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Middle East Digest: April 19, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
April 19, 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 April 19, 2007:

QUESTION: Were you able to find out what exactly the Iranian response was? Were you able to get a look at it or --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I took a look at it. It's brief. It's very matter of fact, straightforward, and they said that they didn't have any information regarding the individual that we described. And our thoughts on that are we're going to continue to pursue it with the Iranian Government. We have assured ourselves to a reasonable degree that he is actually in Iran. We know that he went there. We're pretty sure that he didn't leave.

We're also going to take some other steps. We're going to reach out to some European states that have diplomatic relations with Iran, see if they can knock on a few doors with their government contacts in getting more information about Mr. Levinson's whereabouts. So that's really where we stand right now.

QUESTION: Okay. And when you say -- and I realize you're going to -- you're probably going to dismiss my question, but I would like to ask you --

MR. MCCORMACK: Never in any way.

QUESTION: When you say that the response was brief, literally like, one paragraph saying "Sorry, we don't have any?"

MR. MCCORMACK: Which paragraph do you see -- I can't remember --

QUESTION: Does it say, "Sorry, we don't have any?"

MR. MCCORMACK: It's not the way these things go. You know, five or six sentences, pretty short with all the accompanying diplomatic language.

QUESTION: Language --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, it's actually --

QUESTION: So we have the offer of accepting ourselves to --

MR. MCCORMACK: It takes the -- exactly, it takes a while to clear the throat when you look in the diplomatic language-speak mode.

QUESTION: I will drop it, then.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes.

QUESTION: Do you find it plausible that the Iranian Government should have no information whatsoever about this man?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, that's what they said thus far. We're -- let me just put it this way. We're going to continue to pursue it with them and, as I pointed out, with others who might have some entrée into -- with their own sources in Iran to maybe discern where Mr. Levinson is.

You guys asked me earlier about the question of, well, have there ever been any American citizens in recent memory who have gone missing in Iran that we have made inquiries about that are still missing, but we don't know of their whereabouts. And I checked with our Consular Affairs Bureau and in -- to their memory, there aren't any other cases. On average, it's about two to three a year where we have these kind of inquiries where family members or friends might make an inquiry about somebody who's traveling in Iran or who has gone to Iran for business or other purposes and they haven't heard from them in a given period of time, so we've made inquiries to the Iranian Government, "Do you know where this person is?"

And in every -- any -- every case in recent memory, we've been able to find them, either gotten the information or the person has called their friends and family, so the question's been cleared up.

QUESTION: So this is an unprecedented situation here?

MR. MCCORMACK: It's unique in recent memory, in that thus far, we have not been able to locate Mr. Levinson.

QUESTION: When the Iranians said -- just taking a look at it, when they said, "We have no information about him," did they not even have information about his arrival in Iran? Are they questioning the -- you know --

MR. MCCORMACK: They said -- you know, I'm not quoting exact words here, but essentially, "We don't have any information regarding the person that you've described."

QUESTION: And what other European countries that you are reaching out to?

MR. MCCORMACK: We're not going to get into who might be assisting us, but we're going to talk to a couple of them now. We may, depending on what sort of information they're able to turn up, we may expand that out. But we're going to start with a couple right now.

QUESTION: Sean, is it your information that when Mr. Levinson checked into his hotel he checked in under his own name?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not sure that we -- I don't know, Charlie. I can't tell you. I believe that's true but let me check -- see if we know that bit of information.

QUESTION: Sean, I know it's a delicate situation. I know your hands are tied. But there's a lot of speculation out there that he's been picked up, he's being held in Tehran as some kind of potential prisoner exchange.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: For either, you know, the Iranians in Iran -- or in Iraq -- or possibly this guy that was picked up in Turkey a few months ago by the CIA. Have you any reaction to that, those kinds of --

MR. MCCORMACK: I've seen a lot of that speculation in the press reported in various places. I can't say anything other than it's speculation. We don't know where he is. We don't know his whereabouts and that's the reason why we're asking all these questions. And we are going to do absolutely everything we can as a government to work on behalf of an American citizen and his family, make sure he gets back safely and sees his family and friends.

QUESTION: Sean, you talked briefly yesterday about the Deputy Secretary's meetings in Libya.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: You did say he brought up the Bulgarian nurses --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: -- in his meeting with the Foreign Minister. Do you know today more about sort of what exactly he asked or -- and he brought it up?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I don't have anything

QUESTION: You don't have any more than you did yesterday?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. He'll be back -- he's going to be on his way back from Mauritania soon, leaving today. He'll be back here in the office I think late tomorrow afternoon. I think we'll have an opportunity to get a full debrief on his trip. He's going to sit down and talk to the Secretary.

QUESTION: A full brief?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, he's not going to give you a full briefing personally, Lambros. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) humanitarian mission (inaudible) for 126 children with HIV virus. It's a very important issue -- to discuss this issue.

MR. MCCORMACK: It is a very important issue, which is the reason why he brought it up and it's the reason why the Secretary brings it up whenever she has a meeting with a Libyan official.

QUESTION: Since there is another trial or part of it scheduled for next month, are you aware of any new or recent efforts by the State Department to bilaterally, since you have now an office or some sort of a mission in Tripoli, to work with the Libyans to try to get a resolution soon?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can't tell you what the most recent contacts have been, but it's something that we consistently bring up. The consistent message is that these individuals need to be returned back to their home countries as soon as possible.


QUESTION: Can I switch to Iraq, these attacks?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: You said this morning that bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaida. Would you say now in your assessment that, you know, al-Qaida in Iraq is a bigger threat now to security than, say, the Mahdi army?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I'm going to leave that to the commanders out there. They're the ones qualified to make those kind of military judgments. Clearly, they pose different kinds of threats. The Mahdi army obviously is a sect-based organization that's designed to try to protect certain Shia populations from outside threats and there have been allegations that they have been engaged in sectarian-based violence *and sort of giving cause* to the rise in sectarian tensions in Iraq. Al-Qaida is a different kind of -- it's a different kind of threat. In some cases no less deadly, but they have different modus operandi, different bases of support.

It's our view -- it's the view of the military professionals that many of these spectacular vehicle-borne attacks that you see, for example yesterday the series of bombs that went off that resulted in just horrific casualties there, are the work of al-Qaida. And they, too, are designed to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq. We've seen a consistent strategy that Zarqawi articulated several years ago and that really came into high relief with the Samarra bosque* -- mosque bombing back in 2006.

QUESTION: Do you have the sense some of these are homegrown fighters or whether they're coming from different countries?

MR. MCCORMACK: You can check with MNFI for their most recent assessment, but I think that there is a -- it's hard to draw some of the lines. There's a corps of fighters that are coming in from overseas from outside Iraq's borders. It seems as though there are also Iraqis who have joined in. I can't from here paint the picture for you of exactly all the relationships between al-Qaida and Iraq and then other perhaps independent yet associated groups. But they do -- as a whole, they pose a serious threat to not only Iraq but to our forces as well as potentially to Iraq's neighbors.

QUESTION: And there have been reports that Maliki has ordered the arrest of the colonel that was in charge of security of that area, the market area. Can you confirm that and --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I heard -- I've heard that as well. I'm not in a position to confirm it for you.



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