WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE CALL BACKGROUND BRIEFING
RE: IRAQI INTERIM CONSTITUTION
MODERATOR: SEAN MCCORMACK, SPOKESMAN,
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL
LOCATION: BAGHDAD, IRAQ
TIME: 1:37 P.M. EST
DATE: MONDAY, MARCH 8, 2004
MR. MCCORMACK: I'd like to set the ground rules for this phone call. Our
briefer will be talking as a senior coalition official.
And with that, I'd like to turn it over to our briefer.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Sean.
Well, I can just say a few words. We obviously had a major milestone today with
the signing of the temporary administrative law, or TAL, as we call it, which is
the first step foreseen in the November 15th agreement on the path to a full
Iraqi democracy over the next year and a half or so. The next step, which is
coming, will be the revision of -- reversion of sovereignty to the Iraqi
government on June 30th and then three elections and a constitution next year.
You're probably pretty much familiar with what's in the TAL, but let me just
make basically four points: one, it establishes equality for all Iraqis,
irrespective of their -- (clears throat) -- excuse me -- their religion, gender,
ethnicity. Equality before law is really at the heart of the document; and that,
then, secondly, obviously establishes the rule of law going forward in this
society. The rule of law, thirdly, is to be governed by an independent
judiciary, overseen by an independent judiciary. And finally, of course, Iraq is
to be protected by a professional, trained armed forces, but armed forces under
civilian control. It has a very substantial Bill of Rights written into the
second chapter, which I think the Iraqis can be very proud of as being in the
forefront of such a document anywhere in this part of the world.
The document was not easy to achieve; they had to make lots of compromises. But
I think the Iraqis, you could tell at the ceremony today, were justifiably proud
of what they had done.
I'd be happy to take your questions.
MR. MCCORMACK: Carol, I think we're ready to take questions.
OPERATOR: Okay, at this time if you have a question, you can press * followed by
1 on your touchtone phone and that will place you into cue. If somebody already
asks your question and you want to remove yourself from cue, you can press the
So at this time if you have a question press * followed by 1.
Okay, at this time your first question comes from Joseph Curl from Washington
Times. You now have the floor.
Q Hello -- (name of briefer deleted). My question is actually on a different
topic. Senator Kerry said that he is thinking about coming to Iraq himself or
may send some surrogates for him to look over things in Iraq. Do you think that
would be a useful thing for Senator Kerry to do?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, you know, we've welcomed a lot of congressmen and
women out here. I think we've had now more than 200 from both parties; everybody
who has been out here has learned things from those visits. And I'm not going to
get into the political questions of whether it makes sense or not, but we
certainly have found that the congressmen who have come out here from both
parties, including people who were not in favor of the war, have been very
impressed by what they've seen.
MR. MCCORMACK: Carol, do we have another question?
OPERATOR: We sure do. The next question comes from John Daniszewski from the
L.A. Times. You now have the floor.
Q Good evening -- (briefer's title).
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Evening.
Q Good evening. I'm wondering about the statement by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani,
criticizing the TAL. How much of a problem do you think this is going to be? And
do you think -- does the United States have an opinion about this provision
about the two-thirds vote that would protect the Kurdish minority rights, or is
the United States basically neutral on that question?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you have to recognize that in this TAL,
there are 60-odd articles, and there were lots of compromises made in a lot of
areas, including on the area of the ratification procedures. Our view is that
the ratification procedure that was agreed upon adequately reflects, you know,
an important principle of democracy, which is protection of minority rights.
There were disagreements over this article, as is well known, before the
weekend. A number of members of the Governing Council decided they wanted to
consult their communities, including communities in Najaf, and they came back
and agreed to sign the document. And I actually haven't seen what the ayatollah
said about it, but I think what stands on its own is the fact that these 25
Iraqis have managed somehow, through lots of compromising and some courageous
decisions, to come up with a document they all agreed to.
Q Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your next question comes from Rajiv Chandrasekaran from The
Washington Post. You now have the floor.
Q Hi -- (briefer's name). Good to talk to you from Baghdad here through the
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: (Laughs.)
Q I just want to follow up with John's question here. If you haven't seen
Sistani's statement, which was posted on his website, he said, quote, "This law
places obstacles in the path of reaching a permanent constitution for the
country that maintains its unity, the rights of all of its sons and sects and
ethnic backgrounds." And so, having read you that, if you might react directly
to Sistani's statement.
But also, you know, you talk a lot here about the spirit of compromise. But you
know, 10 minutes after these guys signed the document, you had 12 of the 25
members, 12 Shi'ite members, issuing this statement saying that they wanted to
reopen that. How concerned are you by that? You know, they say they want to use
the annex of the document to do this. You know, it certainly seems that, you
know, they signed their name to it, but they really may not sort of support this
as wholeheartedly as it may seem.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, you know, Rajiv, I've spent a lot of time with
these guys over the last couple of weeks, and all I can tell you is that the
clear mood in the council over the last week and particularly today, when they
got back and decided to go ahead with the signing, was that they were going to
move ahead and work with this law. And they will.
And I think it's really important to keep a fairly broad perspective here as to
what is happening. These people have in the course of about three months been
able to put together a truly remarkable document. And they were asked, all of
them, to make compromises, and they made compromises. And not all of them are
happy. And I'm sure every single one of the 25, if he'd wanted to, could have
found something to say about some article that they didn't actually agree on.
But when you -- when they went around the table this morning, before we came
over to sign it, every single one of them basically said, "We all didn't get
everything we want, but that's the nature of democracy." And of course they're
free to say what they want to say afterwards.
My impression is that they made a strategic decision over the weekend to go
ahead and sign this document. And they did it, and that's what important. And
I'm sure that as we work our way forward now towards getting ready for elections
and as we work our way forward towards putting together an interim government by
June 30th, there will be plenty of time for people to continue politics.
The important thing is, here we are, basically less than a year after Iraq was
liberated, and we have the luxury of debating what people may mean or not mean
about ratifying a constitution. I mean, I think it's really quite extraordinary.
Q Thank you.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from Bob Deans from Cox Newspapers. You now
have the floor.
Q Thank you. I wanted to follow up too on the Sistani question, and then have a
separate one. I guess my question is how Americans should read the role that
Ayatollah Sistani is playing here. I think to a lot of Americans who read
reports of his reactions to your initiatives, his act is getting a little old.
It seems to be sort of an impediment to everything you're trying to do. I wonder
if you can help us in how to read that.
And second, if you could say what tone this document sets for the
administration's broader ambitions for democratization across the greater Middle
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, on the second point, I think it sets a remarkable
framework for Iraq's political development. That's its main purpose. I do
believe that as Iraq develops this very progressive approach to its political
life, it certainly can help some of the people in some of the other countries in
the region think very deeply about how they run and organize their societies.
But that's not its primary intention. Its primary intention is to help 25
million people basically move towards a pluralistic democratic society over the
next couple of years.
I don't really want to get into having views on the ayatollah's positions. I
think he is a very respected religious leader. I certainly have great respect
for him. He has on occasion expressed himself on these matters. He has
apparently expressed himself again today. But the fact of the matter is that
after a weekend of discussions, the Shi'a members of the Governing Council who
went down to consult with him have come back and have signed this law. They have
agreed to have it go forward by unanimity, by consensus. And I think that's
really the key issue that should be drawn from today's events in respect of the
MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you. I think, Carol, we're ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Okay. Your next question comes from Olivir Knox (ph) from AFP. You now
have the floor.
Q Thank you very much. Hi. I have a couple quick questions for you.
One is, did you reach out in any way to Turkey during the last few days to allay
their concerns? They put out a statement. They are worried. They didn't specify
exactly what worries them, but they said that they're worried about it,
presumably especially with the Kurds. Did you have any contacts with President
Bush over the weekend to discuss the progress made?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: I know our embassy in Ankara has been in regular contact
with the Turkish government over weeks, but I can't get into what their precise
conversations may have been. I personally have had no contact with the Turkish
government in the last few days. I did not have any direct contact with the
president over the weekend, but I had very regular contact with his associates.
MR. MCCORMACK: All right, Carol, the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your next question comes from Richard Engel (sp) from NBC.
You now have the floor.
Q Thank you very much. Just a question.
It seems that as time goes on, the United States will have less and less
influence over the process. What guarantees are there that as time goes on the
events on the ground won't simply overtake the process and that the documents
you've put down today, that has been agreed to today, won't simply be swept away
or overtaken by a later document drawn up after there is the national assembly
and at a later stage when the U.S. exerts less influence?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, the assumption behind your question
seems to be that events will get worse. I don't think that's right. On the
contrary, I think security's going to get better. I'm not sure that I drew that
implication correctly, but that's the way it sounded.
Q I'm not necessarily meaning security, meaning that as the -- if the Shi'ites
like Ayatollah Sistani would believe that time was more or less on their side,
that they could just have the process move along with the assumption that they
will get more and more powerful through an electoral process and then could
basically impose in a permanent constitution a version of events or a version of
-- a document that was more to their liking.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: First of all, you are making a lot of assumptions about
the political structure of Iraq. I don't frankly know, and I don't think anybody
knows, what the exact breakdown of the various communities will be here on
issues, whether they're Shi'a, Sunni or Kurds; they're not monolithic. There's a
tendency sometimes in some of the reporting that I've seen to generalize -- the
Shi'a think this, the Shi'a think that. That, I think, is not going to get you
very far when you analyze things.
You look at the opinion polls in this country over the last six or eight months,
and I admit that polling is still rather primitive here -- you will find very
diverse views among all three of those communities. You will find very little
support for a theocratic government. You'll find considerable opposition to any
of the neighbors having undue influence in Iraq. So I don't -- I start by saying
I'm not at all convinced that there is a Shi'a view or a Sunni view or a Kurdish
This document will be overtaken by another document. That's going to be called
the permanent constitution. Indeed that is, of course, one of the main things to
get ready for now, as the election is next January for a national assembly that
will write a new constitution. There are obviously going to be pressures to come
to compromises in that constitution, precisely because it also has to be
ratified by the Iraqi people. And we believe that the pressures in the
ratification process will force compromises in the drafting of that
constitution. And I think the transitional law, which was signed today,
certainly points in very good directions for the permanent constitution, though
of course they'll just draft that when they get to that time. But I'm quite
optimistic that this is a process that will work in the weeks and months ahead,
even though we will no doubt have some bad days.
Q Thank you very much.
MR. MCCORMACK: Okay, just a reminder to all who may have joined us in progress.
Our briefer is speaking as a senior coalition official.
Carol, next question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your next question comes from Pamela Tess (sic) from UPI.
You now have the floor.
Q Hi. It's Pam Hess actually. My question has to do with the process of going
forward from now. I think if the old schedule is still in place a few
significant things have to happen, which is appointing those various caucus
groups to appoint a transitional assembly. Is that plan still in the works, and
could you give us an update on what's happening with that? And if that plan has
been scrapped, what's going to be happening between now and the time when
sovereignty is conferred?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, the plan is still intact in that the objective is
to transfer sovereignty to an interim government on June 30th.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: How we get to the interim government is a question that
we now need to discuss as article two of the transitional law pointed out, and
we hope to do that in consultation with the United Nations. They have been here
once and gone through one round of consultations with Lakhdar Brahimi. We
believe the United Nations can play a useful role in this next phase in helping
us, the Governing Council and a broad group of the Iraqi population decide what
is the best way.
The caucuses seem to be unpopular. The U.N. in its report did not think the
caucuses were a very good way forward. We are quite open-minded to look at other
methods. The U.N. report had five or six other ways. I think there are at least
two dozen different ways we've looked at. What's important is to find a way to
broaden the political structure here as we go forward; to get more Iraqis
involved in the political structure so that this interim government, which is
only going to be in office seven months, can take office on schedule. And we are
hoping -- well, we've already begun to talk to the Governing Council, and we're
hoping to start talking with other Iraqis about this really right this week.
Q And so what we should expect to see is Governing Council- plus come July 1st,
because that's obviously the most sort of stable and easy group to transfer
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: No, I don't -- I think you jumped ahead a bit there. I
said there were really a couple of dozen ideas. And I think we're going to want
to talk to a lot of Iraqis, not just the Governing Council. Indeed, the second
article explicitly talks about a broad consultation with the Iraqi population,
and that's what we intend to do. We'll do that on our own. We'll do some with
the Governing Council. We hope the U.N. will come and also engage in those
conversations. I think it's important to get a broad discussion going.
And I don't want to make any predictions as to what the outcome of that will be
at this point. It's too early --
Q You don't -- I'm sorry. You just don't have very much time, though. It's
March, and this has to happen by July 1st. You not only have to have these
discussions but have the results of these discussions in place by then, right?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, that's right, Pam, but we tend to work about 20
hours a day out here.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: So we'll get it done. Don't worry.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Don't lose any sleep over that.
Q No problem.
MR. MCCORMACK: (Chuckles.) All right, Carol (sp). The next question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your next question comes from Spencer Ackerman from New
Republic magazine. You now have the floor.
Q Thank you very much. I was wondering about some of the provisions in Chapter
8, about sketching out what exactly federalism in Iraq may look like. I was
wondering if the CPA -- if the Bush administration has any opinion about, in
particular, Article 53, Subsection C, where it says that any three governates
outside of Kurdistan can -- just like the Kurdish region has, can form larger
administrative units, I guess -- I don't know what the term would be; maybe sort
of super governorates -- from themselves. And it seems the logic of that -- and
you can tell me if you disagree -- is that just as the Kurdish regions have
particular measures of autonomy, as with perhaps the peshmerga and others,
similarly, these governorates or super governorates will have the same sort of
thing. I was wondering if you read it that way, if the U.S. will take a position
one way or another on whether these governorates should go that same route, and
finally what you think the implication of that choice, if it's made, is for a
unitary Iraq going forward.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, the principle there is to try to effectively
arrive at a more symmetrical federalism. We have, in effect, an asymmetric
federalism now, because the Kurdish region has been largely independent over a
period of 12 years. It has acquired and will continue to have powers that are in
fact not now exercised by the 15 governances south of the Kurdish region. Those
governances have neither the capacity nor, at the moment, the authority to
exercise the same kind of powers.
The whole concept behind the federal structure here, which was something the
Iraqis also wanted, is to devolve power away from Baghdad, because the -- one
thing Iraq has certainly suffered the last 35 years, you could argue, the last
80 years, is an overcentralized government.
So the idea is to devolve that power down and to make it possible for up to
three governances to come together, as the Kurdish governances did, and to
exercise the same kinds of devolved powers. So it's perfectly consistent with
And by the way, you mentioned the peshmerga. The militia are prohibited, so we
wouldn't have governances having militia. That would not be one of their powers,
but they could exercise other powers, as the Kurdish region does, that are not
reserved to the central government.
Q If I could ask a quick follow-up?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Sure.
Q Does the U.S. take the position that these three governors or any three
governates should follow this model?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Well, it's not really for us to say. That's going to be
up to the Iraqi people, and of course this can't happen anyway until they have
an elected government next year. So this will be a matter that they're going to
have to deal with next year after they elect their transitional national
Q Thank you.
MR. MCCORMACK: Carol, why don't we take one last question.
OPERATOR: Sure. Your next question comes from Ian McCala (sp) from Fox News. You
now have the floor.
Q Hi -- (briefer's title). It's actually Bret Baer, Fox News Channel. Kind of
following up on Pam's question here about timing, is it -- could you acknowledge
that it's possible that the July 1st date could shift; that maybe it wouldn't
all get done before that date?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: No, it will get done. We are committed to that. But the
most important thing is that the Iraqi people absolutely want their sovereignty
back. And you know, in poll after poll -- and I was looking at another one
tonight -- the thing the Iraqis really want is to have their sovereignty back. I
think I said on one of the shows yesterday, we did not conquer a country here;
we conquered a regime, a very awful regime. And the Iraqi people are delighted
to be free from it. But they don't consider that they, as citizens, deserve to
be occupied, and that is the term that the U.N. resolution uses. The occupation
ends when they get their sovereignty back, and they're very insistent on this
happening on schedule in accordance with the November 15th agreement, and that's
what we will do.
Q Just by, you know, the TAL this weekend being delayed a couple days --
obviously your people were out saying democracy is messy. Is it possible to
acknowledge that it is going to be messy as you head to this deadline?
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Oh, yeah. I said earlier I expect we will have some good
days and some bad days. There will be some terrorist attacks. I think we have to
understand that we're heading into a very dangerous period for terrorism because
the terrorists know time is not on their side. The democratic part, the debate
will be messy. We'll have disagreements, we'll have people making statements.
This happens in open societies. So, sure, there will be plenty of messiness, but
we're going to make the deadline.
MR. MCCORMACK: Okay? (Name of briefer deleted) -- thank you very much for making
the time to do this.
SR. COALITION OFFICIAL: Okay, thank you. Good night.
MR. MCCORMACK: Okay, thanks. Bye everybody.