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UK PMOS Briefing 13th March 2003

PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM THURSDAY 13 MARCH 2003

IRAQ

The PMOS advised journalists that the Prime Minister had met the Opposition Leader this morning to update him on Iraq. No doubt he would have other meetings with Ministers and would speak to international colleagues during the course of today.

The PMOS said that the Prime Minister had said it was very clear that Saddam Hussein was not co-operating fully - and no one was pretending otherwise. He had underlined the fact that we had been going the extra mile to try to find common ground and seek a consensus at the UN, that we were continuing to work flat out at the UN and that the route was not closed. He had pointed out that the six tests, which had been set out yesterday, were designed to give people exemplars against which Saddam's compliance could be judged. No one was saying that there had to be full, complete disarmament within the timescale being put forward. However, it was important for the Security Council to be able to make the judgement about whether Saddam had taken the strategic decision to comply. On the Second Resolution, he had said that he believed that things had been moving forward. The Foreign Secretary had said that we had been very close to finding a way through earlier in the week. However, as the Prime Minister had noted, the French Government's comment that it would veto whatever the circumstances had clearly made negotiations very difficult. As a result, a number of Security Council members were asking questions about a second Resolution if it was being made clear that one of the P5 would block it come what may. The Prime Minister emphasised, however, that the UN route was not a closed route. We were still doing all we could and were continuing to work flat out. As the Foreign Secretary had said in his doorstep in Downing Street morning, that process was ongoing and could move into the weekend. It was difficult to be more specific at this stage. The PMOS said that if the UN process broke down, it would be the intention to hold a further meeting of the Cabinet to discuss the way forward.

Asked how soon after the process broke down would a Cabinet meeting be called, the PMOS said it would be fairly shortly after that. Asked when we would know that the UN process had broken down irretrievably, the PMOS said when we knew. The situation had not changed. We were continuing to battle away at the UN in order to try to find consensus and common ground. He pointed out that the six tests we were proposing were eminently reasonable. For example, there was nothing unreasonable about asking for interviews with Iraqi scientists with their families to take place outside the country to reassure them that their families would not be intimidated or the interviews 'minded'. Pressed as to when we might know that the process had broken down, the PMOS said that we were clearly in the diplomatic end-game. However, the final whistle had not yet been blown. We planned to continue to work as hard as we could for as long as we believed there was hope. As Jack Straw had observed this morning, our sense was that it could go into the weekend. Put to him that the US Administration had been adamant that a vote had to take place by tomorrow at the very latest, the PMOS said that we would have to wait and see how things panned out. We were in a fluid, dynamic situation of high diplomacy. Everyone understood what was at stake. We were continuing to work flat out to try to find common ground and consensus. Within that process we remained in close contact with many of our partners on the Security Council. Questioned as to whether the discussions were focussing on the six tests or achieving a second Resolution, the PMOS said that we were continuing to talk about the six tests which we believed offered a perfectly reasonable 'menu' against which Saddam's compliance could be judged by the members of the Security Council. That said, we had no doubt that the non-permanent members of the Security Council were debating whether those discussions were as worthwhile as they might be, given a Permanent member had declared that it would use its veto no matter what the circumstances. It was clear that France's intransigence had hugely complicated the situation. Of course, that was not to suggest that the process was over. It wasn't, which was why we were continuing to work as hard we could to find commons ground and reach a consensus.

Asked whether the Cabinet would be reconvened before or after military action had taken place should the diplomatic process conclude without success, the PMOS said that it hadn't been made explicit. However, there was obviously an understanding that if the diplomatic process broke down there would be a discussion at that point as to how we should move forward.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was planning to have a meeting with Ms Short today, the PMOS reminded journalists that we never briefed on individual meetings the Prime Minister had with his Cabinet colleagues.

Everyone wanted a second Resolution, just as everyone wanted Saddam Hussein to be disarmed of his WMD. Everyone accepted that there were complex, difficult issues confronting us. He updated journalists on what Jack Straw had said given he was the Foreign Secretary and in the light of the ongoing discussions at the Security Council. It went without saying that everyone wanted a second Resolution and Saddam Hussein to be disarmed. That was the current position. The diplomatic process was continuing. It was not yet over, which was why we were continuing to fight hard to achieve our objectives.

The PMOS said Ministers agreed that the UK was pursuing the right course in pushing hard to get a second Resolution. However, there was concern about France's intransigence, pointing out that it presented us with a major problem on which we were working very hard to get round. Pressed about the action it would take should we fail to get a second Resolution, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had told Ministers that there would be a further Cabinet meeting to discuss the way forward if the diplomatic process broke down. There had been acceptance that this was the right way to proceed.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister's confidence in achieving a second Resolution had disappeared, as had the intention to hold a vote at the UN this week, the PMOS said no one was under any illusion that by injecting a strategic 'in principle' veto into the diplomatic bloodstream, it would poison the system and present very real difficulties. However, as the Prime Minister had underlined the route was not yet closed. Discussions were ongoing at the UN and we would continue to work flat out. Nevertheless, things were difficult. For example, we had a situation where we had circulated our document containing the six tests around the UN last night, but by breakfast time this morning the French had already announced their rejection of it. He said he had just seen reports that the Iraqi Government had dismissed it as well. However, it would seem that the French had the satisfaction of having got their rejection in first.

Put to him that criticism should be levelled against the US just as much as it was being levelled against the French inasmuch as the Americans could have backed the six tests much more forcefully, the PMOS said that he had failed to see how the support of the six tests, underlined by the US's Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, this morning, had any equivalence to a statement from the French President declaring that France would use its veto whatever the circumstances. The French appeared to have taken a strategic decision designed not only to veto any further Resolution irrespective of the response from other members of the Security Council and the response from Iraq, but to veto the diplomatic efforts to try to find common ground. Nevertheless, we would continue to push ahead and work hard to find the consensus we were seeking. The Prime Minister believed it was absolutely vital for the international community to stick together. As he had pointed out many times in the past, and as Jack Straw had articulated again this morning, Resolution 1441 not only imposed obligations on Iraq, but it also imposed obligations on the members of the Security Council who had signed up to it unanimously. The authority of the UN was also at stake.

Asked if the Prime Minister was intending to speak to President Chirac, the PMOS said that there was a virtual non-stop global phonecall between world leaders. He was not going to provide a running commentary on those conversations. Asked whether there was a chance that diplomatic relations between the UK and France could become so strained that we would recall our Ambassador, the PMOS said he wouldn't direct excited journalists down that route. It was no secret that there were differences of opinion between the UK and France on the issue of Iraq. We believed that Resolution 1441 had to mean what it said - that serious consequences should mean serious consequences in the event that Saddam failed to offer the immediate and full co-operation that was required of him. The PMOS took the opportunity to remind journalists that in the same interview in which the French President had said that France would use its veto come what may, he had also made clear that he did not believe that Iraq was co-operating sufficiently. That was an important point in the context of 1441.

Clearly there were differences of opinion between us concerning whether 1441 meant what it said and whether consensus could best be achieved by setting out an 'in principle' veto in 'whatever circumstances'. As the Prime Minister had said, France's declaration that it would use its veto regardless was a complicating factor in what had been pretty delicate negotiations in which we had felt we had been making progress. Those discussions had not yet concluded, but we were clearly facing difficulties. 1441 stated that serious consequences would follow if Saddam did not comply fully and immediately. But what did 'serious consequences' ultimately mean in the event of non-compliance? It was clear that when people had signed up to 1441, the term had meant a lot more than bringing in additional weapons inspectors. Questioned as to whether the UK's relationship with France would ever return to what it was before, the PMOS said it was important to recognise that differences on one issue did not define a whole relationship.

Questioned as to whether the UK would support the US Administration's suggestion that the original draft Resolution, co-sponsored by the UK, US and Spain, should be voted on this week or whether the UK would prefer to follow the Spanish proposal not to put it forward at all in order to avoid a defeat, the PMOS said that these were judgements and decisions which could only be reached at the end-point of the diplomatic process. People should not under-estimate the energy and determination which the Prime Minister, Jack Straw, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK's Ambassador to the UN, and others were putting into it. Obviously, the process would have to conclude at some point. It was not going to 'elasticate' forever. However, we were not at that stage yet. People would just have to be a little patient.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister had been looking at scenarios beyond the end of the diplomatic process and whether he was discussing them with President Bush, the PMOS said that given the ongoing contacts with the military and the fact that many troops had been deployed to the region, it could be argued that this discussion had been ongoing for some time. There was a continuing conversation amongst world leaders on these issues, as you would expect. At the moment, however, we remained in the diplomatic phase and it was important for people not to get too far ahead of themselves at this point.

Asked again about the legal position of going to war without a second Resolution, the PMOS referred journalists to the Prime Minister's words on the subject yesterday. They were very clear.

Asked if the Prime Minister shared the view reportedly voiced by the Defence Secretary in a magazine interview that he would prefer to share foreign policy with the Democrats again from next year, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had not seen the article in question and had not expressed a view on it. That said, we had an extremely good relationship with the current US Administration at every level, including on the defence side.

Put to him that the Opposition Leader had appeared to give a much gloomier picture of the situation in his doorstep than the one he (the PMOS) had been presenting to journalists this morning, the PMOS said that the picture he was painting was one of progress being made and then things becoming complicated by what had happened on Monday, which had resulted in significant difficulties for us. We were working flat to push every diplomatic button that we could to move things forward. It was difficult, but we were not yet at the end of the story.

Asked to summarise the view of the British Government about the French actions, the PMOS said that France had rejected our six tests proposal faster than Iraq. Enough said.


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