State Department Noon Briefing, December 18, 2003


Friday December 19, 2003

U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing Index
December 19, 2003
12:55 p.m. EST

BRIEFER: Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman

-- United Nations Role in Iraq
-- Former Secretary Baker Debt Relief Efforts
-- Issue of Reconstruction Contracts in Baker Travel
-- Pentagon Directive on Contracts
-- Paris Club External Debt Concessions
-- Efforts to Engage Gulf Cooperation Group

-- Update on Prime Minister Sharon's Speech and Roadmap
-- Israeli Unilateral Steps and Settlements
-- Efforts to Engage Parties in Roadmap
-- Efforts of State Department Officials Burns and Satterfield
-- Closing of Unauthorized Outposts
-- Palestinian Response to Speech
-- Contacts With Israeli Officials

-- Six-Party Talks and Chinese Efforts at Engagement
-- Japanese Decision to Build Missile Defense System

-- Departure of New Ambassador

-- Revoking Visas of 24 Pilots and Recall Efforts

-- Update on Authorized Departure

-- Nuclear Program and Statements by Officials

-- Resettlement of Hmong Refugees



12:55 p.m. EST

MR. ERELI: Good morning everybody -- afternoon, I guess -- just a brief scheduling note, 2 o'clock is the Public Affairs Bureau Christmas party, so you all are most welcome join us in the festivities following the briefing.

With that, I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: Adam, the UN Secretary General has called for a meeting tentatively, but almost certainly, January 15, on the UN role in Iraq, and I wondered what the U.S. officially thinks about that, and what would you like to see accomplished with such a meeting, assuming you're in favor of it?

MR. ERELI: We are discussing that -- those very questions with the UN now. As a general proposition, we believe that the UN further to Resolutions 1511 and 1483, has a vital role to play in Iraq, and we are eager to see them do that. We certainly appreciate the Secretary General's interest in exploring ways to get the UN more involved, more actively involved in Iraq. We certainly welcome a dialogue between the UN and the Iraqis that would lead to closer on the ground working relationship in Iraqi itself; and we would certainly be willing to play a supportive role in that process.


MR. ERELI: You know, for the moment, let's -- as I said, we're in discussions with officials at the UN, and with the -- and the Secretary General to get an idea of, a better idea of what specifically they have in mind and how specifically that could contribute to the goals that we all share.

QUESTION: Would it be fair to say you're suggesting that the U.S. isn't ready to sign on to such a meeting until it has a better idea of what would, you know, be on the agenda?

MR. ERELI: Yeah. I wouldn't characterize it as being a definite plan to sign on to. We sign on to the general proposition that meetings are useful to advance this goal, and that we'll be working to support -- to support that.

QUESTION: All right. And is the Secretary, who's out of the hospital now, engaged at all, and has he talked to Annan? Has he engaged in this situation?

MR. ERELI: As a matter of fact, the Secretary -- Secretary Powell has talked to Secretary General Annan today, and both discussed, you know, his condition which is very good, as well as these ideas that the Secretary's put forward and making the point that it's important that we have a good and clear outcome from such a meeting.

QUESTION: I'm sorry to keep going. But did they get into the Middle East or anything else while they had this conversation?


QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: Do you have any assessment, having now had a day to study Prime Minister Sharon's speech, of it?

MR. ERELI: I'd make a couple of points on the Prime Minister's speech. I think we were pleased by Prime Minister Sharon's strong reiteration of his support for the roadmap and for President Bush's vision of two states. We certainly welcome his commitment to improve the lives of the Palestinian people, and we view this as a critical step.

We also welcome the reaffirmation of the commitment that President (sic) Sharon made to President Bush in Aqaba last June to dismantle all unauthorized settlement outposts, and we look forward to immediate action on that pledge. We would also note the reaffirmation by Prime Minister Sharon of what he said at Aqaba, which is that it is not in Israel's interest to govern the Palestinians.

I would just underline that the President's view, President Bush's view that the only way to achieve peace is for the parties to negotiate a solution, that Prime Minister Sharon reiterated his commitment to the roadmap and to working with the Palestinians toward that end.

QUESTION: It sounds like you're looking at the glass -- it seems like a slightly more positive spin on the speech than what we got from the White House yesterday, which was pretty clear in warning the Israeli Government against unilateral actions that could make more difficult the process of achieving peace and a negotiated settlement.

Do you want to say anything about that?

MR. ERELI: I think those statements of -- those statements that were made yesterday are very clear statements of U.S. policy and don't need a lot of elaboration.

As the President has said, the way for a durable solution is through -- or a durable settlement is through negotiations. To have negotiations, you can't take unilateral steps that prejudge issues to be cited at those negotiations. That's a matter of policy, and I don't really have much more to add to that.

QUESTION: Except McClellan said if those steps further the roadmap, hip, hip, hooray.

MR. ERELI: Sure. As I said, unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of negotiations. Now, there are commitments that were made under the roadmap, and if you take unilateral steps in fulfillment of those commitments that were made jointly as a result of common agreements, that's positive.

QUESTION: No, it's more than that, Adam. The roadmap does not require Israel to close down settlements. It talks about outposts. Now, Sharon is saying, and he's gotten the settlers mad at him, or at least some settlers, that Israel is prepared to dismantle some of those settlements.

So my notion of what Scott McClellan was saying yesterday was anything that Israel does that either furthers the roadmap or furthers prospects for peace the U.S. isn't praising. So it's not just roadmap.

And secondly, I, too, wonder why he today and you today have not focused on the slight bit of negative comment that the White House did yesterday. Is it because the media, which isn't a surprise, jumped on the criticism instead of jumping on the praise?

MR. ERELI: No, let me be clear on the issue of unilateral steps that you mentioned.


MR. ERELI: I'd say -- I would say that unilateral -- unilateral steps can help the roadmap or they can hinder it. We would certainly oppose unilateral steps that block a negotiated settlement or adversely affect the lives of innocent civilians. We would not oppose actions that improve the lives of the Palestinians or fulfill roadmap commitments, and I think that, perhaps, clarifies the question you were asking.

QUESTION: Indeed. And why the -- why the somewhat adjusted spin today? Is it because of media reports or have you have a better look at, a closer look at Sharon's speech?

MR. ERELI: I think this is just a fuller discussion of the issue.

QUESTION: Does it not bother you, the idea that Prime Minister Sharon evoked of essentially abandoning the roadmap process if he comes to the conclusion that the Palestinians have utterly failed to take its necessary steps, including, you know, cracking down on the terror groups? I mean, does that specter or that prospect, whether it's a few months out there in the future, not cause you some pause?

MR. ERELI: As you say, that's a few months out in the future. Our focus for the present is the roadmap and working with the parties to realize implementation of commitments made pursuant to the roadmap.

QUESTION: Can I follow you up on that? Scott McClellan not only said you're working hard, you're working very hard to get the roadmap going, working very hard with the parties. He didn't give any, provide any details of what you're doing in the nature of working very hard. You're calling for a meeting between the two prime ministers, but can you give us any examples? Is someone out, staying -- I mean, what are you doing to -- a lot of the world thinks the roadmap is not going anyplace.

MR. ERELI: I think that if you look back over our transcript -- over the transcripts from briefings from the last two weeks, you could find plenty of examples of things we're doing to facilitate cooperation between the parties.

As you know, Assistant Secretary Burns and Deputy Assistant Secretary Satterfield were in Rome last week. Assistant Secretary Satter -- Deputy Assistant Secretary Satterfield was in the region this week. He attended a trilateral meeting with the parties to discuss ways of easing the burden of -- on the Palestinian people, and that point was raised and reiterated again in Prime Minister Sharon's speech.

We have been meeting with other interested parties, such as the Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to work with, to help him and support his efforts and Egypt's efforts in brokering a ceasefire.

As you say, we are strongly encouraging the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet and to engage directly and personally on this very important endeavor.

So, I mean, there is no shortage of examples of how we are engaged on a daily basis with parties at all levels to see what we can do about implementing these commitments.

QUESTION: What about Mr. Wolf, who had a day-to-day -- well, not every day, but had an up-front role? Is he still part of the --

MR. ERELI: Mr. Wolf is currently -- is presently still in Washington. I don't have anything new to give you on his travel plans.

QUESTION: Would it be fair to say -- and I'm happy to cross this -- that some of the things that you like about Prime Minister Sharon's speech are the more tangible things, his statements about closing the unauthorized outposts, making life -- perhaps, easing some of the restrictions on the Palestinians; and some of the things that you don't like are the more hypothetical things that may happen if he feels the roadmap is a dead end?

MR. ERELI: I wouldn't put it in terms of like or dislike. I would put it in terms of what we're focusing on is the here and now, the real and the tangible, and that what may or may not happen in the future and under what circumstances that may or may not happen is something that's really hard to pin down at this point.

I'm sorry, Tammy. Did you have a question?

QUESTION: Yeah, actually, a follow-on to Arshad's question. Some Palestinian leaders yesterday saw Sharon's speech as threatening, this notion that if certain steps aren't made then he would be willing to abandon the roadmap, potentially.

Do you find that aspect of it, the warning, if you will, from Sharon, constructive, not constructive?

MR. ERELI: I think what we find constructive and what we are focusing on, along with the parties, is the reiteration of the commitment to the roadmap and the importance of acting now, at the present time, to move forward in fulfilling those commitments. And that's really where our attention is focused.


QUESTION: Adam, this all -- this whole speech that Sharon gave, and as well as the meetings that were conducted here in Washington the last week or two with, I guess, the Geneva plan delegation, it all boils down to defusing both the Jewish settlers that may be in an uproar now, the terrorists, meaning Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, as well as perhaps stopping the same type of deliberate shelving by Palestinian Chairman Arafat of any type of progress.

Are there any warnings that you have given to all three or four sides in this, so that these, perhaps, negotiations can continue in a balanced and meaningful pace?

MR. ERELI: Not really. I mean, we are not -- as I said, we are engaged with the governments. We are not getting involved in sort of public debate or debate among different elements of those two societies about what they should or shouldn't do. This is something that we are working with the governments on, and to that extent, you know, we are hopeful they'll engage seriously soon.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Staying on this. Has anyone from this Department spoken to the Sharon government since the speech about --

MR. ERELI: To the Sharon Government?

QUESTION: Well, yeah.

MR. ERELI: I believe our Embassy in Tel Aviv is in regular contact with members of the Government of Israel, so I would, you know, I would presume that there -- at some level there's been some contact, but if you're asking at a senior level has there been contact --

QUESTION: Since the speech.

MR. ERELI: There may well have been. It would not be surprising if there were, but I'm not -- I don't know for a fact that there has been. I know that Deputy Assistant Secretary Satterfield is still in the region. He was in Cairo, I believe, yesterday. He was coming back here this weekend, so it's possible that he had some communication. It's possible that some other NEA officials might have talked, but I don't have anything specific to report for you.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: There were some reports that in Beijing some Chinese officials met one U.S. official who is in charge of North Korea issues recently. Can you tell us the official title of this U.S. official?

MR. ERELI: Are we ready for a change of subject?


MR. ERELI: Okay. The short answer, ma'am, no, I cannot. As -- similar to the Middle East issue, we have -- and especially on the issue of six-party talks, we are in fairly regular and constant contact with the Government of China, both through our Embassy and through, through the Department here so that those kinds of meetings are a pretty consistent feature of our diplomacy. I'm not in a position to confirm for you what official from our side met with what official from the Chinese side in Beijing. Like I said, that sort of stuff happens all the time.


QUESTION: So, since this situation is so nuanced, I wonder if it could ever be straightened out. But you've got a headline in a newspaper, a Washington newspaper today, "U.S. Won't Offer Incentives in North Korean Talks." You have offered incentives. A senior official is being quoted here anonymously as saying, "The U.S. won't offer incentives." But we've heard from the Secretary, for instance, that the U.S. is prepared to, for instance, give assurances that the U.S. will not damage North Korea's security.

MR. ERELI: Right.

QUESTION: So I don't know where the play is. You keep -- not you -- but it's said every, almost every day, there can't be any preconditions, and North Korea's demanding pre- -- but you have floated, if that's the right word, several things you're prepared to do that are conciliatory. So what's going on?

MR. ERELI: We have said that in the context of South Korea's complete and verif -- I'm sorry. Thank you. We have said that in the context of North Korea's complete and verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program, we would be willing to offer security assurances as a general proposition.

QUESTION: Even in writing?

MR. ERELI: That's point -- well, that's point one, without going into more detail. Point two is the talk itself, the second round of six-party talks, where we have said our view is -- where we have said we don't have any preconditions. We're not -- we don't see the need to offer incentives to come to the talks. We believe that we're ready to come to the talks, and we encourage all sides to sign up as soon as possible so that we can discuss those very issues that you raise.


MR. ERELI: Yes, Joel.

QUESTION: With respect to this, the Japanese this morning have said that they're going to build a missile defense system, and, of course, the Japanese Navy is probably the second or third largest in the world. I guess you don't like hypotheticals, but are the Japanese thinking that perhaps these talks with North Korea may not actually lead to anywhere, and this has been their next resort, building that system?

MR. ERELI: Without going into the motives, the motivations of the Japanese decision, let me say that we welcome the Japanese Government's decision to move forward on plans for missile defense. I would note that the United States and Japan have cooperated on missile defense research for several years. This cooperation has strengthened the capabilities of both countries and the alliance as a whole. Its decision to acquire U.S. missile defense systems is further evidence of the close and cooperative relations between our two countries.


QUESTION: Something different. Secretary Baker has now concluded his tour in several European countries. Do you have a first assessment of his mission? And can you tell us whether he has further plans to travel abroad?

MR. ERELI: I can tell you that Secretary -- Special Presidential Envoy Baker had excellent meetings in all the countries he visited. We are pleased that all these countries have agreed to work with us on an issue as important to the future of the Iraqi people as debt relief.

I would note that in his last, the final leg of his trip in Moscow, Presidential -- Special Presidential Envoy Baker had a good and constructive meeting with Russian President Putin. They talked about the need to address the crushing debt burden on the Iraqi people and President Putin told Special Envoy Baker that Russia would work with us in a cooperative spirit of partnership and is prepared to join promptly in negotiations in the Paris Club to reach an agreement as soon as possible on debt relief for Iraq.

Generally speaking, I think what we would say is that Secretary Baker -- I'm sorry -- Special Presidential Envoy Baker's trip has been a good start. There is more work to be done. Special Presidential Envoy Baker will be continuing his efforts and is planning visits to other capitals in the coming weeks, but I don't have more details for you than that.

QUESTION: I understand that he is going to Japan. Can you confirm that?

MR. ERELI: I cannot confirm any specific plans to visit any specific places.

QUESTION: Does he have to go back to the countries he's been to?

MR. ERELI: I don't know.

QUESTION: Did the issue of Iraq reconstruction contracts come up in one or more of his stops?

MR. ERELI: Not that I'm -- not that I've been told about.

QUESTION: Will we read eventually -- because Mr. Baker is a very shrewd operator and not always -- not always reveals what he's doing -- will we read eventually that there was some concessions that were made to get the Russians and the others -- not in England -- not Britain and Italy, they were not a problem -- but to get the three others to turn around and be willing to do something about the debt? Is there something -- did you have to modify your ban on contracts, primary contracts? Is there something that will surface ultimately that it was a tradeoff of some kind?

MR. ERELI: I think the point that we have consistently made is that debt relief for Iraq is something that is in the interests of the international community, and therefore it behooves us all to do what we can to reach that goal. And that was -- that is the essential message.

QUESTION: Well, could you take the question of whether the question of Iraqi reconstruction contracts came up in one or more of the countries that Baker visited?

MR. ERELI: I can take the question.

QUESTION: And can you additionally take Barry's question --

QUESTION: Yeah, and whether there will be any --

QUESTION: -- whether there were any concessions on the --

MR. ERELI: No, that question I'm not going to take because that gets -- because that's just a level of detail that we're not prepared to go into.

QUESTION: No, don't -- I'd rather you not take it as a concession. Was there any discussion of revising the Pentagon's directive on contracts?

MR. ERELI: Not to my knowledge.

Yes, Adi.

QUESTION: Given the fact that the 19 club -- 19 informal club members of the Paris Club operate on a consensus basis, how worried are you that some countries who are part of that group, including France and Germany and Russia, may not be willing to go along?

When you get down to the nitty-gritty details percentage-wise, because they operate on percentage, not on dollar amounts, they may not want to cut percentage-wise the amount of external debt that Iraq owes by the same amount as the U.S., but the U.S. will have to go along with that. How worried are you about that?

MR. ERELI: I think this, as we said, this is going to be a complex process, a complex negotiation. It's going to require a lot of hard work. And I wouldn't want to sort of prejudge the outcome or tell you it's going to end a certain way or not end a certain way. I think we're going to be working to get the maximum that we can.

In the back, sir.

QUESTION: Do you have a date of departure for the new U.S. Ambassador to Syria? She's going to receive her post very soon. I understand she is ready to leave.

MR. ERELI: Right. I don't have any details on that travel for you.

Ma'am, Sonia.

QUESTION: On Venezuela, the first question is the visa of some Venezuelan pilots working for the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal has been canceled. My question is: It was because of security reason?

And the second one is because three members of the National Assembly of Venezuela, they were here in Washington to denounce fraud by the collection of the signatures made by the opposition of Venezuela. Is this because you share the same doubts of the three members of the National Assembly?

Thank you.

MR. ERELI: On the issue of visas, I can get you something a little bit more detailed after the briefing. The issue of revoking the visas of 24 Venezuelan pilots had to do with the fact that information came to light subsequent to issuing the visas that caused them to be revoked.

On the question of the recall petitions, I would say that it's our understanding that the opposition's Democratic Coordinating Committee today presented signed petition forms to the National Electoral Council. These forms request a referendum under the Venezuelan constitution. We also understand that supporters of President Chavez have previously submitted petitions calling for the recall of certain opposition members of parliament.

As a general comment, we would commend the peaceful, civil and orderly manner in which the signature delivery process was conducted. We think that this shows the Venezuelan people's continued efforts to resolve the country's political crisis are peaceful and constitutional, and that they are using the instruments of democracy.

We are also pleased that the process is being observed by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center.

QUESTION: Saudi Arabia. The week isn't up, your review of Travel Advisories, thankfully. But is there anything you can report on whether you're more relaxed or more anxious, or just about the same? And has anybody picked up the offer to have a free trip home for Christmas?

MR. ERELI: On the response to the Authorized Departure, I'll have to check and get back to you.

On the question of the security situation in Saudi Arabia, I don't have any change to report. It's a -- as we've said in our travel warnings -- it's a dangerous situation and we urge all Americans to pay -- who are there -- to pay special attention to their security, and those who are considering going there to defer travel plans.


MR. ERELI: Yes, Joel.

QUESTION: Adam, the Iranian Rafsanjani is calling the UN Vienna IAEA citing a plot by the United States, and anything that you want to say to the Iranians to, I guess, with your ire?

MR. ERELI: I haven't seen Mr. Rafsanjani's comments, so I really wouldn't want to speak to them. I think we made clear yesterday that Iran has international obligations, which the international community expects it to live up to. And we'll be, we'll be looking carefully over the next months to see that it does so.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary or any other senior official sending any letter or any sort of communication to the Gulf Cooperation Summit?

MR. ERELI: Let me get back to you on that. We've, I think, we have shared our views on some issues with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly on the need to contribute to Iraq and to help Iraqis move forward in their political transition and make an important contribution to political stability and future in Iraq.

I think we've also made the point that, you know, it's our goal to move forward on the November 15th political agreement and to see a transition of power in a timely and organized way.


QUESTION: There is a question that I saw in the news wires that -- are you going to offer Hmong refugees refugee status here in the United States from Laos?

MR. ERELI: I'll have to look into that. I don't have anything for you on it.

QUESTION: The Ambassador's announcement.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

MR. ERELI: Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:25 p.m. EST)


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