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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired April 22, 2003 - 12:32   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Earlier today, the president said Alan Greenspan should get another term as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Ari Fleischer is talking about that right now.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SEXY.: ... sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything." Does the White House agree with those views?

One, I have not seen the entire context of the interview. And two, I haven't talked to the president about it, so I really don't have anything to offer beyond that.

QUESTION: Do you need context?

FLEISCHER: No, I haven't talked to the president about it, I haven't talked to Senator Santorum, so I just don't have anything for you on it.

QUESTION: So the White House is satisfied to just let those words fly through the air?

FLEISCHER: I just don't have anything more on it.

QUESTION: I mean, is it because you were unaware that he said that?

FLEISCHER: Because I've been a little busy focusing on other activities and events, and I haven't talked to the president about it.

QUESTION: Perhaps you've been focusing then on U.N. inspections in Iraq.

FLEISCHER: I have been focusing on that.

QUESTION: You indicated earlier that the U.S. wishes to have the coalition -- that would be mainly us -- look for weapons of mass destruction. Do you see no role for the United Nations' weapons inspection teams in a postwar Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is looking forward, not backward. And we will reassess the framework designed to disarm the Iraqi regime, given the new facts on the ground and the fact that the Iraqi regime that created the environment for the inspectors previously to go in no longer exists.

We'll work with Security Council members, the United Nations and our friends and allies on the issue of the post-Saddam Iraq and how best to achieve our mutual goals. But make no mistake about it, the United States and the coalition have taken on the responsibility for dismantling Iraq's WMD.

QUESTION: Well, take it one step further. In order for the sanctions to end, technically, Iraq has to be certified as free of weapons of mass destruction. Is this something we wish to ignore, or is this something we want the U.N. to do? Or do we consider the stance of Russia and France, which now are insisting on objections in oil sales to be somewhat, shall we say, cynical?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president called for the removal of sanctions on the Iraqi people because they no longer serve a useful purpose. The sanctions were created to target the Iraqi regime, deny Saddam Hussein and his henchmen money that he would divert from the oil program to use to build palaces or to buy weapons. Clearly, the sanctions were not very effective because Saddam Hussein continued to benefit from the money that came into his country.

FLEISCHER: The regime is now history. The sanctions should become history too because the Iraqi people need help and removing the sanctions leads to help for the Iraqi people. And that's what's first and foremost on the president's mind. The sanctions were action taken against a regime that no longer exists.

Clearly, the United Nations, when they vote on a resolution, they have the power to pass a resolution given a new reality. That which came before, that no longer exist, need no longer bind the United Nations in any future vote that they take. And so, we will see what the United Nations does. The president views this as an important issue of humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, and we hope the United Nations will take the right action.

QUESTION: What does the U.S. want the U.N. to do and will the U.S. sponsor a resolution?

FLEISCHER: Well, it still is in the early stages, but as the president said last week, we want the United Nations to lift the sanctions and we will work with members of the United Nations to help make that happen. The Iraqi people deserve nothing less.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) something else, in fairness, Senator Kerry criticized in a press release the White House for being silent on the Santorum remarks. So if you want to rebut that, get your voice on that story, you could pose that as well. When you talk to the president about Greenspan, if you ask about Santorum, I'd appreciate it.

FLEISCHER: See if I have anything or not.

QUESTION: Is the administration promoting Ahmed Chalabi for a top job in Iraq, and have you looked into his record? He seems to have had some trouble in banking in Jordan. FLEISCHER: There are going to be a number of people, many of whom live inside Iraq and have lived there under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, and others who fled Iraq some time ago, whatever the period of time is, who now desire to return to Iraq their country. Our job is not to pick who will be in what position. This is something that's going to evolve from the bottom up, from the Iraqi people up with our assistance.

The United States is pleased that so many people, including Mr. Chalabi, have chosen to leave the comfort of the United States for Iraq. It's a sign of a country that has a bright future when people want to return to it like this. So we welcome the fact that he is there to help make a brighter future for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't have specific knowledge about everything in his background, but clearly he is one of the people the United States has looked to as a possible way of helping the Iraqi people. There are many others as well.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: You spoke of the new government evolving up out of the Iraqi people. It seems that one of the choices before the Iraqis -- and one that we're hearing a lot from Shiite Muslims -- is an Islamic state, perhaps modeled along the Iranian government. Would the United States support that?

FLEISCHER: The goals of a liberated Iraq, from the point of view about what type of government the United States seeks, is a democracy, a country that welcomes different religions, that has freedom of speech, freedom to worship, free press. Those are the goals that we look to in the reconstruction. We want to make certain that elements of the previous Baathist regime are not able to return to positions of power.

FLEISCHER: Those are the parameters under which we are working. Beyond that, we have faith that working with the Iraqi people, they will sort through all the variety of issues. We want to make sure that's a united Iraq that represents the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Kurds, others as well.

QUESTION: But if the majority of the Iraqi people, who are Shiite Muslims, chose an Islamic state as the government that they wanted, what would be the United States response?

FLEISCHER: Well, I outlined to you the parameters that we are working with the Iraqi people on, and it has to be in accordance with those principles of democracy and freedom and tolerance. That is our goals. And that's not inconsistent with a state that has religious elements to it. Certainly, you can have a state that has religious elements to it that welcomes openness and worship and freedom.

QUESTION: But we would oppose political elements in Iraq that wanted to set up a state that didn't express tolerance for all religions, that didn't respect freedom of speech. We would oppose that.

FLEISCHER: Clearly, one of the issues that the previous Iraqi regime used to pit one group of Iraqis against another was religion. Saddam Hussein in many ways and his Baathist leaders kept themselves in power by pitting Sunnis against Shiites, by oppressing the Kurds. And the president has said repeatedly that one of the goals of this is a liberated Iraq. It will be a united Iraq where all parties will feel free to worship and to live in peace.

QUESTION: So those Iraqis who might want a state along the line of Iran's are out of luck when it comes to...

FLEISCHER: Well, Iran certainly is not an example of a democracy or a country in which people are free. So certainly we want to make certain that out of the liberation of Iraq, it is not replaced by another different type of dictatorship.

QUESTION: And then just one more related. There's a Saudi paper reporting that a direct channel of communication has opened between the United States and Iran, through Iran's U.N. ambassador and Mr. Khalilzad, the special envoy to Afghanistan. Is that true?

FLEISCHER: Not familiar with it in regard to that specific channel, but clearly, we do those channels where we talk to the Iranians. We've done it before. We did it, for example, in the rebuilding of Afghanistan through the Bonn conference.

QUESTION: Back on Mr. Greenspan, Ari, has the chairman indicated to the president whether he wants another term?

FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to give you that information. I don't know. I just wanted to report to you what the president said.

QUESTION: Well, why does the president want him to have another term?

FLEISCHER: Because he thinks he's doing a very able job stewarding the economy.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tax cuts, for example?

FLEISCHER: The president thinks he has done a very able job as a steward of the economy, making certain that we had the proper monetary policies in place.

FLEISCHER: And the president was asked a direct question about it today in a meeting with other reporters, and so that's the president's answer on the question he got.

QUESTION: On the weapons inspectors again, you very strongly indicated this morning that the administration was opposed to them going back to Iraq. Other administration officials have said on background in the last few days that they're very much opposed to it. What is the downside of having 100 or so people in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction? Isn't that more eyes on the problem? FLEISCHER: Well, what I said this morning was we're looking forward not backwards, the regime is gone and we'll need a new framework. That's what I said, and I said we'll look forward to working with the United Nations on it.

QUESTION: To answer my question specifically, what does the administration consider the downside of having them in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, we have a coalition that is working on the ground to dismantle Iraq's WMD programs, and we think that's going to be effective, we think it will get the job done, and the bottom line is the president wants to focus things on the most effective to get the job done.

QUESTION: So there'd be too many people involved? I mean, I can't -- does that mean you (inaudible) have sufficient people in Iraq now doing the job?

FLEISCHER: No, we have high confidence in the ability of the people who are there now to do the job.

QUESTION: Do you think the weapons inspectors were competent?

FLEISCHER: No, we have high confidence in the people who are there now to do the job.

QUESTION: Would the president support a delay in a cut in the top income tax rate in order to decrease the size of the tax cut proposal?

FLEISCHER: No.

QUESTION: He does not support that? Did Secretary Snow misspeak when he told the Wall Street Journal that the administration would support that? FLEISCHER: Secretary Snow did not say that to the Wall Street Journal. If you read the story you'll see there's no quote from Secretary Snow saying that. There is a reference, but it's not tied to anything Snow said. I think it was a misread of what the secretary was saying.

The secretary understands, in fact, he said that in order to give the most "ummph," the secretary's word, to the economy it's vital that all the rates be cut and cut immediately. The acceleration of the rate cuts take place immediately to give the most ummph to the economy.

That's particularly true when you take a look at what we've always said about the stimulus package pending on the Hill. There are two parts to it. The 100-percent dividend exclusion, which the president will fight for, is a longer-term growth piece.

The acceleration of the child tax credit, marriage penalty relief and income tax rate reductions, all of that has an immediate impact on the economy. Delaying that delays help to people who are looking for work. And that's why Secretary Snow and the administration have consistently said those pieces need to be accelerated across the board so they are effective immediately.

QUESTION: OK, would the White House then -- is it correct that the White House does support, though, cutting dividend taxes initially by only 50 percent, and then phasing in a full repeal over 10 years?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is going to fight for 100 percent exclusion on dividends. He believes that is the right policy, he wouldn't have proposed it if he didn't think it was right, he thinks it's still right. In fact, when you look at the economy it's even more right now.

We'll work with Congress on the entire economic package. Congress has an important role to play here.

FLEISCHER: After all, they craft it. And so we have been working with the Ways and Means Committee and others on the exact details of it. But make no mistake, the president is going to fight for 100 percent exclusion.

QUESTION: Ari, there's been talk about lifting sanctions against Iraq in stages. How does the White House see that?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president said that he wants to have the sanctions lifted. Of course, this is a United Nations matter and we will work, as I indicated at the top, with the United Nations on the exact way to get this done. We look forward to listening to our friends and hearing ideas there.

But make no mistake, why should any nation support imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people now? Sanctions equal Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is gone. It is wrong now to leave sanctions on the people of Iraq, they don't deserve it.

QUESTION: But there is a linkage with weapons inspections, and the U.N. has to determine that there are no further weapons of mass destruction there before they lift those sanctions.

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly the United Nations has the ability to pass new resolutions that supersede old resolutions, particularly when the old resolutions are predicated on the existence of a regime that is now gone. Certainly you don't have to repeat what you did before when circumstances change. So the United Nations has at its disposal the ability to lift sanctions forthright if they so choose. The president hopes they will.

QUESTION: How can you expect the Security Council to approve something like that? There's a lot of opposition in that Security Council to any idea of de-linkage.

FLEISCHER: It's just that it's very hard to imagine the Security Council will want to inflict any more harm on the Iraqi people than they've already been through under the regime of Saddam Hussein. This is not about the Iraqi people. This is about Saddam Hussein. Sanctions were about Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi people do not deserve to be under sanctions from the United Nations. QUESTION: If you do not allow U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, then what is the administration's plan for ensuring a chain of custody that would be internationally recognized, including by members of the Security Council? FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that procedures have been put in place that you've had described to you in great detail from the briefers in the gulf about the process that is under way for the coalition forces to search for weapons of mass destruction.

The information that we are receiving as a result of the capture of certain individuals, the thousands of pages of documents that we are now receiving as a result of the successful liberation of Iraq, the analysis of these documents, and the interviews of others who are associated with the programs are just beginning. And we have been very transparent and visible about all of that.

And I think that there will be no question in the eyes of the world, including the reporters who remain in Iraq, at the end of the day, when the analysis is complete, that the process has been one of integrity, one of reliability and one of accuracy.

Who has been more cautious than anybody in confirming some of the preliminary reports about findings of WMD? It's been the United States and the United States military. This is a very cautious approach, a very accurate approach, and I think that at the end of the day, when the weapons are found, there will be no dispute among people about -- no dispute among reasonable people about the very issues that you raised. You've been watching the process yourself. We have many reporters there.

QUESTION: But reporters are not trained inspectors and reporters often don't know what they're looking at, and the people at the United Nations who do this...

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Well, wait a minute.

QUESTION: With all due respect to us.

FLEISCHER: It's why I said I think the process will be a transparent one. I think it's one that the world will receive the assurances that Iraq has been disarmed. But that should not be confused with the purpose of having sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people previously. Those sanctions were there to prevent Saddam Hussein and his regime from using weapons of mass destruction. I don't think there's any question anymore that people fear that the regime will come back to use these weapons of mass destruction. They simply won't.

QUESTION: Newt Gingrich today characterized the build-up to the gulf war, and then the prosecution of it, as six months of diplomatic failures followed by a month of military success.

Do you have a problem with that characterization, and what is it? And I have a follow to that. FLEISCHER: Well, the president viewed the diplomatic process as a very important process that allowed for the military success to take place. And the process that the State Department followed, and Secretary Powell led, was the president's process. This is a process that the president decided on in his speech to the United Nations in September, and the fact of the matter is the State Department and Secretary Powell did an excellent job at ushering through that process.

There were others who complicated the process in the Security Council. That in no way is reflective of the State Department or what the president thinks about the State Department or Secretary Powell's superb efforts.

QUESTION: Mr. Gingrich also called the prospect of Secretary Powell going to Damascus to meet with Bashar Assad ludicrous, and he sharply criticized the quartet, saying it was wrong for the U.S. to place, in effect, a veto at the hands of the United Nations, Europe and Russia in Middle East peace negotiations.

You have a problem with either of those?

FLEISCHER: You know, one of the things I think that you have seen in the president's conduct of foreign policy now for some almost two and half years, when you go back to the P-3 incident in China, when you go back to take a look at what happened in the lead-up to the events and military operation in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq, you see a president who lays out in very clear moral terms the beginning of a debate and what he stands for.

He's willing to speak in terms of good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. And then he empowers Secretary Powell and the State Department to conduct the diplomacy required to help make the end goals that he seeks doable.

And that is exactly why this president has been so successful in his conduct of foreign policy. He believes in diplomacy, he applies diplomacy, Secretary Powell is an able, able diplomat. And that is the president's approach, and it's been a proven and successful approach.

QUESTION: But Gingrich says specifically, if you're talking about speaking in terms of good and evil, that what's wrong about Powell going to Damascus is Bashar Assad is a dictator, and Gingrich says it is wrong for U.S. officials to meet with him.

FLEISCHER: The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria and we intend to use those diplomatic relations to good purposes to further America's goals in the region, and that's where the president will press diplomacy to support the president's policies.

QUESTION: And on one final thing, the quartet and giving what amounts to, in Gingrich's consideration, a veto power to Russia, the EU and the United Nations in Mideast relations. Is that, in fact, the case... FLEISCHER: Well, the future of the road map is up to Israel and the Palestinians. Those are the parties that will determine the acceptance of the road map.

The quartet was helpful, of course, in producing the road map. We've worked with the quartet on the road map, the road map will hopefully be offered soon to the parties, as soon as the Palestinians are able to move forward with the confirmation of their new cabinet, and then it'll be a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians to move forward productively.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, briefing reporters, answering reporters' questions, taking a hardline, a tough stance, as far as letting those U.N. weapons inspectors and Dr. Hans Blix come back to Iraq. Also, once again, calling for the immediate lifting of sanctions against Iraq, now that Saddam Hussein's regime is no longer in power.

There are important developments unfolding at the United Nations right now. I want to bring in our correspondent Michael Okwu to update us on what's happening there -- Michael.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Hans Blix has been talking behind closed doors with the Security Council, talking about the readiness of his inspectors to go back into the country. Upstaged a little bit by the French ambassador, Jean Marc Delesabrier (ph), just moments ago, coming forward to the microphone to say that the French would like to propose an immediate cessation to some of the civilian sanctions that have been imposed on Iraq since the early 1990s.

Now, Blix was here to talk to Security Council diplomats again about just what kind of role the U.N. inspectors could play in Baghdad and in the rest of the country.

As of this date, he has already made it very clear that he could take some of his inspectors, some 85 inspectors, and go back into the country within a matter of about two weeks.

The U.S., of course, has been saying all along that they do not see any need imminently for inspectors to return back into the country, if at all.

In fact, the United States has been saying that you should not expect anything about this within the next week or so. They've been meeting behind closed doors. Certainly in the nation's capital as well as here in New York to try to discuss what kind of mood the U.S. could make.

In the meantime, the chief weapons inspector has come out with fiery words against the United States and Britain, appearing on radio. He said -- quote -- "I think it's been one of the disturbing elements that so much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seems to have been shaky," making a reference to the arguments that the U.S. and Great Britain made that there are, in fact, weapons of mass destruction in justifying war with Iraq -- Wolf. BLITZER: Michael Okwu, watching the situation unfold at the United Nations. Michael, thanks very much. I want to get some analysis now, what's happening in Iraq.

Fawas Gerges is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

Before we get to the whole issue of democracy in Iraq, talk to us a little bit about what's happening right now in Karbala, the southern part of Iraq, south of Baghdad, where we see perhaps as many as two million Shiites doing what they weren't allowed to do, make this pilgrimage to this holy city. Is this potentially, potentially a negative for U.S. interests in that part of the world?

FAWAS GERGES, SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE: Well, not necessarily at all. I think the Shiites in Iraq now are free. They are free to celebrate. They are free to -- I mean, engage in religious festivals. I think the big point, Wolf, here is that the internal balance of power in Iraq has dramatically shifted in favor of the Shiite community. The Shiite community presents more than 60 percent of Iraqi population, and as you know, for the last, I would say since 1958, the Shiite community has been marginalized, even though many elements played an important role in Iraqi political and social life. And I think a more important point than the empowerment of the Shiite community is that the religiously oriented segment within the Shiite community now feels empowered. And I think it's this religiously oriented Shiite community that can play a decisive role in determining Iraq's future.

And I think we should not be surprised if out of this particular empowerment, that is the of the religiously oriented Shiite community is faced with religious sentiments, or rather an Islamic state emerges in Iraq. We should not be surprised at all if the secular regime of Saddam Hussein is not replaced by an Islamic state in the next two or three years from now.

BLITZER: If that were to happen, if the Shiites, who represent estimated to be about two-thirds of the population of Iraq, if they were to create their own sort of Islamic fundamentalist state, along the lines of Iran, that would turn off the Sunnis, that would turn off the Kurds, and that could set the stage for the breakdown of what is the territorial integrity of Iraq today.

GERGES: Well, let's -- as you know, that's one particular scenario. One particular scenario is that Iraq could fracture and descend into civil strife. As a result, you might say, of the mobilization of religious, ethnic and tribal sentiments. One would hope that in the next few months and next few years that more alliances, coalition building, in Iraq take place, not only between the Shiites and Sunnis, but between the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds.

And one would also hope the secular elements within the Shiite community would also begin to make alliances with the Sunnis and Kurds. Let's remember that the Shiite community does not act as a crowd. The Shiite community is divided, not just along religious and ethnic lines, but all along class and ideology. There's a large element, secular urbanized element within the Shiite community, intercommunal alliances help tremendously in this regard -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fawas Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, as usual, thank you very much for your expertise.

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