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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired April 4, 2003 - 12:29   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the president's day and then I have a couple announcements to make.
The president spoke to South Korean President Roh early this morning. He called President Roh to thank him for the support from South Korea on Iraq and their decision to dispatch medical engineering units for humanitarian operations in Iraq. The two leaders reiterated their intention to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue peacefully and pledged to continue their close consultation.

After the phone call, the president had an intelligence briefing, FBI briefing. He convened a meeting of the National Security Council. He met with the secretary of defense. He also met with the secretary of state. He's having lunch with the vice president.

And the president laster today will meet with a group of Iraqi- Americans and free Iraqis who live in this country. The president will welcome to the White House people who have stories to tell from their own personal experience, having lived in Iraq as recently as just several years ago in some instances.

These Iraqi-Americans will talk to the president about the torture and the brutality they saw while they lived there, and it's a telling reminder of what we are starting to hear from Iraqis on the ground today in Iraq as the yoke of repression is lifted from them.

The president will depart for Camp David this afternoon, where he will remain for the weekend.

A couple other announcements for you.

President Bush will welcome President Rudolf Schuster of the Slovak Republic to the White House on April 9. Slovakia has been a close and supportive friend of the United States, as well as a staunch member of the coalition to bring freedom to Iraq.

The president will also welcome to the White House a group of Central American leaders.

FLEISCHER: The president will welcome President Abel Pachero of Costa Rica, President Francisco Flores of El Salvador, President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala, President Ricardo Maduro of Honduras, and President Enrique Bolanos of Nicaragua to the White House for a meeting on April the 10th. The president considers Central America to be a region of peace and democracy where regional integration offers the promise of growing prosperity. He looks forward to that.

And finally, the president, after Camp David this weekend, will depart for Northern Ireland where he will consult with Prime Minister Blair. The president will depart on Monday April 7 and return to the United States on Tuesday April 8.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what are they going to discuss? I understand it's also the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

On the Middle East, is it possible that this could be the trip in which the road map is released or because of the complications with the confirmation of a Palestinian (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: The trip will focus on the operations in Iraq. They will talk about the status of the ongoing military operation. They will talk about the humanitarian relief efforts. They'll talk about reconstruction. They'll talk about the role of the United Nations.

They will also talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland, and I think the subject of the Middle East could come up as well.

I would not -- I don't have anything further for you about any specifics on the Middle East about the road map. I don't know if that's the case.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Oh, yes, I don't like to predict every outcome of every meeting, but there's nothing that I've heard or seen that would lead me to believe that would be the case.

QUESTION: This morning, you said that the president believes the U.N. will have a role.

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: Can you spell it out a little more?

FLEISCHER; Well, the focus of the future in Iraq -- which I want to caution everybody is not yet here; we still are in the middle of a battle, we still are at war, there are many dangers that can still lie ahead.

FLEISCHER: And so, while, yes, there is a look ahead, I want to make certain that everybody has this in the proper perspective as America's military is still in the middle of armed conflict.

But as people look ahead and they focus on the future of Iraq, what the president sees is an Iraq that is free, that is democratic, where the people govern themselves. The people of Iraq are well educated, the infrastructure of Iraq is actually spread throughout the entire country of Iraq, and the Iraqi people are very capable people.

Through the military operation, as you can tell by the precise nature of the military campaign, much of the infrastructure of Iraq is being maintained, so the Iraqi people will be able to quickly govern themselves.

The United Nations, in the president's judgment, should and will have a role. The role will be involved in humanitarian efforts, the role will be involved in help on the reconstruction efforts.

But principally the future of Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide. The United States, of course, is on the ground providing security, and that's an important part of this. But there will be a role for the U.N. The exact nature of it I think is still a little early to talk about or to know about. I think there'll be some conversations about it. But that's where it lies.

QUESTION: While I have you, could I just ask one non-related question? Is there any possibility that the president and Blair will discuss any kind of peace proposal? Is there anything coming through the cracks?

FLEISCHER: Vis-a-vis Iraq?

QUESTION: Yes.

FLEISCHER: No. The mission is the mission. The mission will be completed with the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime and with the regime being changed.

QUESTION: So there's no peace proposal that's in the works or anything?

FLEISCHER: No. You should not look for that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? What you're talking about in terms of the Iraqis taking over their government is more long-term. FLEISCHER: Not necessarily.

QUESTION: Who would you identify there who is in a position to move in and...

FLEISCHER: Well, when it comes to the infrastructure and, of course, the vital services, the municipal services, the running of the food programs, water delivery, things of that nature, of course the civilian infrastructure can take over, we hope, as quickly as possible as events on the ground dictate.

FLEISCHER: Now when it comes to the overarching larger political questions of who will run Iraq, in terms of the broader political sense, it's impossible at this date to give the names, but the president has said it is that should be a matter for Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq to govern their country, and the territorial integrity of Iraq must be maintained. That's our approach.

QUESTION: Well, back to the U.N. role, I mean, you said the U.N. will help in the reconstruction effort, but others in the administration are on the record -- Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell have talked about having U.S. officials moving in and taking over various administrations or departments that still exist...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... and not having the U.N. move in immediately for that versus what...

FLEISCHER: I don't think they said anything about not having the U.N. move in.

As you know, the president made a statement in the Azores which everybody -- that's the American position. And that is that there will be a role for the United Nations exactly as I've said, exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell have said in involving humanitarian aspects and reconstruction aspects. Don't think for a second that means the United States will not continue to have the role that we are playing, and the mission that we are moving forward on to help continue to provide for the Iraqi people as the security situation goes forward as well as some type of civilian administration that reports to General Franks.

QUESTION: Finally, representatives from France, Russia and Germany are meeting today to talk about this very issue. Have there been any discussions between our government and theirs about the U.N. role, or are you...

FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell met in Brussels with leaders of 23 nations -- I believe it was 23 -- from the European Union. And, of course, he met with his counterparts from several of those nations that you just mentioned, if not all. And the talks were described as very positive and productive, and it's just part of the international process.

But the central point remains that the future of Iraq, in the president's judgment, will be governed by the Iraqi people. Iraq can govern itself. The United States will have its presence there, because we will stay for as long as is necessary to provide the security and for the infrastructure to be protected and to be administered until the point where the Iraqis can take it over entirely.

QUESTION: But that will be the United States taking care, not the U.N.

FLEISCHER: Exactly as I said, the U.N. will have a role. Sometimes we'll do things side-by-side.

QUESTION: But at what point will the Iraqis take over their government, because there are some...

FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say.

QUESTION: Some of them seem to expect, in public statements that they've made, to do it right away. Isn't the U.S. military going to effectively govern for at least an interim period?

FLEISCHER: Well the U.S. military will effectively continue to fight a war that we're in the middle of. I still want to remind everybody as the status of events on the ground.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's why I say it's too soon to say. I think it all depends on how long hostilities last, and we don't know how long hostilities will last.

FLEISCHER: But the situation -- the design is set up so that once the security situation is taken care of, that Iraqis from both within and without Iraq will be working as part of the interim Iraqi authority to govern Iraq.

QUESTION: Yes, but you're not saying how long...

FLEISCHER: It's not knowable. How can anybody say how long it'll be with accuracy?

QUESTION: Ari, you and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) officials have emphasized that the president's not micromanaging this war, that he approved the overall war plan and has left the execution to the commanders.

Now we're approaching the battle of Baghdad, with the prospect of not only heavy casualties -- heavier casualties of coalition forces, of American troops, but also for Iraqi civilians. At this point, will the president get more closely involved with the day-to-day decisions?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is closely involved with the day- to-day, but to state the obvious, when the plan was written it was anticipated that the plan would involve fighting in Baghdad. It's part of the plan. It was anticipated. And the plan is being implemented.

And so General Franks will continue to make the tactical decisions and the timing decisions about the best way to conduct that plan, to implement that plan, which I assure you includes how to deal with Baghdad.

QUESTION: Basically nothing has changed in regards to the planning for the battle of Baghdad since before the war.

FLEISCHER: The structure remains exactly in place, where the president begins each day with the briefings from the field and through the National Security Council about the plan, how it is being implemented, and he ends his day with updates on the plan, and then continually in between as necessary.

So that's how the president approaches it. These decisions remain decisions made by the field commanders, because that's the most effective way to win a war.

QUESTION: Ari, there's a new Saddam tape out in which he mentions the downing of a U.S. helicopter on March 24. Does this prove that he's alive? Have you made any sort of determination?

FLEISCHER: The tape does not give us any firm conclusions one way or another. As has happened in the past, the tape will go through the typical analysis, the technical analysis to determine whether the voice is indeed Saddam Hussein's, et cetera. That will be done.

At this stage all I can tell you is we don't know. I can also tell you in the bigger scheme of things it really doesn't matter, because whether it is him or whether it isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end.

I do note that there was one reference in the tape to Saddam Hussein saying that coalition forces or United States forces went around the defenses of Baghdad, which, of course, is not the facts. The facts, if anybody was there to witness the facts are we attacked the forces defending Baghdad; we hardly went around them. So I'd note that.

QUESTION: Ari, what was the thinking behind choosing Northern Ireland for the meeting of Prime Minister Blair and the president?

FLEISCHER: Well, as was indicated in the question, it also is an opportunity to talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland. That's something the president has focused on previously and will talk about as well.

QUESTION: That's it? So how much will be Northern Ireland, how much will be Middle East?

FLEISCHER: Well, we'll give you a report after the meeting. I think most of the meeting is going to be about Iraq.

QUESTION: Just can I just ask you about the Iraqis the president is meeting with? What does he hope to gain from this meeting today with the Iraqis?

FLEISCHER: The meeting with the free Iraqis and the Iraqi- Americans today is a reminder to people about how much people care about freedom and liberty and how the voices of those who are fortunate enough to have left Iraq and who can speak freely, without being tortured or killed, that these voices here in America represent the voices of the people living inside Iraq today. And that's why the president wants to meet with them, to hear what they have to say, to gain their insights into what people inside Iraq are thinking today. Many of them have family. And he wants to hear from them.

QUESTION: Are they going to go back to Iraq? Do they have a role in...

FLEISCHER: I think that's a question -- many of them will be available to you afterwards. You can ask them that. I don't know in each instance what their individual plans are.

QUESTION: Was there any consideration given to holding this meeting in the Middle East?

FLEISCHER: No. QUESTION: Do you anticipate a trip by the president to the Middle East in the coming...

FLEISCHER: If there's anything to report, we'll report it, as always, with his travel.

QUESTION: To follow up on Elizabeth's (ph) question, what role do you anticipate for -- does the administration anticipate for exiles in the post-war government?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's already a role being played by exiles in the current mission in Iraq. As you know, the nation of Hungary, to whom we are most grateful, provided training for a group of exiles. They went to Hungary and then have gone into the theater with the military. And they serve very helpful roles there as translators and guides and performing other services for the military.

And one of the interesting things was that we saw as a sign of success in Afghanistan that I think we will see as a sign of success in Iraq is a willingness of people to return to their country.

FLEISCHER: These people in some instances are Americans, but they want to return to where they were from because they taste for the first time that Iraq may be free. And we anticipate that many people who fled tyranny and torture will want to return to Iraq from around the world, not just in the United States, as freedom grows on the ground in Iraq.

QUESTION: So, to be more specific, do you agree with a report in the Wall Street Journal today that the president rejected advice from aides to the vice president and the defense secretary to give elevated posts in the Iraqi post-war government to exiles?

FLEISCHER: Well, we don't know exactly who's going to have what role in a post government yet, so I think it's impossible to speculate about that. The exact makeup of the post government leadership is not yet defined.

QUESTION: So the president wouldn't be opposed then to roles for exiles as opposed to consensus from the Iraqi people?

FLEISCHER: Well, I've always said that the future government of Iraq will be comprised of people from both within and outside Iraq. Always it's been both.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, there are reports that say that some in the administration want to have a government led mostly by exiles in the short term, right now maybe in southern Iraq, maybe in around the airport, just, sort of, get things up and running. Is that something that the White House is rejecting at this point...

FLEISCHER: No, I just think for the structure of the government- to-be, it is too soon to say. And this is why I keep wanting to remind everybody -- just days ago people were saying we were bogged down and now they're saying, "Describe for us and give us the names of the government that's going to be running Iraq in the future."

We're still in the middle of a war. So these things still are early, they're still unknowable. We are thinking about them, but we don't have answers yet and we couldn't be expected to have precise answers at this stage. QUESTION: Just to clarify. The idea of the role for the exiles in any government as far as the White House is concerned -- you're saying that you don't want them to necessarily take the lead, you want the Iraqis who are on the ground? FLEISCHER: Let me say it again. The president has always said that the future of Iraq will be governed by Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq. If they are from outside Iraq, they are exiles.

QUESTION: Following up on that, are you referring to a permanent eventual Iraqi government or an interim authority? The question seems to be over the makeup of an interim authority. Previously, the administration has said that a group of Iraqis from inside and outside would meet to choose a composition of an interim authority which would lead the way to a permanent government.

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think even the membership on the interim authority is just not knowable with precision. But as I just reported, there already are people from outside Iraq who are now inside Iraq, who are trained to go there to be a helpful part of the mission. And we will continue to work with the Iraqi people from both inside and outside Iraq on the makeup of the interim authorities, as well as the more permanent government.

QUESTION: So are you saying that several news reports today that the Pentagon has already chosen the composition of an interim-type authority to help govern Iraq during the process, that those reports are inaccurate?

FLEISCHER: No, this still is in the development stage, and not every point of it is yet set in stone. We're still fighting a war.

QUESTION: But that would require presidential approval, would it not? I mean, the president would be the one who would decide whether or not we try to establish an interim government and who would be participating?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president has already said that we will work through an interim Iraqi authority. That's what he has said. And there were calls for a provisional government to be announced now, and we do not support those calls. We support an interim Iraqi authority. The exact makeup of it it is too soon to say.

QUESTION: Now, what is the difference between a provisional government and an interim Iraqi authority?

FLEISCHER: A provisional government, there were some who called for the naming today of the Iraqi leader, who would not necessarily be inside Iraq. That's a provisional government. History has seen its share of provisional governments.

The approach the president has taken is an interim Iraqi authority.

QUESTION: It would be his decision, not the Defense Department's, right, if, in fact, he decides to name an interim Iraqi authority?

FLEISCHER: Well, these are decisions that the president makes, and he works together with his team of national security advisers to make those decisions.

QUESTION: Yes. No, I just want to make sure it's a presidential decision and not...

FLEISCHER: I see.

QUESTION: Now, has a decision been taken, what is the White House view on whether or not an interim Iraqi authority should be declared at this point or in the next few days?

FLEISCHER: Too soon to say.

QUESTION: After the hostilities are over...

FLEISCHER: We're still fighting hostilities. It's too soon.

QUESTION: So you wouldn't do it until after hostilities...

FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say today.

QUESTION: Whether or not you will do it before or after.

QUESTION: Ari, last week, the military plan that had been set in motion for war in Iraq was very much criticized, including by many ex- generals and colonels and some in active duty in Iraq.

FLEISCHER: I noticed.

QUESTION: Does the president feel that the quick taking of the airport and the closing of the troops on Baghdad vindicates the plan?

FLEISCHER: I think the president always felt that was important, particularly in war, is to be steady at the helm and to lead, and to do what he thought was right and to implement the plan that he always felt was on progress. He understood that there were going some criticisms.

And I think it's worth pointing out that it was a rather remarkable correction printed in one of the nations' leading newspapers pertaining to what General Wallace (ph) was alleged to have said, because he did not say, as was reported, that the enemy that we are up against is not the enemy we wargamed.

He said -- and I'm paraphrasing now -- but as the correction reported, he said -- I think the actual quote attributed to him that was on the front page of some newspapers was that this is a different enemy from the one we warplanned against and wargamed against. And what he actually said is that the enemy is a bit different from the one we wargamed against, which is an important measure, qualitative measure of how similar or different it is. That's not as stark as people have been made to believe. That's a correction. I can't tell you how many stories are written off of the incorrect quote. I don't yet know how many stories will be written off the corrected quote.

QUESTION: You have said (OFF-MIKE) President Bush believes General Franks should run the military aspects of the war on the site. And now that you're so close to Baghdad is there a possibility a decision will be made, instead of troops going into take Baghdad, maybe surround him or isolate him in Baghdad?

FLEISCHER: You need to talk to DOD about anything operational like that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: There was a plan for Baghdad; the plan's being implemented.

QUESTION: Ari, I have two questions. Could you clarify, since the Iraqi people are so fearful of Saddam Hussein, why would the government be suggesting that it might be irrelevant where he is or his health to the beginning of a new Iraqi government authority? Wouldn't it be important to know where he is and whether he's apprehended?

FLEISCHER: What I said is, in the bigger scheme of things, today's tape does not matter, because the regime's days are numbered in any case.

But clearly the leadership of Iraq matters. And we don't know if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead. We don't know yet what this tape shows or doesn't show, or whether or not the information was prerecorded or even prerecorded with accuracy to be released. We don't know.

That's why I noted the point going around the defenses of Baghdad. It's not an accurate statement to make as if somebody were observing events today.

But it is an important issue about the leadership of Iraq, because clearly as Iraqi people start to feel comfortable with the fact that the regime has gone, we have seen it in the south, we're continuing to see it in areas where people see the security of the United States with the coalition forces, they feel more free.

FLEISCHER: They're coming out, they're waving more, they're giving the thumbs up to coalition forces. Journalists who are embedded are seeing and feeling that themselves.

QUESTION: For the record, Michael Kelly was the first American journalist who was embedded and was killed over night. I was wondering of the White House's reaction.

FLEISCHER: Yes, the president expresses his sorrow and his condolences to the Kelly family. And the president, of course, expresses his sorrow and condolences to all of those, military, civilian and journalists, who have died in this combat.

QUESTION: Is the president proceeding with plans to try and create a state, a home-grown police force, particularly in the south? There are now reports that there are discussions about getting members of the Shiite majority to actually act as their own police force, the advantages being obvious.

FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's a little too early to get into that type of discussion in the middle of a shooting war.

But suffice it to say that the Iraqi people are capable people. There is a difference between the Iraqi people and the top layers of the regime, and the president sees a bright future for the people of Iraq led by the people of Iraq.

QUESTION: If I can just qualify Steve's question earlier about the tape -- and I apologize if I missed this -- did you, in fact, confirm that this at least shows that he survived the initial...

FLEISCHER: No, we don't know.

Typically what happens now and what is happening now is the tape will be analyzed by the experts to do a voice match to see if it is his voice. That still, though, remains one piece of the puzzle; you don't know if it was pre-canned. Clearly, there's some information that some people could have some indications of something that might sound contemporaneous, although one reference is to something that took place almost two weeks ago. And the other reference you could look at in a contemporaneous way is something that really is off base. It's not an accurate thing to say for anybody who is on the ground observing events today.

So the bottom line is we don't know still if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead, despite today's tape.

QUESTION: Actually what I was asking was whether that at least shows that he survived the initial attack.

FLEISCHER: We don't know.

QUESTION: Even despite the reference to the bomber...

FLEISCHER: Don't know.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Now as we speak?

QUESTION: As we speak, yes.

FLEISCHER: How do you know? You're sitting here. You don't have one of those little mini-TVs?

QUESTION: You do. It shows Saddam...

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: It shows Saddam actually touring bombed-out parts of Baghdad. Was the White House aware of that in advance? I mean, did you see any of that?

FLEISCHER: Jim, I have a longstanding policy, if it comes up during the briefing, I can't discuss it because I'm here embedded with you.

QUESTION: I just didn't know whether you had seen it before.

FLEISCHER: I had not seen that before it came out here.

QUESTION: Two questions: Starting with the issue of the tape and perhaps the tape that's running now, on a broader philosophical level, can this war be considered a success if he is not either captured or killed? What's the administration's thinking on that?

The second question on the U.N., some of our traditional allies in Europe had said that a prominent U.N. role for an interim Iraqi government would go a long way toward not only repairing breaches in our relations with some of our traditional European allies, but also would help U.S. relations in the Middle East where, you know...

FLEISCHER: Well, on the first question, the purpose of the mission is to disarm the regime and change the leadership, and that includes the top layers of the leadership. So clearly, the future or the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor, but as I indicated, whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward, and the regime's days are numbered.

On the role of the United Nations, there will be a role for the United Nations, and the president is focused on doing what is most effective to help the Iraqi people to govern their own country. That's where the president's focus will be. There will be a role for the U.N. in that process.

QUESTION: First time we're getting reports from the field today of large numbers of Iraqis fleeing Baghdad. Is the administration or U.S. forces in the region prepared to deal with that? Does that complicate our planning?

FLEISCHER: Well, you're going to have to talk to DOD about complications for any planning. But, of course, the Iraqi information officer said the other day that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad, and we hadn't even crossed the Tigris.

FLEISCHER: And, of course, this is another reason why it's important to have embedded reporters there, so the truth can be seen from reporters' eyes, in addition to be briefed by American officials there.

But anything beyond that DOD will tell you about the plans.

QUESTION: I understand, but, you know, we had had -- there were reports early on, even before the war broke out, that we had talked with neighboring countries about possibly receiving refugees. Is there any larger plan...

FLEISCHER: It's a DOD issue, and I think you have to have a very precise understanding of how many people are actually moving.

QUESTION: Well, there are reports now that there have been some chemicals found, et cetera. Is there any plans by the White House to ask Hans Blix or the United Nations to verify the possibility that these are actually chemical weapons?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, we have expert teams on the ground who will be able to make those decisions and judgments themselves.

As for the future, we have never ruled out that the United Nations inspectors might have some type of role to play. But in terms of the immediate verification, that's something that the military is taking care of.

QUESTION: OK. And secondly, in terms of the fighting resistance that they're getting in some of the south, that they may calm down and may pop up again, is there any plans to use coalition forces to, sort of, stay back -- I mean, other than the British and the Americans -- some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) larger forces to stay back and deal with some of those pockets of resistance?

FLEISCHER: Yes, that's something that the DOD officials can tell you about.

QUESTION: Ari, some of the president's allies on Capitol Hill, including Tom DeLay, are voicing some concerns about the Middle East road map. They're concerned that the U.S. will undercut support for Israel.

Do they have any foundation for this concern?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president thinks it's very important for all parties to know that he is since about implementing his June 24th speech in the Rose Garden, and he is going to follow through on it. And the road map is part and parcel of the June 24th speech, which was received well by all parties in the Middle East.

And so the president believes that there are important responsibilities on the Palestinians to reform, on the Arab nations to help the reforms take place, and on Israel as well to open up the doors toward more cooperation with a reformed Palestinian Authority and to cease settlement activity as the security situation improves.

And so those are the president's stated messages, and that's part of the road map, and it's something the president is deeply committed to.

QUESTION: So given the compromises both sides need to make, the president is anticipating some resistance?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is anticipating contributions to the road map from the parties to the road map, exactly as he called for in his speech in March. QUESTION: Ari, to this point -- I know it's early and events may change, just like she said -- but to this point, at least, they have not found any weapons of mass destruction. Like I said, I know it's early, but does the administration believe that it was justified in taking the action it has taken in Iraq even if no...

FLEISCHER: Well, of course.

QUESTION: ... no weapons of mass destruction...

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think that's going to happen. I thought you were asking about justifying taking the action. But you're heard it repeatedly said from the DOD briefers that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical, and we are confident that they will be found and discovered and seen.

QUESTION: And even if they're not discovered, the feeling is that the action was justified?

FLEISCHER: You're asking about a hypothetical that I just told you I don't think is going to happen.

QUESTION: Ari, on two things, first, your critics are already coming out in reference to this regime change and name change situation. They're talking about -- they're linking regime change and the name changing of the airport. On a serious note, is that a part of the regime change, anything "Saddam" will be changed...

FLEISCHER: Well, of course.

FLEISCHER: I think there's nothing the Iraqi people want more than to throw off the yoke of oppression that Saddam has imposed on them. I think that the Iraqis don't want to have Saddam Hussein statues left behind. They don't want Saddam Hussein's torture left behind. They don't want his brutality left behind. And that's a message I think the president is going to give today for people who fled Iraq.

QUESTION: About five blocks away from the funeral service of Kendall Waters Bay (ph), one of the gentlemen who died in the helicopter crash in the war, there are a couple of students at a school called Morgan State University that are reservists, and they have been called to active duty and some are actually going to Iraq.

Do you think kids actually understand -- 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids understand when you're formulating the plan a lot of these children who don't have the wherewithal to go to college, that this indeed could be the end result, giving up your life for a college education?

FLEISCHER: You bet they do. And that's why the president, when he meets with the men and women of our military, are so proud of them.

And you wouldn't believe how capable and how smart these teenager are and these 20s are to serve in our military. And they're entrusted with life-and-death decisions that affect not only themselves, but their buddies, their colleagues, their fellow Marines and fellow service men, because they have that ability, they have that sharps, and that professionalism. And the president sees it when he goes to see our military facilities and our military bases.

The military has been a wonderful way of life for generation upon generation of Americans, and that includes the youngest who wait to the day their eligible birthday to sign up, because they look forward that to that military style of life. And all the American people are grateful to them for the sacrifices that they know they are making when they do that, as a way to advance their lives at every stage of their life, because that's what the military represent.

QUESTION: If the president has a workable plan for the Middle East, why doesn't he just put it out now?

FLEISCHER: Well, as the president said that the road map will be offered upon the confirmation of Abu Mazen. And that has not yet taken place as he is still appointing his cabinet.

QUESTION: Considerable progress has been made, and aren't you just, kind of, waiting now for formality?

FLEISCHER: The president's doing exactly what he said.

Progress is being made. We're pleased with the reform. Abu Mazen is a reformer.

And the president is doing precisely what he said he was going to do. I don't know why you would expect him to do anything other than that. He said he would put the road map forward and welcome the contributions on it once the appointment is confirmed, and that entails the cabinet appointments.

QUESTION: What is your current assessment of what Syria is doing to help Iraq, and what, beyond words, has the administration planned to do to stop it?

FLEISCHER: It's exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell outlined with the providing of some of the equipment to Iraq. It raises concerns, and Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld said it all. I have nothing to add beyond what they said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) no plan to stop it?

FLEISCHER: Syria has received the message that it received from the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense. It's an important message. We hope they receive it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) did no good because the briefer this morning -- military briefer over in the battle area said that it's still moving.

FLEISCHER: The message has been sent. It's important that Syria receive it. And again, we don't judge everything day by day. It's important they receive that message, however. QUESTION: Yesterday the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, said that President Bush may have to postpone his state visit to Canada because of his war itinerary. Do you have any more details on that?

FLEISCHER: At this moment I have nothing to report. As always, if we have something to report, we'll share it.

QUESTION: Also yesterday Richard Perle said Canadians could well come to regret the decision to stay out of the war against Iraq. Should non-coalition countries expect punitive action from the United States?

FLEISCHER: No, people should not expect punitive action. But the president does think it was a regrettable decision by nations not to join in the coalition. He understands their thoughts, but he is acting for the right reasons, and is pleased to see how large the coalition is.

QUESTION: Two questions. I wonder whose idea it was to have a meeting, whether it was Blair or the president. The second question, what, if anything, does the timing of this meeting say about how the two men view the conflict? I mean, is it, for example, a sign that they think that it's coming to an end quite shortly, and that any differences or decisions that need to be taken about post-war Iraq, role of the U.N., need to be taken pretty quickly?

FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that they met at Camp David just a week ago, I know that many people said that that's a sign it's coming to an end. In fact, the time they were meeting in Camp David, everybody was saying isn't it going terribly? It's off plan.

So they meet as often as they think is necessary. They think they can accomplish quite a bit in person, it makes it easier to meet in person than over repeated phone calls that they have. But they're coalition allies or coalition partners, and the president values the judgment and the advice he receives from Prime Minister Blair.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I don't know whose idea it was. I mean, very often these are, kind of, mutual ideas that the staff talks through or the president the prime minister talk through. And they just agree to meet.

I don't know if any one or the other had the idea before the other. I just don't know.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly there has been a successful peace process in Northern Ireland, and it's an ongoing process. And we want to talk to him about that process. It's an interesting observation.

QUESTION: The people who are meeting in the White House this afternoon, how they are picked specifically? Are all of them in agreement with the administration position and action? And whose paying for the trip?

FLEISCHER: Any time groups come to the White House like this, which is rather frequent for citizens to come and meet the president, there's an Office of Public Liaison that works with various constituencies or communities to talk about who is coming, and to work with those constituencies. I don't have any more specific information than that.

I think we'll find out at the meeting if they're all in agreement. I suspect they all are. I don't think any of them in there are Saddam Hussein's defenders, after what they lived through.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president plan to set up a new government in Iraq even before the regime of Saddam Hussein is captured and removed?

FLEISCHER: Again, it's just not knowable about the exact timing of when the regime -- the interim authority will be setup. The same answer as before.

QUESTION: Does the meeting today with the Iraqi-Americans reflect a concern on the part of the administration that it needs to do a better job of countering the negative public relations backlash that's evident now in across the Middle East and much of the Muslim world?

FLEISCHER: The answer is unequivocally no. But certainly the president hopes that people everywhere in the world will listen to the message of these Arab Americans and these Iraqis who saw firsthand what a brutal dictatorship Saddam Hussein has lead, the torture that he has used to stay in power.

And I think you're going to hear a very welcoming message about why it's so important for the United States and the coalition to be successful in ousting Saddam Hussein. I think it's a powerful message, and it's a message the president hopes will be heard.

QUESTION: Where in Northern Ireland will the two leaders meet?

FLEISCHER: Dublin.

I'm sorry. I had written down Belfast, and I said Dublin. Belfast. Thank you for the...

(LAUGHTER)

I was not a geography major.

QUESTION: Was the president briefed on the SARS virus and is he worried about it developing into a plague?

FLEISCHER: Yes. The president has been monitoring events involving that. He's received reports about it, and continues to be concerned with it.

Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson has been leading a group involving the Center for Disease Control that has been working with the World Health Organization and other groups on the medical protection necessary to combat the disease as well as working with the Chinese authorities, in Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

QUESTION: Thank you.

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

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