UK PMOS Briefing On Iraq
PRESS BRIEFING: 3.45PM WEDNESDAY 19 MARCH 2003
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister had had a twenty minute telephone conversation after PMQs today about Iraq. He had also spoken to the Greek Prime Minister in advance of the European Council in Brussels tomorrow and Friday. The issue of Iraq would be discussed over a working dinner tomorrow evening. Other issues, including progress on economic reform and the Future of Europe/Laeken Convention, would be discussed on Friday. Asked whether the Prime Minister was expected to stay for Friday's business, the PMOS said that was the plan.
Asked to explain the format of the working dinner on Thursday night, the PMOS said that like any working dinner at a European Council, the floor would be open to people to make particular points. One of the issues likely to be raised was the post-Saddam humanitarian situation. As we had been pointing out for a long time, Iraq was already experiencing an humanitarian crisis of very severe proportions. For example, 60% of the population required food aid and there was a very high infant mortality rate. The international community was already focussing in on this issue in a number of different fora. The European Council tomorrow would provide a further opportunity for discussion.
Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister would raise the issue of the French veto at the Summit, the PMOS said it was no secret that the UK and France held widely differing views on Iraq and that it had not been possible to reach a diplomatic agreement on the next stage of the process. Asked about the French Foreign Minister's comments today in response to our remarks over recent days, the PMOS said it was important to understand that what we had said was based on what the French Government had stated in public. For example, President Chirac had said in an interview last week that France would use its UN veto whatever the circumstances. The French Foreign Minister had also made it clear on Newsnight last Friday night that France was "not going to let the other countries - what we call the undecided countries - take the responsibility for this vote". France had stated explicitly that they were not prepared to accept an ultimatum or a new Resolution had implicit or explicit the threat and use of force. President Chirac had said this to the Prime Minister on Friday. In our view, that position was not consistent with Resolution 1441 which had underlined the fact that Saddam was being given a final opportunity to comply, and that if he did not, serious consequences would follow. It made no sense to accept that it was the threat of force which had allowed the weapons inspectors into Iraq but then adopt the position that it shouldn't be used. Neutering the threat clearly emboldened the tyrant. That said, it was important for people to understand that one issue did not define or relationship with France. Despite the different views held by the UK and France on Iraq, the conversations the Prime Minister had had with President Chirac had been perfectly good-natured. Asked if he was implying that Downing Street saw no reason to apologise for, or withdraw remarks, blaming the French, the PMOS said he wasn't implying anything. He was simply making the point that during discussions with our Security Council partners in an attempt to achieve a second Resolution, agreement had been forming around the idea of an ultimatum through a number of tests against which Saddam's compliance could be judged. It was during negotiations about timescales that the French had declared it would use its veto whatever the circumstances. It went without saying that that had had a dramatic effect on the discussions. Put to him that we had demonised France and had indicated that they were responsible for the UK and US withdrawing the draft second Resolution, the PMOS said we had done no such thing. The Prime Minister had simply been making the point yesterday that if the international community's will could not be backed by the credible threat of force, it would send the wrong message to Saddam and other tyrants around the world. 1441 had a logic to it. It had talked about a final opportunity, immediate compliance and serious consequences. The UK had not walked away from it. Other countries had chosen to do so. The Prime Minister would be attending the European Council tomorrow. Yes, there were differing opinions between the UK and France over the issue of Iraq. However, it was important to recognise that there were many other issues on which we did agree. He repeated that the Prime Minister and President Chirac had had a perfectly amicable telephone conversation last Friday. Asked if the Prime Minister would take the opportunity tomorrow to apologise for his remarks, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister stood by what he had said.
Put to him that we had deliberately misconstrued President Chirac's remarks given he had said in his interview last Monday that France would use its veto whatever the circumstances 'this evening', the PMOS said he had not seen any qualification, retraction or adjustment by the French regarding their position. Indeed, they had amplified it. As the French Foreign Minister had said on 13 March, "France cannot accept the Resolution which is on the table in New York today issuing an ultimatum on envisaging the automatic use of force. France cannot accept that. The proposal from Britain sets an ultimatum. We think that's not acceptable". On 7 March he had said, "We cannot accept an ultimatum". That was what President Chirac had said last Monday and in his conversation with the Prime Minister last Friday. Asked if Downing Street had been surprised that the French Government, and the French Foreign Minister in particular, had felt the need to protest about the level of robust debate, the PMOS said that the French were entitled to put forward their own point of view, just as we were entitled to put forward ours.
Asked the legal status of moving military personnel into the demilitarized zone, the PMOS said that people could be assured that any action that was taken would be in accordance with international law.
Asked to verify the rumours regarding the fate of the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, the PMOS said that had seen the reports but he had nothing to stand them up at this stage. Asked about reports that EU officials had found bugging devices in a number of rooms used by several delegations in Brussels, the PMOS said that as he understood it, an investigation was being carried out in Brussels and we stood ready to offer whatever assistance we could. He pointed out that some of the rooms used by UK staff had also been targeted. Asked who we thought was responsible, the PMOS said that he had no idea but there was an investigation.
Asked if the Prime Minister would inform Parliament when troops were about to go into action, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister and Government obviously took Parliament extremely seriously, especially at a time like this. That had been underlined by the vote yesterday. Our intention was to keep Parliament informed. Questioned as to whether there were any plans for the Prime Minister to address the nation and when he might do so, the PMOS said that he did not intend to add to or subtract from anything that had been said thus far in relation to possible military action and would not give any indication either way on timing. To do so would clearly be very irresponsible.
Asked whether it was right that Mrs Blair had tried to influence the way that MPs had voted last night, the PMOS said that he genuinely had no idea as to whether she had spoken to anyone or not. Put to him that she had telephoned MPs, the PMOS suggested that perhaps they were friends of hers.
Asked to confirm that the Ministerial reshuffle would not take place for another few days - if not weeks, the PMOS said that he had seen no sign of the Prime Minister turning his mind to the issue at the current time. As he understood it, no Ministerial changes would be made this week. In the meantime, Ben Bradshaw would continue to deputise for Robin Cook. Questioned as to whether another Minister had taken on John Denham's responsibilities at the Home Office, the PMOS said that the Home Office had a very strong team and no doubt they were filling in for Mr Denham as was necessary.