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Daily Press Briefing

Tom Casey, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
February 8, 2007


Announcement in Mecca / No U.S. Participation in Discussions
Iraqi Refugee Flows into Syria / Secretary Rice's Congressional Testimony / U.S. Chargé authorized to Talk to Syrian Government
Task force to Address Iraqi Refugee Issues / Contact with Refugee NGOs
Clashes Along Border / Implementation of Agreement between Israel and Lebanon Important to Prevent Violence NORTH KOREA
Six-Party Talk Progress / Chinese to Put Forward Draft Joint Statement / Denuclearization Discussions Productive / Actions on September 19 Agreement Required in Less Than Ten Weeks
Current Round of Talks is First Step in Longer Process / Progress Dependent on Parties Negotiating in Good Faith BANGLADESH
U.S. Wants Elections to Move Forward / Accountability in Government, Fighting Corruption Should be Managed
Role of Army in Quelling Unrest / Military Should Not Usurp Legitimate Government LEBANON
Secretary Rice's Meeting with Former President Gemayel
U.S. Committed to Helping Government and People of Lebanon in Reconstruction EGYPT / REGION
Readout of Secretary Rice's Meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Abu Gheit / Discussed Bilateral and Regional Concerns
Egypt is Strong Partner in Supporting Two-State Solution
Pentagon's Announcement of Formation of African Command Center / Appointment of AU Ambassador
Africa Remains Important to U.S.
AU playing increasingly significant role on continent / Security Force
U.S. Has Broad Agenda Including Security, Economic Reform, Counterterrorism, Health, Disease Prevention and Treatment
Reorganization of Command Structure Reflects Importance of Region, Effort to Promote Positive Change on Continent


12:40 p.m. EST

MR. CASEY: Okay, good afternoon. I don't have any opening statements for you, so David.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on whether and how this agreement announced in Mecca might address the Quartet principles issue?

MR. CASEY: Well, I don't -- my understanding, and I don't think we've gotten a full readout on it, is that the parties at this point have agreed to continue their discussions and to do so -- they've committed to do so until they've got a formal detailed agreement arranged.

In terms of what the outcome of those discussions look like and whether they meet the Quartet principles, I think we'll just have to see. Clearly though, those principles are pretty straightforward, and as we've always said, we think they're very reasonable ones. The international community has made it clear that in order to be able to have a broader relationship with the Palestinian Authority government that those principles are going to have to be met. So we'll see what any final agreement actually looks like and we'll have to make an evaluation from there.

QUESTION: Are there any U.S. observers in Mecca at this?

MR. CASEY: Not that I'm aware of. I'm sure that our Embassy in Saudi Arabia is keeping in contact with Saudi officials and certainly there are discussions between folks in this building here and Saudi authorities as well. But I'm not aware that there's any U.S. involvement in that.


QUESTION: Can you elaborate at all on -- Secretary Rice said in her testimony today that she had specifically authorized your chargé in Damascus to talk to the Syrian Government about the question of Iraqi refugees flowing into Syria. Can you give us any more information on whether the chargé has indeed had any conversations about this? And also, is the chargé barred from talking to the Syrian Government about anything without her specific explicit authorization?

MR. CASEY: Well, Arshad, we do have, and as she said in her testimony, we do have an embassy in Damascus. They do have regular conversations with various levels of the Syrian Government. What she and I what I understood her point to be in testimony today though was that this was something of a new issue. Obviously, we have just announced that we have formed a task force that Under Secretary Dobriansky will be heading up or is heading up to look at the question of Iraqi refugees and of how to deal with the many concerns that people have about it. So I think all she intended by that was to simply say that this was a new issue and she had specifically instructed him to discuss those issues with the Syrian Government.

I honestly don't have any details in terms of what conversations may have actually taken place yet or not, but certainly we'll try and keep you up to date on our thoughts on this issue and then on efforts that the task force is making to deal with those concerns.

QUESTION: And two follow-ups. Does the chargé require explicit authorization to hold conversations with the Syrian Government about -- with the Syrian Government on matters of substance?

MR. CASEY: I am not sure what specific details he may have in his instructions, but he's there in country, our diplomatic -- our embassy is there. My understanding is they have daily conversations on a variety of issues. Again, I don't think that this is something where he can't pick up the phone and call somebody without having specific approval in Washington.

QUESTION: And why do you regard this as a new issue, because it's my impression that there have been Iraqi refugee flows into neighboring countries for months, at least?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think as you've heard from other people, and I know Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey has testified on this, there have been significant numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria and in Jordan for some time, including significant numbers before the war began in 2003. I think the new aspect of it here, again, is the fact that because of the concerns that we have on this issue, we have in fact gone ahead, formed this task force and want to look at what more we can do beyond our existing efforts to respond to a very legitimate concern and the needs of the Iraqi citizens who are there as refugees. And so I believe that this was an initiative related to the formation of the task force and this new effort on our part.

Yes, Libby.

QUESTION: Do you have a day next week when -- do you have a time, date, wherever, where she's meeting with the --

QUESTION: Can I just follow up with this real quick? I'm sorry.


QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of when --

MR. CASEY: You two can fight it out, if you want, but go ahead.

QUESTION: -- when they talked with the Syrians about this, do you know?

MR. CASEY: No. As I just said to Arshad, I don't have any details on the conversations.

QUESTION: You don't even know if they have yet talked?

MR. CASEY: I'm not sure. I'm assuming they have, but I don't know, Arshad. We can try and see if we've got any more details to provide for you later on this.

QUESTION: I was just looking --

MR. CASEY: Yes, sorry, Libby.

QUESTION: -- to see when she might be meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She mentioned today and yesterday that she'd be meeting next week. But do you have a day?

MR. CASEY: I don't the specific schedule. I think it is either Wednesday or Thursday, but I think tomorrow we'll probably have some more information for you about that.

QUESTION: Okay. Great. Thanks.

MR. CASEY: Yes, Joel.

QUESTION: Tom, in any way are you talking with a group here in Washington, Refugees International, headed by Kevin Bacon? And also in talking regionally, you've just spoken with the Saudis and I would assume, too, the Jordanians. You don't want to broaden that split or conflict with both Shia and Sunni, spreading into other locales. Is there some orderly way that you're working either with the Syrians and/or the Jordanians to learn specifically how that would take place?

MR. CASEY: Well, Joel, in terms of various refugee NGOs, I think you can check with our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. I know they have regular conversations with any number of NGO actors out there. They would be able to tell you specifically when they might have had conversations with that group.

In terms of the refugee question, again, there have been significant refugee populations in both Jordan and Syria of Iraqis for some time. We do have a standard process that we go through in terms of supporting the UN and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in their efforts to look at individual cases, determine who might be appropriate for third country resettlement and then move them on to the U.S. in cases where they believe that's the most appropriate place for them to go.

But what we're looking at with this task force is several issues that both touch on that specific question as well as others that have been raised here. And again, that includes not only looking at what we can do to help with the basic humanitarian situation of these individuals, it includes helping the UN to better perform its duties out there. It includes looking at refugee numbers and admissions -- potential admissions to the United States. And of course, it also includes as we mentioned earlier, looking at the issue of some similar program perhaps to the one that already exists and was created by Congress for translators and interpreters for the U.S. military and see whether there might be some application of that to the State Department and affiliated agencies as well.

Yes, let's go over here.

QUESTION: Some clashes today on the Israeli-Lebanon border between the Lebanese army and Israeli forces. Any details, any comment on that?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think there are conflicting reports as to what exactly happened. But certainly, we are concerned by these and we think it is very important that as people move forward with the implementation both of the agreement between Israel and Lebanon, as well as the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions related to this, that there be arrangements put in place by the parties to make sure that when there are operations along the border area, that people understand what's going on and that certainly, any kinds of incidents or provocations can be avoided.

As far as we know, this is an isolated incident and certainly, we want to make sure that everything is done to prevent any kind of violence or any kinds of problems from occurring along the border.

Yes, Libby.

QUESTION: Can I switch to North Korea?

MR. CASEY: Sure.

QUESTION: The Secretary said she was cautiously optimistic about the six-party talks and the chance of moving towards denuclearization. Can you expand on that a little bit? What makes her cautiously optimistic? What makes Chris cautiously optimistic?

MR. CASEY: I think cautious optimism is what you have when you're thinking you may have progress, but aren't exactly sure yet. Look, they're in the middle of these --

QUESTION: Yeah, what gives reason to think they're --

MR. CASEY: Well, they're in the middle of these negotiations now. I think, as you've heard from Chris, the expectation was that somewhere this evening their time or tomorrow morning, the Chinese would put forward a draft joint statement for the parties to agree to. I've seen a couple of press reports that they, in fact, already have circulated a draft, though I don't have independent confirmation of that.

Either way, we've had some good conversations. We had a discussion, a formal negotiating round in December that was unfortunately not productive and limited because the North Koreans refused to engage in discussions about denuclearization. Chris said at the conclusion of the round today that they had, in fact, been able to have a discussion on that and that that discussion had been fairly productive and that the Chinese were going to try, in effect, to codify some of those discussions on paper in the form of a joint statement that they'd circulate, that people would be able to agree to. Then we'll see if we actually get there or not.

What that would call for, of course, would be, in a sense, a small down payment on the September 19th agreement and would require that specific actions be taken in a fixed period of time. Chris has described that, I think you've seen, as single-digit weeks. So the last time I checked, count up my fingers, I think that's less than 10. So I think you, therefore, look to see specific action on the ground somewhere in that timeframe of less than 10 weeks.

But again, I think we need to keep this in perspective. This round here is, in effect, the first step on a much longer road and a much longer process because how we ultimately need to judge the success of this effort is how far we go and how quickly we go to full implementation of that September 19th agreement. So this we hope will be the first step on that road and be a down payment in terms of some real concrete actions that the parties can take to move us toward implementation and, again, the goal is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula with all that that entails.

QUESTION: Could it be several years before everything is completely hammered out? Some experts say it's going to be a long time even after the Bush Administration before North Korea would possibly reach a point of denuclearization.

MR. CASEY: Well, I think you have to see how far and how fast you can go. Obviously, that's going to depend on the goodwill of all parties not only to conduct these negotiations but to then actually carry out their agreements under it. And as we've seen with this process, there are times when we've been able to make a great deal of progress, there have been when that progress has been frozen. We're in a period now where we've clearly got negotiations going. We're hopeful that some first steps can be taken to move us down that road. But again, all this progress is dependent on the parties negotiating in good faith, being willing to implement the September 19th agreement and then being willing to actually make those changes on the ground to make sure that that happens.

So we'll see. I think the timeline on it as far as we're concerned is as soon as possible, but there are practical issues involved. There are certainly diplomatic issues involved and we'll just have to see how far it moves. But again, we can move one step forward by agreeing on some specific measures for implementation and see them implemented then we can hopefully build on that momentum and move the process forward and move forward as quickly as we can.

Let's go back here.

QUESTION: This is Golam Arshad with Bangladesh -

MR. CASEY: Do we have anything else on North Korea? Nope, okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So it's a question on Bangladesh and thank you for taking my question, as a matter of fact.

The Bangladesh caretaker government headed by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed deserves commendations for his historic decision of arresting top-level politicians in order to bring accountability in the highest echelons of the political future and democracy. Now my question is what is your take on that and what is the position of the United States when we are holed between a fair election, democracy and a corrupt-free political -- politician at the top? So I would like to hear your comment on this.

MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, we believe -- our position on Bangladesh and on its elections I think is well known to you and certainly hasn't changed. We do want to see elections move forward as soon as possible and in an appropriate way according to the constitution and according to the rule of law. Certainly we also want to make sure that there is accountability in government, that corruption and any other illegal activities are managed. But that, again, is something that is for the Bangladeshi people and the Bangladeshi system to deal with. It's a question that every country is going to have to address in its own way and time. Certainly though, people need to be careful to make sure that as they implement any kinds of measures that, again, they're done in full accordance with the rule of law and in accordance to whatever the national standards and practices of that country are.

QUESTION: And if I may follow up on another part of it is that there is a consternation, kind of an aberration that since the law enforcing agencies are in this sweep, the Bangladesh army in the recent -- some of the articles, even in the Wall Street Journal, is suspecting that the army's takeover is imminent. How much sure you are that, you know, that the army -- is it there for the purpose of enforcing -- enforcement of law and order at the same time bringing those corrupt elements in to book, or are they going for any other thing that has been previewed or in your knowledge?

MR. CASEY: Well, again, I think our views on this issue are clear. We want to see Bangladesh's democratic system develop. We want to see elections take place in an environment that's free and fair and does not have any elements of intimidation to it. And certainly not only in Bangladesh but in any place in the world, we would react very strongly and very negatively to any efforts by the military or anyone else to usurp the rights of the legitimate government.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CASEY: Yes, David.

QUESTION: You mentioned the need for accountability and that any kind of action on corruption follows the rules of law. Do you have any indications or concerns that those recent arrests did not meet those?

MR. CASEY: I don't have a lot of details on the arrests, David. I was making it as a general point rather than specific to this case.

Let's go back here.

QUESTION: Anything about the discussion with former Lebanese President Gemayel? He is meeting with President Bush today.

MR. CASEY: Well, for the discussions over at the White House, I'd refer you over to my colleagues over there and they can talk to you about that meeting. The Secretary is, as you probably know, meeting with him as well later this afternoon. I'm sure they will have an opportunity to discuss the general situation in Lebanon and look at a number of bilateral issues. Certainly we're strongly committed to helping the Lebanese Government and helping the Lebanese people in terms of reconstruction and efforts to rebuild the country after the war this summer. And as you know, we are strong supporters of the government of Prime Minister Siniora and want to see his government be able to move forward and help build on the promises he's made to the Lebanese people.

QUESTION: What's on her agenda, the Secretary's agenda, when she meets with him today?

MR. CASEY: Again, I expect they'll discuss the general situation in Lebanon and a number of bilateral concerns, but I think that's the extent of it. He's a former president. He's an important figure in the history of the country. But of course, he's not a member of the current cabinet.

QUESTION: And just as a related note, do you have any assessment of the degree to which Hezbollah is being rearmed by Syria?

MR. CASEY: No, I don't really have anything I could offer you in terms of anything new beyond the estimates you've already seen from people.


QUESTION: The Israeli -- we call him public security, I think you refer to him as internal security minister -- Mr. Dichter, who the Secretary is going to meet this afternoon, this morning accused Egypt of not doing enough to stop arms smuggling across its border into Gaza. Did that topic come up yesterday during the -- I guess three things. One, do you have reason to believe that that is true, that there is arms smuggling that Egypt is failing -- signally failing to stop across its border? And two, did that topic come up yesterday during the Secretary's conversations with Foreign Minister Abu Gheit?

MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, in terms of the Secretary's meeting yesterday with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, I think they had a good discussion about both bilateral and regional concerns, including certainly the ongoing efforts that we and others are making, including the Egyptian Government, to help promote a two-state solution. I'm not aware as to whether that specific issue came up. I'm not sure that it would have, particularly since you're saying these comments were made this morning by the minister.

Certainly we believe it is important that all countries in the region do what they can, again, to promote a peaceful settlement of these issues. We certainly wouldn't want to see anything go on that either supports violence, terrorist violence of any kind, whether that's against other people in the Palestinian territories or against Israel. Egypt, as you know, has been a strong partner in terms of trying to support a two-state solution and certainly I'm not aware of any new information that would cause us to question their efforts in that regard.


QUESTION: Can I ask a general question about Africa? It's been announced there's this new African command center. You're appointing a new ambassador to the AU. Just in general terms, is Africa becoming increasingly strategically important?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think Africa has always been important to us. We have a number of very important issues on the continent that not only includes security concerns in places like Somalia and the Horn of Africa. It certainly includes our efforts to see that peace is brought to Darfur and then more broadly to Sudan.

We believe that the AU, as you've heard from us, is playing a significant and increasingly important role in the continent. And that includes looking at the AU's efforts to build a security system, in effect, for the region and their real efforts both on the ground in Darfur with their peacekeeping mission there, their commitment to bringing in a force in Somalia.

And so certainly, we want to work with the African continent and particularly with some of the leading countries in the region to be able to help address many of the concerns that are out there. And we do look at this as a broad-based agenda that deals with those kinds of security issues, certainly touches on the need for economic reform and the desire to alleviate poverty. It includes our efforts at health and efforts to promote things like HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, malaria prevention and treatment through the initiatives that the President's brought forward.

So we do have a very broad and very rich agenda there, I think the reflection of the changes that the Pentagon is making to its command structure as well as our efforts through doing things like establishing a position for an AU ambassador, are reflective of the growing importance of the region and the growing role it is playing on the world stage.

QUESTION: Would you say that counterterrorism is the main priority, the initial priority?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think that the priority for the military in this is something you can talk with them about, but from our perspective, our agenda with Africa certainly has a counterterrorism component to it, but it really is much broader than that because there are many kinds of issues that we need to deal with on the African continent. Some of it does include economic and political developments that are equally critical to the region's future and critical to our relations with them.

Back over here, yes.

QUESTION: (Off-mike) African command. Does it mean that we going to see more military solution than diplomatic solution in Africa by creating this?

MR. CASEY: No. What this is is a reorganization of the military's command structure. As you know, Africa had been included as part of the European regional command. Pentagon can give you, sort of, more details about the organization, but this is simply to reflect the importance of the region in all kinds of levels and to make more, better internal bureaucratic and military sense as far as the Pentagon's looking at it.

But certainly, this does not mean that you will see any kind of resort to the use of force in terms of our dealing with issues in Africa and I think quite the contrary; what you've seen from the Administration is an effort to promote positive change in the continent through a whole series of diplomatic and humanitarian mechanisms as well as through efforts with the United Nations and the broader international community to deal with some of the serious problems there.

Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:04 p.m.)

DPB # 23

Released on February 8, 2007

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