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Middle East Digest: March 29, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 29, 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 Daily Briefing on March 29, 2007:

MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you, it's good to be back. I have one short opening statement for you and then we can get right into your questions.

This is -- this concerns the release of political prisoners and open political discourse in Syria. We deplore arbitrary arrests and detention of political prisoners by the Syrian Government. We are concerned about the cases of Syrian political prisoners Anwar Al-Bunni and Kamal Labwani, who are being tried in criminal court for expressing their opinions. We join others in calling on the Syrian Government to immediately and unconditionally release them and other prisoners of conscience, including Mahmoud Issa and Michel Kilo. The continued use of arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents demonstrates the Syrian regime's contempt for accepted international human rights standards.

Open political discourse, where people do not fear imprisonment simply for expressing their views, is an essential element of democracy. The United States stands with the Syrian people in their struggle for universal freedoms and calls on the Syrian Government to end its abusive practices.

QUESTION: Are you stopping (inaudible) in Damascus?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. We have raised this with them in Damascus, although we have in the past made public statements about these individuals. The reason why this comes up again right now, is the sentencing phase for the two individuals, Mr. Labwani and Mr. Al-Bunni, is coming up. We don't know exactly when that may occur, but prior to that occurring we wanted to make sure that we made another statement highlighting their continued detention. Also you are going to have elections -- parliamentary elections in Syria at the end of April and we want to do everything that we could to highlight the importance of free and open political discourse within the Syrian political system. Obviously, that's not something that is the case at the moment and we still hold out hope that at some future date that will, in fact, be the case.


QUESTION: Can I move to Saudi Arabia? I know you said this morning you didn't want to dissect King Abdullah's remarks yesterday to the Arab League. But Nick Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. was seeking clarification of his remarks.


QUESTION: And that you guys were surprised by them. Do you have anymore on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: We hadn't -- we certainly had not seen that particular phrase before coming out talking about illegal occupation. I think it only stands to reason that we would be interested in understanding better what exactly King Abdullah meant by that phrase. We are operating under Security Council resolutions in Iraq as well as with the invitation of the Iraqi Government.
In any case, I believe that the United States as well as Saudi Arabia has an interest, a shared interest, in a Iraq that maintains its territorial integrity; that is an Iraq that is a place for all Iraqis whether you're Sunni, Shia, Kurd or other ethnic or religious background; a place that is more prosperous, more stable and more secure for all Iraqis. So that I believe is something that we all share and we have encouraged Saudi Arabia over the period of time to increase their engagement with the Iraqi Government in a -- at a variety of different levels. And one indication of their willingness to do so is their attendance in Baghdad at the neighbors conference, which is certainly a positive sign.

As for U.S.-Saudi relations, they're -- we have a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia. They're good friends and allies. President Bush and Secretary Rice have excellent personal relationships with King Abdullah and we're certainly grateful for the hospitality that they have extended to us whenever we visit there. King Abdullah has visited President Bush down at his ranch.

So the U.S.-Saudi relationship is good. It's sound. That said, of course when issues like this come up, we will seek clarification as to exactly what it is that King Abdullah meant in his statement talking about illegal occupation.

QUESTION: How are you seeking clarification? Do you know through which channels?

MR. MCCORMACK: I assume through our Embassy, our Embassy as well as through the Embassy here.

QUESTION: Whatever he meant, does it not dismay you that he used the word "illegal" to describe something that the United States has done?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, you know, our view is very clear, and that is we are operating in Iraq under the invitation of the Iraqi Government, as well it is within the boundaries of Security Council resolutions, so quite clearly it is -- the United States is operating well within the boundaries of international law.

QUESTION: Are you happy in general with the role, the increased role, Saudi Arabia has played in the region as of late?

MR. MCCORMACK: Obviously, Saudi Arabia is taking an active diplomatic role in the region in trying to solve the region's many problems. The King has stated quite clearly that he has an interest in seeing a Middle East that is at peace, that is free from bloodshed. He is a man who is obviously going to operate in the best interests of Saudi Arabia, and we believe is making a variety of different attempts to see that the region is more peaceful, is more secure, and obviously more prosperous.

QUESTION: Sean, what exactly about the phrase "illegal occupation," which seems to be pretty cut and dried, needs to clarifying.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we want to understand what the thinking is behind it.
QUESTION: Okay. And -- but you're not operating under the assumption that he misspoke or didn't mean to say?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think it's just exactly what we said. We're going to -- we want to understand more clearly what it is exactly that he had in mind when he talked about an illegal occupation.


QUESTION: So in other words, you have clarified that he did indeed say this and you've checked all the translations and you're satisfied that that's what he did say?

MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, I -- you know, I can't vouch for that. I -- you know, we have obviously read the -- read a variety of different translations, but I -- you know, I can't vouch for the precise translation in those.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary picked up the phone to speak to her counterpart in Saudi Arabia to find out whether he can explain where they're going with this?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. She has not.

Yeah, Nina.

QUESTION: Does she plan to?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't anticipate that she is. Anything else on Saudi Arabia?

QUESTION: (Inaudible).

MR. MCCORMACK: We'll get to you, Lambros, okay?

QUESTION: Can we move on to Iran, please? Specifically the video and the letters released yesterday, do you have any assessment of the video of the hostages in Iran yesterday?


QUESTION: Do you have any assessment of, you know, how the video appears? To you, does it look like they're being coerced? Does it look like they're in good condition?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not going to try to insert myself in doing that kind of analysis. I know that Foreign Secretary Beckett as well as Prime Minister Blair have spoken to this issue. Let's be clear, we fully support the UK in demanding the release and return safely and immediately of their personnel as well as their equipment. The UK has stated clearly that their personnel were operating in Iraqi waters and we support them in that claim. They have provided detailed information in public in that regard. And we also support the UK in their efforts in the Security Council to raise this up with the full Council. I believe there's a discussion ongoing now as to exactly what form a statement might take, whether it will be a presidential statement or a press statement from the council, but we support them in those efforts.


QUESTION: Do you support them in the policy to stop contacts with the Iranians? So you will postpone the conference about --

MR. MCCORMACK: Those are two separate issues. First of all, on whether or not and what the nature of the relationship is between the UK and Iran, that's for the UK to make. That's not a decision that we would provide any input to. As for the conference, a location and a date has not yet been set, so we will take these issues as they come up. But at the moment we see them as separate issues.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: According to The Washington Post, an Iranian official threatened not to say that Iran would not participate to this ministerial meeting on Iraq that is still scheduled. If five or several Iranian arrested in Iraq are not released, can you confirm that? Do you have any information --

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't have any information in that regard. We consider these to be separate issues. And I would just note that they participated in a neighbors meeting at the envoy level. These individuals are still being held by the multinational forces in Iraq.


QUESTION: I know you addressed this to some degree in the gaggle this morning, but can you comment on the Arab League summit, its communiqué, and whether or not you are disappointed that at least in the first instance it does not appear to have generated the kind of active diplomacy to follow up on the initiative that Secretary Rice said she was hoping for.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it is a positive development. The Arab League has re-launched its Arab initiative. As we have said previously, it is not for us to tell the Arab League what should be in its initiative. It is for them to determine.
They also talked about forming a number of different committees that would be available to explain the Arab initiative to interested parties, including the Quartet, the G-8 and other interested parties in the region.

What we have encouraged the Arab League to do is to use this initiative and the re-launch of this initiative as a basis for active diplomacy. Now, what exact form that active diplomacy might take is something that needs to be determined and ultimately it is going to be up to them to determine what that looks like.

But certainly this is an effort to reach out to be constructive on an issue of interest to all the countries of the region, and we are encouraged by this development and we certainly welcome it.

QUESTION: Do you get any -- I mean, when you say all the countries of the region, you're obviously including Israel since it's one of the countries in the region. Do you get any sense from this or from your tracking of the conference that there is any more of a disposition for countries that don't have relations with Israel to deal with them in any kind of forum?

MR. MCCORMACK: We'll see, Arshad. There are a variety of different levels of contact or non-contact among Arab states in the region with Israel, going all the way from Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace treaties with Israel, to other states who have absolutely no contact, formal or informal, with Israel. So ultimately it is going to be up to each individual state to determine what their level of contact will be, and also on the larger question of whether or not there's any form of diplomatic relations with Israel.

But what we would encourage is that member-states of the Arab League use this as a moment to reach out and try to explain to all interested parties the nature of their initiative and the thinking behind their deciding to re-launch this initiative.


QUESTION: Yeah, just back quickly to Saudi Arabia. It seemed that the King's larger point was that the situation in Iraq -- no matter how he defined it -- was a result of failures in the region, failures of countries in the region. I was wondering what the view would be here of that part of what he said.

MR. MCCORMACK: Certainly there's been an interpretation of the King's speech that it was a rallying call to other states in the region to play a positive role in solving the -- bringing about solutions to the ills of the region. And certainly that's something that in the abstract that we can support: states in the region playing a positive role in trying to solve the problems that exist there. But beyond that I'm not going to try to do an analysis of the entire speech.

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