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Middle East Digest - March 4, 2009


March 4, 2009

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of March 3, 2009

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11:02 a.m. EST

MR. DUGUID: Good morning, everyone. I’d like to read a statement to begin this morning’s briefing.

The United States is strongly committed to the pursuit of peace in Sudan, and believes those who have committed atrocities should be held accountable for their crimes.

We urge the Government of Sudan, armed rebel groups, and all others – all other concerned parties to exercise restraint in responding to the ICC arrest warrant that was issued today and to ensure the safety and security of vulnerable Sudanese populations, international civilians, and peacekeepers on the ground.

The United States will continue to support efforts to ease the suffering of the Sudanese people and to promote a just and durable peace. We remain committed to the full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to the conflict between North and South Sudan. We will also continue to support the UN-AU mediator Bassole’s efforts to achieve a permanent cessation of hostilities and a political settlement that will end the humanitarian crisis and bring a lasting peace to Darfur.

With that, I shall take your questions.

QUESTION: Are there any American personnel still in Darfur? What’s the situation at the Embassy? Are there any concerns that – even though you’re not a member of the ICC, that there might be some kind of a – there might be some kind of disturbance around your facilities?

MR. DUGUID: I checked just before coming out, so my information is as recent as I could have it, that the Embassy was open and functioning, that all American citizens were safe and accounted for. There had been protests in Khartoum, but there has been no violence that I am aware of at this particular point.

QUESTION: And in terms of Americans who might be in Darfur --

MR. DUGUID: In Darfur, I’ll have to check on that for you. I don’t have those particular figures. If we have anybody on the ground at the moment, it’s --

QUESTION: Apparently, all of the international NGOs have been called in and asked to leave. Do you have anything on that?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t. That would be something that the UN perhaps had organized. I don’t have any information on it. Our Embassy is, as I said, open and our people are at work.

Yes.

QUESTION: Since the United States is not a signatory to the ICC, if for some reason President Bashir were to be on U.S. soil, would the U.S. be under any obligation to arrest him and turn him over to international authorities?

MR. DUGUID: That’s a speculative question. I don’t expect President Bashir to be here anytime soon, so I will defer that question until it actually happens.

QUESTION: Well, it’s not a speculative question.

MR. DUGUID: Yes, the --

QUESTION: Forget about Bashir.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: If there’s – if the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for someone who then turns up on U.S. soil --

MR. DUGUID: The United States expects all parties to the conflict in Darfur to cooperate fully with the ICC and its prosecutors called upon by the relevant UN Security Council resolution. The question of whether or not someone charged by the ICC shows up on U.S. soil, what is the U.S. response for that, I’ll have to ask our lawyers to provide me with an answer.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I – because I don’t know if there is any obligation at all, but it’s not incredibly hypothetical to think that Bashir might come to the United States. I mean, a lot of world leaders go to the UN.

MR. DUGUID: The UN would be a different case as the diplomatic organization there.

QUESTION: They have to land at an airport on U.S. soil.

MR. DUGUID: They also have special arrangements for them. Let’s ask the lawyers to get us an answer on this so we are not speculating.

Yes.

QUESTION: I heard you in your statement say that you remain committed to the process, but I didn’t hear you say that you welcomed this step by the ICC. Can you say whether you do or not?

MR. DUGUID: Well, what the United States does is we expect all parties in Darfur to cooperate with this. We want to see an end to the violence in Darfur, we want to see an end to the violence in Sudan, and we want to see those who have committed atrocities held accountable for their actions and their crimes.

QUESTION: Would you count President Bashir among those?

MR. DUGUID: We would refer you to what the ICC has said, what the international community said, what we have supported in the UN on Sudan; and it is evident that the Government of Sudan has the brunt of the responsibility for what has happened in Darfur, and he is the head of that government.

QUESTION: So you would welcome President Bashir being taken to The Hague and placed on trial?

MR. DUGUID: We would welcome an end to the conflict and violence in Darfur and a peaceful resolution to the differences between the conflicting parties.

QUESTION: So this is a helpful step, then, toward that?

MR. DUGUID: This is a helpful – this is – can be a helpful step. We will see how it proceeds from here.

QUESTION: What is the status, though, of the U.S. – of diplomatic contact with President Bashir at all? Do you still – obviously, you still recognize him as the head of state, but you know, will U.S. diplomats meet with Bashir if the opportunity arises?

MR. DUGUID: We already carefully consider contact with Sudanese Government officials based on a need to try and help resolve the crisis. For example, the United States does not maintain full diplomatic relations with Sudan. We only have a chargé in place at the Embassy. But because we take the court’s actions very seriously, any official contacts with President Bashir would have to be carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis, very mindful of the indictment.

QUESTION: Well, can – I know that this is a new Administration, but the Bush Administration had called the atrocities in Darfur genocide.

MR. DUGUID: And I think you’ll find that Ambassador Rice did so --

QUESTION: Okay. So --

MR. DUGUID: -- just a few moments ago in the UN.

QUESTION: So I mean, if you could – you know, just to pick up where Kirit was about whether you welcome the decision and what cooperation did the United States have with the court in providing information to get the indictment?

MR. DUGUID: This was taken by the ICC, to which we are not a party and not a signatory; therefore, I am stating what our position is. Things that then run from the ICC’s own train of events, I have to refer you to the ICC.

QUESTION: Well, but I mean, were you – did you cooperate with the court? Did you provide the court information? You’ve always said that even though you’re not a party to the court, you can still cooperate with the court on --

MR. DUGUID: I’m not at liberty to discuss whatever diplomatic communication we may have had with the court. We do see this as a step that the Sudanese Government should take seriously and respond to in a positive manner in order to try and end the violence in Darfur.

Yes.

QUESTION: Whether or not you cooperate with the court, does the United States have independent evidence that Bashir and his aides have committed war crimes?

MR. DUGUID: As it’s now a matter for a court, I think I should refrain from making a statement on what might influence that court’s decisions.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. Has the U.S. cargo started moving in through Russia meant for Afghanistan, and what is the --

MR. DUGUID: Sorry, can we – anything more on --

QUESTION: No, it’s on Afghanistan.

MR. DUGUID: -- on this subject? Okay, next question, please.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. cargo started moving through Russia for Afghanistan?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: What’s the arrangement right now?

MR. DUGUID: Well, the arrangement is that the Russians have allowed for shipments to cross their territory and enter into Afghanistan in order to supply both coalition and ISAF forces. I believe the first shipment was completed yesterday. This was announced by the Russians at that time. For any other information on the U.S., I’d have to refer you to the Department of Defense.

Yes, please.

QUESTION: Different subject?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: The Secretary told Martha Raddatz of ABC on her travels that – well, first she expressed her deep concern about the case of Roxana Saberi, then she said that the U.S. would use every tool at its disposal to bring her home.

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: What are those tools that she’s considering?

MR. DUGUID: Right now, we’re working through our protecting power, the Swiss, in order to make sure that a consular officer has access, that Ms. Saberi receives legal counsel, and that any trial that would result from her charges is both transparent and follows the established judicial process.

As to other things that we might try in the future, I will not try and speculate on that. For right now, we want consular access, we want a lawyer to be able to talk to her and try and work through this in the judicial process.

QUESTION: Well, the Secretary’s comments seemed to preclude a trial. She wants Ms. Saberi brought home.

MR. DUGUID: As soon as possible, yes. But right now, she is in custody and we are trying to get her legal counsel. That is the first step.

QUESTION: Just one last thing. Have you heard anything back from the Swiss yet?

MR. DUGUID: The Swiss have confirmed what the Iranian judicial official said, that she is being held in custody in Iran. The particular facility is – I’m sorry, I’m going to mispronounce this – Evin prison.

Yes.

QUESTION: And the charge?

MR. DUGUID: I don’t have the charges for you. Those are still unclear to me.

QUESTION: Do you think that this puts a damper or casts a shadow over your positive comments and efforts to engage Iran?

MR. DUGUID: This is not the kind of response that anyone wants to see to freedom of the press, which is a basic right in most other countries. Arresting journalists and holding them incommunicado for lengthy periods of time is not in any society’s interest, and it’s certainly not something that the United States agrees with or looks on favorably.

QUESTION: Well, but it seems like even more of a slap in the face, considering the fact that here you are saying that you want a positive relationship with Iran, you want to have good relations, you want to – you’re planning to engage, you’ve just appointed an envoy – or whatever you want to call him, special advisor – to deal with Iran, and then Iran turns around and does something like this.

MR. DUGUID: The answer, again, is that --

QUESTION: Does this sour the atmosphere?

MR. DUGUID: The answer, again, is that we are open to engagement with Iran, but they also – they have to show that they are willing to be a partner to us in that engagement. Heretofore, they’re not showing that. This is evidence of restrictions in their own society, never mind other evidence that we have about their actions on the international stage.

We remain willing to engage with Iran. But that engagement has to be based on certain principles, and those principles, that we hold dear, such as the freedom of the press, are one thing that we will not shy away from criticizing if someone violates that freedom.

QUESTION: Is this case going to be an instance that U.S. officials get in touch with Iranian without any other mediator?

MR. DUGUID: We are working through our protecting power, the Swiss, in the Swiss Embassy at the moment on this.

Yes.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. been receiving signals from – or any indication from Iran that they want to engage with the U.S.?

MR. DUGUID: As of right now, I have seen, you know, no signals that have welcomed our overtures. The fist is still clenched, if you will. We remain open to the possibility, but we are under absolutely no illusions about the difficulty of engaging Iran and are not putting our complete hopes that it will happen in the short term.

QUESTION: Can I go back to the Bashir thing for one second?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: You said that any contact with Bashir would have to be considered very carefully on a case-by-case basis --

MR. DUGUID: That’s correct.

QUESTION: -- considering the indictment --

MR. DUGUID: That is correct.

QUESTION: Considering the arrest warrant?

MR. DUGUID: Yes.

QUESTION: Well, does that mean that you will or you won’t meet with him?

MR. DUGUID: That means that should that opportunity present itself, we would have to consider that very, very carefully in light of our – of any obligations that might be laid upon us due to the ICC warrant; also, any possible ramifications that it would present, given the situation on the ground at the time.

QUESTION: Well, that – your answer seems to suggest that there may be obligations that you have to the ICC, but you’re not a signatory.

MR. DUGUID: As I indicated earlier, we will take the question on --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: -- our obligations and find out what they are. But I’m unaware of any, so I don’t want to rule any in or out.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you make sure when you ask for the obligations that you might have if he steps foot on U.S. soil, if he comes to the United States, also ask them, you know, what obligations there might be for anyone – any American official seeing him?

MR. DUGUID: We will – we will --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. DUGUID: -- ask the full range of the question.

Thank you. Yes, please.

QUESTION: A question on Iraq refugees in the U.S. There have been many reports that these refugees who came to [sic] Iraq seeking a better life in the United States, many have even helped the U.S. military directly, well, they’re not – you know, they’re not immune to the economic situation in the country, and now they’re facing, you know, threat of eviction and so forth. Some are even thinking about returning back to Iraq. Legally, does that – can that occur, and how does the U.S. view its, sort of, role in placing these individuals in safety in the U.S.?

MR. DUGUID: The – I’m trying to get a sense of your question. You’re asking is – does the U.S. have a role in protecting refugees from economic consequences?

QUESTION: Is it the responsibility of the U.S. to take care of these individuals now that they have arrived in the U.S. from Iraq?

MR. DUGUID: Once anyone arrives in the U.S., they have the same rights and privileges as all American citizens.[1] We will ask the relevant office here, Ambassador Foley’s office, what beyond that the United States can provide to Iraqi refugees. But that is as far as I can go.

QUESTION: I guess, legally, also I’d like to ask if they came to the U.S. as political refugees, are they allowed to go back to Iraq if that’s where they feel they can go back?

MR. DUGUID: The – there is no restriction, to my understanding. Once you are in the United States and resettled, you are free to travel.[2] This is not something where you are told that you cannot leave again. You are welcomed here as a resident[3] and, eventually, many become citizens. Coming with that accrues all the rights of an individual American citizen. Freedom of movement is one of our basic rights.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I just move to a different topic on Syria and the Secretary naming two – or talking about two envoys on behalf of the U.S. that have traveled to Syria? Can you just speak briefly about the role – what you hope they can accomplish?

MR. DUGUID: Well, I’ve addressed that a couple of times this week. I cannot yet confirm that they’re going to Syria. We are still working out the details. The two individuals that you mentioned, Assistant – Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman, and from the NSC, Mr. Daniel Shapiro, are going to Jordan tomorrow. And then on late Thursday and Friday, they will be in Beirut. They are, of course, following up with our friends and allies in the region on Secretary Clinton’s visit, which has just ended in Israel and in the West Bank. As an aside, she met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad today, and had a working lunch with President Abbas before visiting a U.S.-funded English teaching program in the West Bank.

Her mission, as she described it and as Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman is informing our friends in the region, was to build – try to help build a comprehensive peace through a two-state solution. That can only be realized through negotiation, not violence. And that the Palestinian Authority is the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people, and the United States considers the Palestinian Authority a partner on the road to peace.

QUESTION: Gordon, on Feltman and Shapiro, you’re saying that the Syrians have not yet agreed to --

MR. DUGUID: I’m saying that we’re working out the details, and when I have an agenda that I can share with you, I will do so. For now, they are in Jordan tomorrow, and they are in Beirut late Thursday and on Friday.

QUESTION: So do they plan to meet up with the Secretary in Turkey and then go to Syria, or is – or will they --

MR. DUGUID: Their details are still being worked out, and as we get them, we’ll share them.

QUESTION: But it’s not an issue of whether the Syrians want them or not. I mean, this was already agreed to, right? It’s just an issue of scheduling?

MR. DUGUID: It’s a scheduling issue and we will let you know when that happens.

QUESTION: One of the things that I’m – if they are going to Beirut and then presumably, they’re going to Syria after that, are they – how – on their agenda, how much is the upcoming Lebanese election and the U.S. desire for no interference from Syria in that election going to – how high up is that going to be on their agenda?

MR. DUGUID: In any discussion that we have had with the Syrians, we have made clear our desire that they restrain from any interference in Lebanese affair*. I can’t predict that that will come up, but heretofore in our discussions, it has always been raised with the Lebanese. This is one of the bilateral issues that, of course, would be discussed.

Yes.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan again, do you have any response to the Afghan electoral commission’s ruling that the elections have to be held in August instead of earlier as President Karzai had --

MR. DUGUID: We released a statement on that this morning. We do support that decision. We also call on the Afghans themselves to come to an equitable agreement on balancing the need for the constitutional bridge between the end of President Karzai’s term and the holding of the elections, and then taking into account that because of weather and security and other factors of organization that a later election, the commission has decided, is the better option.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:25 a.m.)


[1] Refugees in the U.S. receive refugee benefits from the Department of State, then state welfare benefits through the Department of Health and Human Services.
[2] To return to the US, refugees must have obtained a “permission to return” from USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) office before departing the US.
[3] refugee



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