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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired April 11, 2003 - 12:13   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, there was a significant declaration earlier today from the White House on the demise of the Iraqi leadership, and now officials are taking steps to crack down on the chaos gripping much of the country.
Our senior correspondent John King joins us now live with details -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's pretty obvious, if you look at those pictures of the looting and the other pictures that we've seen in the past 48 hours, but for the first time today, the Whtie House is officially declaring the regime is gone, meaniogn Iraq is without a central government.

Ari Fleischer put it this way this morning at a White House briefing. He said -- qoute -- "there is no question the regime has lost control, and that represents a great turning point for the people of Iraq as the regime is gone. Now it does not represent a turning point for the U.S. military. Fleischer says the war goes on. Ari Fleischer says the war goes on becasue there are still Iraqi forces in control of some cities, Tikrit the last major city left. There's still some Iraqi forces resisting efforts by U.S. forces to bring control to the major cities.

So the war goes on, but that statement the regime is gone represents a significant turning point from a political standpoint, because the administration has promised the people of Iraq, it would improve security, it would restore basic services once the regime was out of power.

In a videotaped message to the Iraqi people yesterday, the president said the regime would soon be gone. Now that the White Hosue says it is gone, the president will have to keep another commitment that he made in that videotaped message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Coalition forces will help maintain law and order, so that Iraqis can live in security. We will respect your great religious traditions, whose principles of equality and compassion are essential to Iraq's future. We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens, and then our military forces will leave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, White House officials say for the troops, the first priority has to be on protecting themselves, but there are urgent efforts under way to get more of a presence into the major cities to police the streets, something the military is reluctant to do, but the White House concedes is very necessary because of all this looting.

On that point, though, an interesting remark from Ari Fleischer today. He said this was not unexpected. He said he was not excusing the looting, not excusing the lawlessness, but he said after the decades of repression and torture the Iraqi people had been put through, it is no surprise that the people are letting off steam, if you will, by attacking and looting government residences and government building. We may hear more from this from the president later today.

He is visiting injured troops at two medical centers, military medical centers here in the Washington area, and we are told it is quite likely he will speak to reporters after those visits -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Momentarily, we'll be hearing from Ari Fleischer, Joh, the White House press secretary, who's about to hold his briefing. We'll take that live as well.

John, earlier in the day, I went out and saw the complex where General Garner, Jay Garner, is preparing to send in U.S. advisers to help a transition of authority from Saddam Hussein's regime to some sort of new Iraqi leadership.

Let me drop that point and we'll pick up Ari Fleischer first. We'll try to get back to it later.

Here's Ari Fleischer.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to see so many of you here.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: It's a pleasure for me to welcome the front row. All questions today will be restricted to the front row. Hearing none, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

I'd like to apologize for showing up on time. I know it leads to confusion.

Let us begin.

The president began his day with a phone call to President Arroyo of the Philippines. They discussed developments in Iraq. The two leaders reviewed coalition progress in Iraq and discussed the next steps in the liberation of the Iraqi people. President Bush thanked President Arroyo for her early and steadfast leadership on Iraq and expressed appreciation for the Philippines' commitment to provide immediately post-conflict assistance.

The two leaders discussed developments in the war on terror in the Philippines. President Bush reaffirmed the strong U.S. commitment to support the Philippines in their efforts to defeat terrorism, and the two leaders agreed to continue to consult closely. The president also told President Arroyo that he looked forward to her state visit later this spring.

The president also today spoke with Italian President Berlusconi. They discussed the progress in the war. He thanked President Berlusconi for his strong leadership in showing his support for the United States and the coalition.

Then the president had an intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, National Security Council meeting. He met with the secretary of defense.

And later today the president will depart from the White House to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where he will visit with wounded soldiers, sailor and Marines, all of whom were injured in Iraq; one of whom was injured in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The president looks forward to the visit. He recognizes that this is an important part of his role as commander in chief to bring consolation and comfort to the families of those who are gathered there with the brave warriors who were wounded on the field of battle.

The president will present Purple Hearts to many of these people, and as well he will witness two Marines become United States citizens. These are people who served our country and today will become citizens of our country.

One final item before I take your questions. The president has also sent to the Senate for ratification the treaty to expand NATO, and the president is very pleased that NATO has reached an agreement that he hopes will be ratified by the Senate to enable Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to become full-fledged members of NATO. These are our partners in a powerful and important alliance.

FLEISCHER: The president is delighted that these brave countries of Eastern Europe have been granted entry into NATO. He hopes the Senate will ratify the treaty required to expand it in a formal sense.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: You said earlier today that Saddam Hussein's regime has lost control, that it's gone out of Baghdad. What's most likely to have happened? Is it thought that Hussein and some of the senior leaders are dead or have they moved to another part of the country where there could yet be intense fighting or have they left the country? What is, without certainty, the most operational theory out there?

FLEISCHER: Well, it could be any of the above. We don't know. As you know, General Brooks this morning briefed, talked very similarly about the status of those leading Iraqis that we remain have an interest in on their whereabouts, whether they're alive, whether they are dead, whether they're there, whether they have fled or whether they're hiding. It could be all of the above.

QUESTION: Can victory be declared in this war without accounting for not just Saddam Hussein, but those leading figures?

FLEISCHER: Let me deal with the speculation about victory and whether the president will declare victory, what victory would look like, what criteria he is looking for. Because the answer from the president's point of view is, it is much too soon to be discussing it. We remain in the middle of a conflict.

Yes, indeed, the regime has ended, as General Franks said this morning. But yes, indeed, fighting remains. It is still a battlefield. While the central command and control elements of the regime have been collapsed, there remains pockets of loyalists who continue to fight and present harm for our armed forces.

So from the president's point of view, it is a matter that he is not yet speculating about. He continues to work in the middle of a war to make certain that we win the war.

QUESTION: So he hasn't thought about what would constitute victory?

FLEISCHER: The president is not yet ready to publicly speculate about what it is he would say or when he would say it. QUESTION: That's not the question. I mean, you're turning the question around. The question is, what has to happen for victory to be achieved?

FLEISCHER: And just what I told you this morning, the president has always said the mission is the disarmament of Iraq and liberation for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: So therefore it is securing those weapons of mass destruction, and until that's done...

FLEISCHER: The president has always said that is the mission. I'm not going to be able to shed any more light on when the president will say the mission is accomplished.

QUESTION: Right. But you just laid it out there that disarmament of Iraq, the disarmament meaning weapons of mass destruction, correct?

FLEISCHER: The president has always said that is the mission, but I'm not going to define for you what the president will later define as victory.

QUESTION: There's a lot of looting going on, obviously, in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. And it seems, based on reporters talking to ordinary citizens, a great deal of fear among people in Iraq about the collapse in civic order. How concerned is the president that that might undermine the liberation that has been achieved, that it's a serious problem? What can be done about it?

FLEISCHER: Well, what people are witnessing on the events that the camera is catching inside Baghdad is very similar to what people witnessed in the city of Basra, as well. The president is confident that as the security situation is enhanced, as the events unfold, just like what happened in Basra, that this amount of looting will diminish.

FLEISCHER: And clearly anything that involves looting is not desirable. It is worth noting that what you are seeing is a reaction to oppression. And that is not to condone it. It is important that security be enforced, and the military has plans to do so as they talked about earlier today. And I think as you've seen in Basra, it's a situation that develops and then diminishes.

It's also a situation the world has seen before when oppressed people find freedom for a short period of time. These actions have occurred in history. You saw it in Sierra Leone, you saw it in the Soviet Union with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And nobody likes to see it. I think it has to be understood in context of people who have been oppressed, who are reacting to the oppression.

But the military, as they briefed yesterday and they briefed today, does have plans to help enhance the security as the military civil affairs units move in.

QUESTION: But it sounds as if you're saying it'll take care of itself; it'll, kind of, burn itself out and peter out naturally. Is that your position? And the secretary general says it's the United States' responsibility, as the power in control of Iraq -- the coalition's responsibility to bring and restore civil order.

FLEISCHER: I think it's worth pointing out what happened in the Iraq's second largest city, in Basra, as something that may be indicative of what will happen in the largest city, Baghdad. That is what we witnessed in Basra. And it is, just as military briefed yesterday, part of their mission as the military civil affairs units move into place.

QUESTION: So the coalition does accept responsibility under the Geneva Conventions and other international human rights law for the restoration of civil...

FLEISCHER: Clearly, security is an important issue.

And I want no one to lose sight of the fact that the Iraqi people are on their way to liberty and freedom. Anything that involves looting is, of course, regrettable. But no one should miss the larger picture here, and that is a horrible regime has been lifted from the Iraqi people. There is a reaction to the lifting of that power and it is a reaction against oppression. It is on the way to liberty and freedom. No one likes to see looting, but that's the context.

QUESTION: The Iraqi people are still under sanctions -- economic sanctions. And there's apparently 7 million barrels of their oil sitting in a port in Turkey that can't be sold because the regime is gone, as General Franks said. Who has now the right to approve sales of that oil? FLEISCHER: Well, under the existing program, through the United Nations, which they just reauthorized, the oil-for-food program remains in effect, and that allows for export of Iraqi oil, and it allows the revenues that come in to go through the United Nations just as it had been doing under the oil-for-food program.

QUESTION: Previously under that program, the state oil marketing organization, Saddam Hussein's government, approved the sale of that oil to Chevron, Shell or whatever. Who does that now?

FLEISCHER: I think it's clearly the time that the institutions will emerge that will take on the civil duties and civilian duties of the Iraq people. These things will develop, they will take time.

QUESTION: Will the United States -- will the coalition approve sales?

FLEISCHER: I can't speculate about that. Don't know.

QUESTION: What happens to the oil ministry in the short term, and does the U.S. government run it for a little while...

FLEISCHER: The same thing that happens to every ministry. It depends on where you are in Iraq.

FLEISCHER: As we're already in several cities, particularly in southern Iraq and in some cases in western Iraq, people have already emerged to start running affairs for themselves to the greatest degree possible, with, of course, the United States military and the coalition being present. So you're seeing different regions, different people step up to increase responsibilities from the Iraqi people themselves.

Which I don't think is surprising. It is the natural action of mankind to assume control over their own lives and their own fate. And the president is confident the Iraqi people will do this throughout Iraq.

We're still in the middle of war, we're still in the middle of fighting in Baghdad. It can lead to chaotic times. But more importantly, it leads to freedom.

QUESTION: Do you see a NATO or U.N. peacekeeping role in Iraq, Ari?

FLEISCHER: I can't speculate. I think there are decisions that remain down the road. I can't speculate about what every outcome of those may or may not be.

QUESTION: Given the prominent role that the Kurds have played in northern Iraq militarily in the last couple of days, what message are you seeing at this point both to the Kurds and to Turkey? And what role or special role might the Kurds play in any Iraqi interim authority, particularly in that region?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's a very interesting issue, and it's an issue that's been focused on for a number of months really. And this is something that you saw in detailed conversations Secretary Powell has had and other United States visitors, including the ambassador to Turkey, had with Turkish officials, visitors from the United States to northern Iraq, where they met and talked with Kurdish officials.

And the message is that all actions need to be coordinated, that we worked very hard to avert any type of humanitarian crisis in the north. No humanitarian crisis has developed. Turkey has maintained its military presence on the Turkish side of the border. And the United States is moving forward to establish control in those cities in northern Iraq, just as we pledged.

It's been an issue to be managed, and I think, in fairness, the State Department, others, deserve a tremendous amount of credit for managing it well.

QUESTION: When it comes to setting up an interim authority, is there going to have to be some, sort of, special situation for northern Iraq in the Kurd-controlled areas there?

FLEISCHER: There is a recognition that maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq is paramount. And on the interim authority, we have always said it'll be an interim authority that includes representatives from all the Iraqi people, including the Kurdish people, the Shiite people, the Shi'a religion, the Sunni religion, the various aspects of life inside the territorially whole Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, there's a lot of speculation on Capitol Hill that as the president's tax proposal gets trimmed back, that it's the dividend tax elimination portion of it that is going to suffer the most because that has the least immediately stimulative effect. How does the White House feel about that?

FLEISCHER: The president thinks it is very important for the principles by which he advocated the tax plan to be honored, because that is the best way to have growth in the economy. And therefore the president continues to believe that aspects of the tax plan, just as he proposed, are what needs to be addressed in the legislation as it moves through the Congress.

That means the dividend tax plan must be included. It means the acceleration of the rate cuts must be included. It means the child credit, the AMT relief, all the provisions that the president announced he is in favor of were decided upon because of their benefit to an economy that needs help so people find work. And the president has not retreated on that.

FLEISCHER: Obviously, we'll work with whatever numbers we receive when the final budget resolution is agreed to. And it looks like there is a good compromise in the offing. And we will work within whatever those final numbers are.

QUESTION: But you recognize that he's -- or does he recognize that he's not going to get the entire dividend -- tax elimination, that it... FLEISCHER: I would not conclude that, no. The president believes that there should still be, and will fight for, a 100 percent dividend exclusion.

QUESTION: Possibly at the expense of other portions of the tax cut; is that correct? You're not going to get the whole proposal, that's clear at this point.

FLEISCHER: There are still ways to end the existing smaller number to accomplish the objectives the president sought, still standing by each of the provisions that the president proposed.

QUESTION: Yesterday, the president, in his address to the Iraqi people, said that, when the Iraqi regime is gone the coalition will take steps to ensure security for the Iraqi people. Given the fact that, today, you're saying that the regime is gone, what are you doing to expedite that to make sure that isn't going to happen now?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, just as the president said, Iraq will be liberated, it is a process, it does not happen overnight. And we still are in the middle of a shooting war. Sections of Baghdad still are dangerous, sections of Baghdad, from the military point of view. So people shouldn't get too far ahead of the story: Just because central command or the Iraqi regime has collapsed does not mean the war is over, it's still going on.

And the military has said they have military civil affairs units that are moving into place. Security is an important issue. Law and order is an important issue. The president knows it will be addressed.

QUESTION: What is the White House position on giving contracts to non-U.S. firms to help rebuild Iraq?

FLEISCHER: The White House does not have positions on these matters. These are decisions that are made by the contracting agencies in accordance with the regulations and laws.

QUESTION: So if USAID, for instance, would open it up to French and German firms that would be OK?

FLEISCHER: They have their own criteria, and the White House does not manage contracting decisions.

QUESTION: Ari, there has been some speculation among even senior administration officials about Iraqi leaders, perhaps, having fled to other countries. When the war ends, does the window also close for going after, targeting Saddam Hussein and his colleagues?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate. We don't know what Saddam Hussein's fate is. And certainly, we want to make certain that those who are responsible for war crimes are brought to justice. And so no matter what the period of time is, if there are people who emerge alive wherever they are, if the determination is made that that individual is a war criminal, that's a matter for the international community to take up, as the international community has done before with people who sought to flee.

QUESTION: Is there a line to be drawn between apprehending them and killing them?

FLEISCHER: It all depends on the course of events on the ground. These are literally the definition of operational matters in the middle of what's still -- I have to remind everybody -- is still a military conflict.

QUESTION: How does the president view the current humanitarian relief efforts?

FLEISCHER: He views them as vital. He views them as increasing. He views them as something that is a key part of the mission.

But it's also worth understanding -- and I talked to the head of the Agency for International Development yesterday, who is in charge of administering the humanitarian programs -- that while there are pockets of Iraq that have humanitarian problems to be worked through, there is not a widespread humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Much of the humanitarian problems in Iraq existed because of Saddam Hussein's regime and the conditions that he imposed on the Iraqi people before the first shot was fired in this war. In fact, what is happening is, conditions are improving. Humanitarian problems that Saddam Hussein created are coming to an end as a result of this liberation.

QUESTION: The fact that a lot of these senior officials suddenly disappeared, assuming that all of them weren't killed, suggests that they did have a plan for escape. Is that the view of the administration?

FLEISCHER: Either that or they ran with their tails tucked and they just got out of there.

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: One of the problems in reconstruction is that, you cannot sell oil, you cannot get loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions until there is some sort of legitimate authority. Obviously, the administration is working on an interim Iraqi authority. How do you get that legitimacy? What do you need to do to get the legitimacy that's required for everything from selling oil to getting loans?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that the Iraqi people will be able to take resources into their own hands. When you look at the engineers in these fields, they're increasingly returning to the fields as the security situation allows. We have plans to bring in people to help from an international point of view to manage the fields, and the legalities will all be addressed and be reviewed. And suffice it to say, that the faster we can get resources into the hands of the Iraqi people, the better the country will be.

QUESTION: You just haven't answered that question.

FLEISCHER: We're reviewing it. QUESTION: The problem is, how do -- managing the field is fine, but what do you do with the oil? You can't sell it until you have some international authority that bestows legitimacy on whoever it is that's going to try to sell the oil.

FLEISCHER: Not necessarily. Whatever the legalities are, the legalities will be addressed. It doesn't require, necessarily, an international stamp to engage in commercial transactions legally. The United States provides products around the world that the United Nations doesn't have to say we can do.

QUESTION: Given Canada's vocal refusal to join the coalition, why is the president making an official visit there in about three weeks' time, and what does he hope to achieve?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president visits countries and has relations with countries, not depending on just their reactions involving Iraq. We have many broader relationships and broader issues that also unite us in common values and common friendship, and that's the context of any visits the president would take to any nation, whether they are with us or not.

QUESTION: When the war plan was put together and approved by the president, did it include planning for the moment when U.S. forces would have to take over security functions in cities that had been taken over from Iraqi forces?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think if take a look at the briefing you got yesterday out in the Gulf, they talked about military civil affairs units moving in.

QUESTION: Ari, what's the latest the White House knows about the search for arms of mass destruction or nuclear or fissionable material?

FLEISCHER: Just as was briefed this morning by General Brooks in Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, General Franks has made an appeal to civil servants in Baghdad and around Iraq, sanitary workers, police, fire, to do their jobs. Who's responsible at this point for paying these people? And what is the currency right now in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: These will be all the issues that get addressed through the reconstruction. There's no question that in the immediate aftermath of areas where there's been military conflict there are going to be issues that need to be worked through and worked out.

I remind you, we are still in the middle of a shooting war. Our forces, as the president is going to visit later today, are still in harm's way. These are on the ongoing issues that the process of reconstruction will address. They cannot all be addressed in the immediate time of the war.

QUESTION: You talked earlier about the importance of adhering to the original principles of the tax bill. Would the president not accept a partial elimination of the dividend tax cut?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's too soon to start speculating about what the final tax bill will be and whether the president accepts or doesn't accept.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly there will be compromises, given the fact that the president proposed a $726 billion proposal, most Democrats originally said nothing more than $100 billion, and today an agreement will be reached -- it looks like they still have to vote it in the Senate, but an agreement looks like it will be reached that would allow for $550 billion in the House and $350 billion in the Senate, with a possibility of going higher down the road.

QUESTION: What comes out of that $550 billion is only a partial elimination of the dividend. Would the president not accept that?

FLEISCHER: I don't know why you have to -- it does not lead to requiring only a partial elimination of the dividend. It is indeed possible, within the $550 billion figure, to have a 100 percent elimination of the dividend. The president thinks that's important, and he will pursue it.

QUESTION: Ari, you spoke earlier about fighting along the Syrian border. To what extent is there a concern that military assets, leaders, Baath Party leaders, whatever, and/or weapons of mass destruction are going across the border there? And is there any thought given to pursuing any of these things across the border?

FLEISCHER: That's an operational issue. DOD, of course, is set up...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... surely that's something the White House would have a view on.

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm talking about what steps are being taken to interdict people as they would try to cross the border. Obviously, this combat is limited to Iraq.

QUESTION: Is this administration considering a realignment or asking for realignment of the U.N. Security Council and a reduction of U.S. dues to the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: No, there's nothing like that I've heard.

QUESTION: What's the president's role going to be in the citizenship service? Is he going to administer the oath of citizenship?

FLEISCHER: No, the president of the United States is not allowed to administer an oath of citizenship, interestingly. The president cannot do that. Other officials can. QUESTION: Do you have any other information on those two Marines? How long they were in the Marines? What their countries or origin were?

FLEISCHER: I'm trying to have that for after the events this afternoon at the hospitals.

QUESTION: And will their names be released?

FLEISCHER: I'm working that right now. It depends on the family. It's up to the families.

QUESTION: Ari, you've said that -- you and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had said that some of these folks are fleeing into Syria and some have reached Syria. Will you use legal means to retrieve them or will you take extralegal means to get them back before the courts of justice? FLEISCHER: I assure you any action that we would take would be legal.

QUESTION: There's a front-page article in the Financial Times today titled, "The Marines Shot Anything They Considered a Threat." And it reports that Marines from the 5th Marines were so unnerved by attacks from Iraqi fighters in civilian clothes that they opened fire repeatedly, hitting unarmed men, women and children, including a 6- year-old girl who was shot in the head. Does the president know about this and is he concerned about like a My Lai situation developing?

QUESTION: The president is very concerned about situations that threatened our armed forces, suicide attacks on our armed forces, and he has high confidence that our armed forces are doing everything they can to protect innocent civilian life as they protect themselves.

QUESTION: You indicated it's too soon to speculate about a peacekeeping role for the U.N. or NATO, but what kind of a role does the president envision for other countries and specifically for Germany and France, Russia, countries that opposed the war?

FLEISCHER: Well, countries that opposed the war and countries that supported the war will have to decide for themselves what role they seek to play in the lives of the Iraqi people in the future. These are decisions that will be made from state to state. These will be decisions that Germany will have to take up with the new Iraqi government, for example, when there is a new Iraqi government. These will be matters that they will have to consider.

But I think the Iraqi people will also have thoughts who they want to -- to whom they express their gratitude for their freedom. And that is the relations between states.

QUESTION: Debt forgiveness, that sort of thing in the immediate scene?

FLEISCHER: Certainly. There are nations that traded extensively with Iraq to whom they owe the Iraqi government -- the Iraqi government owes to them substantial debt. Debt relief would be something those nations could provide to the Iraqi people if they so chose. That's their determination.

QUESTION: There's been increasing criticism on the Hill of the no-big contract given to Halliburton Oil Field Services, which yesterday the government revealed would cost as much as $7 billion. Some such as even Susan Collins are saying that all these contracts for reconstruction and related services should be put out to bid or some sort of competitive bidding. Does the White House believe that that should be the norm or...

FLEISCHER: The White House believes that the procedure should be established and followed, the criteria should be followed by the contracting agencies. The White House does not get involved or dictate to agencies on how to award contracts.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) no-bid contracts, the White House has no problem with that.

FLEISCHER: There are criteria that Congress passed in law that guide what the agencies can do, and the president's confident that that will be done.

QUESTION: Since Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to use Turkey in the war with the Iraq, will the president still help Turkey get membership in the European Union?

FLEISCHER: Certainly. The president stood on principle when he said that Turkey deserves membership in the European Union, and nothing has changed that.

QUESTION: Can you provide us with any further details on the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Worldnet Daily and Fox News story about the extensive tunnel infrastructure under the Al-Tuwada (ph) nuclear plant and reports of a possible discovery of weapons-grade plutonium?

FLEISCHER: That's a DOD matter operationally as they go through Iraq and take a look at the facts that they find, as they evaluate information they receive through their technical teams.

QUESTION: Does the administration feel that the atrocities of Saddam Hussein and his regime have been accurately reported?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say, when you look at the press coverage of this war, they've done a very enviable job in most instances in some very difficult circumstances. I can't speak for everybody in the government, but I think it's fair to say the decision to embed reporters has proved to be a very good decision, good from the media's point of view, I believe, and good from the government's point of view; more importantly, good for the point of view of the American people so they can get independent reporting from the field.

QUESTION: With all the looting and things going on in Iraq right now, some would say that the U.S. government had not planned for some kind of interim situation right now, not to say interim government to come down the road, but a situation for now to, kind of, fix this crisis of looting and just going running amok -- the town running amok, well, the country running amok. FLEISCHER: This is almost starting to remind me of the stories I said, their forces were bogged down as people watched 24, 36 hours worth of people reacting to the oppression from which they suffered.

As I indicated, there is an example that took place in Iraq's second largest city that we believe to be indicative, and that is what took place in Basra, and that order has increasingly been restored to Basra. It may take some time in a larger city like Baghdad, but there's no question, in the president's judgment, that what's happening is people are finding liberation, are finding freedom. Order will increasingly be restored.

QUESTION: You didn't have anything planned for this...

FLEISCHER: I didn't say that. That's the part that reminded me of the previous statements about things hadn't gone according to plan.

QUESTION: And also the Cuban situation over in the House, many are questioning that -- why hasn't the White House said anything about this in the wake of the Trent Lott situation.

FLEISCHER: I think people there have addressed it, and I think she made her second thoughts clear.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) White House about that statement. She equated African-Americans with...

FLEISCHER: Well, I can just tell you this: I don't know if the president personally heard what she said. He obviously heard other statements that people made.

QUESTION: In regard to the debt that is owed by Saddam's government to other countries, do you regard that as legally binding on a new government?

FLEISCHER: Under international law, debt is owed from one country to another country, not contingent or dependent on who the leader of that country is. It's a state-to-state relationship; the state-to-state relationship endures.

So the debt is still owed, which is why it is a question of if those governments want to act in this way to help the Iraqi people, they would be within their rights to waive that debt.

Thank you.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, briefing reporters. Several issues coming up.

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