HC Deb 09 February 1998 vol 306 cc1-6
3. Mr. Cohen

When he last met his United States counterpart to discuss procedures for joint military action. [26097]

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

I met United States Defence Secretary Cohen at a long-standing engagement in Germany this weekend. We discussed a number of issues, including the situation in Iraq and Bosnia.

Mr. Cohen

Were the following two questions discussed? First, why is a war that kills hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent Iraqis morally worth while? Secondly, is a war that leaves Saddam Hussein in place, perhaps to cause more trouble later, morally worth the life of a single British or American soldier?

Mr. Robertson

First, I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces who cannot be here because he underwent a small operation on Friday; he is now at home and recovering well.

All that we ask of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime is that they comply fully with the United Nations Security Council resolutions that they accepted at the end of the Gulf war. We simply want them to allow unconditional, unrestricted access by the weapons inspectors to sites that they think may have information about—or actual—weapons of mass destruction. Force is simply there as an option of last resort—and an option of last resort without which it is quite clear that Saddam would not be interested in complying with his international obligations. If there is a confrontation it is not between Great Britain and the United States and Iraq but between Iraq and the United Nations, and it is the UN's credibility that is now at stake.

Mr. Wilkinson

What are the exact arrangements for defining the rules of engagement of British troops in the Iraqi theatre, and what are the command and control arrangements? Would British forces in that theatre come directly under the command of an American general officer or flag officer, or would the British take their orders directly from Northwood?

Mr. Robertson

As the hon. Gentleman would predict, and as I know he will accept is reasonable, I have no intention of being drawn into any details about military action that might have to be taken if all the diplomatic options were exhausted. The use of force and the deployment of our forces in the Gulf today are simply the mechanisms by which we hope Saddam will realise that he must comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. The arrangements for that force, if that force has to be used, will not be speculated on from the Dispatch Box. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime should be left under no illusions that if we have to deploy, there will be a fairly firm response to what he is doing.

Mr. Winnick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if military action is to be used in the near future, it is rather important to set out our objectives quite clearly? Every effort, however difficult, should be made to avoid civilian casualties which would not only be wrong in themselves but would give added political ammunition to the murderous dictator in Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend further agree that, if we abandoned any threat of the use of military action, it would mean that Saddam Hussein had won a victory and that there would be no question of his allowing unrestricted access to weapons? If he knew that no action would be taken against him, why should he show any flexibility whatever?

Mr. Robertson

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend: he is absolutely right. The aim of any military action that we took if diplomacy were to fail, would be to oblige Saddam to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. Not just the safety, security and stability of Saddam's neighbours in the middle east—a volatile and important part of the world—but the credibility of the United Nations are at stake. If that credibility were to be destroyed or undermined by a Saddam victory at this point, what future would there be for international world order?

In recent days, the House has already heard of some of the horrifying weapons that Saddam Hussein has used and may still have in hiding, but the House will wish to know that I am today making available new information on Iraq's chemical weapons capability at the time of the Gulf war. That concerns recently received intelligence that Iraq may have possessed large quantities of a chemical weapons agent known as Agent 15 since the 1980s. Agent 15 is a mental incapacitant, exposure to which is likely to lead to weakness, dizziness, disorientation and loss of co-ordination, among other symptoms. We remain of the view that there is no confirmed evidence of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Gulf war, but I am making this public in line with our undertaking to Gulf veterans to make available any information that we possess that is of potential relevance to Gulf veterans' health issues.

Rather than read a full statement of that information now, I shall seek permission to have it published in the Official Report. In addition, copies will be available in the Vote Office and in the Library of the House this afternoon. My noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement is making similar arrangements in another place.

Mr. Martin Bell

Speaking as one who was in the front line last time, may I ask for the Secretary of State's personal assurance that no similar action will be contemplated without the same sort of coalition of opinion at home and support in the Arab world and in the United Nations at large?

Mr. Robertson

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is complete unanimity in the UN Security Council and indeed among the widespread allies of this country and of the United States of America that what Saddam Hussein is doing at present is unacceptable, that he must comply with UN Security Council resolutions in relation to weapons of mass destruction, and that he must allow unrestricted, unfettered and immediate access by the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq weapons inspectors to all sites that they believe may be involved in the production or use of weapons of mass destruction. On that there is absolute unanimity. I agree with what Prince Sultan, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defence and Civil Aviation, said yesterday: We say to Saddam Hussein to abide by the United Nations resolutions to protect his people and put an end to their seven-year-long suffering.

Mr. Dalyell

Who sold Agent 15 to the Iraqis?

Mr. Robertson

I do not know who sold Agent 15 to the Iraqis. My hon. Friend will have noticed that I became Secretary of State for Defence on 3 May last year, since when we have put in place a number of investigations and research projects into those elements that might have affected our veterans who fought in the Gulf war in 1990. What I am bothered about is that we now have information that, among all the other horrifying weapons that Saddam has used in the past, and among all the weapons that we know he had and may well have destroyed but is probably still hiding, is now another agent, Agent 15, the like of which should make most of us wonder why on earth there is any equivocation in forcing him to comply with his obligations.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if it had not been for joint military action in August 1990, the risk is that Saudi Arabia would have been invaded, and that, if it had not been for joint military action in January 1991, the likelihood is that Kuwait would still be occupied? Does he share my surprise that those who argue against the use of force or the threat of the use of force offer no alternative sanction by which to compel Saddam Hussein to accept the obligations in the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, which embody the terms of the peace settlement to which he agreed?

Mr. Robertson

I am not surprised at all. I cannot understand those who say that force was not required on the last occasion. I am absolutely certain that had we not been forced to use force during the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein would still be in possession of Kuwait and may well have extended his ambitions to many other countries in the region.

Ten years ago this year, I went to Diyarbaká and Mardin in Turkey, near the border with Iraq and Syria. I met some Kurdish citizens of Iraq who had crossed the border to flee the chemical bombs filled with sarin deadly gas which Saddam had rained down on the small town of Halabja. Their stories and their faces will live with me for ever.

If a man like Saddam could use such dreadful, horrifying weapons against his own people, I could not sleep comfortably at night knowing that he would retain that capability and threaten his neighbours and, indeed, the wider middle east.

Ms Abbott

The Secretary of State keeps calling the United Nations in aid when referring to the possibility of a military strike against Iraq. Is it not the case that there is no unanimity in the United Nations for a military strike, still less any support for it in the Arab world? Does not that give him pause for thought?

Mr. Robertson

There is total unanimity in the United Nations Security Council and in the Arab world that Saddam must comply with the Security Council resolutions. There is total agreement among all states that he must allow the UNSCOM inspectors in, and that there must continue to be a regime of inspection to ensure that he does not hold weapons ready to be deployed against his neighbours in the first instance.

The route of diplomacy is still open—there is still time for Saddam to comply with the Security Council resolutions. However, as we move towards the point where diplomacy is seen to fail—if that is the case—I have no doubt that his neighbours and the wider world will recognise that there are few options left.

Sir George Young

We welcome the new information about nerve agents to which the Secretary of State referred, and join him in wishing a speedy recovery to the Minister for the Armed Forces following his operation.

Our armed forces face the possibility of conflict with Iraq. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Opposition strongly support the Government's robust approach—even if all their supporters cannot. The responsibility for any action rests with Saddam Hussein. There is a principle at stake—the credibility of collective action against unacceptable dictatorship.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about the interaction of the strategic defence review with the mobilisation that is under way. He must be anxious to ensure that there is no threat to the morale of our armed forces, and no distraction from the task in hand for officials and Ministers, through the strategic defence review. Will he assure the House that, if necessary, he will suspend the review until the crisis has passed?

Mr. Robertson

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's good wishes for my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. I also welcome his support for the credibility of military force as an option of last resort if diplomacy fails and we are not able to persuade Saddam Hussein to comply with the Security Council resolutions.

Morale among our forces is good. Despite what has happened to them over the years, and despite the current overstretch that they are feeling—and we are trying to deal with that—they are ready and willing to serve their country wherever they are sent. Those who serve on Invincible, Nottingham and Coventry, on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and in the RAF Tornados being deployed from Bruggen today have a determination and dedication to uphold the international rule of law.

The strategic defence review is designed to build on our current experience and that which we have gained over the past few years, so that we can configure our armed forces better to deal with the problems and the risks that they might face. That is being done in a more open and consensual way than has been the case in any previous defence review. That adds to the sense of spirit that is displayed every day by the armed forces of the Crown, in which I have such great pride.

Ms Squire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only the credibility of the United Nations but possibly its future role, particularly in world peacekeeping, is being called into question by Saddam Hussein's behaviour? Does he agree that Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of the Security Council resolutions will only encourage other dictators to behave in the same fashion and to follow Hussein's example—by placing more importance on the building of presidential palaces than on the welfare of their people or on world peace?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend speaks with power and she speaks rightly of the situation. There is something tragically ironic in the fact that Saddam is willing to use his people—especially children—as propaganda tools, showing off their misery to the world, whereas, since the end of the Gulf war, he has spent $1 billion in building a reputed 45 presidential palaces. Children are being allowed to starve when he could buy food by selling oil, and his people are denied medications and medical treatment when he could import as many medical supplies as he wanted. He pretends that the outside world, rather than his own desperate regime, is the enemy of his people.

Following is the information: Iraq has still not fully disclosed the extent of its programme to acquire chemical and biological weapons: it has consistently sought to obstruct the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) from carrying out the mandates of Security Council Resolutions 687 and 699. In particular, it has sought to deceive UNSCOM about the scale of its production of the highly toxic nerve agent VX and the use of chemical warfare agents during the Iran/lraq war. Iraq has also yet to admit to producing plague bacteria as part of its biological warfare programme. The MOD has recently received intelligence, believed to be reliable, which indicates that, at the time of the Gulf War, Iraq may have possessed large quantities of a chemical warfare mental incapacitant agent known as Agent 15. Our knowledge of Agent 15 itself is limited. Agent 15 is one of a large group of chemicals called glycollates (esters of glycollic acid). The best known is usually referred to by the initials BZ. The physiological effects of these compounds are typical of anticholinergic agents, which block cholinergic nerve transmission in the central and peripheral nervous system. On the basis of animal studies with BZ and other related materials which were carried out some years ago, we believe that the immediate effects of Agent 15 would include: dilated pupils, flushed faces, dry mouth, tachycardia, increase in skin and body temperature, weakness, dizziness, disorientation, visual hallucinations, confusions, loss of time sense, loss of co-ordination and stupor. We have known since 1985 that Iraq was investigating CW agents of this type, but the first indication of a specific interest in Agent 15 came in a brief reference contained in an Iraqi document, which we became aware of in August 1995 and which stated that Iraq was carrying out laboratory research on this agent. The first indications that Iraq had possessed large stocks of Agent 15 came late last year, since when my Department has conducted an assessment of the relevant scientific and background information. MOD remains of the view that there is no confirmed evidence of the use of CW by Iraq during the Gulf War. We are nevertheless considering how best to investigate Agent 15 further, with a view to gaining a better understanding of its long term effects. This will be taken into account in our ongoing work to address Gulf veterans' health concerns.
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