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British Prime Minister Holds Press Conference

Aired March 21, 2003 - 06:34   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go live to British Prime Minister Tony Blair making statements to reporters.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: ... the servicemen who were killed in the helicopter crash overnight. They were part of our efforts to take the Al-Faw peninsula in the south of Iraq when this tragedy occurred. It underlines the dangers facing our forces as they carry out their mission to bring down Saddam Hussein's regime and disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The Ministry of Defense is continuing to establish exactly what happened and to contact the families of those that have died.

These were brave men who, in order to make us safer and more secure, knew the risks, faced the risks, and had the courage to serve their country and the wider world. We owe them immense debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

Geoff Hoon in the House of Commons and the U.K. commanders in the field have been giving details of the continuing military campaign, which, this tragedy notwithstanding, appears to be going well. We have already taken the Al-Faw peninsula. Our forces have been involved in securing oil installations to prevent the threat of deliberate ecological disaster, and this evening, as last night, all three of our services will be involved as the military action continues.

There are signs of continuing Iraqi desertions and disagreement and division at all levels of the regime. But I should warn that our forces will face resistance, and that the campaign necessarily will not achieve all of its objectives overnight. It's important to emphasize that.

Let me repeat, however, that I believe the course of action that we are taking is the right one, and we must see this mission through to the end.

Insofar as our discussions here have been concerned, of course the divisions on this issue, the disagreements, are well known to you. But I emphasize once again there is considerable support, political and practical, within the European Union and among countries set to join the European Union for the position that we have taken, and that has been very evident here.

And I was pleased that whatever differences there have been during the diplomatic crisis leading up to military action we were able to agree here that Europe will play a continuing and important role in helping rebuild Iraq in the post-Saddam era. There is a real understanding that the Iraqi humanitarian disaster is here and now, and that the international community will have to come together to repair Iraq from the ravishes of Saddam's rule, which has reduced his people to such poverty and fear.

We agree that the United Nations, again despite recent difficulties, should be centrally involved in the post-Saddam reconstruction of Iraq. We continue to press the case for fresh Security Council resolutions, first on the continuation of the oil- for-food program as a trust fund so that Iraqi oil benefits the Iraqi people, and second on the establishment of the post-Saddam administration.

I welcome, too, the fresh emphasis and commitment we gave here to the Middle East peace process, which is as important as any of the issues that confront us.

Finally, I think it is important and right that the European Union leaders restate emphatically our commitment to strengthening the trans-Atlantic alliance. I have long argued and will continue to do so that Europe should be the friend and partner of America, not its rival. It's an article of faith for me, for I believe that if Europe and America stand together, work together, we can help deliver and maintain the order and stability, as I talked on my broadcast to the British people last night.

I should also say how much I welcome the continuing steps we agreed this morning on the economic reform agenda that's vital to our future prosperity in Europe. I would draw your attention particularly to the measures we are taking and have agreed now on energy liberalization, on the community patents, on the single European sky, and those of you familiar with these economic reform summits will know these have all been issues that have held us up for a considerable period of time. There's agreement on all of those things, it's immensely important.

And there's been the acceptance here at the summit of the proposal for an employment task force to review Europe's labor markets, identify reasons for the slowdown in job creation, and identify the key measures that could be put into effect fast. And I assured the president of the European Union, Prime Minister Costas Simitis, will give you further details of that later.

This, along with the proposals agreed on deregulation, the cutting down of national state aids, the action plan for small businesses and fresh impetus on research and development, shows I believe that despite why for very obvious reasons there will not be the same focus on economic reform at this summit. I think the economic reform agenda is getting back on track. It's not there yet, but it is getting back on track. And I think there have been some important developments in that area, too.

COOPER: You have been listening to Prime Minister -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, those comments made in Brussels this morning, having made the most difficult decision any leader can make, sending troops into combat into harm's way. This morning making the most difficult speech perhaps any leader can make acknowledging the death of eight British troops, four Americans in a helicopter crash.

We are going to go back to Tony Blair right now.

QUESTION: ... express personal condolences to you this morning for the casualties that you've talked about. And now, as you say, you want the U.N. at the center of post-war Iraq. But is there not a very severe disagreement between Britain and France and indeed with America involved as to whether there should be a U.N. mandate for the government of post-war Iraq? So relations really are at an all-time low I think.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all, I think everyone knows what the differences are and there's no point to repeating them because they're well known, but there's no point in dwelling on them either.

Secondly, France has indeed expressed its condolences to us in respect to those people that tragically lost their lives overnight. And indeed President Chirac wrote me a personal note about it. So I think that is fair and right to say. And whatever the differences are, I know we can all come together in a spirit of sympathy at a time like this.

And the third thing is that what is interesting is that whatever the differences and, as I say, they're evident and there's no point to pretending they don't exist. There is a very strong view that Europe should have a role in the humanitarian situation in Iraq, which is necessary, not because of the military conflict, but because of the problems that Saddam's rule in Iraq has caused. And also there is a strong desire on behalf of all the European Union for that central U.N. role, and I know that is shared by the United States as well.

So, as I say, there's no point in minimizing the differences. But on the other hand, I think the text that you will see on reconstruction in Iraq, helping Iraq and the Iraqi people after the conflict is over is a good deal more positive than might could been expected.

Yes -- Nick.

QUESTION: Nick Robinson, ITV News. Just pursuing Adam's question, if I may, the declaration once again states the desire for a common foreign and defense policy. And there will be many who say this war, this liberation, as you believe it will be, of Iraq simply would not happen if there was a common European foreign and defense policy. So why do you remain committed to it?

And can I ask you also a question that many people at home are asking, which is a simple one, they're surprised to see you here, Prime Minister, at a time that troops are in action. And perhaps you could explain why you felt it proper and right to be in Brussels?

BLAIR: Well, I'm actually surprised you asked that latter part of your question since given that we are discussing the Iraqi issue and the reconstruction of Iraq. I think it's extremely important that Britain's voice is heard.

In respect of the first point, there are differences and those differences are very evident in that the -- at the end of this, I think it will be right to have a period of reflection as to why those differences exist and how we overcome them. But any European foreign defense policy will remain a matter for the government, and it is important that Europe tries to reach agreement on these issues. And I think there is a longer-term strategic question which is about Europe's relationship with America that we need to have an honest and open and frank debate about because that is what is being exposed, in a sense, as a -- as a -- as a problem, as a fault line during the course of the last few weeks.

And my view of this is, and always will be, I mean sometimes people say to me well does -- have the differences in Europe meant that I am less enthusiastic about British participation in Europe? And the answer to that is unhesitatingly no. I'm not less enthusiastic. It is precisely because it is important that Britain's voice is heard that we do participate in Europe, and we have allies for the position that we have adopted in Europe. And where there are disagreements, the right way to handle these disagreements is not to turn our back on our other partners but to engage with them and try and overcome the differences. And that is the best way I think to make progress, not just for Europe, but most importantly in the British national interest.

Yes -- Peter.

QUESTION: Yes, hi, Peter Hyatt (ph), BBC. Just wondering what you make so far of the response of the Iraqi regime? And to what extent would you urge them and individual Iraqi soldiers, even at this stage, to actually surrender rather than fight?

BLAIR: Well I hope that the Iraqi people realize that our quarrel is not with them, it is with Saddam. The Iraqi people have been the victims of Saddam. Many of those who are soldiers and conscripts will be people who have been terrorized into military service, and of course we want to try and make sure that the military conflict occurs with the minimum of casualties. But that is something that is being handled and dealt with by the commanders out in the field. And I think it's important to leave them to do that.


QUESTION: Yes, Prime Minister, Steven Sacker (ph) from the BBC. I'd just like you, if you could, to give us a little bit more information about precisely what you want to happen. The day that the shooting stops, the war is over, are you saying that you and your fellow leaders in Europe want to see decisions about the future for Iraq to be handed over to a U.N. mandate as soon as possible? And is that something that you've already discussed with President George Bush?

BLAIR: Well of course we've been discussing these issues with the Americans, with the United Nations, with other allies, and I think there is a general agreement about the central involvement of the United Nations. Now exactly how that process takes place is precisely the issues that we discuss. But there is a common view now, not just amongst the Europeans but also with the United States, that it's important that we have a new United Nations resolution that authorizes that and that governs not merely the humanitarian situation but also the post-Saddam civil authority in Iraq.

And you know the vision that we have set out for Iraq is one in which we help the people, one, move towards greater democracy and human rights. Something they've been deprived of for years. Two, greater prosperity, in particular making sure that the oil money is there in a U.N. trust fund for the Iraqi people and no one else. And thirdly, to make sure that their territorial integrity in Iraq is preserved. And there is complete agreement, I think, on all these points.

Now of course there will be detailed discussions as exactly how we make the transition from military conflict to the post-conflict situation, but those are differences that I'm sure we can find a way through.


QUESTION: Prime Minister, Andy Bell, Channel 5 News. You talked about the condolences that have been expressed. But now that British troops are in action, do you get any sense that those countries, such as France and Germany, actively support what you are doing or at best do they still remain neutral and, shall we say, indifferent to British forces in the field?

BLAIR: Well I do not believe that anyone is indifferent to the fate of the individual men and women that are serving, but the differences are there about the military action. I think you're going to have to ask them about that. But I think we would be -- we would -- we would be wrong if we thought that people couldn't, even if they disagreed with the action, express their sympathy and have done for those people that have lost their lives.

Yes -- Robin.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you're putting -- sorry. Robin Oakley, CNN. You're putting the emphasis on reconstruction in Iraq. Are you confident that all 15 E.U. members are prepared to make a financial contribution to that reconstruction? And what would you think of any of those members who didn't?

BLAIR: I think it is important that everyone comes together on the basis of the text that we have agreed now, and I'm sure people will because it's agreed by all 15. And the exact arrangements for that are something, as I say, that will continue to be discussed. But everybody understands, even if people disagree with the military action, people are agreed on two things.

First of all, that as a result of Saddam's rule the Iraqi people have been impoverished, their country is being plundered and requires immense reconstruction over time. And secondly, that it would be wrong if Europe did not take a strategic role in that reconstruction. So, as I say, obviously the details of this is a matter for discussion; but that basic principal, I think, is very clear and is accepted.

Yes, I'm going to take just one more question, actually -- yes.

QUESTION: James Cook (ph) of Bloomberg News. You said earlier that the war is going reasonably well. Jack Straw this morning suggested that it might not be necessary to move to the shock and awe phase. Does that mean that you're achieving your objectives more quickly than expected and are you saying that the war might finish ahead of your timetable?

BLAIR: No, I don't think you can speculate on this at all at the moment. I think what is important is that we continue with the plans that we have set out. And our objective is, obviously, to secure as swift and successful a conclusion to the military conflict as we can with the minimum of casualties but to make sure that we attain our objectives, which are the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from Iraq and the disarming of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. And at this stage, I don't think it would be sensible for me to speculate any further on the nature of the military action that we're taking or will take.

Right. Thank you all very much.

COOPER: You've been listening to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is at a summit of European leaders that is taking place in Brussels at this hour. What started off as a statement about the loss of life of eight British soldiers, as well as four Americans, in an accidental, we believe at this point at least an accidental helicopter crash in northern Kuwait, evolved into questions about what role Europe would play in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Many questions from the British press corps, as well as a couple from other international press corps.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. Tony Blair also said the war is going well.


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