PM interviewed on future of Iraq

 

Friday  April 4, 2003

Tony Blair has underlined the need for Iraq to be run by its own people in an interview with the BBC World Service. "I want to make it absolutely clear that at the end of this Iraq is not going to be run by Americans, or by British, or by any other outside power," he said.

Responding to questions about civilian casualties, the Prime Minister said he believed the Iraq of the future will be a better country than the Iraq under Saddam - "our commitment is to make sure that it is."

The Prime Minister also answered questions on the Middle East peace process.

INTERVIEWER:

Mr Blair, we receive quite a number of e-mails from Arabs in the Middle East, and also callers for our programmes on the BBC Arabic Radio, that reflect a great deal of concern about what is happening in the region. Many callers ask if you are today in Iraq, who next?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is no question of who next. We are in Iraq for a particular reason, and this is not a war against Iraq. It is a war against Saddam. It is a war against Saddam because of the weapons of mass destruction that he has, and it is a war against Saddam because of what he has done to the Iraqi people. To people who are brutally oppressed, to people who have no proper democratic rights, to people whose wealth he has plundered whilst he and his sons live in palaces and lead a wealthy lifestyle, the rest of the population - 60% of them - are dependent on food aid, even though Iraq is a rich country.

INTERVIEWER:

Sorry to interrupt, but Mr Powell and Mr Rumsfeld have expressed concern about Syria and Iran and they specifically warned Syria this week. Does it mean that you are going with them if they are going to attack these two countries?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they have got absolutely no plans to attack those two countries. What they were saying is that it is important that neither country assists those forces, loyal to Saddam, who are fighting coalition forces. But I think rather than people looking for the sort of conspiracy theories - Iraq one day and then a whole series of countries the next. This is not what this is about. This has been about a 12 year struggle to make sure that the will of the United Nations, which is that Saddam disarms himself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is upheld, and also it is genuinely a war, not a conquest, but of liberation. And the one thing that I want to make absolutely clear is that at the end of this Iraq is not going to be run by Americans, or by British, or by any other outside power. As soon as the process of transition is over, it is going to be run by Iraqi people, and a broad and representative government, not a small clique and elite around someone like Saddam.

INTERVIEWER:

What about the process of transition, how long do you think it will take? Is it fair to say that after 2 - 4 months this might be seen as an occupation rather than as a liberation?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is exactly why it is important that we make the transition as quickly as possible. Once the conflict ends, obviously there is a period of time when the country is stabilising, but as soon as possible we have got to put in place an Iraqi interim authority that will be run by Iraqis and should be as broad as possible and representative as possible. And then what we have got to do is to make sure that there is proper protection for human rights. Just before I am speaking to you, I was speaking to 5 Iraqi exiles, all from different parts of Iraq. All of whom have got the most appalling stories of torture and abuse and repression at the hands of Saddam, and all of whom want to return to Iraq as a liberated country run for Iraqi people. And if you say well what is our interest in ensuring that Iraq is a free country? Our interest is that an Iraq that is free, an Iraq that actually looks after its people rather than looks after Saddam, is an Iraq that will be a responsible and sensible neighbour.

INTERVIEWER:

Can we get an assertion or a time limit as to how long this transition period could be. There certainly is a limit after which it will be seen as an occupation, it cannot go on indefinitely.

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely it can't go on indefinitely. I can't specify the number of weeks exactly, or tell you what the exact timescale is because we don't know yet when the conflict is going to finish, but what I can say to you is we do not want to stay, the Americans do not want to stay a moment longer than is necessary. But obviously there is going to be a process of transition and at the end of that it will be an Iraq, as I say, run by an Iraqi interim authority that will be made up of Iraqis, not of British or Americans.

INTERVIEWER:

Back to the question about Syria and Iran, do you think you have enough influence within the US administration to prevent them from taking a military action that you might not be able to support, or you might not be willing to support?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know of absolutely no plan to do that. Look, there are concerns about the support for terrorism in certain of these countries, that is true.But I have always thought that we can try and deal with these issues in a different way. I think what we need to do is to look at this really in two dimensions. The first is the issue of Iraq, which for all the reasons I have given, the issues to do with weapons of mass destruction at the end of the Gulf war, the way that Saddam has run his country, it is important for us to change the nature of that regime. The second dimension however is to bring greater stability to the Middle East, and in that my own judgment is that the single most important thing we can do is to bring some hope to the situation between Israel and Palestine. When I talk to people throughout the Middle East, the thing that they in fact feel most angry about, very few people support Saddam, anyone who knows the facts knows he has killed hundreds of thousands of people. More than British and American people would ever kill in any war of liberation. But what they do feel very strongly about is the Middle East peace process. And we have got a situation now where the President of the United States of America, and he is the first President to do this, has laid out a two state vision - Israel, recognised by everyone, confident about its security; and a viable Palestinian state. And I can tell you I believe it is every bit as important that we make progress on that, as we get rid of Saddam.

INTERVIEWER:

Why now? There are loads of sceptics in the Middle East, and we see that reflected in e-mails coming through BBCArabic.com, as well as in our daily life programme ... or the talking point that we have, people are saying we have heard these promises before, we have seen that after the first Gulf war, after the second Gulf war in Kuwait, we have seen that after 11 September, and we have heard these promises before. What makes this different?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I totally understand why there is cynicism. Of course there is. And people say well look you have got the invasion of Iraq and this is why all this is now being done on the Middle East peace process, and it is true also that is a process that has gone on for a long period of time. All I can say to you is that we have made it clear that the road map for the Middle East peace process will be published when the new Palestinian Prime Minister takes charge of his Cabinet. That should happen in the next few days. So that road map which gives a proper peace plan for the Middle East, based on two states, drawn up by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN. Once that is published I think that will give a certain indication to people that we are serious about this. And all I can say to you is, and I have dealt with my own peace process back here at home in Northern Ireland where we have tried to bring people together after years and years and decades of trouble and strife and difficulty between the British and the Irish, you know we have pushed that process through and I am totally committed to making this work in the Middle East peace process. As I say, I understand the cynicism, but what I say to people is don't judge now, judge when we do it, but at least keep your mind open to see if we do.

INTERVIEWER:

Don't you think there is a point there when they say that this is a ploy, why is the timing, it is a ploy, that the Americans and the British are trying to do in order to get our consent for what is going on in Iraq, we have been asking for this for a long time, we are keen on liberating Iraqis, why haven't they liberated Palestinians? Why do they bring the two issues together now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again I think that is a very good point, but I would answer it by saying that it is precisely at the moment when we are taking action against Saddam that it is important that we do show that we are even-handed, and for some of us we have been working on the issue of the Middle East peace process for a long time. I hoped that at some point, under a previous Israeli Prime Minister, it was possible to have a peace deal. It wasn't and the thing has gone backwards now in the last couple of years. Well we have got to try and drag it back forwards again, and that is what we are going to try and do. And we have a road map plan that was set out by the so-called quartet, as I say the EU, Russia, the US and UN, and if we can make progress on that I think it will give hope to people in the region. But I understand why people are cynical and that is why I say to them just keep your mind open at least, don't assume that it is not going to happen but judge us as to whether it does.

INTERVIEWER:

Being even-handed and double standards is another point that they keep on asking about. If weapons of mass destruction are such a bad thing, why haven't you had such attempts to disarm Israel from its weapons of mass destruction?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is not just Israel of course that is heavily armed in the region.

INTERVIEWER:

Arabs are more concerned about Israel, it is their neighbour.

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course, but the fact is that there are a whole series of states in the Middle East that are. But what makes Iraq different and unique is that Saddam has used these weapons against his own people, in Halabja for example where as a result of chemical attacks thousands of people died in the village. He has literally, as I say, butchered hundreds of thousands of people. And also he is in breach of specific UN resolutions that are applicable simply to him on this issue. So I am not saying there is not an issue to do with lots of different countries and weapons of mass destruction, but it is important to realise why Iraq is singled out in that way.

INTERVIEWER:

Is there a point in waiting for a country to use weapons of mass destruction, isn't it wiser to disarm a country from weapons of mass destruction before there is a chance of using it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I would like to see a general process within the Middle East where we make it safer, deliver greater security, but it is important to realise that is not just an obligation on Israel, it is also an obligation on all the neighbouring Arab states too. And what we want therefore is a situation in which Israel accepts that there has to be a viable Palestinian state, but the Arab world recognises and accepts the existence of Israel.

INTERVIEWER:

Mr Sharon seems to have a different understanding of the road map in the sense that he thinks it is negotiable and flexible, and Palestinians are worried. How can you comfort them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think people will be comforted when they see the details of it, as long as they accept that it also does protect Israel and its security.

INTERVIEWER:

But they haven't really accepted that, I think Mr Sharon would like to renegotiate that again?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but I think that what is important is to understand that the whole basis of the road map is the two state solution, and we work very hard to try and change the basis of the Palestinian reform process, and Abu Mazen emerged as the Palestinian Prime Minister.It is important as I say that he takes charge of his own Cabinet and asserts his government, but people are going to have to make a judgment at the end of this as to whether we are serious about it or not. All I can tell you is that I know that we will not get stability in the Middle East until this issue is resolved. I know that.

INTERVIEWER:

If it is the price of stability, why don't people get that in advance, instead of getting them to approve what is happening now in order to be able to establish peace later?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think you choose between the two. I think you would need to do both, and that is why I think we make progress on both. And I believe that a stable Iraq, a prosperous Iraq, because after all Iraq is potentially a hugely prosperous country, its people are potentially wealthy. Before Saddam seized power, Iraq was a country that was more wealthy than Portugal or Malaysia. So you do that in Iraq, but at the same time you make progress on the Middle East peace process. I don't think you have to choose between one or the other.

INTERVIEWER:

Will you allow Mr Blix and Mr Baradei to go back to Iraq if you, and after you topple Saddam's regime, to continue the job that they have started before the war?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well these are questions that obviously we have to discuss with the UN.

It will be important that we still disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, exactly what process that is we will need to discuss with the UN.

INTERVIEWER:

I don't think the UN would object, but probably the US would object.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not sure you are right about that, I think it is just a question of discussing the best way of doing this. But of course the difficulty, the reason why the inspectors couldn't do their job in the end was that Saddam wouldn't co-operate. And in particular this is a far easier thing to do if the Iraqi scientists and the experts that have been working on their programmes are free to speak, but we know up to now of course they haven't been.

INTERVIEWER:

Many of our listeners who would be listening to you now from Iraq have lost relatives and homes. What would you say to a father or a mother who has lost a child and probably sitting now in what is left of his or her home in Basra or Baghdad, what would you say to win their hearts and minds?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would say this to people in Iraq. I know there will have been civilian casualties as a result of the military action. We have done everything we can to minimise those, and some of the stories, for example the Baghdad street market bombs, that have been attributed to coalition forces, we don't believe are coalition forces at all. But of course I accept that in military action such as this there will be innocent civilians that have lost their lives. But I would say to people in Iraq, the numbers that have lost their lives are only a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands that have lost their lives under Saddam. And our pledge to the people in Iraq is to make sure that they get the freedom, the ability to live their lives free from fear, they get representative government, they get protection in human rights, that the oil wealth of the country is used for them and not for a small elite at the top. And perhaps one very good example of how life will change is that at the moment in Iraq, if people listen to the BBC World Service that is an offence.

INTERVIEWER:

But we are not sure about that, Mr Blair, we have no evidence. We know the opposite, we know that Iraqis in Iraq listen to the BBC Arabic Service and we don't know that anyone has been prosecuted for listening to the BBC Arabic Service.

PRIME MINISTER:

We know that people do listen, but we also know that people who listen to outside media are subject to repression from the regime. And in the Iraq that will be created in the future, people will be able to listen to whatever media they want to listen to. Now I have just been speaking, as I said, before I got interviewed by you, if you speak to some of these people who have actually been in Iraq and lived under Saddam.If you speak to some of the people now that in the south of

Iraq, where they are now realising the grip of Saddam has gone and they are coming out and talking, you want to hear the stories from those people about how they have been treated by Saddam and his thugs over many, many years. Now that is the change that we are trying to bring about.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you think this will go down well with the mother who lost her child?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, there is nothing that you can say that can adequately comfort somebody in that situation. But it is important that people also take account of the pictures that they don't see on television, you know the torture chambers of Saddam, that people listen, as I am sure you will have on your programme, the people who are in exile, 4 million Iraqis in exile out of a population of 22 - 23 million. Now why are there 4 million exiles? There are 4 million exiles because of the regime of Saddam. So there is nothing that you can say that can comfort someone in that situation and that is the terrible thing about war, but in the end the question will be is the Iraq of the future going to be a better country than the Iraq under Saddam, and I believe it will be and our commitment is to make sure that it is.

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