Tony Blair Talks Of International Commitment To Rebuilding Iraq

British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Friday  March 21, 2003  0300PST

Hello Everyone. After the press conference, as you know, I have to attend a meeting with the other European leaders from the accession countries and then I have to return to London for meetings, so this necessarily will be a reasonably brief press conference.

I would like to begin, however, by expressing my personal condolences and those of the government to the Servicemen who were killed in the helicopter crash overnight. They were part of our efforts to take the al-Faw Peninsular 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 Defence are 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 an immense debt of gratitude and our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

Geoff Hoon in the House of Commons and the UK 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 Peninsular. 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 its objectives overnight. It is important to emphasise that. Let me repeat, however, that I believe that 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 emphasise 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 ravages of Saddam's rule which has reduced his people to such poverty and fear. We agreed 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 Programme 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 that 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 restated emphatically our commitment to strengthening the transatlantic 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 is 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 that I talked of in 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 is 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 liberalisation, on the community patent, 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 is agreement on all those things, that is immensely important, and there has been the acceptance here at the summit of the proposal for an employment task force to review Europe's labour markets, identify reasons for the slowdown in job creation and identify the key measures that can be put into effect fast, and I am sure 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 is not there yet but it is getting back on track and I think there have been some important developments in that area too.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, I wonder if I could ask you what you are going to do about Britain's relations with France. Before this summit we heard the suggestion that their performance at the United Nations had resulted really in Britain having to send troops to Iraq, while here we have heard that the French tried to take out, or did take out, any reference to 1441 from the communiqué, that apparently they weren't amongst the nations that expressed personal condolences to you this morning for the casualties that you have talked about. And now, as you say, you want the UN at the centre of the 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 UN mandate for the government of post-war Iraq. So relations really are at an all time low aren't they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well first of all, I think everyone knows what the differences are and there is no point in repeating them because they are well known, but there is no point in dwelling on them either. Secondly, France has indeed expressed its condolences to us in respect of 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. The third thing is that what is interesting is that whatever the differences, and as I say they are evident, there is no point in 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 UN role, and I know that is shared by the United States as well. So as I say, there is no point in minimising 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 have been expected.

QUESTION:

Just pursuing Adam's question, if I may. The declaration once again states the desire for a common foreign and defence policy, and there will be many who say that this war, this liberation as you believe it will be of Iraq, simply would not happen if there was a common European foreign and defence 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 are surprised to see you here at a time that troops are in action and perhaps you could explain why you felt it proper and right to be in Brussels.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am actually surprised that 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 is extremely important that Britain's voice is heard. In respect of the first point, there are differences and those differences are very evident and 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 and defence 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 has been exposed in a sense as a problem, as a faultline during the course of the last few weeks. And my view of this is, and always will be, sometimes people say to me well 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 am 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 handles 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.

QUESTION:

I am 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?

PRIME MINISTER:

I hope that the Iraqi people realise 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 terrorised 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 is important to leave them to do that.

QUESTION:

I would 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 of Iraq to be handed over to a UN mandate as soon as possible, and is that something that you have already discussed with President George Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course we have 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 issue that we discuss, but there is a common view now, not just amongst the Europeans but also with the United States, that it is important that we have a new United Nations resolution that authorises that and that governs not merely the humanitarian situation, but also the post-Saddam civil authority in Iraq. And 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 have been deprived of for years; two, greater prosperity, in particular making sure that the oil money is there in a UN 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 to exactly how we make the transition from military conflict to the post-conflict situation, but those are differences that I am sure we can find a way through.

QUESTION:

You have 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?

PRIME MINISTER:

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 are going to have to ask them about that. But I think 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.

QUESTION:

You are putting the emphasis on reconstruction in Iraq. Are you confident that all 15 EU members are prepared to make a financial contribution to that reconstruction, and what would you think of any of those members who didn't?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is important that everyone comes together on the basis of the text that we have agreed now, and I am sure people will because it is 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 has been 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 principle I think is very clear and is accepted.

QUESTION:

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 are achieving your objectives more quickly than expected, and are you saying that the war might finish ahead of your timetable?

PRIME MINISTER:

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. 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 are taking and will take.

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