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Middle East Digest: March 28, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 28, 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 28, 2007:

QUESTION: Another subject. The Arab summit just started in Riyadh and in his opening statement, King Abdullah made a very harsh comment on U.S. He said -- criticized particularly the illegitimate foreign occupation of Iraq. So I wanted to know if you have any reaction on that.


MR. CASEY: Well, I've seen the press reports citing those remarks. Look, Sylvie, all I'd say to you is it's clear, I think, to everyone that the multinational forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the legitimate Iraqi Government and that that presence has been endorsed and given a mandate specifically by the UN Security Council and that that mandate has been renewed several times. So certainly there's no question in our mind that our forces are there in a legal and legitimate capacity in every sense of the word. And again, their objective there is to assist the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people so that they will ultimately be able to manage security for themselves.


And certainly, as I think the political debate in this country makes clear and as the President has made clear, the United States has no intention of having our forces remain in Iraq any time beyond the point at which the Iraqis themselves are able to be fully responsible for their own security needs.


QUESTION: And it doesn't bother you that Saudi Arabia, your very strong ally in the region, is criticizing your presence there?


MR. CASEY: Well, again, I've only seen the press reports of what the King has said, but I think what's more important is that we do have very good and very strong relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian Government has been a positive actor in terms of trying to support democratic change and support peace in Iraq. Certainly we're appreciative of the efforts they've made on issues like helping to end violence between the Palestinians as well as the efforts that then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah, made in putting forward what became the Arab League initiative related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. So I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to discuss these and other issues with Saudi officials, but I don't see anything that's been reported on as fundamentally changing our good and longstanding relations with Saudi Arabia.



QUESTION: Can I ask about the Iranian capture of those British sailors, marines? Have you seen the video, first of all? Have you got any reaction to the pictures that have appeared? Apparently, a letter of confession saying that they were in Iranian waters?


MR. CASEY: I haven't had a chance to see the video. But look, let's be clear about where we stand on this and where we have. What's important to us is that the Iranians do the right thing here, that they heed Prime Minister Blair's call to release these sailors and release them immediately and unconditionally.

What has happened in this instance is that British sailors acting under a UN mandate, acting on behalf of that mandate in Iraqi waters, were illegally taken and illegally seized by Iranian forces. And the appropriate response, and the one that I think everyone in the international community has asked for, is for Iran to release them, release them unharmed and let them go back to the duties that they are assigned to, which again are in the interests of the Iraqi people.


QUESTION: And just to follow up, a few other questions.


MR. CASEY: Sure.


QUESTION: How do you react then to the response that has come from Britain, which is to freeze contacts with the Iranians?


MR. CASEY: Again, that's a decision for the British Government to make. We would hardly be in a position to criticize someone for freezing contacts with the Iranian Government given the lack of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran.


QUESTION: And another question is what does this mean for the proposed conference that the Secretary of State would attend on Iraq's future that could include Iran and Syria? The British, if they're freezing contacts, were meant to be part of that meeting and clearly at the moment won't be part of that meeting and clearly at the moment, won't be part of that meeting. So will that conference go ahead in the current climate?


MR. CASEY: Well, certainly let's see what happens in terms of what the Iranians actually do and how they actually respond. Again, we are hoping that they will do the right thing here and release these sailors as soon as possible. In terms of the conference, there are plans still underway that the Iraqis are working on to have a ministerial follow-up to the Baghdad envoy level conference, but no date has yet been set for that. And actually, I don't think the venue is has ever formally been decided on as well. So let's see where we are when that gets scheduled. Certainly again and I've said this this morning, the intention and the understanding is that that meeting will take place. But how the countries that are invited to participate in it choose to participate and at what level is obviously going to be an individual call. But the intention always has been that this would be -- the invitation would be from Iraq to all of Iraq's neighbors again and this time not just the permanent members of the Security Council, but to the broader G-8 community as well.


QUESTION: It'll be slightly odd, wouldn't it, if the U.S. went -- if the Secretary of State went along to such a meeting with these British still captured, still in Iranian custody?


MR. CASEY: Well, again, nothing is schedule yet, Jonathan. And I think what our hope would be is that these sailors would be released before such an event took place.


QUESTION: And there is a fear among some that this will sort of escalate tensions with Iran and make it even more difficult for them to free the British Marines and sailors. I just wondered whether you had any comment on that?


MR. CASEY: Well, you can talk to my colleagues over at the Pentagon about the specific details of the exercise. But I'd just note that the President announced back in January that he was sending this carrier group to the Gulf that he was doing so in order for us to be able to continue our longstanding efforts at securing and ensuring security and stability in the region. The exercises that are ongoing certainly pose a threat to no nation, including Iran and I don't believe that anyone should draw a connection between those military exercises, which our naval forces do in various parts of the world all the time and this particular situation with the British sailors that are being held.


QUESTION: And secondly, has anyone contacted or has Iran contacted the United States for a prisoner swap? The Iranian diplomats or whoever they are, being held in Iraq for the sailors?


MR. CASEY: I'm not aware that there's been any communication from the Iranians or anyone else suggesting that.


QUESTION: Tom, just in very general terms, can you just give me an assessment of what the U.S. is making of Iran's behavior over this whole affair? Is this deepening their isolation from the rest of the world even further?


MR. CASEY: Well, again, I think it's unfortunate. I think it's very clear to us that again these sailors were taken illegally in contravention of international law. They were performing a very important mission on behalf of the Iraqi people and with full Iraqi support. So it certainly doesn't, I think, help Iran's standing in the international community, but I'd be hard pressed to draw any broader conclusions from it.


QUESTION: What about in terms of the nuclear standoff at the moment? Do you think this has made the situation even worse?


MR. CASEY: Well, I think the problem that Iran faces with regard to its nuclear program is a problem of Iranian creation and Iranian making. There's a clear offer that's out there on the table for the Iranians that the Permanent Five plus Germany's foreign ministers reiterated the same day that the latest Security Council resolution passed offering them a chance to sit down and negotiate, offering them a chance to be able to join with us in discussions not only about their nuclear program but about other issues they wanted on the table. So I think from Iran's perspective you'd have to look at it and say this is simply another instance in where they've failed to seize an opportunity to do something that would be beneficial for their own people. But that's why I think you're seeing lots of concern expressed within Iran about the policies that President Ahmadi-Nejad is pursuing.



QUESTION: The news coming from Israel today say that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused Secretary Rice proposal to discuss border, refugees and Jerusalem issues with Palestinians, and he refused the interference of a third party in his contacts with Palestinians. Do you have any clarification on this issue?


MR. CASEY: Well, I'm not sure where those reports are coming from. As you know, part of what the Secretary achieved while she was out in the region was an agreement between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas that they would meet biweekly and would discuss a variety of issues, including both some of the short-term considerations that need to be done to deal with the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people, to deal with the concerns that the Israelis have about terrorist attacks, but also to discuss the political horizon for the future of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.


So I have nothing that indicates that that situation has changed. We look forward to these two leaders meeting and we certainly want to see these conversations moved forward and continue. Obviously, they are going to be the ones who will set the agenda for those discussions and determine what issues they will discuss at what time, but we are certainly going to be there to support those efforts, both not only through the Secretary but through others like General Dayton, who is there on the ground working on some of the very specific and immediate concerns that are out there concerning security and things like the crossings.


So the process is -- that she's launched is moving forward and we're looking forward to seeing it ultimately produce some results.




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