State Department Noon Briefing, December 10, 2003
U.S. Department of State
BRIEFER: Richard Boucher, Spokesman
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2003
12:45 p.m. EST
MR. BOUCHER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Since I've explained everything already, I guess I don't need to say much more. But Mr. Gedda, if you have any questions I'd be glad to proceed.
QUESTION: You have some unhappy allies today following the decision not to allow them to bid on Iraqi reconstruction contracts: Canada, Belgium, Germany. The Belgians say that this violates World Trade Organization rules. Do you have any comment?
MR. BOUCHER: Let me try to deal with it, a number of aspects of this. The first thing is that yes, we do know that there are issues being raised by other countries, there are statements that have been made. We've seen some in the press. There have been some, I'm sure, diplomatic contacts at our embassy, at our embassies overseas.
We've sent information out to our embassies overseas so that they can answer these questions and explain to other governments what we're doing and what it entails. And I think before we go too far, we ought to explain that part of it as well.
The decision that was made, I guess, about these particular contracts involves the prime contractors on money that the Congress appropriated to the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Funds. That total is $18.6 billion.
We have had, as you know, several seminars -- and this was widely reported, I think, about November 20th-21st -- several seminars for potential contractors on these things, and we did explain at the time that the prime contracts would be open to U.S. companies, members of the coalition. So the detailed information now has been put out by the Defense Department since they have the Program Management Office over there that's handling the funds.
The prime contractors, however, can choose their own subcontractors. There's very few restrictions on subcontractors. Subcontracting opportunities are available very widely. In addition, it's important to remember this is only part of the money that will be used for reconstruction of Iraq. This is the portion that was appropriated by the U.S. Congress in the supplemental appropriation.
There's other money that will be used to reconstruct Iraq that will be the $13 billion or so that was discussed in Madrid from international financial institutions and other governments, which -- each of which may have different, or their own rules for how they contract.
Second of all, there's the Development Fund for Iraq and the Iraqi oil revenues, which will also be -- have different contracting rules, perhaps without any restrictions at all, but that will be decided by Iraqis, by international bodies, by others.
The UN Trust Fund, for donors who wish to give money that way, is being set up, and that will probably materialize, that will probably formally be established in January. And that, too, will have an open set of rules for contracting.
So we're talking about a portion of the contracting for reconstruction of Iraq, a portion of the money for reconstruction of Iraq, where the prime contractors will be from coalition countries. But a lot of the work, a lot of the subcontracting could be done by many others.
I think in the past we've cited examples of some of the subcontracting that was done under the original set of contracts because we do remember that the original set of contracts were criticized for only allowing Americans as prime contractors, not even other coalition members.
And we pointed out that subcontracts, in many of these cases, have gone far and wide. There was one example of a contract for capital construction by Bechtel, where there were 96 different Iraqi countries -- companies that had 111 subcontracts under Bechtel's contract for capital construction.
So, and that was as of late October. So, and there were another 40 or so, I guess, international subcontractors at that time. So many of these contracts, the subcontractors will be foreign, they'll be Iraqi, and there are opportunities for people because there is work to do.
One of the things we have emphasized in all this contracting is the importance of involving Iraqis, the importance of generating employment in Iraq, involving Iraqi entrepreneurs and Iraqi companies in the process of reconstructing their company -- their country. And whether that occurs with these contracts or the other funds, I think that's something all the donors are going to want to emphasize.
Anyway, that's our perspective on this matter. We have gotten questions from other governments, and we are responding to those questions from other governments.
QUESTION: Richard, do you believe that your decision -- well, two simple questions. One, why did you decide to exclude members who were -- people who were not members of the coalition? -- What is your reasoning for that -- from the prime contract?
Two, do you believe that your decision to do so is consistent with WTO rules?
MR. BOUCHER: The second part I can answer, yes, it is consistent with WTO rules. For the details on how that works among international procurement regulations, I think I would leave you with the Trade Representative's Office. They'll have to explain that part of it, but it is definitely consistent with international procurement rules.
On the question of why did we exclude, I have to tell you that, first of all, the detailed regulations, and therefore the lists, were not drawn up in this Department. The memo that we're all talking about is a Defense Department memo, and any more detailed discussion of what is exactly in that memo you can direct over there.
But, as a general proposition, I would say it was not done to exclude, it was done to include. It was done to recognize the contribution that many nations had made as part of the coalition, and, as I said, to be -- after the original round of contracts, to expand it to those who had participated actively and stood up for the coalition as part of the effort to bring peace and security back to Iraq.
QUESTION: You've been trying for months now to persuade other
countries to increase their military and their financial support for the
operation in Iraq. Does the Pentagon's decision
MR. BOUCHER: I would say that the decision to include those who have stepped up and been part of this provides an incentive to people. We have made clear, the White House has made clear, I think, in their briefings, too, that we'd continue to encourage people to be involved in Iraq, whether it's on security or reconstruction, humanitarian, or on the whole area of subcontracting in the other contracts. We want people to be involved. And people that want to be included in this list, want to be included as part of the coalition, have the opportunity to do so by participating.
QUESTION: So the questions that are being raised -- and this will be my last one, I'm happy to pass on to somebody else -- but the questions that are being raised are not, from various places, are not making it harder for you to talk people into committing to Iraq, one? And two, you said there were diplomatic contacts with your embassies. Has the Secretary, himself, had any conversations with his counterparts today on this issue?
MR. BOUCHER: Oh, has it made it harder? That was the first part, right? The -- I think it's been known for some time that we were going to allow all coalition country members to participate in this as prime contractors in this next round of contracting. And as I said, that's a major expansion from the earlier rounds of contracting that some have criticized.
So if you consider that many of those, some -- what did we say -- 32 countries who are participating militarily and in security in Iraq since the war, many of those have come in since the war. Many of them have come in when prime contracting was even more restricted than it is under this rule.
So I would have to say it's not possible to draw a direct correlation between the availability of prime contracts and the willingness to participate. Countries participate because of their interest, because of their interest in stability and reconstruction in Iraq. Countries participate because of their humanitarian concerns. Other countries have defined their participation -- some have said, "We want to be, you know, considered as part of the coalition;" others -- some have said, "We do not." But we have welcomed all the contributions on whatever basis they're made.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. Can you -- can you answer, can you -- I'm sorry --
MR. BOUCHER: And what was the second half that?
QUESTION: The Secretary's contacts.
MR. BOUCHER: Secretary Powell. Secretary Powell got a phone call from German Foreign Minister Fischer about this matter.
QUESTION: Last night?
QUESTION: Did he complain about it?
MR. BOUCHER: Today. This morning.
QUESTION: He complained, or --
MR. BOUCHER: I wouldn't characterize his remarks. He asked questions that the Secretary answered.
QUESTION: Well, how did the Secretary answer?
MR. BOUCHER: The same way I just did to you now.
QUESTION: Richard, can I -- just a couple of things on this. One, for some time, including -- I went back and found -- are you guys done? March 18th, the day before the war began, the Secretary in a roundtable interview with the wires basically said -- this is kind of a paraphrase but the Iraqis will remember who our friends -- who their friends were in liberating them when it comes time for, for contracts to be awarded.
Are you -- does this not mean you're mandating who Iraq's friends, or who Iraq should see as their friends, with this list?
MR. BOUCHER: This is not Iraqi money. This is not appropriated by the Iraqi legislature or decided by the Iraqi government. This is appropriated U.S. funds that we decide how to spend, and we're opening it up to all the countries that were part of the coalition.
QUESTION: Okay, which leads to my second question. I'm surprised that you didn't, as the White House did and I presume the Pentagon is going to, say at any point -- you said that's it's appropriated by Congress, but you've never said that -- you haven't said yet that this is U.S. taxpayers' money.
MR. BOUCHER: It's taxpayer money appropriated by the U.S. Congress.
QUESTION: Okay. So the State Department isn't trying to shy away from that kind of --
MR. BOUCHER: No, we're taxpayers. We stand with the taxpayers on this matter.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. And the other thing is I'm intrigued by the use of -- Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz's use of the phrase, "the essential national security interests of the United States," and all this. Does that -- does that mean that somehow NATO allies like France, Canada and Germany are now considered to be a risk and that countries like the Marshall Islands and Palau and other smaller countries are more secure, more safe for the U.S. to deal with than, than NATO countries?
MR. BOUCHER: I'm looking at the paragraph right now, and I don't see any of that in this paragraph. You'd have to read way beyond the edge of the page, rather than between the lines, to get that conclusion.
QUESTION: Well, I'm trying to figure out what it means. I mean, this -- one of the reasons --
MR. BOUCHER: If you want to know exactly why the wording of this particular memo is written in that way, I'd talk to the drafters of the memo, the people who wrote it and can perhaps explain it better. But as I made clear, the attempt here is to expand the universe of prime contractors to those who did make a specific -- make a contribution to the security of Iraq by being part of the coalition.
QUESTION: Richard, I'm no expert on the subcontracting process, but isn't it up to the prime contractor to decide who the subcontractor is?
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, it's not as if you're going to guaran -- not guarantee, but, I mean, doesn't the U.S. have very little to say who gets the subcontracts? So I mean, in fact, you know, you are excluding them from the process unless the contractor itself, the prime contractor itself, wants to subcontract.
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah, look at the facts. I cited one fact regarding Bechtel and the 150 or so subcontracts they had that went to -- 111 of which went to Iraqis. So the fact is that when you're doing work in Iraq and you need materials and you need labor and you need entrepreneurs and you need people who can work for you out there, they, indeed, do contract with a great number of foreign companies, and they contract with Iraqi companies as well.
The second point is, look at the facts of what we've done with our contracting. We have held these seminars overseas, as well as in the United States, to try to make the whole subcontracting area more open and more transparent, not just for Americans, but for foreign firms as well.
So we've held one of those in the UK, in Europe, in late November. There was one done here. I'm not sure where the rest of them were, but we have tried to make the opportunities of subcontracting available and widely known as well.
QUESTION: But if you made it clear that you are giving prime consideration to coalition members -- I'm not talking about Iraqi firms now -- but if your prime contractors are seeing you coming out and saying, "We think that," -- you know, "We're not going to give -- we're not going to choose to give contracts to members that were not in the coalition that opposed the war," isn't it in the interest of the contractor to not give a subcontract to them because they feel as if maybe they won't get another contract?
MR. BOUCHER: Well, we're making quite clear that subcontracting is open to all nations with very few exclusions -- I think countries on the terrorism list, maybe -- there may be a few other legal bars, but -- that we're making clear today in our statements, as we have at our seminars, as we have in our contracting materials, that subcontracting is open to companies from virtually all nations in the world.
QUESTION: The Pentagon drafted the memo, but how much was the State Department involved in conceptualizing the memo? And what were your concerns about, in advance, about what kind of reaction you'd have from, from the other countries? And also, how much were the Iraqis consulted on whether they thought this was a good idea, since you did say that they would, they would be able to decide who would help take part in reconstructing Iraq?
MR. BOUCHER: Let me, let me --
QUESTION: The comment that was listed before, "Iraq will remember who, who helped out a lot."
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah, that was about Iraqi contracting and Iraqi money --
MR. BOUCHER: -- which the Iraqis will do when they have -- when they're contracting with their own money. As I said right from the outset, this portion that we're dealing with here in terms of prime contracting --
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR. BOUCHER: -- is not Iraqi oil revenue, Development Fund for Iraq, UN Trust Fund, Madrid commitments, World Bank, IMF money. This is a specific pot of money that was meant --
QUESTION: Okay, how much were they consulted on whether they thought this was a good idea as well as the State Department?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know to what extent the Iraqis, the Governing Council or others were consulted on this. I do know that the basic decision, the basic ideas, was thoroughly vetted at senior levels of the Administration and the decision that had to be made was made through an interagency process.
QUESTION: And the State Department thought it was a good idea?
MR. BOUCHER: We agreed and supported this decision. We didn't write the final details, but we agreed and supported the decision.
QUESTION: So, can you just say that appropriated funds and U.S. taxpayer dollars are eventually going to wind up in French and German hands after being laundered through these prime contractors?
MR. BOUCHER: They're eligible if they're qualified and if they have the expertise and the materials and the capabilities that the American and coalition prime contractors need. But I can't promise that anybody from any firm in any country is going to get any contract. This is going to be an open, competitive process of bidding among the prime contractors as well as, I'm sure, for the subcontractors.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about the potential for a new rift with European nations over this? I mean, you've worked extremely hard to get over the past one, and there's certainly some angry people out there today.
MR. BOUCHER: I guess -- I'd look at the whole history of this matter. When contracting was more restricted, yes, indeed, there were some people that complained and were upset. We often did point out how many subcontracts they got. And we took this step in order to widen the number of countries that had access to prime contracting.
There will still be some people who are critical, but we also know that a lot of people want to participate for their own interest, want to participate in various ways, will take opportunities to be subcontractors and will contribute in their own way to the reconstruction of Iraq because they care about Iraq for their own security.
QUESTION: If you are so sure that this is -- that this does comply with WTO standards, the European Union is saying it's going to look into that. Why is it not clear to the Europeans, apparently, that this does meet WTO standards?
MR. BOUCHER: Maybe they haven't looked into it yet. We have.
QUESTION: Well, isn't this one of the things you would have been explaining to them when they make their calls or talk to the embassy?
MR. BOUCHER: The detailed explanation is something that trade lawyers have to look at.
QUESTION: What's the simple explanation?
MR. BOUCHER: That it is consistent with government procurement laws.
QUESTION: Oh. That's the overly simple explanation.
MR. BOUCHER: That's a very straightforward and simple explanation.
QUESTION: Richard, just, presumably, some of these contracts are for a period of time that exceeds, that will exceed the CPA, the CPA's existence, if everything goes as scheduled right now. Can you not see -- because of that, do you not understand how this fuels the perception that the United States really isn't that interested in giving Iraq back sovereignty for work -- presumably large-scale reconstruction work that's going to be going on in the country for years to come?
MR. BOUCHER: It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me; I have to say. I mean, think of the alternatives. Either you hold the money until there is an Iraqi interim or otherwise maybe even fully constituted coalition -- constitutional government, in which case you don't get anything done for six months, a year, two years. That doesn't make sense. That doesn't help the Iraqi people.
Even in countries that are fully sovereign and capable and have been for two or three hundred or more years, we run our own aid programs. We certainly work very closely with other governments, but we don't just walk in and drop a pile of cash and say, "Here, you're wholly sovereign, grab the money and do what you want with it." We run our programs, we do the contracting. We do it in close consultation with local authorities when it comes to projects and priorities, and we're certainly in close consultation with the Iraqis on projects and priorities.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the kind of work that you normally do is not this extensive and does not, and does not deal with, you know, a full -- you know, repairing of the entire infrastructure of a country, with perhaps the exception of Afghanistan. But this is, this is --
MR. BOUCHER: But all these different pieces, you know, around the world we build roads, we build bridges, we repair schools, we fix -- help people write curricula, we work on healthcare systems. We just have them all in one place.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, I -- okay, right. Well, I'm sure that the rest of the world is very happy that they -- I guess they don't have the pleasure of having a U.S. occupation government and troops there as well. But this is a country that you have taken over, and your -- the bottom line is basically, "This is our money, it's U.S. money, and we're going to do with it what we want to reconstruct this country, and that's it."
MR. BOUCHER: No. I said we're in very close contact with the Iraqis -- have been all along -- about priorities, priority sectors, priority projects, things that need to be done. There -- as you know, there was extensive work done before the war with some of the Iraqis that were in the States and elsewhere to look at some of that. There's been work with the Governing Council, we're work -- there are Iraqi ministries in all these areas that our people are consulting and working with. When we deliver medicines to hospitals, it's in consultation with the Iraqi health service. When we provide math books for the education system, it's in consultation with the Iraqi education authorities. When we rebuild a road or rebuild a bridge, it's in consultation with Iraqi transport authorities. When we train Iraqi policemen, it's in consultation with the Iraqi security authorities.
So, as with any program in any sovereign and capable nation, it's run in consultation with the authorities. But it's also contracted and supervised and audited on behalf of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. taxpayer by the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: Right. But it is also possible that you could have taken this $18.6 million and put it into another pot that would have been open? Don't you see? You've created this -- you've created an exclusive pile -- I mean, and I'm not saying there's necessarily something wrong with that, it's just that you're trying to say that it's not exclusive, it's inclusive, when, by the very nature of it, it is exclusive and you set it up specifically --
MR. BOUCHER: It doesn't include everybody. Does that make it exclusive? I don't know. Yes, I guess so.
QUESTION: You set it up specifically in order to do that, because you could have thrown it in the IDF or any of these other, other funds that you're talking about.
MR. BOUCHER: That's true, that's true. But generally, if you look at
the way the United States run aid program around the world, including in
places where there are international trust funds like Afghanistan where
there is an international trust fund that's working very, very well, or
other examples around the world where the UN and others have been
involved in reconstruction, the
And Iraq, the point I guess I was making in the beginning, Iraq is not really that much different except for it's heavily -- you know, we're doing it -- a lot of this, an enormous amount of this -- much more than we do anywhere else.
QUESTION: Richard, back in the springtime, the Secretary was asked in an interview whether there would be consequences for countries like France, who had opposed the U.S. war on Iraq, and he replied with a single word, "Yes."
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is it fair to regard this decision to exclude some countries like France, or to use your phrase, "not to include everybody," as one of these -- one of those consequences?
MR. BOUCHER: To the extent that the list of people included is the coalition list, it's the list of countries that stood up with the coalition one way or the other, then countries that were not part of the coalition are not included. I guess it's a --
QUESTION: So the answer is yes?
MR. BOUCHER: That's a consequence of not being among the list of coalition members, that you're not on the list of these procurement contracts.
QUESTION: How did countries find out that they weren't? I mean, other than the fact that they could have been reading your comments all along, as you say, and figuring that this may happen somewhere down the road, how did they find out that they either -- that they were not on this inclusive list? And was this also conveyed to the Chinese Premier when he was here, since they're not on the list of inclusives?
MR. BOUCHER: Not on the list. The -- as I said, it was generally known in public, based on the subcontractor briefings and seminars that we had taken; and I think it was reported in various news media in late November that we were going to expand the prime contracting to coalition member countries.
Coalition member countries, we've talked about that quite a bit in this briefing room. It was -- many times, it was a self-designated thing, the countries that wanted to make contributions and wanted to stand up and be --
QUESTION: Yeah, but before this memo came out --
MR. BOUCHER: -- and be counted as part of the coalition. So, to the extent that people put two and two together, and said, "Oh, look, they're going to have prime contractors from coalition countries, and, you know, I put my name on the list and asked to be counted," then people could make certain assumptions.
QUESTION: Right, other than that.
MR. BOUCHER: Other than that?
QUESTION: Other than that, were they called up and --
MR. BOUCHER: Other than that, let me get to the other part of the answer, which is that we're notifying -- I think it's actually last night that we sent out a cable to the countries that are included to explain to them what the opportunities are here.
QUESTION: Okay, and the Chinese?
MR. BOUCHER: We haven't -- I'm not aware that this was discussed with the Chinese or with any others who are not on the list.
QUESTION: So you didn't inform them?
MR. BOUCHER: Except for those who contacted us, obviously, and we've explained it. Since the news came out.
QUESTION: So there's -- there's 63 countries on this list, 191 UN members. Is it safe to say you didn't go around to all the 160, or 158 to --
MR. BOUCHER: It's very safe to say that --
QUESTION: And tell them that they were not included?
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah, that's right.
QUESTION: And can I just get you -- maybe you can't clarify this, maybe this is something for Mr. Wolfowitz, but why include this bit about national security if France, Germany, Canada and others who are excluded from this inclusive list, why even, why mention that, if they are not somehow now seen as a threat?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't -- first, I don't accept the wording, "describes them as a threat."
QUESTION: Well, I mean, do you expect them --
MR. BOUCHER: But I have to leave it to the drafters to explain it in more detail exactly why that wording had to be included in the memo, not me.
QUESTION: So, but can you say that the State Department, on its own, perhaps, the Administration does not consider these countries that have been excluded from the inclusive list to be some kind of risk now? Or that there was some --
MR. BOUCHER: No. We do not consider that countries that were not included in this list to be any kind of risk to American security.
QUESTION: If you're leaving so much to the drafters to explain, Richard, how are the embassies supposed to answer these questions when they get them in the capitals?
MR. BOUCHER: The -- I -- basically, the same way we explain them here, that countries that were --
QUESTION: Talk to the drafters?
MR. BOUCHER: No, that countries that were part of the coalition, that had been --
QUESTION: All right.
MR. BOUCHER: -- made a particular contribution to the security in Iraq were included.
MR. BOUCHER: Then, as I said, many of those countries were self-designating to begin with. Countries decided one way or the other they wanted to be considered or not.
Sorry. Mr. Ota.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I just want to ask you the United States' view. So does the United States want our other coalition members to reciprocate, seeing, I mean, to set same standards? For example, Japan, you know, pledged at one point $5 billion, so we have to do same thing for, kind of, our, you know, principle of inclusion of the other coalition, including the United States. (Laughter.) Have do you think their idea?
MR. BOUCHER: I -- no, I wouldn't be able to say that because it's for each given country, and even for each given contracting authority, how the international rules apply and what their political decisions are about how they want to do the contracting is different. And I think, first and foremost, we want everybody to be consistent with the international rules and that may depend to some extent on how their government is organized to spend the money.
QUESTION: But this is a whole Iraq reconstruction issue, on the whole, you know, we have a, sharing the same view and the same purpose. So do you have any concern about mischaracter --confusion among the allies, or --
MR. BOUCHER: I don't expect too much confusion against the allies -- that we're all used to doing projects, we're all used to putting out bids and having competitive processes. If other allies want to come up with a list of countries who have made a contribution, who are already committed and involved, then that's great. But we don't necessarily expect everybody to do that.
QUESTION: What if, you're still looking, like what you talked about before, but I don't know if you addressed this so specifically, but now that you're -- you still are looking for money and contributions for the country, so if a country now decides that it's going to contribute a limited amount of troops or money or stuff, does that put them in the pool now to be able to receive future contracts?
MR. BOUCHER: It could, yeah.
QUESTION: Really? Even if they just come out and just say something verbally and don't contri -- I mean, I think there are many -- some -- at least some countries on that list of 63 whose contribution was minimal, to say -- perhaps even nonexistent, other than saying, "Oh yeah, sign us up." If countries were to do that now, just saying, "Yeah, sign us up. We want to be associated with something that --
MR. BOUCHER: I don't want to speculate on exactly what we consider to be signing up for the coalition at this stage. Certainly there are plenty of opportunities for people to do work in Iraq,
MR. BOUCHER: -- plenty of opportunities for people to contribute to the security of Iraq, and countries that take advantage of those opportunities and participate would be included in the eligible list.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, is it fair to say that the standard for inclusion on the list now is higher than it was perhaps on, say, March 17th or 18th?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know. If you read the memo and the points that we've made, we're not setting a particular standard for inclusion, we're just saying it's open to others to be included.
QUESTION: New topic?
QUESTION: Can we stick with an Iraqi-related thing?
MR. BOUCHER: Iraq-related.
QUESTION: Well, Annan said today that Iraq is still too dangerous for UN international staff and that they will operate from Cyprus instead. And I'm wondering if you're disappointed with that or if you accept the judgment that Iraq is still too dangerous for the UN international staff even though a lot of Americans are working there.
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah. The decisions on specific personnel and where they can go, where they can work, that has to be made by the UN authorities based on their own security circumstances, the kind of protection they can give them or that they can work out with others. So I think we've expressed understanding before for the Secretary General's decisions that he has to make in regard to where he puts his people and where they can work.
At the same time, we have strongly encouraged the United Nations to become involved and be more involved. The Secretary has said it's important for the UN to play an active role now and that over the next six months in particular the UN can lend its expertise and skills to the political transition as that process moves forward.
The Secretary General has produced his latest report on the UN's role in Iraq. It's called for in Resolutions 1483 and 1511. The report you're referring to was just released today, so we've just received copies of the report and we'll study it very carefully, obviously.
We also look forward to hearing from the Secretary General next week when he will brief the Security Council about the report and lay out further his thinking about the UN's role in Iraq. There is a public briefing on December 16th that I think will also involve the process of political transition in Iraq, as requested by the Security Council.
There are a number of points, I think, that demonstrate the Secretary General's seriousness in looking at how the United Nations can help Iraq move ahead. There's this report. He also appointed Mr. Ross Mountain to serve as the interim special representative for Iraq, and that's an appointment that we welcome. These elements show that the Secretary General is serious in looking at how the UN can engage more actively.
In the report, we say -- we see that the Secretary General recognizes the very real progress -- that very real progress has been made in Iraq in the last few months, and that this progress should not be underestimated, nor should the efforts of the CPA and the newly emerging Iraqi institutions be overlooked.
He cites many areas in his report, and in particular basic human rights, basic services and things like the reconstitution of the local police, as evidence of the progress that is being made.
The report also talks about the challenges; it talks about the difficulties of getting involved. We recognize those as well. And I'd say, in summary, that our goal is to work with the UN, to encourage the UN, to support the UN, and to welcome whatever role the Secretary General is able to -- and his representatives are able to play in Iraq, in helping Iraqi people with reconstruction. Resolution 1511 recognized that by using the phrase "as circumstances permit."
QUESTION: Do you think they can play a critical role, particularly on the political side, if they're zipping in and out of the country, based elsewhere?
MR. BOUCHER: I think -- we do think they can play an important role even if they are going in and out. Obviously, we also think they can play a more sustained and in-depth role if they're there, and we encourage them to be there when they think they can.
QUESTION: I have a little question on yesterday's issue, that is Taiwan referendum. You once said that U.S. would oppose any referenda, which would lead to try to - try to change the status quo in that way. But yesterday, President Bush did not say directly what referendum. He said comments and actions made by Taiwan leader. And neither did the senior administration official who briefed in the White House use direct word of "referendum," which is scheduled in March.
Can you say that what President Bush meant yesterday was referendum scheduled in March?
MR. BOUCHER: Well, see, the way the system works is the President doesn't quote me. I quote the President. (Laughter.) So we don't always use the same word at the same time. But what we have been talking about with the issue that has arisen in public and in the discussion has been the idea of a referendum. Now, whether -- what the President said is we oppose any statements or actions undertaken to push towards independence. So that's the policy standard by which specific things will have to be judged.
QUESTION: So does the U.S. oppose the referendum scheduled in March?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think the actual referendum is decided yet for March. But, as the President said, we oppose any statements or actions that push in that direction.
QUESTION: Can you update us on the package that contained some explosive materials which was brought to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut? What you know at this point?
MR. BOUCHER: At about 10:30 a.m., local time today in Beirut, a person attempted to deliver a package to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Several Foreign Service national employees of the Embassy challenged the person and alerted the Lebanese armed forces, who arrested the man and took possession of the package.
We are certainly very proud of the action that our Foreign Service national employees took in this matter, and actually they were -- it was one of the prime topics at our staff meeting this morning to note how important it was that they were so observant and they took action.
The package was found to contain explosive material. It was deactivated without incident. Two persons have been taken into custody by the Lebanese armed forces in connection with this incident and are being questioned. The Embassy remains in close touch with the Lebanese investigating authorities. The device did not explode, nor was anyone harmed.
QUESTION: Why by the armed forces? Why not by the regular judicial authorities?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't -- I don't quite know the answer. It must have something to do with how the security is provided in the area of the embassy.
QUESTION: Richard, was the device handed to Lebanese military police authorities, or to U.S. security authorities? Who took care of securing the device as it were?
MR. BOUCHER: It was at the entrance at the outside perimeter, where the person showed up with a -- a knapsack, I guess it was. And so that's where they were stopped, and our employees noticed this and reported them. So it would have been somewhat outside the -- the actual embassy office building.
QUESTION: You said two people. What was the other person doing?
QUESTION: Taxi driver. Taxi driver.
MR. BOUCHER: Taxi driver? Taxi driver.
QUESTION: But drove -- a, just any particular taxi driver?
MR. BOUCHER: One was a driver, and one was a passenger, two people. It will be for Lebanese authorities to sort out whether they both were together or intent.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think I know the nationality yet. Yeah, don't know the nationality yet.
QUESTION: Yes. Yesterday there was a discussion between the President and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. And during their discussion, a Chinese -- a local -- I'm sorry -- the senior government official said during the discussions, Premier said to the President that the six-way talks still -- the time is still not ready, the time not come yet.
And also, there is a report that Beijing has rejected the draft agreed by the U.S.-Japan-South Korea. Can you clarify what's going on here?
MR. BOUCHER: I can't. We're not going to play this one out in public day-by-day. I'm afraid that we have to have the chance to conduct our diplomacy if it's going to be successful. What I would say is that we have made clear we're ready to go back to talks at an early date, ready to go back this month. We're ready to go back without preconditions.
None of the parties, apparently, except North Korea, has established any preconditions for the talks. And so we're looking to hear whether they're prepared to go to talks and to be constructive.
QUESTION: Have you heard something from Chinese party yet?
MR. BOUCHER: Nothing new to report at this point.
QUESTION: With the invigoration of the roadmap activities and the United Nations voting twice in the last couple of days on the Middle East issues, and yesterday it condemned Israeli, the Israeli annexation of the Golan region of Syria. And all these issues are very hot issues; still, concerning the peace in the Middle East, but it seems to be overshadowed during the Chinese Premier talks in Washington. How much did the Middle East peace efforts take in the conversation between the Chinese Premier and the U.S. officials?
MR. BOUCHER: It's not really a question I can answer because the Secretary's meeting with Premier Wen was less extensive than some of the other discussions he's had here. And it's really -- the White House has to give the rundown of those conversations.
I would say that, as you sort of pointed out that China is a member of the Security Council, and has often been involved in these matters. And very frequently, when we do talk to the Chinese, we do talk about the situation in the Middle East and give them an update, give them our views, and listen to what they have to say, but I just don't know if it came up in those conversations this time.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: A fast one on Burma. There was a report that the Administration expressed interest in joining the talks next week on the Burma roadmap. Is that true?
MR. BOUCHER: No, we haven't requested to participate. We were informed by Thailand about their plans for the meeting. It's a meeting that they have organized to discussed national reconciliation in Burma, but it's under the auspices of the Royal Thai Government. They'd have to explain what the meeting is about, but we did not ask to participate.
QUESTION: And has the United States -- has the Administration expressed any interest at all in participating in this process with them?
MR. BOUCHER: No.
MR. BOUCHER: We have, I think, frequently pointed out the obvious deficiency of this sort of roadmap proposed by the Burmese authorities in that it doesn't involve the participations of members of the democratic movement; and that participation is essential by democratic forces in order to have a plan that can restore Burma to democracy, so that's been our position on the idea all along, but we've not asked to participate.
We've been interested, though, in keeping in touch with the Thai Government, hearing what they had to say, letting us know what they thought might be accomplished and letting us know that they, too, were interested in encouraging and urging the participation of democratic forces in Burma. We discussed it fairly extensively when we were out in Thailand for the APEC and the State visit.
QUESTION: Do you know anything about the donors conference scheduled for Rome to help the Palestinians?
MR. BOUCHER: The ad hoc liaison committee is meeting today in Rome. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns and his Deputy, David Satterfield, are in Rome to attend the meeting today. This is the principal donor coordination body for Palestinian economic assistance. It was first convened after the signing of the Oslo Accords, and Quartet envoys are also meeting on the margins of the ad hoc liaison committee.
And then on Thursday, Deputy Assistant Secretary Satterfield will lead the U.S. delegation to a meeting of the Task Force on Palestinian Reform. The Task Force was established in July of 2002 by the Quartet, and that's the international donor community's principal body for supporting the Palestinian Authority's own reform program.
Following those meetings in Rome, David Satterfield will travel to Jerusalem for meetings with a wide variety of Israelis and Palestinians.
QUESTION: Is Mr. Burns going to be in the United States at the Quartet meeting on the margins?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the comments by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize today, as she accepted her award, which were very critical of the West and the United States?
MR. BOUCHER: I didn't see the comments, so I don't have any reaction at this point.
QUESTION: Do you have any -- I don't know if you're prepared for this one, but if you aren't, if you could take it I'd be grateful. The European Commission said that they have completed negotiations for signing an association agreement with Syria that would boast EU trade with Syria and might help to promote political and economic reform in Syria. I'm wondering if you think this is a good idea for them to get closer to a country that you regard as a sponsor of terrorism and so on?
MR. BOUCHER: I'll have to see if we have anything to say on that.
Do you have one, or not?
QUESTION: I do.
MR. BOUCHER: Okay, we've got one over there and one back here.
QUESTION: Richard, this came up yesterday. Did the United States consult with the Iraqi Governing Council on this decision to expel the MEK? And is there -- is the United States involved in any way in trying to figure out where these people might go if they were expelled from Iraq?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think there's anything new to say on that question. As I think I mentioned yesterday, we do consider them a terrorist group. They are contained by coalition forces at this point, and their members are being questioned by U.S. forces in order to reach a determination regarding legal proceedings. In terms of the decision by the Governing Council, our people in the field are in touch with the Governing Council and we'll be discussing the matter with them as well.
QUESTION: And would the United States support sending them back to Iran, for instance?
MR. BOUCHER: I can't speculate at this point.
QUESTION: In the past, Richard, you guys have expressed some concern, or deep concerns about Chechen refugees being housed in Ingushetia, and the camps -- the Russians have closed another one down. You know anything about this?
MR. BOUCHER: Don't know anything about that. Have to check on it for you.
MR. BOUCHER: Okay. One more in the back, I think.
QUESTION: Mr. Boucher, you mentioned yesterday that you did not have any hard evidence of the Israeli Government talking about settlements and dismantling outposts, settlements, in the Palestinian territories, but you were going to, you were -- you sounded like you were waiting for more confirmation of this, whether if it is true or just the usual talks of the Sharon Government. Any comment on this today? Any new findings?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think that's exactly the way that I would characterize our discussion yesterday. I think I was asked specifically if Mr. Sharon had -- if we had any ideas about a supposed commitment that Prime Minister Sharon had made to dismantle certain settlements, not just outposts. And I said I really had not seen him say that.
I know he is quoted by various people, members of the Knesset talking about it as well. It seems to be a matter of discussion in Israel. But I haven't seen a policy proposal by the Israeli Government that we would be in a position to comment on.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:50 p.m.)
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