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Middle East Digest: March 8, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 8, 2007

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/

From the Daily Briefing of March 8, 2007:

QUESTION: Do you have anything on the P-5+1 conference call today?

MR. MCCORMACK: Nick Burns had a conference call with his P-5+1 counterparts. He also spoke later on with some of his counterparts individually. So we are working this on two tracks: we are working at their political directors level; we are working it at the perm rep level up in New York. We are chipping away at any remaining differences that might exist among the P-5+1 so that we can get a draft resolution and then circulate it to the rest of the Council. Everybody is committed to moving forward -- it is just a matter of time, working out the details and the language -- but everybody is committed to getting a second resolution in the -- as soon as we possibly can.


QUESTION: Did we -- did you speak individually to the Russians, for example, and there is still some differences --

MR. MCCORMACK: We spoke with the Russians and the Chinese. Look, I want to dispel this notion that is out there and it is kind of bouncing around; maybe it is an echo of past discussions. But certainly in this round, we are working very cooperatively with the Russian Government, working very well with them. This began with Secretary Rice's meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov in which they first discussed this idea of the second resolution and what it might look like, and it has extended up to the phone call today. So we're working very well with the Russians.

Other members of the P-5+1 have some questions. You're starting to get into in some of the elements of a resolution where you have different countries that have different equities. And we're going to be working through the specific substantive as well as language fixes with them. But make no mistake, we are going to get a resolution and we're working on getting one as soon as we can.

QUESTION: Do you have any timeline for that resolution next week?


QUESTION: Some people are saying it might be April.

MR. MCCORMACK: It might be --

QUESTION: April, maybe?

MR. MCCORMACK: Where are we -- April or March?

QUESTION: We're in March now.

MR. MCCORMACK: We're in March? I'm just trying to figure out where we are in March.

QUESTION: Like a month away.


QUESTION: The Day of Women.

MR. MCCORMACK: That's right. International Women's Day. Thanks very much. Look, I'm not going to put timelines on it. We want one as soon as we can. We're working very well and constructively with all the members of the P-5+1.


QUESTION: Surely you can give us some notion of the snags because, I mean, a week ago you were saying this is going more quickly than the last time and that we're expecting something. You know, I mean, it's not sticking to the kind of the pace that you kind of laid out at the end of last week now. What's --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's inevitable. It's inevitable in any multilateral negotiation. We are still working more quickly than we were last time around. That was an extended negotiation. I would hope that this effort move forward more quickly than it did last time. The last time around, we were working on the first resolution of its kind out of the gate on this particular topic. This resolution is incremental in its nature, but nonetheless important. So I would expect that we're going to be able to move through these issues more quickly than we did last time.

Yes, Nicholas.

QUESTION: On Iran, sort of. I know we've been asking for -- this is the third time, I think, about this ex-deputy defense minister or general. I assume that you don't have anything today, as you did --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes. That's right.

QUESTION: I'm just wondering is there a point at which you might have something because I know that asylum cases you don't talk about.


QUESTION: If he was kidnapped, I assume that you're not going to even want to think about talking about. But seriously, is there any point in which we should --

MR. MCCORMACK: You can keep asking. You can keep asking it. I'm going to have the same answer for you unless something qualitatively changes in my ability to give you an answer. I don't have any information on those news stories.

QUESTION: Or you can call me and leak it. (Laughter.) Okay, thanks.

MR. MCCORMACK: (Laughter.) Okay. All right.

QUESTION: The problem is now it's on the front page of the newspaper, so it's starting to be rather public. Can you at least deny these --

MR. MCCORMACK: I have no information on this news story for you.


QUESTION: Sir, two quick questions. One, last night I hope you were watching King Abdullah of Jordan at the Joint Session of the United States Congress.


QUESTION: He spoke -- he gave a very nice, wonderful speech, but his speech was really encouraging younger Arab and Muslim youths as far as terrorism is concerned because he never condemned as far as terrorism is concerned by those youths in his region as far as Palestine and Israeli conflict was concerned. What do you think about his speech?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think King Abdullah is an advocate and a force for peace in the region. He's a good friend and ally.

QUESTION: In today's Washington Post, Jim Hoagland's quoted diplomats as saying that Secretary Rice has persuaded Turkey to host a ministerial conference on Iraq next month with the participation of neighboring nations, P-5 and G-8. Leaving aside who has (inaudible), could you confirm that Turkey or Istanbul could be the planned venue for such a conference?

MR. MCCORMACK: It is the Iraqi Government that is going to be sponsoring this potential ministerial meeting. We have an envoys-level meeting that is going to take place in Baghdad over the weekend. That is meant as a preparatory meeting to a possible ministerial down the road. I don't believe there have been any final decisions yet on a venue or location for that meeting. Turkey has served as host for prior neighbors -- Iraq neighbors group meeting and they've played a very constructive role in that process, bringing Iraq together with its neighbors. So I'll leave it to the conference organizers, the Iraqis, to make any announcements about where a possible ministerial meeting might take place.

QUESTION: The Syrian Government announced that they will have a parliamentary election next month on the 22nd.


QUESTION: Do you -- will the U.S. be able to send observers or what's your expectations of such an election will be free and fair and transparent?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, sadly, history does not lead us to the conclusion that we can expect a free and fair election at the parliamentary level. This is -- typically these elections are ones in which the winning candidate wins with about 90 percent of the vote. It's better than the presidential election where they win with 99 percent of the vote.

But Syria is essentially a one-party state and President Assad has made promises about political reform in the past and, sadly, we have not seen that kind of political reform. So we don't have high expectations that this parliamentary election will be either free or fair.

QUESTION: Can I have one more question?


QUESTION: Is the Secretary considering appointing Assistant Secretary Welch to be special envoy to the peace process?

MR. MCCORMACK: Samir, if she were to do such a thing, I would let her make an announcement on that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: When do you plan to send the Under Secretary Sauerbrey there in --



MR. MCCORMACK: Ellen Sauerbrey?


MR. MCCORMACK: She's our Assistant Secretary for Population and Refugees and Migration. She, I think, has left -- departed today on her trip and she's going to be stopping in Syria. She's going to be paired with a representative from the UNHCR. She is also going to be traveling individually then onward to Jordan as well as to Egypt.

QUESTION: Do you know who's going with her from the UNHCR?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't. I can try to track it down for you. I'm not sure if it's going to be an in-country person or somebody from the headquarters. We'll check for you.

QUESTION: How long does she plan to stay in Syria?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'll look, Sylvie. I don't know her travel schedule. You know, a day or two.


QUESTION: At the end of the trilateral meeting last month between President Abbas and Olmert and Secretary Rice, you said afterwards that you hoped that there would be much more contact between both -- between the Israelis and the Palestinians to work out with various working groups, et cetera. What contact has there been since that -- since the trilateral, and are you satisfied that they're sort of fulfilling the promises that were made?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. There have been working-level contacts. I can't -- I can't list them in full for you, but there have been working-level contacts. And Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have a meeting scheduled, I believe, for this weekend. So there has been some groundwork that has been done by both of the parties in preparation for that meeting that we both encourage that as well as are encouraged by that.

There are very clearly a number of differences that they have to work through and the prospect of a national unity government has complicated issues for the -- especially for the Israeli Government. We understand that. Despite that fact, we are encouraging them to sit down, discuss with one another their differences. We think that both Prime Minister Olmert as well as President Abbas profited from the opportunity that Secretary Rice afforded them to get together and discuss in a relaxed and more informal setting what had transpired over the recent weeks with respect to the Mecca agreement and how they might look to the future.

So that effort by Secretary Rice was a catalyst certainly for this meeting. And I would expect that at some point in the not-too-distance future she would plan to travel back out to the region to talk to both sides again how they might work through some of those practical day-to-day issues as well as to look out on the horizon and beyond.

QUESTION: So are you hoping for a trilateral --

MR. MCCORMACK: I wouldn't --

QUESTION: -- out of the meeting this weekend? Is there any plan --

MR. MCCORMACK: I wouldn't necessarily look for every time Secretary Rice travels out to the region for a trilateral visit. It is encouraging that both sides are getting together on their own. And it's not necessarily the most useful mechanism each and every time. Sometimes you come to the point in diplomacy where it is useful for a third party, in this case Secretary Rice, to be there to help bring the parties together either to help bridge any gaps that may exist between them or to cut through any misunderstandings that inevitably come up. So -- but don't look for that every single time she goes out there.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, just one more thing. In Congress today, Representative Lantos was very critical of USAID over the alleged handing over of funds to -- he said terrorist groups in the Palestinian -- in various universities in the Palestinian -- I think it was Gaza -- a university in Gaza.

MR. MCCORMACK: Islamic University of Gaza.

QUESTION: Yeah, the Islamic University of Gaza. Have you looked into that further or do you have any further information on that, whether it took place?

MR. MCCORMACK: It came up, I think, at the beginning of the week.


MR. MCCORMACK: There was a news story about it. I went through the facts as we know them. I think the bottom line with respect to the Islamic University of Gaza is that it has gone through the vetting procedures that we have put in place with respect to determining whether or not any group is either a foreign terrorist organization or associated with a foreign terrorist organization.

QUESTION: Sorry. Different part of the world, but can I move on to Iraq? Can you tell me about your hopes for Saturday's conference?

MR. MCCORMACK: Our hopes for Saturday's conference are that all the countries participating in the conference come prepared to be constructive and have a good conversation about the issues on the agenda. High up on that agenda are going to be security-related issues. The Iraqis are setting that agenda. And it is an opportunity for neighbors to express support for Iraq in their efforts to secure their borders, to secure Baghdad, and also to ensure the free flow of goods and commodities across their borders in a way that promotes economic exchange which is good for -- on both sides of the borders and doing that in a way that is safe and secure.

So we hope that it furthers the process of the neighbors understanding what is going on in Iraq, what the intentions of the Iraqi Government are to secure its population and to fight terrorism within its borders, to fight sectarianism within its border. And it also can help the Iraqi Government begin to take its place in the region. It's no secret that there have been some tensions and some frictions between Iraq and some of its neighbors in the region, and this is a good opportunity for those neighbors to express their support for Iraq.

And it is also -- it also makes an important point that there is a shared responsibility on the part of Iraq's neighbors to help Iraq stabilize the situation there and reduce the levels of violence. It is incumbent upon Iraq's neighbors to help out in that regard. Now, the primary responsibility lay with the Iraqi Government. Everybody understands that. But in part, because of the nature of the violence and the fact that some of the violent -- those engaged in violent extremism in Iraq get support form outside Iraq, those neighbors of Iraq bear some responsibility and they need to do what they can to help out this Iraqi Government.

QUESTION: And can I ask you specifically about this apparent setting aside of weapons by the Mahdi army? Any response to that? Any hopes for that?

MR. MCCORMACK: In terms of the Mahdi army, this is a question about the Baghdad security plan?


MR. MCCORMACK: Well, General Petraeus, I know, spoke a bit about this today as well as the Iraqi Government. It is far too early to judge the outcomes of the Baghdad security plan. And inasmuch as any militias are setting aside their weapons or not engaging in violent activities, certainly one can look at that as positive. But it is far too early to make a definitive judgment about the effects of the Baghdad security plan. It is only just starting. But inasmuch as the initial indications are that some of these militias are at least for now putting aside their weapons, then that's positive.

Yeah, Kirit.

QUESTION: Just on the meeting (inaudible) Baghdad, what would you say to critics who say that the United States is only attending because of pressure from Congress and others who have criticized the Administration's handling of the neighbors of Iraq?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, that's not the way -- that's not the way you conduct foreign policy. That's sort of a cartoonish version of how the policy process really works. We are attending this meeting because we think that it is in our interest and it's in the interest of the Iraqi Government, our good friends and allies. So those are the reasons why the U.S. Government has decided to send Ambassador Khalilzad as its representative to the meeting.

QUESTION: And just one follow-up. Also, actually, do you have any concerns about security during this meeting, given that it's also a major Shia holiday this week*?

MR. MCCORMACK: Of course. Any time you have an international meeting of this type, a high-profile meeting, you have to take into account the security situation. And I think that the Iraqi Government is aware of the fact that there would be security concerns around any gathering of this type and they're taking the steps that they think are necessary.

QUESTION: Would you say that the U.S. is taking additional steps as well, just given that *it falls* with the holiday and so on?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm sure that our folks in MNFI are working with the Iraqis, but you would have to ask the folks in Baghdad about, you know, what steps they're -- what specific steps they're taking and how comfortable they are in talking about those.


QUESTION: Ambassador Satterfield spoke today about how this is a new and different kind of conversation, a new and useful format in terms of opening it up to this various grouping. You yourself -- and he said that the United States wouldn't, you know, walk away from talking with Iran or Syria at this conference. You yesterday said you're not going to walk away. Can you talk about how you see this, this usefulness of this new format for discussing various issues with interested parties rather than through third channels?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first and foremost, it's important for the Iraqis because they have an opportunity to get all their neighbors plus the P-5 around the table to talk about issues of concern to them. And it's for them a useful forum because they can talk across the table and others can participate. These are complex issues related to security that in some cases are interlocked, so it's very positive to have everybody there around the table.

But the focal point is on the Iraqis here. I know that there's a great interest in whether or not the -- Ambassador Khalilzad will have any interaction with his Iranian counterpart or his Syrian counterpart. Frankly, those questions are a sideshow to the main event. The main event is the fact that the Iraqis are hosting a conference with their neighbors to talk about these issues that are crucial to their future and, quite frankly, very important to the -- what the neighborhood looks like in the years to come. So others have -- should have an interest in seeing how the security situation unfolds in Iraq.

QUESTION: Well, I know there is a lot of focus on the U.S. and Iran meeting kind of on the sidelines, but you've said yourself that there is a genuine concern among Iraq's neighbors, Iraqis and members of the international community about Iran's behavior in Iraq.


QUESTION: And so do you think that this will make -- be useful in terms of Iran hearing from the rest of the international community, including the U.S. directly and the Iraqis directly, about how their behavior is potentially destabilizing.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think President Bush did that when he talked about the Iranian support for the EPF networks, and we also did that by picking up Iranian operatives in Iraq who had some connection to these EFP networks. So the issue has been raised and put out in the public, and it was important that it was. As I have said and others in the Administration have said many times over, we are going to do everything that we possibly can to protect our troops. Force protection is the top priority that we have for our troops in Iraq.

And part of that is surfacing these kinds of activities and exposing them to international scrutiny. And if there is a discussion about this at this next meeting in Baghdad, then that is positive because you will have a different dynamic in that room where Iranian activities are exposed to international discussion in that room. And that certainly is positive. It certainly has a different -- I would argue, a different dynamic than the Iranians being able to operate in the shadows.


QUESTION: With respect to the conference that's occurring this weekend in Baghdad, are you under any -- have you given any guidelines or heard any guidelines, for instance, from the Iraqi Government themselves if the Iranians begin to grandstand? Following the IAEA meetings in Vienna, they seemed to be up to their old behavior and rhetoric once again. And are you prepared, for instance, to go to closed circuit television to be out of the main chambers where this is occurring if they suddenly decide to gain the floor and start to act with this rhetoric and behavior?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't predict how they're going to act, Joel. We're going to be there to be constructive participants and we would hope that everybody who's attending the meeting would be -- attend in the spirit of being constructive with respect to the questions that are raised in the meeting and on the agenda of the meeting.


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