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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 1, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, a week ago, President Bush was saying that Saddam was losing his grip on power. In a way, this seemed to indicate he believed Saddam was alive. Now the message from the administration is one of doubt that Saddam is alive. Has something happened in the last week, or are you just -- are you trying to sow doubt among the Iraqi leadership?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that, as the President has always said, and members of the administration have said when asked, is Saddam alive, we say we don't know, because we do not know. The fact that he failed to show up for his scheduled appearance today raises additional questions. But I think it's also fair to say, given the fact that we don't know if he's alive or not, when the President refers or other people in the administration refer to Saddam Hussein this or Saddam Hussein that, it's almost now a generalized term for the Iraqi regime, because we don't know if he's alive or dead.

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    QUESTION: How was General Garner picked to be the -- to head the post- war Iraqi occupation?

    MR. FLEISCHER: My understanding is he was picked by Secretary Rumsfeld as part of the team that the Secretary has assembled that is working in coordination with other offices in the United States government, including AID and State, on the reconstruction of Iraq.

    QUESTION: Does he have any qualifications? I understand he may be an arms dealer?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know anything about that, Helen. Given the fact that the appointment is Secretary Rumsfeld's, you might want to talk to the Secretary. That's a DOD question.

    QUESTION: What is the President doing right now to try to resolve disputes within the administration, specifically Pentagon and State, over administering aid for the Iraqi people? It appears that some of it is being held up now at the port in Umm Qasar.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, there is an existing plan and structure for the administration of aid for Iraq. And this is something that was planned going in. This is part -- a follow-up to Helen's question. General Garner is, of course, working on that from the Defense Department, and as well as officials from State, from AID. They all will have a role.

    The role really begins with the security of Iraq, and that's why it begins at DOD, because this is going to become an outgrowth of the military operation, to liberate Iraq, to disarm Iraq; and from a security point of view, to allow for the greatest administration, as quickly as possible by the Iraqi people. That will include a role for others, including the United Nations, as I mentioned. So it's all part and parcel of the original plan. And it's just a part of the discussions that are routine around here, that involve the various agencies.

    QUESTION: What does the President view as the United Nations role? Will it be restricted to humanitarian aid, or does he see a role for them in terms of administrating?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the statement that the President made in the Azores talked about a U.N. role in two part, one part being humanitarian and the other part being in the reconstruction.

    QUESTION: As an administrative overseer of the interim authority?

    MR. FLEISCHER: In some role. I think the exact role remains to be seen. Obviously, the United States being on the ground, providing the security is going to have a substantial role to play, and we want to make certain and welcome the role that others can play as well. The exact nature of those roles is yet to be determined.

    QUESTION: I heard your answer to Randy, that we don't know whether Saddam is alive or dead. No one is implying that you have definitive proof. But do you have any more intelligence that leans you one way or the other? Has there been more intelligence now than there was last week?

    MR. FLEISCHER: There is still nothing hard or concrete to report. I think when I got asked about this on the day after the military strike, I said we don't know how Saddam is feeling today. We don't know how he's been feeling for a couple weeks.

    QUESTION: Do we know anything more than we did two weeks ago?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, we don't have anything hard, concrete to report. I think if we did we would want to share that. Or if Iraq had something --

    QUESTION: What do we have that is soft and interesting? (Laughter.)

    MR. FLEISCHER: Switch it around, though. If you're in Iraq, if you're part of the Iraqi regime, if you're part of the leadership structure, especially, if you had something hard or concrete to report, such as that Saddam was alive, the question is why aren't they showing it? And particularly today, after they advertised, Al Jazeera did report it, that Saddam Hussein would, himself, address the Iraqi people and he failed to show up, it does raise interesting questions.

    But the bottom line is we don't know. We don't know, and therefore we're going to be guarded in what we say, because we don't know. He could show up, but he hasn't yet.


    QUESTION: Can you answer his last question?

    QUESTION: What do we believe?

    MR. FLEISCHER: We believe that we don't know.

    QUESTION: Following-up on Campbell's question, have you said anything lately about the French preference to have U.N. administration over all of postwar Iraq, versus any kind of U.S. control?

    MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the United Nations will have a role.

    QUESTION: But they want to have the controlling role.

    MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not certain that that's an accurate statement for what the U.N. wants. I think it remains to be seen exactly. The U.N. is a

    -- members of the Security Council. But there are some serious facts on the ground involving the United States and the United Kingdom and others who are there working with the Iraqi people. But the fundamental issue is not whether it's the United Nations or the United States that will administer Iraq, the Iraqi people will administer Iraq. Iraq can be and should be and will be, in the President's judgment, administered by the Iraqi people from both inside and outside Iraq.

    QUESTION: Has the President taken any role in calling anybody, talking to anybody about the dispute that is simmering between some active-duty and off-duty military over the plan of the war?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't know if you saw what General Myers said, but I think General Myers has addressed that issue.

    QUESTION: I did, but that isn't the question I asked you.

    MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think the President is bothering on that level. I think when you see --

    QUESTION: Really? It doesn't trouble him at all?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think when you see how General Myers expressed it and Secretary Rumsfeld expressed it as so many layers down, I don't think anybody could put it more authoritatively, more clearly, or more concisely than General Myers did.

    QUESTION: So the President is --

    MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that he's bothering --

    QUESTION: -- he believes that the war is progressing on plan?

    MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question you know where the President stands on how well the war is progressing, correct.

    QUESTION: Ari, this morning you said that Saddam Hussein bears some of the responsibility or the responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq, including the deaths of seven women and children at the checkpoint yesterday. At a minimum --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, I didn't apply it directly to the checkpoint; I made that as a general statement.

    QUESTION: Is there concern here that, at minimum, incidents like this hold the risk of inflaming opinion, anti-U.S. opinion in the Arab world and around the world in general? And does -- do incidents like this in turn put the U.S. military in an untenable position of having to choose between self-protection and worrying about all these political implications?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President's point of view is it's not untenable that this is part of the difficulty that our military faces, and the President believes that the military is facing it well. The fact that Saddam Hussein would use suicide bombers if the regime would engage in the most despicable tactics that they have does suggest the very nature of this regime.

    And you saw it, it was reported by many of the embeds in Iraq about putting innocent women on a bridge in between the United States and Iraqi forces. Now, who would do something like that? What kind of depravity is that, to take an innocent Iraqi woman and put her in between a fire-fight? That's the nature of the regime that we deal with here. So, no, from a military point of view, it's something that the President knows and the military will be able to deal with and move forward on.

    I can just tell you, just before I came out here, there was a report on one of the cables that showed an Iraqi citizen saying on camera, "Saddam no, America" -- and he gave a thumbs-up, like that. So we're starting to see some of the more visible signals now from the public of Iraq as the operation of Iraqi Liberation goes forward and people feel more free to speak out and I think you'll see more of that.

    QUESTION: On a related issue, you've always said that the occupation of Iraq would not last a day longer than necessary. Given the nature of the resistance that we've seen on the ground there, including suicide bombings, forces mingling themselves with civilian populations, is there some concern here that -- and is it fair to assume that the occupation is going to be longer, more dangerous, more expensive than it might otherwise have been?

    MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's impossible to make any judgments about that at this early period of time. I've seen other reports now about the improving situation in and around Basra. So I think it's impossible to make any predictions about longer term. The statement still applies; we'll stay as long as necessary and not a day longer, as the President has put it.

    QUESTION: Before the President approved the war plan, did anyone indicate to the President that the plan might include too few troops to do the job as safely as possible?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Mike, you heard General Myers on that today, and I don't think he could have addressed it any more authoritatively. From all the conversations the President has had with the planners, this was the plan that was agreed upon, it was discussed robustly, everybody understood what it called for, and was checked off on.

    QUESTION: And what is your assessment of the progress so far of the hearts and mind element of the campaign?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, you're already starting to see increasingly visible signs of Iraqis speaking out for freedom and helping the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia. Some of the information that you've been getting from Iraqis has led to direct actions on the ground, as the military briefers have shared from CENTCOM. And so the only reason that Iraqis would be providing that is if they, themselves, are taking sides. And obviously they're taking sides with the United States and against the oppressive Iraqi regime.

    QUESTION: Ari, just to follow-up quickly on Saddam's fate. If he were dead, that clearly would be welcomed by this White House. But wouldn't that also be not so great in the sense that that implies even though the top of that government is gone, that the rest of it is still very much determined to fight?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I guess the question is, do people know it? I think that once -- if that is the fact, and word gets out around Iraq, that can have implications. I think, obviously, those who have made their living at Saddam's side don't want information about his health to be revealed. They have a stake in keeping him as alive as can be. And, again, we don't know if he is or is not.

    QUESTION: On Saddam Hussein again, would you just review the evidence for a moment, that on the one hand he is alive and well, and on the other, that he is either seriously wounded or dead? What are the pieces of evidence for you to look at?

    MR. FLEISCHER: It just comes down to, we don't know. We don't know if he is alive or if he is dead. The ways that you would know is if you would see him in a live broadcast. If he was alive, if he showed something contemporaneous, if he would speak about an event that just took place that day, or the night before, then you might have information that he is alive and said something contemporaneous. We have not seen that, but we don't know. Proof that he would be dead would be if you saw a body. We don't --

    we haven't -- we don't know.

    QUESTION: Ari, it's no secret that the President really doesn't like to see shows of disunity amongst his leadership, at least public shows of that. You had a war plan, everybody signed off on it. We now have had days in which people inside the military and outside the military have raised questions about troop levels, et cetera. Does the President find that counterproductive, and has he asked anybody to cut it out?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that General Myers expressed it, and I think very articulately today, and I really don't have anything to add beyond that. I can't explain anything that any unnamed colonel says to a newspaper. There are many, many, many, many colonels out there. One unnamed one happened to say something. Is that indicative of a wider school of thought? I think General Myers expressed that view.

    QUESTION: But did the -- but does the President find it irritating? I mean, everybody signed off on this, you're in the middle of a war, and whether they're named or not named, the chatter is out there.

    MR. FLEISCHER: The President does his work with the military leaders and the military planners, the people who are hard at work on winning the war. And that's where his focus is, and that's who he talks to, and that's why he's as satisfied as he is.

    QUESTION: Did the President ask General Myers to make the kind of definitive remarks that he made today?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I have no idea.

    QUESTION: Ari, is the White House getting any complaints or concerns being expressed about -- from the Republicans on the Hill, that the way the war is going so far might be impacting them politically?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I've heard of, and I've been in many of the meetings with members of the Congress. And I have not heard any of that.

    QUESTION: Nothing at all?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I have not.

    QUESTION: Ari, one of the problems that the administration has had in selling this war, particularly overseas, is doubts about our motives regarding Iraqi oil. And the President has said repeatedly that it is a resource that belongs to the Iraqi people, that they'll derive the benefits from it once this is over. But Prime Minister Blair has put together a proposal to have the U.N. administer, essentially, an Iraqi oil trust. Is that something that you can talk to us about?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the U.N. does administer an Iraqi oil trust right now.

    QUESTION: No, I mean in the post-war set-up, a very controlled circumstance to make sure that the Iraqi people --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the U.N. just passed something like that. The U.N. passed something that the oil money that Iraq does receive currently and will still receive today and tomorrow is controlled by the United Nations under the Oil For Food program. That remains an United Nations program. The President was gratified that the United Nations passed it once again. But certainly, down the road, the President sees a day when sanctions will be lifted and the Iraqi people will be free to have all their resources at their own disposal.

    QUESTION: Ari, can I ask you about something that Secretary Rumsfeld alluded to, rumors of negotiations between someone in the coalition and the Iraqi regime? Where are these rumors coming from?

    MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I don't know the exact rumor that he was citing, but this is a town of many of rumor. Perhaps, one of the DOD reporters is asking that follow-up to Secretary Rumsfeld in his briefing now. But I don't know which rumor exactly he cited, but I think the answer is what's most instructive.