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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 30, 2003 (Full Transcript)

12:32 P.M. EDT

QUESTION: What does he hope to accomplish when he goes to Syria?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would refer you directly to the State Department on it, but the message to Syria is that Syria is a terrorist country, that Syria has supported terrorists, Syria occupies a considerable portion of Lebanon through the Hezbollah, and Syria needs to reassess its role in the world. We hope that Syria, under the relatively new leadership of a relatively untested leader, will choose a different direction than it has in the past. Syria also -- it's important that they continue to receive the message that they have been receiving in regard to not harboring anybody who is trying to leave Iraq.

QUESTION: Does the President support the idea of lifting sanctions against Iraq, vis-a-vis its status as a terrorist state?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, and Secretary Powell discussed that up on the Hill today. Iraq no longer is a terrorist state. The chief terrorist and his cronies have been removed.

QUESTION: How quickly can you lift the sanctions?

MR. FLEISCHER: Through the United Nations you're asking about?

QUESTION: No, no, no, terrorist state.

QUESTION: But fair or not, there has been somewhat of a perception up until this point that the President wasn't really committed to this. Is there a -- well, not willing to send the Secretary of State to the region and show the level of commitment we're seeing now, after the war in Iraq. Is it fair to say that the success in Iraq has given Israel another level of security so that the administration would expect them to be willing to make the sacrifices that both sides are needing to make in order for this to work?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think two points; one is the biggest holdup was the fact that Yasser Arafat was still in charge of the Palestinian Authority. The administration was unequivocal; President Bush said repeatedly that the road map would be released upon a confirmation of Abu Mazen's cabinet and as reforms in the Palestinian Authority move forward. That just took place this very week. So the administration has been timely in its release of the road map.

The fact that one of the lead sponsors of violence has been removed from the scene, Saddam Hussein, is an important piece of the prospects for peace in the Middle East, but it's not the only one. Certainly, there are indigenous issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are root causes of violence and historical differences between the Israelis and Palestinians that have to be resolved, that are, indeed, separate and apart from a successful completion of the war. But make no mistake, the fact that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power does remove one source of instability that paid for suicide homicide bombers to cross into Israel and take innocent lives.

QUESTION: Ari, tomorrow the President is going to announce that major combat operations are over in Iraq. At what point is it appropriate criteria to meet -- to legally declare that the war with Iraq is over, and in doing so, under international law, meet requirements as an occupying force?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, as the liberators of Iraq, the administration has, you should note, been releasing POWs. The administration continues to address exactly what the President promised, the security concerns, the health and the welfare concerns of the Iraqi people. All that continues.

I can't make a prediction about the legal matters, about when, from a formal, legal sense, hostilities will be deemed to be over. That will be something the President, again, gets guidance from, from the commanders in the field. So that will be driven by events on the ground, and the reaction of the commanders on the ground to those events.

QUESTION: But why isn't this the time to legally declare that it's over?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because as events are very visible, as you all have covered this morning, hostilities remain. There are pockets of resistance.

There continue to be Iraqis who shoot at America's Armed Forces. It happened again in Fallajah.

QUESTION: Why is the President giving this speech now? What significance should we read into this?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is giving the speech now because of the successful operations that have been carried out, the significant accomplishments in achieving the mission, and because he wants to explain to the American people, having risked lives and treasure in pursuit of our goals in Iraq, what the present results are. And that's something that the President began with his speech to the country about, and he wants to, again, now bring it to a conclusion with a speech to the country. The war on terror will continue. Iraq was a phase in the war on terror. And the President wants to discuss all of this with the American people.

QUESTION: Why not just declare victory?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would urge you to listen to the President's words tomorrow night. But the President knows that while major combat operations have ended, and while the next phase has begun with the reconstruction of Iraq, there continue to be threats to the security and the safety of the American people. And he will describe that. There continues to be great progress in protecting the American people from those threats. But threats do indeed remain.

QUESTION: Full victory, you've indicated before, I believe, would include all of the President's objectives having been met, including finding weapons of mass destruction and rounding up all the leadership of the previous regime. Is that --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'll let you judge the President's words tomorrow for what they represent, what topics he covers. Certainly Deputy Secretary Armitage's speech this morning about weapons of mass destruction covered much of that ground.

QUESTION: But the President's not going all the way.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'll urge you to listen to his remarks tomorrow, and you'll form your own basis.

QUESTION: One other thing. Do this have -- do his remarks have any legal impact whatsoever?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the remarks tomorrow will be -- as the President has a habit of doing -- speaking in direct, plain English to the American people, so they can understand what was at stake, what has been accomplished, and so we can all join together in saying thanks to the men and women of our Armed Forces who helped achieve this remarkable success with so little loss of life. From a legal point of view, the remarks tomorrow do not change any legal matters.


QUESTION: On Iraq, the United States went to war -- this administration went to war in Iraq for the very specific reasons that the President is very clear. One of them was weapons of mass destruction. One of them was alleged links between Saddam Hussein's regime and terrorists. A third reason which the President stated many times was that Iraq's military strength and Hussein's use of it posed a threat to its neighbors in the region. We're now, as you say, at the end of major combat operations. No significant finds of weapons of mass destruction have been found to date. No significant evidence has been found linking Saddam Hussein's regime to al Qaeda beyond what we knew at the start of this war. And Saddam Hussein's military looks like -- hardly looks like a threat to anyone.

Is the President going to address this in his speech tomorrow? And beyond that, is there any sense of embarrassment in the administration that the three major prongs of a policy haven't, at least as yet, haven't really been --

MR. FLEISCHER: Heavens no, on your last point. And certainly the President has said, and you've heard him say it many times, that we continue to have high confidence that the weapons of mass destruction will be found. Iraq is a regime that was a master at hiding it, and there are thousands and thousands of sites where it could be hidden, and they will be pursued as increasing evidence comes along.

On the ties to al Qaeda, I think that's been well-documented and known. And when you talk about the military threat, they may not have been much of a military threat for our Armed Forces as the war was engaged, but for the neighborhood, they were one powerful military threat, and they proved that by attacking their neighbors multiple times.

Again, tomorrow the President will give the speech, and you'll be able to hear it all in its entirety.

QUESTION: I'd like to follow up on my question from yesterday about reports of French aid to Saddam's regime. Is there anything new on that, or our relationship with France in general?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on the reports, I've noticed many of these reports, different accounts, some relating to documents that were found in Iraq, and I have nothing to offer on that. I think it's something that the French can answer to explain any relationship. That's for France to address.

QUESTION: In his Sunday column, Tom Friedman cited the atrocities that occurred in Iraq, and said, "We do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war." Does the President agree with that sentiment?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is confident that we're going to find weapons of mass destruction. So I think it's not an immediate relevant issue to the President because, based on everything that he knows going into the war, he has continued to express that confidence.

QUESTION: And a follow-up. You've said earlier that -- he used the word "embarrassed," but you indicated that the President is not concerned that a lot of things have not occurred yet, the finding of the weapons of mass destruction. Yet, there does seem to be a feeling in some places, particularly Europe and some of the Arab countries, that the President may have intentionally deceived the public by overstating the threat posed by the Iraqis. Are you at least concerned that this perception is rising in some areas?

MR. FLEISCHER: The statue fell just three weeks ago. And Saddam Hussein has had some 14 years in which he had worked to hide his weapons of mass destruction, and in particularly the four years when the inspectors were out of the country. And so, no, this is not a serious issue or a credible issue. This is an issue that will be addressed over time, and with confidence, because it will be found.

QUESTION: On Iraq, how are you assessing the validity of the statements by Tariq Aziz regarding Saddam Hussein, and regarding Scott Speicher? And do you have any theory on the whereabouts of Baghdad Bob?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to comment on any of the reports about what we are hearing in the course of our interrogations. Just as a matter of policy, this is not something that we discuss. And Baghdad Bob -- which Baghdad Bob? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: The one that wants to replace you if he gets a chance. He's the Information Minister in Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, I wasn't aware. No, I don't -- I have not heard anything other than the President's flavorful description of him.

QUESTION: I have a question regarding the French papers reporting on chemical weapons in Iraq. They are saying that so far there is nothing there, and the troops there want to find anything. And if they find something, the French media is saying the CIA has -- is going to put it there. Do you have any response to this kind of --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, just again, I've addressed here earlier, the President has high confidence that it will be found. A mere three weeks after the fall of the statue, it's unreasonable to expect that a decade of Saddam Hussein's ability to deceive and to deny and to build up a giant infrastructure built to hide, can be pierced in three weeks time. Again, Secretary Armitage addressed this at some length this morning.

QUESTION: Ari, now that we're entering phase two in the Iraqi situation, what is the United States' position on the United Nations and NGOs taking a stronger, or more up-front role in the reconstruction process? Do we still want to have the major say?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as a technical matter, it's referred to as phase four. Phase three was the military phase. Phase two was the lead-up phase. I don't remember what phase one was. (Laughter.) But the President believes that the United Nations should have a vital role in reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the humanitarian relief programs in Iraq. And that's important. The United Nations is a major representative to the deliberations inside Iraq.

And I would note that USAID in its granting of contracts, is granting contracts to NGOs who are helping to improve the security situation and the humanitarian situation inside Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, will we defer to the United Nations, though, in terms of what projects to pursue and all that, given the fact that they never supported the war?

MR. FLEISCHER: The lead will continue to be the coalition with the help of all those who want to play a constructive role, including the United Nations.