HC Deb 03 April 2003 vol 402 cc1069-87 12.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq.

We are now two weeks into the campaign. The coalition continues to make remarkable progress, following the main outlines of our military plan. Since my last statement on 26 March, coalition forces have established a presence in northern Iraq and are moving ever closer to Baghdad. Another important phase has been reached as the first troops engage Saddam Hussein's republican guard divisions on the approaches to the city.

At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basra. I do want to repeat the warning that I gave in my first statement to the House some two weeks ago: do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of steady progress that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out.

On behalf of the Government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days. I would also like to mention those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations, either in combat or in the usual course of their duties: 39 United Kingdom battle casualties are currently being treated in theatre and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes for their speedy recovery.

In the conflict, we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fight, but, as democratic states that observe the rule of law, we have been shocked by the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and killing its own people.

Every aspect of what we do is rightly and understandably held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media. Some have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces, but that should not be surprising. The regime has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on power—torture, rape and execution.

In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basra have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city. On 25 March, there were disturbances in Basra that irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On 28 March, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basra, regime militia opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then, irregulars have routinely been firing on civilians in the south-east of Basra. That is the sort of brutal suppression that has been going on in Iraq for very many years.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Iraqi regime shows no greater respect for the country's cultural wealth than for its people. The coalition is taking every precaution to avoid damage to the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. By contrast, we know that Saddam Hussein has plans to damage the sites and blame the coalition. Indeed, his forces have used the site at Najaf as a defensive position, firing on United States forces, who commendably did not return fire.

The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the al-Faw peninsula, the southern oilfields and the Basra area. The 7th Armoured Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basra from hindering the main advance, while establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid.

We have been striking key regime targets in the area. Those operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Ba'ath party headquarters in Basra, and by 7th Armoured Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basra and the local state security organisation headquarters in Az Zubayr in the south of Basra.

In the area of Abu Al Khasib, in the south-east outskirts of Basra, 3 Commando Brigade have engaged substantial Iraqi forces, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were, in addition, a number of casualties. On the night of 31 March, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with artillery and air support, engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 tanks and five artillery pieces, as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions. We are now focused on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias. Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.

Further north, elements of the United States army's Fifth Corps have now passed through Karbala and are moving towards Baghdad. US forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad republican guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The lead elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad. More than 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces. Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field, and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities, and the combat capability of the security forces that support it.

Coalition forces have taken the utmost care over the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure. The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on 26 and 28 March, and of reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the marketplaces was targeted by the coalition, and we continue to investigate how these tragic events might have occurred. We have long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation. What we do know, however, is that the air defence commander in Baghdad has been replaced, partly because of concerns that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles had been malfunctioning, failing to hit their targets and falling back on Baghdad.

Offensive operations are, however, only part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. More than half the population of Iraq have only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation have an appreciation of his cruelty that is often borne out by bitter personal experience. That is why it is so important that, in a number of areas in which UK forces are operating, there is a growing sense of return to normal life. Some people are going back to work.

The United Nations has now declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment, allowing UN agencies to begin their work there. Essential services such as water and electricity are being restored and even improved, in part owing to the skill of the Royal Engineers with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Umm Qasr water treatment plant, which can treat up to 3 million litres a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by UK forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to 2 million litres of drinking water daily—enough for 160,000 people a day—and providing vital temporary relief.

Schools and markets are being reopened, and the 7th Armoured Brigade has removed Ba'ath party thugs from the Az Zubayr medical centre—where treatment was previously available only to those close to the regime—to enable access for ordinary Iraqis. Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armoured cars, and have in some cases been able to exchange their combat helmets for berets.

The United Kingdom's armed forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use, with striking effect. The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi navy, and the port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and open to shipping. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far—11 laid in the water, and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats.

These operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation, bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people. On 28 March, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tonnes of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area; other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required. Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tonnes of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.

The United Nations oil-for-food programme was re-established by Security Council resolution 1472 on 28 March. That is an important milestone for the people of Iraq, but it will take time to take effect. Therefore, 1 (UK) Division has authority to spend up to £30 million for special humanitarian purposes within the first month and a further £10 million is available for "quick impact" projects such as restoring electricity and water supplies.

After two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition continues to make progress. Every day, we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq and moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people.

We are engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to them, their political security and their economic welfare. Above all, we are committed to seeing through what we have begun—removing the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished the nation for two decades. That will take time, but we have made an excellent start. There is still more to achieve, and our servicemen and servicewomen will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know that the House will join me in wishing them well.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I certainly join the Secretary of State, as I am sure the whole House does, in wishing our armed forces well. May I also join him in paying tribute to those who have given their lives while carrying out their duties in Iraq? Although it has to be said that we have suffered remarkably few casualties, every loss is keenly felt and we extend our deepest sympathies to their families and loved ones.

I also join the Secretary of State in his tribute to the work of the British armed forces, who have shown and are showing not only that they can fight, but that they care and that they can feed, bring water to and tend the wounds of the Iraqi people. Will he endorse the view that there is now clear evidence that we can win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people? We can continue to take great pride in our armed forces' courage and achievements—and will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the unsung heroes, our special forces?

Can the Secretary of State say more about his expectations for Basra? May I endorse his view that we must let our commanders take Basra in their own time, which may yet take many days if we are to keep civilian and our own casualties to the absolute minimum and to build the confidence of the Iraqi people in our good intentions? As that is likely to take longer, may I again press him on the issue of reinforcements—that is, additional troops who would allow existing troops to take rest periods before continuing their duties?

The troops in Iraq have endured 15 days of continuous operations, day and night, and the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that contingency plans are indeed in place". Please will the Secretary of State set out what those contingency plans are for reinforcement, not replacement, troops? What units are warned to deploy, even if, in the event, it emerges that they are not needed?

It is welcome that the Fire Brigades Union called off its recent threatened strikes, but the threat of strikes later this month remains. Surely if there is a choice between allowing strikes to go ahead or having reinforcements available, the law should be brought to bear on the FBU's threats, as we have been advocating for some time.

May I also pay tribute to United States forces, who have fought many stiff and successful battles? Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating US forces who are showing such a clear understanding and sensitivity for the Shi'ite religious sites, mentioned in his statement, at Najaf and Karbala? He has confirmed that US forces have refused to return fire at Iraqi forces who have deliberately held themselves up there.

Can the Secretary of State also explain what expectations he has for Baghdad? US forces are still only fighting outside Baghdad. Does he agree that speculation in the press on the early fall of Baghdad is simply not realistic?

Turning to the discussions on post-conflict Iraq, which will continue to depend on the role played by our armed forces, will the Secretary of State clarify how the Government are approaching the key issues? Everyone agrees with the goal that the Prime Minister set out yesterday that Iraq should be run by Iraqi people on the basis of a broadly representative Government"—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 909–11.] But what will happen between the end of the conflict and the establishment of such an Iraqi Government?

Clearly coalition forces will have de facto responsibility for overall security. What role do the Government propose for the United Nations? Will the initial transitional Government be led by the United States, and what will be the British involvement in that Government? Will there be a role for NATO, where Colin Powell is at this minute meeting representatives of European Governments?

What is the Secretary of State's opinion of the view expressed on Radio 4 this morning by the British major-general Albert Whitley, who I understand may be given a role in an initial transitional administration? Such an administration may have to last for many months. Is not a vital component the early involvement of the Iraqis themselves? Will the Government endorse the call made this morning by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for a conference of Iraqi leaders and anti-Saddam dissidents, including the Kurds—preferably in coalition-occupied Iraq—as soon as possible, to demonstrate the coalition's commitment to the Iraqi people at all stages of this process and to show that we come to enfranchise them, not to rule them?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about our armed forces and indeed those of the United States—all who are engaged in difficult and sometimes very dangerous military operations.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to continue to win hearts and minds. I think the evidence I gave the House of what is occurring in southern Iraq is an indication of that, but, as I said, we must not underestimate the fear imposed on the people of Iraq over decades of control by a ruthless, brutal regime. It will take time to win those people's confidence, and our commitment to them above all else is crucial. I say that without qualification.

Coalition forces continue to tighten their grip on Basra. As I said, we will continue to patrol aggressively and continue to strike at the remaining elements of the regime who are in the city and still intimidating the local population. I repeat that we have no need of additional forces; there will be replacements as and when we need them. The need to replace British forces in the front line who are performing high-intensity tasks is not an issue, as commanding officers do that routinely. It is part of the way in which our forces are organised, to ensure that those in the front line are not allowed to become overtired owing to the operations in which they are engaged.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we should not allow speculation about the timetable for the fall of Baghdad. As we have seen around Basra, it is much more sensible and appropriate for us to proceed at our own pace rather than that suggested by those who commentate on these events, not just to protect the lives of the civilian population but to have proper regard to the safety and security of our own forces.

I entirely agree that our ambition—our early ambition—for the post-conflict period is for Iraq to be run by the Iraqi people. Certainly coalition forces will be responsible for providing security in the period immediately after the end of any conflict, but I hope that period—once the regime has been removed—can be as short as possible, consistent, obviously, with the needs of security on the ground. I do not accept that it helps at this stage to make suggestions about the length of any transitional administration. We want an early involvement of the Iraqi people, and we want to work towards a representative Government as we have in Afghanistan.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement, and echo his comments, and those of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), about the British armed forces. The thoughts of the whole House will be with the families of those who have lost their lives, the missing, the injured and, of course, those who are still fighting. I echo particularly what the Secretary of State says about the defence of religious sites in Iraq, which is vitally important.

May I ask about the humanitarian efforts? I welcome the sight of British troops in berets and, indeed, Tam o' Shanters, patrolling the streets of Umm Qasr.

Are any more UK ships being loaded with humanitarian aid to take into Umm Qasr and will some of the problems affecting the distribution of that aid be dealt with?

This operation was initially intended to find, secure and destroy weapons of mass destruction. Will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made in that regard?

The Secretary of State mentioned that some 9,000 prisoners of war have been taken. Is it not imperative to winning the battles for the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq that all prisoners of war are treated under the terms of the Geneva convention? Will he assure the House that that is being done and that all Iraqi forces will be treated in the same way? Will he explain what is happening about the transfer of prisoners from US to UK control, which I understand is now happening?

The Secretary of State will be aware of reports this morning that British forces have used cluster bombs in Iraq. Does he not agree that the unintended consequences of using such weapons can have a terrible impact on the civilian population and, indeed, on our own forces? I am sure that we all remember the two Gurkhas who tragically lost their lives in Kosovo while clearing up unexploded bomblets. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if such bombs are used, he will notify the aid agencies and others in the area of their presence and give a commitment that UK forces will be involved in clearing unexploded ordnance?

Finally, I welcome what the Prime Minister said this week about parcels for our troops. Will the Secretary of State outline in more detail when this programme will begin? The well-being and security of servicemen and women in the area must be our first priority.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations. The humanitarian effort will certainly continue. The crucial contribution made by British forces is the widening of the channel and the extension of the berthing facilities in Umm Qasr, which will continue. As I said, we anticipate that further ships will contribute to that effort.

As yet, we have not made significant finds of weapons of mass destruction, but as I have told the House before, we have made discoveries of extensive protective clothing issued to Iraqi forces, which we believe could have been issued only in preparation for their own use of chemical weapons. No coalition forces have such weapons and we would certainly never use them.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he asked for about the observance of the Geneva convention in respect of prisoners of war. In practice, several prisoners of war have been transferred from US to UK control, particularly when the prisoners were taken in the course of the US forces' rapid progress north. Given the UK's consolidation in the south, it is sensible for the UK to be responsible for such prisoners.

I can confirm that British forces have used cluster bombs, which, as I have told the House before, are the most suitable weapons for dealing with wide-area targets. If we did not use such weapons on appropriate occasions, we would put our own and coalition forces at greater risk. I have had the privilege on several occasions of seeing British explosive ordnance disposal forces clearing up unexploded ordnance—not just our own, but often the devices left behind by other countries. I pay tribute to their courage and to the tremendous work that they carry out, often in difficult circumstances.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister announced the free parcel service. As he said, it should begin as soon as the operational situation in the Gulf allows—effectively when a degree of stability is achieved—but I emphasise that service personnel and their families can already send air letters and e-mails to each other free of charge, and we should not underestimate the importance of that effective means of communication.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is easy to criticise and attribute blame from cosy TV studios equipped with computer graphics that do not fight back, it is not so simple for our brave men and women in Iraq who have to face split-second life-and-death decisions about whether they are facing a civilian or a member of the Iraqi militia dressed as a civilian? Do our military top brass not have better things to do than answer well rehearsed questions from journalists who seem to have first-class honours degrees in hindsight, and most of whom would probably run a mile if a 40-watt bulb popped next to them?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend tempts me. It is fair to say that we have had some indications from commanding officers that some embedded journalists—who are doing a tremendous job of communicating the details of what is taking place in Iraq back to the UK and elsewhere—have perhaps occasionally exaggerated the nature of the conflict, particularly if they are unused to gunfire, when they have reported back to the UK. Commanding officers who have read reports have sometimes been surprised to discover that they were in heavy conflict when they thought that a few bullets were whizzing overhead.

My hon. Friend's presence, and my knowledge that his son is in the Gulf, reminds me that we should pay tribute to our reservists, who are doing an absolutely tremendous job not only in the Gulf, but back in the United Kingdom filling in for those who have gone to serve in the theatre. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to praise not only his son, but many others who are serving their country in a way that is quite different from their ordinary everyday lives. I am particularly grateful to our reservists.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

In reply to the report on friendly fire, issued by the Public Accounts Committee, the Government said: Recommendations will be made by April 2003"— that is, now— on how the UK armed forces could most effectively collect and analyse information about incidents of misidentification in order to bring about overall improvements to combat ID. What is the status of those recommendations: are they ready, are they implemented, and will they be published?

Mr. Hoon

As I indicated to the Committee, considerable work was done in preparation for this conflict and many technological improvements were made to our equipment. However, as tragic incidents have recently demonstrated, there is no simple technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. Sadly, in the heat of conflict, mistakes are made. Every incident will be thoroughly investigated and we will continue to learn lessons, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not hold me to a particular date at this stage.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

May I say, first, that I believe that the use of cluster bombs is deplorable? Will the Secretary of State provide some clarification of the deaths of the two soldiers to which the Prime Minister referred last weekend in the United States? Were they executed, or were they, as the Army chiefs said, victims of war dying in action? Was it a war crime by Iraqi officialdom, or a failure of intelligence reporting to the Prime Minister, perhaps even a failure of spin? Some clarification would be welcome.

Mr. Hoon

No doubt right hon. and hon. Members will raise the issue of cluster bombs, but my hon. Friend really has to face up to the facts. Certainly there are risks with cluster bombs, as there are risks of all munitions failing. The percentage failure rate is small, but it leaves a continuing problem, which I accept and recognise. That is why the explosive ordnance disposal people bravely risk their lives to clear up such problems. Balanced against that, my hon. Friend must face the issue of whether he would allow coalition forces to be put at risk because we are not prepared to use that particular capability. Without cluster bombs, we would have to use far larger ordnance to deal with the same problem. We would have to use far larger weapons to deal with deployed tanks, for example, which is the sort of target against which cluster bombs are used. I do not think that there is a simple answer to this issue. As I have indicated to the House on many previous occasions, we use the weapon only when it is absolutely justified, but if it is, it is because it will make the battlefield safer for our armed forces—and I am not prepared to compromise on that.

As to the two soldiers, as the Prime Minister indicated, there is intelligence information about the cause of death, but I do not think it helps at this stage to go into it in any greater detail. There will certainly be a further investigation into the background, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we shall ensure that the relatives are properly communicated with in respect of the circumstances, and that we have clear evidence of war crimes having been committed by Iraqi forces.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

A number of soldiers facing combat in Iraq will suffer from combat stress, post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, sometimes for many years after they have left the forces. What planning and co-ordination is the Secretary of State and his Department pursuing with the NHS and strategic health authorities to provide the treatment that those mentally scarred soldiers may well deserve?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. We have spent a great deal of time identifying and dealing with the problem. For the forces that we have deployed, there are measures in place that will allow the symptoms of combat stress to be identified at an early stage. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is medically qualified and has a particular interest in this area. He has followed through the arrangements that have been made and which are available, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about the post-conflict situation in Iraq. At the very least, there seems to be some difference of emphasis in what is coming from the State Department and the Pentagon about precisely what should happen in Iraq, post-conflict. Some of us are worried that the more extreme elements in the Pentagon are almost talking about a military colony being run from the US after the conflict is over. Will my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with his counterparts in the Pentagon, and whether he has had any success in tempering some of the more extreme views that have been expressed?

Mr. Hoon

Again, I would not always believe what I read in the Washington Post any more than I would always believe what I read in all of our admirable daily newspapers. I know full well that the ambition of my US counterpart is exactly the same as mine—to see Iraq restored to its own people, and British forces removed from Iraq as soon as possible.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State's comments about our brave dead and wounded, to whom I pay tribute? Given the rumours and reports that between 1,000 and 4,000 jihadists are flowing into the region, will the Secretary of State say how seriously the threat is being taken? Without going into details, will he say what techniques or practices will he used to protect our forces against them?

Mr. Hoon

There is a threat. It is something that we are extremely concerned about, not least because of the appalling incident when an apparent suicide bomber killed four US marines. As I indicated to the House—I believe it was on Monday—that has an impact not only on the safety and security of coalition forces, but on how they are able to deal with the local population. That emphasises once again how impressive is the behaviour of British forces in the south. They are trying to deal with the Iraqi population as they would deal with the British population. We must have regard to the risks involved when people are prepared to kill themselves in some fanatical attack on coalition forces, but efforts are being made to address the issue. It is a serious concern, and we will continue to deal with it.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

May I join other hon. Members in welcoming the statement on the free postage for our armed forces? The issue has been raised with me on many occasions in my constituency. We all understand that it will take time to work out the details, but can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that all post offices will be given accurate information about the details of the scheme? One problem at the moment is that different post offices react in different ways.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The British Forces Post Office will coordinate the new scheme. Full details of the free packet service for families will be published in due course. However, my hon. Friend's question at least gives me an opportunity to urge right hon. and hon. Members to discourage their constituents, if they can, from seeking to use the new scheme before the details have been published. I know that there is a great deal of concern in the country, and that people want to help. We will have the details published as soon as we possibly can but, in the meantime, it would be helpful if right hon. and hon. Members could at least use their persuasive powers to ask people to delay sending packages just yet.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

I thank the Secretary of State for supplying me with an advance copy of his statement, and I associate myself, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru entirely with the thoughts that have been expressed about our service personnel and their families back home. As has been mentioned, the battle for hearts and minds is crucial for the peaceful future of Iraq. The Secretary of State will be aware of the major speculation in Washington today about post-conflict Iraq, the security situation there, Iraqi self-government and the management of oil resources. Why will the Government not announce their full support for a lead UN role, post-conflict, before Iraqi self-government is established? Is it perhaps because the US Administration are already handing out the jobs?

Mr. Hoon

Again, there is a good deal of speculation in US newspapers, as there is in UK newspapers. What is important is that we put in place the elements necessary to allow the Iraqi people to run their country. As I indicated in my statement, the first element has been decided at the UN—the re-establishment of the oil-for-food programme. Once the oil begins to flow, it will provide a considerable source of revenue that can be spent in Iraq properly, rather than on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, as was the case in the past. We also want there to be UN support for the situation in Iraq. The UN can support the rebuilding of a country in a variety of ways, and the model that we set out in Afghanistan was broadly welcomed by everyone involved. It seems to be working extremely well, and there is no reason why that process could not be the appropriate one.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

There were graphic television images yesterday of the impact of a cluster bomb that was dropped, I believe, on the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that cluster bombs will not be dropped on the streets and urban areas of Basra, especially as I applaud the Government's intention to win the hearts and minds of the local population?

Mr. Hoon

I also saw some graphic images, but I hope that my hon. Friend and others will suspend their belief—certainly when those graphic images are the product of Iraqi minders taking television crews to particular locations. No television crew in areas controlled by the Iraqi regime has freedom of movement. It is very important to recognise that, and to accept that crews will be taken to places where the Iraqi regime wants them to go. However, I do not doubt that there are occasions when cluster bombs and other munitions can cause civilian casualties. I regret those casualties: they are a consequence of conflict, and we try to minimise them, if at all possible. I can certainly tell the House that so far it has not been necessary to use cluster bombs in and around Basra.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Whatever our views were before the conflict, with a war under way it is essential for the morale of our troops that they understand that they have our unstinting support and concern for their welfare. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the coalition will not allow its actions to be determined by media pressure for quick results; and that, if taking longer means saving coalition and Iraqi lives, a few adverse headlines are a price well worth paying?

Mr. Hoon

I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely the point that I set out in my first statement about military operations two weeks ago, when I warned that this would not necessarily be a rapid conflict. I said that it would take time and that there would be risks and dangers. That remains as much the case today, as coalition forces advance near Baghdad, as it did two weeks ago.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South)

May I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces for getting humanitarian aid as quickly as possible into Umm Qasr? However, it might be worth reminding ourselves that the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq was in play long before intervention began. There were 500,000 children dying of malnutrition and a quarter of the country was without clean water. None the less, will my right hon. Friend tell the House about the role that military personnel are playing now in Basra to supply food, water and medicines? Will it remain a priority of the coalition forces to bring humanitarian aid to a country that has long been without it?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to emphasise the catastrophe caused to the people of Iraq by Saddam Hussein's regime. That is one of the reasons why I said that the ambition of our Royal Engineers in working with excellent international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross is not simply to provide the same facilities as were available to the Iraqi people before, but to improve on them—to ensure that there is a regular, reliable supply of pure water and that people are properly fed, clothed and housed. Those are not unreasonable ambitions for a country of the size and wealth of Iraq. It is certainly how Iraq should be, and we want to play a part in allowing the Iraqi people to develop their own country for themselves.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the very close links that existed before the conflict between elements of the Shi'as in southern Iraq and elements of the Iranian regime. What assessment has been made of the threat from that quarter, and what impact is that likely to have on British troops in the south of the country, who will clearly be affected?

Mr. Hoon

I do not believe that there is such a threat. We have been in close contact with the Iranian Government, and we have sought to allay any concerns about the potential for misunderstanding. That is a very good example—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it—of the importance of the religious sites. The four key sites of the Shi'a are in Iraq. They are as important to the Iranian people as they are to the Shi'as in Iraq, and it is vital that they be protected and preserved.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I offer my concern and sympathies to the relatives of all the military who have been lost and of all the civilians who have been killed. May I, however, draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the high number of children who are being killed? We can look to International Red Cross reports and other sources on that, not to Iraqi thugs. The two market bombings killed a high number of children. If he wants information on the second bombing, he can go to yesterday's edition of The Independent, which gives the number of the missile.

Will my right hon. Friend also comment on the hospital report in Basra, where 250 have been reported killed and 1,000 injured by allied bombing, many of them children? Women and children were killed at the US checkpoint. Of the 11 dead at Hillah, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), nine were children. That has been verified by independent sources. Will we he keeping a toll of the number of civilians and children killed; and if we do get into urban warfare, have any projections been made concerning the number of civilians that might be killed?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is quite right to emphasise the risks of conflict, particularly to children, and I assure her that every effort is made to avoid those risks as much as we can. I would caution her, though, against relying on particular accounts—

Mrs. Mahon

It was the International Red Cross.

Mr. Hoon

If she will give me the opportunity, I will explain why I would caution her. First, if she read carefully the original account of the first marketplace bomb set out in graphic detail in The Independent newspaper, as I am sure she did, she will have seen that the source of the information suggesting that it was the responsibility of coalition forces was someone the journalist spoke to in the marketplace. That was the source of the allegation that it was a coalition responsibility.

As regards yesterday's piece, which I also read with some care, the allegation is that because a piece of a cruise missile was handed to the journalist, that somehow proved that what took place was caused by coalition forces. I have to tell my hon. Friend that a considerable number of cruise missiles have been targeted at Baghdad in the past two weeks. I can also tell her that we have very clear evidence that immediately after these two explosions representatives of the regime were clearing up in and around the marketplace. Why they should be doing that, other than perhaps to disguise their own responsibility, is an interesting question. What is important about this is that all of us should look very sceptically at such reports and rely only on known and agreed facts.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

In welcoming the humanitarian aid that is now going into Iraq, is the Secretary of State aware of yesterday's report by UNICEF expressing concern that aid is delivered in packets of the same yellow colour as the bombs that are being dropped? There is a risk that children may come across unexploded bombs and think that they have found humanitarian aid. There was a similar problem in Afghanistan, where the colour of the packaging was changed from yellow to blue. Will changes be made in this case?

Mr. Hoon

I shall certainly look into that: it seems a very sensible suggestion.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) about cluster bombs. He may have seen reports in the press regarding casualties in the Hillah hospital. Those reports have been endorsed by Human Rights Watch, which suggests that cluster bombs were dropped on residential areas. The indication therefore is that the battle for Baghdad may well cause very high casualty rates among civilians. Would he agree that the point at which Baghdad is surrounded should be the point at which we invite the United Nations to broker a peace deal?

Mr. Hoon

I set out clearly in relation to Basra, and by analogy in relation to Baghdad, that we are not going to be driven into action as a result of commentators or of pressure from outside. We will take our time and do the job properly, minimising civilian casualties, but also having proper regard to the safety and security of our forces. What I cannot understand about my hon. Friend's comments, though, is the idea that he could contemplate, after so much determined effort, the continuation of Saddam Hussein's regime. If he had accompanied his observation by saying that an absolute precondition was the removal of Saddam Hussein, I might have more sympathy with it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

My party, too, sympathises with the losses of our troops and the civilian casualties. We sympathise with the troops who have been involved in some of those civilian casualties, because we have seen it happen that people are not prepared to fight as soldiers, but are prepared to fight as terrorists.

May I ask for confirmation that the money for humanitarian aid to which the Secretary of State referred has been earmarked by the Ministry of Defence for that purpose and is distinct from the humanitarian aid that will be going through the Department for International Development?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his observations about terrorism. He and his colleagues have had often bitter personal experience in representing areas that have been plagued by terrorism for far too long. There is little doubt that much of the expertise of British soldiers, which I rightly praise, derives from their experience of dealing with difficult situations in the north of Ireland.

As far as aid is concerned, we have found in previous situations of this kind that very early projects are necessary. I gave the examples of reconnecting electricity and ensuring that a pure water supply is immediately available. The people who are best able to achieve that in the early days after a conflict are British soldiers, who do the job extremely well with the range of skills that they have within their ranks. The money that I identified is money from the Government—it is not earmarked as being specifically from the Ministry of Defence, but is money that the Government are making available for the kinds of early projects that are so important in allowing people to get on with their ordinary lives after a conflict.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Is my right hon. Friend in a position to inform the House of the nature of the discussions between Secretary of State Powell and the Turkish Government about northern Iraq, and is he in a position to reassure the Kurds about Turkey's intentions?

Mr. Hoon

As I indicated to the House previously, a number of very clear messages have been sent to Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally and we have regular conversations with it. Secretary Powell's visit to Turkey is part of that continuing process. I do not underestimate the political sensitivities in the north of Iraq, and we have regular regard to that both in discussions with Turkey and in discussions with representatives of the Kurdish community there.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Last week in New York, when members of the Select Committee on International Development met senior officers of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we were slightly surprised by their surprise that they were going to have to move considerable volumes of humanitarian food and non-food aid over lines into disputed territory. What prospect does the Secretary of State think that coalition forces have of being able to assist with such movements, especially if there is to be, for example, a long siege in areas such as Baghdad?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman raises a difficult issue. No one would pretend that our forces can easily move food into areas that the hon. Gentleman calls "disputed" but that are, in many cases, fairly bitterly fought over. I would have to be convinced that such arrangements could be carried through safely by our forces and, in addition, that the food aid would reach the people for whom it was intended. Unless and until the regime loosens its control over places such as Basra, it will be very difficult to satisfy either of those conditions.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Will the Secretary of State provide a written statement, or ask the Secretary of State for International Development to do so, to address the questions that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has raised? The Secretary of State will be aware that 16 million Iraqi people—60 per cent. of the population—were wholly dependent on oil-for-food arrangements before the conflict began. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome a statement on how quickly the volume of food aid under the new oil-for-food arrangements will match the arrangements that were in place before the war. I appreciate the logistical problems that British and American troops will face, but we would like to have the best estimate of how quickly the volumes of food aid will increase.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, which we will continue to look at. The safety, stability and security of the areas in which food aid is delivered are important and must be a prerequisite. I have spoken about the UN's assessment of the situation in Umm Qasr. We want more and more areas of Iraq to be liberated, made safe and made secure so that international organisations can deliver food and other assistance.

Assessments that I have seen do not suggest that—at present, at any rate—there is an acute shortage of food in southern Iraq. There have been concerns about the lack of pure water supplies, which is why we are addressing that issue so swiftly. However, I am not being told that there is an immediate food crisis.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to those serving from RAF Leeming, RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Allenbrooke barracks and Dishforth airfield? They number some 445. Obviously, this is a very anxious time for the families and friends who are left behind. Especially worrying are the graphic pictures that are reaching them in what is virtually 24-hour coverage—particularly pictures from the front line. That must be having an impact on people's performance. This is not a television programme or a film; this is for real. Can the Government impose some parameters, or some limited controls, on media coverage in these circumstances?

Mr. Hoon

I join the hon. Lady in her tribute, not only to those who are serving but to the families who wait behind—often understandably anxious. I have had the privilege of visiting a number of families, as have other members of the Government and members of the royal family. A determined effort has been made to recognise the contributions that families make at this especially difficult time. That is why we have appealed to the broadcasters to display sensitivity and understanding in the images that they broadcast. I know that families are anxious and I know that the broadcasters do recognise their responsibility in this respect.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the accounts of the journalists who have just been released from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and their horrific accounts of other people in that prison who are subjected to daily beatings and torture? Will he give a clear message to the regime about prisoners of war? We do not expect our prisoners of war, under the Geneva conventions, to be treated in that way. Will he assure the families of those prisoners of war that he will make representations again on this point?

Mr. Hoon

I have read those accounts and they are truly appalling. I have read other equally disturbing accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners. Those accounts lead me to take the clear view that war crimes have been committed by elements of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Does the Secretary of State agree that false claims about civilian casualties have been given credence by the conduct of BI3C correspondents in Baghdad? Is it not an insult to BBC licence-fee payers that they are, in effect, being forced to subsidise Saddam's propaganda machine? If CNN and al-Jazeera are withdrawing their correspondents from Iraq, is it not time for the BBC to do likewise?

Mr. Hoon

That is obviously a matter for the BBC. All I would ask is that all who watch these programmes—and this applies equally well to the broadcasters and journalists who are there—consider carefully the material that is put in front of those broadcasters and journalists by their Iraqi minders. All the journalists have people who supervise their movements. In such circumstances, we are right to be suspicious that they are not able to pursue freely the kind of investigations that we would expect journalists to be able to pursue in a free society.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

There have been some civilian casualties for which I am sure that even the Secretary of State would accept that there is a clear line of responsibility. They would include the seven women and children who were killed at a checkpoint and the 15 members of a single family who were killed when their lorry was attacked by an Apache helicopter. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether current UK rules of engagement allow for such attacks on civilians; whether the rules of engagement for UK troops differ from those of US troops; whether he will place in the House of Commons Library the details of the two sets of rules of engagement; and whether he will confirm that, as has happened previously, any UK troops who were involved in instances of unjustified killings of civilians would be likely to face criminal charges?

Mr. Hoon

We do not comment in detail on rules of engagement, and certainly not on those of the United States. I would be a lot more persuaded by my hon. Friend's observations if, at the same time as mentioning the tragic deaths of seven women and children, he had also mentioned the deaths of the four US marines who were killed in a deliberate car bomb attack, perpetrated by a fanatic. In such circumstances, it is perhaps perfectly understandable—although I am not excusing it in any sense at all—that soldiers who are having to deal with a difficult situation at a checkpoint and who know that four of their comrades have been killed in that way are perhaps reacting in a way that we might not want them to. That is not to say that the accounts that have been given, again, by particular journalists are necessarily the only version of events that we should all accept. An investigation is going on into what went on at the checkpoints, and it is important that we await the outcome of that before judging the facts quite so prejudicially.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I too would like to place on record my full support for the coalition forces, my sympathies to all who suffer because of this conflict, and my admiration for the efforts that are being made to get humanitarian aid to those who need it. I ask the Secretary of State to share my disappointment that the conflict has prevented a group of disabled athletes who were to be guests in my home town of Lame from coming to Ireland to compete in the Special Olympics. Will he reassure them that, in the event of the conflict being over before the games start in June, they will still be most warmly welcomed in the United Kingdom? Will he again affirm that our enemy is Saddam Hussein, that Saddam Hussein is the enemy of the Iraqi people, and that he has got to be got rid of?

Mr. Hoon

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final observation. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people and we believe that Iraq will be a much better place once Saddam Hussein's regime is removed.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am not familiar with the situation of the disabled athletes. However, if he writes to me, I will consider the matter as sympathetically as I possibly can.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

If it is right that every aspect of what we do is held up to public scrutiny, and as several reputable British journalists have already died in Iraq attempting to make that true for the public, perhaps the Secretary of State would care to amend his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), which seemed to support the calls for the censorship of British journalists that were emanating from around the House? If the Secretary of State is not prepared to accept what journalists are saying to us, will he please accord some validity to what the International Red Cross says about its perception that excessive force is being used on women and children? I am perfectly prepared to accept that the coalition is attempting to reduce civilian casualties, but surely it behoves the coalition to examine what is coming from the International Red Cross and to amend its procedures accordingly.

Mr. Hoon

What I was inviting the House to do was to contrast the situation in which journalists are accompanying coalition forces right on to the front line and are able to send their material back uncensored to our homes for us all to see in real time, and the public attention that goes with that and the public debate that often accompanies it, with the situation in those parts of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein's regime, where we simply cannot see the kind of brutality that we are aware takes place. I also made comments, which I stand by, about certain reports on particular incidents. I have read those reports extremely carefully and I am certainly prepared to consider criticism of the behaviour of coalition forces if it is warranted. What I am not prepared to do is to accept at face value an account of an incident given by a man in a marketplace in Baghdad, and it is simply absurd to suggest—

Glenda Jackson

It was the International Red Cross—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must listen to the answer. It may not be the answer that she is looking for, but she must listen.

Glenda Jackson

With respect, Mr. Speaker, that was not the question—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Sometimes, the question that has been asked is not always answered to the satisfaction of the Member.

Mr. Hoon

All I am saying—and I see no reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) should have any difficulty with it—is that before rushing to judgment we should allow a proper investigation to take place. The difference in a democratic society is that we allow such investigations. We face up to the issue and are prepared to recognise that we may have some responsibility, but at the same time we do not rush to judgment in blaming—in this case—coalition forces without a shred of corroborating evidence other than evidence supplied by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

Earlier on, the Secretary of State made two welcome comments. The first was about the contribution of the Territorials and the second was about the situation facing families. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that regular units have family officers and that Territorial units would have such officers if they were going into battle as regular units. Will he make sure that the families of all soldiers serving in the Gulf receive the same high standards of care as regular soldiers expect?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Reservists are pooled from a wide variety of places in the United Kingdom and they do not necessarily have the same facilities as are available to regular forces, which, for example, allow families to meet and information to be passed on. We are addressing that and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is responsible for reservist matters, is looking into the matter with some urgency in order to establish a proactive system, which means that we shall go out and contact the families of reservists to reassure them and give them the support and help that is available to families of our regular forces.