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State Dept. Daily Press Briefing December 18, 2006

Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
December 18, 2006

INDEX:

DEPARTMENT
Secretary’s Breakfast and Meetings at the White House this
Morning

NORTH KOREA
Six Party Talks / September 19th Joint Statement / North Korea’s
Illicit Behavior
Goal of Denuclearized Peninsula

IRAN
Status of Draft UN Security Council Resolution
U.S. Assessment of Nuclear Program
Elections

CANADA
Maher Arar / Terrorist Watch List

LIBYA
Case of Bulgarian Nurses and Palestinian Doctor

FRANCE / AFGHANISTAN
French Withdrawal of Some Special Forces

IRAQ
Reports of American Involvement in Case of Former Minister with
Duel U.S.-Iraqi Citizenship

PALESTINIANS
President Abbas’ Call for Elections
Need for Hamas to Resolve Governing Contradictions
Prime Minister Blair’s Travel / Secretary Rice’s Future Travel
Increasing Capability of Forces Loyal to President Abbas

CUBA
Congressional Delegation’s Visit / Fidel Castro’s Health

EGYPT
Ruling by Supreme Administrative Court on Baha’i and Identity
Cards


TRANSCRIPT:

12:35 p.m. EST


MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. No opening statements, no announcements, we'll get right into your questions.

QUESTION: The Secretary was over at the White House this morning to see the President.

MR. MCCORMACK: She was.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit about the subjects and the discussion?

MR. MCCORMACK: She had breakfast with the President. She had an, I think, an NSC meeting over there today and she was also there for the signing of the legislation implementing the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal. In terms of the NSC meetings and the breakfast with the President, I'll leave it to the White House to describe that in whatever level of detail that they wish to provide. I suspect not much. The Secretary very often will have lunch, breakfast over there, private meetings with the President, and provides him her best advice on a variety of different foreign policy and national security issues.

QUESTION: Well, White House left it to us. Now, could you say whether -- and this isn't deep disclosure -- whether they discussed options for Iraq as he thinks about a new way ahead or forward or whatever?

MR. MCCORMACK: Barry, in terms of the meetings over there today, I think they probably did talk a little bit about Iraq. I can't tell you what the conversation was during their breakfast. I'm sure the Secretary wouldn't want me talking about even the topics that they discussed. But I think that the NSC meeting was on Iraq.

QUESTION: Was it a good breakfast?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm sure it was. Breakfast at the White House is usually pretty good.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Switch to North Korea?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: Is U.S. patience running out with the six-party talks?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. But we are to the point where the North Koreans need to make a choice. They need to make a strategic choice which way they're going to be going. You've heard us talk about this in the past. There are two different basic pathways that they can go down. One is a pathway of greater integration into the outside world, the different relationship with us as well as the other members of the six-party talks and potentially great benefits for the North Korean people so that they can realize a better way of life.

The other pathway is a less prosperous pathway for the Korean people. It leads only to greater isolation for North Korea. I think the UN Security Council Resolution 1718 was an example of that kind of pathway. Nobody wants to go down that direction. We want to try to resolve via negotiation all the issues that the neighborhood as well as the rest of the world has with North Korea; that's what we're trying to do. But that fundamental choice which pathway we're going to proceed down is really up to the North Koreans. The ball is in their court. We, as well as the other members, of the six-party talks are prepared in good faith to negotiate with them. But they must understand one thing and that is that the object of these negotiations is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: There were to have been apparently discussions one -- you know, U.S.-North Korea discussions today that did not happen. Why not?

MR. MCCORMACK: On which -- there were the --

QUESTION: I'm not talking about the Treasury ones. I'm talking about the ones led by Ambassador Hill. And we're reporting out of Beijing that there were expected to have been talks between the U.S. delegation, not Treasury but State-led, and the North Koreans. Is that right or --

MR. MCCORMACK: Chris is -- I couldn't tell you. Chris -- it's really -- Chris has flexibility to meet with the North Koreans bilaterally in the context of the six-party talks. I know that he -- there was on Sunday night a heads of delegation dinner. He also -- there was also a heads of delegation meeting today at the six-party talks and there was a plenary session where they brought in other people from the delegations, the various parties, and he also met bilaterally with the South Korean head of delegation, head of delegation from Japan as well as from China. And I expect that at some point he'll have a meeting with the North Korean head of delegation, but that's going to be up to him. It's -- you know, he's -- he has his instructions after talking to the Secretary and people back here, and he has within the parameters flexibility to negotiate as he sees fit.

QUESTION: Do you still --

QUESTION: Was he stood up by North Korea?

QUESTION: Do you still expect the talks between the Treasury and the North Korean officials to go ahead? I think tomorrow --

MR. MCCORMACK: As far -- yeah. As far as I know, they should proceed, yeah.

QUESTION: And you said, "We want to try to resolve all the problems that North Korea has."

MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Does that statement apply also to the BDA financial issues?

MR. MCCORMACK: We said that we have set up this working group to address the issues and we are doing so in good faith. Fundamentally, the way to resolve these issues is not to engage in illicit behavior. Certainly we will talk to the North Koreans, explain to them the reasons why they find themselves in the situation in which they find themselves and urge them to work with us to resolve those issues. But fundamentally it comes down to the fact that they shouldn't be engaged in illicit behavior. And we of course are going to act in accordance with our laws as well as our regulations. We -- I think everybody should expect that we and other countries are going to take steps to defend themselves.

QUESTION: But address and resolve are different words, and a willingness to address this issue in this forum is very different from the statement that you made before, that you're looking to resolve through negotiation all of the issues. And so I'm trying to get a sense of --

MR. MCCORMACK: I wasn't -- I wasn't trying to talk about the BDA issue when I was talking -- I was talking about what is contained in the September 19th joint statement. You talk about the variety of issues that they have -- they have concerns about, energy security. They have concerns about their own security. They have concerns about economic ties. So that's -- that was really what I was talking about. I wasn't talking about the BDA issue.

QUESTION: So that's separate?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, it's a separate issue.

QUESTION: Can I --

MR. MCCORMACK: I mean, it gets to their illicit behavior.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

QUESTION: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Last week when he outlined from that podium his plans -- make a couple of stops, one, maybe two, then he went on to say he'd have this bilateral and that and that, he listed them all, all the other parties, including North Korea. And it seems that's the only one that didn't work out, didn't take place. So --

MR. MCCORMACK: I didn't -- unless he didn't -- I don't think he had a bilateral with the Russian head of delegation. But he -- look, this is the first -- this is the first day. I'm sure he's going to talk to his North Korean counterpart if he sees fit in a bilateral context. He has that flexibility to do so. He's done it in the past. I expect he'll do it again.

QUESTION: Well, the question being put to me here from our bureau there is did the North -- I'm not going to say stood him up, but did North Korea not show for a meeting or just --

MR. MCCORMACK: Barry, I can't -- you know, I can't tell you. As far as I -- as far as I know, he didn't have one on the books. Perhaps he did. I didn't talk to him about it. You know, they -- I think everybody should just breathe into a brown paper bag here and we'll keep you up to date on the meeting schedule as we can. There will be -- there will be bilateral contacts in the six-party format. And you know, we will -- we will see what the results of this six-party round and the next, perhaps if there's a next round of these talks. Is it going to make progress in terms of moving off the dime on the September joint statement in concrete ways? Is there agreement to move forward in concrete, measurable ways? That will be the metric upon whether these -- this round of talks is successful or not, not whether or not he has a bilateral meeting with the North Korean delegate on the first day of the discussions.

QUESTION: And on the parallel talks, the banking dispute we, too, have expected to meet tomorrow. I don't know why I'm asking you this here -- it should be put out there -- but is there a north delegation -- North Korean delegation?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think they've arrived yet. I think that they're planning to arrive.

QUESTION: That's what -- you don't think they arrived yet? But your expectations, the State Department's expectations --

MR. MCCORMACK: We're ready, yeah.

QUESTION: We're ready.

MR. MCCORMACK: We're ready. Our guys are ready. They'll get another night of sleep. They'll be even more well prepared tomorrow.

QUESTION: Is he going to make it home by Christmas --

MR. MCCORMACK: I think he's interested in getting home by Christmas. His family is interested in seeing him home by Christmas, but that's -- again, for him to determine in consultation with folks back here in Washington.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Is this - you know, anywhere near as well prepared as you had thought it was because this -- everybody from the Secretary on down has said that it was more important to have well prepared talks than to just have talks and that they were in -- Assistant Secretary Hill had told us that there were indications at his last meeting with them that they were prepared to deal in some of these issues in specifics. Were you surprised that they came out with this, what is reported to have been this laundry list?

MR. MCCORMACK: I mean, look, well prepared doesn't mean you solve everything on the first day and well prepared doesn't mean that this is -- that this isn't going to result in tough difficult negotiations. I don't think the North Koreans are going to give anything away for free and I don't think anybody else in the six-party talks is going to do so either. So -- well, there's a difference between having it well prepared and still having tough negotiations. And I expect that we will still have tough negotiations. And like I said, we'll see if the North Koreans choose to go down that positive pathway. Everybody else around the table is prepared to do so. We'll see. We'll see what the negotiations result in.

Yeah, Nicholas.

QUESTION: Back to that laundry list of demands they made today at the first plenary session, Chris sounded at least from the transcripts I saw, sounded a bit frustrated, maybe a little angry about the -- how long the list was and they dumped everything on that -- in that very first session. But after the nuclear test in October, it -- wasn't it sort of expected that they would have done this and why did he sound a little surprised? Is that a fair assessment of Chris' comments?

MR. MCCORMACK: I read the transcript. I have to admit that I didn't listen to his remarks. I didn't hear, so I couldn't tell what his tone was. Look, you know, everybody -- do you -- would we have hoped that North Korea would have been prepared in this first round to say, well, here's the outlines of a deal? Of course, but I don't think that anybody really expected that was going to happen in reality. The pattern of North Korean negotiation is they start out with a maximalist position and then they start negotiating down from there in the hopes that they can achieve as much as they possibly can on their list of demands. I don't think anybody should be surprised by that. You look back at the negotiating record.

So like I said, these negotiations are going to be tough. We hope that they yield some early harvest from them, so -- but we will see. We will see. We're prepared. We're serious about them. We believe that the discussions are well prepared. Now it comes down to people actually getting into it and being serious about coming to agreement on the various issues. But make no mistake about it, the one thing that is not negotiable is the fact that these talks are intended to result in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: So it sounds like you are hoping that the North Koreans would have been sort of further along in the process of not only listing demands but actually saying --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Nicholas, they may well be. You know, I can't tell you what decisions they have made going into this negotiating process. They may well have made those fundamental decisions in terms of their negotiating positions and their fallback positions and their fallbacks to their fallbacks. I can't tell you what those decisions are. They have started out, I think, we have seen from some of their statements coming out with these maximalist positions. I don't think that that's a surprise to anybody, but we'll see. We'll be able to detect in the course of these negotiations and Chris will be able to tell and we'll be interested in hearing back from him. Do we detect that they have -- that they actually have made those fundamental decisions to go down that positive pathway and we'll see.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I ask you very specifically? I mean, you've been clear what these talks, you know, are about. What are we asking the North Koreans to actually physically do to denuclearize?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we're going to --

QUESTION: Can you be specific?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I'm not going to be specific in public. That's for the negotiating room. But generally stated it is to take concrete steps, demonstrate that they are ready to go down the pathway towards a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. And what does that mean? That means addressing some of the issues regarding their activities and their facilities and their activities at their various facilities. But I'm not going to get into the specifics here.

QUESTION: Can you flesh out -- sorry, Barry -- can you flesh out this Chinese-sponsored roadmap or work plan? Can you flesh that out a bit --

MR. MCCORMACK: I --

QUESTION: -- at all?

MR. MCCORMACK: I have not talked to Chris about it, just because of the time zone differences, so.

QUESTION: But could you --

MR. MCCORMACK: I'll try to get some more information for you in the coming days here.

QUESTION: Yeah, when that was on the table, how this has come about.

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: They announced they're a nuclear state, aren't they? Why is that --

MR. MCCORMACK: We don't accept that as a --

QUESTION: No, but I mean, it's a fact, isn't it? They detonated --

MR. MCCORMACK: They tested a device, Barry, but we continue to believe that that is a state that is reversible.

Charlie.

QUESTION: Related to something you said earlier when you were talking about the two pathways North Korea had to go down.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: I thought for a minute you were talking about Iran, and that leads me to segue into asking you how things are going in New York with Iran since there seems to be several pathways there, too.

MR. MCCORMACK: Latest information is you have the ambassadors or the representatives from the P-5+1 meeting up at the UN. I think they're meeting, actually, right now. I haven't gotten any feedback from where we are, whether or not we have come to full agreement on the text.

Secretary Rice had a conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning. They went over some of the outstanding issues. We are hopeful that we can get a vote in the very near future. It is time for a vote. You just -- you don't need any other reason than taking a look at Iran's behavior last week, the behavior of this regime in sponsoring the conference that was aimed at denying the existence of the Holocaust, and pair that up with the idea that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, pair those two ideas up with Ahmadi-Nejad's statement that he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map, and I don't think you need any more reason than to raise your hand in the affirmative and vote for the resolution that we have right now.

QUESTION: Well, just to follow up, did the Russian Foreign Minister give Secretary Rice any indication whatever that they agree that a vote can come soon? I mean, you've been using the same language for several weeks now.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right. We'll see. I think I'll let the Russians speak for themselves in terms of where they stand on the issues and timing of the vote. We think it's about time for a vote in the near future.

QUESTION: You say the very near future, and you actually normally are not so -- that's actually much sooner than you normally say. You normally say soon.

MR. MCCORMACK: I think we should see --

QUESTION: No, that's important that it seems to me to suggest that she made some progress with Foreign Secretary Lavrov. Is that the case?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think that we need to see a vote on this in a matter of days.

QUESTION: So they made progress, you think?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think we need to see a vote on this in a matter of days.

QUESTION: The Mossad chief said today that Iran will get its first nuclear bomb within three to four years. Do you share this assessment?

MR. MCCORMACK: You can check with our publicly available documents. We put out every single year an assessment of a variety of states seeking nuclear weapons. I can't tell you what our latest intelligence community assessment is. There are a number of different factors that go into this, one of them being what sort of outside assistance they may get, which is again a reason why we are focusing our efforts right now on this resolution (a) to prevent them from making -- getting any outside assistance in the development of their problem and also to make sure that we send a strong message to the Iranians that they should actually engage in negotiations and take us up on the offer that's put out before them.

Clearly, the Iranians have sought outside help in their program; for example, the A.Q. Khan network. They sought assistance from the A.Q. Khan network, and I'm sure that they also, given their elaborate collection of front companies and efforts to circumvent regulations designed to prevent them from achieving this kind of -- getting in the materials and know-how and technology. So that's what this resolution is intended to do.

Barry.

QUESTION: As this spins on and on and on -- the resolution and the differences of views -- I haven't heard lately whether there's a judgment here in the U.S. Government that Iran is using the time to improve its nuclear situation. Do we have any reason to believe that -- I mean, you talk about venomous statements that are issued about Israel and all, but are they also using this time to get their nuclear program to a later stage?

I never heard four years, by the way. I've heard five. But that aside, what are they doing with this time?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think that they're continuing right now to work on the problems that stand in the way of achieving a nuclear weapon. They're trying to perfect the centrifuge technology and operating the centrifuges and this is really more art than science. Obviously, there's a heavy science component, but it's very -- it's a very tricky matter of getting -- perfecting the centrifuge technology so you can actually enrich all the uranium.

So yeah, they are going along their way and trying to go down the various pathways. The IAEA has talked about their enrichment program. There are also indications that they have tried to go down other pathways as well. So you know, there's what is apparent to the IAEA inspectors, and they continue to do their work, doing interviews, looking at documentation; but there is also the unknown out there as well in terms of what they're doing behind the scenes.

We know that they have not been able to perfect these technologies, and that's on the positive side of the ledger. But given enough time and given enough resources, they may well be able to. And that's why we are concerned and that's why we're concerned enough to do the things diplomatically that we're doing.

Yeah, Kirit.

QUESTION: The fact that Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke seems to imply that the talks in New York have hit some sort of a snag. Is there a stalemate in New York at this point? And also, do you see that this Rice-Lavrov channel to be the one being used to resolve differences?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, look, this is -- it's no mistake that this negotiation process of this resolution has taken much longer than we would have hoped for. The original deadline was back on August 31st, but we decided and we agreed with our partners in this negotiating process to give the Iranians a bit more time during the month of September. We did that.

And since then, we have been going through a negotiating process with the P-5+1. We would have hoped that it would have been done by now, but it isn't. And there have been a number of issues along the way. I think we're down to just a few right now, and we'll see if we can resolve those issues and get a vote. We think there should be a vote in the very near future.

QUESTION: The fact that it's gone beyond New York, it's going up to, you know, the foreign ministers --

MR. MCCORMACK: But that's the typical pattern with these things. It goes -- it bounces back and forth between New York. You always have these conversations with capitals, whether it's between ministers or between political directors. So that's pretty typical.

QUESTION: So do you expect that they're going to be in contact for the next week or so until this is done?

MR. MCCORMACK: We'll see. Let's hope that we don't need another phone call on this one.

Yeah, Samir.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary discuss with Mr. Lavrov the issue of the international tribunal in Lebanon or the visit by the President of Syria to Moscow today?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think that came up. I don't think that came up, no.

QUESTION: Was it mostly on Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, it was mostly on Iran. Yeah.

QUESTION: To go back to Iran, do you have any comment on the elections, the result of the elections in Iran, the municipal elections?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it would seem that they're not the results that President Ahmadi-Nejad would have hoped for. I think despite the regime's efforts to cook the books in terms of an outcome, they seem to have been thwarted in that regard. There was a high turnout. But you know, again, there were some fundamental flaws in these elections in which there were numerous candidates that were excluded from even running in the elections, so the people didn't even have that choice to make.

QUESTION: When you say cook the books, that refers to actions prior to the elections that you observed?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes.

QUESTION: In other words, the limiting of candidates?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, it's a language -- more colorful language designed to highlight the fact that there were people who were excluded from running in the elections who wanted to run in the elections.

QUESTION: The reason I asked was I wanted to know whether you felt that in the conduct of the elections themselves, not just the run-up to them but the actual voting, that there had been malfeasance or improprieties of any sort.

MR. MCCORMACK: None that I have been made aware of.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: My question is about the Maher Arar case.

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: If in fact Maher Arar is dangerous enough to be put on a watch list by the United States, should other countries not be informed of the reasons why? And why hasn't the Canadian Government been informed why?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you the state of our discussions with the Canadian Government on it. I can only tell you that he's been put on the watch list. It was a conscious decision to keep him on this watch list. And although it wasn't the State Department that provided the -- has the information that has kept him on the watch list, people tell us that there is good reason for his being on the watch list. I can't get into those reasons, get into the information, I think for obvious reasons. Very often it's the case that we can't talk about where we derive the information from. But it's our belief he's on there for a reason. These watch lists are one of -- are something that are constantly reviewed, and if there's any other information that comes to light on his or any other case that would lead to his being taken off, of course the people who regulate these things will take a look at it.

QUESTION: Why hasn't the Canadian Government been informed of those reasons?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you that they haven't been. Like I said, I'm not aware of the state of our discussions on that particular matter.

QUESTION: The report in Canada completely exonerated Mr. Arar. Is the court case, the legal proceedings underway in the United States, part of the reason why he's not been taken off the list?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I can't tell you. I can't tell you. But I can tell you that there's a conscious decision to keep him on the list.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I ask one more question on Korea?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: I know you can't get specific, but can I ask you in generic terms?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: Perhaps looking at South Africa and Libya have also disarmed, can you tell me what the initial steps in denuclearization involve? Very generally. In a global sense.

MR. MCCORMACK: That gets to exactly what it is that we would expect them to do. You know, and again, it involves their facilities and it involves going down a pathway towards their not being needed anymore, their not -- essentially not existing as a functioning entity anymore. I mean, that's the point you want to get to.

Lambros.

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. McCormack, on HIV/AIDS in Libya, do you know if the U.S. Government attended via observers the trial over in Libya against the Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor for whom the Libyan Supreme Court tomorrow, December 19th, is going to issue a verdict for death penalty on the well known HIV issue?

MR. MCCORMACK: We watch it very closely. I can't tell if we went to an actual trial every single day, but suffice it to say we've watched it very closely.

QUESTION: Well, what is the position vis-Ã -vis to the fact, as it was said by witnesses during the court, that the nurses used pills infecting 426 children with HIV in 48 hours, verifying by French doctors?

MR. MCCORMACK: Lambros, let's just -- there's going to be a verdict that comes out tomorrow and we'll take it from there.

QUESTION: And the last one. (Inaudible) mentioned, Mr. McCormack, I'm against the death penalty in all cases; however, how your government came to the conclusion that those nurses are innocent and must be freed by Libya?

MR. MCCORMACK: Lambros, you know, look, you know our position and it hasn't changed on the matter.

Nicholas.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) elections you're talking about are elections where certain people were not allowed to run. There was another election over the weekend where most people were not allowed to vote, and that was in the UAE. I'm just wondering if you have an assessment about this. There is a second round tomorrow, I understand, but how did that election go from what you've heard from the post?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'll have to check for you, Nicholas. It certainly was an imperfect effort from what I know of it. I'll have to check with our post to see what their assessment is of the actual conduct of it.

George.

QUESTION: I missed the earlier discussion on North Korea. Chris Hill said on the radio this morning that he was hopeful that an agreement could be reached before Christmas. Did you address that before?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. Look, we -- if we can get an agreement before Christmas, then that would be terrific. I'm not sure that it's going to actually happen that quickly, but we would certainly be prepared to sign on to a good, solid agreement that met all of our needs and the needs of the other four parties before Christmas. I can't tell you it's going to happen before Christmas.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the withdrawal of the French special forces from Afghanistan?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I think that has been something that they have talked about for some time. It's not unexpected. There were about 200 of their special forces troops that they've withdrawn from one area. The French have also said that they are going to beef up their presence in Kabul and also have those forces be more flexible within the confines of the NATO mission, so we appreciate the fact that the French are contributing to the force in Afghanistan. They have numerous other responsibilities around the globe where their military forces are deployed as peacekeepers, so we understand that there are other demands on these kind of particular forces. But it's -- on the positive side of the ledger, I think it's -- they're going to be deploying some others to their Kabul force and that that force will be -- they've said that that force will have some more flexibility to operate within the confines of the NATO mission.

QUESTION: You've known about this for a while.

MR. MCCORMACK: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Did you try to dissuade them?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, we -- states will make their own decisions about what forces they contribute, what kinds of forces they contribute. We can only ask for the full participation of NATO countries in the Afghanistan mission, ask for some flexibility. How individual states within the confines of that mission decide to participate it's going to be up to them. I can't tell you if we ask them to hang onto these couple hundred special forces in Afghanistan. Overall the force commanders are going to have to take a look at what the capabilities of the NATO mission are. I'm sure that since we knew that this was coming, the NATO commanders took a look and said, well, how can we make sure that those holes get plugged and take steps to fill them?

QUESTION: One other one. Can you shed any light on what happened to the dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen, former government minister, who according to somewhat murky reports was taken from where the police custody, according to our story, which cites Iraqi officials he was taken by plainclothes Americans. But it's not clear if they were U.S. forces, if there was some kind of a private security firm, if he was abducted. Do you know what happened to him?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. I think our understanding of this at the moment is murky. As you pointed out, he was in an Iraqi facility. That facility was in the international zone. Whether or not these reports of Americans being involved in this are -- I can't tell you whether those are accurate or not. I can tell you that on any given day at that facility there might be Americans who were pulling up there for some reasons completely separate and apart from the incident that you're talking about. So we don't have an understanding of what happened there but we're working with the Iraqis to gain a better understanding of exactly what happened.

QUESTION: Have you -- normally you ask us to ask the Pentagon and we certainly will, but since it involves somebody who has U.S. nationality you have an obligation to try to figure out what happened to the guy. Have you checked with the Pentagon to find out if this did, or perhaps more logically did not, involve U.S. Government forces that somehow came in and took the guy?

MR. MCCORMACK: We don't have any information that would lead us in that direction right now. Our Embassy is trying to sort through it at the moment. I'm sure that they've touched base with the military, although I haven't been in on those conversations.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR. MCCORMACK: Michel.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on President Abbas call for early elections, parliamentary and presidential elections in the Palestinian territories, and the Hamas refusal?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, this is part of the ongoing political ferment within the Palestinian political system. The Palestinians are going to have to sort through themselves how they get through this pointed political crisis. Clearly, their system of politics is -- needs to resolve some fundamental contradictions. You have on one hand a government that can't govern, and the reason why they can't govern is because of the fundamental contradiction that they can't resolve, and that is they want to have one foot in the state institutions and one foot outside of the state and the governing institutions. They need to resolve that fundamental contradiction. And once -- you know, if they do, then of course there is the possibility of a different kind of relationship between the outside world and the Palestinian Authority. But they have chosen not to take those steps, and as a result they have failed to govern.

President Abbas is doing what he can, taking the steps that he thinks are prudent to try to resolve this situation. He understands that the will of the Palestinian people is that they don't want to see the current situation continue. So he is taking steps that he believes are within his authority to try to resolve the political impasse.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: That he believes are within his authority.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: Do you believe that that he has authority under the Palestinian basic law to call for new elections?

MR. MCCORMACK: There's -- you know, I'm not going to try to turn into a Palestinian constitutional scholar, but my understanding of this is that within the basic law that this is -- this is not prohibited. It's not specifically accounted for, but it's not prohibited. Those are all questions that the Palestinians are going to have to decide for themselves within the confines of their political space. I'm sure that there will be some debate over this question, as will there be a debate over what should come next in the Palestinian political process.

We support -- you know we support President Abbas in trying to work through this current impasse and we certainly hope that the steps that he is taking can lead to a reduction in the violence. It is sad to see some of the innocent lives being lost as a collateral effect of the political impasse that you're seeing right now, so hopefully some of the steps that he has taken, that he is taking, can lead to a breaking of that impasse and hopefully a calming of the situation in the Gaza.

QUESTION: You would support President Abbas even if there isn't -- I mean, normally you guys from this podium, and rightly so, urge governments or coup leaders to respect the constitutional process.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: If there is ambiguity here, if it's not clear that he has this right, then why would you support him in doing this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again --

QUESTION: I mean, they won an election so --

MR. MCCORMACK: It's the Palestinians that need to decide on that. I'm not aware of any pronouncements, some official pronouncements, one way or another on it. It is an open question within the Palestinian system.

But you know, fundamentally, it gets back to the basic point of the will of the Palestinian people needs to be expressed and we will see how they express that.

QUESTION: The thing that perplexes me is if it's an open question, I mean, you guys are very careful about this stuff typically. You have people in embassies who read these constitutions in the original language to make sure they understand exactly what their implications are. If it's an open question, then why support President Abbas in doing this? Why not say, you know, we're not going to address whether or not he should be doing this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Because it's a matter for the Palestinians to make judgments on. We're not the Palestinian supreme court. We're not trying to act as such. It's up to the Palestinians to decide on how to interpret their own laws.

QUESTION: Sean, you talked about a fundamental contradiction. I assume you mean the fact that Hamas controls one part of the government and then President Abbas another part of the government. Do you also mean that there is a contradiction fundamentally in the political system in the Palestinian territories, in the institutions of the Palestinian territories?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, because you have a Palestinian Authority government right now that says it wants to govern, that says it wants to build up the institutions of a Palestinian state, yet it reserves the right to act outside of those institutions, you know, with militias and other kinds of actions. That's the fundamental contradiction that I'm talking about.

QUESTION: Because I mean, there are countries with similar systems when the president is from one party and then the government is the other party.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, that's not the contradiction.

QUESTION: You're talking about actual powers that these institutions have?

MR. MCCORMACK: Let's be specific. Hamas.

QUESTION: Right.

MR. MCCORMACK: Hamas has won an election in the Palestinian areas. They were elected to lead the Palestinian people in a Palestinian government. They still retain militias that operate outside of that government. They also broke with decades worth of past precedent in terms of dealing with the outside world. They need to resolve the fundamental contradiction: Are they going to be a party of government that continues to support the use of terror and the allowing militias and other parts of their political party -- in our view a terrorist organization -- to operate outside of those governing institutions? Those are the fundamental contradictions that they need to resolve.

Joel.

QUESTION: Sean, currently Tony Blair is visiting the region and what would the Secretary be hearing from Foreign Minister Beckett? Is there any new plan to deal with this particular issue?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not sure the last time the Secretary spoke with Foreign Secretary Beckett. They talk on a regular basis.

In terms of the Secretary's own commitment to trying to help the Israelis and the Palestinians come together and to negotiate their differences and to get to the two-state solution, she is committed to it. She is going to be traveling to the region early next year. She is going to devote a lot of time, energy and focus to the issue. Prime Minister Blair is now in the region and I think he has expressed a real interest in seeing what he can do to move the process forward. We're obviously consulting closely. He and the President spoke when he was here last -- just I think the week before last. And we're going to work closely with the Brits as well as others who have an interest in trying to move that process forward.

QUESTION: Sean, do you expect anything on the peace process, what happened before these new elections if they did take place at all? It's -- at this point, do you think it's really reasonable to expect any sort of negotiations?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we'll see how this all plays out, Nicholas, in terms of the Palestinians sorting through their political situation. You need to have -- you need to have a true partner for peace on the Palestinian side. You have one in President Abbas. You'd like to see one in the Palestinian Authority actually, a prime minister heading a government that is a partner for peace. We're not there at the moment.

You can do other things, however, helping to build up the responsible institutions of a state. That's one of the reasons why we're trying to work with President Abbas and his security forces to help build them up. The Secretary talked about the fact that we're going to be working with the Congress to try to provide tens of millions of dollars of non-lethal support to President Abbas's security forces. In the meantime, we're also going to work on the humanitarian situation. So you can do a lot of things that will help -- that could help if you get to the point of actually getting to negotiations in the future. You don't -- you probably don't have the situation right now because the Palestinian political process is unsettled. You can continue to have meetings between people and individuals associated with President Abbas and outsiders, including us, to work through various issues, to lay some of the ground work here. But you need a full partner on the Palestinian side which is something you don't have right now.

Yeah, Libby.

QUESTION: Do you hope to have the actual -- the specific dollar amount for funding for the Palestinian security services ready for when she goes to the region early next year? Is that a realistic expectation?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you. I think a lot of it depends on the congressional calendar.

QUESTION: What are the issues being worked through with the different members of Congress?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it gets -- you want to make sure that when you spend this kind of money that it is done according to the laws and the regulations that we have and make sure that all the proper safeguards are in place and that you have the support and buy in from the Congress to this. They are partners in this. They obviously control the purse strings but we also want to make sure that they understand exactly what our goals are and what our intents are and that we have their support in that. There's a very practical aspect -- we need their support because this requires moving money around and reprogramming and that sort of thing for which you need congressional approval. But we also want to make sure they're comfortable with what we're doing, or hope to do.

QUESTION: So you're still trying to win that support and do you think you have it?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think we're briefing them up -- you know, I'm not going to speak for the folks on the Hill, but General Dayton and David Welch I think were up on the Hill the week before last talking about this.

QUESTION: The danger that by -- Hamas and Fatah forces have actually fought in recent days. Is there not a danger by increasing the training capability armaments of Fatah or of Mahmoud -- of forces loyal to President Abbas that you risk simply exacerbating the violence there?

MR. MCCORMACK: That is certainly not our intent and these forces are designed to shore up the institutions of a future Palestinian state and we believe that based on our conversations with President Abbas and the people that work with President Abbas that we have an assurance that these forces would be put to responsible use. For example, they are used to help guard border crossings; that's a very practical thing that can benefit the Palestinian people. The reason why you need those forces guarding border crossings is you need to give confidence to the rest of the world, including Israel that you have a responsible force on the other side. Our hope is in that particular case that if everybody can build up confidence that those crossings are going to be secure, you can have some increased trade which helps the Palestinian people, helps the Palestinian economy.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Question --

MR. MCCORMACK: Sylvie.

QUESTION: -- on Cuba.

MR. MCCORMACK: Cuba?

QUESTION: Yes. This team of congressmen they met with Cuban officials.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: And they told them that Castro will actually return to power. Do you give any credibility to this?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you. We don't know Fidel Castro's current medical state. I couldn't comment on it for you. I know Ambassador Negroponte did the other day in an interview with the Washington Post. I can't really go beyond his statements. I know this congressional delegation didn't meet with Fidel Castro, didn't meet with Raul Castro so they're going on what it is that these other individuals told them. I don't have a list of with whom they met. There weren't -- to my knowledge there weren't people from the Interests Section in their meetings. I think we got a little readout from what they heard before they departed from Havana, but I couldn't -- you know, I couldn't give you a judgment as to whether or not those statements from the Cuban officials are credible or not.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Sean, one on Egypt. Do you have any reaction on the December 16 ruling by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court that returned an April 4 lower court ruling which had affirmed the right of Egyptian Baha'i's to receive government identity cards?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it is certainly a ruling that flies in the face of stated Egyptian commitments to freedom of expression, freedom of religion. We would hope that the Egyptian Government would take steps that would allow people of the Baha'i faith to obtain these identification cards. Not being able to get a hold of these identification cards poses all sorts of difficulties for individuals in getting things done in daily life. So we would urge the Egyptian Government really to address this issue. It's really a fundamental issue of religious freedom.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:20 p.m.)

DPB # 204

Released on December 18, 2006

ENDS


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