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UK PMOs' Briefing On Iraq - 25 March 2003

PRESS BRIEFING: 3.45PM TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003

IRAQ

Asked if the Prime Minister was certain that a UN Resolution would be secured to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people or whether he had merely been indicating in his press conference earlier today that he would try very hard to achieve it, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said the Prime Minister believed that people would recognise the importance of securing a Resolution for the Oil-for-Food programme as a priority given the immediate and practical benefits which would flow from such action. He was of the view that people would set aside whatever differences they had had until now so as to concentrate on the practicalities of helping the Iraq people - 60% of whom, even before the start of the conflict, had been dependent on the Oil-for-Food programme. Pressed as to whether the Prime Minister had been predicting that a UN Resolution would be achieved or if he had been expressing a hope that it would happen, the PMOS said that neither he nor the Prime Minister had any intention of pre-empting the discussions which were currently taking place at the UN. That said, we remained firmly of the view that people would, first-and foremost, want to address the practical question of how to feed and help the Iraqi people, not least because of the fact there was over $2bn worth in the Oil-for-Food kitty which had Saddam had not taken advantage of. Asked to explain how a new Oil-for-Food programme would operate, the PMOS said that this matter was being discussed at the UN at the present time. The talks should be allowed to run their own course. It would not be helpful to pre-empt the outcome. Asked about Syria's attitude to the humanitarian Resolution at the UN, the PMOS said he was many things, but not a spokesman for the Syrian Government. It was up to them to articulate their own views.

Asked if Downing Street believed that France would be willing to sign up to a Resolution which would legitimise the US military presence in Iraq in a post-Saddam government, the PMOS said that if there was one thing for which the question was noteworthy, it was the fact that it piled hypothesis on hypothesis. We were still in the middle of the military campaign and it would benefit no one to start jumping ahead of the game. Discussions were taking place on all these matters at the UN, and they should be allowed to run their course without people expecting us to give a running commentary. Put to him that it was important to think about these issues before the end of the military campaign - otherwise we could end up having to deal with a dangerous power vacuum, the PMOS said that our immediate priority was the Oil-for-Food Resolution for obvious reasons. We were taking things step by step given the military operation had a number of significant stages it had yet to go through. He drew journalists' attention to a report he had heard just before departing for this afternoon's press briefing which had stated that the British soldiers who were patrolling the streets of Umm Qasr were doing so in berets rather than hard harts - a strong indication that security was being established there. Put to him that a soldier had been killed in Macedonia after soldiers there had decided to take similar action, the PMOS pointed out that soldiers had worn berets in West Belfast and other areas very successfully, so the argument did not stand up.

Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister would definitely seek a Resolution relating to a post-conflict administration in Iraq, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken about getting the UN involved, which was what we would continue to work towards. However, it was important for people not to get too ahead of themselves at this stage. We still had a military campaign to fight.

Asked if the Prime Minister and President Bush would discuss the military strategy in their talks in Washington tomorrow evening, the PMOS said that obviously they would take the opportunity to review the military campaign. It went without saying that we had been in regular contact with the US Administration at every level from the outset on this issue. However, since the military strategy had been agreed and was being followed through, there was clearly less for the Prime Minister and President to discuss in that area than in others. That was why they would take the opportunity in their meeting tomorrow to focus in the main on the issue of a post-Saddam Iraq, and in particular the question of how to help rebuild the country from the state to which Saddam had reduced it.

Asked by the Mirror why the Prime Minister had chosen this particular time to go to the US when, as he himself had acknowledged, he should be focussing on the military campaign, the PMOS pointed out that the policy-making process was just that - a process. It meant that discussions took place in the first instance, to be followed some time later by a decision on what the presentation should be. No doubt the Mirror would be one of the first papers to criticise the Prime Minister were he not to identify the issues and discuss them primarily before making any announcement. Questioned as to why the Prime Minister was unable to discuss these matters over the phone with President Bush, the PMOS said that there were a number of significant and serious issues to be discussed. It was obviously easier to review the implementation of a military campaign - the strategy of which had been agreed - over the phone than it was to discuss the post-Saddam issues. That was why a decision had been made for the Prime Minister and President to meet face-to-face in Washington.

Asked if he had any information about reports that a Saudi peace plan was being drawn up, the PMOS said there was nothing he could point to at this stage. No doubt once the Saudi authorities had all the details, they would forward them to us. Asked if we would welcome such a plan, the PMOS said that we would obviously want to study any proposals before giving any knee-jerk response.

ENDS

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