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UK PMOS' Afternoon Briefing - 24 March

PRESS BRIEFING: 3.45PM MONDAY 24 MARCH 2003

PM PRESS CONFERENCE

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be holding his monthly press conference tomorrow in Downing Street at midday.

IRAQ

Asked by the Mirror to cite the proof that, as the Prime Minister had said in his Statement to the House this afternoon, "Those who dare speak criticism of the regime are being executed", the PMOS reminded journalists that the Prime Minister had taken the opportunity in last Tuesday's Commons debate to give a graphic description of the fate of an Iraqi citizen who had spoken out against the regime. The individual in question had had his tongue cut out, had been tied up and left to bleed to death. Asked for the evidence of this claim, the PMOS said that it was based on intelligence. It was not unreasonable to underline the nature of the regime we were dealing with. Asked if the regime was continuing to take such action or whether the Prime Minister had merely been pointing to historical acts, the PMOS said that Iraqi people had been executed in the last few days. He added that he failed to see why it should be a cause for surprise. Put to him that these claims could be interpreted as British propaganda, the PMOS said that perhaps if the nature of the regime was not clear, then he might accept the argument being put. However, one only had to look at the examples of brutality which Ann Clwyd had described in evidence to the organisation Indict in which she had spoken of eye-witness accounts of people being dropped head-first into plastic shredding machines. No one should be particularly surprised at the level and extremes of brutality which the Iraqi regime was prepared to visit upon its people. It was hardly propaganda to set out fact.

Asked why the Prime Minister had said that the timing of the campaign was going according to plan when other Ministers had been careful not to tie themselves down to any timescale, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had been underlining that we were at the point where we expected to be. He had been stressing the importance of not getting carried away by success, nor of being overwhelmed by difficulties. This was a campaign which was going to require perseverance. We were clearly on track in terms of achieving our objectives. We should stay focussed on the big picture.

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that people were able to obtain a partial view of the horrors of war given his comment that "...people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms", the PMOS said that that the Prime Minister's comment was based on the nature of a conflict that was being conducted with 24-hour round-the-clock media. That was the nature of modern warfare. The Prime Minister had been making two points: First, we should not lose sight of the overall progress being made in the military campaign by focussing unduly on specific incidents where things might tragically have gone wrong - distressing though they clearly were. Secondly, just because there weren't cameras inside Iraq did not mean the people there had not been suffering for years. Yes, we were seeing some graphic images on our screens at the moment. However, no less vivid was the suffering of the Iraqi people who had to live under appalling circumstances because of a brutal regime.

Asked if the Prime Minister believed that the Iraqi regime was crumbling, the PMOS said that as we had noted over the weekend, it would appear that, in certain respects, they were carrying out orders on auto-pilot. In some cities, such as Basra and Umm Qasr, there were individuals whose hands were so drenched in blood and brutality from years of repression of the Iraqi people, and who were so unpopular with the local population, that they had nothing to lose. As a result they had obviously come to the conclusion that they might as well fight to the end. That was precisely why our troops were encountering resistance in some areas. Asked on what basis we had reached that assessment, the PMOS pointed to the fact that our forces were dealing with elements of the Republican Guard, in addition to militia and other extreme elements who were putting up a fight. Other evidence showed that significant numbers of regular soldiers were surrendering.

Asked if the Prime Minister had been provided with expert analyses of Saddam Hussein's broadcast this morning, the PMOS said that work was still going on in that respect. He pointed out that Saddam had pre-recorded hours of video tape for issue at certain times, which was why we had to treat this morning's broadcast with caution. As the Defence Secretary had noted earlier today, there were clearly a number of things which Saddam could have done, had he wished to do so, in order to show how recently the recording had been made.

ENDS

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