Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 19, 1998


The Roosevelt Room

6:00 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: On Wednesday, I ordered our Armed Forces to strike military and strategic targets in Iraq. They were joined by British forces. That operation is now complete, in accordance with our 70-hour plan.

My national security team has just briefed me on the results. They are preliminary, but let me say just a few words about why we acted, what we have achieved, and where we want to go.

We began with this basic proposition: Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to develop nuclear arms, poison gas, biological weapons, or the means to deliver them. He has used such weapons before against soldiers and civilians, including his own people. We have no doubt that if left unchecked he would do so again.

Saddam must not be prepared to defy the will -- be permitted -- excuse me -- to defy the will of the international community. Without a firm response he would have been emboldened to do that again and again.

For seven and a half years now, the United Nations weapons inspectors have done a truly remarkable job, in forcing Saddam to disclose and destroy weapons and missiles he insisted he did not have. But over the past year, Saddam has repeatedly sought to cripple the inspections system. Each time, through intensive diplomatic efforts backed by the threat of military action, Saddam has backed down. When he did so last month, I made it absolutely clear that if he did not give UNSCOM full cooperation this time, we would act swiftly and without further delay.

For three weeks, the inspectors tested Saddam's commitment to cooperate. They repeatedly ran into roadblocks and restrictions, some of them new. As their Chairman, Richard Butler, concluded in his report to the United Nations on Tuesday, the inspectors no longer were able to do their job. So far as I was concerned, Saddam's days of cheat and retreat were over.

Our objectives in this military action were clear: to degrade Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program and related delivery systems, as well as his capacity to attack his neighbors. It will take some time to make a detailed assessment of our operation, but based on the briefing I've just received, I am confident we have achieved our mission. We have inflicted significant damage on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs, on the command structures that direct and protect that capability, and on his military and security infrastructure. In a short while, Secretary Cohen and General Shelton will give you a more detailed analysis from the Pentagon.

So long as Saddam remains in power he will remain a threat to his people, his region and the world. With our allies, we must pursue a strategy to contain him and to constrain his weapons of mass destruction program, while working toward the day Iraq has a government willing to live at peace with its people and with its neighbors.

Let me describe the elements of that strategy going forward. First, we will maintain a strong military presence in the area, and we will remain ready to use it if Saddam tries to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction, strikes out at his neighbors, challenges allied aircraft, or moves against the Kurds. We also will continue to enforce no-fly zones in the North, and from the southern suburbs of Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border.

Second, we will sustain what have been among the most extensive sanctions in U.N. history. To date, they have cost Saddam more than $120 billion, resources that otherwise would have gone toward rebuilding his military. At the same time, we will support a continuation of the oil-for-food program, which generates more than $10 billion a year for food, medicine and other critical humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people. We will insist that Iraq's oil be used for food, not tanks.

Third, we would welcome the return of UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency back into Iraq to pursue their mandate from the United Nations -- provided that Iraq first takes concrete, affirmative and demonstrable actions to show that it will fully cooperate with the inspectors. But if UNSCOM is not allowed to resume its work on a regular basis, we will remain vigilant and prepared to use force if we see that Iraq is rebuilding its weapons programs.

Now, over the long-term the best way to end the threat that Saddam poses to his own people in the region is for Iraq to have a different government. We will intensify our engagement with the Iraqi opposition groups, prudently and effectively. We will work with Radio Free Iraq, to help news and information flow freely to the country. And we will stand ready to help a new leadership in Baghdad that abides by its international commitments and respects the rights of its own people. We hope it will return Iraq to its rightful place in the community of nations.

Let me say in closing again how terribly proud I am of our men and women in uniform. Once again, they have done a difficult job with skill, dedication and determination. I also want to say that I am very proud of our national security team. I want to thank Secretary Cohen and General Shelton; I want to thank Secretary Albright and Sandy Berger. The Vice President and I have relied on them very heavily -- they have performed with extraordinary ability and restraint, as well as effectiveness. I am very, very grateful for the way this operation was planned and executed.

But again, foremost, I want to give my thanks to our men and women in uniform. We are waiting for the last planes to come home, and praying that we'll be able to tell you tomorrow that every last one of them has returned home safely.

Thank you very much.

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