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UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's presser - Feb 18th

Transcript of the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's press conference
on the 18th February 2003:
PRIME MINISTER:

Good Morning everyone, and welcome to the monthly press conference. Obviously I will take questions on any issues you want to raise, but there is no point in denying that the issue that is dominating people's minds at the moment is the issue of Iraq and the international community's response to it. Let me just set out once again, if I may, the basic case that we make.

Saddam is a threat. That is why for 12 years the United Nations has been trying to get him to disarm Iraq peacefully of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He is not the only dictator in the world, he is not the only tyrant. Iraq is not the only power with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but he is the only leader who has used them, he is the only one with 23 outstanding United Nations resolutions in respect of them, he is the only leader still in power that has twice declared war on his neighbours and fired missiles at no fewer than 5 different countries. What is more, we live today in a world beset by international terrorism, whose groups are desperate to acquire ever more dangerous weapons, and who are already using chemical and biological poisons. Thanks to the hard work of intelligence services, we have seen arrests of suspected terrorists around the world and across Europe - in France, in Spain, in Italy, in Germany, as well as here in the UK.

So the stance that the world takes now against Saddam is not just vital in its own right, it is a huge test of our seriousness in dealing with the twin threats of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. These are threats best dealt with by a unified international community. For that very reason, we took the decision to try and resolve this issue through the United Nations, but if the UN is to keep credibility, it must act to implement its stated will.

The UN Security Council in November voted for Resolution 1441, and that resolution again repays re-reading and analysis. The resolution stated clearly that Saddam was already in material breach of UN disarmament demands, it gave him what it was said was a final opportunity to comply or face serious consequences, he was told that he had to give an accurate, full and complete declaration of his weapons of mass destruction, that any false statements or omissions would be a further material breach, and that Iraq must provide full, complete and unconditional co-operation for the UN inspectors. It is plain, in our judgement, that Saddam continues to be in breach. Indeed not a single country who spoke last night at the European Union summit, disputed that his co-operation is neither unconditional nor complete.

So there is no rush to war. Indeed we have waited 12 years. We then went through the United Nations last November and it is over 3 months since we gave Saddam what we called a final opportunity. Now the inspectors remain, there is a further report on 28 February. But the truth is that without a change of heart, genuine and full co-operation by Saddam, the inspectors are never going to be able to play detective to search out weapons hidden in a country whose land mass is far in excess of the land mass of our own country here.

Saddam has still not accounted for 360 tonnes of chemical warfare agent, including one and a half tonnes of VX nerve agent, growth media to produce three times the anthrax spores destroyed, or thousands of special munitions to deliver chemical and biological agents. All of that remains unaccounted for.

One further point. The basis of our action is disarmament. That is the UN mandate. Of course I understand the concerns of the thousands that marched on Saturday, and of course I should and do listen to those concerns. They have a rightful hatred of the consequences of war. I simply ask them however also to listen to the voices of some of the 4 million Iraqi exiles, that is 4 million exiles as a result of Saddam out of a total population of some 23 - 25 million. The reason for doing so is not because the nature of the regime can in itself provide justification for war, but it can at least show why if we do have to take military action, we do so in the sure knowledge that we are removing one of the most barbarous and detestable regimes in modern political history.

As I said on Saturday, Iraq is a country which before Saddam seized power, was in 1978 richer than Portugal or Malaysia, a country where today 60% of the population is now dependent on food aid, where thousands of children die before the age of 5, entirely preventably, a country where tens of thousands of political prisoners are in jail and hundreds are routinely executed, a country where over 150,000 Shia Muslims in southern Iraq and Muslim Kurds in Northern Iraq have been murdered, or disappeared in the last 15 years.

Most of the people who are concerned, who went on the march, are not actually in the position of being against conflict in all circumstances, though obviously some are. When asked indeed, we look at the evidence of public opinion, more than three quarters say they would support war if it has UN support. What people are against is a war they feel is either rushed or unnecessary. People want to know that war is not inevitable. The truth is that Saddam Hussein could avoid war today if he cooperated fully with the United Nations in accordance with the Resolution 1441. And if people ask whether that co-operation is a reasonable demand, or we are somehow in some way asking the impossible, again I say to people judge for yourselves. Is it reasonable, after 12 years of flouting previous UN resolutions, that Saddam is given a final chance to fulfil them? Is it reasonable to ask Saddam to account for the weapons that independent UN inspectors have said remain unaccounted for? Is it reasonable to ask Saddam to let weapons inspectors speak to the scientists and experts that worked on his programmes, without those people fearing for their lives or being intimidated? Iraqi co-operation is not the impossible demand of a western world intent on rushing to war, but the reasonable and easily delivered requirement of the international community which has been seeking peaceful disarmament for 12 years.

There is not an inexorable decision to go to war, but there is an inexorable decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. How that happens is up to Saddam.

I have also incidentally got certain letters and e-mails that have been sent to me following the speech that I made on Saturday from other Iraqi exiles, and we will make some of those available to you at the end of this, since I think they are very, very powerful testimonies as to the nature of the regime.

QUESTION

Prime Minister, the more you make the case, as you call it the humanitarian case or the moral case, for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the more you depart from international law and the more that the weapons of mass destruction look like a pretext. And can you not understand that many people who are marching, or in opinion polls say they oppose this war, are worried about this new doctrine of intervening against people who may be bad, but also people we don't like?

PRIME MINISTER

Well I think on the contrary actually, what people are worried about if they are marching is they are worried about the consequences of war and the idea that we are causing unnecessary bloodshed to people. And let me make it very clear to you. The basis upon which we act is the disarmament of Iraq. That is what is necessary, that is the necessary basis under the UN mandate. And therefore even though I may abhor the regime of Saddam Hussein, the basis upon which we act has to be the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. That has not changed. The reason I raise however the nature of the regime is twofold. First, that if we do have to take military action and people are worried about the consequences of military action and the possible bloodshed that will be caused, at least it is worth people understanding that there are also consequences of not taking action in terms of bloodshed because there are people in Iraq who are suffering daily, dying daily, thousands of children dying, people routinely executed or imprisoned because they speak out against the regime. And surely if it is our worry about the consequences of war that deter us, we should at least put on the other side of the balance sheet if you like, of the ledger in this argument, the fact that there also horrendous consequences for people in Iraq if we do not take action. And the second reason why the nature of the regime is important is I keep saying to people, look if this was a regime that had weapons of mass destruction but was otherwise a benign regime, ruling its country well, you would think a lot harder before taking military action because the nature of the regime would be benign, even though there was a problem say in relation to weapons of mass destruction. But it is the very nature of Saddam, how he operates is history, how he treats his people, that mean that in his hands these weapons of mass destruction are all the more dangerous. So you see what I mean, I am not changing the basis upon which we are acting, the basis we have to act is the UN resolution. We cannot act without the basis being disarmament. But if people are saying to me there are these dreadful consequences of going to war, then I think I am entitled to say also at the same time as listening to their concerns, listen to the others' point of view, which you can from the millions of Iraqi exiles, that here is a regime that routinely tortures, murders, abuses its people, and if we leave Saddam in charge then that appalling state of affairs will continue for people in Iraq.

QUESTION

You will have seen the opinion polls that show your own personal rating dropping. It seems that the mood is moving against rather than for war as time goes on and as you make even these passionate and persuasive arguments. And for the first time commentators are actually seriously talking about the possibility, for the first time, that you might not be Prime Minister at the end of this. How does that make you feel?

PRIME MINISTER

Well, it is one of these issues where you have got a duty to try and say to people what you believe, and I understand there are very, very passionate concerns raised by this issue, because people worry, and rightly worry about what happens if Britain goes to war. But there are two reasons why I feel that it is my duty as Prime Minister to also ask people to listen to the other side of the argument, and that is all I ask people to do. Look I don't pretend to have a monopoly of wisdom in these issues, or I always know what is right and everyone else is wrong, I don't say that at all. I totally understand why people want to march and protest against what we are doing. I just ask people to listen to the other side of the argument. First, that this issue of weapons of mass destruction and the link with international terrorism is serious and dangerous for our country and for the world; and secondly, if we do have to take military action, at least let us recognise that the consequence of removing Saddam will be that the Iraqi people who in their thousands die as a result of Saddam's rule, will be saved from the abuse that they suffer under him. So I am not saying that I will be able to persuade everyone of this, but I would just ask people to listen to that other side of the argument. And the other point that I would make is, I constantly say this to people, we aren't actually at war at the moment and I think the moment that the public takes its final view of this will be the moment when we in fact take military action. And some of the polling evidence insofar as you can read it all and get a very plain message out of parts of it, I think suggests that if the UN were in fact to endorse action then it would be a different situation, and that is something obviously that is not yet determined.

QUESTION

Do you accept ... if you went without another UN resolution? And just on the point of that second resolution, do you reserve the right to go to war if you can't carry a majority of the UN?

PRIME MINISTER

First of all in relation to what happens at the UN, I have always said I want to resolve this through the UN, I want a second resolution if we go to military action and I still think there is a lot of debate to go on before we get to the point of decision there in the United Nations. And as for the rest of it, as I say, I think there are certain situations in which you have simply got to say to people look this is what I believe and this is what I think is right. And you know there are situations in which I suppose in politics you have to manoeuvre your way round certain issues, and that is just part of politics, and that is not a terrible thing to say, it is just part of the obvious business of politics, but there are certain issues, particularly where they are issues of life and death, where I think your job and your duty as Prime Minister is to say to people what you honestly think, and then they have got to make up their minds about that, and in the end we are a democracy and people are accountable for that. If you will forgive me, I am not getting into speculating about that, you can speculate about it, you probably will. I was going to say actually, I have got a stack of football boots just underneath the table here, so if we get any trouble ...

QUESTION

How important is it to you that what happens in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is that the people get a chance to have a democratic country. One of the letters you have handed to us warns that putting a military ruler in Iraq would be counter-productive, they want democracy there.

PRIME MINISTER

I think that is a very good point. I think that we have to be absolutely committed to the humanitarian consequences of renewing Iraq, which will require renewing in any event, military action or no military action, were Saddam to go. This is something obviously that has to be discussed not just with allies, but with the UN and with people inside Iraq. Obviously my preference is that the more that we can at least set ourselves on a path towards greater democracy the better because I think that is the best way for people to live. And I think it is worth pointing out that before Saddam came to power Iraq was in many ways a thriving country. This is the tragedy of Iraq, that when I gave you that statistic about being wealthier in 1978 than Portugal or Malaysia, it is just worth thinking about. Portugal now, and Malaysia now, are reasonably well off countries doing well for their people, there are none of these problems. And the other interesting thing, the fascinating thing is that there is a difference also even within Iraq between central and southern Iraq, which is under Saddam's control, and northern Iraq which partly because it is policed by allies, and partly because there is greater autonomy there, the situation is not as bad as in the rest of Iraq, and actually they are trying to find their own way towards a more democratic expression of the will of the people. So that is why I think it is important, and this is our absolute insistence, that if there is military action we must put every single possible effort into not just the humanitarian consequences of that, but also to how we renew Iraq for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION

A new UN report for Kofi Annan is warning over one million Iraqi children face death from malnutrition in the event of war. What is your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER

Well my reaction to that is that of course there are Iraqi children suffering from malnutrition today. The fact is that you have literally thousands of Iraqi children die every year needlessly from malnutrition, totally preventably, because Iraq can sell oil in order to buy food for them. And what Kofi Annan is warning about is that we must make every single provision that we can, that in the event of conflict we take care of the population. We will do that, we will make sure that Iraqi people gain access to the food and medicine they need. But I think you will also find from what the UN has been saying that there are appalling humanitarian consequences happening now in Iraq, and they are not happening because of America or Britain, they are happening because of Saddam. Indeed I think I am right in saying that the UN Commissioner last week, Mr de Melo, who spoke about the fact that if there was regime change in Iraq, then the position of the Iraqi people could then improve because of the appalling circumstances in which they are living today. So yes of course there are consequences we have to guard against, and we will guard against those, but it is still important to put on the other side of the argument the terrible consequences of Saddam remaining in power.

QUESTION

Can I ask you more about the consequences of war which you say is the reason people went on the march. Are people wrong to fear that hundreds of thousands could die in a war, that the Middle East could become dangerously unstable, and as President Chirac said, that it might release lots of little Bin Ladens. And can I just follow up the question on the second resolution. Given what President Chirac has been saying, will you repeat your prediction that you will get a second resolution?

PRIME MINISTER

Yes I will. I still believe that we should have a second resolution, I believe that for a very clear reason. 1441 either has to be followed through and implemented, or it is going to be ignored, and I don't believe any country will want to ignore it. And the only difference is over this issue of timing, and what I keep saying to people is look time is only an issue once there is full co-operation by the Iraqis. If there is full co-operation, the time taken could be as long as people want, it could be months, it could be years. On the other hand, if there is not full co-operation then we will simply be tricked back into where we were in the 1990s where then time simply becomes the inspectors, as someone said last night, sniffing out where the weapons are. Well that is not what the inspectors are supposed to do. Now I think once people focus on that and follow through the logic of it they will come to the position that we are in. In respect of the first point, no I don't believe that those fears are justified. If I thought we were going to unleash something in which hundreds of thousands of people were going to die, we were going to have more Bin Ladens, the Middle East was going to go up in flames, no of course I don't believe that that is the case because I think people are forgetting one very, very simple thing, and that is that the United Nations has laid down an instruction to Iraq that the whole of the world, including the Arab world incidentally, believes should be implemented. Now there may be differences about military action or not, but nobody disputes the fact that Saddam has to disarm, and all I say to people is that if the will of the international community is to mean anything, then if he refuses to disarm peacefully he has to be disarmed by force.

QUESTION

You say there could be a relatively painless war in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER

No I think there is a slight difference between the scenario you painted and a relatively painless one. I don't think there is any war that is painless, but I do point out to you there are two groups of military action I have taken so far, in respect of which incidentally we received exactly the same warnings. I remember being told at the time of Kosovo that we really didn't understand the situation at all, that the Serbs were perfectly happy for Milosevic to be there, that we were going to unleash something that was going to destroy the Balkans. The Balkans has got its best chance for peace in 100 years today. In Afghanistan, I know there are bits and pieces about all the problems there are in Afghanistan, when Mr Karzai comes here, as I hope he will in the next few months, I think it is just worth interviewing and talking to him about the situation in Afghanistan. Yes there are enormous problems, but there are also huge strides forward for the Afghan people, not least 2 million exiles actually returning to Afghanistan. So it would be foolish to say that war is painless, war is never painless. But I think it is also important to recognise we will take the greatest care we possibly can to limit humanitarian consequences, as we did in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and in addition to that there are of course humanitarian consequences of leaving Saddam in power.

QUESTION

You mention that there is a lot of debate still to go, does that mean you are prepared to wait until 14 March for a second resolution? And secondly, from the comments of people on the march on Saturday, it was quite clear that a lot of people don't like George Bush and quite a lot of people don't like you. How much do you think there is a problem of not just trust in government, that there have been lots of controversies over intelligence material being distorted, misused, things going back in fact, nothing to do with Iraq, over the last 6 years and you are partly paying a price for that in terms of trust in government which is affecting the public attitudes on Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER

I think there will be all sorts of reasons for people's feelings and all I think is important on an issue like this is that we have a dialogue so that I listen to what they are saying and they listen to what I am saying, and that is the best thing that we can do. And as for timing on any future resolution, that is a matter that we discuss with key allies within the UN and I don't think there is any point in speculating on that at the moment.

QUESTION

Could I ask you how you think that the 10 applicant EU states will respond and react to President Chirac's suggestion that they should keep their noses out of what happened yesterday in Brussels? And also could I ask you, in light of his claim to the moral high ground, how you would see his decision to greet Robert Mugabe at the EU/Africa Conference?

PRIME MINISTER

I think on the second part I have said what I have said about Mr Mugabe. I think on the first part, I actually would have liked to have seen the accession countries there at our meeting and I hope that no-one is suggesting that they should be anything other than full members of the European Union and perfectly entitled to express their views. And I also think that their views are interesting because they are countries that have a real sense of history for very obvious reasons, and of history of a more recent nature than our own. And they know the value I think too of Europe and America sticking together, and that doesn't mean to say that we don't have disagreements from time to time, it doesn't mean to say that we have to do everything America wants, or America has to do everything Europe wants, but the importance of not dividing America and Europe I think is a very, very strong undercurrent of discussion not just actually amongst the accession countries but last night as well. And I thought that was one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting last night.

QUESTION

Should they keep their noses out, should they keep silent?

PRIME MINISTER

No, I think that they have as much right to speak up as Britain, or France, or any other member of the European Union today because they are coming into the European Union next year as full members of the EU.

QUESTION

You have made the moral case for the removal of Saddam. If a war comes, will you feel a moral obligation to the people of northern Iraq to preserve their autonomy and territorial integrity? And is the forward thinking prepared for the possibility that the people, the Shia majority in the south, elect a Shia administration and possibly a non-secular one?

PRIME MINISTER

Well first of all the territorial integrity of Iraq is absolute and that will not be compromised in any way at all by us. Secondly, in respect of all these issues to do with the future governance of Iraq, that is something as I say to discuss not just with allies but within the UN as well and with the UN. And there are a lot of difficult issues that have to be resolved there, but I think they are best resolved by discussion first before we speculate on it. The other point that I would make to you about this is that I got a sense in the implication of your question that somehow we are talking about the moral arguments now and we haven't talked about them before. I have talked about the moral nature of Saddam's regime right from the very outset. The reason why I suppose that this weekend it was particularly important to talk about it is because there was a very strong moral case being made against war, and all I say to people, as I said a moment or two ago, is at least understand there are two sides to this argument. And what I would say to people who take that view is, talk to these Iraqi exiles, talk to the people who actually have seen their husbands, their fathers, their brothers tortured and killed. And this is not something we are making up or some piece of propaganda. There is a reason why, what is it, one-sixth of the population is in exile, that is the equivalent of 10 million British leaving Britain, it is a vast and extraordinary thing that has happened in Iraq over the past 20 or so years under Saddam. I haven't actually read out to you some of the excerpts from these letters but they are powerful letters and from people, one of whom for example was someone who was vigorously against the Vietnam war and protested against America for a large part of his political life, but who simply says this is a regime in Iraq that no decent person should stand up for. And whatever people may say, the consequence of not removing Saddam is that he stays and the Iraqi people are left under him.

QUESTION

You say that you would like to have a dialogue with the people who demonstrated on Saturday, is there any message in particular that you took from them that you didn't already expect? And you say that timing isn't important if Saddam Hussein does disarm. Given that you believe he isn't disarming, if you don't have a second UN resolution by March, will that institution be fatally wounded?

PRIME MINISTER

As I say, I don't set an arbitrary time limit on it, but if he is not co-operating then the UN has got to say so. And you see the important thing is in Resolution 1441 which we passed last November, this is the important thing, there is no point in passing these resolutions unless they mean something. He was given what was called a final opportunity to disarm. Now what should then have happened, and this has happened before, the South Africans did it and other countries have done it, what should have happened is on 8 December he should have made a full declaration of what he had, these are the weapons that were left over, this is what happened, this is where they are all, and all the rest of it, here are the people who are in charge of the programme. If he had done that at that time we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. So when people say you have rushed into this or are rushing to war, we actually rushed into the UN and gave him a final chance, but the final chance was a chance to co-operate fully, not 10, or 20, or 30%, but 100%. And that is why in a sense what was odd about the meeting in Europe last night was that not a single person round that table, not one, disputed the fact that at present he is not co-operating fully. And therefore the time that you need is the time to come to a judgement, is this guy, has he had a big change of heart, is it genuine now, or are we not being just tricked back into exactly where we were in the 1990s where the inspectors spent years, and years, and years, and never found the stuff, or found some of it and couldn't find other parts but in the end relied actually on the biological weapons front, really relied on Saddam's son-in-law defecting. That is the first thing. As for the lessons out of the march, well the one thing I did think was that there was a huge emphasis I thought by people on the march about the consequences of war, their fear about that, and I think it is important that we address that better. There have been so many polls on all this stuff, but I saw one the other day that I think indicated that a very large proportion of people, possibly even a majority, disagreed with the statement - Saddam is a cruel tyrant. Now there is a failure to communicate, which I take responsibility for if that is the case. It is important at least, and that is why obviously we can only communicate in the end through the people here, it is important that at least the voices of these other people are heard because they are so powerful, and when they speak I think that they would at least make people pause, and even if they still come to the view well all right, even despite that, I am against war, at least they would understand that sincerely motivated and convinced of their argument as they are, it is possible to be sincerely motivated and convinced of the opposite point of view.

QUESTION

You have made it clear that if there was an unreasonable veto you might go ahead with the Americans. What would you do if you couldn't get a majority on the UN Security Council, not because of a veto but because of abstentions, no majority on the Security Council?

PRIME MINISTER

Well I don't believe we will be in that position and so I don't think it is a speculation we should indulge in at this point.

QUESTION

I just want to come back to this point about timing. Once Hans Blix reports on the 28th, how long does the Security Council have realistically to secure a second resolution after that? Is the request from the French of 14 March a realistic request to come back and discuss things then?

PRIME MINISTER

The reason I hesitate about setting timelines or making dates of some sort of defining significance is because if I do so I am doing something where decisions really have not been taken, and it depends frankly what happens over the next period of time. What we have said is you have to measure this in weeks, not months, what we have said is time is running out, the European Union last night made it very clear that you cannot continue this indefinitely. I really don't want to get into a point of saying right this is the date or this is of particular significance. I became more and more convinced, having heard the discussion last night, that if you like the intellectual difference is between those people who say that the inspectors should go into Iraq and sort of sit there and see what they can find, and provided they are able to see what they can find, that is enough; and those who like myself say no they have actively, as Kofi Annan put it, pro-actively to co-operate with the inspectors, in which case your timing is the timing necessary to make the judgement as to whether they are or not going pro-actively to co-operate, and that is the debate that is going on. And the reason why I think that this is, despite people appearing to lock themselves into very firm positions, the truth of the matter is that people like myself are still in the position that if Saddam comes forward now and fully co-operates, that is the UN will implemented, and I think that other people who may appear to be very, very against conflict, on the other hand if it is obvious that he is not going fully to co-operate, I think will be in a different position. So that is why there is still a debate to be had here and to be worked out.

QUESTION

When he was Prime Minister of France you invited Lionel Jospin to Sedgefield for some north-east hospitality. What are the chances of you extending a similar invitation to President Chirac sometime soon and do you think it might help improve relations?

PRIME MINISTER

Well he has already been once, I think you may remember, where we had an excellent dinner. Look, there is a difference between us, but as you say when we were in Le Touquet recently, there is a massive amount that Britain and France agrees upon. And you know I have never taken the view that if you disagree with a country over a particular issue you have to fall out with them completely, and I don't think that is where we should be with France. And anyway I am sure there will be another opportunity for us to meet again in the north-east at a later time. Exactly when, I can't say.

QUESTION

You have made a good case again today, you have made it several times, and yet you don't seem to be persuading people. My impression, talking to marchers and others, is that what really worries people is not you, but a fear of a right wing Republican administration in Washington, not your relations with Mr Bush, I am sure they are very good, but people are afraid that they are rushing into something and acting unilaterally in a similar way to actions they have taken in the last couple of years which have genuinely worried people. And it does strike one that for many people in the administration, again not Mr Bush, that you might be a not too damaged piece of collateral damage, friendly fire, if things go wrong. What do you say to people who are afraid of the administration in Washington, why should they trust a government they don't trust on so many other issues?

PRIME MINISTER

I would say to them two things. First of all, don't look at the parody of what George Bush has done, look at the reality. After 11 September he did not act in haste, he actually waited and acted deliberately and acted with the international community behind him. When last summer everyone was convinced we were about to rush to war, he didn't, he went to the UN, he made his speech to the UN, he made his claim to the UN to act on this issue and gave peace an additional chance to work. And the second thing I would say is that whatever people feel about America, look at the merits of the issue. Is Saddam a threat? Yes. Is the issue to do with weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, Heavens above with what we see happening in this country today, are these things a threat to us? Yes. Do we have to deal with them? Of course we have got to deal with them. And is the regime of Saddam one of the most murderous and brutal the world knows, where as I say literally thousands of people die every year as a result of him being in power? The answer to that is yes as well. So the case can be made very, very easily. And there is one other thing I would like to say, which probably isn't a very popular thing to say perhaps particularly to you representing the Guardian on this, but I actually believe, and I am not suggesting incidentally that the Guardian is anti-American, but I do honestly believe people should think carefully. Some of the rhetoric that I hear used about America is actually more savage than some of the rhetoric you hear used about Saddam and the Iraqi regime. Now come on, let's get a sense of perspective here. America is our ally, America is a country that we have been together with over the past 100 years, stood together with in important times. Now that is not a reason why we should do whatever America wants, but it is a reason why we should at least approach this issue looking upon America as an ally, and not as some alien power that operates against our interest. And I simply say to you, and I say this again, and I said this last night at the Council, people who want to pull Europe and America apart are playing the most dangerous game of international politics I know. If Europe and America stand together we can sort the problems of the world. If you set up these rival polls of power where people are being pulled one way or another way between the two, between Europe and America, I sincerely believe that is so dangerous for the security of our world. What we have got to do is have the right dialogue, that is why I said a few weeks ago, we who are the allies of America also want America, as I said, to listen back. Well they have listened back, they went through the UN, we aren't actually at war today. But having gone through the UN and having said he has got a final chance to disarm, if he doesn't disarm then what prospect is there of persuading America in the future to go down the multilateral route if having taken that route we then just shy away from the consequences of it. So I am under no illusions as to what the interplay of these arguments are with people, but I think just occasionally we should remind ourselves of the fact that America is an ally of Britain for very good reasons and I personally am proud of that alliance and that is not the reason why I act in this situation. I have told you the reason and it is the reason I believe in, but it is at least something that should make us pause before we engage in some of the stuff that I have seen that I think is pretty irresponsible.

QUESTION

How would military action actually physically accomplish disarmament since you will have destroyed the bureaucracy and the regime that knows where the VX nerve agent and the anthrax and all the rest of it is, and you will just be left with tonnes of this lethal stuff at large in a vast country with highly porous borders and you won't have a clue where it is?

PRIME MINISTER

I think you are assuming that the military action, when you say it is going to remove the bureaucracy of Iraq, not as far as I am aware. And I think the military action, if it comes to that, will be dedicated to making sure that we curb whatever military defence Iraq can put up. But I have got absolutely no doubt at all we will be able to work with any new administration in Iraq in order to locate this stuff and get it dealt with. And again, let's not be completely naïve about this, there are a lot of Iraqi scientists who would speak out if they could, and would tell us what they could tell us, if they weren't under threat of their lives, and their family under threat of their lives, if they spoke out. These are people who if it wasn't for the fact that they have to go along to interviews with so-called minders in order to assist them in the course of the interview, would probably be able to tell us a lot of the truth. Indeed when you have had defectors who have gone out of Iraq, they have been able to tell us where this stuff is, and those people are still there, all they need is liberating from Saddam.

QUESTION

Many people question why you are so gung-ho about Iraq and not so about the Middle East peace process and they fear that it is because it is not a priority for the United States. Is that true, or do you and George Bush have a strategy for dealing with the Middle East peace process, whatever happens in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER

First of all, in terms of, I don't know whether I am described as gung-ho, am I totally committed to pushing the Middle East peace process forward - yes I am. And when Kofi Annan paid tribute last night to the recent British conference on Palestinian reform, we had that conference on reform precisely because I am committed to that process. And I do believe that it is possible to move this process forward and all I would say to you at this stage is that has formed a very large part of my discussion with President Bush. When people talk about the problems between the Arab and the western world, I could be wrong in this, but I will give you my own opinion, I don't think those problems are to do with the removal of Saddam, I think most of the Arab world would rejoice at that. I think they are to do with what I have described as a shadow hanging over the relations between the Arab and the Muslim world and the west, which is the issue of the Middle East peace process. And we have got a basis on which we can move it forward, which is the two-state solution, and we should do that and do that as soon as we possibly can.

QUESTION

On a more practical issue about the preparations for war, or credible threat of force as you would prefer to put it, Turkey has been resisting to allow British troops on its soil to open a northern front to Northern Iraq. Are you still insisting or have you given up, and what is your position about the Americans allowing around 50,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER

I would simply say to you that I don't think it is right for me to comment on any of the military preparations. We are obviously in discussion with Turkey about these and we are having perfectly good and constructive discussions, but I think any decisions are for the Turkish government to announce and any discussions that we have necessarily at this point in time I think should remain between the governments.

QUESTION

In the latest Treasury technical paper on European economic reform you use this phrase that there is a daunting task facing the EU in terms of its reform programme. Is that task insurmountable, and if it is not, are you optimistic that real progress can be made this year?

PRIME MINISTER

No it is not insurmountable, indeed I have said for several years since we began the Lisbon process that this is the big challenge facing the European economy, but that doesn't alter our position on the single currency at all, as both ourselves and the Treasury have said. Can we make progress this year? I think we do need to make progress at the March summit, I think the March summit is important and we have not made as much progress on economic reform as we should have and that is the blunt truth, and you can see that in the economic figures which is why it is important that we push the process on.

QUESTION

You talked about the importance of avoiding parodies of Bush and the Bush administration and you also referred to having persuaded the US down the UN multilateral route. Now the popular perception is that the US is extremely impatient with this process and with the requirements of multi-lateralism and all the debate that that entails. Could you, in the interests of avoiding parody, tell us where we actually are on that and how seriously this is becoming a problem?

PRIME MINISTER

The reason why I say it is a parody is that when we went to the UN last November, that was America taking the decision that if Saddam co-operated that disarmament would happen peacefully, without war and without regime change. And whatever the stated policy of the US administration, the fact is that they accepted that that was the route that we should go. So that is why I say it was so important then for Saddam on 8 December when he made his declaration to be honest, but he wasn't. And the reason I say it is a parody of the US then to say they are impatient is that actually from that moment on it has been perfectly plain that Saddam is not co-operating. And even in the report of Dr Blix last week when it was interpreted as saying well you know there is a little bit more co-operation, what he actually said was there was more co-operation on process but not on substance. That is precisely what he did before. If you go back and you read what Saddam did before it was precisely this. Every time the threat of military action went up then the concessions would start to flow around, but the concessions were never fundamental, they were never in the way that they were for example when the South African regime co-operated with the inspectors in shutting down the nuclear programme, they did it with 9 inspectors, it took quite a long time but it didn't matter because the South Africans were co-operating. The experts used to come along and say this is what we did, this is where the stuff is and they would go along and they would shut it down. It is perfectly easy to do. So when people say the Americans are impatient, I think the world is impatient after 12 years of waiting and after given them one final opportunity, and I think we are entitled to say time is running out. The choice is his, the choice isn't ours, it is his. We have made our choice. Disarmament will happen one way or another, it is up to him how it happens.

QUESTION

Do you accept that your stance on Iraq has alienated many loyal supporters of the Labour Party and are you concerned about the implications for Labour's prospects at the Scottish elections and the Welsh and local government elections in England?

PRIME MINISTER

In an issue like this, if you take a very strong position, and frankly there is no point in ever taking a weak or muddled position, you have got to make a decision, and you will always find that those people who disagree and disagree very sincerely with that will obviously be angry at the position that I am taking. But I think that underneath the headline figures this debate is a little more nuanced than people sometimes think. And I think that there are a lot of people out there who are actually anxious for the arguments and to hear the debate, and that is why it is worth having, as I say, a constant dialogue with people. I am sure there are lots of people on that march who if they heard the other side of the argument, as I say they may not change their view, but they will at least recognise that there is a case for what we are doing. And I found when I addressed the Labour Party Conference on Saturday, I think people, I know it was described by some as a stony silence, I don't think it was like that at all, I think people genuinely wanted to listen to the argument and I think that reflects well on the British people. War or peace are serious questions, they want to know that we are genuinely doing this because we think it is the right thing to do and that there is no alternative. And the other point that I would make, which I make constantly to people, is that we are not actually at the moment at war. When people ask me to stop the war, it hasn't started. There is a question as to whether it will, but that question will be resolved on the basis of things that are going to happen over the next few weeks and I think there is still an awful lot there to happen and to come about and I don't think the position is quite as settled as people think.

QUESTION

You have said in the past that you wish for parallel action in the Middle East to re-energise the peace process there and you have just said that that subject occupied much of the time that you spent with President Bush. Can you cite any evidence that Washington has taken that message on board and is acting on it?

PRIME MINISTER

I won't go into all the elements of the discussion I had with President Bush, but I do believe that he sincerely wants to move that process forward and the most powerful evidence of that is that he is the first American President that has committed himself to a two state solution, to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Now that was a very important commitment and there is a meeting of the quartet members in fact today that is happening in London, indeed I will be seeing some of them later. Now how we do this, well that is a matter that we are presently in discussion about, but I believe that America is sincere in wanting to move this process forward and I think it recognises that there is now a valid basis upon which we can do it, particularly if we can unlock some of the difficult issues to do with political reform and the Palestinian Authority.

QUESTION

Your track record in the past has been one of being able to convince the British people of things that you consider to be important. In this case it is not a new argument, you have been making the argument about Iraq for 3 - 4 months now, yet the polls are going in the wrong direction for you - why is that? Have you lost your touch? Is it a presentational problem? Are the arguments bad? Why do you think the public, after having heard these arguments many, many times now, is moving in the wrong direction?

PRIME MINISTER

I think first of all, as I say you can put this question to people in a number of different ways, and actually if you put it in terms of a UN second resolution, you get very large majorities in favour of action, and we haven't reached the stage yet of deciding whether you have to take action without such a resolution. But having said that, I think the answer to that is very simple. I think that whereas in relation to Kosovo or Afghanistan there was a very immediate casus belli if you like, an act that people could see was a provocation that we had to act against, it is more difficult to persuade people of the link between a state like Iraq with chemical, or biological, or nuclear weapons and the link with international terrorism. Now I believe it is our job to carry on trying to persuade people of that, and also to persuade people of the moral case for removing Saddam, who is a murderous and brutal dictator who has caused death and destruction to thousands, indeed millions of his fellow citizens. Now all I would say is we are not at the point of decision yet, so this argument is not over. I am not saying that we have convinced people of that and I am perfectly well aware of the strength of feeling there is on the other side, but as I said at the very beginning of this, there is a certain category of issue upon which your job is to tell people what you genuinely think, and there is nothing else you can do in the end but carry on doing that and trying to get as many people to hear you, in a sense unmediated, which is why I am doing the television programmes and other things to try and get across to people at least that there is a rational case for doing what we are doing. And I think we would draw a lot of the sting out of this if people could actually see all those sides of the argument and I would say there is a lot more people out there who I would put in the unconvinced category than the never to be convinced category.

QUESTION

How would you describe your relationship with the German Chancellor Schroeder at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER

Very good, it is very good. Look we disagree over this but actually we are friends and we agree on many issues and as I said earlier, there are going to be times on issues like this where leaders or countries have disagreements and we have just got to concentrate on what we have in common, which is considerable. And I do point this out as well, that whatever issues there are to do with our disagreement with Germany over Iraq, it is worth pointing out on Afghanistan, Germany is taking a leading role on behalf of the international community and doing a superb job there.

QUESTION

You have just said that the world is getting impatient after 12 years, there have been so many deadlines, this 3 month deadline, one more deadline. Of course you might say that Saddam can't take us or you seriously, or the western world seriously, if there is no real deadline, as long as there is no deadline. Also you said that it is your job and duty as Prime Minister to honestly say what you think. When would you like to draw a line in the sand?

PRIME MINISTER

I think I also said I don't think it is very sensible for me to set an arbitrary deadline because I don't know at that very point where you definitively make the judgement. But I think where you are absolutely right is in saying there has been deadline, upon deadline, upon deadline, given to Saddam over the years and that is why it is important that he realises we are serious. But if he doesn't realise that I think he is making a pretty severe error of judgement.

QUESTION

At a time when the British people are living in a certain amount of fear from international terrorism, there is a report today saying that Britain's emergency services would still, a year and a half after 11 September, be unable to cope properly in the event of a major terrorist incident. How can you reassure the British public that we are ready?

PRIME MINISTER

Because we are spending literally hundreds of millions of pounds preparing ourselves in readiness, that is in training, in equipment, in emergency operations, in making sure that we have, so far as we can, every single possible avenue dealt with. But it is difficult because this is a threat, you cannot be sure exactly how it will materialise, and if you are not careful you can end up spending not hundreds of millions, but billions of pounds on trying to prevent things that will never materialise. So we take a judgement on it, but I can assure you we have every part of government directed towards making sure we can take whatever precautions we can. And some of the stories you read about the inadequacy of preparations turn out to be rather less accurate than they first appear.

QUESTION

I gather that you and your Defence Secretary are calling on a lot of 16 and 17 year olds in our Armed Services to get ready to do their bit in any military operation that may come, and in fact some are already doing that in peace keeping operations. But at the same time a lot of our listeners say why is it that you and your government are making no moves to give these 16 and 17 year olds what many people think is the ultimate right in a democracy, which is the right to vote in an election?

PRIME MINISTER

I thought you were going to ask that actually, and I have to give you the stock answer which is that we don't have any plans to change that. But I do understand the concerns people have over this. I think at some point you have got to set a limit, we set limits for different things in different walks of life, ages at which people can do certain things, are allowed to do certain things, and I have never found an extremely convincing argument for the particular question you have put other than to say at some point you have got to draw the line somewhere. It probably won't satisfy your listeners very much that, I am sorry, but it is the truth.

QUESTION

On Iraq, after what you have said on the humanitarian issue, is it true that an outcome where Saddam would actually disarm but remain in power would be disappointing for you, because then how do you want to stop him from starving and torturing his people in the future? And before you signed this letter with 7 other European nations on the support of the United States on this topic, why did you not consult more widely in Europe on that?

PRIME MINISTER

Well we had a clear position obviously from the French-German Summit, we thought it was important to just make it clear that there are different perspectives on this in Europe. But you know we came together around a common position last night, there is no point in pretending there aren't differences, but there is also a lot of ground in common. On the first point you raised, the basis of our action has got to be the UN mandate and we can't go beyond that. It would of course be a grievous disappointment to people in Iraq if Saddam stays in power. On the other hand, what is also obvious, and this is confirmed strongly by the intelligence reports that we have, is that a vital part of Saddam remaining in power is having these weapons of mass destruction, that he believes his capability, because he has used them against his own people, his capability there is an important part of maintaining the repressive grip that that regime has on the country. So I think a regime without weapons of mass destruction is a regime that is a lot weaker. Having said all that, without repeating the arguments that I have made, I do believe that the people that would rejoice most if Saddam goes would be the Iraqi people, which is why I say to people if we do have to take military action, at least let us take that into account.

QUESTION

A few weeks ago you said at Prime Minister's Questions that we have to confront those companies and individuals trading in weapons of mass destruction. Are we going to start by examining our own back yard and perhaps reviewing why we approved the export of say iridium to Iran?

PRIME MINISTER

We do actually have in this country very, very strict rules on the export of material that can be used for weapons of any description whatever, in fact we have tightened them up considerably. Europe now has very strong export controls on that. But I don't think that is the threat that we are looking at. The threat that we are looking at are rogue and unstable states that are trading in this stuff, or terrorist groups with access to it.

QUESTION

The letter you have circulated from Iraqis in exile in the UK condemns the failure of the UN to uphold Resolution 688 which would sanction force if Saddam failed to respect human rights. Why, if you feel so powerfully about the human rights abuses, are you not pushing for that resolution to be upheld?

PRIME MINISTER

Well I would push for the resolution to be upheld, I think it is important that it is. But that is an indication perhaps of how the international community has had a very clear position on the nature of Saddam's regime for a long period of time. There is no point in me trying to kid people that we can't remove Saddam simply on that basis. The authority given by 1441 is an authority on the basis of weapons of mass destruction. But there is no doubt at all, I think a lot of people in the international community feel very strongly about the brutality of Saddam's regime, the human rights abuses are well documented and some of the things, as I say I just hope we can surface more and more of this. And incidentally, a lot of the letters that we get from people who are Iraqi exiles will start by saying that they are afraid, even now, even here, to speak out against Saddam's regime. And it is an extraordinary thing to think that not just 4 million exiles round the world but several hundred thousand here in this country of Iraqi exiles, and these are people whose voices should be heard, and I think they would believe, as the letter indicates, they would like us to take action against Saddam simply on the human rights basis. Well I am afraid we can't do that, we have to act on the basis of the UN mandate. But I come back to the point that I made that the appalling human rights abuses, the deaths that occur under Saddam, are relevant in two ways: first if we take military action then we should at least recognise that the consequences of removing Saddam will be good for the Iraqi people and will save a lot of lives as well as obviously the consequences of war; and secondly, the fact that the very nature of the regime makes it all the more dangerous that they have these weapons of mass destruction, the chemical, the biological, the nuclear weapons.

QUESTION

Who will decide that the time is really running out, will you put out the inspectors or will you wait until they terminate their mission? And what do you think of the latest criticism done by the opposition leader in London concerning American plans to install a US military governor in Baghdad?

PRIME MINISTER

On the second point, I think I answered that earlier. There are a whole lot of discussions on what will happen if the military action is taken, and I can assure you no decisions have been taken on that yet and it is important that we consult with allies, with the UN, and obviously what we want to see is a government in Iraq that can take care and take account of all the Iraqi people. The first point that you raised, well it just comes back to this point. The time the inspectors need is an indefinite amount of time if they are given full co-operation, they can take as much time as they want, if it takes them weeks, if it takes them months, if it takes them years, if they are given full co-operation that is fine, that is what Saddam's obligation is. If, however, he is not giving them full co-operation then the judgement is how long do you need for them to stay in there before you make the judgement that this is a repeat of the 1990s rather than a change of heart, and at the moment what is obvious is that this is exactly what he did in the 1990s, for years, upon years, upon years. And I would just draw attention once again to the biological weapons programme that he absolutely categorically denied existed, said it was all a fabrication of the CIA and the British intelligence services, and then when his son-in-law defected to Jordan and admitted that they had an offensive biological weapons programme, the Iraqis then co-operated, and then of course they were able, at least partially, to shut the programme down. The son-in-law then went back and was murdered. That is how they have been operating for 12 years. So all I am saying is if he doesn't have a change of heart, a genuine change of heart, there is no point in the inspectors remaining in there indefinitely because they can't do their work, they have to have his co-operation, that is what the UN has demanded and that is what for the sake of the credibility of the UN has to be upheld.

ENDS

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