HC Deb 16 November 1998 vol 319 cc607-23 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Madam Speaker, with your permission, I shall make a statement on the situation in Iraq.

As the House will know, on Saturday I had authorised substantial military action as part of a joint US-UK strike against targets in Iraq. British Tornado fighter bombers were about to take to the air, and I had already spoken to the detachment commander to thank the detachment for its bravery and professionalism, when we received word that the Iraqis were telling the United Nations Secretary-General that they had backed down. I should like to explain to the House why we were ready to take such action, why we decided to stay our hand, and why we remain ready to strike if the Iraqis do not fully comply with their obligations.

Let me first put the events in context. Security Council resolution 687 of April 1991, containing the ceasefire terms for the Gulf war, obliged Iraq to accept the destruction of all its weapons of mass destruction and not to develop such weapons in the future. The United Nations Special Commission was established to oversee those processes, with the International Atomic Energy Agency. A further resolution required immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to any places and records in Iraq that inspectors wished to inspect.

The seven years since then have been a constant struggle between Iraq and the weapons inspectors, who have been backed by the full authority of the UN. The inspectors themselves have been harassed and threatened. Iraq has deceived and concealed and lied at every turn. A deliberate mechanism to hide existing weapons and to develop new ones has been in place, involving organisations close to Saddam Hussein, particularly his Special Republican Guard.

Despite all the obstruction, UNSCOM and the IAEA have been remarkably successful in uncovering and destroying massive amounts of weaponry, particularly following the defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, in 1995. He was murdered on his return to Iraq the following year.

UNSCOM has destroyed, for example, more than 38,000 chemical weapon munitions, 690 tonnes of chemical weapon agents and 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals. Furthermore, 48 Scud missiles have been destroyed, as has a biological weapons factory designed to produce up to 50,000 litres of anthrax, botulism toxin and other agents. Without the weapons inspectors, that deadly arsenal would have been available to Saddam Hussein to use against his neighbours. Who can say with any confidence that he would not already have used it?

Huge question marks remain, for example, over 610 tonnes of unaccounted-for precursor chemicals for the nerve gas VX; over imports of growth media capable of producing huge amounts of anthrax; and over missile warheads, particularly those designed for chemical and biological weapons. Iraq has denied weaponising VX, but analysis of missile warhead fragments in a US laboratory showed traces of VX. Further tests were carried out in French and Swiss laboratories. A multinational group of experts concluded in late October that the original US tests were accurate, that the French laboratory had found evidence consistent with the trace of a nerve gas on one fragment, and that all three laboratories had found evidence of Iraqi attempts to decontaminate the warheads.

The simple truth therefore is that, before the Gulf war, Iraq had built up a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It has been trying to hide them, and to acquire more, ever since. Despite UNSCOM, Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction capability. We do not know precisely how many, but it still has the skills, the engineers and the equipment to make more. Saddam Hussein has used these weapons before, including on his own people. I am in no doubt that he would use them again, given half a chance.

Let us not forget either that Saddam's conventional military capabilities remain at a very high level: more than 1 million men under arms, including 75,000 in the Republican Guard and 15,000 members of the Special Republican Guard, 2,700 main battle tanks and nearly 400 combat aircraft. That is what he continues to spend his money on, rather than the welfare of his own people.

In October 1997, Iraq sought to exclude US personnel from UNSCOM teams. In the face of international pressure, the Iraqis backed down then, but continued to try to impose controls on the so-called presidential sites. In January 1998, Iraq again objected to US and UK personnel, made explicit a ban on access to eight presidential sites, and threatened to end co-operation with UNSCOM if it had not completed its work by May 1998. We, the Americans and others made it clear that we would use force if Saddam did not change his mind.

On that occasion, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN, negotiated a memorandum of understanding under which Iraq confirmed its acceptance of all relevant Security Council resolutions and its readiness to co-operate fully with UNSCOM and the IAEA. This averted military action at the 11th hour. The Security Council's endorsement of this MOU stressed that any violation of it would have the severest consequences for Iraq.

Iraq subsequently resumed superficial co-operation, but on 5 August this year suspended everything but the most routine monitoring when its demand for a declaration saying that it had fulfilled all its disarmament obligations was rejected. A further Security Council resolution in September suspended reviews of sanctions in consequence but endorsed the idea of a comprehensive review of Iraq's compliance with its obligations.

On 30 October, the Security Council unanimously agreed terms of reference for the review, holding out the clear prospect of a statement of the steps that Iraq still had to take, and of the likely time frame for their completion, assuming full co-operation by Iraq. Astonishingly, this offer was rejected by Iraq on 31 October, and the Iraqis then announced that they were ceasing all co-operation with UNSCOM. The Security Council unanimously condemned this on 5 November as a flagrant violation of Iraq's obligations.

I have set this out in detail because it is important that we understand what is at stake. We are talking not about technical breaches of UN resolutions, but about a pattern of behaviour that continues to pose huge actual risks for Iraq's neighbours, the middle east and the entire international community.

Let me now return to the events of the last few days. Following the Iraqi decision to break off co-operation with UNSCOM on 31 October, despite the offer of a comprehensive review, we and the Americans decided that if Saddam Hussein did not return to full compliance very quickly, we were ready to mount an air attack to reduce substantially Iraq's threat to its neighbours, in particular by degrading its weapons of mass destruction capability, and its ability to develop, control and deliver such weapons.

We did not want a lengthy military build-up of the kind that there had been in February, or endless rhetorical warnings, but we did make it clear that if Iraq did not return to full compliance very quickly indeed, it would face a substantial military strike. A private warning was delivered directly to the Iraqi permanent representative at the UN on Thursday 12 November, giving no details about timing, but leaving no doubt about the scale of what was intended.

Saturday afternoon, London time, was set for the start of the attack. I gave final authorisation that morning for the use of force. I did so with regret, and with a deep sense of responsibility. I saw no credible alternative. The UK's weight in the planned strike would have been substantial, including nearly 20 per cent. of the tactical bomber effort.

Just over two hours before the attack was due to start, we received word that the Iraqis had told the United Nations Secretary-General that they were responding positively to a final letter of appeal which he had sent to them the previous night. We decided that the attack should be put on hold for 24 hours to give us a chance to study the details of the Iraqi response.

The first Iraqi letter appeared to agree to resume co-operation with UNSCOM and the IAEA. It was described as unconditional by Iraqi spokesmen, but the full text of the letter, and in particular nine assurances that the Iraqis were seeking about the comprehensive review—they were listed in an annex—left that unclear. We and the Americans spelled out that that was unacceptable, and that there could be no question of any conditions.

During the course of Saturday night and Sunday morning, the Iraqis offered a stream of further written and oral clarifications, making it clear that their compliance was unconditional, that the nine points were merely a wish-list, not conditions, that their decisions of August and October to withdraw co-operation had been formally rescinded, and that the weapons inspectors would be allowed to resume the full range of their activities in accordance with UN resolutions, without let or hindrance. I have placed the text of the Iraqi letters in the Library of the House.

The clarifications, taken together, mean that Saddam Hussein has completely withdrawn his positions of August and October. No concessions of any kind were offered to him in exchange. There was no negotiation of any kind. Nor could there have been. Nor will there be in future.

We do not take Iraqi words at face value. Long experience has taught us to do the opposite. However, we had asked for unconditional resumption of co-operation, and, in the face of the credible threat of force—in this case very imminent force—Iraq offered that resumption. In those circumstances, we and the Americans have suspended further military action while we bolt down every detail of what the Iraqis have said, and while we test the words in practice. The Security Council decided last night that UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors should resume their work in Iraq immediately. They will be in Iraq tomorrow, and they must be afforded full co-operation in every respect.

As ever, we do not rely on the good faith of Saddam Hussein. He has none. We know, however, that under threat of force, we can make him move. We will be watching with extreme care and a high degree of scepticism. Our forces remain in place and on high alert. We and the Americans remain ready, willing and able to go back to the use of force at any time. There will be no further warnings. The inspectors will now carry out their work.

There are in my view two substantial and fundamental differences between the Iraqi climbdown this time and the climbdown in February. First, there is now a very clear diplomatic basis for action without further need for long discussion in the Security Council or elsewhere. In February, we allowed a long time for negotiations. This time we allowed only a short period. If there is a next time, there will be not even that. If there is a next time, everyone will know what to expect, as President Chirac and others have made clear.

Secondly, the world can see more clearly than ever that Saddam Hussein is indeed intimated by the threat of force. Many so-called experts told us that Saddam wanted military action—even needed it—to shore up his position internally and in the region. His complete collapse on Saturday gives the lie to such bogus analysis. When he finally saw, correctly, that we were ready to use force on a substantial scale, he crumbled. I hope that other countries more dubious of the use of force may now see that Saddam is moved by the credible threat of force. He has exposed the fact that his fear is greater than his courage. Let us learn the lesson of that.

If there is a next time, I shall have no hesitation in ordering the use of force. President Clinton's position is the same. The USA and the UK, with far greater international support than ever before, have Saddam Hussein trapped. If he again obstructs the inspectors' work, we will strike. There will be no warnings, no wrangling, no negotiation and no last-minute letters. The next time co-operation is withdrawn, he will be hit.

We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq. On the contrary, we support the desire of the overwhelming majority of them for freedom from Saddam Hussein. They find themselves in a desperate position. I have no doubt of the genuine suffering of many, though not, of course, the elite and those who keep in them in power. We do what we can through our aid programme. Under the oil for food arrangements, the Iraqis can import as much food and medicine as they want, and I hope that we will hear no more echoes here of cynical and hypocritical Iraqi propaganda about this. If Saddam Hussein wants to import more, he can do so freely. If he wants the sanctions position to change, the solution is in his hands through fulfilment of his obligations.

This is far from over. It is merely in a different phase. Our course is set: complete compliance and nothing less, and we shall not be moved from that course.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and in particular welcome the willingness that the Government and the United States have shown to use force to ensure Saddam Hussein's compliance with UN resolutions. Last week, we pledged support for the use of force, should it prove necessary. The Opposition also support the Prime Minister's decision at the weekend to authorise the use of RAF aircraft. We join him in commending the bravery and preparedness of the RAF personnel involved in the mission—no less for the fact that they did not in the event go into action. We welcome Saddam Hussein's apparent assurances that he will allow UN inspectors complete and unconditional access to suspected illegal weapons sites, as well as the Prime Minister's statement that if there is any future breach of the undertakings that Iraq has given, air strikes will be launched without further warning.

At the same time, the Prime Minister will no doubt share our concern, first, that the crisis through which we have just passed represents the second time this year that Saddam Hussein has broken his word and failed to comply with UN resolutions; secondly, that he may still be playing for time and testing the west's resolve; and thirdly that these exercises in brinkmanship are being regularly repeated.

Does the Prime Minister accept the Opposition's continuing strong support for maintaining a tough line against Iraq until the complete destruction of that country's biological and chemical weapons capability has been achieved? Does he further accept that we believe that this determination should embrace sanctions as well, and that the lie should be nailed that the sanctions currently in place are depriving the Iraqi people of food and medical supplies? The Prime Minister made the important point that the continuing suffering of many Iraqis is the direct responsibility of their own regime. Given that Iraq can now sell more than $10 billion of oil annually to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods, should not the blame for the deprivation of the Iraqi people be placed firmly at the door of Saddam Hussein himself, who chooses to spend the money on weapons of war and the luxurious life style of his entourage?

Given that it has repeatedly proved impossible to negotiate in good faith with Saddam Hussein, does the Prime Minister associate the Government with President Clinton' s statement: what we want and what we will work for is a government in Iraq that represents and respects its people … and one committed to live in peace with its neighbours."? We all hope that Saddam Hussein is indeed now trapped, but as the Prime Minister said, this matter is far from over. Will he go further and agree that Saddam's continued breaches of faith, and the continuing threat to peace that he presents to the whole of the middle east and thus to the interests of the United Kingdom, mean that although we acknowledge the formidable difficulties involved, a prime objective of western policy should now be the removal of Saddam from power?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and his party's support in the past few days. Of course we want to see the Iraqi people governed by a regime other than that of Saddam Hussein. We are looking with the Americans at ways in which we can bolster the opposition and improve the possibility of removing Saddam Hussein altogether. I entirely share the sentiments that President Clinton expressed on that point.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the continued suffering of the Iraqi people. We have to be blunt about it. I have no doubt at all that Saddam Hussein will not fulfil the obligations that he has now entered into unless he is made to do so, but what is interesting and different about the present situation is that this time he was able to see that we had given the authorisation to strike. Indeed, until late Saturday morning, that decision had been taken and was literally minutes away from being implemented. Therefore, no one can doubt the credibility of our willingness to use force and, most important of all, Saddam Hussein no longer doubts that.

What is more, precisely because of the build-up that there has been over a period of months, we are in a far stronger position. Reading between the lines of what Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, said, it is clear that he accepts—as does the entire international community—that the next time there will be no formal negotiation at all. If Saddam Hussein withdraws co-operation, action will follow, irrespective of last-minute pleas, letters and the rest. It is that simple. That represents a significant difference from the position in February.

I also emphasise the other point that I made. I was astounded, because I did not accept the argument, by the number of people who genuinely and in good faith thought that Saddam Hussein would welcome military action and that he needed it to bolster his position. According to so-called experts, it was all part of his ploy and he wanted military action as it would strengthen his position. My goodness—the moment he thought and knew that we were serious about military force, a very different song was sung by those who were speaking for Iraq. The fact that that changed in a fundamental way places us in a very good position.

I should make it quite clear to the House again, however, that this will not be over until the inspectors are in there and have completed their work to their satisfaction; or alternatively, because Saddam Hussein fails to co-operate again, until we have by military force diminished and degraded his capability to threaten the neighbourhood and the outside world. One of two things will now happen: either he will co-operate, in which case inspectors will do their job, or he will fail to co-operate and, as we have made quite clear, force will follow.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I offer my support to the Prime Minister for his statement and for the Government's conduct of these affairs in recent days. In his statement, the Prime Minister refers to a clear diplomatic basis for military action. Is he satisfied that there is clear legal authority for military action? Does he agree that one of the most effective parts of the diplomatic effort against Saddam Hussein was the intervention of a number of Arab states towards the end of last week, in particular Egypt and Syria? Does he agree that it is necessary to seek to maintain the support of Arab opinion; in that regard will he confirm that we will be evenhanded in our application of United Nations Security Council resolutions throughout the entire middle east?

Will the Prime Minister confirm that sanctions are related to compliance and not to the survival in power of Saddam Hussein, and that if there is full compliance all sanctions can be lifted? Finally, will he confirm that, notwithstanding Saddam Hussein's behaviour, we will redouble our efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to those whom Saddam Hussein has so cruelly exploited?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the support that his party gave for the action that we took. Yes, we are sure that we have—and will have in future—proper legal authority for the action that we were about to take. The support of the Arab states in their statement last week was significant and has strengthened our position. Although it is frustrating for us, when people see that we are prepared to give Iraq every chance to come into compliance, that is an important part of building up the strongest possible diplomatic support. Obviously we want to maintain that.

The fact that, thanks to the intervention of President Clinton and others, the middle east peace process is back within a framework that gives it some chance of success is an indication to the Arab world that we wish to be even-handed in our approach and that we simply want to maintain the security of the region in all its different forms.

The sanctions are, of course, related to compliance. Saddam knows that, which is why the issue has always been in his hands. He can determine the matter, if he is prepared to come into line with the UN resolutions in their entirety. On the humanitarian side, what is important is that we continue to do whatever we can and, at every single stage, counter the lying Iraqi Government propaganda that babies are dying and people are being starved of food because the west will not allow supplies to come in. I think that I am right in saying that, of the aid for medicines, only 30 per cent. has gone anywhere near the people who should have received that medical assistance. The rest of it, and a large part of the money for the food programme, has gone to that small number of elite people around Saddam Hussein who are keeping the rest of the Iraqi people in repression.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

The Prime Minister is right to have supported the United States and the United Nations resolutions over the past few days, and I believe that he was right to commit British forces to take part in any punitive exercise that was necessary. He will also be right if he commits British forces in future without further warning, because that warning has now clearly and unequivocally been given.

Since 1991, Saddam has flagrantly broken every promise he has made. He is developing nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons and a delivery system. Unless those weapons are removed, no one can have any confidence that the day will not come when he seeks to use them on neighbouring states, whether on Tel Aviv, Riyadh or elsewhere. We are aware that he has those weapons and it would unforgivable if we did not continue to take the action to ensure that he cannot use them in future.

The Prime Minister mentioned the enormously important contribution of the Arab states and he was right to do so. However, he knows that a different message often goes out from the mosques after prayers, week after week. Will he instruct the Foreign Secretary to do everything he can to repeat the message that our dispute is with the Iraqi regime, not with the Iraqi nation and certainly not with Arabs generally across the middle east? It is vital that we continue to retain the active and positive support of Arab nations.

This is Saddam's crisis and nobody else's. It will not be ended until those weapons are moved, one way or another. If the Prime Minister is forced to order further force, he may do so with a clear conscience. The responsibility lies in Baghdad, not in Washington or London.

The Prime Minister

I agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman says. I thank him for his support and assure him that we shall certainly act as he urges us to do in respect of the Arab states. Their statement last week was an important development, but we have to keep up the argument the entire time. I entirely agree that the dispute is with Saddam Hussein and not with the Iraqi people, nor with the rest of the Arab world. We have to carry on repeating that message all the time.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, because on issues such as this it is important that there be cross-party support. One of the things that we have learnt from dealing with Saddam Hussein is that he looks carefully to see how much support there is and how much he can attempt to win by means of divide and rule. Therefore the greater support there is across the political divide here, the greater the impact on him and the greater our ability to avoid the use of force.

I also entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about weapons. As I said a few moments ago, one of two things will happen: either the inspectors will do their work and complete it, or we shall take action ourselves to diminish the weapons of mass destruction capability.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his steadfast resolution and that of our US allies, which has prevented, for this time, further defiance of the world community by Saddam Hussein? However, as my right hon. Friend will realise, in the US over the weekend there has been a subtle change of policy, which is to heighten the policy objective of toppling the regime in Baghdad. Would he care, first, to spell out whether that is fully agreed to by the Government; and secondly, to state what it means in practice? Does it mean, for example, arming or financing opposition groups? Is he aware that the most credible of those opposition groups have already rejected such assistance?

The Prime Minister

As I said a moment ago, we have to consider with the US the support that we can give the opposition to the Iraqi regime, and that is a legitimate aim for us. If it is the case—and no one can seriously doubt it—that Saddam Hussein does not act in good faith and unless prevented will unquestionably pose a threat to his neighbours—let alone the repression that he visits on his own country—it is an entirely sensible policy objective for us to do all that we can to support opposition to him. We must simply seek the most sensible way of achieving that. That is by no means inconsistent with, and indeed is complementary to, our other objectives.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I warmly endorse the Prime Minister's praise for UNSCOM, but is he aware that since the Annan agreement, UNSCOM's work, although successful, has been like drawing hen's teeth and it is thought that much of that work has been compromised? Will the Prime Minister tell the House what limits he will assign to obstruction by the regime in Baghdad to UNSCOM's work; and in the event of such obstruction, at what stage he will consider that action will be necessary to ensure that the work is made possible?

The Prime Minister

The important thing is that UNSCOM does its work without any let or hindrance, and the Iraqis have now agreed to that. We shall obviously consider carefully the reports made by UNSCOM to ensure that that condition is being kept. The hon. Gentleman is right—work has been largely compromised since February. If that starts to happen again, we will regard it as a breach of the undertakings that have been given; so we will make a judgment based on UNSCOM's reports, and we must monitor that situation extremely carefully.

If the Iraqis think that they are returning to the position that they were in between February and 30 October, when they withdrew all co-operation, they are wrong. We expect the inspectors to go back into Iraq and be able to complete the work that they were tasked with by the UN resolutions. Again, I stress that all we are demanding is that the resolutions made at the end of the Gulf war—from which these events derive—be implemented in full. We shall watch the work every inch of the way.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware that although the world is united in its hostility to the regime of Saddam Hussein and its desire to have the United Nations resolutions carried out, there is no possibility—and the Prime Minister should admit it—of carrying through the Security Council a resolution authorising force against Saddam? He has not even attempted to do so. If an operation, once suspended, were launched now without further notice, the effect on the middle east, as the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) pointed out, would be absolutely catastrophic for the influence of the United States and Britain in that area.

If force were used to change the regime in Iraq, which President Clinton has hinted at and the Prime Minister has now confirmed, that would put us totally outside the realm of legitimacy in international law and the United Nations charter.

The Prime Minister

I can say two things to my right hon. Friend. First, we believe that the legal basis for action is secure because of the UN resolutions that have been passed and the need to enforce them.

Secondly, let us examine what has happened over the past few days. I cannot believe that anyone seriously thinks that the Iraqis, who two weeks ago had withdrawn all co-operation and effectively prevented UNSCOM from performing their duties, would have today allowed the inspectors back in unconditionally—they say—to do their work normally, without let or hindrance, except under duress and the threat of force. It is simply not credible that they would have altered their position unless they were threatened with military action.

I say to my right hon. Friend and those in the international community who are hesitant about the use of force that it is no good willing the ends unless we will the means. It is absolutely no good saying to the outside world that we want the UN resolutions on eliminating weapons of mass destruction to be carried through if we are at the same time saying that we will never contemplate the use of force to ensure that they are carried through. It is perfectly obvious from what has happened that if we took that position there would be no elimination of weapons of mass destruction and we might as well render those UN resolutions of no effect at all.

It simply cannot be overstated—we have learnt this on many occasions—that when we are dealing with a dictatorial, brutal and corrupt regime such as that of Saddam Hussein, diplomacy works only if it is backed up by the credible use of force.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the UNSCOM inspection teams, whose work is absolutely critical, will have the unambiguous and unqualified support of the American and British Governments, in particular, in inspecting both declared and undeclared sites?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can confirm that absolutely.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and President Clinton on facing down the procrastinations and tergiversations of murderers and torturers, and on demonstrating to those who toddle off periodically to Baghdad to get their skins tanned and their noses browned that only force or the threat of force has any effect on such people in their violation of a succession of Security Council resolutions.

My right hon. Friend has confirmed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and others that existing Security Council resolutions specifically authorise the use the force—as they did when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was Prime Minister. Although he has understandably dealt today with the consequences of the Iraqi attempts to fail to conform to the United Nations Security Council resolutions on weapons inspection, will my right hon. Friend confirm also that there is no prospect of sanctions being lifted until Iraq complies with not only the weapons resolutions but the whole range of UN resolutions?

The Prime Minister

It is essential that everything that the United Nations has set out should be implemented. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and welcome his support for ensuring that those Security Council resolutions are implemented in full. I emphasise that that must occur because Saddam Hussein has been trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

I urge upon those who are doubtful of the need to threaten to use force that we are not talking about technical breaches of the agreements. Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction before the Gulf war. He has continued to try to do so since then and to conceal it. If he were successful, the threat to the world would be enormous. He is the one who has used chemical weapons—and he used them against his own people. Some 5,000, mainly women and children, were killed as a result of chemical warfare. It is essential that we keep in place the existing mechanisms and maintain eternal vigilance until the Security Council resolutions are complied with in full.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I am put in mind of the relationship between another Prime Minister and another President who met twice a year—first she told him what she thought and then she told him what he thought. However, these are different times and different people. Can we be assured that Britain has an independent voice in this matter and not just an echo; and that there is at least a prospect of revisiting that grand coalition—not only in this country but in the United Nations, and especially in the Arab world and the Gulf states—that was put together when last we committed our armed forces to the Gulf, in 1990-91?

The Prime Minister

Yes. We have been active in building up as much support as possible. As we have said, the supportive statements made by European Union members and by the Arab states demonstrate the degree of backing for our position. The words of the United Nations Secretary-General yesterday are obviously very important also.

As for our having an independent voice, I believe that what we did was right—if I did not believe it was right, I would not have done it. While I believe that it is important that this country is—and always will be—the master of its own foreign and defence policies, I do not make any apologies for our relationship with the United States of America. As I have often said: thank goodness the United States is there and prepared to act in these situations, even if others are not. If we had not been prepared to act in this situation—I could mention many others who were not—the possibility of securing peace and stability in the world would have been much diminished.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend has revealed an horrendous list of weapons to the House today. Will he make it clear that, if a man who is unstable and who rules a regime as totally unacceptable as that in Iraq remains in control of savage weapons of war, no one will be safe until we can guarantee that they have been completely withdrawn and destroyed? Does he understand that it is essential that the inspectors work as rapidly as possible, and will he ensure that the period that Iraq is allowed is foreshortened? If those weapons are allowed to remain, no one will be safe.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the sentiments that my hon. Friend just expressed. It is important that the inspectors be able to gain access, not just to the declared sites, but to the undeclared sites—and to all the various documentation, because that too is important in uncovering the weapons programme. Of course, that is all part of the agreement that Saddam Hussein entered into at the end of the Gulf war. The agreement, negotiated by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon, and by President Bush, was that Saddam Hussein would destroy all weapons of mass destruction; and the inspectors were put in there in order, as it were, to certify that he had carried out that programme. The truth is that they have had to carry out the programme and he has spent six or seven years trying to dodge it.

I totally understand the frustration of people who say, "This has all taken an awful lot of time." Yes, it has, but at each stage we are eliminating the weapons, ensuring that the inspectors can go back in and do their work, and building the basis for the use of force again if Saddam Hussein pulls back from the undertakings that he has given.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I express my appreciation to Prime Minister for coming to the House in person to make this important statement? He has put his credibility on the line, in as much as he has explained why he has taken our armed forces to the brink of war and not beyond, and we hope that the policy will be successful. He also mentioned the issue of conventional armaments. Does he envisage any extension of sanctions to prevent Saddam Hussein building up his conventional weaponry, which is already fearsome enough?

The Prime Minister spoke of our allies—the United States and President Clinton—in glowing terms, but there were some notable absentees in this matter. What about our European friends? At Vienna, he was eulogising the common foreign and security policy; what has become of it over this crisis?

The Prime Minister

I thought for a moment that we were going to get through a question by the hon. Gentleman without a knock at Europe. In fact, the European Union—as it said in a statement last week and, I understand, as it is saying today—will be very helpful to, and supportive of, what we do.

The sanctions regime is tied to a series of things that must be done by Saddam Hussein. If we carry out all the things that are in the various UN resolutions, we shall have secured the objectives that we have set ourselves in respect of armaments, and I believe that we shall do so. Those resolutions amply justify the action that we are taking.

Of course our credibility is on the line here; it always is in these situations, but I think that we are right to say that we shall not hesitate to act if Saddam Hussein goes back on the undertakings that he has given.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

I am for rooting out these hideous weapons wherever they are, whether they are the ocean of chemical weapons that the United States of America dropped on the people of Vietnam, or the biological weapons in the Israeli arsenal, some of which we read about at the weekend, which strike a new low even in that dreadful alchemy.

In 1956, a less distinguished predecessor of my right hon. Friend stood at that Dispatch Box and asked who would chain the mad dog of Cairo". It was a precursor to a devastating Anglo-Israeli attack on Egypt, with cataclysmic results; this time we were minutes away from an equally cataclysmic mistake. Does the Prime Minister really think that the kings and sheikhs at Doha were speaking for the Arab people—speaking for the Muslims of the world? I hope that he does not; I hope that he knows better than that. Will the Prime Minister answer one question? Why is it that Israel, which illegally occupies three Arab countries, is allowed to have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but no Arab Muslim country is allowed to have the same thing?

The Prime Minister

In trying to compare Israel to Iraq, my hon. Friend simply underlines the misguided nature of his own arguments. Quite apart from the fact that Israel is a democracy, we cannot see Saddam Hussein in the same light at all. At the beginning of his remarks, my hon. Friend said that he was in favour of making sure that the weapons of mass destruction were destroyed. That cannot be done unless there is the threat of force to back up the diplomatic efforts.

As for speaking for the Arab people, I believe that those to whom my hon. Friend referred were speaking for the Arab people, but I agree that there is a large measure of disagreement in the Arab world—all the more reason for us to be out there saying with one voice, "This is not a quarrel with the Arab people. It is not a quarrel with the Iraqi people. It is a quarrel with Saddam Hussein." After all, the biggest single immediate threat that Saddam Hussein poses is to the Arab nations of the world.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I support the Government and the Prime Minister's action in coming to the House to make a statement. The Prime Minister will need no reminding of the complications and difficulties that can arise from the use of limited force in response to unlimited tyranny. Can he assure us that he was operating with the authority of all his colleagues, that the matter was given careful consideration and that the defence and overseas policy committee of the Cabinet had met prior to the decisions that he took on Saturday?

The Prime Minister

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we were acting with the full authority of the Government, as he would expect. The action that we worked out was proportionate and right. It would have achieved the objectives that we had set for any military action—first, by degrading the capability of making weapons of mass destruction, and secondly, by diminishing the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to his immediate neighbours. Both those objectives would have been satisfied by the military action, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that was the united position of the entire Government.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who, 42 years ago, vigorously demonstrated against the British, French and Israeli aggression, believe that we are perfectly justified in campaigning against the Iraqi dictator at every opportunity? Is it not the case that since 1990, the division in the House has been between those who want to face up to the criminal nature of the regime and those who want to appease Saddam Hussein? Those who now criticise my right hon. Friend and the American Administration for what they have done are the very people who in 1990 and 1991 justified the invasion of Kuwait. Had we listened to such people, no action would have been taken to liberate Kuwait. We were right then, and we are certainly right now.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Prime Minister is right when he says that the patterns of behaviour demonstrated by Saddam Hussein amount to continued deceit. The Prime Minister is also right to consider the use of force and to maintain that threat, but what will happen if Saddam Hussein again agrees with Kofi Annan, accepts the United Nations proposals and six months later changes his mind? How long will we keep troops on station? How long is the United States prepared to keep two aircraft carrier groups in the region? Once they withdraw, is it not possible, as the Prime Minister admitted, that Saddam Hussein might change his mind again? What will happen if, in the time that it takes to bring our troops back, Saddam Hussein again concedes to the UN demands?

The Prime Minister

There is a simple answer: we will remain ready to act whenever Saddam Hussein withdraws his co-operation. Although it is easy to say, it is not a correct description of the situation to state that we are in the same position as we were back in February. The substantial differences are, first, in February, there was a long build-up to the memorandum of understanding; it has been two weeks since Saddam Hussein's decision of 30 October to withdraw co-operation. I do not believe that anyone doubts that we will move straight away next time. It is important for us to be able to say to the entire outside world, "This is not action that we take willingly. It is not action that we want to take, but it is action that we feel obliged to take, having exhausted all other avenues."

Secondly, Saddam Hussein now knows that we are deadly serious. He knows that the planes were very nearly ready to mount the strike before he made his offer and climbed down. He has to realise, and I believe that he does, that next time there will be no time for that at all.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is far from over—but will it ever be over until such time as there is the prospect of sanctions being lifted? Does my right hon. Friend accept the glimmer of hope that was given by Kofi Annan, that part of a package would be that at last, after seven years, there would be the prospect of sanctions being lifted?

Secondly, last Sunday Albert Reynolds and I sat in the office of Jaakko Ylitalo, who is the acting director of UNSCOM. He said that UNSCOM had visited 496 sites and that there had been no violation in any of those sites. Furthermore, he talked in terms of a three-month time limit. Could a full look be given at this very complex area of precisely what UNSCOM has found and what it hoped to find?

Finally, to use the felicitous phrase of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), might it not be so bad an idea if a delegation of preferably Arabic-speaking people—senior officials—went to Baghdad not to get their noses brown but to talk in terms of dignity to the proud northern Arabs whom, let us never forget, we were content to provide with arms throughout the 1980s, when we hoped that they would not be defeated by the Ayatollah and militant Islam? This is a very complicated area. Please send some kind of delegation to talk to them before we think of hurling down missiles.

The Prime Minister

I respect the fact that my hon. Friend has different views on these matters. First, I say to him that we have made the position very, very clear to the Iraqis again and again. They know what they have to do to get sanctions lifted. They have to do what they agreed to do at the end of the Gulf war. The fact that sanctions are still in place is a measure not of our obduracy but of the fact that they have not implemented what they agreed to do at the end of the Gulf war.

As for UNSCOM, it is there to do a job of work that it knows is not yet complete. There is no doubt at all that there are still weapons unaccounted for. I listed in my statement—I did so deliberately—the vast arsenal of weapons that has been uncovered.

No matter how much we would wish for Saddam Hussein to be a different type of person from what he is, the fact is that he is a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people. He has repressed and murdered thousands of his own people. The country is run by an elite guard of people who are well fed, well looked after and well paid while the rest of the population is under repression. When people oppose him, this is a man who seeks a way to murder them. He is not a man in whom we can have any belief that he will do the right thing, except under duress.

As for the Iraqi people, we constantly make the point, as do Arab countries, that the quarrel is not with them. However, we must not be naive about this. There is no way Saddam Hussein will offer us any way forward unless he knows that if he does not do what he has agreed to do force will follow. I am afraid that that is the inescapable conclusion of the past few years.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I commend the Prime Minister's statement that there is no point in wishing the end without willing the means, but has he noted the criticism of some Gulf war veterans that the allies' war aims are somewhat confused? What are the Prime Minister's aims? Are they to remove Saddam? No tyrant has ever been removed by aerial bombing alone. Or are they to destroy chemical and biological stocks? As those are easily dispersed, they cannot be destroyed by aerial bombing alone. Is the Prime Minister therefore willing to contemplate military action on the ground?

The Prime Minister

We have set out our position with great clarity: we want UNSCOM to do its work because that is what Saddam Hussein agreed. If he refuses to let UNSCOM do its work, we shall take military action, the purpose of which is twofold: first, to degrade the weapons of mass destruction capability; and secondly, to diminish Saddam's general military capability to threaten his neighbours. Those objectives are plainly set out.

We believe that, in the action that we were about to take, we could have delivered both those objectives. They remain our objectives, so there is no confusion at all. However, we should never promise that we can achieve something unless we are sure that we can achieve it. We are sure that we can achieve the objectives that we set out.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Defence Secretary on the resolute way in which they have gone about this matter over the past couple of weeks. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Foreign Secretary's comments last week in the House, when he conceded that illicit revenues secured in breach of United Nations sanctions—from oil supplies from Iraq to Iran through the straits to the south and through Kurdistan in the north—are funding Saddam Hussein's whole operation in Baghdad, particularly the Republican Guard? Why will not the United Nations carry a resolution to enforce a blockade effectively to cut off those oil revenues? When the money is cut off, Saddam Hussein will fall.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. Together with our allies and friends, we are looking at how we can tighten the regime. He is right to say that there has been seepage from the sanctions regime. Any seepage undermines the efficacy of the sanctions. We hope that we can take steps to tighten that regime.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

The Prime Minister has paid generous praise to the United States of America for the enormous effort that it makes to carry out United Nations resolutions. The House knows that this country has often sided with the US in carrying out those resolutions. Although we may not contribute much by way of munitions, it is important psychologically that the world sees that the United States does not stand alone, but has an ally in discharging those obligations.

Should we be rash enough to join a common European foreign and defence policy, it would be practically impossible for us to be an ally to the United States when it tries to carry out such difficult operations. is it fully appreciated in Washington that, if we were propelled into a common European foreign and defence policy, we would no longer be in the present happy position of reinforcing the US President when he takes such action?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial statement. On the second point, however, he is just wrong. I am aware of no discussion of any sort in Europe that would either compel us to join some defence policy that would undermine our alliance with the United States or inhibit our ability to act with the United States where necessary.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the European security and defence identity within NATO was set up a couple of years ago, quite rightly, to recognise the European dimension. That does not mean to say that we have to act in contradistinction to, or contradiction with, the work that we do with the United States. However, it is important that Europe should have a more effective foreign and security policy. Our bottom line is to achieve that in the right way, which in no way undermines or inhibits our relationship with the US and NATO.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find, as so often, that, once we strip away the paranoia—if I may describe it as that—of those who are opposed to anything with the word "Europe" in its title, we will see that the United States would welcome a stronger voice from Europe on many occasions. If Britain is sensible, we can use our relationship with the United States—and if we are positive and constructive in Europe, we can use our relationship with the rest of Europe—to make sure that the EU and the United States follow the same strategy. That would be to the benefit of the whole world.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Last week, an all-party delegation visited the United Nations and met members of the Security Council. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the high regard in which the Government are held in the UN? Much credit should be given to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our ambassador, and his team there.

Would my right hon. Friend remind Members of the House and others who are timorous about doing what is right that eight Arab states last week laid the blame entirely at the door of Saddam Hussein? Will he reiterate his view that, if Saddam Hussein back-tracks by one degree, no more talking will take place, but force will be used?

The Prime Minister

That is absolutely right, and I thank my hon. Friend for her support. She is right to draw attention to the work that Jeremy Greenstock did in the United Nations over the weekend. He and the team there were quite magnificent and played a great part in securing the result that we wanted.