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Armitage Al Arabiya Television with Hisham Melham

Interview on Al Arabiya Television with Hisham Melham

Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary
Washington, DC
January 14, 2005

(11:30 a.m. EDT)


MR. MELHAM: Thank you, sir, for this opportunity. Mr. Secretary, can you give us the definitive answers to the question as to whether the Iraqi elections will be held on time?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: They will be held on the 30th of January, period.

MR. MELHAM: And as we've seen, as the elections draw nearer, we've seen a cacophony of voices in the United States, including some conservatives -- one of them is your friend Brent Scowcroft -- calling for the postponement of the elections and warning of the danger of the country sliding into civil war.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Those who call for a postponement have no program to put into effect during the period that they would delay the elections. We've had very deep consultations with this, both in Washington and with our friends in the government, the President, Ghazi al-Yawar, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. And there's no question we're going to go ahead with these elections on the 30th of January. That's the best thing, and that's what the Iraqi people expect.

MR. MELHAM: Secretary Powell was saying recently that even in those areas that are very problematic, where we have, you know, instability, that the voters should go and vote. But will that be possible, practically?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, we're trying to make it as possible -- quite possible by beefing up security, both with coalition forces and with the Iraqi security forces.

We have no doubt that, left to their own devices, the majority of Iraqis do want to participate in this historic election. And it's our job to try to provide as much security as possible, particularly in the four provinces which are, as Secretary Powell said, problematic.

MR. MELHAM: So, again, the Secretary said that he anticipates that if things go well in the security area that the United States will begin to withdraw or draw down its forces in Iraq this year, 2005. How realistic is that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, it's tied not only to the successful elections, but also to the training of security forces. There is an assessment team, as you probably are aware, which has just traveled to Iraq under the leadership of General Gary Luck, retired General Luck. They will make an assessment of the training, and once they've come back will be able to more, I think, accurately answer the question.

MR. MELHAM: Is this the so-called exit strategy that's been talked about?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, the exit strategy is based on one thing, and that is an Iraq which is whole, integrous, it's at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself. And as we've said from the beginning, at that time we're sure that the then-government of Iraq would want us to leave, and we will do so.

MR. MELHAM: What was the problem with training? I mean, initially, the projections were more optimistic about training, that by this time you will have national guard, army. What happened?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think we perhaps underestimated the need for the good, solid leadership. As you can see, just on the daily television, there are any number of people who are willing to sign up for jobs in the army and the police. But finding leaders, people who will take charge of their units and really make them better than they think they can be, has been a problem.

MR. MELHAM: Sir, we read recently about the so-called Salvadoran option, the formation of what was referred to as death squads, special forces that would seek to eliminate the leaders of the insurgency, and they may have the authority to even cross international borders; i.e., from Iraq to Syria. This was the Newsweek article. Any comments on that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yes. It was nonsense.

MR. MELHAM: You are laconic today. (Laughter.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Laconic. That's nonsense. Now, American troops are not going to be involved in assassinations. The Secretary of Defense -- I've been in meetings with him as fairly recent -- we know nothing about this. It's nonsense.

MR. MELHAM: It's not the American forces. They will train Iraqi forces.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We've trained Iraqi special forces. We've trained Iraqis in SWAT-type tactics. But not crossing international boundaries and borders and engaging in assassinations, no.

MR. MELHAM: Sir, there are those who would say that President Bush's legacy is likely to depend, to a certain point, on the outcome of both the Iraqi elections and the Palestinian elections and what will come out of these elections in terms of developments on the ground. And given that the Palestinian elections went smoothly and with a high degree of participation, and given that the Iraqi elections are likely to be marred with some problems, to say the least, do you agree with that kind of assessment that a great deal hinges on that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think that you're making, perhaps, too much of the Iraqi elections. We think this is historic. We think it's a very important development for the Iraqis. But from our point of view, this is the beginning of a process. As you know, there will be a year-long process of writing a constitution, after which there will be elections that stand up a full-time government. So elections for us in the Iraqi context are part of a process.

And I think Palestinian elections were quite successful. In the wake of those elections, both Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Sharon have made comments that seem to indicate they're willing to try to have a better relationship, and we're going to do our best to make it happen. So I think that could be quite historic. But I think the Iraqi one is going to take longer.

MR. MELHAM: In what practical ways can the United States help Mahmoud Abbas now, keeping in mind what happened the first time when he was Prime Minister, when there was some critique, even within this government and people who wanted to support Mahmoud Abbas, who felt that the United States really did not go far enough in helping him?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Oh, there are other people who accuse us of going too far and hugging him too closely, thereby smothering him.

I think that our best way to help the Palestinian people is by being -- first of all, there's a matter of economic help. We have been helpful: $125 million in the year 2003, 75 million last year. We'll continue to find ways to be helpful to alleviate the economic conditions.

I think we've got to be prepared to seize the moment in terms of guiding both our Palestinian friends and the Israelis back onto the roadmap, helping them through the Gaza disengagement and climb back onto that road and continue on the roadmap.

MR. MELHAM: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. But okay, can the United States live with a ceasefire or a hudna arranged by Mahmoud Abbas with the Palestinian groups, Hamas and Jihad and others?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I actually saw --

MR. MELHAM: Or that you, as government, you will insist on disarming Hamas initially?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Look, it is not us in the first instance. It is the Government of Israel and the Palestinian leadership who will come to agreements on a so-called hudna. And subsequently, of course we want disarmament, but these are decisions that will be made by the two main interlocutors, not by the United States.

MR. MELHAM: Okay. Sir, essentially, if that happens, will there be a stronger American position vis-à-vis the cessation of settlement activities? Because this has been the crux of the problem, at least from the Palestinian side.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, from the Palestinian side, this is one of the problems. Movement of people and goods are another part of the problem. We've had very direct talks with the Israelis about the need to cease the settlement activity. We will continue to have those talks. I believe that if we are successful in the Gaza disengagement process there will be a lot more momentum that exists for the search for peace. And ultimately, it does have to have the cessation of settlement activities, no question.

MR. MELHAM: Secretary Powell was asked repeatedly in the last few days about the prospects for Mr. Abbas politically, and he said he didn't succeed the first time because of an obstacle called Yasser Arafat. Now, there are a lot of people who would agree with him partially only, in the sense that people would say that when Mahmoud Abbas was first Prime Minister he was undermined by Arafat, he was undermined by Sharon, he was not helped enough by George Bush.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: People are always critical -- a lot of things to criticize. Mostly people who don't take part in the great endeavors of our day.

The President of the United States has made it very clear. One of his first acts after reelection was to come out publicly and say he was going to use political capital in the search for peace in the Middle East. I'm one of those who will take our President at his word.

MR. MELHAM: Okay, let's move now to one of your other favorite subjects, your recent trip to Syria. To begin with, of course, you raised the issue of the former Baath Iraqi activities in Syria.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Of course.

MR. MELHAM: In your assessment, how influential are these people in terms of financing and/or directing the insurgency from Syria?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I think there's no question that they're busy financing from Syria. I think it's a little hard to actually direct from Syria. You'd have to be a little more involved. But the financing allows people to purchase weapons, to cause difficulties for the Iraqi people.

I tried to make it very clear in a straightforward language for our Syrian friends that this has to stop because they're going to live next door to Iraq and it's much better if they have a congenial relationship than a hostile one. And I believe we've seen activities recently on behalf of the Syrian Government in which they've shown a new seriousness about controlling the border, and that's a good thing and it should be remarked upon.

MR. MELHAM: And we hear that they returned some money that the Iraqi Government has been asking for?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yes, the previous regime had stored some money in Syrian banks, and the Syrians have recently made efforts to repatriate it to the Iraqi people, another good gesture, and the kind of gesture one expects from a neighbor.

MR. MELHAM: But other American officials are saying that this is not enough.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I don't think it is enough, and I wouldn't say it was. I just want to note that there has been some cooperation recently. We want to see more, and I think the Iraqis want to see more. And we'll wait to see what Mr. Assad does.

MR. MELHAM: The Syrians argue that they are cooperating with some of your demands, and that they -- but the problem, they complain that every time they deliver on an issue, you, the United States, you up the ante. And yesterday, the Syrian Ambassador to Washington gave an interview in which he said that the American demands are "essentially ridiculous."

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I didn't see his interview so I can't specifically comment on that, but I don't think demands that a neighbor to act in a neighborly fashion are ridiculous. It seems to me the better part of wisdom for the Syrian Government would be to try to have a more congenial relationship with Iraq, and part of that relationship has to be in shutting down the activities which emanate from Syria. In fact, on the question of foreign fighters traveling through Damascus, the Government of Syria has been helpful. Now we want to stop the former regime elements, the Baathists, from being able to create mischief and havoc in Iraq.

MR. MELHAM: Now, you gave them names, you gave number of accounts, I hear, or something to that effect. I mean, you were specific. What do they say to you when you give them these names?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, in some cases, they've said they've looked and haven't found them; in other cases, I'd say they've been somewhat helpful. In other words, it's a mixed bag, and there wasn't one answer. We've given several lists, I might add.

MR. MELHAM: After your trip to Damascus, the Syrians said essentially that you raised with them Lebanon in passing, and they leaked to one journalist something that it took only one minute. Could you comment on that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yeah. I not only did not raise it in passing, I raised it as one of the three elements that I wanted to speak about while I was there. And I also publicly, following the meeting, raised it as one of the elements. So I don't think it was in passing and I think there was no mistaking the message, and that is from the United States point of view, and indeed, the international community, UN Security Council Resolution 1559 makes very clear what is expected of Syria, and we expect Syria to comply with that, and we think the Lebanese people deserve it.

MR. MELHAM: Any indications that they may withdraw further units from Lebanon?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: They didn't tell me that they would, but, as I say, 1559 makes it very clear that all foreign forces should leave Lebanon and leave Lebanon to the Lebanese. And we do expect that to be followed up on.

MR. MELHAM: You're watching the Lebanese elections, upcoming Lebanese elections.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Right, the parliamentary elections.

MR. MELHAM: Yeah, and you Ambassador in Beirut has been saying this publicly, and your Ambassador in Beirut, Mr. Feltman, came under fire from some disgruntled Lebanese officials. Talk a little bit about this. I mean, the importance of the elections, and what would you like to do, in terms of ensuring their transparency?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, we believe that these parliamentary elections, which will be held in the spring, should be conducted by Lebanese, for Lebanese, and not by Syrians or anyone else. So I was very clear in Damascus that these parliamentary elections have to be held in a way that's free from all maneuvering and manipulation.

Mr. Feltman, our excellent Ambassador in Beirut, has come under fire recently. It's very unfair. And it seems to me that what he's suggesting is something that every citizen of Lebanon should grasp, and that is that Lebanese should decide their own future, not Syrians, or for that matter, not anyone else.

MR. MELHAM: Okay. I have one minute only?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure, you've got as long as you want. (Laughter.)

MR. MELHAM: Any regrets? Anything? I mean, after now looking back four years of your tumultuous years here, you're leaving with what kind of -- how should I say it -- what are your thoughts now that you're looking back at your last four years, in terms of regrets and things that should have been done that --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I ought to sing you the old Edith Piaf song, "I Regret Nothing." (Laughter.)

MR. MELHAM: "Je Ne Regrette Rein."

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: "Je Ne Regrette Rien." But since I can't sing, I won't subject you to it. (Laughter.)

There are always things in hindsight that we wish we'd have done better, but I think I prefer to dwell on the positive side of things. We've had, the Secretary and I, the opportunity to walk alongside some great Foreign Service Officers, civil servants, Foreign Service Nationals who actually run our embassies all over the world, and we couldn't be prouder than to have had that opportunity. We hope that they view us as having been good leaders and good stewards of their fate. And we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our nation is in very good hands when they're in the hands of these excellent diplomats.

MR. MELHAM: (In Arabic), Richard Armitage, shukran.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Shukran.

MR. MELHAM: Thank you, sir.

2005/65


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