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Last Updated: Friday, 4 April, 2003, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Transcript: Blair's BBC Arabic interview

Transcript of Tony Blair's interview with the BBC Arabic service.

Question: Mr Blair, we received quite a number of e-mails from Arabs in the Middle East and also callers from our programmes on the BBC Arabic radio that reflect a great deal of concern about what is happening in the region.

Many callers ask if you are today in Iraq, who next?

Answer: There is no question of who next, we are in Iraq for a particular reason and this is not a war against Iraq, it's a war against Saddam.

It is a war against Saddam because of the weapons and mass destruction that he has and it is a war against Saddam because of what he has done to the Iraqi people, to people who are brutally oppressed, to people who have no proper democratic rights, to people whose wealth he has plundered whilst he and his sons live in palaces and lead a wealthy lifestyle, the rest of the population, 60% of them, are dependent on food aid even though Iraq is a rich country.

Q: Sorry to interrupt, but Mr Powell and Mr Rumsfeld have expressed concern about Syria and Iran and they specifically warned Syria this week.

Does it mean that you are going to go with them if they are going to attack these two countries?

This has been about a 12 year struggle to make sure that the will of the United Nations which is that Saddam disarms himself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is upheld
Tony Blair

A: Well they have got absolutely no plans to attack those two countries. What they were saying is that it's important that neither country assists those forces loyal to Saddam who are fighting coalition forces but I think rather than people looking for the sort of conspiracy theories that Iraq one day and then a whole series of countries the next - this is not what this is about.

This has been about a 12 year struggle to make sure that the will of the United Nations which is that Saddam disarms himself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is upheld and also it is genuinely a war not of conquest but of liberation and the one thing I want to make absolutely clear is that at the end of this, Iraq is not going to be run by Americans or by British, or by any other outside power.

As soon as the process of transition is over, it is going to be run by Iraqi people and a broad and representative government, not a small clique and elite around someone like Saddam.

Q: What about the process of transition? How long do you think it will take? Is it fair to assume that after two months or four months, this might be seen as an occupation rather than as a liberation?

A: Well, I think that is exactly why it is important that we make the transition as quickly as possible.

Our interest is that an Iraq that is free, an Iraq that actually looks after its people rather than looks after Saddam is a Iraq that will be a responsible and sensible neighbour
Tony Blair

Once the conflict ends, obviously there is a period of time when the country is stabilising but as soon as possible we have got to put in place an Iraqi interim authority that will be run by Iraqis and should be as broad as possible and as representative as possible and then what we have got to do is to make sure that there is proper protection for human rights.

I mean just before I am speaking to you, I was speaking to five Iraqi exiles, all from different parts of Iraq, all of whom have got the most appalling stories of torture and abuse and repression at the hands of Saddam and all of whom who want to return to Iraq as a liberated country run for Iraqi people and if you say what's our interest in ensuring that Iraq is a free country, our interest is that an Iraq that is free, an Iraq that actually looks after its people rather than looks after Saddam is a Iraq that will be a responsible and sensible neighbour.

Q: Can we get an assertion or a time limit as to how long this transition period could be? There certainly is a limit after which it will be seen as an occupation? I think it cannot go indefinitely....

A. Absolutely. It can't go on indefinitely. I mean I cannot specify the number of weeks exactly or tell you what the exact time scale is because we do not know yet when the conflict is going to finish but what I can say to you is we do not want to stay, the Americans do not want to stay, a moment longer than is necessary, but there is obviously going to be a process of transition, and at the end of that it will be an Iraq run by, as I say, run by an Iraqi interim authority that will be made up of Iraqis, not of British or Americans.

Q: Back to the question about Syria and Iran. Do you think you have enough influence with the US Administration to prevent them from taking a military action that you might not be able to support or you might not be willing to support?

A: I have no absolutely no plan to do that. Look, there are concerns about the support for terrorism in certain of these countries, that's true.

But I have always thought that we can try and deal with these issues in a different way, I mean I think what we need to do is to look at this in really two dimensions.

The first is the issue of Iraq which for all the reasons I have given, the issues to do with weapons of mass destruction, at the end of the Gulf War, the way that Saddam has run his country, it is important for us to change the nature of that regime.

The second dimension, however, is to bring greater stability to the Middle East and in that my own judgement is the single most important thing we can do is to bring some hope to the situation between Israel and Palestine.

I mean, that is, when I talk to people throughout the Middle East, the thing they in fact feel most angry about, very few people support Saddam, anyone who knows the facts knows that he killed hundreds of thousands of people more than the British and the Americans would ever kill in any war of liberation but what they do feel very strongly about is the Middle East peace process and we have got a situation now where the President of the United States of America - he is the first President to do this - has laid out the two state vision, Israel recognised by everyone, confident about its security and a viable Palestinian state.

And I can tell you, I believe it is every bit as important that we make progress on that as we get rid of Saddam.

Q: Why now? There are loads of sceptics in the Middle East and we see that reflected in emails coming through bbcarabic.com as well as in our daily live programme Nuqtat Hewar (Talking Point): people are saying we have heard these promises before, we have seen that after the second Gulf War in Kuwait, we have seen that after the 11 September and we have heard these promises before. What makes this different?

A: Look, I totally understand why there's cynicism.

Of course there is and people say, look you have got the invasion of Iraq and this is why all this is now being done and the Middle East peace process.

And it is true also that is a process that has gone on for a long period of time. All I can say to you is that we have made it clear that the Road Map for the Middle East peace process will be published when the new Palestinian Prime Minister takes charge of this cabinet, that should happen in the next few days, so that Road Map which gives a proper peace plan for the Middle East, based on two states, drawn up by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, once that is published I think that will give a certain indication to people that we are serious about this.

And all I can say to you is that I have dealt with my own peace process back here at home in Northern Ireland where we have tried to bring people together over after years and years and decades of trouble and strife and difficulty between the British and the Irish.

You know, we have pushed that process through and I am totally committed to making this work in the Middle East peace process.

This is, as I say, I understand the cynicism I know what I say to people is: don't judge now, judge when we do it, but at least keep your mind open to see if we do.

It is important we do show that we are even-handed and for some of us we have been working on the issue of the Middle East peace process for a long time
Tony Blair

Q: Don't you think that there is a point there when they say that this is a ploy, the timing, a ploy that the Americans and the British are trying to do in order to get our consent for what's going on in Iraq, we have been asking for this for a long time.

If they are keen on liberating Iraqi, why haven't they liberated Palestinians, why do they bring the two issues together now?

A: Well again I think that's a very good point but I would answer it by saying that it is precisely at the moment when we are taking action against Saddam that it is important we do show that we are even-handed and for some of us we have been working on the issue of the Middle East peace process for a long time.

I hoped at some point under a previous Israeli prime minister, that it was possible to have peace deal. It wasn't ┐ and the thing has gone backwards now, in the last couple of years. Well we've got to try and drag it back forwards again. And that's what we're going to try and do.

We have a road map plan that was set out by the so-called quartet, as I say the EU, Russia, the US and the UN, and if we can make progress on that, I think it will give hope to people in the region.

Armed

But I understand why people in the region are cynical, and that's why I say to them: just keep your mind open at least. Don't assume that it's not going to happen, but judge us as to whether it does.

Q: Being even-handed, and double standards is another point that they keep on asking about, if weapons of mass destruction are such a bad thing, why have you not made such attempts with Israel to disarm Israel of its weapons of mass destruction?

A: Well it's not just Israel, of course, that is heavily armed.

Q: Well the Arabs are more concerned about Israel - it's their neighbour.

A: Of course, but the fact is there are a whole series of states in the Middle East that are.

But what makes Iraq different and unique is that Saddam has used these weapons against his own people, in Halabja, for example, where as a result of chemical attacks thousands of people died in a village.

He's butchered hundreds of thousands of people, and also he is in breach of specific UN resolutions that are applicable simply to him on this issue.

So I'm not saying there's not an issue to do with lots of different countries on weapons of mass destruction, but it's important to realise why Iraq is singled out in that way.

Q: Is there a point in waiting for a country to use weapons of mass destruction? Isn't it wiser to disarm a country of weapons of mass destruction before they have a chance to use them?

A: Well I would like to see a general process within the Middle East where we make it safer, deliver greater security, but it's important to realise that┐s not just an obligation on Israel, it's also an obligation on all the neighbouring Arab states too.

Viable

And what we want therefore is a situation in which Israel accepts that there has to be a viable Palestinian state, but the Arab world recognises and accepts the existence of Israel.

Q: Mr Sharon seems to have a different understanding of the road map, in the sense that he thinks it's negotiable and flexible. And Palestinians are worried. How can you comfort them?

A: I think people will be comforted when they see the details of it. As long as they accept that it also does protect Israel and its security.

Q: They already have accepted that. Mr Sharon would like to renegotiate that.

All I can tell you is that I know we will not get stability in the Middle East until this issue is resolved - I know that
Tony Blair

A: Yes, but what I think is important is to understand that the whole basis of the road map is the two state solution.

We worked very hard to try and change the basis of the Palestinian reform process, and Abu Mazen emerges as the Palestinian Prime Minister.

It's important, as I say, that he takes charge of his own cabinet and asserts his government, but people are going to have to make a judgement at the end of it as to whether we're serious about it or not.

All I can tell you is that I know we will not get stability in the Middle East until this issue is resolved - I know that.

Q: If it's the price of stability, why don't people get that in advance?

Instead of getting them to approve what's happening now, in order to be able to establish peace later?

A: I don't think you choose between the two - I think you need to do both. And that's why I think we make progress on both.

Wealthy

And I believe that a stable Iraq, a prosperous Iraq, because after all Iraq is potentially a hugely prosperous country, its people are potentially wealthy.

Before Saddam seized power, Iraq was a country which was more wealthy than Portugal or Malaysia.

So you do that in Iraq, but at the same time you make progress on the Middle East peace process.

I don't think you have to choose between the one and the other.

Q: Will you allow Mr. Blix and Mr Baradei to go back to Iraq, if you do and after you topple Saddam's regime, to continue the job they started before the war?

A: Well these are questions which we obviously have to discuss with the UN. I mean it will be important that we still disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

Exactly what process that is we will need to discuss with the UN.

Q: I don't think the UN would object, but probably the US would object...

A: I'm not sure you're right about that. I think it's just a question of discussing the best way of doing this.

Free

But of course the difficulty - the reason why the inspectors couldn't do their job in the end was because Saddam wouldn't co-operate.

And in particular, you know, this is a far easier thing to do if Iraqi scientists and the experts who have been working on their programmes are free to speak, but we know of course that up to now they haven┐t been.

Q: Many of our listeners who will be listening to you now from Iraq have lost relatives and homes.

What would you say to a mother or a father who has lost a child and is probably sitting now in what is left of his or her home in Basra or Baghdad? What would you say to win their hearts and minds?

The numbers that have lost their lives are only a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives under Saddam
Tony Blair

A: I would say this to people in Iraq: I know there will have been civilian casualties as a result of the military action.

We have done everything we can to minimise those. And some of the stories, for example the Baghdad street market bombs, that have been attributed to coalition forces, we don't believe are coalition forces at all.

But of course I accept that in military actions such as this there will be innocent civilians that have lost their lives.

But I would say to people in Iraq: the numbers that have lost their lives are only a small number compared with the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives under Saddam.

And our pledge to the people in Iraq is to make sure that they get the freedom, the ability to live their lives free from fear, they get representative government, they get protection of human rights, that the oil wealth of the country is used for them and not for a small elite at the top, and perhaps one very good example of how life will change is that at the moment, in Iraq, if people listen to the BBC World Service, that is an offence. In the Iraq of the future┐.

Q: We are not sure about that... Mr Blair, we have no evidence that...we know the opposite: We know that Iraqis in Iraq do listen to the BBC Arabic Service, and we don't know that anyone has been prosecuted for listening to the BBC Arabic Service.

A: We know that people do listen, but we also know that people who listen to outside media are subject to repression from the regime.

And in the Iraq which will be created in the future, people will be able to listen to whatever media they want to listen to.

Thugs

Now I've just been speaking, before I got interviewed by you, if you speak to some of these people who've actually been in Iraq, and have lived under Saddam; if you speak to some of the people now, that in the south of Iraq, where they're now realising the grip of Saddam has gone, and they're coming out and talking, you want to hear the stories from those people about how they've been treated by Saddam and his thugs over many, many years: now that's the change which we're trying to bring about.

Q: Do you think this will go down well with a mother who lost her child?

A: I think, look...there's nothing you can say that can adequately comfort someone in that situation. But it's important that people also take account of the pictures that they don't see on television.

You know, the torture chambers, of Saddam, that people listen, as I'm sure you will have on your programme, the people who are in exile.

Four million Iraqis are in exile out of a population of 22, 23 million. Now why are there four million exiles? There are four million exiles because the regime is Saddam.

So there's nothing you can say that can comfort someone in that situation. And that's the terrible thing about war.

But in the end the question will be: is the Iraq of the future going to be a better country than the Iraq under Saddam? And I believe it will be - and our commitment is to make sure it is.




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