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13 February 2004

U.S. Remains Committed to June 30 Date for Iraqi Sovereignty

White House Report, Feb. 13: Iraq/Brahimi, Israeli settlements, governors' visit to Iraq, week ahead

Asked by a reporter if the United States is willing to consider changing the June 30 deadline for the turnover of Iraqi sovereignty to the Iraqi people, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said "no."

"We believe it's important to move forward in a timely and orderly fashion to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people," McClellan said.

He pointed out that the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority have agreed to that date.

"That's an important element in building a free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people. And so we are working toward the June 30th timeline. We remain committed to meeting that timeline," McClellan said.

He also said the White House appreciates that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan sent a team, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, to Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Governing Council to assess the feasibility of holding direct elections in Iraq as soon as possible.

"We have always said that the United Nations has a vital role to play, and they certainly have a lot of expertise they can offer in the area of elections and the drafting of a constitution. And they were playing a vital role. We hope they will in the future as well," McClellan said.

Brahimi talked to reporters in Baghdad February 13 following a meeting there with members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

On February 12 he met in the holy city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who wants direct elections, instead of U.S.-proposed caucuses, before the June 30 deadline.

McClellan disagreed with a reporter's assessment that it now appears that Brahimi is moving toward support for holding elections instead of caucuses before the deadline.

"I'm not sure that's what exactly he (Brahimi) expressed," McClellan said.

Brahimi "expressed support for holding elections as soon as possible, and he expressed support for transferring sovereignty as soon as possible," McClellan said, "And we agree that elections should be held as soon as possible."

But Brahimi also expressed the need for the infrastructure to be in place to hold elections, McClellan said.

U.S. COMMENTS ON ISRAELI PLAN TO REMOVE GAZA SETTLEMENTS

McClellan, commenting on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recently announced plan to remove some Israeli settlements from Gaza, said "some Israeli moves to disengage by removing settlements could reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, improve Palestinian freedom of movement, and address some of Israel's responsibilities in moving ahead toward the vision described by the president in his June 24th, 2002 speech" on peace in the Middle East.

That speech called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and urged Israel to end settlement activity in Palestinian territory.

And at the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher also commented on the Sharon plan, saying it would be "a good thing to take steps like that that would reduce the tensions; that would help to resolve, perhaps, some of the problems. But we've made clear that that needs to be placed in the context of reaching a negotiated solution, of achieving the president's vision."

U.S. GOVERNORS MEET WITH BUSH FOLLOWING IRAQ TRIP

A bipartisan group of governors from Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon met at the White House February 13 with President Bush and senior officials following their recent trip to Iraq.

The governors left for Iraq on February 10 and spent two days there, touring the country and meeting with Iraqis and American military personnel.

Also at the White House meeting were Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

As they left the White House, the governors talked to reporters about their trip to Iraq.

Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne said that the governors met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and asked them if, for the first time in decades, they are ready to have sovereignty.

"They say, `We are ready. Regardless of the different regional backgrounds of ethnicity, religion, first and foremost we are Iraqis. We believe in federalism, and we also believe in guaranteeing minority rights,'" Kempthorne said.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said Bush asked the governors to describe the daily life of Baghdad.

"He wanted to know, what's the feel? Are people shopping? Are they in the streets? What's the attitude of the Iraqis? How are they feeling about our efforts here?" Pawlenty said.

"It's remarkable to see the activity in the streets of Baghdad, the commerce, the increase in traffic, people who are returning to engage in employment or economic activity. It's wonderful," he said.

Pawlenty also said "we had a number of people ask us, 'Will you continue to stand with us as we go to this transition to freedom and democracy?'"

He told reporters "it's very important that the United States send a signal that we're going to stay the course and finish the job."

Both New York Governor George Pataki and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco discussed the terrorist threat in Iraq and the resolve of American military forces to counter it and the desire for Iraqis to live a free and normal life.

Terrorism is "alive and well" in Iraq, said Blanco. "They (terrorists) are operating in what is essentially a free country, so they have the freedom to move."

"If we win in Iraq, then we will have broken the back of terrorism," Pataki said.

The visit to Iraq, which also included governors Linda Lingle of Hawaii and Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, marked the first time governors had visited the country since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. Members of Congress visit Baghdad regularly.

THE WEEK AHEAD
Sunday, February 15: The president will attend the Opening Day of Daytona 500 NASCAR Races, Daytona Beach, Florida.

Monday, February 16: The president will participate in conversation on the economy in Tampa, Florida.

Tuesday, February 17: The president will travel to Ft. Polk, Louisiana where he will make remarks to military personnel.

Wednesday, February 18: President Bush will meet at White House with Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Friday, February 20: The president will meet with representatives from the Buffalo News at the White House.

Sunday, February 22: The president will participate in a state dinner for the nation's governors.