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Secretary Cohen Press Conference in Doha, Qatar

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
November 18, 2000

(Press conference in Doha, Qatar)

Cohen: Good evening. I want to thank the amir for hosting this brief but important visit to Qatar. This is my ninth trip to Qatar as secretary of Defense, and on each trip I discuss ways that we can work together to promote peace and improve security in the region. The United States is committed to a stable and secure Middle East.

That is why we station troops and pre-position equipment in the region and conduct military exercises with members of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]. Much of our effort is directed at containing Iraq from rebuilding its military and attacking its neighbors again.

At the same time, the United States has worked to help the people of Iraq by sponsoring the Oil for Food program and its expansion, most recently in UN Security Council Resolution 1284.

Because of the Oil for Food Program, more of Iraq's oil revenues are being devoted to the purchase of food and medicine today than before sanctions were imposed - a fact that is not often reported by the press. Saddam Hussein can end the sanctions completely by complying with Security Council resolutions adopted after his attack against Iraq's Arab neighbor.

While containing Iraq, we are also working with other nations to discourage Iran from building weapons of mass destruction. Although there are signs of encouraging political change in Tehran, Iran's program to build weapons of mass destruction poses a serious threat to stability in the region.

Another important element of the U.S. commitment to peace and stability in the region is our effort to help secure a Middle East peace agreement. As the death toll of the Palestinians and Israelis mounts, the need to stop the violence becomes clearer and clearer. Both sides must stop the fighting and begin talking. A resumption of peace talks is the only way to reduce the tension that could destabilize the entire region. The United States is as committed to helping achieving peace in the Middle East today as it was when it played a role in negotiating the Camp David accords more than 20 years ago.

This is the time for all countries to work for new solutions to old problems, so that we can build a peaceful, prosperous future, rather than relive a troubled past. The relationship between Qatar and the U.S. is strong because we both want security in the region. With that let me entertain some questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what do you think of the Russian proposal to establish a Gulf security system, including Iran and Iraq?

Cohen: Well, I have not reviewed the Russian proposal and would defer any comment until I've had time to study what that proposal is.

Q: What about the explosion in Riyadh? Has it forced you to take additional security measures? Also, why have you criticized the OIC [Organization of Islamic Conference] summit resolutions?

Cohen: I really don't have any more information. I've been travelling all day today and haven't heard any further information about the explosion. I think it is clear that acts of terrorism will continue to take place throughout the region unless we are able to take measures to discourage and deter those individuals and those groups who support it. We are very familiar with what happened to the USS Cole, an act of terrorism that put a very large hole in one of our ships, killing seventeen and wounding fifty. We want to do whatever we can to prevent such acts of terrorism from taking place in the future but it's also clear that we have to be on very high alert for future acts. And that may be the situation that occurred in Saudi Arabia. I just have not had a chance to be fully briefed on the situation.

Q: The U.S. rushed to the region in 1990 to save Kuwait. Why is the U.S. against an international force to protect the Palestinian people under occupation? Isn't that a double standard? Are you intending to continue attacks on North and South Iraq in spite of the fact that this is illegal according to the UN?

Cohen: The U.S. and our British friends intend to continue to enforce the no-fly zones. As a matter of fact, as a result of the enforcement of those no-fly zones, Saddam Hussein has been contained and is not in a position to pose a threat to Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia or anyone else. And a failure to enforce those no-fly zones would give Saddam Hussein the opportunity to once again threaten his neighbors. With respect to an international peacekeeping force, I believe that the United Nations itself has indicated that it would not be prepared to put any peacekeeping force into the region until both parties, all parties, agree to such a situation.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I believe there were some recent arrests in Qatar of suspected terrorists. Is that the kind of thing that keeps U.S. forces on highest alert here and will that continue for some time?

Cohen: We will continue to keep our forces on the level of alert that the situation dictates. To the extent that we are aware of intelligence reports that individuals or groups of individuals are seeking to commit acts of terrorism, then our highest priority has to be to protect our forces that are in the region. Force protection is the very highest priority that we have. And so we will look at all the intelligence reports, we will coordinate with local authorities, we will share that information throughout the region because it's in everyone's interest to prevent such attacks from taking place. We evaluate it on a day by day basis and if the threat is reduced, then obviously the security situation can reflect that.

Q: There were news reports about Gulf nationals being arrested in Qatar and Kuwait during their planning to attack U.S. interests. Can you confirm that? During the Islamic summit in Doha, it was announced that Qatar would mediate between Iraq and Kuwait. What is the U.S. position?

Cohen: We have indicated with respect to Iraq and Kuwait, the only mediation that has to take place is for Iraq to comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions. Let's review the situation: Iraq invaded Kuwait. They had to be forcibly driven from Kuwait. They committed great acts of destruction upon the Kuwaiti people, killing many and taking others as prisoners and failing to account for them. Sanctions were imposed by the UN, and as part of those sanctions, Iraq is required to allow inspectors to determine whether or not they have biological, chemical, or indeed even nuclear weapons with a missile to deliver them. Iraq has refused to allow the inspectors on their territory to conduct these inspections, which is a violation. The sanctions must remain in effect until at such time that they allow the inspectors back in to do their work.

Now, I want to point out as I did in my opening statement that the Arab population feels very strongly about the suffering that the Iraqi people have endured. I need to continue to point out that there is one person responsible for that. Whatever deprivation is taking place, that deprivation is taking place because Saddam refuses to comply with the Security Council resolutions, point number one. Point number two, that prior to the Gulf War, prior to Desert Storm, Iraq had oil revenues of roughly 13 billion dollars. The overwhelming majority, as much as 80 or 90 percent of that went for building a war machine. Since that time, today, there are roughly 13 to 15 billion dollars of revenues coming in from oil. As much as 80 or 85 or 90 percent of that oil revenue is going for humanitarian purposes and not for the war machine. And so as a result of the Oil for Food program, more revenue is being devoted to help the people of Iraq than Saddam was doing prior to that time. So there is a way to relieve any further suffering or deprivation on the part of the Iraqi people, and that is for Saddam to comply with the Security Council Resolutions and importantly for the members of the UN Security Council to enforce their own resolutions rather than in any way minimizing them or watering them down.

I cannot confirm your first question. We will have to await the outcome of the arrest and the declaration by the authorities.

Q: You mentioned in Bahrain that the U.S. forces would not leave the Gulf. Couldn't that be considered a violation of the sovereignty of the Gulf states?

Cohen: I should be very clear about this. We are in the Gulf region at the invitation of the Gulf states. We do not go anywhere where we are not invited. We do not seek territory. What we seek is to promote security and stability in the region. And each of the Gulf states understands that the U.S. plays a key role in providing that stability so that each individual state can enjoy prosperity. So the U.S. is not here by force, it is here by invitation, and to the extent that we continue to be invited to play a role in promoting peace and stability, we intend to stay. And no terrorist, no act is going to drive us from the region. We are here at the pleasure of the states and we will stay as long as we continue to be invited.

Q: The GCC states say that Iraq does not present a threat to the countries in the region, whereas the US keeps saying that Iraq is a threat to its neighbors. Can you comment on this?

Cohen: The GCC states continue to support the enforcement of the sanctions against Iraq. The GCC states understand that Saddam Hussein, if the sanctions are to be lifted without his compliance with the UN security council resolutions, will go back to doing what Saddam does best, and that's build a military machine which will pose a threat to the neighbors. And so all of us must understand that Saddam must and should comply with the Security Council resolutions. And once that happens, then Iraq can join the international community. But until that happens, Iraq will continue to be subject to the sanctions. And I think that all of the GCC states understand and support that.

Q: There is a story in the paper today about a man apparently related to the royal family here who has given a 747 to Saddam Hussein. I'm wondering if you could tell us your view on that and whether or not you discussed this in your meeting today and, if so, could you characterize the discussion. And in particular could you tell us if you asked them to publicly condemn that?

Cohen: We did have discussions about that. It was explained to me that this was an individual who is not part of the government, who was acting solely on his own with his own property and it does not in any way reflect the policy of the Qatari government. So this is an act of a private individual, and not the government.

Q: Have you discussed with the Qatari officials the matter of reopening the Israeli trade office in Doha and what is the American position on this issue, the closure issue?

Cohen: I would hope that the government of Qatar would reopen its office with Israel as soon as possible. I believe that in times such as these it is even more important to keep open the lines of communication with all parties concerned. But that is a decision that only the government can make. They were among the first countries to open such an office, and I would hope that they would be in a position to reopen the office as soon as they feel that it is possible to do so.

Q: Qatar is proposing an initiative for rapprochement between Iraq and Kuwait. Does this approach contradict US policy?

Cohen: I really am not in a position to comment on such a proposal.