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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 3, 2003

Press Gaggle with Ari Fleischer
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

9:39 A.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, let me give you a little update on today, and then a couple other items. The President today will deliver remarks to military personnel and families and provide an update on Operation Iraqi Freedom at Camp Lejeune.

Camp Lejeune is home to the Marine Corps Expeditionary Forces. It includes an active duty, dependent, retirees, civilian population of nearly 150,000. It was established in 1941. Camp Lejeune has grown from its original facilities of a farmhouse and tobacco barn to a 246-square-mile military training facility that includes 14 miles of beach for amphibious operations, and internationally recognized training capabilities.

He will, after his speech, which will be before -- don't have the number in front of me. I believe it's some 10,000 Marines -- after the speech, he will eat lunch with the Marines, and then he will have a private meeting with the families of fallen Marines who were based at Camp Lejeune.

Q Ten thousand Marines you said at this -- in the crowd?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, it's a large -- large attendance at the speech.

Q Do you know about how many families represented?

MR. FLEISCHER: There will be approximately half a dozen or so, probably -- maybe five families of those fallen. The reason for that --

Q -- from Camp Lejeune?

MR. FLEISCHER: The Marines are from Camp Lejeune, but the families are not. There's only one family in the Camp Lejeune area. Others had to come from wherever they live because their relative was based at Camp Lejeune. There are additional Marines who were killed whose families will not be there today because they don't live near Camp Lejeune.

Q Can you give us those names by the end of the --

MR. FLEISCHER: I believe the names are going to be withheld. The families requested privacy. If that changes I will update it, but I asked shortly before I left the White House and I was informed the families want privacy.

Q Is it 12 Marines from that base -- 12 Marines who lost their lives?

MR. FLEISCHER: My latest information is 11 Marines from Camp Lejeune have been killed.

Let me do two other things. There are some -- two bad reports on the economy out this morning, and the President views this as more reason for Congress to pass the job growth economic stimulus plan that he proposed. Today's bad news makes it even more important for Congress to act and pass the President's proposal.

Finally, let me skip ahead to tomorrow. I want to inform you about an event --

Q What was the bad news?

MR. FLEISCHER: Unemployment insurance, first-time claims are of the highest level in almost a year. They increased by -- initial claims for unemployment insurance rose 38,000, to 445,000. And also, the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing report for March came out, and business activity index for non-manufacturing sector decreased by six index points, well below market expectations.

A final item for tomorrow, I want to highlight this today -- tomorrow afternoon the President will have a meeting in the Roosevelt Room with a group of Shia, Sunni, and Christian Iraqis, all of whom have fled torture, persecution in Iraq and live in the United States. He looks forward to meeting with these free Iraqis to talk about the progress and speed being made in the war, and discuss the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Q Will that be open or closed?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm working on the coverage now. I don't have a determination. We will try to hand out a factsheet later this afternoon on who these people are. But let me share with you some of their stories.

Rahman Al-Jebouri -- he was a prolific writer while attending Baghdad University in the '80s. During his sophomore year he was apprehended and jailed after writing a fictional story that was interpreted by the Hussein regime as criticism of the war with Iran. He spent four years in jail and was released only after signing a pledge of allegiance to the regime and a promise not to write again.

In 1991, he joined the uprising in southern Iraq, but fled to Saudi Arabia as the revolt failed. After living in a refugee camp for four years, he came to the United States, with the help of the United Nations, in 1995. He now lives in the Washington area.

Ms. Zainab Al-Suwaij -- and we'll give you all the spellings on these -- she is Shia. She was born in southern Iraq. When she was 20 years old, she joined the 1991 uprising against Saddam in Karbala. During the revolt, she saw the city jail and saw firsthand the instruments of torture that were used by the Iraqi regime. As the uprising began to fail, she fled Iraq and drove to Jordan. She now lives in Boston and heads the American Islamic Congress Organization, dedicated to building interfaith understanding.

We will try to provide you additional biographical information on all the people that he's going -- that the President is going to be meeting with tomorrow. Some of their tales are quite graphic. All their tales are quite sad, but all their hopes are quite high, now that they see the day of liberation for their country coming.

Q Ari, this is the President's first meeting with the families. Can you tell us a little bit about how you expect -- how many people you expect to be there and how you expect the President to --

MR. FLEISCHER: There will be a little more than 20 people. These will be brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives, and mothers and fathers of those who have fallen in service to our country.

Q Representing how many of the killed?

MR. FLEISCHER: These are the ones who were able to make it to Camp Lejeune -- again, understanding that many of them don't live in the Camp Lejeune area, despite the fact that the Marines were based there.

I think it's going to be sad. I think it's going to be, if I know the President, a tough meeting, an emotional meeting. But from his point of view, it's an important meeting. This is part of the duties of the Commander-in-Chief, and this is part of his job. And he went to Walter Reed to meet with the wounded from Afghanistan. He has met with families in other very difficult situations before, going back to September 14th, 2001, when he met with the families of those who were at that time believed missing at the World Trade Center. And he's met with other families whose children or husbands or wives were killed in Afghanistan.

Q How does this usually go? Does he kind of make comments, and then meet individually? Or how doe --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, his comments will be in front of the large crowd. And then what he'll typically do is he will go in and just spend time with every single individual soul in that room. And it's -- I've been with him for almost all of these, I think for all that he's said he's done, and it really is an amazing scene, because you have families that are in the early moments of their grief. In many cases, their relatives have just fallen. This is in the last two weeks. And they're aggrieved. They're pleased that the President is there. And they talk to him about their loved one, they share stories about whoever it was. That's what's happened in the past at these events.

He just spends so much time with each one. He kind of just locks in on the individual he happens to be talking to at that moment. And it's almost as if there's nobody else in the room, except those two. That's how he talks to -- and Mrs. Bush will, of course, be with him for this, as well.

Q Ari, can I ask about the question of whether to press on to Baghdad or linger on the outskirts for a while -- is that a question that rises to the President's level, or does he delegate that entirely?

MR. FLEISCHER: A decision that General Franks makes.

Q How concerned are you about chemical weapons being used at this point, and what are the consequences?

MR. FLEISCHER: We remain deeply concerned about the possibility that chemical weapons can be used. The consequences, of course, are -- the President has warned Iraqi officials not to follow orders, that they will be tried as war criminals if they do. And it remains a concern, a deep concern.

Q Ari, you said it's a decision for General Franks. Has General Franks or anybody else in the command joined in the NSC meetings or other briefings so that the President has been in on the consultation on this issue of the Baghdad drive?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President leaves these decisions to the military planners. They make the call. It is their decision about the timing and the tactics of the war. The reason for that is because it should not be a decision that's made on any other basis than on the military facts on the ground, made by the military officials that the President has charged with winning the war.

Q Right, but you've made a special point of saying that the President has been a tough questioner of his military leaders and wanted to be involved and informed, maybe not making the decision, but that would make the case for somebody like General Franks coming into the NSC meeting and having a chance to discuss this with the President.

MR. FLEISCHER: Every day, DOD officials will inform the President about what is next across the battlefront. And that's how the President stays updated on the latest events, and that's the process.

Q But how can he ask these tough questions if General Franks isn't having a conversation with him?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't understand the question.

Q Well, you've been making a point for days now that the President asks -- likes to ask tough questions and see his role as keeping people accountable. How does he ask those questions if Franks isn't in a conversation with him?

MR. FLEISCHER: Nobody said he's not in a conversation with him. Franks is in a --

Q I just asked whether General Franks was briefing the President by videophone on the issues of when you take Baghdad.

MR. FLEISCHER: The answer is yes. It's not on a daily basis, but it's on a regular basis.

Q Do you know if he did it today?

MR. FLEISCHER: I believe he did yesterday. But keep in mind, there's a military chain of command by design. And the chain of command works from General Myers -- I mean, General Franks to General Myers to Secretary Rumsfeld to the President.

Q Any new information on the pilot of the fighter jet that went down over southern Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a DOD issue.

Q Any new speculation about Saddam?

MR. FLEISCHER: Continue to not know.

Q -- about the crowd size. You said 10,000 Marines, but we were told, I think, 30,000 expected total. Is that family and friends, or is that number wrong?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let's go to the source: 12,000 attendees, including 12,000 Marines.

MR. DECKARD: That's 20,000 attendees, I think.

MR. FLEISCHER: Isn't that what I said?

MR. DECKARD: Twelve thousand and 12,000.

MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, 12 and 12. That doesn't add up. (Laughter.)

Q Twelve including 12.

MR. FLEISCHER: I would like to thank Reed Dicken's protege for the correction. Twenty thousand attendees, including 12,000 Marines.

Q So who are the rest?

MR. FLEISCHER: The other 8,000? They happened to be wandering by the base. (Laughter.) Families, dependents, others who live there; civilians who are based at Camp Lejeune. Reporters, pool of 13 -- 20,013 will be there. Cameramen count twice.


THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 9:50 A.M. EST