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Interview: Senators Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel Discuss their Tour of the Middle East

Weekend Edition Sunday: December 8, 2002

Biden, Hagel Tour Middle East

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska stopped in northern Iraq this past week on a tour of the Middle East. The lawmakers are meeting with regional leaders to discuss Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war on terrorism. Senators Biden and Hagel join us now by phone from Doha, Qatar.

First of all, good morning to you, Senator Biden.

Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Good morning.

HANSEN: And good morning to you, Senator Hagel.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): Good morning.

HANSEN: Senator Hagel, I'd like to start with you. You and your colleague met with Kurdish opposition leaders in northern Iraq. What did you learn in those conversations?

Sen. HAGEL: There is a unification effort that is real between the Kurd groups, mainly the PUK, KDP, who have been at odds for many, many years. That unification effort is based on the reality that if the Kurds are to play a significant role in a post-Saddam government, and they should, and I believe they must, and I believe they will, then they cannot go into it fractured. They have differences. And they'll continue to have differences. But they are wise enough, I believe, to put those aside.

HANSEN: Senator Biden, let me ask you about a neighboring country, Turkey, which is very anxious about the establishment of this. Do you think an independent Kurdistan can be established without posing a threat to Turkey?

Sen. BIDEN: I think an independent Kurdistan cannot and will not be established and quite frankly they made it very clear that they have bec--they kept using the word `We are realists. We understand--although we would love a free Kurdistan, we want a Kurdish republic within a united Iraq. We want to participate with the central government in Baghdad. We are prepared to negotiate and deal with our Shia and our Sunni Arab brothers in the southern part of Iraq and in central Iraq.' And I really came away for the first time with a sense that they realize their very prosperity would be in jeopardy and/or, quite frankly, doomed if they attempted to establish an independent Kurdistan.

Here's the phrase they use, `If we did that, the Turks would feel compelled to move in. That would mean the Iranians would move in. That would mean we would lose all that we've gained.' So I think there is no possibility of there being an independent Kurdistan.

HANSEN: Let's talk about Iraq. Of course, the documents which outline Iraq's programs of weapons of mass destruction are on their way to various parts of the UN. Iraq insists it does not have these weapons. The Bush administration is saying they have evidence that the country does. Senator Hagel, at this point, do you think, perhaps, war with Iraq may be inevitable?

Sen. HAGEL: Well, I wouldn't say war is inevitable. In fact, the president has made that point, and he's made it quite clearly. However, the reality dictates that based on past behavior of Saddam Hussein that the military option may, in fact, be the one that will be required to disarm Saddam Hussein and make this part of the world secure and stable and safe again. But I think the president has followed a very wise course here as he has responded here in the last few hours to the latest Iraqi document of 11,000 pages. He--the president is saying let's follow the course that we're on, working through the United Nations, through the Security Council. Let's let Hans Blix and his inspectors report to the Security Council. We'll see what we have.

HANSEN: Senator Biden, your attention has been focused also on this trip on Israel and the relationship with the Palestinians in Israel. Both you and Senator Hagel met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other officials. You also met with Palestinian leaders, but not Chairman Arafat. Why did you decide not to meet with him?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I've met with Arafat on many occasions. I will not do that again. I think Arafat has, quite frankly, made himself virtually irrelevant. I would not dictate that he can or cannot participate. I just find it not a very useful undertaking. We did meet with some very impressive Palestinians, including two who were placed in his Cabinet. One, a new finance minister, who is, I believe, well on his way to attempting, whether he succeeds or not, to clean up the Palestinian Authority, its finances and the corruption. And so although I wasn't particularly--there's nothing new we got from Sharon and nothing new we got from Saeb Erekat, there was a lot new in the air, in my view. There is a sense and an expectation that the status quo cannot be maintained; that something is going to break and has to break, and there's an emergence of a leadership that given an opportunity I think may be an outfit that can be dealt with.

HANSEN: The war on terrorism is on everyone's minds, not least of which the minds of the American people. Senator Hagel, what are you hearing from Arab leaders there about how it's going?

Sen. HAGEL: Well, as I think we all appreciate and understand, especially the leaders in the Middle East, this war on terrorism, this scourge of mankind, is not going to be over quickly, nor won easily. And I believe that the seriousness that we heard from the leaders of the Middle East about this issue reflects very much the strong sense that each of these leaders have of a great responsibility. Look at Saudi Arabia as an example. We have over the last two, three weeks had a very difficult situation with the Saudis because of the funding that has gone through charitable organizations and foundations supported by the Saudis, gotten in the hands of terrorist organizations and they, we know, have had responsibility for building schools that teach essentially hatred. And they, I think, will stop it primarily because they understand that the threat that they, too, face from terrorism is real, and they also understand the threat to fracturing a relationship with the United States is real.

HANSEN: Senator Chuck Hagel is a Nebraska Republican and the second ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel. Joseph Biden is the Democratic senator from Delaware and the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They joined us from Doha, Qatar.

Thank you both for joining us.

Sen. HAGEL: Thank you very much.

Sen. BIDEN: Thank you.

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From March 18 to June 21, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen will serve as an interim host on All Things Considered, while its co-host Noah Adams is on leave to write a book. Until Hansen returns to Weekend Edition Sunday in July, NPR's Lynn Neary will host.