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CNN With PM Howard: Iraq; Iran; UN; Bali Bombings

Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP Interview With Wolf Blitzer, CNN, United States

Subject: Iraq; Iran; Afghanistan; United Nations; Bali Bombings; leadership

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

BLITZER:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s right. We’ll see the distance. Obviously our military contribution is nowhere near as big as that of the United States but the worst thing that could happen in relation to Iraq would be a premature draw down, or premature withdrawal. We hope that the formation of a new Government under a new Prime Minister will bring a lot of stability and therefore a lot of hope to that country. It’s obviously going through a very difficult time. The insurgency is obviously still a very big challenge. There is an enormous amount of inter-ethnic rivalry and clearly we are all concerned. But you shouldn’t translate that concern into a premature withdrawal or a premature draw down of troops. I think that would be a mistake.

BLITZER:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

No our position is essentially the same. We supported the original operation, we were part of it and we will continue, albeit on a very much smaller scale, we’ll continue to play our part. And we think that if the terrorists were to succeed in Iraq, then that would represent an enormous defeat for the cause of democracy in the Middle East and an enormous setback for the anti-terrorist cause around the world because whatever arguments we might, in retrospect, have about whether things should have happened or not three years ago, the reality now is that we must finish the job and if Iraq is left in a situation where it cannot secure itself and it falls into the hands of the insurgency or the terrorists then the implications, not only for the Iraqi people, but for the whole Middle East are quite horrendous.

BLITZER:

The United States currently has about 135,000 troops in Iraq. The United Kingdom has about 8,000. South Korea, Italy, Poland have a lot less. You have about 900 troops. Some of these other countries are scaling back. Are you planning on scaling back, or keeping that level for the foreseeable future?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ll keep the current level for the foreseeable future. We’re not going to pull out until we are satisfied that the Iraqis can effectively secure their country themselves. Now we’re playing an active role in bringing that about. We’re playing a training role as well as a security role. We have some 450 to 500 of our forces in the southern part of Iraq and we will keep them there even after their current responsibilities in relations to a secure environment for the Japanese end, they will have other roles to play. Now we can’t tell when we might be able to withdraw them. Obviously like the Americans, we don’t want them to be there indefinitely and we all are working towards giving the Iraqis the opportunity to look after themselves. That has to be the objective. Nothing will be achieved in the long run if we don’t encourage self capacity by the Iraqis. And it’s achieving a balance between getting that self capacity on the one hand, but on the other hand, not withdrawing prematurely because if that were to occur then everything would be lost.

BLITZER:

President Jalal Talabani of Iraq said the other day that in the month of April there were 1091 deaths just in Baghdad. The LA Times wrote this the other day, it said ‘more Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad during the first three months of this year than at any time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. At least 3800, many of them found hog tied and shot execution style. Targeted killings now account for most of the violence.’ Looking back on this deployment, on this invasion of Iraq, where you sold the bill of goods three years ago, given the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found and planning for a post invasion clearly could have been a lot better?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I guess, as in all things, it’s easy to look back and say this or that should have been done differently. But I believed three years ago that the Coalition operation was right. I still believe that. I think Iraq is a better country without Saddam Hussein. I think in the medium to longer term Iraq will be a freer, better country than what it was. I still believe the majority of the Iraqi people, because they’ve voted three times for democracy in the face of the most appalling intimidation, believe that the country will be better as a free country rather than a dictatorship. And what has to happen is that the different groups must be reconciled and the first step towards that is to establish a Government of national unity. And I am very hopeful, as is the administration of the United States, that that can come about under the leadership of the new Prime Minister and I’m very hopeful that there will be a Government formed before long.

BLITZER:

Let’s move on to a neighbour of Iraq, Iran. Do you believe the United States, the Bush Administration, like Britain, France and Germany should be holding direct talks with Iranian officials when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what should happen is that the United Nations system should be allowed to work. I believe that the United Nations process now under way should be seen through. Both America and Australian believe in trying to achieve a diplomatic solution to this very difficult problem, and I think in the first instance we should exhaust the United Nations process before we start examining alternative approaches.

BLITZER:

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said this on May 12th , he said ‘I have insisted very clearly both in private in my contact with the American administration and publicly that I think it’s important that the United States come to the table and that they should join the European countries are Iran to find a solution.’ He’s the Secretary General, do you agree with him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when I talk about the United Nations processes, I mean the processes through the Security Council. I mean I respect the views of the Secretary General, but when I talk of the process; I mean the process which is now underway, which involves the potential for further resolutions by the United Nations Security Council. And I think that is the path at this time that ought to be followed. Three years there was criticism of the United States and her allies including Australia for not further using the processes of the United Nations. The view was taken then that that was not going to work. We now, in relation to Iran, have the opportunity to see how fully those processes can be made to work. It’s quite a test for the United Nations and we’re very keen that that test take place.

BLITZER:

So you don’t have a position specifically on whether there should be a direct dialogue on nuclear issues between the United States and Iran?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s better at this time to go down the United Nations path.

BLITZER:

But you can go down the United Nations path and still have a direct dialogue. The British, the French and the Europeans are talking directly with them and they support a UN dialogue as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s always a good idea Wolf to, or often a good idea, to try one approach or play one card at a time in a difficult situation like this and the card that I believe should be played at the present time is through the United Nations.

BLITZER:

Do you believe the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a stable man?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think his remarks about Israel were provocative, unacceptable and the sort of remarks that indicate somebody who operates on the basis of blind bigotry towards other countries. When you hear remarks like that you can understand the sense of encirclement that the people of Israel must feel.

BLITZER:

How does the world community deal with a leader like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from your perspective?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think you have to deal with him in different ways. You don’t overreact, but equally you don’t take a backwards step and my very strong view in relation to Iran is that we should stick to the path that we have chosen. We’ll see how that works. I don’t think it’s wise of anybody to hypothesize as to what we might do if that particular approach is unsuccessful.

BLITZER:

Cause you’re hinting at a military operation. Is there a realistic military option if diplomacy fails?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I’m not hinting at that. I’m very much of the view that we should try and solve this issue diplomatically but I don’t think it’s appropriate ever for somebody in my position to start hypothesizing about other things. I don’t want military action, nobody wants military action ever. It’s always a last resort and I think we should try very hard to solve this issue diplomatically and that is certainly Australia’s very strong position.

BLITZER:

Australia also has about 540 troops in Afghanistan right now. Let me read to you from a May 3rd issue of the New York Times. ‘Building on a winter campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations, and the knowledge that American troops are leaving, the Taliban appear to be moving their insurgency into a new phase, flooding the rural areas of Southern Afghanistan with weapons and men. The scale of the militants’ presence and their sheer brazenness have alarmed Afghans and foreign officials far more than in previous years.’ Question: is the situation in Afghanistan getting better or worse?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it remains very difficult and it will be a long campaign. But you have to ask yourself what is the alternative? Those who wring their hands about how difficult it is in Afghanistan at the present time must be asked, well what is the alternative? I think if the coalition were to retreat in Afghanistan, were to pull out, the Taliban would take over again and that would be an enormous setback to the anti-terrorist cause. I mean it is unthinkable that there would be a failure for the anti-terrorist cause in Afghanistan. But it will be difficult and it just underscores the necessity of countries in the coalition to remain close and to work together and to maintain their commitment.

BLITZER:

A lot of us remember all those Australian tourists who were killed in that terrorist attack in Bali. The sense you get is that Al Qaeda is targeting Australians largely because of Australia’s very close alliance with the United States. Is that a fair assessment?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it’s not a fair assessment. We are undeniably a close ally of the United States and we don’t make any bones about it, but the fact is that Australia was a target for terrorism before even the 11th of September 2001 and Bali of course took place before the coalition operation in Iraq. And if you look at where the terrorist attacks have occurred over the last couple of years, you’ll find that they have occurred in places which have claimed the lives of citizens of countries that haven’t been particularly close to the United States. And indeed, when terrorists attack, they attacked with indiscriminant fury and without much selectivity. When you attack countries you frequently claim the lives of visitors to those countries. And I think the idea, which is implicit in your question, that if you make yourself a very small object and roll yourself up into a ball and disappear into a corner that you won’t be targeted by terrorists, I think that is quite illusionary.

BLITZER:

A lot of us were shocked at those images we saw in December when the muscly white Australians were attacking Muslims at that beach in Australia. How serious of a problem is this in Australia, these anti-Muslim sentiments clearly that were evident then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that particular issue was dealt with at the time and I think rightly is a law and order issue. You often, in any country, get boil-overs between different groups in the atmosphere of hot weather and perhaps the consumption of too much alcohol. That happens. There is not, in my view, general anti-Muslim feeling in Australia. There is certainly great hostility to Muslim extremism in Australia, as there is in most countries, but the majority of the Muslims in Australia are upright, good Australians who hate terrorism as much as I do.

BLITZER:

You were at a State Dinner that President Bush and Mrs Bush hosted in your honour here in Washington this week. Rupert Murdoch, the Chairman of the News Corporation from Australia, he said this about you. Let me read it to you. He said ‘I think the Prime Minister could go on if he wanted to, but I doubt it. He’s probably planning to go out at the top. He’s on top of his form and much better to go out that way than like Margaret Thatcher, or losing an election.’ Question: are you going to be running for re-election?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ll remain Prime Minister of Australia and leader of my party, the Liberal Party of Australia as long as my party wants me to, and it’s in the best interests of my party that I do so.

BLITZER:

So what does that mean? How much longer do you see yourself as the Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

It means exactly what everybody knows it means, and that is, I’ll stay as long as my party wants me to and it’s the right thing for the party that I do. I don’t give a running commentary beyond that on my future intentions.

BLITZER:

Well good luck to you Prime Minister. Thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to the United States. Have a safe journey back.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you Wolf.

[ends]

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