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PM: Saddam and his regime will be removed

PM: Saddam and his regime will be removed

At his latest press conference, Prime Minister Tony Blair said:

'...in addition to pursuing our military campaign with vigour and determination, we are also determined in the wake of military success to bring humanitarian relief to the people of Iraq. The most important humanitarian priority is to restore the operations of the Oil for Food Programme.'

The UN's Oil for Food programme provides over 60 per cent of Iraqis with food, water and medicine, added Mr Blair.

Read an edited trasncript of the Prime Minister's press conference below.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good Afternoon everyone and welcome to this month's news conference. I imagine most of your questions obviously will relate to the situation in

Iraq and I will bring you up to date first of all with some of the news.

In the 5 days since military action began, a huge amount has already been achieved. It is worth pointing out that the circumstances were completely different. In 1991 there were 5 weeks of bombing before ground troops went in. By yesterday we had covered twice as much ground in 5 days as was covered in the whole of the last conflict. Our aim remains as has been stated: to remove Saddam as the route to disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, so the progress towards Baghdad is of vital strategic importance. Coalition forces are therefore continuing what is effectively a two-pronged advance. The US 5 Corps are advancing along the road to Karbala. The lead elements have reached Karbala. They are opposed by the Republican Guard Madena Division. The Madina Division is now under heavy air attack, although poor weather will hamper this. 1 Marine Expeditionary Force are then advancing on al-Kut along two converging routes. Al-Kut is defended by the Republican Guard Baghdad Division.

In the south the port of Umm Qasr has been secured by British forces. UK 7 Armoured Division is deployed around Basra. Regime support has continued to hold key points in the urban areas. British forces are also moving into Az Zubaya, 10 miles south west of Basra, in search of pockets of pro-Saddam resistance.

Iraq and its security apparatus exists to support the regime of Saddam Hussein. Nobody should be surprised therefore that there are parts of the Armed Forces determined to fight, for they know that when the regime falls, which it will, they will have nowhere to go. Nor should anyone be surprised that until the Iraqi people know for sure that the regime that they despise is on the way out, they will hold back, a point now being made by Iraqi exiles. They have been let down before, when they thought coalition forces were going to remove Saddam, and my message to them today is that this time we will not let you down. Saddam and his regime will be removed. Iraq will have a better future ahead of it.

But then there will be resistance all the way to the end of this campaign. It will take time and perseverance and the continuing skill and dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces to break it down. But nobody, least of all the forces loyal to Saddam, should be in any doubt that the resistance will be broken down and that the goals of the coalition forces will be met.

I would also like to update you if I may about the humanitarian situation. When people ask about the humanitarian rescue operation, something that will be required of course once our forces have secured Iraq, we should be clear that it is not military action that will create humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. The humanitarian disaster is here and now, it is happening, it has actually been happening for years. Iraq has left unspent up to $2.3 billion allocated by the UN for humanitarian goods under the Oil For Food Programme. 60% of Iraqis are dependent on food aid. The mortality rate for under 5s in Baghdad is higher than in Mozambique. More than half of Iraqis living in rural areas have no access to safe water. On the latest estimates, up to 400,000 children under the age of 5 in the centre and south of Iraq have died over the last 5 years through malnutrition and disease.

So in addition to pursuing our military campaign with vigour and determination, we are also determined in the wake of military success to bring humanitarian relief to the people of Iraq. The most important humanitarian priority is to restore the operations of the Oil for Food Programme. Its scale is massive, it spends some $10 billion a year and is funded by the sale of Iraqi oil. As I was pointing out to you a moment or two ago, virtually all Iraqis receive assistance from it. 60 million, that is out of a population of around about 22 - 23 million, 60 million are totally dependent on it for their daily survival. It provides food, water, fuel, medicine and other basic requirements and is organised through some 45,000 local distribution centres that has been controlled by the regime. So we are committed to supporting Kofi Annan in every way possible to get the Oil for Food Programme up and running again as soon as possible. The coalition will secure conditions in which the UN agencies and others, the NGOs, the medical agencies, can operate efficiently and provide that humanitarian relief.

There are huge stockpiles of humanitarian aid in Kuwait ready to be deployed for the benefit of the Iraqi people. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, Sir Galahad, is loaded with humanitarian aid. It will enter the port of Umm Qasr as soon as it is safe to do so. All that is holding us back at present is the threat of Iraqi mines and it will take some time before we can make the water safe for our ship to come in. It is yet one more example of the actions of the Iraqi regime that is making it more difficult for the Iraqi people. In addition the Royal Engineers have today begun to build a water pipeline over the border into Iraq from Kuwait to help with the provision of water in southern Iraq.

It is to discuss the humanitarian situation and the important and complex issues that have to be addressed for the post-Saddam era that I intend to visit the United States tomorrow after Prime Minister's Questions. I will see President Bush at Camp David to discuss not just the military campaign, but also the diplomatic implications of recent events for the future. In particular how we get America and Europe working again together as partners, and not as rivals; to assess the best way of dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq that I have just described to you; how we rebuild Iraq post-Saddam; and also of course our approach to the Middle East peace process and to the Arab world more generally. But I will also meet Kofi Annan in New York, for whatever the difficulties and differences within the UN in the run-up to military action, I am clear that the United Nations must be centrally involved in dealing both with the humanitarian crisis and in helping Iraq rebuild itself once Saddam has gone.

QUESTION

Prime Minister, the way things look at the moment, you are shortly going to have to take a decision about what to do when coalition forces reach Baghdad, a city of 5 million people. Clearly the tactics are to draw British and American forces into that city and engage them in close combat there, with all the huge risks for the civilian population that involves. Are you prepared to order British troops into Baghdad to fight in those circumstances?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think one of the things you will have to simply be patient about, and forgive me a little on this if I don't go into details of how we intend to conduct the military campaign from now on in, but be under no doubt at all that obviously the purpose is to remove the regime, to do that it is important that we go to Baghdad. Coalition forces are now some 50 - 60 miles south of Baghdad, exactly how we will then progress the military campaign after that I am afraid is for us and the military, and I don't think it would be very wise for us to discuss this in public and in the open now. But I would simply say to you that all the way through, the important thing has been to push on for Baghdad, having secured both the oil installations in the south, and making sure that in the west of the country we do not allow Saddam to use that as a base for external aggression, and in the north we keep the situation as calm as possible.

And I would simply point out that so far over the 5 days the progress on the way to Baghdad has been exactly what we planned and anticipated.

QUESTION:

I wonder if I could ask you a bit about the politics of all this, because you have told us you want to secure not just the UN resolution on Oil for Food, which I think everyone is agreed will go through, but a UN resolution on the political structure of Iraq after any conflict.

Now the French, the Germans, the Russians have all said that they oppose that plan as you have suggested, that they want a UN mandate, they don't just want UN involvement, and we also of course have a situation in northern Iraq and the position of the Kurds. So how are you going to build a political framework? And secondly can you guarantee that the people in northern Iraq will have the same degree of autonomy that they currently enjoy in any post-war settlement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Just on the latter point, obviously one of the extraordinary things that has happened in Iraq over the past few years, only as a result of the British and American pilots policing the No Fly Zone, is that the autonomy people have gained in northern Iraq has allowed them to live a far better life. For example the child mortality rates I was explaining to you, I specifically said were in the centre and south of Iraq, because in the north of Iraq child mortality has been falling, and has been falling because they have got greater freedom from Saddam. So without going into the details of what any post-Saddam Iraq might look like at the present time, we would obviously not want to give up the considerable gains that people in the north have made. Secondly in relation to the UN, there are two issues here. The first is in respect of humanitarian assistance we need a resolution through on that and I am confident that we should be able to secure that. There is going to be a debate about the UN resolution that then governs the post-Saddam civil administration in Iraq. We are quite clear that any such administration has to be endorsed by the United Nations, it is important, and that is exactly what we said at the summit in the Azores. Now the details of that we will discuss with allies within the UN and with others. There may be certain diplomatic difficulties but I think in the end people will come together and realise that it is important that any post-Saddam Iraqi government has the broadest possible representation, is respectful of human rights, is careful to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq, and the important thing after all the diplomatic divisions that there have been is that the international community comes back together, and I hope that it will.

QUESTION:

Up till now you haven't taken the opportunity to warn the British people of a potentially long war with heavy losses. Should they be ready for that? And can I ask you about the Iraqi people too. There has been much talk of liberation. Isn't there a real danger that we are seeing now that many Iraqis regard western forces as invaders and occupiers?

PRIME MINISTER:

In respect of the first, we are 5 days into this conflict. Now part of the issue that happens in the way that war is now covered is that we have constant reports coming back from the frontline, we have got 24 hours a day media reporting, that sometimes people can lose sight of the essential strategic picture. That is that we move in the land forces, at the same time as any air campaign. We push on towards Baghdad and within 5 days we are 60 miles south of Baghdad. We secure the oil installations in the south, which we have done. We make sure that the north is calm, which it is. We make sure that the west is not able to be used as a basis for external aggression and that is also secure. Now that is a strategy unfolding exactly according to plan. Of course there will be tragedies and accidents and things that happen along the way, war is always like that, but the strategy is the strategy that I have described and it is taking shape exactly as we thought it would. Now in respect of the Iraqi people, look you can listen to me, you can listen to others, but the best words on that will come from people who have got some experience of the Iraqi people themselves. And if I could just read to you some words that were spoken by Dr Hamid al-Sayki , he was the UK representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance. He said this, and I think the words are worth repeating. He said the population in southern Iraq had a very bad track record of betrayal from the allies in 1991 and following years, so they will not be willing to go against the regime unless they are sure they are going to have the support. And that is again what I think many others have said, that you cannot expect ordinary Iraqi people who have lived for years under the boot of Saddam, and who have twice before been let down I am afraid by allied forces, to be confident that they are able to come out and express their views until they are sure that Saddam's regime has gone. Now that is what you would expect and anticipate. But one of the other interesting things that is just again from a source that is not a government source, and to be frank I am not sure even what the position of this particular individual is, about the military action that we are undertaking, but let me just read you this as well. It is from Dr Hany el-Banna of Islamic Relief. He says Iraq used to be one of the most sophisticated countries in the whole Middle East. He says now Baghdad and other cities have actually become like third world countries. I know that around nearly 1 million children died because of malnutrition and because of leukaemia, which is very, very badly affected there. Hundreds of thousands of children die from other causes, as well as men and women, in this area. Now that is the reality of life under Saddam, but it is not from government sources, it is from people with deep roots within the Islamic movement. And I have absolutely no doubt at all that when it is clear that the regime of Saddam is going then people will demonstrate very clearly what they want, which is not incidentally to swap Saddam for a government imposed from the outside, but is to have the chance to express themselves in a representative and democratic way. And the fascinating thing is if you look at northern Iraq where people have been able to express themselves in that way, that is precisely what they have done. So this is not something alien to the wishes or spirit of the Iraqi people, I am quite sure, given the chance in freedom to express their wishes, they will not want to live under a military dictatorship.

QUESTION:

Another quote for you, this is a Guards officer in Basra yesterday, he said we are expecting a lot of hands up from Iraqi soldiers, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. There are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime. Now doesn't that mean that your strategy needs a rethink and in fact that coalition forces are in danger of being overstretched?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. It is precisely what you would expect, that the Iraqi forces that are most loyal to Saddam's regime, these are the people that have policed the country, gained from the rule of Saddam, been the instruments of repression of the civilian population, these people are going to fight, and that is always what we expected. What we have not seen, however, is the same degree of fighting from the Iraqi regular army, that has melted away, there are prisoners that have been taken, but otherwise it simply has melted away. But you would expect to find resistance from those forces that are very, very close to Saddam because they know that if Saddam is removed, their power is removed, and that is precisely what we would expect and what we have had.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I can just assure you of this. Before we went into this conflict there was the most careful planning and consideration of the forces that we need, and we have the forces that we need to do the job.

QUESTION:

How can you, to maintain your strategy of minimising civilian casualties, if when it comes to Baghdad you have those very people, the people who have most to lose by seeing Saddam go, fighting in the streets. Aren't you inevitably going to get involved in the very scenario that you were trying to avoid?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again let me say that this scenario is exactly what we would have expected. At some point the regime was going to come back in and retrench in Baghdad, and all I can assure you of, without going into the details of it because it wouldn't be sensible to do it, is that this is entirely what was anticipated and what we have provided for in the strategy that we have.

QUESTION:

So when you get to Baghdad do you still think you can do it in such a way that you don't alienate the civilian population by destroying infrastructure?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is what we have done throughout, and it is why for example that we have done everything we can to protect the infrastructure of services. We have done everything we can to spare the civilian population. Of course there will be civilian casualties, I think they have been far fewer than people anticipated. And the very reason why we wanted to make sure that the land campaign started at the same time, if not slightly pre-dating the air campaign, was in order to demonstrate that this is not a situation where we are trying to bomb Iraq into submission and then send in land forces afterwards. This is a situation in which we are combining land and air in such a way that we try and minimise the suffering to Iraqi people. And I can assure you that the strategy that we have when we get to Baghdad takes account as I say of exactly what you would suspect. Because I think as some people have sometimes described it, in the Iraqi regime there are concentric circles that as they go closer and closer to the regime you get tougher and tougher pockets of resistance. And those people that have literally based their lives on support for Saddam, they are going to fight until they know it is hopeless, but they will know it is hopeless.

QUESTION:

I wonder if you are considering negotiation with the Arabs, because the Arab Ministers who were meeting yesterday and they asked for stopping the war. Are you going to disregard their opinion?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, of course we take seriously the comments that are made. And I think part of the reason why it is so important that we demonstrate to the Arab world. One that we will do everything that we can to protect and help people in Iraq because even if a fraction of those figures I have just given you, not from government sources, about the thousands of people dying needlessly in Iraq is true, then Iraq will benefit from a better more representative government that takes care of the rights and prosperity of the people in Iraq. And secondly, we also have to make sure that we show the even-handedness that I think the Arab world rightly demands, by giving priority also to the Middle East peace process. And I simply repeat to you what I have said many times before, that I believe that, more than any love of Saddam, is what concerns and worries people in the Arab world, and I understand that concern, I understand that worry, it is one of the things I will discuss with President Bush when we meet together. And I simply tell you, I know people have been sceptical and cynical about this, I am absolutely determined that we take forward this Middle East peace process because I believe it to be in the interest incidentally not just of the Palestinians, but also of Israel too.

QUESTION:

In Basra, as you pointed out, there is a humanitarian problem and there was one before the war in the sense of people being malnourished and needing drugs etc. Isn't that problem going to be much worse now given the lack of water, food and other resources that you say will still be several days, and what do you plan to do about it given that you are in effective control militarily? And secondly, you have failed to get one UN resolution already, if France and Russia persist with their insistence that this is an illegal war, how dangerous would it be if you fail to get a second one on the post-war Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the reason I believe it will be different is because it is manifestly in the interests of the UN and the people of Iraq, whatever you think about the military action, that the post-Saddam era in Iraq is governed by a UN resolution and I hope and believe people will appreciate that. In respect of the first point, the International Red Cross and other bodies are working very, very hard in Basra. I understand that 40% of the water is now reconnected. We are trying to build this pipeline in from Kuwait into southern Iraq which will supply water. I hope we can clear those mines reasonably quickly and Sir Gallahad will then bring in the humanitarian aid and relief. And then it is going to be a matter, as we are doing now in Umm Qasr where British troops are now patrolling the streets, of making it clear to people that we are there to help them, and we are there genuinely to liberate their country.

QUESTION:

Might it not be too late for a lot of those people, given their poor health now after a week without water?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I say, I think that 40% has been restored and I think we are getting additional chunks of that over the next few days. But I simply say to you we will do our level best to make sure that this happens, and I would also point out, as others have pointed out I think today, that unfortunately the shortage of electricity and water is not something new in Basra, it is something that has happened frequently.

QUESTION:

There are reports coming out of America today of credible intelligence evidence suggesting that Saddam is preparing to use chemical weapons in the next phase of the conflict. Have you recently seen such intelligence reports? Are you satisfied coalition forces are properly protected against that? And secondly you have said repeatedly you are certain this war will be won. Can I just ask, for the benefit of a wider audience, what exactly is it that makes you so sure?

PRIME MINISTER:

The reason why I believe this will be won is not just the skill and professionalism of our Armed Forces, but the fact that the cause is just and that people inside Iraq, yes there will be those intensely loyal to Saddam, who owe their existence to Saddam, that will defend him. But the vast majority of Iraqi people will want him gone. I won't comment on intelligence reports, but I can assure you obviously one of the things from the very outset that we have had to be careful about and to be on our guard about are the possibilities of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons, and that is something that we keep under constant review, but I won't go further into that.

QUESTION:

There has been much more talk from you and your government, including today, about the importance of having the United Nations involved in the humanitarian aid and reconstruction of Iraq, much more talk from you than there has been from President Bush and his administration since he said in the Azores 10 days ago that he would like to see the UN involved. Isn't it a fact that there is much less interest in Washington in that course of action than there is in London? And isn't it also a fact that the Bush administration would be reluctant to go back to the UN now after the bruising it feels it got in the futile pursuit of the second resolution?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you know in relation to the humanitarian aid and the Oil for Food Programme, we will need a UN resolution and that is important. And in respect of the rest, I simply refer you back to what was said in the Azores, and maybe it is less of an issue in the public discourse in the States, but I can assure you that it is our desire to make sure that the UN, as I said a moment or two ago, are centrally involved and that is in the interests of the international community and also the coalition forces. Because it is important that we make sure that we unlock the international financial institutions and others that will need to contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq. And I emphasise this again, the rebuilding of Iraq, not because of the bombing campaign of allies, but because of over 20 years of Saddam's rule. So I have these questions put constantly to me, all I can tell you about the diplomatic struggle there was about the second resolution that we didn't get, is that although I was told on many occasions that the US administration was not really struggling for it, I was very, very clear that they were and they did everything they possibly could to get it because they recognised it would have been better if we had.

QUESTION:

Isn't your need to go to Washington and to New York, 5 days into this conflict, precisely underlining the reality that you do not have agreement with the administration about a role for the United Nations immediately after Iraq is captured if you like, that the United States are talking actively of an American civil administration in the initial months, a military commander in a civil administration but with no role at that central core for the United Nations, and that your view is completely different from that. That is the view coming out of the State Department and the Pentagon, but your view is in quite variance to that and that is why you need to go.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that is not the reason for going. In fact we had anticipated having this meeting some time ago, indeed before the conflict began. It is important not just to discuss the role of the UN in post-conflict Iraq, but other issues as well, the ones that I have described to you. But there is no doubt in my mind whatever, and you must realise that one of the benefits of the relationship that I have is that I am not having to pick up the newspapers and read what the State Department may be saying, or the Pentagon may be saying, I am actually talking to the President every day, so I know what the situation is. And the situation is that it is common ground between us that the UN has got to be involved in the post-conflict Iraq, it is important for the coalition forces, as I said a moment or two ago. Now we need to get the whole set of details about how that works and the timing of it that we need to get right, that is true, but I have got no doubt at all that we will.

QUESTION:

If as you say this war is going to plan, does that imply that you are politically prepared for a conflict that may last not a matter of weeks, but months - and I emphasise the politically there.

PRIME MINISTER:

What I say to you is, as I said a moment or two ago, that the strategy that we have unfolded is the strategy we anticipated having to unfold, and there is absolutely no point in getting into speculating about how long it takes. I simply point out that within 5 days of the conflict beginning we are 60 miles south of Baghdad, a large part of Iraq has been secured and each of the main strategic objectives has been achieved. And as I say, what is difficult sometimes is because it is an extraordinary thing to watch this being reported in the way that it is, with constant news coming in and incidents happening and people ascribing great significance to them, or not significance to them, the thing to keep in mind is the strategy that we set out, and at the present time it is going as we anticipated it would.

QUESTION:

In the past few days there have been tensions at the border with Turkey and the border with Iran. Do you think it would be an opportune time to introduce a new Security Council resolution guaranteeing the borders of Iraq as demarcated as present? And secondly, what will happen with the ... organisation, a guerrilla organisation identified as a terrorist group that is operating inside Iraq at the moment and is being suspected by quarters in Iran of sending the missiles to Iran?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think in respect of the terrorist groups operating there, we have already made it clear that we will act against them as we need to. I think the point that you make about Turkey is obviously very important and is a concern for people, but it is a matter of common consensus throughout the whole of the international community that the territorial integrity of Iraq has got to be respected. And there have obviously been concerns that people have expressed about what might or might not happen in respect of Turkey. I can assure you that messages have gone from the American government, from the British government, to not just the Turkish government but exchanges between our militaries as well, and I am satisfied that Turkey understands very well that of course there are various humanitarian issues that they may have to cope with, but that the territorial integrity of Iraq has to be preserved entirely.

QUESTION:

You say there are common grounds between you and President Bush that the UN should have a prominent role in post-conflict Iraq, but President Bush seems to see a role in humanitarian aid. Are you confident you can persuade him that the UN should have the central role too in reconstruction and in any civil authority post-Saddam?

PRIME MINISTER:

I simply refer you to the statement that we all signed at the Azores summit, which is why I don't believe that there will be a problem in respect of this. I think there are tremendous amounts of detail that you need to get sorted out about how it all works, but there is no question of the UN role being reserved simply for the humanitarian situation. It is important that whatever administration takes over in Iraq, that that has the authority of the UN behind it. That is going to be important, as I say, for the coalition forces, for the Iraqi people, for the international community.

QUESTION:

You said in your Commons speech last Tuesday in justifying the case for war against Saddam that the roadmap for a Palestinian state would be published as soon as Abu Mazen had been appointed Prime Minister. That happened on Wednesday. 6 days later and 5 days into the war, the roadmap has not been published.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but the reason for that is that both Abu Mazen and everyone else has considered that the best time to do it is actually when he has formed his Cabinet, and I can assure you it will happen. The moment his Cabinet is formed, the roadmap will be presented both to him and to the Israeli government.

QUESTION:

Would it be counted a success if Saddam simply disappears, as Bin Laden has, or are you confident that won't happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is a difficult thing to speculate upon, but the most important thing is that the regime is removed from power. I think it highly unlikely that it will be removed from power and Saddam simply goes into hiding, but who can speculate on that. But I think you will notice that the immediate difference will come when people realise that the regime is not going to stay in place and that Saddam is going to go, and I think that that is the absolutely critical thing to get across.

QUESTION:

Are we heading towards a point, without giving away any military details, where you have to decide to be more reckless with the lives of civilians or more reckless with the lives of soldiers? And secondly, who is going to pick up the cost of rebuilding all the buildings that are being bombed at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Just on the reconstruction point, as I say the vast bulk of the reconstruction is about rebuilding Iran after Saddam. As I think people have seen and been in one sense surprised at, we said it would be precisely targeted, it has been precisely targeted, and the whole issue of the cost of that and how that is financed obviously is one of the things you discuss through the UN process. The answer to the first question is no, I think we have got to achieve our military objectives but one part of those military objectives, as I was saying to the House of Commons yesterday, is to make sure that we remove the regime of Saddam in a way that makes it clear that our target is and always has been Saddam's regime, not the Iraqi people. And sometimes I think these things are difficult for us to focus on, used as we are to our system.

But again if you just reflect for a moment, that you have 4 million Iraqi exiles out of a population of 22 - 23 million, that there is a vast displaced group of people out of Iraq. There are then people inside Iraq, and again I think the extraordinary thing is just to reflect for a moment on how they have created a system where they are able to subdue people by a mixture of repression and the fact that they are absolutely dependent for their existence on the Food Aid programmes that they distribute through these 45,000 distribution centres, and people who are hostile to the regime simply do not have the food and the medicine distributed to them. So it is an incredible machine of internal repression that has been created. I was just hearing this morning that insofar as it is possible to estimate these things, it is estimated that unemployment inside Iraq is round about 50%, in other words half the population. They are people completely deprived of the normal means of existence. And what we have got to do, and this is what I think will be immensely powerful once this conflict is over, is just to demonstrate to people exactly what the extent of that repression and the way that that system was so that people can see that as a result of Saddam being in power you had a country potentially rich and wealthy deprived of any proper form of prosperity for the vast mass of people, and I think that will deal with an awful lot of the concerns and worries. I have always said to people throughout that our aim has not been regime change, our aim has been the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. But I have also said that when we discuss the moral context of war, there is no doubt in my mind, never has been and there is not any doubt now, that for people in Iraq this will in the end be a moment of liberation for them, however difficult it is now.

QUESTION:

Many experts in the Middle East think, or even believe, that if the United States and the United Kingdom changed the pretext of the current war from disarming Iraq of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, into disarming the Middle East of DMDs, dictators of mass destruction, you easily could have won a lot of support from the masses in the region. How would you respond to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it is a good point and it is one that we have wrestled with throughout, because we have had to operate within the context of international law and the demands of the United Nations which were for the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. And the logic of that position has been somewhat uncomfortable, frankly for me and for others, that if Saddam had voluntarily disarmed he could have remained in place. Now personally I think his regime would have changed its very nature through that process, but on the other hand he would have remained in power. In one sense I feel more comfortable with the position now where we are saying quite plainly to people the only way now to disarm him is to remove the regime. And I think that the reason why as I say I have never had any doubt that this is the right thing to do is because to remove that regime from Iraq is to send a huge signal not just to the people of Iraq but a signal right across the world. And I do think, and I am sure that people in the Middle East would agree with this, that if at the same time, and this is absolutely central, I can't overstate the importance of this. If at the same time we really do make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, then that I think will put the whole attitude of the relations between the Arab and Muslim world on the one hand, and the west on the other, in a different context, which is why we have got to do both.

QUESTION:

Could I ask a question about prisoners. Given that there isn't any specific UN mandate for this military action, do you believe there is a danger that the Iraqis might see themselves justified in declaring coalition prisoners as unlawful combatants, in the way the US did with the Taliban? And does it not make it difficult for us to hark on about human rights in this context when we are still treating prisoners with a lack of human rights at Guantanamo Bay?

PRIME MINISTER:

In relation to Guantanamo Bay, first of all we see our own British nationals that are there and we investigate very carefully allegations of any human rights abuse and we are satisfied that is not happening.

Now it is, as I expressed before, a unique and difficult situation. I simply again say though that the one problem that we have in tackling this is that there is still information that is being checked with people in Guantanamo Bay that does have a genuine interest and use for us in fighting terrorism, and that is the uncomfortable fact about that. In relation to any prisoners taken by the Iraqis, these are troops acting under the authority of the state, they are quite plainly prisoners of war and should be treated in accordance with the proper conventions.

QUESTION:

Reports are now coming back from some British commanders that when they request maybe air strikes or artillery strikes, the targets they requested are being vetoed as being too sensitive. Is it not the case that the political imperatives which are being imposed by you, in other words that this army should look like an army of liberation, not conquest, is actually tying the hands of the military who still have tofight and win a dangerous war?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, and nothing must be done to put our troops at risk and the purpose of this is to make sure that we achieve our military objectives as swiftly as possible. But I can assure you the issue of targeting, as it always is, is done carefully with the military commanders in a way that minimises civilian casualties. I can assure you from my discussionswith the military who are involved in this process, they are also anxious because they are decent people, humane people, to avoid civilian casualties as far as possible.

QUESTION:

Opinion polls seem to suggest that British public support for this war has increased since the war began. How much attention do you pay to those polls? And secondly, what impact do you think that the immediacy of the TV pictures of this war have had on your ability to sell the war to the British public?

PRIME MINISTER:

In relation to the first, you can't conduct these things according to the polls. They are interesting reflections of where public opinion is and it doesn't greatly surprise me frankly because I think that people were moving in this way, I think actually once they learnt more about the nature of Saddam's regime and once they heard the arguments expressed. And the one thing that I have found, not just with members of the public but actually within my own political party, is that even where there is disagreement there is an understanding at least of why we feel, I feel as strongly as I do, and why I believe that we are doing the right thing. In relation to the way it is covered, well there are difficulties, I have certainly found this an extraordinary experience when you are watching it on television, it is a conjunction of war in immediate reporting in a way that is completely different. I feel completely different incidentally even from how the war in Afghanistan was reported, and of Kosovo. Now you guys are in a better position to judge that than me, and there are benefits in terms of openness, and I think it is important that we have been more open with the media about what is happening than I think in any war in anyone's living memory.

But at the same time I think what is important is that people get a sense of the overall shape of the strategy, rather than just picking out individual facts or incidents which may be the ones caught on camera when there are lots of things that we don't see. I mean we don't see the people being executed by Saddam who want to give up, but I can assure you that is happening. What we don't see is the repression and the brutality of the Iraqi regime, but it is every bit as real. We don't have any cameras inside the torture chambers in the prisons, the political prisons of Saddam, but those people are there and are being abused in that way. And that is the only thing I think we need to bear in mind the whole time, that what we see is real but it is not the only part of reality.

QUESTION:

Are we currently in contact with members of Saddam's inner circle, and do you have any reason to believe that those talks could weaken his government or perhaps dismantle it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think I should comment on any intelligence that we have. Our objective remains as it is, to remove Saddam's regime, and the people that are closest to him will naturally want to cling on to power.

QUESTION:

Leading on from that previous question, are you frustrated, perhaps even angry, that Saddam Hussein is still able to use television within Iraq to spread the message to his people and throughout the world that he and his regime are still in control? Aren't you surprised, perhaps like a lot of people, that that particular part of the infrastructure hasn't been targeted or taken out yet?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it is very surprising that Saddam is giving this picture to his people, that is what he always does. And I think again this has been explained quite well to us from people that we have within some of these cities. For example I got a report this morning from people who are inside Basra, and the report is I think a quite useful expression of how Iraqis are seeing this. They are seeing basically what is on Iraq television, they see the militia men heavily armed, patrolling the streets, as they have always been, the same people that have been in charge of them, and they are naturally very cautious about what is going to happen. But I think there will come a point where they realise that the regime's grip on power is being prized away, and I think that will happen in a way that then has an immediate impact on the population.

And it is not surprising at the moment at any rate that Saddam carries on pumping out the propaganda he always has.

QUESTION:

If those Iraqis were forced to defend Saddam's regime, why are there more Iraqis going back to Iraq rather than going out of it? And secondly, why those Shia Muslims, who have always been devastated by Saddam, have been instructed by their clerics in Iraq and outside it, not to support the war which some of them see as the crusade promised by George Bush after 11 September?

PRIME MINISTER:

First of all I should say that of course just to put the point on Record. I don't think President Bush ever promised a crusade, I know this is what is often said but it isn't actually correct. And there will be people who will judge this, as I was saying a moment or two ago, after the conflict. It will be quite interesting to see after the conflict how people then react when they see that actually what we are trying to bring about is a situation of religious tolerance, of where the diversity of Iraq is recognised and the government is more representative and where people's human rights are respected. And many of these same things were said about Afghanistan, that this was going to be a war on Muslim people. It wasn't. It wasn't true then and it isn't true now. And I think that you will find that in Afghanistan, whatever the problems, 2 million exiles have returned to Afghanistan and I think you will find that Iraqi exiles do indeed return to their country. The Iraqi people have always been an immensely intelligent enterprising people and all they need is the opportunity to thrive under a government that allows them to work and to prosper and to express their views, whether in terms of their own religion or their own politics, in the way that they want.

QUESTION:

Kuwait has been at the receiving end of the scud and other types of missiles in recent days. Would this confirm the belief that he still possesses weapons of mass destruction? And secondly, the discovery of chemical and other reported chemical weapons inside Iraq, and also the fact that Russia has been supplying illegally some weapons, would this cause concern to you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I won't comment on the latter point about Russia, except to say that I hope everyone understands their obligation is to obey the United Nations rules on sanctions against prohibited materials. In respect of the weapons that he may have or use, that is one of the reasons why it is so important that we move quickly through the country. There will be a point in time when we are able then properly to begin the search for weapons of mass destruction, but again what is essential to emphasise is this is a big country, it is a very, very big country. I think it is something like twice the land mass of the UK, and I often say to people if you take Northern Ireland as an example, the British security services have been trying to search out weapons dumps of the IRA for the past 30 years, and not with a great deal of success frankly over the years. The idea that we can suddenly discover this stuff is a lot more difficult in a country the size of Iraq, but of course once the regime is out then there will be all sorts of people that will be willing to give us the information that we seek. And in the meantime what is important is that we continue to do everything we can to disable the regime. It is true also, as I have said before, that in part because of the programmed concealment of these weapons, some of the weapons systems have been dismantled and would need to be put back together again, and so that is an inhibition on him. But having said all of that, we know he has this material and we have got to take every precaution against him using it.

QUESTION:

If the coalition forces didn't actually find substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction, how damaging would that be to your own credibility and indeed to the whole raison d'être for going to war in the first instance?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have absolutely no doubt at all that these weapons of mass destruction exist, and the only thing I would say to you is that if they didn't, his cooperation with the inspectors would have been a very, very easy thing to have done. And I think there is a very clear reason why he obstructed them for 7 years, then effectively they had to leave. And I have always thought that the notion once he got rid of the inspectors that he decided to voluntarily do what he had refused to do whilst the inspectors were there, a slightly strange idea.

QUESTION:

British troops in Iraq will have come across already, maybe they have taken prisoners that would be members of the regime or people who can be prosecuted under the statute of the ICC in Rome, for which ... was one of the earlier underwriters. Since Washington opposes the ICC for the moment, are you resigned that this is a ... problem, that there will be no role for the ICC to play in the legal trial or prosecution of people in Iraq in the regime, and is this not a very serious undermining of the ICC at the first opportunity?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are committed to the ICC, as you know, and I really can't speculate on what role they might have in relation to this and I hope very much we can resolve the outstanding issues to do with the US in respect of it. But at the present time the prisoners that we have taken in Iraq have been ordinary soldiers.

QUESTION:

What is your assessment of the mood amongst grass roots Labour supporters, and do you believe that the Labour Party might well be heading for a fall in the local elections in just 5 weeks time because of your policy on Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't believe that, I think actually in the local elections there are other issues frankly that are exercising people as much as the conflict in Iraq. But in terms of the local elections I am not saying people obviously aren't gripped by what is happening now. Of course they are, but I think in terms of how they vote in local elections there are local issues too that matter to people.

QUESTION:

What specifically are you going to do to rebuild relations between America and Europe, and is there not a danger that at end of the conflict, rather than there being a bridge between the two, Britain will be left isolated unable to deliver Europe to America and no longer at the heart of Europe?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is going to be at the end of this, and there should be.This is perhaps a slightly undiplomatic thing to say at this stage, but let me say it nonetheless. There is at the end of this going to have to be a discussion, and indeed a reckoning, about the relations between America and Europe. It is not correct that Europe is all one-way in relation to this. If you treat the accession countries, as they will be this time next year, as members of the European Union, there is a majority for our position inside Europe. But it is true to say that there is a substantial body of European opinion that is opposed to this action. Now it is also in my judgment not correct that the United States administration wants to pursue a unilateralist path without care for the rest of the world, I think they realise that is not sensible for America and it is not sensible for the wider world. But if we are going to have a strategic partnership between Europe and America, we have to work out the basis of that and how we make progress on issues that are difficult issues between us.

And the fact is we should have been able to come to an agreement over the second resolution. We came to an agreement over the first resolution, we entered into that agreement and the agreement wasn't fulfilled in the end and we have got to ask questions about that. Because I have no doubt at all, I know I have said this so many times to you, but I do believe that it is so important, if Europe and America split apart from each other, the loser is not going to be Britain. We will retain our position in Europe and we will retain our strong position with the United States, the loser will be the wider world because on every single issue that comes up there will be rival poles of power to which people can gravitate.It will be far harder to make the international order stable and secure.Faced with these threats of terrorism and repressive states with weapons of mass destruction, we need a common agenda and that common agenda has got to be about security and about where necessary military action.But it has also got to be about a basic and essential concept of justice, which is why I say to people at the same time that we do the action in Iraq we have got to make progress in the Middle East. And that is the basis of it. Now that is the view I will carry on fighting for because I think it is right. And sure this has exposed real tensions between America and Europe within the transatlantic alliance and we have got to find a way afterwards of putting this back together on a sound basis for both of us, because the alternative is this concept of rival poles of power in the world and that is a profoundly dangerous concept. It is not something that is in the interests of Europe or America. A partnership is what we want and a partnership is what we should have and that is what we will carry on working for. And that is obviously something that will form a significant part of the discussions I will have in America.

QUESTION:

You spoke a moment ago about democratic pluralism in a post-Saddam Iraq, but the experts tell us that a clear majority of the population are Shia Muslims. If they chose to exercise that democratic right to elect a government which was more Islamic in character and possibly tilting towards Iran, is that an outcome which you or President Bush could countenance?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well first of all I don't believe that will happen, indeed all the evidence we have from Shia Muslims in the south of Iraq is that they would prefer to live in an Iraq which is governed by a broad based government that allows all religious and ethnic groupings to take part.

Now obviously this is something we have to discuss, you can't simply go in and impose a style of government without trying to lay down roots of what that government may be. But I do also point out that it is interesting in the north part of Iraq there is at least some fledgling democracy there that has grown up once people were allowed some freedom. And I think you will find that the vast bulk of people would prefer to live in a country of religious and political tolerance, rather than simply impose their wishes on everyone else.

QUESTION:

It is again about the fact that you said that one of the things you will discuss with President Bush is how to get the Americans and Europeans working together again as partners and not as rivals. Now in the light of the interesting diplomatic debate with the French over the past few weeks, do you feel you are the right person to take this on?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that it is possible to find agreement, but I do think this is not about a personal issue in the end at all. It is about a genuine question as to what the transatlantic relationship is about and its importance, and whether we do have a partnership or we do have this concept of a multi-polar world in which you have different poles of power to which people gravitate. Now I just think there is no point in either trivialising this by pretending it is about personal relations, because the personal relations are actually fine, there isn't a problem with the personal relations, but there is a genuine political issue that needs to be determined. And I think there is no point in hiding it any more or pretending that it isn't something that we should have out in the open and discuss. And you know in a curious way I think there is more common ground than people think, but we need a better way of conducting that dialogue than what we have seen over the past few months, that is for sure. Because otherwise what happens is that people get set in their rigid positions and then frankly they become caricatures of their positions. I am quite sure that people in France recognise that Saddam is an evil man who has done the most appalling things to his people, I am quite sure that people recognise that.

Equally, I believe that people inside the United States administration know that it is better if we can pursue whatever causes we think are necessary and just with the full authority of the United Nations, which is why people did strive so hard to get a second resolution. So sometimes these differences aren't as great as they appear, but there is no point in hiding it. This has thrown up a profound issue about the nature of the transatlantic alliance, and it is not just the responsibility on me, but on all of us, whether in the French or other European systems, or in the United State of America, to find a way of putting it back together, because otherwise the conflicts in the world will be less susceptible of solution and the dangers the world faces will be exacerbated. Now that is my belief, that is what I will fight for because it is what I think. And the reason I have I suppose been more open with you than perhaps was entirely diplomatic today is just because I think you might as well be open about it, that is the discussion, and I think it is a debate that we should have not just at the level of the political leaders phoning each other up or talking to each other at meetings, but also amongst the people themselves. Because I think when you analyse it, you sit down and you really reflect on this, there is a lot of talk in Europe, not so much here, although here too, but certainly in other places in Europe, about so-called anti-Americanism. I don't believe when people in Europe really reflect on it, they want or are anti-American at all, I think most people when they really sit down and reflect upon the interests of Europe, they would regard the idea of sacrificing the transatlantic alliance as madness, because it would be, absolute madness.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think that the issue of the euro is to be decided according to ...

QUESTION:

But it is a political matter as well, surely?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it is a political matter too, but it is a political matter about Britain's relations with Europe and whether we join the euro or not should depend on the five economic tests, as you know . And that is what I think is important for people in France to understand as well, there is a genuine debate here that we have got to get sorted out. Obviously in the next period of time the focus is going to be perfectly naturally and rightly on the conflict and how it unfolds, but at the end of this we need to go back and we need to think our way through this - how did we get to this point and how do we avoid this in the future?

ENDS

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