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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 18, 1997
                             PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

10:35 A.M. EST

MR. BERGER: Good morning. This morning, the President's national security team met for about and hour and a half and then we met for about 45 minutes with the President who arrived back in Washington early this morning, to brief him on the current situation in Iraq and to discuss with him both the diplomatic path as well as the path that involves preparing to have enough force in the region to deal with any contingency.

We reviewed for the President the U2 flight last night. As you know, a U2 aircraft, under the auspices of the U.N., flew over Iraq last night without incident. The President made it clear that it is extremely important from our perspective for those flights to continue, particularly at a time when UNSCOM, or the U.N. inspectors have been deprived of the opportunity to observe from the ground; it's all the more important for us to be able to maintain those flights.

Along the same vein, we discussed the status of the G.W., the George Washington deployment, the aircraft carrier. Based on decisions made at this meeting, there will be some announcements later this afternoon at the Pentagon with respect to some further aircraft deployments to the region. This is part of our effort to be prepared in a prudent way for any contingency that may arise in the region.

We have the U2s flying, we have a very active no-fly zone, and we have a very uncertain situation, and for all of those reasons, based upon the recommendation of Secretary Cohen and the Joint Chiefs, some further aircraft deployments were deemed necessary by the President.

We also discussed the diplomatic efforts that are being undertaken. Secretary Albright is in contact with her colleagues, various foreign ministers. Foreign Minister Cook and Vedrine from France and England; Foreign Minister Primakov, although I don't think today, but in any case over the past few days. Those efforts are designed to try to find a peaceful solution to this, as the President indicated, by enlisting the assistance of our allies to convey very clearly to Saddam Hussein that his defiance of the international community by throwing out the U.N. weapons inspectors is unacceptable and must end, and that he must reverse course. That activity will, I'm sure, continue over the next several days.

We will continue to monitor this situation very carefully over the day and days ahead, and we will obviously keep you posted of developments.

Q Are you aware that Primakov has apparently said that he has a plan for peaceful settlement of the crisis after his meeting with Saddam Hussein?

MR. BERGER: I believe he met with Tariq Aziz in Moscow. We've seen those reports. We have not yet talked to Minister Primakov, and therefore have no information with respect to what that may mean or whether it would be at all acceptable to us.

Q Well, could we just make a case for getting your reaction as soon as you're prepared to give it sometime today?

MR. MCCURRY: We will give you that reaction as soon as we have a public reaction to give.

Q Sandy, was the decision to send, to deploy further aircraft the result of something that the U2 saw last night?

MR. BERGER: No, this has been in the planning stages, really, for some time, for over a week. At the time that we began talking about the deployment of the G.W., there was also a discussion at that point of some further air assets that would be needed in the region. The Pentagon has been working that over the week, and Secretary Cohen and Chairman Shelton made that recommendation to the President today and he approved the recommendation. It was not related specifically to the flight last night.

Q On the Secretary's flight yesterday from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan there was the impression left based on a briefing from a senior administration official that the Clinton administration would be willing to ease sanctions against Iraq if the Iraqis fully complied with the U.N. weapons inspectors and allowed those inspectors, including Americans, back in, specifically easing the oil for food program that the United Nations has supported.

MR. BERGER: Let me try and put this in perspective. First of all, the oil for food concept is one that we have been for for years. Saddam Hussein has, for five years, even rejected the concept that the U.N. would sell some of his oil and he would feed his people.

Roughly a year ago, we sponsored a resolution -- Resolution 986 -- authored by the United States, because we have no interest here in seeing suffering from the Iraqi people. Our dispute is with Saddam Hussein, not with the Iraqi people. We sponsored that resolution, 986. It does not provide for a lifting of the sanctions, it provides for selling some oil under carefully supervised U.N. auspices and then purchasing food and medicine and distributing it under U.N. auspices.

Now, we have been for some time in favor of expanding that to the extent that it was needed for humanitarian purposes. I believe Secretary Richardson said that at the time of the vote on 1137 in the United Nations. The President has mentioned this to me and raised with me on a number of occasions over the past few months, as there have been reports out of Iraq of hunger or malnutrition.

So this has been a longstanding position of the United States. We simply conveyed to our allies what we have believed all along, which is that we would be prepared to see, in a sense, a greater degree of oil sold for a greater degree of humanitarian supplies, and that position was conveyed to our allies.

Now, obviously at the present moment in the midst of this situation, adjusting 986 would be difficult for no other reason than you cannot guarantee the safety and security of the U.N. people who have to supervise this. But in the context that once this is resolved, if it's resolved satisfactorily and Saddam Hussein comes into compliance, lets inspectors back in, we would be in favor of having more oil available under U.N. supervision, for food, to avoid any suffering that we can possibly avoid for the Iraqi people.

The problem, of course, is that Saddam Hussein doesn't cooperate with this program and we have to force him to provide food for his own people. But we would be very much supportive of that.

Q Is that a commitment the U.S. is making now if Saddam lets the UNSCOM team back and the U.S. commits to working on that?

MR. BERGER: It is a position we have had all along, John. I think if you go back to Bill Richardson's statement at the time of 1137, he said that. I mean, there's only been about, I think, six months of experience under 986. It took six months for Saddam Hussein to implement it once it was passed, so there's been about six months of experience, there have been some bottlenecks, there have been some administrative problems on all sides here, and once this crisis was resolved, we would be prepared to see that happen.

But that does not in any way diminish the fundamental proposition here, which is that Saddam Hussein must reverse course and allow the inspectors back in.

Q But is it a quid pro quo that if he lets the inspectors back in, the U.S. commits to look at --

MR. BERGER: It's not a quid pro quo in the sense that there is -- that 1137 -- that is the resolution that requires that he lets the inspectors back in is an absolute requirement to resolve this.

Q Sandy, can I just follow up? The other point the Iraqis keep making -- they want a better balanced mix of the U.N. inspection team. Would the United States be willing to allow a change in that composition -- a makeup of that team that would be more acceptable to the Iraqis in order -- if the Iraqis allowed that U.N. team back in, in order to end this crisis?

MR. BERGER: It's essential that the U.N. and UNSCOM and the professionals determine who those teams are. These are teams -- first of all, there are about 120 or 140 inspectors, they come from 40 different nations. Only about 14 percent of them are American. They have a great deal of technical expertise. These are not simply people off the street. These are very, very highly skilled technical people. And it's essential that the integrity of UNSCOM be maintained, that the control of UNSCOM by the Chairman and by the U.N. be maintained, and so long as he was making those decisions based upon sound technical and professional judgments, that has to be preserved.

Q Sandy, is there anything that you have heard from the Iraqis -- privately or publicly in the last couple of days -- that indicates either that they're willing to find some kind of common ground that's acceptable to you or that they're wiling to back down?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think a lot of people have tried to decipher Saddam Hussein's motivation over the years, and I think it's a difficult undertaking. At this point, I have not heard a statement from the Iraqis that they will permit the inspectors back on acceptable terms -- that is maintaining the integrity of the UNSCOM inspection. And until I hear that, I don't think there's any basis for believing there's been any movement.

Q Sandy, the five foreign ministers' meeting in Geneva tomorrow; the Russians are saying that there is a meeting, the French are saying it is under discussion. What can you tell us?

MR. BERGER: Well, first of all Secretary Albright is in either Pakistan or India. I believe she's in India. So I can say with a fair degree of certitude that she will not be in Paris tomorrow; Geneva or Rome or London -- in any place in Europe. There has been some discussion of a meeting of the ministers, but it is at this point simply a discussion, and again, for logistical reasons, it would be difficult for Secretary Albright to be at that tomorrow.

Q What would be the purpose of such a meeting? What do you think would take place if and when the foreign ministers start meeting?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think there are many different purposes. I think, presumably, Mr. Primakov has some kind of proposal from the Iraqis, according to reports, which he may want to discuss with his colleagues. From our perspective, it would be for the purpose of gaining as great a degree of solidarity as we can from our allies on the fundamental proposition, which is that he must reverse course and allow UNSCOM back into his country.

Q Where will the additional aircraft that are going to the region be based?

MR. BERGER: Let me leave that for the folks at the Pentagon who will be more precise than I will be.

Q What is the view here about this proposal to expand the no-fly zone to encompass all of Iraqi territory?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think it's premature to make judgments about -- to comment on that. We are, as the President has said, we are proceeding here on two tracks; we're proceeding on a diplomatic track to try to increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply, we're proceeding to enhance our forces in the region for a series of purposes, and I would not want to speculate on any potential further military action.

Q Sandy, to clarify what you're saying, do I understand you correctly that you're saying the essential principle is that UNSCOM determine the members of UNSCOM, but the principle is not whether there are any Americans on the team or not?

MR. BERGER: I think it's impossible for UNSCOM to function without Americans on the team, just as a practical matter. We have -- we would expect there to be Americans on these teams. We certainly don't want Saddam Hussein dictating who is on the teams and saying this week it's not the Americans, next week it's not the British, the week after that it's not the Australians, and the week after that it's not anybody. So we would not accept a proposition which said no Americans.

Q But by saying that it's up to UNSCOM, you're allowing for the fact that there could be fewer Americans than there were in the last iteration.

MR. BERGER: Well, it's always up to UNSCOM. It's been up to UNSCOM from the beginning. And as long as they make their judgments not based upon some political factors or based upon putting these teams together on the basis of technical competence, that's a judgment that has always been for the Chairman of UNSCOM to make.

Q If the team had no Americans on it as a result of the process, you would feel at this point that would have been a political decision because you think it's just impractical not to have more --

MR. BERGER: I am saying two things. Number one, I think it's impractical. Number two, we would not accept as a principle that there could not be Americans on these teams.

Q How about more of the other allies?

MR. BERGER: Well, again -- what the actual -- the composition of each of these teams varies and their size varies. And I think the principal here is that these decisions ought to be made on a technical, professional basis by the head of UNSCOM, not based upon political decisions or based upon Saddam Hussein's preferences.

MR. MCCURRY: Last question here.

Q Sandy, is it fair to say that although you say the U.S. isn't negotiating and although you say you still don't necessarily believe what you hear from Saddam, is it fair to say that there's been a change in the momentum and that you could now see your way clear to a diplomatic solution? I mean, is that easier to see now than it was three days ago, say?

MR. BERGER: No, I wouldn't say that. I think it is clearly our preference to find a peaceful resolution, a peaceful and principled resolution to this. But we are not ruling out other options and although there is a fair degree of activity with various people flying from capital to capital and ideas floating around, I don't -- at this point yet -- could not say to you that I see the basis of a diplomatic resolution.

But obviously, it would be better if we could resolve this without military or other options and have those inspectors get back to work because this is about, let's remember, Saddam Hussein's capability to reconstitute his biological, chemical and ultimately nuclear weapons, which is a very dangerous threat to the region. This is a man who is a repeat offender when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and he's demonstrated the will and we would certainly like to impede his capacity.

MR. MCCURRY: Last question.

Q Sandy, can I just follow up on that last point? There was a report in The New York Times over the weekend that there was some evidence the Iraqis had used human guinea pigs on these chemical and biological weapons. Does the U.S. government have any evidence to back that suspicion up?

MR. BERGER: I have not seen that evidence, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. But this is the same person who gassed his own people and lit fire to the oil fields in Kuwait in an ecological disaster as he retreated. So I'm not sure that he would win the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Q Is there any evidence of reconstitution since last Thursday?

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 10:54 A.M. EST