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Secretary Cohen Press Conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
November 19, 2000

(Press Conference in Kuwait City, State of Kuwait)

Cohen: Good morning. I have just finished good meetings with the amir, the crown prince, the foreign minister and the defense minister. We discussed the security challenges in the Gulf, and I made it clear that the United States is committed to protecting its friends, while working with our partners for a peaceful, prosperous and stable region.

Security relations between Kuwait and the United States have never been stronger. One sign is Kuwait's outstanding performance in the areas of troop support, counter-terrorism and force protection. While our forces help to protect Kuwait, Kuwait has made it clear that it is determined to protect our troops, and the U.S. appreciates this very much. As long as our partners believe United States forces are needed to defend the region, we will stay; terrorists will not be able to drive us out. Over the last decade, the United States has demonstrated repeatedly its commitment to defend Kuwait against aggression. Our military force in Kuwait has increased, and Kuwait has improved the readiness of its forces. In particular, Kuwait's naval and coast guard forces are working successfully to protect Kuwait's coastline and to interdict the smugglers trying to evade United Nations security sanctions on Iraq.

The containment policy is working and will continue as long as Saddam Hussein poses a threat to his neighbors and to his own people. The United States and Kuwait are resolved and we maintain this resolve very strongly --stronger than the enemy that we face. Another important part of our commitment to security in the region is our continuing efforts to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A resumption of peace talks is the only way to reduce the tension that could destabilize the entire region.

This is my ninth and last trip to the region as Secretary of Defense and I leave knowing that the United States and Kuwait will continue to work together for security, peace and stability. Thank you.

Q: Secretary Cohen, what about U.S. policy in Yemen. Are we still refueling ships in Yemen and plan to do so in the future? Or will that policy change? Have there been any changes? And how close are you to finding out who planted that terrorist bomb on the Cole.

Cohen: Well, the FBI continues to conduct its investigation into the terrorist bombing. I think the investigation has been quite successful to date. I have talked personally with Director Freeh. They are following up on a number of leads. It is too early and premature to reach any conclusion at this point, but I must say that he has been quite impressed with the level of cooperation he has received and the pace of the investigation to date.

There has been no change in policy pertaining to Yemen. We will await the outcome of the investigation before making a determination as to what our policy will be with respect to future visits.

Q: What can you tell us about the Kuwaitis who were arrested in the alleged bombing plot. How many were there? And where does their case stand now in court?

Cohen: I am told that approximately half a dozen people have been arrested and that some explosives were found, some blasting caps, too. Beyond that, I think the matter is still under investigation and those who have been arrested are being interrogated to find out more about it. But I think it is again too early to reach any judgements yet, and this will be a matter for the Kuwaitis to discuss.

Q: Two questions please. There are some Gulf countries, such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are calling for lifting the sanctions and they are calling for a dialogue between Kuwait and Iraq. What do you make of this? And the second question. Is there any relationship between the terrorist attack on the American Marines and those captured in Kuwait?

Cohen: The attack on which Marines, on the Cole? Your first question again was on the governments who want to see the lifting of the sanctions? Well, dialogue with Iraq. I see many of you wearing this pin. Dialogue with Iraq: all Iraq has to do in terms of dialogue is to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. It is very clear that the international community condemned what Iraq did by invading Kuwait, destroying large segments of the city, killing many people, taking prisoners and not accounting for those missing in action. It is very clear what Iraq has to do in terms of dialogue: simply open up its doors, allow the inspectors from the United Nations to come in in order to satisfy those inspectors that they are in fact complying with what the United Nations and the international community has dictated that they must do before they can be welcomed back to the international community.

And so for those who are calling for the lifting of the sanctions, I would simply remind them that Saddam has violated the UN Security Council resolutions. He has evicted and thrown out the inspectors. And now he asks for the lifting of the sanctions. If the sanctions were to be lifted under these circumstances where there has been non-compliance, an absolute flouting of the rule of law, then it would undermine the credibility of the United Nations in itself. And UN Security Council resolutions would become rather meaningless in the future. And so Saddam has a way to provide relief to his people.

And I would point out as I have on many occasions, that prior to the Gulf War, Saddam had roughly thirteen billion dollars in revenue from the sale of oil. Approximately 90 percent or higher of that amount went for his war machine. Today he is receiving between 13 and 15 billion dollars from the sale of oil under the Oil for Food program, 90 percent of it going for humanitarian purposes and not for his war machine.

And so when people call for the lifting of the sanctions, there is a way for that to be achieved, and that is for Saddam to comply fully with his obligations under the international rule of law. The second question had to do with the bombing of the USS Cole and what is taking place. We have no way of judging whether there is any connection at this point. It is premature; we do not have evidence that there is such a connection, at this point.

Q: Also on the Kuwaiti arrest. What were the specific targets that they were targeting and how did you learn about the arrest?

Cohen: I have no idea what the specific targets were and I have no information pertaining to what their objectives were at this point. That is a matter which is still under interrogation and investigation by the Kuwaiti officials.

Q: How do you know that they were targeting U.S. interests?

Cohen: I don't know that they were. I can only base my information on reports that I have read in the press. This is something that again remains undetermined.

Q: I have two questions. First of all, do you think that the terrorism network is covering the Gulf area against the American forces and their presence? Is it against the American forces in the Gulf?

Cohen: Well, the terrorists will direct their violence against wherever they see opportunities. That is a reason we have such a high premium on force protection for our forces. That is the reason that Kuwait devotes as much as it does to protecting its forces. Acts of terrorism can be directed to those that are most vulnerable. It will not be directed only against Americans. We saw bombings take place in East Africa. Most of those who were killed happened to be Africans and not Americans. So bombs will go off in places that will kill non-Americans as well as Americans.

Q: Sir, did you discuss the Russian proposal of a new approach with Iraq, and the Iraq question? And what was your reaction and the Kuwaiti response?

Cohen: I raised the issue in terms of the Russian proposal to encourage, apparently this is again second hand, for Kuwait to no longer support the enforcement of no-fly zones. This would in fact, in my judgment, place some stress upon the security of Kuwait itself. The reason for the no-fly zones is to do precisely what they are doing, and that is to prevent Saddam Hussein from posing a threat to Kuwait or to his neighbors, and we intend to continue to enforce them. Anyone who suggests that those should be stopped seems to me is undercutting the UN Security Council resolutions themselves. Now, the Russians have signed on to the Security Council resolutions. They voted for them and we would anticipate that they would continue to support them. But this is a decision of course that the Kuwaiti government must make. But we believe that the enforcement of the no-fly zones has been responsible for protecting the security of Kuwait itself and we would anticipate that they would continue.

Q: In return for what would they stop supporting it? Would they get something?

Cohen: I don't know the details of that. I am told at least from what I have read and heard that this would be a so-called confidence building measure. I think the confidence building measure is for Saddam Hussein to stop flying in the no-fly zones, to stop firing at our pilots, and to demonstrate that he is prepared to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. That would be a very strong confidence building measure, which the Kuwaiti people and government and those in the region could then react to positively. Until that happens, we have a situation where Saddam is thumbing his nose at the international community, saying out with the inspectors, off with the sanctions and let me go back to being Saddam Hussein building my war machine again. And that is something that is unacceptable.

Q: Mr. Secretary, a number of military absentee ballots were apparently thrown out and some people are pretty upset, Senator Warner and others. Is there anything you plan to do about it? Apparently, it is because they were never postmarked? And maybe some other problems that were not the fault of the soldiers who sent in their ballots.

Cohen: That is my understanding. There is of course a rule prescribing how the absentee ballots must be filed. And the rule does in fact require that they be postmarked. In large facilities that is done automatically, in smaller facilities it must be done by hand. Apparently, I have only been apprised of this, some were not postmarked and have been discounted as such. I think that is very unfortunate. The last thing we want to do is make it harder for those who are wearing our uniform and serving overseas to be able to cast a ballot. I will look into the matter and see what can be done, but I am not sure that anything legally can be done at this point given the rules that are in effect.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I just have a couple of questions. On your last visit, there was talk about the early warning system. Where did that reach right now? And the other question, have you discussed the joint defense agreement with Kuwait that expires in September 2001? Have you been discussing it during this visit?

Cohen: I did not discuss that during this visit. We have had very good cooperation on the shared early warning. And I would like to point out that Kuwait has been in the forefront of countries in the Gulf dealing with the issue of the so-called CDI [Cooperative Defense Initiative], which involves shared early warning. This is something that is very important for the security in the region. We hope that all countries in the Gulf will take advantage of this opportunity, but Kuwait certainly has been in the forefront of this.