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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 23, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Thank you, sir; good to be back. What are your concerns about Iran's attempts to involve itself in a budding Iraqi democracy? And particularly this idea of an Iranian agents that may have been sent in to some Shiite areas with the attempt to advance Iranian interests in the area?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make a few points. The President thinks it's essential that the Iraqi people determine their own future, that they are capable of doing so and they will be able to do so. There's more than enough for the international community to do in helping the Iraqis build a better future for themselves, and we hope countries seize on the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the Iraqi people.

We note that some recent reports about Iranian activities and we have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq, interfering with their road to democracy. Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shia population would clearly fall into that category, and that is a position that we have made clear to the government of Iraq.

QUESTION: So in terms of you opposing any attempts to destabilize the move toward Iraqi democracy, what have you told Iran that you will or will not do to oppose those attempts?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave private conversations where they belong, which is in the realm of good diplomacy. They received that message.

QUESTION: You were pretty clear with Syria when you were worried about what might be going on there. Are you issuing similar statements to Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: We have made the message clear to Iran. But let me state something -- I want to make sure you understand clearly the nature of what is happening here and what is happening on the ground in Iraq.

There is no love lost between the Iraqi people and the Iranian people. The Iraqi Shiite community is a very capable community, a very large community and a very diverse community. And I think that any efforts or anybody outside of Iraq to try to create an outsider's version of what should take place for the Iraqi people, by the Iraqi people, will not have much chance of success.

So it's important that you understand what is going on, the seriousness of it, and also understand the inherent abilities of the Iraqi Shiites, which are a very different group of people from the Iranians.

QUESTION: Just one other question, if I could. Are you surprised at the level of anti-American sentiment that has been surfacing in Karbala?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you see these reports and you see, of course, the headlines, and you see some people, any number of people who were interviewed who say something bad about America, and of course, that screams up to the top of the headlines. But I don't think that's indicative of the feelings of the Iraqi people or people in Karbala. In fact, there is some reporting that shows what the Iraqi people and Shiite people and people around Karbala and other regions really want is to have control of their own future. And that's what we want, as well.

And so I think people are experiencing the joy of being liberated, and they are able people, and they understand the United States is going to stay to provide for the security. We'll stay as long as we need to, but not a day longer. And we share their thoughts about not staying any longer than is necessary. But I think you have to be very careful about how you analyze the message of a few and interpret it as a message for an entire people. That's not the case.

QUESTION: Have any weapons of mass destruction been found? And if they are not, will there be an explanation to the American people by the President? How does he feel about it?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President knows that the proper people are in charge of looking for the weapons of mass destruction and they have a very effective protocol that is in place. And just as we have always said for months, even before the war began, and even while the inspectors were there, the chances of success depend not on finding something by bumping into it during the courses of travel through Iraq, but it really depends on information that is provided to the United States, or to the coalition, or previously while the inspectors were there, from the Iraqi experts who were involved in the program. And that also means getting access to, and reading the thousands of pages of documents that we were in the middle of doing.

So it really requires the ability to get that information on the ground from Iraqis involved, which we are doing; to study the documentation that exists on the ground, which we are doing; and then to spread the process out and verify the information over whatever period of time it takes. Nothing has changed the President's confidence that this, indeed, will result in the findings.

QUESTION: Does he feel he's been misled by his own advisors?

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course not. Of course not.

QUESTION: He still thinks there are weapons there?

MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on that, Ari? Because yesterday on that point, you said that you were confident weapons of mass destruction would be found.


QUESTION: And others within the administration are saying, publicly and privately, that, well, it may be that they're not found, that they would have been destroyed, or spirited out of the country, or any number of things. So what's it -- which is it? And what should the American people conclude about this, given the fact that this was probably the rationale for invading Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: You should conclude that there is no changes in the American position. It's a consistent position that's been stated by the briefers on the ground, in the Gulf, by the President, by Secretary Powell, by Secretary Rumsfeld, by myself. We have high confidence that Iraq did, indeed, have weapons of mass destruction. And as a result of the protocols that I just walked through, in terms of how we are going about the conversations with Iraqi scientists, and looking through the documentation that exists, that, indeed, will be found, whatever form it is.

QUESTION: But you seem to be suggesting that in the end, this is going to be the history of a program based upon experts who come forward and tell you this is what was going on, and it's probably not around to be found any longer, but this was the level of the program. Is that accurate?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, the program is no longer going on, but the people who were involved in it are the keys to finding it. And that's what we've always said. That's why we felt so strongly about the need for the inspectors to be interviewed -- the inspectors who were previously there to interview Iraqi scientists outside of the country. That hasn't changed. That was how we thought the search could be most effective before. It continues to be how we think the search will be most effective.

QUESTION: Ari, first to follow-up on the questions on Iran. The U.S. said before the war started that it would not tolerate outside influences stepping into to interfere with a post-Saddam government. To the other countries there, Iran and Syria, the United States is doing that by protecting Mr. Chalabi, for example, in a compound in Baghdad. How do you separate out the moral equivalency here of their efforts to influence what kind of government comes up in Iraq and our own?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you answered it with the way you posed the question, comparing the points of view of states that support terrorism with the point of the view of the United States, which is working together with the Iraqi people and other nations in the region, cannot be compared. The interests of Syria and the interests of Iran have not always proved to be the interest of peace or stability or freedom or democracy.

And we've always said that one of the principles of the liberation and the government that would follow would be a government that is based not on an Iranian model or a Syrian model, but based on a model of freedom, democracy, tolerance, openness, rule of law.

QUESTION: Two questions, one on Iraq, one on France. On Iraq, is there a debate within the administration over how quickly -- and within the White House, specifically -- about how quickly we should be trying to get out of Iraq altogether?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's exactly as was outlined before. We never put a precise timetable on it because it's not a knowable timetable. It's not as if anybody could put a certain date out there in time and say that is the date to come back, or that's the goal to come back. It's more driven by events, facts on the ground. The security situation, the transition to a new government -- those are the end marks that all our policies will work toward. Whatever that date may be, we have made clear that we will stay for as long as it is necessary to get that job done -- not a day longer, but as long as is necessary.

QUESTION: But are there differences of opinion in which some administration officials are arguing for a quicker exit than others, who say we need to stay longer?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's just as I said it to you.

QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. What does that mean -- to have their differences of opinion in the administration --

MR. FLEISCHER: If you're able to find any, bring it to my attention.

But I'm not aware of anything other than support for what the President has said.