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Middle East Digest: March 16, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 16, 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 on March 16, 2007:

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to Friday. No opening statements, so we can get right into whatever questions you may have. Who wants to start?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure, Pakistan.

(No response.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: What's the latest?

QUESTION: Final --

MR. MCCORMACK: We're in agreement on Pakistan.

QUESTION: All right. Follow up on the --

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay.

QUESTION: -- question of two hours ago concerning the violence.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes. There have been, over the past couple of days, some clashes between protesters in Pakistan and the police in Pakistan. The protesters are seeking to express their displeasure, their opposition to some actions that President Musharraf has taken with respect to the Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. What we would urge in this case is that both sides exercise the utmost degree of restraint in seeking to reduce the opportunity for violent clashes between protesters and police. The police have a responsibility to help maintain civil order and help protect private citizens who are not involved in a protest.

The protesters also have a right, as they would in any democracy or developing democracy, to freely express their opinion, whether that opinion is in support of government actions or in opposition to government actions. So what needs to happen is an accommodation between forces that -- security forces that are charged with helping maintain civil order and uphold the laws of Pakistan, while allowing those peaceful protesters to express their point of view. That is what we would urge both sides to do: exercise restraint, allow a protest to take place in a peaceful atmosphere.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Pakistani riot police used excessive force when they tried to quell this dissent? And also, are you now seeing a packing of repression of the medium? Because there seems to have been quite a heavy-handed response to the medium.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Well, it's hard for me standing here 8,000 miles away to make a judgment about exactly what transpired on the ground. Even people a few blocks away would probably be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what happened. But you know, clearly, there was a confrontation between the police and the protesters that led to the use of tear gas and other actions by the police.

We would just urge both sides to exercise restraint. The protesters should be able to exercise their right to freely voice their opinions with respect to political matters and the police have a job to do as well. We would just urge that in doing that job, they allow for the free protest and that neither side take actions that would deliberately provoke the other into a violent confrontation. That's the way that this needs to work. As for exactly what happened over the past couple days, I'm not going to try to put -- piece together exactly what happened. There were -- you know, there were some clashes and we would hope that in the days ahead, that those could be avoided.

QUESTION: Sean, some of our reporting on the ground have anti-Musharraf protesters saying that -- you know, he's just a tool of the United States and that we're propping up a dictator. What would you say to those people?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's clear in that case that President -- it is the case that President Musharraf is a good friend and ally in the war on terror, that he has a vision for Pakistan on -- in terms of political and economic and social reform. He is proceeding along that pathway. We have encouraged the democratic development of Pakistan and there have been changes that have been made and President Musharraf has made progress in that regard.

Is there more to do? Yes, there is, absolutely, but President Musharraf is acting in the best interest of Pakistan and the Pakistani people. He is the freely -- he is somebody who is a Pakistani patriot and is going to act in the best interest of Pakistan, working what -- he clearly believes that working closely with the United States as well as others in the war on terror is important, because those terrorists that threaten the United States as well as other countries around the world pose as great a threat to Pakistan's future as anything else. They have twice tried to assassinate President Musharraf. Thankfully, those attempts have failed.

So President Musharraf understands what's at stake not only for the rest of the world, but for Pakistan itself.

QUESTION: Do you think these protests make him more vulnerable?

MR. MCCORMACK: How so? The protests --

QUESTION: The protests against him and what he tried to do.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, let's let the actions play out within the context of the Pakistani system. Whatever dispute there might be between two branches of government, a judiciary and -- as well as an executive needs to be worked out within the confines of Pakstani law and tradition and their constitution, so we're not going to try to impose a judgment on the situation. However it does proceed, it needs to take place not only within the confines of those laws, but it helps -- it will help everybody understand the situation if it is done in a way that is completely transparent and above board. And there's a responsibility on the side of the Executive Branch of the Pakistani Government to explain their actions.

In terms of the effect on President Musharraf, I'm not going to try to play a political analyst standing up here. But the ability of a free press to operate in a developing democracy and the ability to freely express one's self in a developing democracy are important to the development of that democracy and that in the end, only serves to strengthen the country rather than weaken it.

QUESTION: I have one more. What is your understanding of what he actually tried to do? Did he try to fire the Chief Justice?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, again, I'll -- let me leave that to Pakistani authorities to explain exactly what has transpired. My understanding in a very rough sense is that the Chief Justice was suspended by President Musharraf. My understanding again is that that is allowed within the confines of Pakistani law. But let me not try to play Pakistani legal analyst. Let me not try to be an appellate court for Pakistan. I will defer those detailed explanations of exactly what transpired and analysis of Pakistani law and leave that to the Pakistani Government to do.

Yeah.

QUESTION: You say that having a free press is important in developing a democracy and that Musharraf is serving in the interest of the Pakistani people. How do those things go together when you've got evidence of them moving against the media to keep them from reporting on this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's interesting you brought that up and I looked into this. And this is with respect to police action against Geo TV, an independent -- as I understand it, an independent TV station in Pakistan. And President Musharraf himself has spoken to the issue and he has said that those actions should not have taken place and that the journalists and TV media should be able to be free to report on events that are transpiring in their country.

Kirit.

QUESTION: Do you believe that there should be any action taken against the police that did storm the station?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'd leave that up to Pakistani officials.

QUESTION: Are there any other diplomatic contacts that we should know about? Have we talked -- has the Secretary talked to anyone about this or --

MR. MCCORMACK: Secretary Rice has not. She of course is being updated on the situation as she would be on other world events. Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher was just recently in Pakistan. He was there yesterday. He had meetings with the Pakistani officials at which they discussed the situation on the ground as well as the events that have precipitated the protest. Ambassador Crocker has also talked to the Pakistani officials to better understand the situation.

******

Yeah, David.

QUESTION: Another topic. The inquest into the friendly fire death of the British soldier in Iraq today. The coroner came out ruling that it was a criminal act, unlawful and criminal act. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Clearly, we don't agree with the assessment. It's -- what we have here is a tragedy that occurred during a time of war. We have conducted an investigation into the matter. Our military has -- they have come to their own conclusions. We certainly would not agree with the -- any conclusion that categorizes this as a criminal act. There was a terrible tragedy. There was a unfortunate chain of events that led to the actions that resulted in the death of this individual during a time of war and we mourn that individual's loss. We honor his sacrifice and we honor the sacrifice that his family has made. And certainly our hearts go out to his family. Nobody can replace this person. But we have come to a different conclusion in this matter than the one that you have reported to me.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just to follow on to that, then presumably that you'll protect any of the U.S. troops involved, U.S. service people involved in this from any kind of prosecution?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not aware that anybody has taken any steps to put this actively into the criminal chain.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Portugal has announced that it's going to close its embassy in Baghdad. Do you have any comment on that and do you think that this sends any good or bad messages?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I hadn't seen the reports that they're going to close their embassy. But clearly that's a national decision that a state has to take, whether or not they feel as though it is in their national interest to have an embassy there. They can adequately protect their people -- a lot of other factors that go into a decision like that. Clearly, we'd rather -- we would encourage more, rather than less diplomatic representation in Iraq for those states who either don't have representation or have decided otherwise that they are going to move their representatives. We encourage them to review those decisions on a regular basis to see if they could-- if there's any change in the conditions that have led to the decision to remove the envoys. And in the absence of envoys on the ground, that they would look to see what they could do to assist the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people in what is a real time of need for them.

The Iraqi people and the government need all the international support that they can possibly get. There have been a lot of encouraging signs recently with the Iraq neighbors meeting, as well as other steps just today, the meeting up in New York on the International Compact for Iraq, so there's a lot of international support that is being generated at an increasing rate. But that said, these sort of bilateral decisions are going to be up to each individual state to take.

Yeah.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) government?

MR. MCCORMACK: No update.

QUESTION: Javier Solana is here --

QUESTION: Also on the Palestinian Government --

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry. Britain says that it will have contact with non-Hamas ministers of the government. Is this something that you are also considering?

MR. MCCORMACK: No change in my answers from yesterday. We are going to reserve any comment about the national unity government until we have an opportunity to assess their platform, their composition and then have an assessment of the actions that this government either does take or intends to take with respect to the foundational principles for peace that the Quartet outlined. But -- and beyond that I'm not going to have any particular comment.

We would encourage other states as they evaluate their position vis--vis a new Palestinian National Unity Government to take into account those foundational principles in informing any decisions that they may take with regard to interacting with that national unity government.

QUESTION: At the last Quartet meeting in Berlin there appeared to be a sort of widening rift within the Quartet as to how to deal with the new government. Are you nervous that maybe others, such as, the European Union, the UN and Russia in particular are going to be far more open to dealing with this government than you are. And that you won't -- that the boycott may be able to start to drift away as others drop out?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the principles that were outlined by the Quartet, I think have been quite effective in highlighting for the world, as well as the Palestinian people, that this Hamas-led government can't function in isolation and that it also highlights the fact that they have -- they're the ones who walked away from past practice of the Palestinian authorities have -- agreeing to the principles that were outlined by the Quartet. There -- different individual states are going to have different bilateral contact policies, for example, the Russians invited Khaled Meshaal to Moscow and he met with Foreign Minister Lavrov. That's not something that we could possibly conceive of, but we're not going to criticize the Russian Government for having that policy.

We would encourage them, and did encourage them, to send the message to Khaled Meshaal when they met with him that he, as well as Hamas, should find a way to abide by and agree to the principles outlined by the Quartet and I believe that the Russian Government did do that.

We and the Quartet have all signed up to those principles. Once the national unity government is formed and we have an idea of the platform and what actions that they're going to take, then obviously there's going to have to be a discussion among the Quartet in formulating a Quartet response. I would also anticipate that individual states would have individual responses to it as well. But what we would encourage is that those individual responses reflect the agreement among the Quartet members as to what kind of stance they're going to have with respect to this government.

QUESTION: So you don't sense there's any rift or differences of opinions --

MR. MCCORMACK: Of course, everybody brings to the table different perspectives. I mean, it would be ludicrous to try to promote this idea that, of course, everybody has exactly the same thought when they sit around the table. That's not the way it works. But you -- what the Quartet has been able to do is to cohere around those set of principles and in the face of, you know, various pressures to do otherwise and that's very encouraging. And it has been an important tool, we think, in trying to encourage Hamas and a Hamas-led government to change its behavior. That has not happened to date, but it has highlighted the central contradictions within the Palestinian political process that need to be addressed if the Palestinian people want to realize a state. Because on the current pathway with a Hamas-led government that does not adhere to those principles, they're not going to realize a state; that's the plain and simple fact. They are not going to realize a two-state solution.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Sean, Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth has wrote that there was a meeting here in the State Department between Israeli Deputy Defense Minister and Saudi Ambassador to Washington. Can you confirm this information?

MR. MCCORMACK: No insight into that.

*****

QUESTION: Just one quick one. Can you just clarify the status of the Iranian President's visa application, please?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure. My understanding is that the Iranians have requested visas for President Ahmadi-Nejad as well as the traveling delegation through our Embassy in Bern, Switzerland. That's the standard practice. The last time when we issued the President and his traveling delegation visas, it was done through the Embassy in Switzerland.

We are going to make every effort to expedite the processing of these visa applications due to the strictures of law and regulations. I can't at this point predict for you whether or not a visa will be issued, but let me just in the writing of your stories about the -- this particular issue, I would point out that we did issue the visas previously when there was a quest for President Ahmadi-Nejad to travel to the UN. We take our host obligations seriously when you have delegations who wish to travel to the UN for UN business.

It's -- under the way the Security Council works it is the right of a state that is the subject of a UN Security Council resolution to request right of rebuttal. So that has been requested by the Iranians. And I guess President Ahmadi-Nejad has decided that he wants to make that case himself. We would really hope that the Iranians choose this moment to select a pathway of dialogue rather than confrontation. Unfortunately, they have sought the path -- sought to go down the pathway of confrontation to this point. But this could be potentially a big moment for the Iranians.

The President of Iran and Security Council during a session which the Security Council will most likely pass another Chapter 7 Security Council resolution concerning Iran and its nuclear weapons development. So wouldn't it be the right moment for President Ahmadi-Nejad to seize the opportunity and to say we are going to reach out and take the hand that has been extended to us with the offer of negotiation? That offer is still open. While we have been working on the Security Council resolution we have made it very clear to the Iranian regime and to the Iranian people that that offer of negotiation is still open and so we would hope that President Ahmadi-Nejad would take that moment. We'll see. It is up to the Iranians at this point because that offer is open.

QUESTION: How big is the delegation? How many visa applications have you received?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't have a count for you. I don't have a count for you.

QUESTION: Thank you.


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