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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 4, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: On that trip, what are they going to discuss? I understand it's also the Middle East and Northern Ireland. And on the Middle East, is it possible that this could be the trip that the road map is released, or because of the complications with the confirmation of a Palestinian that won't be happening?

MR. FLEISCHER: The trip will focus on the operations in Iraq. They will talk about the status of the ongoing military operation, they will talk about the humanitarian relief efforts, they'll talk about reconstruction and they'll talk about the role of the United Nations. They will also talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland. And I think the subject of the Middle East could come up, as well. I don't have anything further for you about any specifics on Middle East about the road map. I don't know if that's the case.

QUESTION: Safe to say not to expect that, or --

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't like to predict every outcome of every meeting, but there's nothing that I've heard or seen that would lead me to believe that to be the case.

QUESTION: This morning you said that the President believes the U.N. will have a role in post --


QUESTION: Can you spell it out a little more?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the focus of the future in Iraq -- which I want to caution everybody, is not yet here. We still are in the middle of a battle, we still are at war. There are many dangers that can still lie ahead. And so while, yes, there is a look ahead, I want to make certain that everybody has this in the proper perspective, as America's military is still in the middle of armed conflict. But as people look ahead and they focus on the future of Iraq, what the President sees is an Iraq that is free, that is democratic, where the people govern themselves. The people of Iraq are well educated. The infrastructure of Iraq is actually spread throughout the entire country of Iraq. And the Iraqi people are very capable people. Through the military operation, as you can tell by the precise nature of the military campaign, much of the infrastructure of Iraq is being maintained, so the Iraqi people will be able to quickly govern themselves. The United Nations, in the President's judgment, should and will have a role. The role will be involved in humanitarian efforts. The role will be involved in help on the reconstruction efforts. But, principally, the future of Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide. The United States, of course, is on the ground providing security, and that's an important part of this. But there will be a role for the U.N. The exact nature of it, I think, is still a little early to talk about, or to know about. I think there will be some conversations about it. That's where it lies.


QUESTION: While I have you, could I just ask one non-related question? Is there any possibility that the President and Blair will discuss any kind of peace proposal? Is there anything coming through the cracks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Vis-a-vis Iraq?


MR. FLEISCHER: No, the mission is the mission. The mission will be completed with the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime and with the regime being changed.

QUESTION: So there's no peace proposal that's in the works or anything?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, you should not look for that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? What you're talking about in terms of the Iraqis taking over their government is more long term. We haven't --

MR. FLEISCHER: Not necessarily.

QUESTION: Well, who have you identified there who is in a position to move in and --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, when it comes to the infrastructure and, of course, the vital services, the municipal services, the running of the food programs, water delivery, things of that nature -- of course the civilian infrastructure can take over, we hope, as quickly as possible as events on the ground dictate. Now, when it comes to the over-arching larger political questions of who will run Iraq, in terms of the broader political sense, it's impossible at this date to give names. What the President has said is that this should be a matter for Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq to govern their country, and that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be maintained. That's our approach.

QUESTION: But back to the U.N. role, I mean, you said the U.N. will help in the reconstruction effort. But others in the administration are on the record -- Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell have talked about having U.S. officials moving in and taking over various administrations or, you know, departments that still exist --


QUESTION: -- and not having the U.N. move in immediately and do that, versus what Prime Minister Blair has said.

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think they said anything about not having the U.N. move in. As you know, the President made a statement in the Azores, which everybody -- that's the American position, and that is that there will be a role for the United Nations, exactly as I said, exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell have said, involving humanitarian aspects and reconstruction aspects. Don't think for a second that means the United States will not continue to have the role that we are playing and the mission that we are moving forward on to help continue to provide for the Iraqi people as the security situation goes forward, as well as some type of civilian administration that reports to General Franks.

QUESTION: Finally, representatives from France, Russia and Germany today to talk about this very issue. Have there been any discussions between our government and theirs to -- about the U.N. role? Or are you strictly dealing with Blair?

MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell met in Brussels with leaders of 23 nations -- I believe it was 23 -- from the European Union. And, of course, he met with his counterparts from several of those nations that you just mentioned, if not all. And the talks were described as very positive and productive. It's part of the international process. But the central point remains that the future of Iraq, in the President's judgment, will be governed by the Iraqi people. Iraq can govern itself. The United States will have its presence there, because we will stay for as long as is necessary to provide the security and for the infrastructure to be protected and to be administered, until the point where the Iraqis can take it over entirely.

QUESTION: But that'll be the United States staying there, and not the U.N., until the Iraqis can take it over --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, but the U.N. -- exactly as I said, the U.N. will have a role. Sometimes we do things side-by-side.

QUESTION: But at what point will the Iraqis take over their government? Because there are some of them who seem to --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say.

QUESTION: Well, some of them seem to expect, in public statements that they've made, to do it right away. But isn't the U.S. military going to effectively govern for at least an interim period?

MR. FLEISCHER: The U.S. military will effectively continue to fight a war that we're in the middle of. I still want to remind everybody that is the status of events on the ground.

QUESTION: Yes, but I'm talking about after hostilities or --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's why I say it's too soon to say. I think it all depends on how long hostilities last, and we don't know how long hostilities will last. But the situation -- the design is set up so that once the security situation is taken care of, then Iraqis from both within and without Iraq will be working as part of the interim Iraqi authority to govern Iraq.

QUESTION: But you're not saying how long a time period --

MR. FLEISCHER: -- it's not knowable. How can anybody say how long it will be with accuracy?

QUESTION: Ari, you and Pentagon officials have emphasized that the President is not micro-managing this war, that he approved the overall war plan and has left the execution to the commanders. But now we're approaching the battle of Baghdad, with the prospect of not only heavy casualties -- heavier casualties for coalition forces, for American troops, but also for Iraqi civilians. At this point, will the President get more closely involved with the day-to-day decisions?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is closely involved with the day- to-day, but to state the obvious, when the plan was written, it was anticipated that the plan would involve fighting in Baghdad. That's part of the plan. It was anticipated. And the plan is being implemented. And so General Franks will continue to make the tactical decisions, the timing decisions about the best way to conduct that plan, to implement that plan, which I assure you, includes how to deal with Baghdad.

QUESTION: So basically nothing has changed in regards to the planning for the battle of Baghdad since before the war?

MR. FLEISCHER: The structure remains exactly in place, where the President begins each day with the briefings from the field, through the National Security Council about the plan, how it is being implemented. He ends his day with updates on the plan, and then continually in between as necessary. So that's how the President approaches it. These decisions remain decisions made by the field commanders because that's the most effective way to win a war.


QUESTION: Ari, there's a new Saddam tape out in which he mentions the downing of a U.S. helicopter on March 24th. Does this prove that he's alive? Have you made any sort of determination?

MR. FLEISCHER: The tape does not give us any firm conclusions one way or another. As has happened in the past, the tape will go through the typical analysis, the technical analysis to determine whether the voice is, indeed, Saddam Hussein's, et cetera. That will be done. At this stage, all I can tell you is we don't know. I can also tell you in the bigger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. Because whether it is him, or whether it isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end. I do note that there was one reference in the tape -- Saddam Hussein saying that coalition forces, or United States' forces went around the defenses of Baghdad. Which, of course, is not the facts. The facts, if anybody was there to witness the facts, are we attacked the forces defending Baghdad. We hardly went around them. So I'd note that.


QUESTION: Follow-up on Elizabeth's question. What role do you anticipate for -- does the administration anticipate for exiles in the post-war government?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there is already a role being played by exiles in the current mission in Iraq. As you know, the nation of Hungary, to whom we are most grateful, provided training for a group of exiles. They went to Hungary and then have gone into the theater with the military. And they served very helpful roles there as translators and guides and performing other services for the military. And one of the interesting things was that we saw as a sign of success in Afghanistan -- that I think we will see as a sign of success in Iraq -- is a willingness of people to return to their country. These people, in some instances, are Americans, but they want to return to where they were from because they taste for the first time that Iraq may be free. And we anticipate that many people who fled tyranny and torture will want to return to Iraq from around the world, not just in the United States, as freedom grows on the ground in Iraq.

QUESTION: So to be more specific, do you agree with a report in the Wall Street Journal today that the President rejected advice from aides to the Vice President and the Defense Secretary to give elevated posts in the Iraqi-post war government to exiles?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we don't know exactly who is going to have what role in a post-government yet, so I think it's impossible to speculate about that. The exact makeup of the post-government leadership is not yet defined.

QUESTION: So the President wouldn't be opposed, then, to roles for exiles as opposed to consensus from the Iraqi people?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've always said that the future government of Iraq will be comprised of people from both within and outside Iraq. Always it's been both.


QUESTION: Just to follow-up on that. There are reports that say that some in the administration want to have the government led mostly by exiles in the short-term -- right now, maybe in southern Iraq, maybe in and around the airport to sort of get things up running. Is that something that the White House is projecting at this point? Or are you --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I should think for the structure of the government-to-be it is soon to say. And this is why I keep wanting to remind everybody -- just days ago people were saying we were bogged down; and now they're saying, describe for us and give us the names of the government that's going to be running Iraq in the future. We're still in the middle of war. So these things still are early. They're still unknowable. We are thinking about them. But we don't have answers yet. And we couldn't be expected to have precise answers at this stage.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, the idea of the role for the exiles in any government, as far as the White House is concerned? You're saying that you don't want them to necessarily take the lead while the Iraqis are on the ground?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me say it again. The President has always said that the future of Iraq will be governed by Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq. If they are from outside Iraq, they are exiles.

QUESTION: Following-up on that, are you referring to a permanent eventual Iraqi government or a interim authority? The question seems to be over the makeup of an interim authority. Previously, the administration has said that a group of Iraqis from inside and outside Iraq would meet to choose the composition of an interim authority, which would lead the way to a permanent government. So are you talking about the interim --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think even the membership on the interim authority is just not knowable with precision. But as I just reported, there already are people from outside Iraq who are now inside Iraq, who are trained to go there to be a helpful part of the mission. And we will continue to work with the Iraqi people from both inside and outside Iraq on the makeup of the interim authorities, as well as the more permanent government.

QUESTION: So are you saying that several news reports today that the Pentagon has already chosen the composition of an interim-type authority to help govern Iraq during the process, that those reports are inaccurate?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, this still is in the development stage and not every point of it is yet set in stone. We're still fighting a war.

QUESTION: But that would require a presidential decision, would it not? The President would be the one who would decide whether or not we try to establish an interim government and who would be participating?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President has already said that we will work through an interim Iraqi authority. That's what he has said. There were calls for a provisional government to be announced now -- and we do not support those calls, we support a interim Iraqi authority, the exact makeup of it is too soon to say.

QUESTION: And what is the difference between a provisional government and an interim Iraqi authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: A provisional government, there are some who called for the naming today of the Iraqi leader -- who will not necessarily be inside Iraq. That's a provisional government and history has seen its share of provisional governments. The approach the President has taken is an interim Iraqi authority.

QUESTION: But is he having any -- it would be his decision, not the Defense Department's, right? If, in fact, he decides to name an interim Iraqi authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these are decisions that the President makes and he works together with his team of national security advisors to make those decisions.

QUESTION: I just wanted to make sure it was a presidential decision, and not -- yes, right. Now, is there -- has a decision been taken, what is the White House view on whether or not an interim Iraqi authority should be declared at this point or in the next few days?

MR. FLEISCHER: Too soon to say.

QUESTION: After the hostilities are over or --

MR. FLEISCHER: We're still fighting hostilities; it's too soon.

QUESTION: So you wouldn't do it until after hostilities end?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just said it's too soon to say today.


QUESTION: Ari, last week, the military plan that has been set in motion for a war in Iraq was very much criticized, including by many ex- generals and colonels and some in active duty in Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: I noticed.

QUESTION: Does the President feel that the quick taking of the airport and the closing in on the troops in Baghdad vindicates the plan?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always felt that what is important, particularly in war, is to be steady at the helm and to lead and to do what he thought was right, and to implement the plan that he always felt was on progress. He understood that there were going to be some criticisms. And I think it's worth pointing out there was a rather remarkable correction printed in one of the nation's leading newspapers pertaining to what General Wallace was alleged to have said. Because he did not say, as was reported, that the enemy that we are up against is not the enemy we war-gamed. He said -- and I'm paraphrasing now -- but as the correction reported, he said -- I think the actual quote attributed to him that was on the front page of some newspapers was that, this is a different enemy from the one we war-planned against, or war-gamed against. And what he actually said is, the enemy is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against. Which is an important measure, qualitative measure of how similar or different it is. That's not as stark as it had been made to -- people have been made to believe. Now, that's a correction. I can't tell you how many stories are written off of the incorrect quote. I don't yet know how many stories will be written off of the corrected quote.

QUESTION: You have said -- you were quoting President Bush -- believes General Franks should run military aspects of the war from the site. Now that they're so close to Baghdad, is there the possibility a decision will be made instead of troops going in to take Baghdad, maybe surrounding or isolating Baghdad?

MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to DOD about anything operational like that.

QUESTION: What would a decision like that involve for the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: That was John's question, and there's a plan for Baghdad. The plan is being implemented.


QUESTION: Ari, I have two questions. Could you clarify -- since the Iraqi people are so fearful of Saddam Hussein, why would the government be suggesting that it might be irrelevant where he is, or his health, to the beginning of a new Iraqi governing authority or -- wouldn't it be important to know where he is and that he's apprehended or dead?

MR. FLEISCHER: What I said was, in the bigger scheme of things -- in the bigger scheme of things, it does not -- today's tape does not matter, because the regime's days are numbered, in any case. But, clearly, the leadership of Iraq matters. And we don't know if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead. We don't yet know what this tape shows or doesn't show or whether or not the information was pre-recorded or even was pre-recorded with accuracy to be released. We don't know. That's why I noted the point about the -- going around the defenses of Baghdad. That's not an accurate statement to make, as if someone were observing events today. But it is an important issue about the leadership of Iraq because, clearly, as Iraqi people start to feel comfortable with the fact that the regime is gone -- we have seen it in the south, we're continuing to see it in areas where people see the security of the United States or the coalition forces -- they feel more free. They're coming out, they're waving more, they're giving the thumbs-up to coalition forces. Journalists who are embedded are seeing and feeling that, themselves.

QUESTION: My second question is, for the record, Michael Kelly was the first American journalist who was embedded and was killed overnight. I was wondering if the White House has any reaction.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President expresses his sorrow and his condolences to the Kelly family. And the President, of course, expresses his sorrow and condolences to all of those military, civilian and journalist who have died in this combat.

QUESTION: Ari, is the President proceeding with plans to try and create a home-grown police force, particularly in the south? There are now reports that there are discussions about getting members of the Shiite majority to actually act as their own police force, the advantages being obvious.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's a little too early to get into that type of discussion in the middle of a shooting war. But suffice it to say that the Iraqi people are a capable people. There is a difference between the Iraqi people and the top layers of the regime. And the President sees a bright future for the people of Iraq, led by the people of Iraq.


QUESTION: If I could just follow-up on Steve's question earlier, about the tape. Did you -- and I apologize if I missed this. Did you, in fact, confirm that this at least shows that he survived the initial attack?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we don't know. Typically what happens now and what is happening now is the tape will be analyzed by the experts to do a voice match, to see if it is his voice. That still, though, remains one piece of the puzzle. You don't know if it was pre-canned. Clearly, there is some information on there that some people might think could have some indications of something that might sound contemporaneous. Although, one reference is to something that took place almost two weeks ago. And the other reference that you could look at in a contemporaneous way is something that really is off-base. It's not an accurate thing to say for anybody who is on the ground observing events today. So the bottom line is we don't know, still, if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead -- despite today's tape.

QUESTION: Great. But actually what I was asking was whether it at least shows that he survived the initial attack? Are you --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we don't know.

QUESTION: Are you willing to go that far?

MR. FLEISCHER: We don't know.

QUESTION: Even despite the reference to the farmer and the Apache?

MR. FLEISCHER: Don't know.


QUESTION: And the second question on the U.N., some of our typical -- traditional allies in Europe have said that a prominent U.N. role for an interim Iraqi government would go a long way towards not only repairing breaches in our relations with some of our traditional European allies, but also would help U.S. relations in the Middle East where many, many --

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, I got it.

QUESTION: -- newspapers, governments, see this as a --

MR. FLEISCHER: Got it --

QUESTION: -- U.S.-led invasion?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, on your first question, the purpose of the mission is to disarm the regime and change the leadership. And that includes the top layers of the leadership. So clearly, the future or the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor. But as I indicated, whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward. And the regime's days are numbered. On the role of the United Nations, again, there will be a role for the United Nations. And the President is focused on doing what is most effective to help the Iraqi people to govern their own country. That's where the President's focus will be. There will be a role for the U.N. in that process.


QUESTION: For the first time, we're getting reports from the field today of large numbers of Iraqis fleeing Baghdad. Is the administration -- are U.S. forces in the region prepared to deal with that? Does that complicate our planning?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you'd have to talk to DOD about complications from any planning. But, of course, the Iraqi Information Minister said the other day that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad and we haven't even crossed the Tigres. And of course this is another reason why it's important to have embedded reporters there, so the truth can be seen from reporters eyes, in addition to be briefed by American officials there. But anything beyond that, DOD will tell you about the plans.

QUESTION: We had had -- there were reports early on, even before the war broke out, that we talked with neighboring countries about possibly receiving refugees. Is there any larger plan for dealing with that?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's a DOD issue, and I think you have to have a very precise understanding of how many people are actually moving.


QUESTION: Well, there are reports now that there have been some chemicals found, et cetera. Is there any plans by the White House to ask Hans Blix or the United Nations to verify the possibility that these are actually chemical weapons?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, we have expert teams on the ground who would be able to make those decisions and judgments, themselves. As for the future, we have never ruled out that the United Nations inspectors might have some type of role to play. But in terms of the immediate verification, that's something that the military is taking care of.

QUESTION: Okay. And, secondly, in terms of the fighting resistance that they're getting at some of the -- south, that they may calm down and may pop up again, is there any plans to use coalition forces to sort of stay back -- I mean, other than the British and the Americans, some of the larger forces to stay back and deal with some of those pockets of resistance?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's something that the DOD officials can tell you about.


QUESTION: Ari, some of the President's allies on Capital Hill -- including Tom DeLay -- are voicing some concerns about the Middle East road map. They're concerned that the U.S. will undercut support for Israel. Do they have any foundation for this concern?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks it's very important for all parties to know that he is sincere about implementing his June 24th speech in the Rose Garden, and he is going to follow through on it. And the road map is part and parcel of the June 24th speech, which was received well by all parties in the Middle East. And so the President believes that there are important responsibilities on the Palestinians to reform; on the Arab nations to help the reforms take place; and on Israel, as well, to open up the doors toward more cooperation with a reformed Palestinian Authority and to see settlement activity as the security situation improves. And so those are the President's stated messages and that's part of the road map and it's something the President is deeply committed to.


QUESTION: So given the compromises both sides need to make, the President is anticipating some resistance?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is anticipating contributions to the road map from the parties to the road map, exactly as he called for in his speech in March.

QUESTION: Ari, to this point -- and I know it's early and events may change, just like she said -- but to this point, at least, they have not found any weapons of mass destruction. Like I said, I know it's early, but does the administration believe that it was justified in taking the action it has taken in Iraq, even if --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course --

QUESTION: -- no weapons of mass destruction are found?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think that's going to happen. I thought you were asking about justified in taking the action. But you've heard it repeatedly said from the DOD briefers that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical. And we are confident that they will be found and discovered and seen.

QUESTION: And even if they're not -- the feeling is that the action was justified?

MR. FLEISCHER: You're asking about a hypothetical that I just told you I don't think is going to happen.

QUESTION: Ari, on two things. First, your critics are already coming out in reference to this regime change and name change situation. They're talking about -- they're linking regime change and the name changing of the airport. On a serious note, is that a part of the regime change? Anything "Saddam" will be changed --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course. I think there's nothing the Iraqi people want more than to throw off the yoke of oppression that Saddam has imposed of them. I think that the Iraqis don't want to have Saddam Hussein statues left behind, they don't want Saddam Hussein's torture left behind, they don't want his brutality left behind, and that's a message I think the President is going to hear today from people who fled Iraq.


QUESTION: If the President has a workable plan for the Middle East, why didn't he just put it out now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as the President said, that the road map will be offered upon the confirmation of Abu Mazen. And that has not yet taken place, as he is still appointing his cabinet.

QUESTION: But considerable progress has been made. I mean, aren't you just kind of waiting now for a formality?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is doing exactly what he said. Progress is being made. We're pleased with the reform. Abu Mazen is a reformer. But the President is doing precisely what he said he was going to do. I don't know why you would expect him to do anything other than that. He said he would put the road map forward and welcome the contributions on it once the appointment is confirmed, and that entails the cabinet appointments.


QUESTION: What is your current assessment of what Syria is doing to help Iraq? And what -- beyond words -- does the administration plan to do to stop it?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell outlined, with the providing of some of the equipment to Iraq that raises concerns. And Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld said it all. I have nothing to add beyond what they said.

QUESTION: So in other words, there's no plan to stop it? Just let it flow.

MR. FLEISCHER: Syria has received the message that it received from the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. And it's an important message. We hope they receive it.

QUESTION: Apparently, it did no good because the briefer this morning -- military briefer over in the battle area said that it's moving.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the message has been sent. It's important that Syria receive it. And, again, we don't judge everything day-by-day. It's important they receive that message, however.


QUESTION: Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, said that President Bush may have to postpone his state visit to Canada because of his war itinerary. Do you have any more details on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: At this moment, I have nothing to report. As always, if we have something to report, we'll share it.

QUESTION: Also yesterday, Richard Perle said Canadians could well come to regret the decision to stay out of the war against Iraq. Should non-coalition countries expect punitive action from the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, people should not expect punitive action. But the President does think it was a regrettable decision by nations not to join in the coalition. He understands their thoughts, but he is acting for the right reasons. And he's pleased to see how large the coalition is.


QUESTION: Two questions. I wonder whose idea it was to have the meeting, whether it was Blair or the President? Second question, what, if anything, does the timing of this meeting say about how the two men view the conflict? I mean, is it, for example, a sign that they think that it's coming to an end quite shortly? Are there any differences or decisions that need to be taken about post-war Iraq, the role of the U.N., need to be taken pretty quickly?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that they met at Camp David just a week ago, I don't know that people said that's a sign it's coming to an end. In fact, at the time they were meeting in Camp David, everybody was saying, isn't it going terribly; it's off plan. So they meet as often as they think is necessary. They think they can accomplish quite a bit in-person. It makes it easier to meet in-person than over the repeated phone calls that they have. But they're coalition allies, they're coalition partners, and the President values the judgment and the advice he receives from Prime Minister Blair.

QUESTION: Whose idea was it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know whose idea it was. Very often, these are kind of mutual ideas that the staff talks through, or the President and the Prime Minister talk through. And then they just agree to meet. I don't know if any one or the other had the idea before the other. I just don't know.

QUESTION: Was there a symbolic value of picking Northern Ireland -- somewhere in the mideast, a long history of ethnic strife, where peace plans have been moderately successful in recent years as a model? Is that way it's picked? Northern Ireland really connotates a lot of things to people around the world. And so a meeting there will --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, there has been a successful peace process in Northern Ireland. It's an ongoing process. And we want to talk to them about that process. That's an interesting observation.


QUESTION: Ari, does the President plan to set up a new government in Iraq even before the regime of Saddam Hussein is captured and removed?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, it's just not knowable about the exact timing of when the regime, the interim authority would be set up. Just same answer as before.

QUESTION: I have another --

MR. FLEISCHER: We're going to -- we'll go back to the front.

QUESTION: Does the meeting today with the Iraqi Americans reflect a concern on the part of the administration that it needs to do a better job of countering the negative public relations backlash that's evident now across the Middle East and much of the Muslim world?

MR. FLEISCHER: The answer is unequivocally no. But, certainly, the President hopes that people everywhere in the world will listen to the message of these Arab Americans and these Iraqis who saw firsthand what a brutal dictatorship Saddam Hussein has led, the torture that he has used to stay in power. And I think you're going to hear a very welcoming message about why it's so important for the United States and the coalition to be successful at ousting Saddam Hussein. I think it's a powerful message, and it's a message the President hopes will be heard.