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Prime Minister Tony Blair Faces Questions About War in Iraq

Aired April 2, 2003 - 06:03   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: As I hear right now, Tony Blair back in the House of Commons. We'll be dipping in and out. Give us just a bit of patience on this.
Here is Tony Blair.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: ... in particular the replacement of troops. We don't believe at the present time that we need additional troops. We believe we have the troops to do the job, but of course we keep this under constant review. And I'm pleased to say that I think that the way that the British forces have performed in the southern part of Iraq, but also throughout Iraq, has been absolutely magnificent, and we can take immense pride in them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The prime minister is absolutely right, we can have immense pride in our own forces who are performing brilliantly. But he also knows that the government must plan for every outcome. And in order to ensure that extra troops are there if they're needed and available, two things surely need to happen.

First is that he, as prime minister, must bring an end to the threat of the strikes from firefighters. Will the legislation he has published guarantee that there will be no further strikes, so that troops can be released without endangering the public?

And second, he may need to reduce our other overseas military commitments. What discussions has he had with NATO allies to get them to share some of those burdens?

BLAIR: Well, of course, some of the burdens are indeed shared by other allies. And it's important that we continue discussing that with them, because we get regular advice from our own military as to the troop deployments we have and what we can afford to have without stretching our troops too far.

In relation to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I hope that this will have a satisfactory outcome when the FBU (ph) conference is recalled. But our legislation will, of course, be effective and make sure that we are in the best possible position to bring this strike to an end should people take the view, and I think they would take it quite wrongly, that they should carry on a strike action that frankly I don't believe has any real support anywhere.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's essential that the wider Arab world know that this is a war to liberate, not to occupy Iraq, and to remove a dictator who has killed Muslims in the millions. Everyone will want to ensure that the war does not escalate. The U.S. has warned Syria and Iran about becoming involved. Why does the prime minister believe that that was necessary?

BLAIR: I think very specifically what the Americans said, and we back them up in saying this, is that we would not find it acceptable if equipment was transferred from Syria to Iraqi forces in the field, or indeed that there was any suggestion of any support being given by any elements in Iran to those troops who are attacking coalition forces.

However, we maintain relations with both of those countries in order to make sure that those things do not happen. And I think it is important, particularly in relation to Iran, to recognize that we are in constant contact with them in order to make sure that this situation is not exacerbated in any way.

The point that he made about Saddam Hussein I think, however, is worth just emphasizing one particular point, if I might, and that is in relation to a concern that we have based on the intelligence that we've received, which shows that the Iraqi regime intends to damage the holy sites, the religious sites, with a view to blaming the coalition falsely for that damage.

Now, this, of course, is precisely what Saddam did in 1991, when they attacked and desecrated, first, Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, and then the shrine of Imam Abbas (ph). And I would like to emphasize to the House and to the wider Arab and Muslim world we are doing everything we can to protect those holy sites and shrines, and I hope that people understand that the fact that Saddam is prepared to use these tactics, as he did before, underlines once again the true nature of his regime.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I agree fully with the prime minister, and it does lead to questions about post-Saddam Iraq. There does appear to be some confusion of what the prime minister believes is the role of the United Nations in post-conflict Iraq.

Last week, the prime minister told me, and I quote -- "Any post- conflict Iraqi administration will have the U.N.'s full endorsement." Can he clarify whether he believes it should be for the United Nations to run a post-conflict Iraq, or endorse a different administration running a post-conflict Iraq?

BLAIR: I think that is good point, because it enables me to make this clear. As soon as possible, Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the U.N. It should be run by Iraqis, and it should be run by Iraqi people on the basis of a broadly representative government that protects human rights and that is committed to peace and stability in the region. And I am quite sure that is what the vast majority of Iraqi people want to see.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Given the prime minister's answer, he also knows that there is a debate going on in the U.N. with two different views. It appears that the United States government is indicating that they want the U.N. to endorse a U.S. administration of post- Saddam Iraq, while some European governments are letting it be known that they want the U.N. itself to run a post-Saddam Iraq. What view does the prime minister hold with regard to either one of those two views?

BLAIR: I don't doubt that there are differences within the U.N., and certainly my experience in the last few months has taught me that it would be unusual if there wasn't. But I think that those differences are reconcilable, if, as I say, we understand that once the conflict ends, of course the coalition forces will be there. It's then important that we work as coalition forces and as coalition countries in close consultation and partnership with the U.N. to try to develop the right type of Iraqi interim authority that will be Iraqi in nature.

And as I say, I think if we actually understand that it is in everyone's interest to get to the fastest possible point where the Iraqi government is indeed Iraqi, not either U.N. or coalition-force based, then I think that we will approach it along the right line.

So I don't doubt there will be some differences of opinion as to exactly how we handle this transition, but I think, if I can say so, it's probably best that these differences are resolved as amicably as we possibly can, because again, I think that was in the long-term interests of the people of Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The prime minister's answer shows that there will, however, be some interim period, even if we do resolve this. And British troops will still be involved in that period in the security and reconstruction of Iraq after the conflict. However, there is a possibility we may not, at that point, have secured a U.N. mandate for reconstruction before the conflict is over.

Will the prime minister clarify what would be the legal position of our troops in such circumstances?

BLAIR: Well, of course, we've got to act within the law in the entire time, but until the conflict is over, I mean, the fact and the law is the same: that the coalition forces are there, they have certain legal obligations they've got to administer. The moment the conflict ends, it's important to have in place a U.N. resolution that governs the situation, so that we provide for both the humanitarian aid and also, as we said in our resource statement, for the endorsement of any post-conflict Iraq.

And, I mean, there will be difficulties as when we make -- as to when we make the transition to the Iraqi interim authority as to precisely what negotiations in the U.N. bring us.

But I think the one point that there is in common, whatever the differences, is that everybody understands it's got to be U.N.- endorsed. And I believe with the right will, we will get that U.N. resolution. And I think this is a different situation from all of the discussions we had over the so-called second resolution that we didn't get, because in this case, if you like, everybody in Europe, even those that oppose our position, and ourselves and the United States, know that for all sorts of reasons we've got to have that U.N. endorsement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eileen Adams (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Speaker, my right honorable friend will be aware that one of the small comforts our troops have in Iraq is receiving a parcel from home. But is he aware that the "Scottish Daily Record" has highlighted the prohibitive costs of hard-pressed families sending such packages to the troops? Will he use his good offices to ask his right honorable friend -- or to encourage him, rather, to look at reducing the price of sending packages from service families to their loved ones in Iraq?

BLAIR: I think I did say to the House last week that I would look into this issue. And I'm pleased to say that my right honorable friend, the defense secretary, advises me that families, as soon as the operational situation allows, because there is actual problems at the moment getting packages to those families -- to the service men and women at all because of the operational situation.

HEMMER: All right, let's get away from this at the House of Commons of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

To date, the Brits have almost 50,000 troops contributing to the effort right now in the war in Iraq, primarily operating in the southeastern part of the country in and around the town of Basra where that continues to be a very contested region of the war, and also Umm Qasr, the port city in the southeastern part of Iraq as well.

You heard a little bit of talk about the holy sites. Tony Blair warning that 12 years ago, Saddam Hussein had wrecked a number of holy sites in the southern part of the country. There are reports today in the town of Najaf that a number of Iraqi soldiers are now holed up inside of a very sacred place to the Shiite population, with coalition troops surrounding that area. Again, this is an ongoing situation, possibly more from CENTCOM when they brief in about 45-50 minutes from now.



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