State Dept. Daily Press Briefing for August 19
Daily Press Briefing
Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman
August 19, 2004
- Secretary Powell s Statement on the Anniversary of the Bombing of
- UN Headquarters in Iraq
- Progress in Iraq
- U.S. Support of Prime Minister Allawi
- Mahdi Army
- Missing American Journalist Micah Garen
- Allegations Regarding Preemptive Military Action
- U.S. Views of Iran s Nuclear Program
- Allegations Regarding Support for Muqtada al-Sadr
- Akhmadov Asylum Case
- Asylum Decisions
- Status of Six-Party Process / Working Group
- Continued Violence in South Ossetia
- Proposal to Withdraw Troops
- Secretary Powell s Consultations with Foreign Minister Lavrov
- U.S. Position on Referendum
- Transparency of the Referendum
- Allegations of Fraud
- Audit by Organization of American States (OAS) and Carter Center
- Query on Further Investigations of Referendum
- Response from U.S. after Completion of Audit
- Reports of Colombian Government Proposal to FARC
- U.S. Efforts for Release of Americans Held by FARC
- Fears of Anti-American Sentiment at Olympics
- Ambassador Thomas Miller
- Buddhist Leader Yu Tianjian Taken into Custody
- Peace Talks in Dar es Salaam
12:50 p.m. EDT
MR. ERELI: Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to begin with a -- by reading a statement from Secretary of State Powell on the one-year anniversary of the bombing at the UN Headquarters in Iraq:
"Today marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Iraq. On behalf of the United States, I pay tribute and mourn the lives lost on August 19th, 2003. The death of my dear friend, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who devoted his life to helping others, as well as the other dedicated UN personnel serving in Iraq, was a senseless loss for the United Nations, the Iraqi people and all who believe in the promise of a free and democratic Iraq. To the survivors as well as the families of colleagues who lost loved ones, we will not let their sacrifice be in vain.
"This vicious attack cannot break the will of the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan and all of us who are committed to helping the people of Iraq build a better future. The United Nations work and its progress to date is a testament to the efforts begun by Sergio Vieira de Mello and his United Nations colleagues. The Secretary General's Special Representative, Jehangir Qazi, is now in Iraq and supporting the Interim Iraqi Government as it embarks on a new chapter in the country's political transition and prepares for democratic elections.
"The international community will not be deterred by the immoral act of a year ago. The United States remains steadfast in its support for the United Nations Mission in Iraq. We will continue to work side by side as partners to help build a free and peaceful Iraq. That's what Sergio and his brave colleagues would have wanted."
And, with that, I'll take your questions. Yes.
QUESTION: Does the Secretary believe that Iraq is safer today than it was one year ago?
MR. ERELI: We all believe, the Secretary and all of us, that there has been enormous progress made in a year. I think the events of yesterday are eloquent testimony to that. The fact that you had over a thousand Iraqis representing different ethnic, religious, tribal and political groupings coming together for four days to debate the political future of their country, to elect an interim council that will advise the interim Iraqi government shows, as I said before, that the sacrifice of so many has not been in vain, that it has been a costly endeavor but a worthwhile and a valuable one, and that the progress toward a free and democratic and prosperous Iraq is being made.
QUESTION: As of about an hour ago, there were reports that cleric al-Sadr is defiant and wants to -- isn't willing to stand by what he had said a day ago. And will President Allawi move into that mosque? And what will be the repercussions? And, certainly, it seems as that he want -- al-Sadr wants to undermine any efforts for a new government.
MR. ERELI: What Prime Minister Allawi and the government of Iraq are going to do is a question to ask Prime Minister Allawi and the government of Iraq. As we've consistently said, our role is to support Prime Minister Allawi and his government as they work to establish government control over territory, over the territory of Iraq, and against those elements such as the Mahdi militia, who are intent on using violence to pursue their objectives.
It's unacceptable in a democratic Iraq, in a sovereign Iraq, that groups such as these take over holy sites, fire on innocents and arrogate for themselves the power of the central government. That's something that Prime Minister Allawi, I think most recently in his press conference today, has said that the central government will not accept.
Our role is to support him and to support his colleagues as they assert their authority. But how this situation is going to be resolved, frankly, is in the hands of the Iraqi government.
QUESTION: Given how you view Sadr, do you support the idea that Prime Minister Allawi gave that these people would be protected, that Sadr and his people will all be protected if they give up their weapons, and also that he's free to stand as a candidate in the elections?
MR. ERELI: I would defer to Prime Minister Allawi on -- for comment on what he feels is the best and most prudent way to resolve this crisis, and we have every confidence in his leadership and his decision making.
QUESTION: But if that -- if the unrest doesn't end because Sadr is still allowed to remain active, it's still going to be your problem.
MR. ERELI: Let's see how they handle the situation, first.
QUESTION: You talked about the Mahdi army using violence to achieve its objectives. What is your understanding -- what is the U.S.'s understanding of their objectives?
MR. ERELI: I wouldn't want to begin to get into the mind of these, of these militia. I think clearly -- it's easier to say what their objective is not. And their objective is not, to this point, peaceful participation in the political process, which is what the government is calling for.
So rather than speculate about what they might want to do, let's just judge on the evidence, and the evidence shows that they are rejecting a peaceful expression of political dissent. That's what all of us who are trying to secure for Iraq a better future are trying to establish, and I think that's the benchmark that the Prime Minister has laid down. That's what's behind the terms that he has set forward, and that's certainly a position that we support.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the claim made yesterday by -- the threat made yesterday by an Iraqi radical group to execute or to kill American journalist Micah Garen? It was broadcast on Al-Jazeera yesterday. Do you think this threat is credible, this group is credible?
MR. ERELI: We have obviously seen the video, as have most of you, by those purporting to hold American citizen Micah Garen. We are obviously troubled and concerned by this development. We are doing everything possible to ascertain -- our embassy, our consular officials in Washington, and I think all who are working with us in Iraq are doing everything possible to ascertain his whereabouts.
We continue to remain in contact with Mr. Garen's family and his fiancée, and provide all possible assistance to them.
As far as the threats go, obviously, we take all information seriously. We use it. We try to act on it. Our objective is to bring about the safe release of this innocent victim of terror, and we'll continue to do everything we can to bring that about.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. ERELI: Mm-hmm. Go ahead.
QUESTION: This is related, Adam. The Defense Minister of Iran, in an Al-Jazeera interview -- I believe it was yesterday -- was expressing disquiet about the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and suggesting that if Iran felt that its interests were threatened, it might take preemptive military action of its own. Anything on that?
MR. ERELI: I've seen those reports, reports of those statements. I would certainly characterize them as unwarranted concerns. Let us remember that the United Nations -- the United States forces are there as part of a multinational force at the invitation of the interim sovereign authority of Iraq, the Interim Iraqi Government, pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions, to help support the stability and security of Iraq.
So there is no cause for seeing them as threatening; rather, our view is, and we've stated it quite often, that far from seeing them as threatening, they should be seen as stabilizing and Iraq's neighbors have an interest in joining with all of us working in Iraq to ensure that those who are trying to unsettle, destabilize or otherwise work against the government of Iraq are defeated.
QUESTION: Just to clarify that. I understand that the Iranian Minister was also referring not only to Iraq, but to possible strikes against nuclear -- Iranian nuclear facilities --
MR. ERELI: By --
QUESTION: --- by Israel or by others.
MR. ERELI: I don't know what he was -- I don't know that that's true. I don't know what he was referring to. The question was: Should anyone see U.S. forces in Iraq as being threatening? And I think, quite categorically, that they should not. But as far as other comments that may or may not have been made, I don't know.
On the issue of the rhetoric concerning strikes and counterstrikes over Iran's nuclear program, I spoke to that yesterday, and I said from the United States point of view, this is a program that is of serious concern and it is something that we are committed to pursuing through diplomatic means, as evidenced by our, I think, active diplomacy through the International Atomic Energy Agency.
QUESTION: A new topic. It's a little bit old, but I asked to see if we could recycle it. This is about -- this is about Chechnya and the Chechen -- the self-declared Chechen foreign minister, Mr. Akhmadov. Russia's pretty upset about the U.S. decision to give him asylum, has repeatedly asked for his extradition. What was the reason behind the U.S. Government's decision to drop its objection to the immigration court in Boston?
MR. ERELI: Let me just say two things to this. One is that asylum decisions are made by the courts, and as far as the reasoning or decisions of the U.S. Government on this, I'd refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
I would say these decisions are not statements of policy. As far as our policy goes, it's clear that the United States continues to support the territorial integrity of Russia and we do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the separatist Chechen government.
QUESTION: But, if I could follow up, I mean, Moscow has accused Washington of having a double standard here in the war on terror. Do you think it kind of sends the wrong message? Russia considers this guy a terrorist. Do you think it sends a wrong message to Russia to not extradite him, and has this had any effect on the relationship?
MR. ERELI: It shouldn't send that message. If that's the way it seemed, I would say it's certainly not the way it's intended, and we don't think that that should be the message taken away from this.
Second of all, I would certainly hope it doesn't affect the relationship because, as I said before, our policy towards the -- what is going on in Chechnya has not changed.
QUESTION: Can I just try to get a bead on where the six-party preparatory talks stand now? Are they going to be held at any particular time?
MR. ERELI: We are working with our other partners in the six-party process to hold a working group before the next plenary, which is scheduled before the end of September.
Diplomatic contacts and discussions are ongoing, but I'm not in a position today to give you any sort of more definitive picture of when the talks will take place.
QUESTION: So you actually think that you'll have working party talks before the next plenary in September?
MR. ERELI: Yes. That is still the expectation.
QUESTION: Can we go to Georgia for a minute? More fighting in South Ossetia, and the Georgians say that they've seized strategic heights above the regional capital. Do you have any comment on the continued fighting, and what are you doing, if anything, to try to help resolve this?
MR. ERELI: Right. We are working very actively with the Government of Georgia, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the Russians to bring the situation under control and promote a political settlement and dialogue.
As you noted, last night saw yet another exchange of fire between the Georgian and Ossetian positions. We've -- we're receiving conflicting reports of casualty figures. Obviously, we are greatly concerned by this continuation of violence.
Our Ambassador in Tbilisi, Richard Miles, has been consulting closely with Georgian officials and officials from the OSCE. Our objective, what we're working toward, is to reduce the level of violence and develop a political solution that enhances Georgia's territorial integrity.
My understanding is that President Mikheil -- President Saakashvili today offered a pullback of troops. We certainly welcome this move. It sends the right signal, and we call on all sides to build on this proposal to reduce tensions and to move the political process forward.
QUESTION: Have you had any direct contact with the Russians about this recently?
MR. ERELI: The Secretary spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Monday, and they did discuss this issue.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. ERELI: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Is that it? There were no hands.
MR. ERELI: Sir.
QUESTION: Venezuela. Thank you.
QUESTION: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: A storm seems to be brewing down there as evidence mounts of a great deal of fraud with electronic voting machines. They have offered to take a sample of one percent of the total of something like 8,000 districts, I think. And this has been refused by the democratic opposition, which is calling this the greatest fraud in Latin American history and pointing to the fact that it will have serious repercussions throughout Latin America. And there's a great outcry. People are saying, "Is the United States going to do what it did, leaving the boys on the beach in Cuba?"
What is the U.S. position? We've seen -- we've seen -- you started out by saying that you were very happy to see the Venezuelans vote; you hope there was transparency. Then you -- I think --
MR. ERELI: Let me characterize the U.S. position. The U.S. position is, as we've said very clearly, that preliminary results from the elections, as reviewed and endorsed by the Friends of Venezuela and the Carter Center and the OAS, indicate that President Chavez received a majority of the votes.
We believe that the -- we called for, at the very beginning, a transparent and constitutional process, and we believe that that's -- that the Venezuelan people have fulfilled that criteria.
At the same time, we note that there are charges of irregularities and that it's important that those charges be addressed in a transparent manner, in a complete manner, in order to demonstrate the credibility of these results.
For that reason, again, as was announced the day before yesterday, the OAS and Carter Center will be conducting an audit of 150 polling stations for the purpose of investigating the accuracy and validity of those charges. That is something that we support, that we think is important, important to validate the results of the elections, and important, moreover, to creating the kind of national reconciliation that is needed for Venezuela to move forward toward ending this political crisis.
We urge the international observers to investigate exhaustively all credible concerns regarding the electoral fraud expressed by the opposition, and we likewise urge all those concerned about possible electoral fraud to present their evidence to the OAS and Carter Center. This is what is needed in order to, I think, reasonably and responsibly address the concerns and resolve them in a way that serves the interests of all Venezuelans.
QUESTION: Well, I understand that evidence has been and continues to be presented to the Carter Center. And I just wonder what you mean when you say that the Venezuelan people fulfilled a transparent election process. They certainly don't think so.
MR. ERELI: Well, our view is that what we called for before these elections was met, which was an environment that allowed Venezuelans to go peacefully to the polls and express their views free of intimidation and harassment.
There were some cases, as we said before, of intimidation that we noted but, overall, we think that the process was credible and met international standards.
QUESTION: Adam, do you understand that what's being claimed is not the count of the votes by the centers, which is, of course, conducted under the government control, but actually the process in the machines, whereby there was manipulation of the results. Now, I --
MR. ERELI: I'm sorry. I understand that there are allegations of fraud and allegations of rigging. I also understand that the international observers who were responsible for observing the elections are taking those concerns seriously and conducting an audit and investigating them and establishing their validity and are going to pronounce on that investigation.
So I would simply say that we are taking the concerns seriously, they are being investigated, and we are awaiting the results of that investigation.
I don't know what more you would -- I don't know what more would be reasonable to call for.
QUESTION: Well, there's a definition of what is transparency.
MR. ERELI: Okay. That's not a debate or discussion that I'm prepared to get into.
QUESTION: Well, it should -- shouldn't it be, according to what you've called for?
MR. ERELI: We believe what we have seen meets the criteria of transparency that we called for.
QUESTION: Adam, a follow-up to this. There is an American polling organization that says their polling at the polls saw that the populace throughout much of the country was counter to what actually occurred following the election, and they've been harassed ever since. Is that above board, or do you want to ask for further investigation?
MR. ERELI: No, I think -- I think we stand by what we said earlier, and what the Friends of Venezuela said earlier, and what a number of others have said earlier, which is that the international observers, the Carter Center and the OAS, have, based on their observations and their work, said that the preliminary results are accurate.
QUESTION: I'm sorry to go back to Sadr, briefly.
MR. ERELI: Sure.
QUESTION: What's the U.S. view of whether Iran is providing any support to Sadr and his Mahdi army?
MR. ERELI: The U.S. view is that there are such allegations. I'm not in a position to confirm them for you. What we would say is that it's important, frankly, that the neighbors of Iraq, such as Iran, such as Syria, such as others, play a responsible role in supporting the government of Iraq and in using their influence to contribute to that country's security and stability. Certainly, arming militias who fight against the government doesn't meet that standard, but I'm not going to confirm for you whether or not that's the case.
QUESTION: While you went back to Iran, I'm going to ask another question. Included in these minister's remarks were a threat of preemptive force, and he said it's not just the U.S. who can decide to use preemption, anyone can do it, and if we feel threatened, that's what we're going to do, and he named Israel's Dimona facility specifically. Doesn't this ratchet up the rhetoric a notch, I mean, more than what we've been hearing lately? It sounds pretty provocative.
MR. ERELI: Right. I'm just not going to -- I'm not going to just chase statements from different foreign officials. I've told you what our views are. Our views are that, as far as our presence in Iraq, it's part of a multinational force sanctioned by the United Nations. Nobody should see it as threatening. And as far as Iran's nuclear program goes, it's of concern to the international community, and we think it should be dealt with peacefully and diplomatically.
QUESTION: Again, Iraq. Despite the Prime Minister Allawi's ultimatum to Muqtada Sadr, there is another official who asked Arab countries to intervene and trying to negotiate a peace deal out of it. Do you think it's so wise at this stage to do it, rather than (inaudible) militarily, to involve other countries in the region?
MR. ERELI: Our view is that it is the government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Allawi, who has responsibility for resolving this crisis. We support Prime Minister Allawi and his cabinet as they seek to, I think, find a peaceful solution to this problem. And I think it's important to remember that, you know, that this is a case of renegades seizing a holy shrine, using it for their purposes, and continuing to sustain violent action when everybody else is looking for a peaceful solution.
QUESTION: Yes, on Colombia, please. On the proposal from the Government of Colombia, President Uribe to exchange 50 guerilla FARC members for kidnapped Americans -- I'm sorry, kidnapped citizens in Colombia. Are you, in any way, opposed or do you have any view in reference to this particular effort from the Colombian Government? And also, if you have any information about the three Americans, are they going to be included into this exchange?
MR. ERELI: I really don't have a lot to say about these reports. Obviously, we've seen the reporting. We're not aware of any agreement that has been arrived at. I don't want to speculate on what might or might not happen. For that, I would refer you to the Government of Colombia. I would say that, you know, it's up to them to describe what it's negotiating or what it's discussing in this area. I would note that Colombia has, in the past, sought to put an end to the violence through negotiated settlements.
As far as the Americans go, held by the FARC go, I would state categorically that we are sparing no effort to achieve their release, their safe return to their loved ones. We continue to hold the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia responsible for their safety and their well-being, and it is our position that the Revolutionary Armed Forces should release these individuals immediately and without conditions.
QUESTION: Do you believe they're still alive, Adam?
MR. ERELI: I don't -- we don't have any information to suggest a change in their status.
QUESTION: Yes, a quick follow-up. Can this be seen, if the FARC agree on this proposal, can this be seen as an effort from the FARC members to gain the international approval, since they have lost so much for not being able to meet their agreements with the Government of Colombia?
MR. ERELI: Yeah, that just presumes too much. It presumes that there is going to be an agreement. It presumes that -- certain terms of that agreement. So those are presumptions that I just couldn't make. So let's -- the short answer is, let's see what happens and then draw the appropriate conclusions.
QUESTION: On the Olympics. According to Indianapolis newspaper, the Americans supposed to be greeted in Athens by a terrible show of anti-American sentiment as they march in the Opening Ceremonies. But many in the American delegation heard, as they followed by the basketball star, Dawn Staley, into the Olympics stadium, cheers, actually a lot of them by the Greeks. And NBC commented that, "Greeks have disagreed with American foreign policy, past and present, but make a distinction between the government and the people." Why did your Ambassador to Greece, Tom Miller, for months, by all means of communication -- cables to the Department of State, lectures even here in Washington, D.C., statements in newspapers talking about serious anti-American sentiment, an outcry in Greece -- why an American Ambassador, like Tom Miller, was not in a position to distinct between government and people? Any explanation to this phenomenon? Could you please look into that?
MR. ERELI: There is no need to look into it. I think there is no more dedicated and eloquent proponent of close Greek-American ties than our Ambassador to Greece, Mr. Thomas Miller, and he, as well as anyone, understands, I think, the close friendship between the Greek and American peoples, as an outspoken advocate of that firm basis for our bilateral relationship.
QUESTION: How do you explain all of these negative statements for months?
MR. ERELI: I don't know what negative statements you're referring to.
QUESTION: Adam, an American Buddhist organization says that one of its spiritual leaders was taken into custody in China in Inner Mongolia as they were dedicating a House of Worship there. Do you have anything on that?
MR. ERELI: What I can tell you is that we've learned from our Embassy in Beijing that Mr. Yu Tianjian, who is the leader of the Buddhist Foundation of America, was taken into custody. We have inquired about his welfare, but we do not have further details about his whereabouts and his condition. Our information is that the Buddhist Foundation of America had intended to gather in Kulum, Inner Mongolia, to celebrate the reopening of a temple complex there.
According to reports by several members of the Foundation, who were preparing for the arrival of the rest of their group, local authorities told the Foundation that the celebrations had been cancelled and that they had to leave the temple complex for safety reasons. Seven American Foundation members were physically removed from the complex on the evening of August 13th, and the larger group of its members were not allowed to visit it.
Our Embassy in Beijing has protested this treatment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we've been in contact with the local authorities in Inner Mongolia. We are working to help the Foundation members removed by the Chinese authorities recover their property and the property belonging to the organization.
QUESTION: The gentleman who was taken into custody, is he a U.S. citizen?
MR. ERELI: He is not a U.S. citizen.
QUESTION: Do you know what country he's a citizen of?
MR. ERELI: No, I can check.
MR. ERELI: Yes.
QUESTION: Was your statement that the United States was going to accept the sample audit by the Carter Center and the OAS, is that a definitive statement of American policy? I --
MR. ERELI: I didn't say we would accept the audit. I said we were -- we were -- we supported the audit and we were awaiting the results before making a statement.
QUESTION: But we have been led to expect that there would be a written communiqué.
MR. ERELI: Right. And I said yesterday that our written statement will follow the audit.
QUESTION: It will still come out?
MR. ERELI: Well, if we have a statement, it would come after the audit. I'm not promising that we'll have a statement or not. I think, obviously, we will express our views, but I wouldn't want to tell you definitively what form that expression of views will take.
QUESTION: Adam, yesterday you did issue a statement, or remark about a statement, about the massacre in Burundi. And African leaders, following their meeting in Dar es Salaam, want to bring that to the Security Council. Now, they want to brand the rebels, of course, as terrorists. Are you willing to do the same, and also to look into the earlier fighting in the Congo?
MR. ERELI: Yesterday there were peace talks held in Dar es Salaam with the presidents of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa and Tanzania. In our view, these talks were useful. They are aimed at bringing Burundi towards a peaceful transition to democratic elections and a permanent constitution. We're optimistic that the peace process in Burundi remains on track. Our focus is working with the UN and the parties, to help support the UN, help support this process. What other countries might want to do at this point, I think, is something for debate and discussion in that forum, and we'll just see where it goes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. ERELI: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:30 p.m.)