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Middle East Digest - April 7, 2011


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Washington, DC
April 6, 2011

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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 April 7, 2011

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MR. TONER: We condemn the attack on innocent civilians in southern Israel in the strongest possible terms, as well as ongoing rocket fire from Gaza. As we have reiterated many times, there’s no justification for the targeting of innocent civilians, and those responsible for these terrorist acts should be held accountable. We are particularly concerned about reports that indicate the use of an advanced anti-tank weapon in an attack against civilians and reiterate that all countries have obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition.

Also just a brief statement --

QUESTION: Can we stay on that just for one second?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Apparently, the target of that was a school bus. Does that add to your outrage?

MR. TONER: Well, any attack on innocent civilians is abhorrent, but certainly the nature of the attack is particularly so.

QUESTION: A spokesperson of the Pakistan foreign ministry today said that Pakistan doesn't agree with the Administration assessment – the report that White House had sent to the Congress on the fight against terrorism and most of the comments were unwarranted. Do you have any comments on that?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s a White House report so I’d refer you to the White House. We obviously remain engaged with Pakistan in the struggle against counterterrorism – or the struggle against terrorism and extremism. And our counterterrorism efforts are critical to that progress. We’re also trying to help work with Pakistan to build their institutions and strengthen their democracy in order to create a better, more prosperous future for the Pakistani people.

We’ve talked about some of the challenges that they face, but for more detail on the report I’d refer you to the White House.

QUESTION: Pakistan says the U.S. is unduly criticize – is unduly critical of the activities against terrorism.

MR. TONER: Of --

QUESTION: Unduly critical of Pakistan’s actions against terrorism and they are doing a lot but U.S. is not satisfied (inaudible).

MR. TONER: Again, for particular details on the report itself, which I believe was congressionally mandated, I refer you to the White House. But obviously, we’ve talked a lot from this podium and elsewhere about the challenges in – that Pakistan faces, indeed the existential threats from terrorism that Pakistan faces, and the need to confront those threats. And we’re trying to work with them in a cooperative fashion to tackle those challenges.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Libya?

MR. TONER: Libya.

QUESTION: Mark, what can you tell us about this – these four journalists apparently who have been taken by the forces loyal to Qadhafi?

MR. TONER: I don’t have a lot of detail. I’m well aware of the case. I believe it is four journalists. Since we don’t have a diplomatic presence there, we’re trying to work through a variety of contacts to try and obtain information on them and to provide any possible assistance.

As you know, since February 24th, we have warned U.S. citizens against travel to Libya, and in fact, we reiterated that when the – that warning when we began operations to install a no-fly zone over Libya. We recommend that any U.S. citizens in Libya depart immediately, and we remind U.S. citizens that all embassy operations were suspended on February 25th given the ongoing violence and deteriorating security situation.

So it’s unclear. We’re trying to get more information about their whereabouts, and again, we’re trying to use contacts that we may still have there and try to get information on them.

QUESTION: And also, just – the situation right now is looking pretty bleak for the opposition, the rebels pulling out of Ajdabiyah, concern – we’ve heard from the military that this is turning into just a standoff. What’s the perspective from here?

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s a very fluid situation. I think the Secretary spoke very eloquently about some of the challenges that the opposition forces are facing, that these are not soldiers, that they’re doctors, lawyers, professors. They lack military training. Our Envoy Chris Stevens is on the ground in Benghazi. He’s going to stay there for several more days, at least. He’s working with the opposition members to try to get a good sense of what kind of assistance we can – practical assistance we can provide them, what are their needs and how we can help them moving forward. But you’re absolutely right; there is a sense of urgency here.

QUESTION: And then also, in terms of recognizing that – and that’s always a subtext here – but would that really change things? I mean, what would happen if the U.S. recognized them? What could the U.S. do for them that it can’t do now?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s a good point, Jill, and that has become a frequently asked question. And what’s – what I think is important is that we try to provide the kind of assistance that they need on the ground, and recognition certainly carries with it some international cache. But really, what’s important for them right now is targeted assistance, both humanitarian assistance, other non-lethal forms of assistance that can help them both in their struggle against Qadhafi’s forces, but also in establishing themselves as a political entity.

QUESTION: Mark, you said that – when you were asked about the journalists, you said that you’re trying to find out information through a variety of contacts. What would those contacts be? The Turks? Are you – have you somewhat tried to get in touch with --

MR. TONER: That would be – that would be --

QUESTION: -- Weldon, who --

MR. TONER: I’m not – Matt, that’s actually a good question. I’m not aware that we’ve raised it with Representative Weldon. I’m not aware that we’ve had any contact with him since he told us he was traveling there, but certainly through the Turks.

QUESTION: Congressman Weldon, is he violating any U.S. law given that you have a lot of sanctions against Qadhafi?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, there’s no violation in his traveling there, and we certainly don’t restrict the travel of any Americans anywhere in the world, as I talked about yesterday. But just, again, to reiterate what I said yesterday, he’s a private citizen and this is a private trip.

QUESTION: Can you say, on Chris Stevens, whether he’s come to any sort of interim assessment at this point --

MR. TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: -- or come to a better understanding – can you say at least a better understanding of the opposition?

MR. TONER: Well, I think he is certainly getting a better assessment of who they are and what they need on the ground, and also he’s there, obviously, with – we talked about with the USAID – Agency for International Development – Disaster Assistance Response Team, DART team. And they’re, again, assessing kind of the humanitarian side of the situation in Benghazi and how we can bring assistance to bear in that regard too.

I will certainly try, coming down tomorrow, to – or tomorrow to get you a better readout. I’m not aware that he’s given us one yet, or a midterm assessment, if you will.

QUESTION: Do you know if he has any plans to leave Benghazi and go anywhere else inside Libya?

MR. TONER: I do not.

QUESTION: Is that you don’t know or that he does not?

MR. TONER: I don't know.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: And Mark, just getting back to the recognition part, you’ve outlined some of the things. I mean, they have to talk – say the right things about democracy, human rights, et cetera. But are there other concrete things that you could list for us that the United States is looking at, triggers or --

MR. TONER: Well, again, as I said, Chris Stevens is there. We sent somebody in to get that kind of on-the-ground assessment of their identity, of their leadership structure, to talk with them firsthand, and to see what direction we think they’re moving in. We’ve seen some positive signals. Ambassador Cretz has been in close contact with them. We’ve been encouraged by many of the public statements they’ve made as well as what they’ve said in private in terms of respecting human rights and also in terms of trying to create a democratic transition that’s inclusive.

So we’ve seen the right things. It’s – there’s not necessarily a checklist or a laundry list, but we believe it’s moving in the right direction. And I would just add that we’re well aware that there is an urgency here and we’re trying to move as quickly but as prudently as possible.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Mark, tomorrow, if – or even today, if you could tell us in a little detail who he’s been meeting with?

MR. TONER: I will try to get that. I mean, we’ve been – we’ve tried not to get down to that level of detail, but I can see what I can get for you.

QUESTION: Okay. And separately, at the control group meeting on Libya coming up in Qatar --

MR. TONER: Contact group.

QUESTION: Contact group.

MR. TONER: That’s okay.

QUESTION: Sorry.

MR. TONER: CG.

QUESTION: CG. Who are you guys sending?

MR. TONER: We haven’t determined who’s going to represent us at that meeting.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. TONER: Still – once we have something to announce, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MR. TONER: Yeah, but can I go --

QUESTION: Just one more?

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: I always love to --

MR. TONER: That’s okay. Close it up.

QUESTION: -- confirm – yeah, but there’s still a few things out there. The U.S. is not – on Libya, the U.S. still is not to the point where they are – where they’re saying, "Let’s arm the rebels," right? That decision has not been made?

MR. TONER: That decision has not been made.

QUESTION: Okay. So at this point, it’s humanitarian aid?

MR. TONER: Other nonlethal aid that we’ve talked about. Certainly, humanitarian assistance is one of them, but also other kind of financial assistance that – to help them basically keep functioning as an entity.

QUESTION: That’s being provided?

MR. TONER: No, it’s being considered right now.

QUESTION: Being considered, okay.

QUESTION: Could you define nonlethal aid? Could it be boots, uniforms, military uniforms, or vehicles that are not armed?

MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll try to get more specifics on that. But other things that have been discussed are training – again, also we’re trying to help them establish themselves as a political entity too, and certainly we’ve been encouraged by their efforts but we’re trying to help them strengthen themselves. And they – again, they will need financial wherewithal to continue as well. So those are all kind of things on the table and – but I’ll try to get a better list for you.

QUESTION: Legally, is – if you do not recognize them, are you stopped from providing certain things? Does recognition bring with it the ability, the legal possibility, of doing other things, giving them money, giving them anything?

MR. TONER: Well, I think it would certainly add a different dimension to it, but I think we can still – there are still a lot of things we can do for them without – short of recognition. But certainly, recognition is something on the table. I don’t want to preclude that. Just that we’re not there yet.

Go ahead, David.

QUESTION: Different subject. A group in Washington, apparently that represents the MEK, the Iranian outfit, said that it has turned over to the U.S. some information about a new nuclear facility in Iran. Have you received that? Do you have any – are you grateful to get it?

MR. TONER: We’ve not. I’m aware of the story you’re talking about and I believe –

QUESTION: We’ve not what?

MR. TONER: We’ve not received it. Sorry. We – I don’t believe it’s come to the Department of State. I would refer you to DNI for more information about that. But again, just to reiterate our longstanding position that we believe Iran continues to flaunt international sanctions against it and needs to address the international community’s very real concerns about its nuclear program, and that hasn’t changed.



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