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PRIME MINISTER'S ASSESSMENT OF LATEST MILITARY ACTION ON IRAQ

EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW GIVEN BY THE PRIME MINISTER, MR TONY BLAIR, FOR BBC WORLD SERVICE, LONDON, SATURDAY, 19 DECEMBER 1998

INTERVIEWER:
Prime Minister, with the onset of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, can you say if these attacks on Iraq are now going to stop?

PRIME MINISTER:
I obviously don't want to go into anything that may impact on operational decisions that we are taking because that is very important for the whole of this campaign but of course we are immensely sensitive to Ramadan and we have tried to be sensitive to Muslim sensibilities all the way through the campaign; it was part of the reason for making sure that we began this campaign before Ramadan began.

INTERVIEWER:
Is it likely that this is going to be wrapped up quite soon?

PRIME MINISTER:
Forgive me, but if I speculate on that I will stray into operational areas; but I do want to emphasise one thing very strongly: our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people, it is with Saddam Hussein and we have tried everything we can in order to limit the civilian damage that is done in the course of this campaign and we also want to try to point out to people in Iraq and indeed throughout the Arab World that of course Saddam Hussein could buy as much food and medicine for his people as he wants. The sanctions regime makes it quite clear that he can sell oil to buy that food, to buy that medicine, he doesn't do so. So this is not in any shape or form a campaign against the territorial integrity of Iraq or the Iraqi people, it is a campaign to contain a threat that Saddam poses not least to his immediate Arab neighbours.

INTERVIEWER:
The trouble is that those immediate Arab neighbours on behalf of whom you say you are in part taking this action aren't able to come out publicly and support it. Doesn't that show the degree of embarrassment that they face?

PRIME MINISTER:
No. I think what it indicates obviously is that they recognise, I believe, that Saddam is responsible for this because after all, they have faced so much misery at the hands of Saddam. It was Saddam that began the war in Iran that lasted eight years, over a million people killed; he then invaded Kuwait, again he was only repulsed when action was taken against him; he has taken the most appalling action against his own people, murdering thousands of them and indeed his whole regime is geared to repression. I understand of course the sensitivities of other Arab countries but I think you will find that they understand very well why we are taking this action.

INTERVIEWER:
Does that mean that they are saying privately to you that they support what you are doing?

PRIME MINISTER:
No, but I think that you should bear in mind the very strong statement that was issued by the Gulf Co-operation Council just a short time ago. That makes it clear that people realise Saddam entered into certain obligations that were necessary to enforce in the interests of stability and peace in the whole of the region and it is because Saddam has broken every promise he has made to co-operate with the weapons inspectors that we are taking this action now. We have tried everything we could to avoid it. For 15 months we have been in detailed negotiation, first of all back last October, he stopped co-operating when we started to discover he was trying to develop chemical and biological weapons of warfare; then finally, we came to an agreement in February, the Memorandum of Understanding with Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN; we held back from military action because Saddam promised absolutely that he would co-operate now with the inspectors, deliver up the documents, allow the personnel to be interviewed so that we got to the bottom of his weapons programme.

He broke that promise. In October, he withdrew all co-operation from the inspectors. On 14 November, we were ready to strike, we held back because Saddam again came forward with a last-minute promise right at the midnight hour that he would co-operate again and we warned him that time if he didn't co-operate this time we would have to act and this is what has happened. We have taken this action with the deepest regret, with a huge sense of responsibility but we have done it because we genuinely believe the stability of the world is at risk if this man is allowed to get back out of his cage again and threaten his region.

INTERVIEWER:
But isn't it still a problem for you that it is just yourselves, that is the British Government and the United States, that see fit to do this, that whatever arguments you put forward that you are upholding international law, the fact is that in the UN Security Council other permanent members do not agree with what you are doing and it looks to the popular feeling in the Islamic World and elsewhere as if this is a US/British vendetta against Saddam Hussein?

PRIME MINISTER:
I think everyone who looks at the history of this understands that that is not so and even those countries in the Security Council that disagree with the military action don't disagree 1) that Saddam is a menace and the UN has to have these weapons inspections and a means of curbing his military intent; and 2) nobody in the international community disputes the fact that he has broken his word again and again and again to the international community in his failure to co-operate with the UN regime. They may disagree with the military action, that is true, some of them, not all of them by any means, but nobody has disagreed on those first two points and our point simply from our standpoint is that if we don't take action now then he knows that we lack the will to prevent him developing these weapons.

INTERVIEWER:
Surely, though, there is the argument that what you are doing is actually going to be counter-productive? You spoke before about signs that his regime might be more fragile, aren't you actually bolstering his regime by pulling Iraqi popular opinion at least behind him against a common outside enemy?

PRIME MINISTER:
I think the Iraqi people know who is responsible for keeping them in a state of poverty, for depriving them of the oil money that could be used for buying food and medicine. He has turned virtually the entirety of his country into a semi-military complex for his own purposes. He is surrounded by this elite Special Republican Guard that visit terror on the rest of the population that guard Saddam. He has spent $1.2 billion in the last few years on his own palaces. He is a corrupt leader, he is a leader that represses and terrorises his own population and he is somebody that simply cannot be trusted in any shape or form at all and what we are doing by this military action is reducing significantly his military capability, his command-and-control systems, his air defence systems and of course, therefore, the threat that he poses to the neighbourhood.

INTERVIEWER:
How close are you to achieving those objectives?

PRIME MINISTER:
We are well on the way to achieving those objectives. We have done tremendous damage to the air defence system, to missile production, to his ability to fly for example these pilotless planes which could carry biological or chemical weapons, to his command-and-control systems, we are doing immense damage to the Special Republican Guard and we have carefully tried to limit any civilian damage. We have made a very precise campaign indeed, it has got a precise objective, we believe we will fulfil that objective and then we have got to work with our Arab partners and with others throughout the world to get a proper strategy to contain and stabilise the situation.

INTERVIEWER:
You say you have done your best to limit the civilian casualties but we have all seen the television pictures of civilian casualties in hospitals in Baghdad. What is your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER:
First of all, let us be very clear that Saddam is legendary for his ability to distort and use propaganda. He is showing the pictures that he wants shown. Journalists out in Baghdad are not as free as they are here to ask any questions they want of me or to go around this country, they can only go to certain parts that he is showing them. So I would treat with a great deal of caution any of the claims that he is making. Of course, I cannot pretend that in a campaign such as this there will not be some civilian casualties and we deeply, deeply regret that but think of the casualties there would be if we allowed Saddam back out of his cage and being a menace to the region and to the world; think of how many people died the last time he did so.

INTERVIEWER:
Does what is going on now mean that you have given up on UN weapons inspections and is it going to be a credible strategy to say that we will continue to maintain this military threat ad infinitum?

PRIME MINISTER:
We have obviously got to work out now what the forward strategy should be and we are consulting people very carefully about that. But you can rest assured that we will put in place sufficient diplomatic and military support to ensure that we can contain that and it would be wonderful if Saddam Hussein was removed from power. We cannot guarantee that, we cannot commit ourselves to that but the truth is, whilst he remains in power treating his people in the way that he is, he is always a danger.