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Press Conference with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen in Manama, Bahrain

Presenters: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen in Manama, Bahrain
April 10, 2000

Saturday, April 8, 2000

(Press Conference with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen in Manama, Bahrain)

Secretary Cohen: Good morning! Before leaving Bahrain, I want to thank the amir and the crown prince for hosting this visit. Building on his father's legacy, Shaikh Hamad is leading Bahrain into a new century with strong leadership and policies offering new solutions to old problems. I am particularly impressed by the progress that Bahrain and Qatar have made to resolve their differences. This is an important contribution to peace and stability in the Gulf. Another contribution that Bahrain has made is the co-sponsorship of UN Security Council resolution 1284. This important resolution gives Baghdad the opportunity to work toward lifting of the UN sanctions by allowing UN arms inspectors back into Iraq.

The choice of course is up to Saddam Hussein: He can end the suffering of his people by complying with the Security Council resolutions, or he can impose additional hardships and suffering on his country by continuing to refuse to comply. The United States and Bahrain have worked together for peace and stability in the Gulf for more than 50 years. Bahrain participates actively in important military exercises that help prepare the United States and the GCC forces to work together for peace and stability and security. And Bahrain is a gracious host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Gulf between Iran and Arab nations. Both of our countries hope for better relations with Iran. But Iran's support for terrorism, its opposition to the Middle East peace process and the programs to build weapons of mass destruction are obstacles to better relations.

Let me say that I always enjoy my visits to Bahrain because they give me a chance to consult with Bahrain's leaders and to meet the U.S. forces that are stationed here. But this visit was particularly special and memorable because of the Bahrain international endurance ride that drew leaders from throughout the region, further demonstrating Bahrain's importance. It was a unique experience for me to be there yesterday and one perhaps that can be repeated on a frequent basis. Thank you!

Q: Mr. Secretary, France yesterday called the air strikes against Iraq pointless and deadly. In your visits to the region and in your talks with leaders of this area have you found any support for the air strikes and or have you found any suggestions that they could be reconsidered?

Secretary Cohen: No, we have found no change in support for continuing the sanctions against Iraq and continuing our efforts to contain Saddam Hussein. With respect to yesterday's strikes I had an opportunity to see the films of the strike operations and it was very clear from looking at the films that these were not civilians who were firing anti-aircraft at our airplanes. This was being maintained by military personnel and they should understand that if they are going to fire upon U.S. or British aircraft that are enforcing the no-fly zones, they can expect to be hit. We are very careful in looking at military targets and we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties and of course Iraq from time to time, perhaps even more frequently, is known to try to place their military equipment and their opportunities to fire and attack upon U.S.-British aircraft in civilian areas. But we take extraordinary measures to reduce that possibility that innocent civilians will be harmed. But I saw the films and it was very clear that their anti-aircraft firings against our aircraft only yesterday or the day before.

Q: Bahrain TV: Reports spoke of Iran recently seeking some sort of military co-operation accord with Saudi Arabia -- how do you elaborate on that one?

Secretary Cohen: As I have indicated, each nation must decide for itself what its foreign policy is going to be. With respect to Iran, I have indicated that the United States would like to have better relations with Iran but only on the conditions that Iran change its foreign policy in supporting terrorism, undermining the peace process, and also acquiring weapons of mass destruction. There can be no change in the U.S. policy toward Iran under those circumstances and I would hope that each country would take into account its own security needs and decide for itself what its policy should be toward Iran.

Q: Bahrain and some other Gulf countries are moving toward re-establishing diplomatic links with Iraq -- will this in any way contradict U.S. allied policy with Iraq on sanctions?

Secretary Cohen: We can speak for the United States policy toward Iran. Other countries will have to decide for themselves, what their relations with Iran should be. I would say that there have been some encouraging signs in terms of the political situation in Iran that the younger generation appears to want a different relation with the international community. But I think each country must be very careful in dealing with Iran to make sure they can satisfy themselves that Iran wants a peaceful, stable relationship with them. Each country will make that determination on its own. The United States policy will not change until such time as there is change coming from Iran.

Q: Are you going to have a new military base in Qatar. There is some report about you using Qatar as an aircraft -- ?

Secretary Cohen: There are discussions underway in terms of whether or not an airbase could be used in times of crisis -- in the event that there were a crisis situation in the region, whether or not an airbase could be used for that purpose.

Q: That includes any kind of crisis in what area -- military crisis?

Secretary Cohen: Military crisis, yes.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there has been talk that your recent visit to the region has been concerning establishing some kind of valid defense system for the GCC states. Does that mean there is such a threat and if so from where is the threat coming?

Secretary: Yes, I have been discussing with all of the gulf states the issue of the cooperative defense initiative, so-called CDI. And that is to discuss ways in which we could have what we called a shared early warning, if someone were to launch an attack against any one of the other gulf states and of course our own forces in the region that we could have an early warning capacity to help minimize the kind of damage that could be inflicted. But secondly to also prepare each of the countries for dealing with a chemical, biological type of attack, and that could come from certainly Iraq. We know that in the past, they have developed chemical and biological weapons, they were seeking to develop nuclear capability. We do know that Iran also is trying to acquire a nuclear capability as well as chemical and biologicals. So that is the reason for the desire on our part to try to develop a cooperative arrangement throughout the Gulf region to prepare defenses against that, both active and passive.

Q: A quick question: Why now -- it's been ten years since the Gulf War? And at that time when Iraq was still in its military strength there was no move to establish such kind of defense system. Why ten years later? Does that mean that the policy of the U.S. towards Iraq and Iran was not effective all these years and that the sanctions did not achieve the purpose?

Secretary Cohen: No, what it means is that the dissemination of this capability continues. That we have learned the lesson from the gulf war as a matter of fact. When I was serving on the Senate Arms Services Committee, back during that time, there were speculations in terms of how long it would take for Iraq to develop certain capabilities. For example, we had testimony that it might be a year, could be five, could be ten years before they could develop a nuclear capability. We found after the end of the gulf war, that they were much closer than we had anticipated at that time. We found after the war, that they had in fact weaponized a number of their warheads with chemical and biological agents and so we have learned the lesson from past experience, and what we need to do and understand is that this technology is continuing to proliferate and as long as it continues to proliferate, we have to take both active and defensive measures in order to protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and also our civilians. And that is the reason for it: to always be prepared and not to wait until there is an infliction of a catastrophic situation upon the people in the region, and then say why didn't we take precautions. We are trying to take precautions and that in itself can serve as a deterrent to the extent that any country understands that you are prepared to deal with that type of crisis, it helps to reduce the likelihood it will occur.

Q: Has there been any discussion during your visit here and previous visits, about expanding our U.S. military presence in this region?

Secretary Cohen: Not expanding our presence. I have indicated that we have had discussions in Qatar about the possibility of using a base in times of crisis for an air expeditionary type of unit so that we could in fact have access to help defend the area in times of a military crisis, but we have not talked about any expansion in the region.

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