HC Deb 06 April 1998 vol 310 cc11-3
9. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What representations he has received about the deployment of British troops to the Persian gulf. [36265]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

My Department has received a significant amount of correspondence about the deployment of British forces in the Gulf. I have taken careful note of the variety of views expressed.

Helen Jones

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Will he confirm that the temporary withdrawal of HMS Illustrious from the Gulf should not be seen by Saddam Hussein as a sign of any weakening of resolve on the part of either this country or the United Nations? To ram that message home, will my right hon. Friend tell us how he intends to balance the temporary removal of HMS Illustrious with other reinforcements in the gulf?

Mr. Robertson

I can assure my hon. Friend, the House and anyone who may care to listen that our resolve has not diminished one bit in the Gulf, and in our posture towards Saddam Hussein. The access that Saddam has now given to all the sensitive sites that he blocked earlier this year demonstrates the clear victory that was scored for diplomacy backed by the threat of force. We shall therefore be putting additional Tornado aircraft into the Ali al Salem base in Kuwait—with the kind agreement of the Kuwait Government—to "sharpen" our posture, and to remind Saddam Hussein of his obligation to deliver on what he himself agreed to when the Secretary-General of the United Nations went to Baghdad. We are reviewing the composition of our forces to ensure that we have the best mix for the job, and Saddam Hussein should interpret that in only one way—to mean that our vigilance remains exactly the same as it was, and that our resolve continues to be at the highest level.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Following the work of the UN inspectors, does the Secretary of State still believe that our British troops deployed in the Persian gulf are threatened by nuclear, biological and chemical warfare?

Mr. Robertson

The fair assessment at present is that, as long as the danger remains, the precautions that have been established must continue. We still want the troops in theatre to take advantage of the anti-anthrax vaccine that has been made available to them. Saddam has still not convinced the United Nations Special Commission, the United Nations or the rest of the world that he has destroyed all his capabilities for producing and using weapons of mass destruction, and that is precisely why we still have forces in the Gulf with those of our allies.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on the question of British troops—and American troops, for that matter—in the Gulf? In the light of the successful inspection of the nine presidential sites by the UN last week, can my right hon. Friend give some idea of the criteria that he will use before British troops are withdrawn? It seems to some of his right hon. and hon. Friends that this is the right time for the withdrawal to begin.

Mr. Robertson

No. We are not yet satisfied that Saddam has provided clear indications that he will abide by the agreement that he signed, and we have not yet been provided with the evidence to be sure that he has destroyed his weapons of mass destruction. There would have to be a clear pattern of Iraqi compliance over time for our posture to be diminished in any way, because reducing our force posture might give him some indication that he could get away with more by confrontation. Last week, I had a long discussion with Ambassador Butler, the executive chairman of UNSCOM, on that subject. I assure my hon. Friend that the fate of the sanctions against Iraq and of Saddam himself lie in his own hands—all he has to do is comply and provide evidence of it; then the world position would rightly be different.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

We welcome the deployment of forces that the Secretary of State has announced. Will he say more about the progress that has been made since the agreement between Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein? How many visits have been made, what banned materials were unearthed, and how much of those materials have been destroyed? Is continued progress being made to broaden support for the alliance in the Gulf, which is led by the United Kingdom and the United States?

Mr. Robertson

The right hon. Gentleman will know of the support for the posture that we rightly and properly took from the beginning in putting in place the force that made diplomacy work in the agreement signed with the Secretary-General. The right hon. Gentleman gave his support at that time, but since then the Secretary-General has clearly underlined the fact that, although diplomacy can achieve a lot, it can achieve a lot more if it is backed by firmness and by force. That is why we joined the Americans in the Gulf, and why a large number of our allies then gave logistical and physical support.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that most of the sensitive sites inside Iraq have been inspected in the past couple of months. Ambassador Butler is satisfied that the inspections have taken place and that access has been given in a way that was denied until now. UNSCOM reports directly to the United Nations, so I am not in a position to give full details of what was or was not found. We are not yet satisfied that we have the evidence that Saddam has destroyed the weapons of mass destruction and the capability to produce them that he undoubtedly had in the past. Until then, our state of vigilance will be maintained.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I agree with my right hon. Friend's assessment of the situation in Iraq. There has been a lot of support from Ministers and Conservative Front Benchers for the campaign to indict Saddam as a war criminal for crimes against humanity and for crimes of genocide. It would take only one country to indict him. Why do we not take the lead?

Mr. Robertson

There is no forum yet established in which we could indict Saddam Hussein for war crimes. The proposed international criminal court, the establishment of which the Government firmly support, would have a remit only over the countries that agreed to abide by it. Sadly, I am pretty sure that Saddam Hussein's Iraq is unlikely to be a signatory, but we shall continue to support the Indict campaign.

I assure my hon. Friend that we have a number of strategies in relation to Iraq, based not only on the tough military posture of our troops who are giving great service to the country in the Gulf, but on the political front. We are especially concerned to ensure that the people of Iraq realise that our argument is not with them, but with the regime. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making strenuous efforts to convene an humanitarian conference to ensure that we get through to the ordinary people of Iraq the help that the world community wants to direct to them.