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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 14, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Are there plans on rebuilding Iraq? I mean, do we actually have a plan for restoring the police service and water system and government, per se?

MR. FLEISCHER: Indeed, and this is something that General Garner is in the region for the purpose of leading up, reporting to General Franks. And General Brooks in his briefing this morning started to describe many of the operational features that are already underway.

QUESTION: Who did that?

MR. FLEISCHER: General Brooks, this morning in the briefing from Doha. Interestingly, one of the things that is increasingly being seen around Iraq is stepped-up cooperation and participation from Iraqi citizens. It varies from region to region across the country, but in many cases, it is engineers, people who have infrastructure ability to work with Americans, coalition partners in turning on water and repairing some of the infrastructure, or getting the infrastructure up and going again. In other sectors it involves the presence of increasing numbers of police patrols, et cetera, as General Brooks reported.

QUESTION: Is that tantamount to nation-building?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it involves exactly as we've said, that part of the military mission is the reconstruction phase designed and built in to the military plan.

QUESTION: Have you got any feedback yet from Syria? And when you talk about the possibility of Iraqi officials going into Syria, do you know exactly, have any, for sure, gone into Syria, or are you just guessing at this?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we do know for certain that Iraqi officials have crossed the border and gone into Syria. And it's very important for Syria not to harbor those officials.

QUESTION: Do you know how many? I mean, of the 55?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have specific information to report, no.

QUESTION: Have you gotten any feedback yet from Syria?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that Syria has received the message. Keep in mind, the United States does have diplomatic relations with Syria. We have an ambassador in Damascus. Syria has received the message not only from the ambassador, but from other officials in the government.

And I think it's important for Syria to recognize that not only is it important for -- the wise way to conduct diplomacy, but also as a way of sending a message to the people of a newly-liberated Iraq, the people of Kuwait, others in the region who do not want to see Syria take in or harbor those who have been engaged in decades-long practice of tyranny, of brutality and of persecution against the Iraqi people. Why would Syria want to harbor those people? It's an important question, and we look forward to Syria's response to it.

QUESTION: In recent days, many announcements by senior officials about Syria's weapons of mass destruction have led people in other parts of the world to believe that Syria is probably next on the United States target list. And I'm wondering if you want to disabuse us of that notion?

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you. Let me make two points. What's next on the United States target list is Iraq. What is next is exactly what we have described, which is completing the military mission in Iraq, because there still are dangerous places and there still is risk of pockets of fighting and resistance. What's next is the reconstruction of Iraq, working with Iraqis, working with the international community, working with the coalition to rebuild Iraq. If you want to know in the President's mind what is next, that is what is next.

In terms of Syria and chemical weapons, indeed, the President was asked a direct question yesterday: does Syria have weapons of mass destruction? And, indeed, as the President's habit, he answered the direct question. Syria does have chemical weapons according to a report that was just released by the CIA to the Congress. It's a public document and an authoritative one. I brought it to your attention earlier today.

So when the President is asked a direct question, he answers it.

QUESTION: But both you and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense have talked about Syria's weapons, as well as about the Iraqis who Syria may be harboring -- and have couched that all with a certain kind of warning, saying it's time for Syria to understand. That is taken by many people as a threat.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it is time for Syria to understand. This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq and it's important for President Assad of Syria -- who is a new leader, a young man -- to understand that the future needs to be different from the past, and that the Iraqi people deserve no less, the region deserves no less.

Syria is a nation that has long been on the list of terrorist nations. They should not do that. They should not be that way. No nation should be. And that's a message the United States will not be shy about saying to Syria or other nations.

QUESTION: But then what?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that what's next is Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored. They should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons. I think it's time for them to think through where they want their place to be in the world.

QUESTION: Why shouldn't people take that as a threat?


QUESTION: How does the American military success in Iraq improve -- or does it improve -- the prospects for the Mideast peace process between Israel and the Arab world? You're going to come out with a road map. You could have come out with a road map at any time, but now it's going to come out after this military success. So are the prospects for that road map and for peace improved by the fall of Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you recall, the President gave what he said at the time it was a major address to the American Enterprise Institute, where the President talked about what he thought could happen as a result of changes in the Middle East and the importance of pursuing peace in the Middle East based on the road map, which is soon to be shared with the Israelis and the Palestinians. It still remains contingent an Abu Mazen being able to successfully complete the appointment of his Cabinet.

But the President does, indeed, have high hopes that a variety of factors are coming together in the Middle East that can lead to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That is based, in part, on successful conclusion of a war that hopefully can change the dynamic in the Middle East. Certainly, the absence of Saddam Hussein's payments now to suicide bombers can lead to greater security on the ground in the Middle East. The more security there is between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the more the prospects of them making progress on the political front.

But it's also important to recognize -- and this existed prior to the war with Iraq and still exists today -- that there are a number of nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan, which have played a very constructive role in helping to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority together. That continues. And so there are a variety of signs of hope in moving forward on peace in the Middle East. It remains important for Abu Mazen to be able to complete the naming of his Cabinet. We would like to see that happen. And we will continue -- the President has said to pursue this.

The Middle East is a region under change right now. The President's hope and the President's effort will remain to make that change in a positive, peaceful direction.

QUESTION: Does the American military success send a message to the Israelis, as well as to the Arabs?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it sends a message to nations that engage in terror, and nations that engage in tyranny, and nations that engage in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that that is a route that does not lead to a good future.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on John's question? Is the road map open to revision?

MR. FLEISCHER: When the President announced the road map he said that upon its presentation we will welcome contributions from the parties, and we will. We will welcome contributions from the Israelis, contributions from the Palestinians.

QUESTION: So these -- an Israeli spokesman has already said that they have a number of changes they would like to make. Are you discussing that with them now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it hasn't been formally released to them. And so I think that working through the proper diplomacy, once the Palestinian Cabinet is in and confirmed, the road map, as the President said, will be released. And of course it is important to listen to the parties.

Ultimately, as much help as the United States will be -- and the United States under President Bush will be an amount of tremendous help to the parties -- so, too, some of the other nations in the region, a Quartet. But, ultimately, it's not a matter for the Quartet or a matter for the United States or a matter for the Arab nations to deliver the peace. It does come down to a matter of the Israelis and the Palestinian working together to deliver the peace, with the assistance of the United States and these other parties.

So their thoughts and opinions about the road map are important. We've said that we would welcome contributions to it. But the direction of the road map is the direction to peace, and the President will fight for it. And that is increased security, the development of political consensus and action on the ground by both the Israelis and the Palestinians.


QUESTION: Ari, back on Syria for a second. What do you want Syria to do with these Iraqis you say they are holding? Turn them over to U.S. custody?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Syria needs to broadly assess what role it wants to play, cooperatively with the rest of the world and with its neighbors -- and now, with a newly-liberated neighborhood, newly- liberated Iraqi people, where the Iraqi people, themselves, have a strong message to Syria: don't harbor these people who oppressed the Iraqi people.

So, most importantly, the President wants Syria to get the message that they need to reexamine themselves; they need to examine their ties to terrorists, their harboring of terrorists, their harboring of Iraqi leaders, and their development of weapons of mass destruction. So it's a broad message the President is sending to Syria. We hope that they will refocus. As I mentioned, President Bashar Assad is a young leader. He is an untested leader. He has his chance to be a leader who makes the right decisions. We hope he does.

QUESTION: What's the punishment? Are you contemplating sanctions?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are a variety of levers that are available in diplomacy, a variety of levers that are available. We're working bilaterally, multilaterally. And I think it's too soon to say what the final outcome will be, but for the cause of peace, it's important for Syria to reexamine its role in the region. They are a state that sponsors terrorism. They have no reason to do that, to act like that. And, certainly, they have no reason to harbor these Iraqi officials. They should not be able to find safe haven in Syria.

QUESTION: Can you rule out military action as part of the consequences?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as we've always said, every region of the world is treated uniquely; every nation is treated uniquely. There are a variety of different levers that apply to different regions.

I will make a blanket statement as overall policy around the world, and that is that that is a statement that we don't make about anywhere. We always leave options on tables. But our course of action with Syria is focused on reminding Syria that this is a good time for them to re-examine their support of terrorism. And a good place to begin is with their harboring of these Iraqi leaders who have fled to Syria. They should not be allowed to find safe haven there.

QUESTION: So you're not taking military action off the table

as --

MR. FLEISCHER: But I want you to be very measured in how you understand that when I say that it is a blanket statement around the world that we always give.

QUESTION: Okay. And on the Iraqi leaders they're harboring, has someone -- following up the previous question -- has someone said exactly what Syria needs to do with these leaders? Just to get more specific here --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can --

QUESTION: -- they expect to be turned over in the next --

MR. FLEISCHER: I can assure you that there are conversations that are at the diplomatic between the United States and Syria, as well as others and Syria, and we shall see what Syria decides to do. It's important for them to make the right decisions.

QUESTION: Have you given them any deadline?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's important for Syria not to harbor Iraqi leaders.

QUESTION: Ari, how much does the United States have to find, in terms of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to vindicate the arguments that were made beforehand? Is it a small amount that a terrorist could use sufficient? Or do you need a militarily significant quantity?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I have not heard any talk of quantification of it. As we have said repeatedly, this remains a military mission. Our forces went to Iraq for the purpose of engaging in combat. And that was their design, that was the set-up, that was the mission. There are other elements that are part of the armed forces, much smaller in number, that have the ability to find. And I'm in no position to judge what quantities.

According to the United Nations resolutions, any quantity was prohibited -- any quantity. And I'm not saying that as an effort to set a bar any level or another level. Because we'll find exactly what we find, and the world will know.

Let me also add one other point to this question, while the inspectors were in Iraq, I want to remind you, we always maintained that one of the best ways -- and we knew this from the results of the '90s --

to find weapons of mass destruction was to interview Iraqi scientists out of the country. We always said one of the best ways to find it would not be to hunt for it, but to receive information from the people involved in the program who, for whatever reasons, would turn on Iraq and tell us. Certainly now, as the Iraqi regime passes into the dust bin of history, we will have conversations with people as they emerge. They're starting to emerge. And we believe that that will lead to more information available.

QUESTION: Is progress being made? Do you have a sense of how long it might take?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's an operational issue that I don't think I'm the one to give operational updates on. It is still part of the military operation.

QUESTION: How high up in the food chain do you think it goes, in terms the type of Iraqi leaders that you think might be in Syria? For instance, do you think that Saddam's sons might be there?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to start naming names of who may or may not be there. Whoever it is, they shouldn't be. And this is not so much -- it is an issue between the United States and Syria, because we've expressed it to Syria. But it's an issue between the Iraqi people and Syria, the Kuwaiti people and Syria. Even think about the Iranian people who fought years' worth of wars with the leaders of Iraq --

to know that another nation, an Arab nation like Syria would take them in and harbor them, provide them safety. That is why this is such an important issue. This is about fundamental human rights and the way people should be treated. Syria should not end up on the wrong side of that line.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on the Syria question. You're saying that you're intentionally leaving it sort of open and vague on whether or not military action is on the table, which you're saying it always is. But the British are saying today that it's not on the table, explicitly. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, we have made it clear that there are no plans for Syria to be next on the list. Is there a difference here?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've already told you what is next on the President's list; and what's next on the President's list is Iraq.

QUESTION: In terms of beyond Iraq, in terms of what might be next in terms of military action?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think --

QUESTION: They're making it very clear, Great Britain --

MR. FLEISCHER: I really have answered the questions about how we are approaching Syria. And as I mentioned to you, every region is different. We apply different levers in different places, and we shall see what the results are. I'm not going to go beyond that.


QUESTION: On the people who went into Syria, I wasn't quite clear what you were saying the nature of these people is. Is this just a cross-section of people who fled into Syria? Or are you saying that Syria is now harboring people who were responsible for orchestrating the oppression of the Saddam Hussein --

MR. FLEISCHER: Our concern lies fundamentally with the leaders of the Iraqi regime. I think it's safe to say that people have crossed the border. And our concern remains with the people who have led the Iraqi regime.

QUESTION: Now, the people who crossed, do you have evidence that the Syrian government helped them cross? Or that they just found their way into Syria?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm going to leave it just as I did. But Syria is an knowledgeable country.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the meeting tomorrow, the first meeting aimed at generating leaders for an Iraqi interim authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, tomorrow, in Nasiriyah will be the first of what will be many meetings that involve the preliminary work of organizing for a future, led by the Iraqis of Iraq. And so this will be a preliminary session, a planning session. It will also be an important and great day for the Iraqi people, because they will start to learn how to represent themselves through voices of democracy and not tyranny. And that's what tomorrow represents, and it's going to be a very hopeful day for the Iraqi people. We're proud that it's happening.

QUESTION: Do you have a number of people who will attend? And can you tell us whether or not this is people who are potential leaders, themselves, or sort of second level or sherpa-type people, aimed at sort of preparing the way? In other words, is Ahmed Chalabi and others going to participate, or is this a lower level?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is not the first meeting of the IIA, or the interim Iraqi authority. This is a meeting that will help, we believe, pave the way preliminarily for what will eventually become the Iraqi interim authority. This is the first of what will be many meetings in different places all around Iraq, as Iraqis start to gather. This meeting will be done with the help of United States officials. The President's Special Envoy, Zal Khalilzad, will be there. And so this is an important meeting, and it is a precursor of many more such meetings to come.

QUESTION: Chalabi will be there?

MR. FLEISCHER: You'll have to ask the officials who are involved.

QUESTION: A couple more on Syria. You said that people crossed the border and that the administration's concern is about the leaders. Does the administration know that leaders, that Iraqi's leaders crossed the border, or just people crossed the border?

MR. FLEISCHER: We have information that leaders have crossed the border, people who are important. I'm also allowing for people who may have, for humanitarian reasons, average Iraqis may have tried to get across the border. Our interest is in the leaders. That's why I say Syria should not harbor any Iraqi leaders.

QUESTION: And does the administration know specifically who crossed the border?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to get into any discussions about who.

QUESTION: But do you know?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's various bits of information. I'm just not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: When you talk about military action, when we've asked all these questions and you talk about not taking it off the table -- I'm going to try to turn the question just slightly. You said that it's an option on the table in the broadest sense, that the administration is never going to take any action off the table in whatever region in the world.

But in the comments today, and in the last few days, has the administration intentionally tried to threaten military action? Is that what you are trying to do, or is that not what you're trying to do?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me see your turn table and raise you one. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I just want to figure out how to say this right.

MR. FLEISCHER: But the point I'm making here and what the President is saying here is can you imagine a day or a time when the President of the United States would not speak out about a nation that harbors the leaders of Iraq? After we just went to war with Iraq, for another nation to take them in? Of course we're going to say what we're saying, and I'm not going to go beyond and define it any more specifically or not. We have made the point diplomatically to the leaders of Syria and it's important for them to listen to the point. I'm not going to define it beyond that.

QUESTION: Here's what I hear -- what I think I hear what you're saying is that you've delivered these strong messages to Syria to change and to deliver up these leaders, et cetera. But it sounds like what you're looking at is diplomacy or bilateral conversations and that sort of thing. And that you're specifically, while not taking it off the table, you're not trying to put the emphasis there like North Korea -- the emphasis -- you've never taken it off, but the emphasis has always been on diplomatic solutions.

And I want to be sure I know what you all are trying to say to us so that we can accurately report it.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you have it, you understand what it is --

QUESTION: What is your intention in terms of Syria?

MR. FLEISCHER: -- it's everything I have said before. I'm not going to refine it any further.

QUESTION: So it is diplomacy that is the solution, as far as the White House is concerned right now? Which would also be consistent with what Britain has said.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to refine it any further than I have. Ken.

QUESTION: Why not?


QUESTION: Why not clarify it for us? This is important.

MR. FLEISCHER: Because this is our approach.

QUESTION: But people are afraid that there might be another war in Syria.

I mean, why not --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure people have come to that conclusion. Ken.

QUESTION: Two questions. One concerning the Pentagon. The Pentagon seems to be exercising great sway over events, including some areas that aren't directly connected with military action and are not traditionally associated with the Pentagon. Is the White House concerned, is the President concerned about if an impression is being created of a kind of militarization of American foreign policy?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'd just differ with the characterization. The President knows that we've got, number one, a war is that underway. And of course, if there's a war underway, the Pentagon is going to be lead agency fighting the war. And that's why we've won, is thanks to the Pentagon. And that's why we're winning. But there are a whole area of issues that get discussed directly with the President on a variety of matters. And that's why we have a National Security Council meeting every day. I report it to you every day. I don't go into the details of what they discuss every day, but as you know, Secretary Powell, the National Security Council advisor -- National Security Advisor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, is there. It's a broad group of people that meets.

QUESTION: Let me try one more on Syria. You said earlier that Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions. Do we also want Syria to seriously ponder the implications of the American military success in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to go into any of these. I understand what you are looking for -- or trying to avoid looking for. I'm just not going to go down every road with that type of precision. I think it is very understandable from a human point of view, from a human rights point of view, and from the point of view of protecting the newly- found freedom for the Iraqi people that Syria not engage in this type of behavior.

QUESTION: I understand that. What I'm asking you is, do we want Syria --

in its decision-making process, as they ponder the implications of all these things -- to factor in what happened in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I said, Bashar Assad is a young leader. He will make his decisions. We hope he makes the right decisions. He has a variety of factors that he will have to consider.


QUESTION: Ari, two questions, please. First, when you speak of the leaders, Iraqi leaders who may go or have gone to Syria, are you talking about the 55 that have been in that deck of cards that is circulating, that number?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's just as I indicated earlier. It's leaders, and I'm not going to give names or define them any more specifically than that.


QUESTION: Mr. Fleischer, any new communication with the Turkish government regarding the Kurdish people of -- Iraq? And how do you comment on new approach of cooperation among Turkey, Syria and Iran vis-a-vis on this issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a very interesting question about what we hope will be a peaceful future in a region that has been marked by ethnic tensions. And I think if you see what is happening so far leading up to where we are, this has been an issue that the State Department and others have worked very hard on with quite a bit of success, working with Turkish officials and working with Kurdish officials to maintain a peaceful outcome so Turkey did not cross the border. A humanitarian crisis was averted. And we will continue in that vein. So we have already seen some good signs of success in managing relations between the Turks and the Kurds. We will continue because it remains a very important issue. It will not go away.

QUESTION: About the cooperation with the three countries?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we will see. I think it's still a little early to measure what ultimate cooperation the outcome will be.