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Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
March 13, 2008



Israeli Security Operations
Reported Comments by President Abbas Regarding Construction Ban in East Jerusalem
Rocket Attacks into Israel from Gaza / Humanitarian Situation in Gaza
General Fraser Attending Trilateral Meeting on Security Issues


Status of Investigation into Kidnapping of Contractors in Iraq
Reports Chaldean Christian Archbishop Found Dead


Congressional Concern Regarding Agreement on Amount of Russian Nuclear Fuel Imported and Sold on Open Market


Iran’s Nuclear Program / Failure to Engage with International Community


Assistant Secretary Hill’s Meeting with North Korean Counterpart in Geneva


Political Situation in Macedonia


Syria’s Invitation to Lebanese Government to Attend Arab League Summit


Indonesian Supreme Court Verdict Against Time Magazine


Reported Pakistani Protest Regarding Bombing in Tribal Area


View Video

12:48 p.m. EDT

MR. MCCORMACK:Good afternoon, everybody. I don’t have anything to start off with. We can get right into your questions.

Who wants – Sylvie.

QUESTION: Did you get any details on the security in the Middle East, because Ban Ki-moon said that the Israelis used excessive force against –

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. I don’t have any details, Sylvie. You’d have to talk to the Israelis about the details of this operation. I would only offer a general comment and that is that we have repeated that Israel does have a right to defend itself. We would ask Israel in doing so and taking actions to defend itself to keep in mind the effects of its actions on the ability to move forward the political process. But any details of this you can talk to the Israeli Government. I don’t have any at this point.

QUESTION: So the U.S. has no comment on this?

MR. MCCORMACK:I – you know, I can’t offer any further comment without any other details. I don’t have those at this point.



QUESTION: What about Abbas’ comment about accusing the Israelis of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem?

MR. MCCORMACK:Yeah. I’ve looked into this and I don’t think at this point we have a definitive translation of what he said. I think the Palestinian officials can probably talk to you a little bit more about that. But going with the idea that news reports have an accurate translation of what he said, certainly we would not use that term to describe the situation. I think it is probably an example of some overheated political rhetoric. What it is and what we have is a political dispute. And we understand very clearly that there are two sides to this. And the way to resolve this dispute is through the political process, which is now underway. This cuts to a lot of different issues with respect to borders and a lot of fundamental issues that exist between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So there are processes to deal with this. We would urge both sides, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, to keep their focus on the political process and also to adhere to their roadmap obligations. That’s where the focus is -- should be.

QUESTION: Well, can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: You said that this is a political dispute, but that’s – you say that about comments that the Palestinians have made. When – I mean – and I’m not disputing that what’s going on in Israel against Israeli attacks is not terrorism, but I don’t think the Israelis would consider – I mean, it’s not a political dispute on one hand, but terrorism on the other hand, wouldn’t you say?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not – I don’t get what you’re saying.

QUESTION: Well – but you’re calling it a political dispute between two parties, but I mean, it isn’t necessarily a political dispute if there’s terrorism involved. I mean, you wouldn’t consider the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians just political, would you?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. Look, the comments that she’s citing specifically you refer to --

QUESTION: Oh, okay. You just think –

MR. MCCORMACK: -- are buildings in areas that the Palestinians consider disputed in --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- and their refusal of building permits. That’s what I was referring to in terms of a political dispute. Political dispute has to do with borders and the whole collection of fundamental core issues that we’re all familiar with. That’s what I was referring to.

QUESTION: Can I ask another one?


QUESTION: There’s a story in The Washington Post today -- it’s kind of gruesome, about these fingers that supposedly belong to U.S. contractors.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Right.

QUESTION: Is there anything you can say? I mean, they were delivered to U.S. officials in Baghdad. Is there anything you could say about that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not really anything I can say about the story. The story, just for everybody’s background information, concerns some individuals – four American citizens and one foreign national – that were kidnapped in Iraq. They were part of a security services contracting firm working in Iraq. I can’t offer any particular comment on this story, Elise, other than to say that the FBI has the lead in this investigation and that we continue to demand these hostages’ immediate release so they can be returned safely to their families.

QUESTION: So you do believe that these are – this is involving – can you confirm that this is involving these particular U.S. contractors?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not going to have any comment on any of the facts of the story. The story refers to these contractors. And inasmuch as we’re talking about these kidnapped contractors, I would offer that general comment. But I’m not going to have any, you know, specific comment about the particulars of this story beyond what I’ve said.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on this. Are you actually in contact with these hostage takers? And also – I mean, you don’t disclose a lot of information. Is that because you don’t have a lot of information or are there other reasons?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think you will find anytime we are talking about hostage situations, we typically don’t say much at all, if anything, because you never want any comment made in public to in any way negatively affect a hostage situation. So these are things that are best dealt with behind the scenes and I’m going to abide by that policy in this particular case.

QUESTION: Are you in contact with the hostage takers at all?

MR. MCCORMACK: Excuse me. I don’t -- I’m not going to have any comment on the case in particular.

Yes. Samir.

QUESTION: There are reports that the terrorists killed in Iraq the Chaldean bishop, do you have any --

MR. MCCORMACK: We have seen those reports and we are deeply saddened to hear those reports. This is a terrible and tragic act of terrorism, in particular, for the Chaldean community, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the Archbishop’s family as well as the entire Chaldean community.

Yeah, Elise.

QUESTION: I have another one on a different subject. There’s a lot of – been a lot of concern on the Hill. There was a hearing last week about this legislation that, if a loophole isn’t closed, would allow Russia to flood the market with enriched uranium. And I was wondering if you have an opinion on whether this loophole should be closed.


QUESTION: Because if it isn’t, apparently, this would pave the way for Russia to be able to flood the market with enriched uranium.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Let me look into it. I’m not familiar with the issue, so let me look into it and we’ll try to provide you an answer.

QUESTION: In general, is there a concern about a kind of monopoly or the U.S. becoming dependent on another foreign country for things like that, like enriched uranium?

MR. MCCORMACK: Before I venture to issues related to the market for uranium, let me – and I know that there is one -- uranium for peaceful nuclear energy power plants -- let me get some background so we can provide you an informed answer.


QUESTION: Okay. Jihan Hafiz with ATN. With Israel building new settlements in the occupied territories despite the Annapolis peace conference, has the Administration pressured the Israeli Government as well as Hamas – as they have been -- Hamas -- to end the daily airstrikes, the raids and the sanctions against the Gaza Strip which has produced a heavier death toll on the Palestinian side as opposed to – not trying to, you know, go to one side or the other, but the Palestinian death toll is much, much higher with 47 – with, I think, 20 percent of that being kids under the age of 15.

So is the U.S. Government pressuring Israel to stop building settlements, to stop the airstrikes and the sanctions which has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in their region in the past 40 years?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there’s a lot in that question and you make a lot of different connections among a number of different individual issues. With respect to some airstrikes that occurred, I believe, in the past weeks, I think you were talking about that in which there was loss of innocent life. We’ve talked about that. Secretary Rice has spoken on the record about it and you can go back and take a look at what she says. I wouldn’t say anything differently than she has said about it. In terms of the violence emanating from the Gaza, we have called upon Hamas and other terrorist organizations to cease these rocket attacks into Israel. Israel says it was acting in its own self-defense in response to the rocket attacks. We have, as a general matter, counseled Israel that if -- when it is acting in its own self-defense (a) to consider the effect of its actions on the overall political process and also to take the utmost care to avoid any loss of innocent life.

Now, as for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, that is something about which we are quite concerned and we have acted in this area. When -- last week, Secretary Rice was traveling in the region, she received word that there were some delays in a humanitarian convoy entering the Gaza Strip, she acted, she intervened with the Palestinian Authority as well as with the Israelis to get those -- get that aid convoy in. And we, of course, have a substantial humanitarian assistance program that is focused on the West Bank, but in particular on the Gaza. We have a great deal of concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It is worth bearing in mind, however, the reason why you have that humanitarian situation right now in the Gaza Strip is because of Hamas and the actions that it has taken over the period of several years.

I think that was -- in terms of settlements and roadmap obligations, you heard last week from the Secretary that she expects both sides to abide by their commitments. It's something that we talk pretty directly to both sides about, both the Israelis and the Palestinians. And as part of that process, just this week, we have Will Fraser -- Lieutenant General Will Fraser, who is acting on behalf of the Secretary to meet with both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, about their compliance with roadmap obligations. And actually today meet in a -- or at least it was scheduled to meet -- he was scheduled to meet in a trilateral meeting with both sides to talk about what each side is doing to meet its roadmap obligations.

I don't yet have any readout from Will in terms of his mission, but as a general principle, we have encouraged both sides to focus on what they need to do, don't engage in finger pointing, don't start talking about what the other guy needs to do and what the other guy hasn't done. Focus on what you need to do. And we're going to continue pressing that. We're going to continue pressing both sides as we continue pressing forward on the political process.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up with that really fast.


QUESTION: So the Administration is pressuring the Israeli Government to stop building more settlements in the occupied territories. And legislation passed two years ago about -- blocks the U.S. from sending aid to the area. Have they lifted that so that aid can come in?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not intimately familiar with the piece of legislation that you're referring to.

QUESTION: It was 46 --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right. I'm happy to look into it after. I'm not going to try to do this from the podium, winging it. In terms of settlements, again, I would repeat what I said about roadmap obligations.

QUESTION: Okay. And I have a quick question. I'm sorry. (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure, plenty of time.

QUESTION: We have seen objection to the Administration's policy to Iran, not only in Admiral Fallon's recent remarks to reporters and also his resignation, but also in legislation like HR 5056, which urges the President to engage in direct comprehensive and unconditional negotiations with Iran. Has there been any change in the Administration's policy toward the Iranian Government and their nuclear program?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. And actually the big question is not why we -- and you've heard this from Secretary Rice -- excuse all of you who’ve traveled with her and heard this many times -- but the question isn't why won't we engage with Iran; it's why Iran won't engage with the United States and its partners. There's a very clear offer out there: If they suspend their enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, they can sit down at the table with us as well as our partners in the P-5+1 process. We can talk about nuclear issues, talk about any issue that the Iranian regime would like to bring up, and I'm sure that we would bring up a few of our own.

So the question isn't why won't the United States speak with Iran; it's why Iran won't take the opportunity to speak with the United States and its allies.

Yeah, Nina.

QUESTION: Any readout from the Geneva talks -- North Korea?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t. I don’t have any. I know that Chris had some meetings with Kim Kye-Gwan that were underway in Geneva. I don’t have any readout. If we get something we can share with you, I’m happy to do it.

QUESTION: Will the talks continue into tomorrow morning at all? I know he’s going --

MR. MCCORMACK: Don’t have a sense for that yet.


MR. MCCORMACK: If Chris and his counterpart both think that it’s useful and productive to do so, they will. I know that Chris at least has a scheduled departure from Geneva tomorrow morning, kind of mid-morning to travel on to Warsaw. It will be up to him whether or not (a) to continue any discussions and (b) whether or not to miss his flight headed to Warsaw.

Lambros, if you reach any higher, the hand is going to go right through the ceiling.

QUESTION: We have big crisis in the Balkans and I need your wisdom. (Inaudible) plenty of time to --

MR. MCCORMACK: I hear – you know, I hear that a lot. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I know. I know. Mr. McCormack --

MR. MCCORMACK: I get that a lot, Lambros, yeah.

QUESTION: Mr. McCormack, do you have anything to say about the political crisis in FYROM?

MR. MCCORMACK: The political crisis in Macedonia?

QUESTION: You say Macedonia. I’m saying FYROM.

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not sure to what you are referring.

QUESTION: I’m referring to the national coalition government in Skopje is collapsing due to the withdrawal of the ethnic Albanians’ party after the rejection of its demands for amnesty for former Albanian guerillas who formed the government in 2001 and 2000 – 2000 – and 2001 and it is the (inaudible), as well demands – the Albanians become a national language in FYROM and the Albanians (inaudible) --

MR. MCCORMACK: Sorry -- I’m sorry I asked.

QUESTION: Whether ethnic Albanians are majority.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, okay, all right.

QUESTION: So that’s – that’s exactly the (inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay. First of all, I don’t have the most recent reports from Skopje from our embassy. We’ve worked very closely with the current government on a number of different issues. As for matters of domestic politics, I’m going to leave that to others to comment on.

QUESTION: What’s the -- Mr. – but I have questions.

MR. MCCORMACK: You’ve had your question.


QUESTION: Sean, do you have anything to add from the gaggle about Syria’s invitation to the Lebanese Government to attend the summit in Syria?

MR. MCCORMACK: Nothing new. I mean, you can speak to the Syrian Government about their particular motivations for inviting a representative of the Lebanese Government to the upcoming Arab League summit. As to whether they accept the invitation, that should be completely up to the Lebanese Government. I would note that the invitation is addressed to Prime Minister Siniora, who is, in fact, acting president. Why, you might ask, is he acting president? That is because there has not been a presidential election in Lebanon. And there are many in Lebanon who would like to see that democratic process move forward. It hasn't. And there are -- there's a lot of talk about forces on the outside that are in some way impeding that election from going forward. Many have referred to Syria as one of the culprits for that election not moving forward. So it certainly is an interesting turn of events in terms of the invitation of the -- to the Lebanese Prime Minister, acting president. The real issue, however, is ensuring that the Lebanese people are able to have their democratic process move forward, which it isn't at the moment.

QUESTION: Do you think that members of the Arab League should be getting tougher with Syria? Should leaders be supporting Syria hosting this Arab League summit? I mean, considering that Lebanon is one of the big issues in the region, do you think that the summit can go forward in a fair way that treats the issue with Syria hosting it?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Well, that's certainly an open question and it's not one that we can answer for Arab League member-states. It's certainly -- in contemplating whether or not they attend a meeting in Syria, it certainly bears keeping in mind what Syria's role to this point in not allowing a Lebanese electoral process to move forward. That said, we can't -- we're certainly never going to try to dictate who should attend one of these meetings. That's for the membership to decide, and it's up to the membership to decide where it's held. But certainly the plight of the Lebanese people is one that might be foremost in the minds of those Arab leaders as they consider whether or not to attend the summit.

QUESTION: But as a general issue, do you think that the Arab states have done enough to support Lebanon, the democratic process there?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think there's been -- certainly among the states that we have -- we consider our friends -- friends and allies, close friends and allies in the region with an interest in Lebanon, they've done quite a bit on behalf of the Lebanese people and on behalf of Lebanon.


QUESTION: In another area, and I don't know if you'll be prepared to answer this. In Indonesia, are you familiar at all with the case of Suharto and Time magazine, where the Supreme Court has recently overturned lower -- several lower court decisions? And if so, do you have a comment on it, with corruption in mind?

MR. MCCORMACK: It's a very relevant issue. Let me, Charlie, get you a comment for the record. We'll post something for you guys.

Yes, sir, in the back.

QUESTION: There was an incident of bombing in the tribal area of Pakistan and Pakistan has also lodged a protest with allied commanders over there. Do you have any comment on that and was there any contact between Washington and Islamabad after that bombing to discuss that issue?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not familiar with the particulars of the incident. But, let my folks know after the briefing some of the details, and we'll try and find an answer for you.

Okay, thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:08 p.m.)

DPB # 46

Released on March 13, 2008

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