PRESS BRIEFING: 11.30AM THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2003
PM NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEW
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be participating in a Newsnight Special debate on Iraq today. Although audiences had to be balanced according to BBC rules, we had agreed that the policy should be waived on this occasion so as to ensure an audience that was mainly critical of a war against Iraq. This was because the Prime Minister was anxious to address as many of the concerns being expressed as possible.
Asked if we believed that Hans Blix shared the Government's view that it was all a question of whether Saddam complied with the UN rather than, as the French had suggested yesterday, that we needed more inspectors and more time, the PMOS said that the important question was did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - yes, or no? As anyone who had listened seriously to Colin Powell yesterday and Hans Blix last week would realise, there was only one answer to that. There were simply too many outstanding questions and too much evidence of deliberate deception on the part of the Iraqi regime. It was also important to recognise that the inspectors had not been mandated to carry out inspections for their own sake, but to disarm Saddam - as Paragraph 7 of Resolution 1441 stated, "To remove, destroy or render harmless all prohibited weapons, sub-systems, components, records, materials and other related items". The PMOS pointed out that Paragraph 7 had emphasised the word "all". Not some, not a few - but all prohibited weapons. Regrettably, that had not been possible so far - not through any fault of the inspectors, but because Saddam had not complied with the duty the UN had placed upon him in Paragraph 9 of Resolution 1441 "to co-operate immediately, unconditionally and actively with UNMOVIC and the IAEA". That was why Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK's Ambassador to the UN, had said last week that it was not a matter of giving the inspectors more time to carry out their work. It was a question of Saddam's attitude. The PMOS pointed out that bringing in additional inspectors wouldn't resolve the issue in any event because the key question was not what the inspectors found but whether Saddam helped them to find his WMD. As Hans Blix had reminded people last week, UNSCOM had carried out its programme of weapons inspections in Iraq between 1991 and 1999 and had found some WMD but by no means all of it.
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted the possibility that a second UN Resolution could be sought for military action against Iraq despite public opinion being against a war, the PMOS said that we had not reached that stage yet and it was therefore not helpful to start making judgements about where public opinion might be at that time were we to find ourselves in such a situation. The price for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was to give up all his WMD. He had had twelve years in which to resolve the issue. We believed that people were now beginning to realise that it was as a result of Saddam's decisions - not ours - that action might have to be taken. Put to him that we had been warning Saddam for at least the last two months that time was running out, the PMOS said that we had been saying that time was running out because that was the reality of the situation. Saddam had to realise that he would not be allowed to 'long finger' his obligations any more. For the past twelve years, he had strung the international community along. For twelve years he had been telling us effectively that the cheque was in the post - but it had never arrived. In that sense, the time was up. The UN had unanimously approved Resolution 1441 last year. Paragraph 9 stated explicitly that he had to co-operate "immediately, unconditionally and actively". That remained the case.
Asked for a reaction to Javier Solana's remarks today - in contrast to the view expressed by the French - in which he had expressed his strong support for Colin Powell's evidence as presented to the UN yesterday, the PMOS pointed to the statement released by EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels last week which had underlined that Saddam was being presented with a final opportunity to comply. He noted that the joint statement issued by the Vilnius group of Eastern and Central European countries was also significant inasmuch as it also supported the US's stance. Everyone recognised the reluctance to go to war if it could be avoided. Equally, everyone recognised that if the UN was to have any credibility it had to enforce its Resolutions. Saddam still had a choice. He was very aware that he could avoid war by co-operating fully with his international obligations and knew what would happen if he did not. Asked if Mr Solana's comments reflected a changing mood behind the scenes which had given him the authority to say what he had said, the PMOS underlined that it was important for every country to reach its own judgement about where we were. However, the accumulation of evidence made it very difficult to deny that Saddam had WMD.
Asked why we appeared to be rushing to war given the fact that we had emphasised a few weeks ago that the inspectors should be given the time and space to carry out their work, the PMOS said he would disagree with the premise of the question. We were not rushing to war. If we were doing so, we would have launched a military campaign last summer. In addition, we had talked about the issue of time and space some weeks ago. Time had passed since then. In any event, as Sir Jeremy Greenstock had said last week, this was not about the issue of time. It was a question of Saddam's attitude. As Paragraph 9 stated clearly, the duty placed on Saddam was "to co-operate immediately, unconditionally and actively". We were not talking about some distant point in the future. We had tried that between 1991 and 1998. It hadn't worked. Clearly, Saddam's time was up. Questioned as to why the UK and US were out of step with the three other members of the P5 who all believed that the inspectors should be given more time, the PMOS said that we were not out of step with them. And, more importantly, we were not out of step with the inspectors who had, themselves, talked about their disappointment that Saddam was not co-operating fully and had also underlined that time was not unlimited.
Questioned as to why he was underlining that time was not an issue when he was also emphasising that time was running out for Saddam, the PMOS said he was making the point that Saddam should understand that we would no longer allow him to 'long finger' the issue, as he had been doing for the past twelve years. Letting him continue to get away with it would allow him to continue building up his WMD capability, as Colin Powell had shown graphically yesterday.
Asked if the Prime Minister was convinced that public opinion would come round once troops were on the ground in Iraq, as indeed had happened in the Falklands war, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the PMOS said that people could be split up into different categories. For example, some people would consistently oppose military action, no matter what, while others had genuine concerns. There was also another group whose concerns were being addressed. We were not going to pre-judge public opinion. However, we believed that if people looked carefully at the evidence and asked themselves whether Iraq had WMD, it would be difficult for them to conclude that the answer to that was no.
Asked if the Prime Minister was aware that the reason why public opinion was so sceptical about military action in Iraq was because people were doubtful about the motives of the Bush Administration and also that containment of Iraq seemed to have worked over the past twelve years, the PMOS pointed out that the UN would not have passed the number of Resolutions it had over Iraq if it did not think that Saddam was a serious threat. Moreover, while earlier inspections had turned up and destroyed some WMD during the 1990s, Dr Blix's account last week confirmed what we already knew - that there was a large stockpile of WMD which remained accounted for. As Colin Powell had shown in his compelling evidence yesterday, the use of mobile laboratories, for example, was further proof that the threat existed. By no means could this be considered a 'contained' threat. It was a developing threat which the UN had said twelve years ago should not be there at all. Consequently, the UN either had to enforce its will and deal with the threat, or, as Jack Straw had said yesterday, the danger was that the UN would turn into a League of Nations-type body which said things but didn't take any action to back that up. Asked what evidence we had to suggest that Saddam Hussein might be motivated to use his WMD against the West, the PMOS pointed out that the lengths to which he had gone to hide his material was one factor. Equally, Colin Powell had stated yesterday that there was evidence to show that he was developing longer range missiles. The bottom line, however, was that the UN had said twelve years ago that Saddam was not a man to be trusted with such material. There was a very good reason for that. He had acted aggressively against other countries and had killed thousands of his own people using his WMD.
Asked how we would react if Saddam suddenly decided to make a symbolic gesture and hand over some sort of weapon or component he had been hiding, the PMOS repeated that Paragraph 7 of 1441 required the removal, destruction and rendering harmless of all prohibited weapons. Catch as catch can would no longer do. Saddam had to comply fully. Asked to explain why we wouldn't accept an act of decommissioning by Saddam when we were quite happy to take on good faith a symbolic act of decommissioning by the IRA, the PMOS acknowledged that an interesting comparison had been made. However, the difference was Resolution 1441. 1441 had been agreed unanimously by the fifteen members of the Security Council. It had called for Saddam to co-operate immediately, unconditionally and actively and had placed on the inspectors the duty to remove, destroy or render harmless all prohibited weapons. Put to him that the Prime Minister had used similar language for the IRA, the PMOS rejected the suggestion. He pointed out that the key difference between Iraq and Northern Ireland was one of experience. In Northern Ireland the process had moved forward more slowly than any of us would have wished. However, there was evidence, on a daily basis, that progress was being made on the Republican side to move from a violent to a peaceful, normal society. In Iraq, however, there was no evidence to suggest that Saddam was going to comply with the UN inspectors. Quite the reverse. Colin Powell had presented his case powerfully yesterday - the key point being the Iraqi regime's deliberate, concerted campaign of concealment.
Asked whether Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei's visit to Baghdad on Saturday represented Saddam's very last chance, the PMOS said that he was not a spokesman for the weapons inspectors. However, it was clear that both Dr Blix and Dr Elbaradei had reported back on the situation exactly as they saw it. We expected them to do so again on 14 February. The Prime Minister had expressed his strong support for them and had underscored his belief that they had shown themselves to be true professionals.
Asked to clarify the circumstances in which military action might be taken without UN backing, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had talked about the use of an unreasonable veto. His words spoke for themselves. After his meeting with President Bush and following his talks with a wide range of world leaders, he had said he was confident that we would get a second Resolution if necessary. That remained his position. Put to him that the action of a number of countries could make a veto of a further Resolution less than unreasonable, the PMOS repeated that the Prime Minister remained confident that we would get a second Resolution if necessary.
Asked if the British Government had evidence linking the recent terrorism arrests both in this country and abroad to extremists based in Iraq, the PMOS said that he was unable to comment on the ongoing investigations in this country for obvious reasons. The Prime Minister had spoken about linkages between Iraq and Al Qaida. His words spoke for themselves. We believed that there had been linkage, although what they might mean was a matter for conjecture.
Asked when the Prime Minister would bring the issue of Iraq back to the House of Commons for a vote given we seemed to be approaching the endgame, the PMOS said that the question appeared to be based on a pre-judgement of what might happen over the next few days. At the moment, Saddam still had a choice. He could avert military action if he co-operated fully, as he was well aware. It was up to him to make that judgement - and make it now.
Asked if the Prime Minister saw a contradiction between planning for war against one of the states in President Bush's Axis of Evil while at the same time welcoming to Downing Street the Foreign Minister of another, the PMOS said that the difference was in believing whether dialogue was possible. The UN had not passed countless Resolutions for twelve years against Iran. Nor had Iran defied the will of the UN in the same way that Iraq had. That was the key difference.
Asked about the status of Iran were military action to be launched against Iraq, the PMOS said that both we and the US had given Iran an assurance that we wanted to see an Iraq which remained a sovereign state and also that we continued to be committed to resolving the problems in the region, such as the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
Asked for further detail about the Prime Minister's meeting with Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei this morning, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister wanted to ask them whether they saw any sign of a change in attitude, on the part of Iraq, towards full co-operation. He also wanted to ask them if there was anything more we could do to help them in their work. Asked if the Prime Minister would tell Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei that February 14 would be the last of UNMOVIC's reports before the UN, the PMOS said that it depended entirely on what they had to say on the 14th. People should be patient and not get too ahead of themselves.
Asked if there was more intelligence available to prove that Saddam had WMD, but we were unable to publicise it because it might compromise sources, the PMOS said that intelligence was a constantly evolving picture. In addition, there were problems relating to the compromising of valuable sources. Clearly it took a degree of unwillingness to face up to reality to look at the questions posed by Dr Blix last week and Colin Powell yesterday and say that Saddam's claim that he had no WMD was credible. Pressed as to whether there was further intelligence which we were unable to reveal but on which we were basing our belief, the PMOS said that of course there was much more intelligence. However, given the extent of the evidence presented yesterday and the questions posed by Dr Blix last week, no reasonable person would be in any doubt about the answer to the key question as to whether Saddam had WMD or not.
Asked if we believed that there was a link between a 'shadowy Al Qaida figure' in Baghdad and the murder of DC Stephen Oake in Manchester recently, the PMOS said that it would not be helpful to comment on an ongoing police investigation into DC Oake's murder.
PUBLIC SECTOR PAY
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that nurses and those in the armed forces, for example, deserved a good pay rise given the modernisation taking place in those sectors and in the light of the pay rise being offered to fire-fighters by the employers, the PMOS said that a number of Pay Review Body reports were due to be published tomorrow. He had no intention of pre-empting them.
Asked whether a decision had been taken concerning France's invitation to Robert Mugabe to attend a Franco-African Summit in Paris on 19 February, the PMOS said that discussions were continuing about this matter. Put to him that the Summit was only two weeks away, the PMOS observed that two weeks was two weeks.