we were not being backwards in underlining the nature of the regime when people seemed to be overlooking it. We had published a raft of evidence relating to human rights abuses in Iraq. They were there in black and white. The Prime Minister had not been prepared to allow people to set out the morality of their argument and accuse the Government of taking an immoral stand without having the chance to reply, as indeed he had in his speech on Saturday.

Put to him that Resolution 1441 made no mention of internal repression as a justification for war because that would result in UN Resolutions being issued against countries such as China, Syria and Saudi Arabia, the PMOS said that our policy remained as set out. Journalists couldn't have it both ways. Asked to explain how the Government could make a moral case for regime change when it wasn't the aim of 1441 in any event, the PMOS said that we remained absolutely wedded to Resolution 1441. The point he had been making was that the Prime Minister had not been prepared to let the arguments expressed at the weekend pass by default and allow people to suggest that they had a moral monopoly or the moral high ground. Clearly they didn't. Put to him that our moral case wouldn't be very moral if we allowed Saddam to remain in power after the removal of WMD, the PMOS said that we would have to wait and see what happened. He repeated that it was our firm belief that this was a regime which depended on WMD as part of its infrastructure for remaining in power and suppressing its people, and that he wasn't serious about disarming.

Asked if the Prime Minister would acknowledge that he was taking a serious political risk and that he was not listening, the PMOS said that it was important for people to recognise that the Government had listened - and continued to listen - to the different views being expressed about this matter. We had made strenuous efforts to go down the UN route and remained convinced that that was the way the issue should be resolved. There had been no rush to conflict from our side, or any side. That said, it was important for the authority of the international community to be upheld. Any politician would acknowledge that there were always risks in politics. That came with the territory. In the Prime Minister's view, however, there was a far greater risk if we did not confront the issue, if we did not ensure that the will of the international community was upheld, if we allowed WMD to proliferate and if we allowed a dictator to face down the international community and let its authority be crippled as a result.

Asked how many people were murdered each year by the Iraqi regime, the PMOS said he didn't know. Nobody knew for sure. He pointed out that 4,000 prisoners had been executed at Abu Ghraib Prison in 1984; 3,000 had been murdered at the Mahjar prison between 1993 and 1998; 2,500 prisoners had been executed between 1997 and 1999 in a 'prison cleansing' campaign. Journalists didn't need to take our word for it. They could simply look at the human rights documents which had been published and listen to the testimony of Iraqi dissidents lucky enough to escape. We were talking about thousands and thousands of people routinely murdered by their own Government. We were taking the action we were taking because there was a unique threat from Saddam Hussein and WMD which had to be countered. Why was it a unique threat? Because Saddam was a uniquely brutal tyrant who had used WMD on his own people. The arguments were not inconsistent.

Questioned about the prospect of attaining a second UN Resolution, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister believed absolutely in the integrity and logic of the UN process which set down clear commitments on Saddam in terms of what he had to do and what would happen if he didn't do it. Resolution 1441 remained the route map. At this stage, we were unable to set out timescales relating to the diplomatic judgements and tactical decisions which had to be taken in the future. That said, it was not impossible for work to continue on the diplomatic track as we moved towards Dr Blix's next report to the Security Council on 28 February. We were not yet at the point of decision on these issues.

Asked whether the British Government shared the US Administration's view in asking for more time that France, Germany and Belgium were similar to the 'Appeasers' of the 1930s, the PMOS said that different people would use different words. We had already acknowledged that there were some countries which were not on exactly the same page as us on every issue in relation to Iraq. In the Prime Minister's view, the question was how much time we had to make a judgement about whether Saddam was co-operating or not. If he was actively co-operating with the weapons inspectors then he could have as much time as he wanted. It had been pointed out last week that the South African disarmament programme had taken over a year to complete because there had been genuine active co-operation. This was in stark contrast to Iraq. A judgement had to be taken about whether Saddam was serious or not. Was passing a law banning WMD anything other than a cosmetic effort to try to split the international community? Was establishing a Commission to look for WMD he denied he had meaningful? These 'developments' were simply more process, not genuine active co-operation. The Prime Minister would be seeing his European partners this evening and would continue to mount the arguments he had made in the past. He respected the fact that people were coming at this from different perspectives, but as he had said many times, in the end it was important for the authority of the UN to be upheld.

Asked if we shared the US Administration's view that the key test of Saddam's compliance was the destruction of the al-Samoud 2 rockets following Dr Blix's recommendation last week that they should be proscribed, the PMOS said that he hadn't heard anyone express a view as specific as that which would enable him to answer the question. However, as the Prime Minister had said, there was clearly cause for concern about the rockets inasmuch as they exceeded the stated distances. The weapons inspectors were continuing to carry out their work and assessment. If the Iraqi regime was found to be in breach then that would be a cause for concern and obviously we would want action to be taken accordingly. The fundamental point, however, was co-operation. As Dr Blix had said at the very end of his presentation on Friday, if Iraq was serious about co-operating then disarmament could happen very quickly. However, they clearly hadn't been serious about co-operating since 1991 - and no one was betting the bank that they were now given the purely cosmetic concessions which they had 'dripped' out during the course of last week.

WAR ON TERROR

Questioned as to whether the fact that the tanks had been withdrawn from Heathrow was an indication that the imminent threat of terrorist activity had receded, the PMOS said that security decisions were made by operational commanders on the ground in discussion with the security services as appropriate. As we had said consistently last week, the level of security would rise and fall in tandem with the level of threat. Asked if Downing Street had been briefed that the threat level had fallen, the PMOS said that the Met Police's statement last week had made it clear why there had been heightened concern. Whatever way this issue was looked at, and irrespective of whether the level of security fell in a certain area, it was important for people to remain vigilant to an ongoing threat.

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