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Interview on Al-Arabiyya with Hisham Melhem

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
April 24, 2003

MR. MELHEM: Sir, many developments occurred on the ground in Iraq that were surprising. We've seen shocking incidents -- looting, ransacking -- and then we've seen the demonstrations, people asserting their authority in Baghdad, in Kut and other places. What went wrong? I mean, obviously, the United States was surprised and maybe shocked because of these developments.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, we were not surprised or shocked. We always knew that once you took this regime down and you broke the authority of the regime, there would be a period of chaos and instability. That's what one should expect, and we did expect it. But slowly but surely, we are reasserting authority throughout the country, not only with coalition troops but with Iraqi policemen, with Iraqi institutions.

And now General Garner is in the country, and his work for the next several weeks will be to start putting back together the Iraqi institutions of government -- the Agriculture Ministry, the Trade Ministry, make sure the oil fields are secure. They're already starting to produce. The railroad is starting to run again out of Um Qasr. Slowly, power is being restored to Baghdad and to the other cities. The water system is being repaired. The hospitals have equipment and supplies.

So stability is being brought to the country, and what we are trying to do now is, as quickly as we can, give the country to the Iraqi people. That has always been our goal. We don't want to stay there any longer than we have to.

And so I hope people will understand this period of slight disturbance. It will all settle down. But look what happened just over the last couple of days. The pilgrimages took place and it was remarkable to see 2 million people. So I hope the people who --

MR. MELHEM: And no violence. No violence.

SECRETARY POWELL: No violence. That's what's amazing. No violence. And so I hope people will look at that and say, "Look at this. For the first time in almost 25 years, the Shi'as of Iraq were able to practice their ritual, this faithful -- act of faithfulness, and it was the coalition that made it happen, after 25 years of a horrible dictator who pretended to be a good Muslim but who kept Muslims from practicing their faith." I hope this is reassuring to the Arab world, the Muslim world.

MR. MELHEM: Sir, you spoke about the pilgrimage to Karbala. Many people there were raising signs, asking for the Americans to withdraw quickly. In fact, the leader of one of the groups there, Abdul Aziz al Akim, who was here in August, if you remember, when he met with your Under Secretary Marc Grossman and other American officials, he's calling for a quick American withdrawal.

How are you going to reconcile the demands of putting together an interim Iraqi government with these increasing calls for American -- a quick withdrawal? Because if you stay too long, you run the risk of attacks. If you quit -- if you leave quickly, you run the risk of chaos behind you, and that's the last thing you want.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, the good news is people feel free to demonstrate and put up signs saying, "Americans, go home." They do it to me out here in front of the State Department all the time. So why should not the Iraqi people, who are free, also demonstrate and protest?

We don't want to stay one day longer than we have to. But the same people who say please finish your work and go home want the work to be finished. They want the electricity on. They want clean water. They want to make sure they have food for their children. They want to make sure that what we are leaving behind is a stable country that will be a country where people can continue to demonstrate for their lawful rights.

So there is no conflict between these two, and I think even those people who are demonstrating, and all Iraqis understand that a period of time will be required for them to create their own government, for us to stabilize the country, to provide humanitarian support to people, and then we will leave.

America does not go around the world to create colonies or new 51st states of the United States. We go to help, to bring peace, to bring order, and then we will go home.

MR. MELHEM: If the Iraqis decide on a free election, let's say six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, that they want an Islamic form of government, would you, as a democrat, small "d", live with it?

SECRETARY POWELL: Why cannot an Islamic form of government that has as its basis the faith of Islam not also be democratic? Turkey --

MR. MELHEM: Well, you can -- you're talking about Christian Democrats --

SECRETARY POWELL: No, no, I'm talking about democratic.

MR. MELHEM: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: There are some people who say, well, because you're practicing Islam you can't allow people to choose how they will be governed politically. I don't think Islam presents that. There are Islamic countries that are having elections. Pakistan, Turkey. It's happening. Why can't it happen in Iraq, as well? It can happen. And I hope it will be an example to the region of how people can have a voice in their own political governance at the same time they are faithful practicers of the faith of Islam, a great faith.

MR. MELHEM: Sir, I'm being given warning, two-minute warning, as you well know. Let me move you to the Arab-Israeli arena. The roadmap, you're going to present it soon. You have a Prime Minister, a Palestinian Prime Minister. After you receive the initial response from the Israelis and Palestinians, what comes next procedurally and politically? A Madrid conference? A timetable that you would set for Israeli withdrawal? Palestinian security measures? What comes next?

SECRETARY POWELL: All of those things are contained within the roadmap. What we really need at the beginning of this process is performance. I am very pleased that an arrangement was arrived at yesterday so that Abu Mazen can become the Prime Minister, and I hope the PLC will act quickly on his vote of confidence so we can get going.

As soon as he is confirmed and is in office, the roadmap will go down. I don't want to spend a great deal of time arguing about the details of the roadmap. I want to see both sides, in a spirit of cooperation, in a spirit of peace, with the earnest desire to move forward, to start performing. And that means that we must end the violence, once and for all, although today we had another act of violence in Israel, and I regret that. But we must end the violence. And I have been in contact with Israeli authorities and I know that they are ready and anxious to participate in moving forward with Mr. Abu Mazen.

MR. MELHEM: One last question. I have one minute. On Syria, you said recently that the Syrian response to your warnings, or demarches, was not enough, or not complete. What do you expect by way of concrete measures from Syrians? And you're going to see President Assad, I hear, early May?

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, we are working on the schedule now. I have heard from my colleague, the Foreign Minister of Syria, that is he anxious for me to come, and I am looking forward to my third visit to Syria.

There is no secret about what we're asking for. We have always said to Syria that they should stop supporting any groups that are housed or hosted in Syria that support terrorism, that doesn't contribute to a peaceful solution to the conflicts in the region.

We also believe that introduction of additional weapons of mass destruction in the region are not good, and we are especially concerned that during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the liberation of Iraq, there was too much movement across the border with respect to Fedayeen going south and perhaps Iraqi officials, who should be detained for justice administered by the Iraqi people, trying to get into Iraq.

We have seen some progress. The President has noted that the Syrians have been taking some action that we are pleased about, but there are still these fundamental issues of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, that I need to discuss with the Syrian President.

MR. MELHEM: Secretary Powell, thanks a lot. Really appreciate it.

SECRETARY POWELL: Always a pleasure.

MR. MELHEM: Thank you.

Released on April 24, 2003

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