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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 28, 2003 (Full Transcript)

MR. FLEISCHER: He also today spoke with Prime Minister Aznar of Spain about events in Iraq. He currently is having lunch with the Vice President. And later today, the President will meet with commanders of national veteran service organizations and he will give remarks in the Rose Garden about the war in Iraq, the progress that's being made, and the service and the sacrifice of those who are in our Armed Forces.

Before I take your questions, the United Nations Security Council has just, moments ago, voted unanimously to reauthorize the oil-for-food program. The President would like to express his thanks to the United Nations Security Council for this unanimous action. This will be a way to help take care of the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, using Iraqi resources. The President is pleased with this outcome.

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    QUESTION: On the event you talked about, earlier today you said that the President is going to talk about some of the atrocities that the U.S. says were committed by Iraqi troops. Yesterday he talked in graphic terms about some of the things that have been done. Is this part of a campaign or part of a move you see to continue educate, continue justify the war to the American people?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, no, I think it's part of describing the horrible reality that Saddam Hussein is putting his people through. And this is one of the reasons the President talks about it. He's talked about it repeatedly. He talked about it repeatedly last fall; he talked about it during the winter; he talked about it now as the war, indeed, has begun.

    The actions that Saddam Hussein has been taking have been brutal toward his own people. They have been, previously, before the United States engaged in this action to disarm him from his weapons of mass destruction. He continues in that path today.

    QUESTION: Why is it important to keep telling people this?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Because it is important always to speak out on behalf of those who seek liberty. And this is one reason why the President believes so strongly that once the Iraqi people see that Saddam Hussein and those around him will be removed from power, they will welcome freedom, they will be a liberated people. There are indeed those who are fighting alongside of Saddam Hussein, who have always been loyal to him, who want to preserve their power, and, therefore, are willing to go to extraordinary means in terms of the death squads that are existent on the ground, to enforce the will of Saddam Hussein. The President will describe it for as brutal as it is.

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    QUESTION: Given what General Wallace and other commanders down the line that we're hearing from embedded reporters are saying, that this is a greater level of resistance, there's more fight in the Iraqis than they were expecting, what would be the harm -- I mean, do you have a policy of not acknowledging at this level, the political leadership level, what the soldiers on the ground are seeing, that it may be easily overcome, it may be part of the exigencies of war, but that we are a little bit surprised at the level of Iraqi resistance?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think General Brooks addressed it and I think it's always been understood that there was going to be resistance. This is war, there's going to be resistance, there's going to be fighting. That's why the President said what he said in Cincinnati in October.

    QUESTION: It seems like you're unwilling, as a matter of policy, to acknowledge that the President and the political leadership of this government might have miscalculated -- not in any fatal or even dangerous way, but might have miscalculated the response of the Iraqi army.

    MR. FLEISCHER: I can only tell you the President's approach. And the President's approach remains exactly as the President described it to you. The President has faith in the plan. He believes that the plan is on track, it is on progress, it is working. Saddam Hussein will be disarmed. And the President, as I made repeatedly clear on any number of occasions, is not going to sit in the White House as the play-by-play commentator on every battle and every day's mission. The military is in charge of the daily, day-to-day operations. They are very available and you have their briefings, and they will be talking about these things.

    QUESTION: Can I ask then one overall assessment that you might have made at this point? Given that level of fight that has been seen in the Iraqis -- and as you just said these are Saddam loyalists -- is it possible that it's more than that? Does the President have any judgment as to whether these aren't just soldiers who are being terrorized to fight, and not just simply gangsters who are loyal to Saddam, but these are Iraqis who believe they are acting as patriots in defending their country from an invasion?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's a certain element, of course, that is very deeply invested in Saddam Hussein staying in power. After all, they're the ones who have carried out his brutality. They're the ones who turned on their own people. They're the ones who have terrorized and tortured Iraqis. They're the ones who previously authorized the use of chemicals against the Iraqi people. They, of course, don't want the Iraqi people to be free because they know what the future holds for them as the ones who enforced the terror. Of course, they don't want the Iraqi people to be free. And that's why they'll turn on the people and support Saddam Hussein. Whatever numbers they are, whatever numbers they may be, whatever numbers they may be, they are insufficient for the American military.

    QUESTION: So there are no Iraqi nationalists -- not Saddam loyalists, not terrorists, but no ordinary Iraqi nationalists who are fighting for their nation. It's only, in the President's judgment, fanatics, dead-enders, as Secretary Rumsfeld said, fighting solely for Saddam Hussein.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I don't know that it's my job to psychoanalyze the Iraqi military. They may fight for whatever their reasons --

    QUESTION: He's the Commander-in-Chief. Does House have no assessment of what's happening on the ground there?

    MR. FLEISCHER: He does. He's continually shared it with you, and you heard it yesterday.

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    QUESTION: The key element of the integrated political and military strategy was the hope that you'd be able to turn over some local government functions in the first towns to fall to local Iraqis, and then, ultimately, create an Iraqi interim authority. Now that it appears that that will be a more difficult and delayed process, particularly in the south, can you tell us how that is going to affect your ability to make the case in Baghdad and elsewhere that, in fact, you're coming in as a liberation force?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, after one week I don't know that you can draw any conclusions about the timing of it. But the purpose of it is unchanged, and the purpose of it remains that the President believes that Iraq should be governed by the Iraqis from both within and without. Iraq certainly does have a large infrastructure, a civil society who are capable of governing the country and handling particularly some of the municipal work, the services that get provided outside of the security arena. And the ability for this to take root and to develop and grow will depend on the security environment on the ground.

    So as the fighting drops off in any one region, and security is enhanced, I think you're going to see the very things that we talked about develop. But, of course, it can't develop until the security situation is addressed.

    QUESTION: Had there been a hope that this process would have started one week in?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I had not heard any specific timing of it, David. I think the hope is, because this is the best way to protect the Iraqi people, that it will happen as soon as possible.

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    QUESTION: One of the questions that has been -- perhaps is premature -- has been, where are the weapons of mass destruction. And so let's accept the fact that that is a question to be answered weeks or months down the road when you have a secure environment inside Iraq, and the focus now is on the military operation, does the administration want to do that, provide the inventory, look at the sites, go looking and finding and cataloguing on its own as a military operation? Or when there is a secure environment inside Iraq, would you prefer that the U.N. come back in and be the agency that does that?

    MR. FLEISCHER: At the end of the day, after the fighting is over, and the military needs are first taken care of and secured to protect our troops who are currently on the ground, where we have very real fears about Iraq using chemical weapons against our troops -- as evidenced by the fact that Iraqi military units have been found to have chemical protection gear -- I think that remains a point to be discussed with the international community. It is not something that has been ruled out. There is going to be a role for the United Nations in the future of Iraq, and that's important in the President's judgment. So we have never ruled out anything involving their use of inspectors or anything else down the road. I think it's just too soon to say.

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    QUESTION: Okay, as the war goes on, is the United States well-positioned as far as oil deliveries and oil supplies?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Is the United States domestically prepared on oil supplies?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think the markets have very much answered that question. One of the things that you have seen since the operation began has been a stability in oil markets; in fact, the price has declined as a result of fears that did not materialize on the price of crude oil.

    In addition, a major environmental disaster has been averted as a result of the taking of the southern oil fields, which Saddam Hussein has previously tried to light on fire. One way to look at this, in the southern oil fields, depending on how you want to count them, there are either 500 or 1,000 approximately oil fields; a handful, a small number, some 9 or so, were set on fire. That contrasts to Kuwait, where there were some 700 oil wells put on fire by the departing Iraqis. So there's been that stability. That's good news to the consumer in America.

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    QUESTION: Ari, to follow up on John's question a little earlier. Was the President, before the fighting broke out in Iraq, was the President aware of the potential threat from paramilitaries in Iraq?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think there was a widespread discussion of the variety of threats that could come from Iraqi resistance.

    QUESTION: Specifically, was that something that, can you tell us --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, Ken, just as an overall general rule, I just don't go into the specifics of the President's briefings.

    QUESTION: An unrelated follow-up, please. What is the White House position on the potential for another paramilitary group potentially taking up arms on the side of Britain and the United States, potentially in the south, a group beyond the Kurds? Is that something that the White House would support, or is that something that the White House is opposed to?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, I think it's important to recognize what you have here really are the equivalent of death squads for the state of Iraq that are taking action against the people of Iraq because they fear a free and liberated people of Iraq. That's really what you're witnessing on the ground. That's -- they dress as civilians, they pretend to surrender.

    As far as the people of Iraq joining with the United States or Great Britain, I think that you can expect that if people feel liberated and they feel free, they will, of course, express their support. I think as fear declines in some of these Iraqi cities, you will see more of that. I can't predict every form in which that support will be manifest. Some of it will -- maybe just overt, people celebrating or rejoicing, people welcoming the humanitarian relief. Of course, the Sir Galahad has now arrived in port and the humanitarian relief is already accelerating. So I can't manifest every -- predict every way it will manifest, but we'll just see how all that goes on the ground.

    QUESTION: That's not something that the administration has actually advocated? We know that we had several expatriates here, for instance, that were part of the State Department's working groups. Some of these folks focused on military, for instance, and certainly --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, there was a training program that you're very well aware of in East Europe that involved working with Iraqis who want to go back to their homeland to help out in a number of ways. Of course, they are from different regions, different corners of the state -- of the country. They are fluent in Arabic and so, therefore, they are helpful to us in our endeavors.

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    QUESTION: Ari, we've seen some wire reports in the past hour or two that Iraqis have been seen unloading chemical -- or drums that would appear to be chemicals, Iraqis wearing chemical suits. Do you have anything on that? Has the President been advised of some new intelligence that there is something to worry about on the battlefield?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, again, I think that's something that if somebody brings that up, that would be something Secretary Rumsfeld would address.

    QUESTION: If I can just ask you briefly, can you look ahead to Monday, since that's now on the record? What particular aspect of homeland security does the President want to talk about?

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    QUESTION: Ari, the President was quite definitive yesterday when he joined Tony Blair in saying that the British POWs had been executed by the Iraqis. I know that Peter Pace at the Pentagon has said American POWs have been executed by the Iraqis. And I wonder whether there's new evidence that the Iraqis are killing American POWs and what level of concern the President has about the Iraqi activities in this area?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I talked to the President about this yesterday. And the President would not be surprised at the depravity that this regime would go to, the lengths that they would go to. I don't have anything more specific for you on that. Again, that's a DOD issue, but that's the President's approach to it.

    QUESTION: Has any evidence been brought to his attention in this area?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I've expressed how the President expressed it yesterday.

    QUESTION: Will the President -- Prime Minister Blair said yesterday said, we would go and seek approval for a post-conflict administration in Iraq. Is the President planning to be part of that "we"? Is the U.S. going to try to get approval for the post-Iraq administration from the United Nations?

    MR. FLEISCHER: From the United Nations? Let me refer you to the statement that the President issued after his meeting in the Azores, and this is the statement of the President's policy. We endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration for Iraq, and this is part of a new United Nations Security Council resolution. So we will, of course, be working with the United Kingdom and other nations on that. This is why I wanted to begin today with the President's thanks to the United Nation's Security Council for the oil-for-food program.

    Despite the difficulties that we have had with the United Nations Security Council and the events that led up to the war and their inability to enforce their own resolutions, that hasn't changed in the President's mind. But there still, in the President's judgment, is a role for the United Nations to play involving humanitarian relief and reconstruction.

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