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UK PMOs Briefing 1 April 2003

PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM TUESDAY 1 APRIL 2003

IRAQ

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) took the opportunity to put the military campaign so far into context. Last week, he said, we had seen the Coalition taking a strategic grip of Iraq in the first days of the war. That strategic grip had involved securing the oil fields, isolating cities and towns like Basra in the south, ensuring that the west of Iraq was not used to attack neighbouring states, beginning to move into the north of the country, as well as moving very quickly on Baghdad to begin the process of tightening the grip there. We had now moved to a new phase - that of steady advance, the signs of which had been observed yesterday. We were moving in on Basra, wearing down the opposition there and elsewhere and beginning the process of changing the military profile in those areas where we were in control. We would see more evidence of that today with soldiers changing from hard hats to soft hats and engaging local people. Aid and water supplies were also being moved into those areas too. The steady advance would continue in all areas - in the South, the North and around Baghdad where we were bearing in on the Republican Guard. Then, when we were ready - and only when we were ready - the final phase would come into play: the removal of Saddam and his regime. No one was under any illusions. There would be further difficulties and further loss of life - both in relation to military personnel and, despite all our best efforts, civilians too - as yesterday's tragic incident at a checkpoint in the South of Iraq had demonstrated all too clearly. However, one thing was certain. Day by day, engagement by engagement, we were drawing ever closer to the time when the Iraqi people would have the freedom to decide their own future in a WMD-free Iraq run by, and for, the people themselves. As had become apparent in the last twenty-four hours, fear was a major factor in the response of the local population in areas under Coalition control, which should not come as any surprise after two and a half decades of Saddam's brutal regime. However, that fear was receding hour by hour as people began to see that we were serious and that we would follow the campaign through, hence the increasingly warm welcome which our troops were receiving. Of course no one was under any illusion about the difficulties and the dangers ahead. However, steady progress was being made in this phase of steady advance and that should not be under-estimated in any way.

Asked on what evidence we were basing the claim that the fear factor was receding and that the Iraqi people were welcoming Coalition troops, the PMOS said that we had seen signs of that in towns around Basra yesterday. We had also noticed that people were plucking up the courage to go into Ba'ath Party Headquarters to seize any material they could find from there, which they obviously would not have done had they believed that Saddam was likely to retain his position. Put to him that David Blunkett had conceded in his Newsnight interview last night that Coalition forces were still regarded as the enemy, the PMOS said we conceded that, after two-and-a-half decades, the fear factor was very real. However, there were some places where the fear factor was beginning to recede. Of course that was not to overstate what was happening. Obviously there was still a long way to go. Nevertheless, it was clear what was going on.

Asked when the second phase of steady advancement had begun, the PMOS said that it was not the type of operation on which it was possible to place a particular time, date or day. That said, there was a clear transition taking place from the first phase to the second. Put to him that we should already be thinking about moving to the third phase because time was not on our side if we wanted to enjoy support for the war and the publication of the Middle East roadmap, the PMOS said we believed that people would rather see steady progress being made than a rush to meet objectives before we were ready. That was precisely what was happening both on the military side, the humanitarian side and the diplomatic side.

Asked if the Coalition was surprised at the lack of evidence regarding the existence of WMD in Iraq, the PMOS pointed out that units of the Iraqi army had been issued with protective suits. Given the fact that they knew we did not use WMD, people could draw their own conclusions. While were not over-claiming anything at this stage, to suggest that there was no evidence of WMD was incorrect. Put to him that the Iraqis might have been given protective suits because of the possible harm caused by depleted uranium shells, the PMOS said that he was not a spokesman for the Iraqis and it was therefore not his job to speak on their behalf. He was simply pointing to the widespread discovery of protective suits and referring to the fact that the Iraqis knew we did not use WMD. Who knew what we might find in the future as the campaign went along? Asked whether the removal of WMD remained a key objective, the PMOS said that ridding Iraq of its WMD remained one of our key objectives. However, in the light of the fact that Saddam had refused to comply with Resolution 1441, his removal was clearly the only way to achieve that objective. If, within that process, a representative Government was allowed to take over in Iraq, that would obviously be a good thing, not a bad thing, for the Iraqi people. Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister would accept that the non-discovery of WMD by the end of the conflict would mean that the war would have been illegitimate, the PMOS said he did not think it was helpful to get into a speculative discussion while military action was still taking place. Who knew what we might find in the days ahead.

Put to him that Coalition troops were in control of vast swathes of Iraq and yet nothing had turned up so far and whether our focus on Baghdad and surrounding towns was an admission that initial intelligence reports stating that Iraq's WMD were distributed around the country had been wrong, the PMOS said we continued to believe that Saddam had dispersed constituent parts of his WMD programme around Iraq. No doubt they would be found as we gained more ground. However, just because we hadn't discovered a WMD factory so far did not mean that there was no WMD in Iraq. At this stage our primary purpose was to win the military conflict and to free the Iraqi people of Saddam and his regime. Once that happened, we had no doubt that all sorts of stories and information would come to light.

Asked what steps were being taken to ensure that the bombing of towns and cities, such as Tikrit and Baghdad, did not hit stores of WMD which we believed were located there, the PMOS said that it wasn't our policy to comment on intelligence matters. He would simply underline the fact that we stood by what we had said in the past about WMD.

Asked to verify a report in today's Guardian suggesting that a number of US Commanders would take over Iraqi cities as they were liberated, whether the Prime Minister approved of the plan, whether he had discussed it with President Bush at Camp David last week and how it would relate to the eventual aim of securing a UN Resolution on reconstruction, the PMOS said that our goal was to see Iraq run by, and for, the people of Iraq themselves. Obviously we wanted that to happen as soon as possible. However, as had been underlined at Camp David and at the Azores Summit, we recognised that an interim arrangement would have to be made - and both the UK and US had committed themselves to the UN having a role to play within that. How such a thing would work in practice was a matter for discussions that were still ongoing and it would therefore be premature to brief on them. Put to him that his 'dry' replies to such important questions were doing neither him nor the Government any favours, the PMOS said he would disagree. We were not running scared of headlines. The policy-making process was clearly the best way to make policy and that was the approach we would continue to take.

Asked whether yesterday's tragic incident at a checkpoint in Southern Iraq would have happened had the US troops involved had as much experience as their British counterparts in carrying out their military duties in such close proximity to civilians, the PMOS said it was true that UK troops had, unfortunately, had experience of such operations in the past. The primary lesson of yesterday's incident was that people should not rush to judgement but investigate carefully what had happened and consider whether there had been any extenuating circumstances. It was perfectly legitimate to question whether the rules had been observed. Equally, it was perfectly legitimate to point out that the unit involved was the one which had been attacked by a suicide bomber on Saturday. Ultimately, it was best to let the American authorities get on with their work of investigating the circumstances on the ground. No doubt wider lessons would be shared throughout the Coalition.

Asked by the Mirror to explain why the murder of seven women and children was not considered a terrorist act - unlike a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint, the PMOS said that it was important for all the circumstances surrounding the incident to be investigated at a local level. No doubt such an inquiry would examine whether the rules had been obeyed or not. Obviously we regretted any incident in which innocent civilians were killed. That was precisely why we would be investigating the matter under strict rules in order to ensure that such a thing did not happen again. This was in direct contrast to a suicide bomber who set out to kill people deliberately, and to a regime which used death as a means of governance. In comparison, the Coalition forces had entered Iraq to free the Iraqi people and were now making every effort to feed them and bring water to those in areas under allied control. Clearly any attempt to say that the actions of the Coalition forces and Saddam's regime were in some way equivalent was not only factually wrong, but morally repugnant.

Questioned about the investigation into the market place bombing last week, the PMOS said that there was a strong element of doubt that the Coalition was responsible. However, it was difficult to be conclusive about this matter since we were not on the ground there.


Asked if the British Government was concerned about proposals to send 'irregular' Iraqi soldiers to Guantanamo Bay, the PMOS said that the important thing was to ensure that all prisoners were treated in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. We were talking to international agencies, such as the Red Cross, to ensure that was the case. Pressed as to whether the Geneva Convention covered any Iraqi PoW taken in combat, whether uniformed or not, the PMOS said that he was not an expert on the Geneva Convention. However, we had been given an assurance that all PoWs would be treated in accordance with the Convention.

Asked if the British Government associated itself with the threats issued by Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld to Iran and Syria if they helped Iraq, the PMOS said that we were obviously investigating the concerns which had been raised with regard to Syria. It had been made clear that Syria had to make a choice as to where it stood. As the Prime Minister had said when President Bashar Al Assad had visited Downing Street last December, "We condemn totally anybody who is engaged in terrorist activity of any sort at all wherever in the world. I do however believe that it is important to engage with Syria because Syria is going to be an important part of building a peaceful and stable future in the Middle East, and no matter what the level of our disagreement, it is still important that we continue that dialogue". Obviously that did not mean that we would not express our views to Syria in the strongest terms possible if we believed that they were falling foul of their international obligations. Asked the point of investigating the concerns which had been raised about Syria when Donald Rumsfeld had said explicitly that Syria had provided night-time goggles to the Iraqi military and whether this was an indication that the UK was not entirely convinced about the US's evidence, the PMOS said that obviously the US had certain evidence while we had our own. We would examine both.

Asked whether the Prime Minister agreed with the threat issued by Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld in which it had been emphasised that Syria would have to make the right choice or face the consequences, the PMOS said that given the role which Syria would be expected to play in a post-conflict world and given the efforts to restart the Middle East peace process, obviously there would be a positive impact if Syria moved in the right direction. That was simply a statement of fact - and the reverse was equally true. Questioned as to whether the UK would associate itself with any kind of military response if Iran and Syria were discovered to be supporting Iraqi troops, the PMOS cautioned journalists against jumping too far ahead of themselves.

Asked for a reaction to reports that scores of Palestinians were pouring into Iraq to help Saddam fight the allies, the PMOS said that there were conflicting reports about the numbers of people entering Iraq. While there had been a suicide attack on Saturday, it shouldn't be over-stated in that way at this point.

Asked for further detail about the Prime Minister's article in a Jordanian newspaper today, the PMOS said that the article had appeared in a number of Arab papers. As the Prime Minister had written: "I am grateful for this opportunity to explain why we are reluctantly undertaking the action and our goals for the future". The article was also a useful opportunity to underline the fact that "Iraq is not our only concern in the region. I share the widespread desire for real progress on the Middle East peace process. President Bush and I have committed ourselves to a fair, lasting and negotiated settlement by 2005 to provide a viable state for the Palestinian people and security for Israel. We will strive to see this through and help deliver the prize for peace".

Questioned as to whether today's Ministerial meeting on Iraq had addressed the problem of suicide bombers inasmuch as incidents like the one at the checkpoint yesterday would make it much more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, the PMOS said that no one underestimated the difficulties which our soldiers on the ground were facing, particularly with regard to suicide bombers. We would deal with the situation as best we could. Obviously the most effective way to stop such incidents was by ending the conflict, because only then would that lessen the chances of any other similarly tragic events happening.

CITIZENSHIP/IMMIGRATION AND ASYLUM

Questioned as to whether the Home Secretary would be able to deport Abu Hamza under the new asylum, immigration and citizenship measures which had come into force today, the PMOS said that it wasn't our policy to comment on individual cases. That said, the rules were aimed clearly at those people who abused their position.

ENDS

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