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Viewing cable 08TUNIS193, PRESIDENT BEN ALI MEETS WITH A/S WELCH: PROGRESS

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08TUNIS193 2008-03-03 16:04 2010-12-07 21:09 SECRET//NOFORN Embassy Tunis
VZCZCXYZ1909
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHTU #0193/01 0631651
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
O 031651Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4520
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
SE C R E T TUNIS 000193 

SIPDIS 

NOFORN 
SIPDIS 

STATE FOR NEA/FO (WELCH, GRAY) AND NEA/MAG (HOPKINS, HARRIS) 
STATE ALSO FOR S/WCI (WILLIAMSON, GOREY) 
NSC FOR ABRAMS, YERGER 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/28/2018 
TAGS: PREL PTER PHUM PGOV KPAL KDRG KDEM TS
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT BEN ALI MEETS WITH A/S WELCH: PROGRESS 
ON COUNTER-TERRORISM COOPERATION, REGIONAL CHALLENGES 

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d) 

------- 
Summary 
------- 

1. (S/NF) President Ben Ali and NEA Assistant Secretary 
David Welch discussed regional and bilateral issues in a 
wide-ranging, warm and open meeting on Thursday, February 28. 
In response to A/S Welch's remarks and requests, President 
Ben Ali: 

-- promised counter-terrorism cooperation "without 
reservation," including US access to a terrorist in Tunisian 
custody; 
-- said the GOT would accept the ten remaining Tunisian 
detainees in Guantanamo on the basis of the constitution; 
-- welcomed the Annapolis peace process, adding that 
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is "optimistic" 
a deal will be concluded and plans to visit Tunis in March; 
and, 
-- said there is "no reason" for an Arab League Summit in 
Damascus unless there is a Lebanese president and opined that 
the meeting might be postponed or representation 
downgraded. 

2. (S/NF) Welch and Ben Ali also covered US-Libyan 
relations, relations between Morocco and Algeria, the 
situation in Iraq and the challenge of Iran. The 
constructive session underscored again that Tunisia is 
prepared to play a moderate, but not a leadership, role on 
regional problems. Overall, Ben Ali was clearly pleased with 
Welch's visit and it received wide media coverage. End 
Summary. 

-------------------- 
Meeting: The Setting 
-------------------- 

3. (S/NF) During his February 27 - 29 visit, NEA A/S David 
Welch met with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for one hour 
45 minutes at the Presidential Palace in Carthage on 
Thursday, February 28. Foreign Minister Abdelwaheb Abdallah 
and Ambassador Godec were also present. The Director of 
Tunisia's External Communications Agency (ATCE), Oussama 
Romdhani, was the interpreter. 

--------------------------------------------- ------------ 
Bilateral Relations: CT Cooperation "Without Reservation" 
--------------------------------------------- ------------ 

4. (S/NF) Ben Ali began by emphasizing the excellent, 
"strategic" relations between the United States and Tunisia. 
He continued, however, that he understood the United States 
had concerns about cooperation on counter-terrorism. Ben Ali 
said he had ordered Minister of 
Interior Rafik Belhaj Kacem and other senior officials to 
cooperate with the United States "without reservation" on 
counter-terrorism. 

5. (S/NF) The President stressed that Tunisia cooperated 
with the United States on terrorism out of conviction, and 
said broader, deeper international cooperation is essential. 
Many countries, he said, have suffered as the result of 
terrorism. He expressed regret, however, over the human 
rights criticism Tunisia has faced as the result 
of its efforts to combat terrorism. Some governments have a 
"double standard," he said, on the issue. He added "some 
embassies" in Tunis and human rights groups had taken 
positions that were "not friendly" over such cases such as 
the imprisonment of activist Mohammed Abbou and of the 
"Zarzis group." (NB. The "Zarzis group" refers to six 
Tunisians detained in 2003 for allegedly preparing to commit 
terrorist attacks. The six were pardoned by Ben Ali in 2006 
following international pressure.) Ben Ali acknowledged that 
there had been some problems with human rights in Tunisia, 
but stressed the GOT is addressing them. For example, he 
said, "tens" of police officers have been tried for 
corruption and other abuses. He said he would welcome the US 
Embassy receiving further information. He stressed that the 
GOT is committed to freedom and human rights, but no one is 
above the law. 

6. (S/NF) A/S Welch thanked Ben Ali and expressed 
appreciation for his commitment to cooperation on 
counter-terrorism. He said he had two specific requests: 1) 
access for US officials to interview Tunisian terrorist 

Noureddine Taam and 2) a commitment to accept the Tunisian 
detainees in Guantanamo on the basis of earlier assurances on 
treatment. Ben Ali responded that the United States would 
have immediate access to Taam. (NB. Additional details 
reported in GRPO channels.) He continued that the GOT would 
accept the detainees and do so on the basis of the Tunisian 
constitution. (NB. The Tunisian constitution offers 
guarantees on human rights, humane treatment and respect for 
international commitments.) Ben Ali emphasized again that on 
counter-terrorism and intelligence Tunisia would "cooperate 
with the United States without inhibitions" and the 
cooperation would be "total." 

------------------------------------- 
Libya: Trying to Improve US Relations 
------------------------------------- 

7. (S/NF) A/S Welch said the United States is improving 
relations with Libya, but from time to time has difficulties 
with leader Muammar Qadhafi. Welch asked that Ben Ali 
communicate to Qadhafi that the United States wants to 
continue to improve relations. Ben Ali replied that Qadhafi 
also wants better relations, but there remain "anti-American 
radicals" in the government. Qadhafi plans, according to Ben 
Ali, a cabinet reshuffle that would address the problem and 
we should see how the situation evolves. Qadhafi, Ben Ali 
opined, is "not a normal person" and had experienced 
disappointments over the failure of Arab and African unity. 
Ben Ali promised to raise the US interest in improving 
relations with Qadhafi in person or by phone. 

-------------------------------------------- 
Middle East: The Peace Process Needs Support 
-------------------------------------------- 

8. (S) Welch stressed that President Bush's highest priority 
this year is progress toward two states, Palestine and 
Israel, living side-by-side in peace. While Palestinian 
Authority President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert genuinely 
want peace, some of the Palestinian and Israeli people and 
leaders are skeptical. Welch stressed that all countries 
interested in peace need to make every effort to help move 
the process forward. 

9. (S) Ben Ali agreed on the importance of the Annapolis 
process, adding he had spoken with Abbas who is "optimistic" 
an agreement will be reached by the end of the year. 
Nevertheless, progress will remain very difficult. Ben Ali 
stressed Fatah and Hamas must try to reach an understanding. 
He noted that Abbas will visit Tunisia in March and there is 
a proposal for a Fatah-Hamas meeting in Tunis. Ben Ali said 
he will wait to hear Abbas' views before proceeding on the 
proposal. 

--------------------------------------------- ------- 
Arab League Summit: Not Without A Lebanese President 
--------------------------------------------- ------- 

10. (S) Welch asked Ben Ali about his views of Syria and the 
proposed Arab League Summit. Ben Ali responded that Syria is 
a source of concern. He said Syria is acting for Iran and 
the latter is fueling regional problems. He said he had met 
(on February 18) with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim 
who handed over an invitation from President Bashar Asad to 
attend the summit in Damascus. He said he told Mu'allim that 
Syria should help resolve the problems in Lebanon. Ben Ali 
emphasized the complexity of the situation in Lebanon, noting 
the unhelpful involvement of many regional actors. He added 
that there was some support for inviting Iran to the Damascus 
Summit. Ben Ali said, however, that he saw no reason for the 
summit unless there is a Lebanese president in attendance. 
Welch agreed. Ben Ali continued the summit may be postponed, 
or representation downgraded from the Chief of State level. 
He noted other states in the region, including Morocco, 
Jordan, and Saudi Arabia agreed. In any event, Ben Ali said 
he would not attend such a summit. 

--------------------- 
Iraq: Bleak Situation 
--------------------- 

11. (S/NF) Ben Ali said the situation in Iraq is "bleak," but 
we must face it. The only party benefiting currently is 
Iran, and suggested that Turkey's current actions against the 
PKK are making matters worse. Welch noted there is some 
progress on the security situation and the political front in 
Iraq. 


------------------- 
Region: "Explosive" 
------------------- 

12. (S) Looking more broadly, Ben Ali noted that Tunisia was 
happy it was part of the Maghreb, and not part of Levant or 
Gulf. He opined that the situation in Egypt is 
"explosive," adding that sooner or later the Muslim 
Brotherhood would take over. He added that Yemen and Saudi 
Arabia are also facing real problems. Overall, the region is 
"explosive." 

------------------------------------- 
Maghreb: Resolving the Western Sahara 
------------------------------------- 

13. (S) On the Maghreb, Ben Ali suggested extremism is a real 
and growing problem. Morocco, he said, was at the "beginning 
of the beginning" of its problem. It had 
ignored, he added, the issue for too long and former King 
Hassan II had refused to discuss it. Nevertheless, Morocco 
was a strategic partner for Tunisia and the GOT was working 
to strengthen cooperation. On Algeria, Ben Ali, said the 
problem was a "little better" and may be at the beginning of 
the end. Ben Ali said Tunisia has strong and direct 
cooperation on counter-terrorism with Algeria. Welch noted 
that Morocco and Algeria trust Tunisia more than they trust 
each other. Welch agreed that there is a terrorism problem 
in Morocco. 

14. (S) On the Western Sahara, Ben Ali said the Algerians 
are responsible for the ongoing impasse. Welch agreed, 
saying the issue was blocking progress in the region. He 
said the Algerians need to accept that there is not going to 
be an independent state in the Western Sahara. Ben Ali said 
the problem is complex, and will take years to resolve. He 
added it cannot be settled through the UN Security Council. 
He noted Tunisia had tried to convene a Maghreb meeting on it 
in Tunis. While Morocco and Libya had agreed to attend, 
Algeria refused, saying there was nothing to discuss. 

-------------- 
Iran: A Threat 
-------------- 

15. (S) Welch noted that President Bush considered Iran a 
threat "yesterday, today and tomorrow." Noting the recent 
National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, Welch underscored 
that while the Iranians "may have put the gun in the closet, 
they are still trying to make the bullet." Nevertheless, he 
added, there are signs economic pressure is working. Ben Ali 
concurred. Welch said the chances of a third Security 
Council resolution are good and President Bush wants a 
diplomatic option. 

16. (S/NF) Ben Ali replied this is "quite wise" of President 
Bush. He stressed he opposed the use of force, and that "a 
second front is not needed." Economic pressure on Iran will 
take longer, but it is working. Ben Ali added that he "does 
not trust" the Shia. 

---------------------------------- 
Invitation: President Bush Welcome 
---------------------------------- 

17. (S) President Ben Ali closed the meeting stressing his 
open invitation to President Bush to visit Tunisia before or 
after his time in office. Welch expressed his appreciation 
to Ben Ali for the meeting. 

------------------------------ 
Comment: Warm and Open Ben Ali 
------------------------------ 

18. (S/NF) Throughout the meeting, President Ben Ali was 
warm, open, and occasionally animated (at which point he 
sometimes slipped into Tunisian dialect). His quick and 
strong assurances on counter-terrorism cooperation were 
welcome, and may be an important step forward on what has 
been a troubling issue. Significantly, the President's 
promise was followed within hours by action from GOT 
officials. The key test will be whether cooperation 
continues and is both broad and deep. Similarly, the 
President's commitment on Guantanamo detainees was welcome. 

19. (S/NF) On regional issues, Ben Ali showed again that he 

is a moderate. While the Tunisians will not take the lead on 
foreign policy challenges, they will help where they can 
(e.g., support for the Annapolis process). Finally, 
President Ben Ali was clearly very pleased to see A/S Welch 
and to exchange views with him. The meeting and visit got 
broad, major media coverage in Tunisia. End Comment. 

20. (SBU) A/S Welch did not have a chance to clear this 
cable. 
GODEC