HC Deb 17 December 1998 vol 322 cc1097-111 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, I will make a statement on Iraq.

Yesterday, I authorised the participation of British forces in a substantial US-UK military strike against targets in Iraq. As the House knows, this attack began last night, to maximise surprise through the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and precision bombing by navy-based manned aircraft. The operation is now continuing and, as I speak, British Tornado aircraft are engaged in action. I spoke to their commander last night and congratulated him on the bravery and professionalism of his forces. I know that the whole House will join with me in wishing them well as they risk their lives to help ensure peace and stability in the middle east and more widely. We are proud of them.

The objectives of this military operation are clear and simple: to degrade the ability of Saddam Hussein to build and use weapons of mass destruction, including command and control and delivery systems, and to diminish the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to his neighbours by weakening his military capability.

Those objectives are achievable and the action is proportionate to the serious dangers Saddam Hussein poses to his immediate neighbours, the middle east region and the international community more widely. The targets, throughout Iraq, have been very carefully selected to reflect these objectives. We are taking every possible care to avoid civilian casualties or damage to ordinary civilian infrastructure.

The House will forgive me, I hope, if I say no more about operational details at this stage. To go further could endanger the lives of those involved. However, first reports from last night's operations suggest that they were successful and inflicted the kind of military damage we were seeking.

When I spoke to the House on 16 November, after we and the Americans had stayed our hand because of a written Iraqi promise of full co-operation with the UN weapons inspectors, I set out in some detail why we had come to the brink of military action. The House, I hope, will forgive me if I once again set current events in their proper context, because it is vital that people understand that the threat from Saddam is not theoretical—it is real.

Our policy has always been to seek genuine Iraqi compliance with the demands of the Security Council. After the Gulf war had revealed the extent of Saddam's arsenal, Iraq agreed in April 1991 to accept the destruction of all its weapons of mass destruction and not to develop such weapons in the future. Iraq also agreed to a special commission to monitor and oversee the process. That was the price that Iraq was made to pay for the cessation of hostilities. The capability that Saddam had at the outset of the Gulf war included a nuclear weapons programme only two years away from producing an effective bomb; long-range missile stocks able to threaten all his neighbours; a chemical weapons arsenal of huge proportions, which he had already used on the Iranians in the 10-year war that he started on Iran, and on his own people; and a biological weapons programme capable of producing enough deadly toxins to destroy the population of the globe several times over.

It was then expected that the special commission, together with the International Atomic Energy Agency, would complete this process in a few months, but it was not to be. What no one fully foresaw at that time was the huge effort that Iraq would put into blocking it. The inspectors have been constantly harassed, threatened, deceived and lied to. A special and elaborate mechanism to conceal Iraqi capability was put in place involving organisations close to Saddam, in particular his Special Republican Guard.

Despite that, the United Nations Special Commission achieved a huge amount, particularly after the defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, later murdered by Saddam. UNSCOM destroyed, for example, more than 38,000 chemical weapons munitions, 48 Scud missiles and a biological weapons factory designed to produce up to 50,000 litres of anthrax, botulism toxin and other deadly agents. But much—too much—remains unaccounted for. Iraq has consistently sought to frustrate attempts to look at the records and destroy the remaining capability—and let us again be clear: Saddam still has capability in this area, not least to develop more weapons in the future. Let me give just one example: more than 610 tonnes of precursor chemicals for the nerve gas VX have not yet been found or accounted for.

Meanwhile, Saddam's conventional military capabilities remain at a very high level. He has more than 1 million men under arms, including 75,000 in the Republican Guard and 15,000 members of the Special Republican Guard. Saddam attaches importance to only one thing: his ability to dominate his people and his neighbours by military force. He wants to retain all the weapons that he can, including weapons of mass destruction. He has used them before, and I am in no doubt of his readiness to use them again if he has any opportunity. His brutality and ruthlessness are too well documented for there to be any doubt of that. The UN special rapporteur on human rights issued a new report on Iraq in October; it bears studying. He documented massive and extremely grave violations of human rights, including the widespread and systematic use of torture, a new policy of penal mutilation and amputations introduced by Saddam's son, Uday, and innumerable and illegal political executions.

After the full extent of the weapons programme was uncovered in 1996 and early 1997, Saddam began to obstruct in real earnest. He cast doubt on the independence of the inspectors. He sought to exclude US and British members of UNSCOM. He sought to declare certain sites out of bounds, on the ground that they were personal palaces. That led to a series of crises with the Security Council and the international community, and a recurring threat of force, first in October 1997—when he eventually backed down—and then in February this year. The House will recall that that was eventually resolved by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, going to Baghdad and concluding a binding memorandum of understanding with the Iraqis. In it, Saddam undertook to co-operate fully with UNSCOM and the IAEA, and confirmed that that meant immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access in conformity with Security Council Resolutions. But the pattern continued. Then Saddam broke altogether the agreement with Kofi Annan. In August he suspended co-operation, and on 31 October he ended it. That was why, on 14 November, I gave authority for British forces to participate in a United States-United Kingdom strike against Iraq, which, as we know, was averted only by another offer from Saddam. The Iraqis again agreed, in terms that spoke of a clear and unconditional decision of the Iraqi government to resume cooperation with UNSCOM and the IAEA". They said: UNSCOM and the IAEA could immediately resume all their activities according to the relevant Resolutions of the Security Council. I remind the House that those resolutions call on Iraq to comply unconditionally with the demands of the Security Council to give up all weapons of mass destruction, and to co-operate fully with UNSCOM and the IAEA. Resolution 707 of 15 August 1991, for example, passed after the first evidence of Iraqi non-compliance, demanded that Iraq should provide full, final and complete disclosure … of aspects of its programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction", and that it should allow UNSCOM and the IAEA immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to any and all areas, facilities, equipment, records, and means of transportation which they wish to inspect". There were some who thought that we should have taken military action on 14 November. But, despite our severe doubts, we went that extra mile. We gave Saddam that last chance. Even at the risk to our own credibility, we were determined to avoid, if we responsibly could, the use of force. At the same time, we and the Americans also gave the clearest possible warning that, should Saddam break his word once more, there would be no further warnings or diplomatic arguments. I told the House on 16 November that, if he again obstructed the work of the inspectors, we would strike. No warnings. No wrangling. No negotiation. No last-minute letters.

President Clinton also set out what Saddam had to do: allow unfettered access for UNSCOM and the IAEA and abide by all the relevant Security Council resolutions; otherwise, he said, the US stood ready to act without further warning.

Saddam Hussein is a man to whom a last chance to do right is just a further opportunity to do wrong. He is blind to reason. We were not unconscious of that, but we wanted to show for our part that reason, not vengeance, motivated us. So, acting on that promise of unconditional access, Richard Butler was asked to put his inspectors back in immediately and carry out the full range of his tasks, and then to report back to the Security Council. He said that he would do so within a month. On Monday, a month later, he did so. That report was clear and damning. Copies were placed in the House yesterday. Butler summarises UNSCOM's experiences: limited co-operation in some areas, yes, but otherwise a clear pattern of obstruction—over documents, access to Iraqi personnel and, above all, the surprise inspections of suspect sites so vital to UNSCOM's completion of its task. Co-operation, as the report says, has indeed been less good in some areas even than in the difficult times of the past.

The evidence is clear, as set out by Butler. Important and relevant documents have not been handed over. Their existence has even been denied in many cases, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The documents are vital because they would reveal how many weapons Iraq had and has and where they are or may be located. We know that the Iraqis have deliberately destroyed as many of these documents as they can, including in the second half of this November as UNSCOM was resuming its work.

The Iraqis have also blocked legitimate inspections including one to the Ba'ath party headquarters. This visit was not an idle provocation, but because there was reliable evidence of relevant material at that site. In another case, an inspection of the former headquarters of the Special Security Organisation was eventually allowed to go ahead, but only after the building had been emptied, not only of any relevant material, but of its furniture and all equipment of any kind.

Butler's conclusion is clear and unequivocal: in the light of this experience, that is, the absence of full cooperation by Iraq, it must regrettably be recorded again that the Commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it by the Security Council and, thus, to give the Council the assurances it requires with respect to Iraq's prohibited weapons programmes. Anyone who has followed at all the pattern of events in Iraq in recent years must come to the same inescapable conclusion. Whatever the arguments about particular incidents, Saddam's attitude to the inspectors and their work cannot remotely be described as full co-operation. It has instead been as much deliberate obstruction as he thought he could get away with. Moreover, he has also consistently sought in the past 18 months to use this obstruction deliberately to try to blackmail the international community into lifting sanctions—a step which we support when he has complied with his obligations but which is quite unacceptable before he has done so, and while the threat remains.

In those circumstances, we had a stark choice. Either we could let this process continue further, with UNSCOM more and more emasculated, including its monitoring capability, Saddam correspondingly free to pursue his weapon-making ambitions, and this one-sided, unjustified bargaining over sanctions continuing, or, having tried every possible diplomatic avenue and shown endless patience despite all Saddam's deception, we could decide that, if UNSCOM could not do its work, we should tackle Saddam's remaining capability through direct action of our own. In the circumstances, there was only one responsible choice to make.

We are acting now because Butler's report—delivered on time—was so clear and because, if we were going to act, it was obviously better that we should do so without giving Saddam unnecessary time to prepare his defences and disperse whatever he could to new locations. In particular, we were immensely sensitive to the imminence of Ramadan and very reluctant to have to start a military campaign during Ramadan, out of our respect for Muslim sentiments. On the other hand, waiting until after Ramadan would have given Saddam a month to prepare. It would have been highly risky in military terms and likely to reduce significantly the effect of our attacks.

I want to deal with one thing straight on. There are suggestions that the timing of military action is somehow linked to the internal affairs of the United States. I refute this entirely. I have no doubt at all that action is fully justified now. That is my own strong, personal view. I know that President Clinton reached the same conclusion for the same reasons. Had he acted differently, out of regard to internal matters of US politics, that would have been a dereliction of his duty as President of the United States. Instead, not for the first time, he has shown the courage to do the right thing, and he has my full support.

Other questions arise about this military operation. Let me deal with them as briefly as I can. Is it a specific objective to remove Saddam Hussein? The answer is: it cannot be. No one would be better pleased if his evil regime disappeared as a direct or indirect result of our action, but our military objectives are precisely those that we have set out. Even if there were legal authority to do so, removing Saddam through military action would require the insertion of ground troops on a massive scale—hundreds of thousands, as the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, made clear this morning. Even then, there would be no absolute guarantee of success. I cannot make that commitment responsibly.

What will happen once the military operation is over? The answer to that depends at least as much on Saddam as it does on us. I hope that he will finally come to his senses and recognise that the only way to find support in the international community and light at the end of the tunnel is full compliance with the Security Council's requirements. UNSCOM must remain ready to resume its work and to accomplish the task set by the Security Council and agreed to by the Iraqis.

Alternatively, if, as is likely, Saddam will not see reason, then after this military operation is concluded, we will ensure that Saddam's weakened military capability cannot be rebuilt and that the threat he poses is fully contained. We have the ability to do so, even without UNSCOM, if necessary. We will certainly be better placed after this military strike than if we had to go on dealing with a Saddam Hussein whose military capability had not been weakened and with an UNSCOM increasingly impeded from doing any serious work. We will maintain and enforce rigorously the existing sanctions. If necessary, and if we have serious evidence from our intensive surveillance or from intelligence that his capability is being rebuilt, we will be ready to take further military action. Saddam should have no doubt whatever of our continuing resolve on that point.

We shall in any case do all we can to ensure that the present arrangements of oil sales for food and medicine can continue. I trust that, this time, Saddam will allow the mechanism to work properly, for the benefit of his people, rather than continue to spread lies about the effect of sanctions. He has the means to care for his people, if he chooses to use them.

Again, let us be clear: the Iraqi authorities can import as much food and medicines as they need. If there are nutritional problems in Iraq, they are not the result of sanctions. Let us not forget that Iraq is continuing to export food to her neighbours. We also constantly look at ways in which we can do more to help alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people, for example, whenever we review the workings of the sanctions and oil for food regimes, and through our own aid effort.

The decision to take military action against Iraq was taken with great regret. It is a heavy responsibility. There will be casualties in Iraq, despite all our efforts, although I hope that all concerned will be fully alert to Saddam's very well-documented modus operandi of fabrication of evidence.

I am encouraged by the international reaction: most of our allies have offered full support, and others who have felt unable to do so have shown their understanding. I believe that, among the Arab countries, the view expressed at their meeting in Doha in November, that Saddam must bear the responsibility for what happens, holds good.

As I said last night, we have absolutely no quarrel with the Iraqi people. We have no desire to jeopardise the territorial integrity of Iraq. Indeed, we look forward to the day when Iraq will have the Government its people deserve and will once again be a great country. We have the deepest respect for Islamic sensibilities, here and in the region. We have acted because we must act to counter a real and present danger from a tyrant who has never hesitated to use whatever weapons are to hand.

I would rather that we had not had to do this. I am aware of the risks that we are asking our forces to face. I do so, not lightly, but with a profound sense of responsibility. However, I do so confident they will achieve our aims and convinced that we have taken the right course of action. Whatever the risks we face today, they are as nothing compared to the risks if we do not halt Saddam Hussein's programme of developing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. I ask the House for its support.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I express, on behalf of the Opposition, our full support for the action that has been taken by the Government and the United States, while regretting that it has been made necessary by the persistent failure of the Iraqi leader to keep his word or honour international obligations?

The Opposition share the Prime Minister's view that he and the President of the United States had no alternative but to order a military response to the continuous deceit of Saddam, his refusal to meet his international obligations, his repeated testing of western resolve and his determination to develop weapons of mass destruction. We support the decision that the military operations should not only strike at his ability to develop such weapons of mass destruction, but diminish the military threat he poses to his neighbours. We also support the Prime Minister in making it clear that the operation—the necessity of which we all regret—is directed not at the Iraqi people, but at their leader.

We recognise that the Prime Minister cannot give details of the operations at this stage, but, with British forces now in action, will he confirm to the House that clear and agreed rules of engagement have been confirmed with our United States allies? Can he inform the House of who has taken overall command of the operation, including the British role in it? What action are the Government taking, in parallel with the military operation, on the diplomatic front, especially to redouble efforts to maintain good relations with our many friends, allies and partners in the Gulf?

Will the Prime Minister further inform the House what support he has received from our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union? Given the obvious risk of retaliatory measures of some kind, will he confirm that the Government have taken all possible steps to safeguard British lives and property at home and abroad? What does the Prime Minister envisage happening immediately after the completion of the military action? For instance, what future does he now foresee for the UNSCOM mission? Our priority today is obviously the military operation. However, will the Prime Minister comment further on the long-term strategy behind it? The evidence now suggests overwhelmingly that Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted to meet his international obligations in any serious way. Does that not lead us to the conclusion that a prime objective of western policy, to which this kind of action can make a contribution, must be to bring about his removal? As President Clinton said last night: the best way to end that threat to peace once and for all is with a new Iraqi government". Britain is very fortunate in having the finest aircrews in the world. We can have no doubt that they and the excellent ground crews who support them will give a good account of themselves in whatever they are called on to do. We express our complete support for this operation and for all that our armed forces will do in the coming hours and days.

In addition, we believe that the overall objective of our policy towards Iraq should be to remove Saddam from power rather than temporarily checking his ambitions. None of us wants an outcome that would mean that we find ourselves in the same position, faced, year by year, with the same threat and forced again to take the same action.

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I agree entirely with what he said, particularly that this action is directed not at the Iraqi people, but at the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Yes, of course there are clear and agreed rules of engagement with our US allies. On the diplomatic front, we are obviously working very hard throughout the entire world—in the Gulf, the European Union and elsewhere. A large number of countries have already indicated their support: among them, Germany, Japan, Australia, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada. It is obviously important to bring home to people the simple choice that we faced: we could either let the inspection regime effectively disintegrate or take action.

We have done all that we can to safeguard British lives and property. Our long-term strategy is to secure compliance with the United Nations resolutions either through UNSCOM or through direct military action. I agree entirely that a broad objective of our policy is to remove Saddam Hussein and to do all that we can to achieve that. However, I was reluctant to commit myself—I do not think that we could do so responsibly—to that outcome as an actual objective of this military action.

Of course, it is correct that we face a danger in this world while Saddam Hussein remains, as anyone who looks at the history will know. I have a lot of material with me—much of which could be made available to hon. Members without creating any security problems—which details what the weapons programmes were, how difficult it was to gain access and the chronology of all the bits of obstruction that occurred. One problem is that people find it hard to contemplate in this day and age that someone could act in this evil and brutal way. However, I am afraid that there is such a person and he cannot be allowed access to those weapons. If we can possibly find the means of removing him, we will.

However, our objectives for this military action are those that I have set out. I believe that they are achievable. I think that we will significantly degrade and diminish Saddam as a threat to his neighbours and his weapon-making capability, which is what we should do.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

These are anxious and sombre moments for the House and the Prime Minister, as he has just demonstrated, but most particularly for the Royal Air Force aircrew and their families. They ought to be uppermost in our thoughts.

Does the Prime Minister understand that he enjoys Liberal Democrat support for the action that he has taken in deploying British forces against Saddam Hussein? Does he agree that the need to use military force against Saddam Hussein should be regarded not as a cause for celebration or satisfaction but as a painful necessity and last resort to which we have been driven when all other options have been exhausted? Is it not worth repeating yet again that, but for Saddam Hussein's repeated defiance and deception, the issue of compliance with United Nations resolutions could have been resolved several years ago?

The Prime Minister rightly acknowledged the importance of minimising civilian casualties. Does he accept that it is essential to be stringent in the selection of targets? Will he give instructions that, where there is any doubt, the presumption will be against attack?

Finally, in a wider sense, does the Prime Minister understand that there are many who support him on this occasion but remain concerned to ensure that he uses all his endeavours to persuade the United States of the importance of being even-handed throughout the middle east?

The Prime Minister

Once again, I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for Liberal Democrat support. One of the reasons why, in the statement, I set out at so much length the background to the situation is so that people outside the House understand how we came to this point. Having debated the issue on many occasions, we are all familiar with the facts, but many people are not and wonder why it is necessary to take action now. It is important to set out that background.

I agree that the action is not a cause for celebration; it is a terrible thing to have to do. It is a grim necessity and should never be expressed in any other terms. I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that I feel that myself keenly.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's point about compliance with UN resolutions is right. At the end of the Gulf war, following the ceasefire, Saddam remained in office and it was predicated as part of the agreement that was made that UNSCOM would go in and do its work. Saddam agreed that he would co-operate fully. We have had seven years of prevarication.

The targets are, of course, extremely carefully chosen. We make every effort to do that as responsibly as we should, and I hope that we act in these circumstances with a responsibility that Saddam Hussein would never contemplate.

The US is acting even-handedly, as President Clinton's visit to Palestinian territory the other day demonstrates. This action has nothing to do with anything other than a quarrel with Saddam Hussein and a weapons capacity that simply has to be diminished for the sake of the safety of the world.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Building on the question from the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) about the need to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, does the Prime Minister recall from his wide reading how German troops entered the Rheinland in 1936 without let or hindrance from the international community and in violation of international agreements? Did not Adolf Hitler that day sign the death warrants of some 20 million people in the ensuing war? Is it not the case that, if Saddam Hussein were allowed to continue to build his biological and chemical weapons without let or hindrance from the United States or the United Kingdom, he would be allowed to sign death warrants for people in the middle east who are alive and well today?

The Prime Minister

I fully agree. There are records of some 20,000 people unaccounted for in Iraq's internal regime. Saddam has used chemical weapons on the Kurds, invaded Kuwait and developed an entire weapons capability. He cannot safely be allowed to take such actions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—the question is not what price we will pay if we act now, but what price we will pay if we do not.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I endorse the Prime Minister's statement, as I recall personally that it was in direct response to the ceasefire that the most solemn undertaking was given on behalf of Saddam Hussein to General Schwarzkopf and General de la Billiere that Iraq would not only undertake to allow the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction but no longer pursue a programme of their production. Faced with Saddam Hussein's continuing obstruction, including his refusal to recognise the final warning, the Prime Minister and the President clearly had no choice. None the less, as the Prime Minister said, it is a very heavy responsibility to commit our forces, and American forces, to what is a most difficult undertaking, and one of which we cannot be sure of a successful outcome.

Against that background—I draw modestly on my own experience—may I say that these events will be accompanied by a media frenzy in which rumour will fill any gaps in the available information, in which the sensitivities of neighbouring countries will be crucial and in which it will be vital to maintain the closest possible communication and commonalty of objectives between the United States and ourselves and the closest possible communication with our friends and allies in the region?

The Prime Minister

That is right. It is one reason why I wanted to set out the background in such detail and give people full information. It is important that they understand. It is also important for us constantly to be in communication with our allies out in the Gulf and in the Islamic world, and, of course, with others. It is one of the reasons why we established a limited set of military objectives, which are clear and specific. We believe that we can attain those objectives, but I agree that it is important that what we say we are going to do, we do, and that we keep in the closest possible communication with our allies in helping us do that.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

My right hon. Friend referred to the internal situation in the United States. Is he aware of the nausea felt by many of us in the House at the fact that when, with the clear authorisation of specific United Nations Security Council resolutions, he takes the awesome and proper decision to bring our troops into action and to risk their lives, some people say that what he is doing is some kind of cronyish favour to the President of the United States? When our men are being asked to risk their lives, that is a despicable thing to say.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although some people point to the fact that this action, even though taken under Security Council resolutions, was taken by Britain and the United States only, and imply that we are somehow isolated, Britain has taken action before, in 1940 when we stood up to the Nazis, and it was a matter of pride because we were doing the right thing, as we are doing the right thing now?

Will my right hon. Friend confirm, in line with what he has told the House this afternoon, that we will keep on, that we will retain sanctions and that, where necessary, we will continue military action until Saddam Hussein has either learned to behave or been removed?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Madam Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. I believe it to be in the best traditions of this country and its history to stand up and do the right thing, not just for this country but for the greater peace, stability and security of the world.

As I said in my statement, my own strong personal view is that this action had to be taken now because we said back on 14, 15 and 16 November that, if there was any further refusal to co-operate, we would take action immediately. The Butler report was due in a month, and came out almost a month to the day that we made that statement. The report said that there had been no co-operation—in fact, in some respects there was less co-operation than there had been before.

My judgment was that it was obvious from that point that we were going to have to take action. To have delayed taking action—let us also assume, rightly, I think, that it would have been wrong and offensive to begin that military action in Ramadan—would have given Saddam Hussein five or six weeks in which to prepare his defences and disperse his capability. Of course, it would then have been harder for our people to fulfil their functions. I have absolutely no doubt that now is the right time to act.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Prime Minister will be aware that the RAF Tornados in action all come from RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency. Therefore, with that very strange mixture of pride in their professionalism and fear for their lives, which I think the House would endorse, my thoughts are immediately with the aircrews and their families. May I, over the next few hours—I hope that it will be hours rather than days—be kept fully informed of all relevant constituency information?

Is the Prime Minister satisfied that all possible international negotiations and consultation took place before the decision was taken to launch the attack? We have all heard and read very many different reports. Is he convinced that the action, which is putting at risk many people's lives, will guarantee his hope that the ultimate outcome will be no remaining opportunity to do further wrong?

The Prime Minister

I agree, of course, that the pilots who are taking the action are immensely brave people, as I said in my statement. We are happy to keep the hon. Lady informed of any developments. She asked whether negotiations and consultation had been properly in place. It is seven years since the original undertaking was given. The past 14 months have been just a game of to-ing and fro-ing for Saddam Hussein. There is agreement right across the international community that compliance with UN resolutions and unconditional, unrestricted access for inspectors to find and destroy the weapons are necessary. That is not in any dispute. There is agreement, too, with UN inspectors' conclusions that Saddam Hussein is not providing such unconditional, unrestricted access. The question is what do we do. Either we decide that he can carry on impeding their work, effectively negating the first thing that we said that we had agreed—that it is necessary to secure compliance with the resolutions—or we take action.

I assure the hon. Lady that it has taken so long to take this action precisely because of our desire to avoid it—if at all costs we could do so. That was the reason why we decided at the last moment on 14 November, even as planes were in the region and ready to take action, that we would call it off. I remember people at the time who said, "You should have gone ahead, in any event. What store can you set by Saddam Hussein's words to you?" But we said, "Let us give this one last chance to work." I do not think that anybody can reasonably complain about the length of time that we have spent trying to achieve a peaceful, diplomatic solution.

Unless force is always ruled out, it is difficult to find any other reasonable conclusion if there is no chance of preventing the development of such a capability without the use of force. That is why we have done what we have done. I assure the hon. Lady that the decision was made only after a great deal of thought and painstaking negotiation and consultation over months. I am afraid that there comes a point when one must face reality. The reality is that either we let Saddam Hussein develop weapons—effectively allowing him to disintegrate the weapons-inspecting regime—or we act with military force. That was the honest, true choice that we faced. I believe that we made the only choice that we could responsibly make.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

The Prime Minister twice mentioned the words "diminish" and "degrade". I wonder whether he thought, as I did at lunchtime, as bleeding women and children were carried into hospitals, that those who were diminished and degraded were not the Iraqis, but us? We are diminished and degraded by being reduced to the tail on this verminous and mangy Desert Fox. [Interruption.] This is a free Parliament and I will have my say in it.

The Prime Minister mentioned Ramadan. He thrice said that it would have been wrong to begin military action during Ramadan, but he has not said that it will not continue during Ramadan. Will he assure the House on that point?

What does the Prime Minister think opinion in the 1,000 million-strong Islamic community around the world will be as it begins Ramadan this weekend—that an Arab Muslim capital is in flames at the hands of a new crusade, but this time led, not by Richard the Lionheart, but by Clinton the liar? And why did he not find time to mention that three of the five members of the Security Council, including our sister socialist Government in France, have condemned this escapade, and that the General-Secretary of the Arab League has today, on behalf of the Arab League—the Arab countries—denounced it as an Anglo-American aggression?

The Prime Minister

First, if I may point out factually, the French have not condemned it. Secondly, the Gulf Co-operation Council of Arab states made it clear in its statement a short time ago that it believes that the responsibility lies with Saddam Hussein for not having abided by the agreement that he entered into. Of course my hon. Friend is quite right—this is a free Parliament, and he is entitled to have his say. That is part of living in a democracy. It is not, of course, something that he would have, were he living in Iraq.

I simply want to say to my hon. Friend—to be honest, I think that I am sort of past anger—that I find it curious that he should attack President Clinton personally and mention not a word of condemnation of Saddam Hussein. He has a curious sense of priorities. I do not believe that people in the Muslim world or the Arab world are in any doubt, and it is our job to go out and show them, as I said so clearly, that the enemy of the Iraqi people is not the British or the American Government; the enemy of the Iraqi people is a dictator who has repressed that people for years and years and years. Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed, however, to threaten the rest of the world, and I find it extraordinary that anyone from my own political party—from my own background and beliefs in the Labour party—could actually make a statement without condemning once the things that he has done: the killing of those Kurdish people, the fact that 20,000 people are unaccounted for, the political executions that happen in Iraq every day, the invasion of Kuwait, or the development of weapons of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.

It is possible—and quite right in this free democracy of ours—for people to get up and say, "Look, this is the wrong thing to do. You should not do it." I understand that argument. But let us at least agree that this man is an evil dictator, and that any attack on us for what we have done should never ever be seen by the outside world as some support for him.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the House would agree that the removal of Saddam Hussein would be a very desirable outcome of what has happened. One of the tactics that the Americans and British Government might seek to employ would be to encourage the Shi'a in the south of Iraq, or the Kurds in the north of Iraq, to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, unless the United States Government and the British Government were to offer very substantial and effective military assistance, the probabilities are that the Shi'a and the Kurds would be crushed, with great loss of life? Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that, unless the United States Government and the British Government are willing to provide substantial and effective military cover for the Shi'a and the Kurds, they should not be encouraged to rise up against Saddam Hussein?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. It is important that we do not encourage anyone to do things if we are not in a position to give them the protection that they need. At this stage, we simply cannot assess what the impact of the action that we have taken on Saddam Hussein will be. Obviously, if he were removed, it would be to everyone's benefit. Partly because I believe that it is important that we get the maximum possible support in the rest of the world, I have been hesitant and anxious throughout not to make a commitment beyond a commitment that I believe that we can achieve.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

May I tell my right hon. Friend, as someone who represents in his constituency a large number of Muslims, Arabs and Iraqi refugees, that he will have far more support in those communities both here and around the world than is readily apparent? It is false to imply that the people of the Islamic religion, especially those who have suffered at the hands of the Iraqi dictator, believe that Saddam Hussein's behaviour is acceptable just because they happen to have a disagreement with Israel. Israel is another matter. Many of them would agree with me that the dictators who have so disfigured the face of the 20th century need to be stopped. When we cannot stop them here and now, we need to be able to put them on trial before the International Criminal Court when they lose power, as we will eventually do. Let us go forward into the 21st century proud of the role that we have taken, difficult though it may be. I assure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the support is there in all communities.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am sure that he is right in what he says about the Muslim community, which contributes so much to this country and represents all the best instincts of peace and stability. It is also right to draw attention to the need for the international community to recognise that we live in a different set of circumstances today. The technology exists to develop weapons that are horrific. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that Britain remains engaged in all the international conventions on nuclear weapons and weapons of chemical and biological warfare. I am afraid that there is a sense in which there must be some point at which today's international community acts in order to stave off a potential threat to the world. This is such a situation.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I assure the Prime Minister from this Bench that the greater number of people in Northern Ireland support the attacks whole-heartedly? He mentioned oil for food and medicines. There are those who think that that is an American attempt to get oil. May we have an assurance that attempts are being made to ensure that Saddam does not simply feed his soldiers and supporters, rather than deal with his people who are in need? May we have a repetition from the Prime Minister that Saddam's palaces are not country houses but large estates that cover acres of territory, which makes it more difficult to inspect them?

The Prime Minister

That is right. Part of the difficulty has been that Saddam has siphoned off any money that he can into his weapon-making capability. From memory, I think that he has spent about $1.2 billion on the presidential sites and related military capability. We try to put in place as tough a regime as we possibly can, but we are desperate at the same time to allow Saddam to sell oil in order that the Iraqi people are fed and have the medicines that they need. Saddam could do so much more. There is no need for any people to suffer nutritional deficiencies in Iraq. That cannot be said often enough. People can be fed if Saddam will allow it, but for his own reasons and his own propaganda, he does not. We are always looking at ways of improving the regime, but there is no reason why he cannot feed his people properly and give them the medicines that they need, except the fact that he refuses to do so.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the difficulty that on the condemnation of Saddam Hussein there is overwhelming unanimous world opinion, while on the decision to take military action he and the United States have been unable to persuade the Security Council, which requires the support of the five permanent members, which means that this military action is a flagrant breach of article 46 of the charter of the United Nations? The Prime Minister said that something must be done, but that was tried seven years ago when 200,000 Iraqis were killed, many of them innocent, and Saddam Hussein was left stronger than before. There are many people in the world, and I am one of them, who believe that what was done yesterday is deeply immoral and contrary to an ethical foreign policy, of which we boast. For that reason, I shall take the limited opportunity open to me to vote against the war by calling for a division on the Adjournment of the House at 10 o'clock tonight.

The Prime Minister

I have no doubt that we have the proper legal authority, as it is contained in successive Security Council resolution documents. I respect the fact that my right hon. Friend takes a different view, but he also condemned the action that we took to drive Saddam out of Kuwait. Does anyone believe that, if we had not taken military action in the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein could have been negotiated out of Kuwait? That is not credible.

I accept that not all the international community will endorse the action, but the entire international community agrees two things: first, that Saddam's building of weapons of mass destruction must be stopped and, secondly, that he is in breach of his obligations to deliver up all the documents and ensure that the inspectors can do their job properly. At some point, either we decide to carry on in endless negotiation—with Saddam able to destroy the records of where the weapons are, prevent the inspectors from doing their job and build up his weapon-making capability again—or we decide to use force.

Unless people take a pacifist view and argue that force should never be used, irrespective of the circumstances, I do not know how, after seven years, they can reasonably say, yes, we agree that Saddam must be prevented from developing those weapons, but, no, we are never prepared to use force to stop him.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

First, when these matters have drawn to a conclusion and UNSCOM is able to go about its business again in Iraq, and given that the Prime Minister agreed with me the other day that UNSCOM's work following the Annan agreement had become heavily compromised, will he give consideration to a new and better system for UNSCOM to do its work in Iraq, so that it can go about its business without outside interference from people claiming to be a liaison between it and the Government of Iraq?

Secondly, will the Prime Minister take under his own wing the responsibility to ensure that our allies and friends in the Gulf are kept informed, at the highest level, of the reasons for the actions that he has rightly undertaken?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, we are in constant contact with allies and friends in the Gulf at the highest level.

Of course, we always look at how we can improve the UNSCOM regime. There have been many attacks on Richard Butler, the head of the special commission. Richard Butler was a former ambassador to the United Nations. He used to work for Gough Whitlam and was appointed by the previous Labour Government in Australia as ambassador to the UN. He is deeply committed to the UN. The views that he presents in his report are not just his views; they are the views of all the inspectors. It is important for us to remember that. The idea that a man with such a track record and those beliefs is some stooge of the Americans or the British is entirely false.

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