White House: Iraq can't be trusted, points to shoot-down attempts
From Kelly Wallace
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hoping to convince skeptical U.S. allies to support a tough, new Iraqi inspections regime, the White House Monday pointed to repeated attempts by Iraq to shoot down allied aircraft as an example of how Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted.
"This is a reminder again of how the words of Iraq continue to change, but their actions don't," Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, told reporters before President Bush left Texas for the White House.
Fleischer said that since September 16, when Iraq indicated in a letter to the U.N. it would allow the return of weapons inspectors "without conditions," Iraq has tried to shoot down coalition aircraft 67 times, with 14 instances this past weekend.
"Their actions are in defiance of international law, international rule, military attacks on coalition aircraft who are flying to patrol the no-fly zones that Saddam Hussein agreed to in 1991," said Fleischer.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was even more blunt. "They have lied over and over and over again."
"With each missile launched at our air crews, Iraq expresses its contempt for the U.N. resolutions, a fact that must be kept in mind as their latest inspection offers are evaluated," he said.
He showed reporters videotape of several Iraqi attempts to shoot down coalition aircraft over the last two years or so.
"Unfortunately, Iraq's behavior over the past decade requires that thoughtful people measure Iraq by its action, as opposed to its words," Rumsfeld said.
However, the validity of the Iraqi no-fly zones are not globally recognized. Some nations consider them to be part of international law, but others -- such as Russia -- do not support them. The southern no-fly zone was established in 1992 and expanded in 1996, while the northern no-fly zone was established in 1997.
A senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, rejected the notion the administration was releasing information about Iraq's shoot-down attempts to counter skepticism from U.S. allies, but said it does show "Saddam Hussein's hostile intentions."
"This is not a dictator who is merely intent to oppress his own people. He has regional ambitions outside his own borders ... one more indication of the hostile nature of this regime," the official said.
Fleischer said the meeting in Vienna between Hans Blix, the head of the U.N. weapons inspections team, and Iraqi arms experts to discuss "practical arrangements" if inspectors return would not "distract" the administration from getting a tough new U.N. resolution.
"The meetings in Vienna are focused on the existing resolutions which, the world knows, have not been honored. And I don't think that will distract from the focus the president is asking the U.N. to bring to a new set of resolutions that are tougher and more effective," he said. (Full story)
The Bush spokesman said the U.S. "will continue the conversations" with skeptical allies, such as France, China and Russia, over a new U.N. resolution. A senior official, who did not want to be identified, said the administration still believes the momentum is with the president. "The support for the president's approach is still there," the official added.
Fleischer also criticized Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, part of a three-member congressional delegation visiting Baghdad, who, over the weekend, accused the president of exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
On CNN's "American Morning" Monday, McDermott said Bush should accept Iraq's offer to allow weapons inspectors back inside Iraq.
"The president says it's a ploy," said McDermott. "I would suggest he and (Senate Minority Leader Trent) Lott take a trip over here, and have a look and see if they really honestly are allowing inspections. If you want peace, then you've got to let those inspections go forward. As long as they continue to try and agitate and derail it, that's simply not good for the American people or the Iraqi people." (Full story)
Fleischer called McDermott's comments "foolish."
"It struck me as somewhat remarkable," the Bush spokesman said. "A member of Congress goes to Baghdad, Iraq. Here he says that Saddam Hussein needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and that Saddam Hussein may be more believable than President Bush, because he says President Bush will mislead the American people."
"It's his right to say anything he wants, no matter how foolish, and he exercised that right," the Bush spokesman added.
A GOP congressional source said lawmakers were "outraged" by the comments of McDermott, and Rep. David Bonior, D-Michigan, who also traveled to Iraq.
"This is going to be a big issue. ... I think Democratic leaders have to answer for these guys," said the aide, who did not want to be identified.
Democratic and Republican congressional sources expect debate to begin in the House and in the Senate this week on a congressional resolution giving the president the authority to use military action, if necessary, to deal with Saddam Hussein.