HC Deb 25 February 2003 vol 400 cc123-40 12.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a further statement on Iraq.

Let me again, for the benefit of the House, briefly recap the history of this crisis. In 1991, at the conclusion of the Gulf war, the true extent of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programme became clear. We knew that he had used these weapons against his own people, and against a foreign country, Iran, but we had not known that in addition to chemical weapons, he had biological weapons, which he had denied completely, and was trying to construct a nuclear weapons programme.

So on 3 April 1991, the UN passed the first UN resolution on Saddam and weapons of mass destruction, giving him 15 days to give an open account of all his weapons and to co-operate fully with the UN inspectors in destroying them. Fifteen days later, he submitted a flawed and incomplete declaration denying that he had biological weapons and giving little information on chemical weapons. It was only four years later, after the defection of Saddam's son-in-law to Jordan, that the offensive biological weapons and the full extent of the nuclear programme were discovered. In all, 17 UN resolutions have been passed. None has been obeyed. At no stage did he co-operate as he should have done. At no stage did he tell the full truth.

Finally, in December 1998, when he had begun to obstruct and harass the UN inspectors, they withdrew. When they left, they said that there were still large amounts of weapons of mass destruction material unaccounted for. Since then, the international community has relied on sanctions and the no-fly zones policed by US and UK pilots to contain Saddam. But the first is not proof against Saddam's deception and the second is limited in its impact.

In 2001, the sanctions were made more targeted, but around $3 billion a year is illicitly taken by Saddam, much of it for his and his family's personal use. The intelligence is clear: he continues to believe that his weapons of mass destruction programme is essential both for internal repression and for external aggression. It is essential to his regional power. Prior to the inspectors coming back in, he was engaged in a systematic exercise in concealment of those weapons.

That is the history. Finally, last November, UN resolution 1441 declared Saddam in material breach and gave him a "final opportunity" to comply fully, immediately and unconditionally with the UN's instruction to disarm voluntarily. The first step was to give an open, honest declaration of what weapons of mass destruction he had, where they were and how they would be destroyed. On 8 December, he submitted the declaration denying that he had any weapons of mass destruction, a statement, frankly, that not a single member of the international community seriously believes. There have been two UN inspectors' reports. Both have reported some co-operation on process; both have denied progress on substance.

So how to proceed? There are now two paths before the United Nations. Yesterday the UK, along with the US and Spain, introduced a new resolution declaring that

Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441". But we will not put this resolution to a vote immediately. Instead, we will delay it to give Saddam one further final chance to disarm voluntarily. The UN inspectors are continuing their work. They have a further report to make in March, but this time Saddam must understand: now is the time for him to decide. Passive rather than active co-operation will not do. Co-operation on process but not substance will not do. Refusal to declare properly and fully what has happened to the unaccounted for WMD will not do. Resolution 1441 called for full, unconditional and immediate compliance: not 10 per cent., not 20 per cent., not even 50 per cent., but 100 per cent. compliance. Anything less will not do. That is all we ask: that what we said in resolution 1441, we mean; and that what it demands, Saddam does.

There is no complexity about resolution 1441. I ask all reasonable people to judge for themselves. After 12 years, is it not reasonable that the UN inspectors have unrestricted access to Iraqi scientists? That means no tape recorders, no minders, no intimidation, and interviews outside Iraq, as provided for by resolution 1441. So far not one of those interviews has taken place.

Is it not reasonable that Saddam provides evidence of destruction of the biological and chemical agents and weapons that the UN proved he had in 1999? So far he has provided none. Is it not reasonable that he provides evidence that he has destroyed 8,500 litres of anthrax that he admitted possessing, and the 2,000 kilos of biological growth material, enough to produce over 26,000 litres of anthrax? Is it not reasonable that Saddam accounts for up to 360 tonnes of bulk chemical warfare agent, including 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agents, 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals, and over 30,000 special munitions?

To those who say we are rushing to war, I say this: we are now 12 years after Saddam was first told by the UN to disarm; nearly six months after President Bush made his speech to the UN accepting the UN route to disarmament; nearly four months on from resolution 1441; and even now, today, we are offering Saddam the prospect of voluntary disarmament through the UN. I detest his regime—I hope most people do—but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.

I do not want war. I do not believe anyone in the House wants war. But disarmament peacefully can happen only with Saddam's active co-operation. Twelve years of bitter experience teaches us that. If he refuses to co-operate, as he is refusing now, and we fail to act, what then? Saddam in charge of Iraq, his weapons of mass destruction intact, the will of the international community set at nothing, the UN tricked again, Saddam hugely strengthened and emboldened—does anyone truly believe that that will mean peace? And when we turn to deal with other threats that we know confront our world, where will our authority be then? When we make a demand next time, where will our credibility be then? This is not a road to peace, but folly and weakness that will only mean that when the conflict comes, it is more bloody, less certain and greater in its devastation.

Our path laid out before the UN expresses our preference to resolve this peacefully, but it ensures that we remain firm in our determination to resolve it. I have read the memorandum put forward by France, Germany and Russia in response to our UN resolution. It is to be welcomed at least in these respects: it accepts that Saddam must disarm fully, and it accepts that he is not yet co-operating fully. Indeed, not a single member of the European Union who spoke at the summit in Brussels on 17 February—not a single one—disputed the fact of his non-co-operation.

But the call is for more time—up to the end of July, at least. They say that the time is necessary to "search out" the weapons. At the core of this proposition is the notion that the task of the inspectors is to enter Iraq to find the weapons, to "sniff them out," as one member of the European Council put it. That is emphatically not the inspectors' job. They are not a detective agency, but even if they were, Iraq is a country with a land mass roughly the size of France or Spain. The idea that the inspectors could conceivably sniff out the weapons and documentation relating to them without the help of the Iraqi authorities is absurd. That is why resolution 1441 calls for Iraq's active co-operation.

The issue is not time. The issue is will. If Saddam is willing genuinely to co-operate, the inspectors should have up to July, and beyond July—as much time as they want. if he is not willing to co-operate, equally time will not help. We will just be right back where we were in the 1990s. Of course, Saddam will offer concessions. This is a game with which he is immensely familiar. As the threat level rises, so the concessions are eked out. At present, he is saying he will not destroy the al-Samoud missiles that the inspectors have found were in breach of 1441. But he will, under pressure, claiming that this proves his co-operation. But does anyone think that he would be making any such concessions, or indeed that the inspectors would be within 1,000 miles of Baghdad, were it not for the US and UK troops massed on his doorstep? And what is his hope? To play for time, and to drag the process out until the attention of the international community wanes, the troops go, and the way is again clear for him. Give it more time, some urge on us. I say that we are giving it more time. But I say this too: it takes no time at all for Saddam to co-operate. It just takes a fundamental change of heart and mind.

Today the path to peace is clear. Saddam can cooperate fully with the inspectors. He can voluntarily disarm. He can even leave the country peacefully. But he cannot avoid disarmament. One further point: the purpose in our acting is disarmament, but the nature of Saddam's regime is relevant in two ways. First, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a regime of this brutality are especially dangerous, in particular because Saddam has shown his willingness to use them. Secondly, I know that the innocent as well as the guilty die in any war. But let us at least not forget the 4 million Iraqi exiles, and the thousands of children who die needlessly every year due to Saddam's impoverishment of his country—a country which in 1978 was wealthier than Portugal or Malaysia but is now in ruins, with 60 per cent. of its people on food aid. Let us not forget the tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured or executed by his barbarity every year. The innocent die every day in Iraq—victims of Saddam—and their plight, too, should be heard.

I also know the vital importance in all of this of the middle east peace process. The European Council last week called for the early implementation of the road map. Terror and violence must end. So must settlement activity. We welcomed President Arafat's statement that he will appoint a Prime Minister—an initiative flowing from last month's London conference on Palestinian reform. I will continue to strive in every way for an even-handed and just approach to the middle east peace process.

At stake in Iraq is not just peace or war. It is the authority of the United Nations and the international community. Resolution 1441 is clear. All we are asking is that it now be upheld. If it is not, the consequences will stretch far beyond Iraq. If the UN cannot be the way of resolving this issue, that is a dangerous moment for our world. That is why, over the coming weeks, we will work every last minute that we can to reunite the international community and disarm Iraq through the United Nations. It is our desire, and it is still our hope, that this can be done.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I thank the Prime Minister for updating the House on the latest situation. The decisions that are taken over the next few weeks and months will, perhaps, determine the course of world events for years to come. Twelve years and 17 resolutions on, it is crucial that we understand exactly why we are pursuing the course that we are. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who tortures and murders his own people and poses a threat to the safety and stability of the middle east. There are few people in Iraq or in the surrounding area who would at any stage mourn his passing. When Iraq's prisons are opened and the stories of persecution and repression can truly be told, many people inside and outside the House will wonder why we waited so long to take such action.

However, Saddam Hussein is not the only example of evil in our world. The difference is that he has the means, mentality and motive to reach beyond his own borders and pose a threat to the safety and security of many—crucially, to British people at home and abroad.

As we head towards the process outlined by the Prime Minister and tabled at the United Nations last night, several questions arise. The Prime Minister told the House on 15 January that the only way he would support military action without a second resolution would be if any country used an unreasonable veto. I assume that that is still the Prime Minister's position. For example, would a French veto at the Security Council constitute an unreasonable veto? What if there is no majority in the Security Council? Would that also be considered an unreasonable position?

France and Germany have today outlined a plan for dealing with Iraq, to which the Prime Minister referred, with a specific timetable for the inspectorate that would take us deep into July. The Prime Minister clearly said that he does not agree with them on the timetable or the plan. Could he specify exactly what timetable should exist as part of the draft resolution announced last night and tabled by Spain, the United States and the Government?

If Dr. Blix tells the Security Council on 7 March that Iraq is not complying with resolution 1441, will Britain and America push for an immediate vote on a second resolution—and will that constitute the timetable? This morning, the Foreign Secretary seemed not too clear about that matter. I hope that the Prime Minister will be able to clear it up.

Saddam Hussein is reported today as saying that he will not comply with his obligation to destroy his alSamoud missiles. The Prime Minister made it clear in his statement that a failure by Iraq to do that would constitute a material breach of resolution 1441. However, if at the last moment Saddam Hussein destroys his missiles but still does not produce the evidence to show that the biological and chemical stockpiles that we know he had in 1998 have been destroyed, will the Prime Minister confirm that the destruction of the missiles is not enough to avoid a vote on the second resolution?

At this time, the thoughts of the whole House will be with our servicemen and women but they need to be assured of certain things. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that equipment failures alluded to by the National Audit Office and the shortage of personnel equipment reported have all been rectified and that our troops will have the very best equipment by the time they get into place? If military action takes place, it is vital that we are clear what may happen after that action concludes. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has consistently been critical of United Nations contingency planning for humanitarian relief in Iraq and the Government's part in that. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that all those shortcomings have been addressed and that mechanisms are now in place? Of perhaps most critical importance now is the need to understand what contingencies the Government have planned for a representative Government in Iraq. Have the Prime Minister and his US counterparts discussed that at any stage, and will he now give an indication of what those discussions have entailed? He rightly spoke about his plans for the middle east and the peace process. Can he now go further and give any specific details of his plans to bring those two sides together beyond what he said in his statement?

This issue is not about time, as the Prime Minister said, but about Saddam Hussein's attitude. There are many in the House who legitimately fear the consequences of military action in Iraq and therefore urge us not to take it. However, I put it to them that there is a greater fear—the failure to deal with Saddam Hussein now will lead to greater suffering, not just for the people of Iraq but for the whole world. We still believe that Saddam Hussein holds in his hands the power to pull his country and his people back from the brink of war, which any soldier will tell you, must always be the last resort. This is a crucial test, not just for the UK or the USA, but for the United Nations. For the sake of the United Nations and the peace of the world, such a tyrant must be left in no doubt that if he does not disarm after years of terror and evasion, he must finally face the consequences of his actions.

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the Government's general approach. He talked about the circumstances in which countries might use their veto—I am still hopeful that that will not be the case. I reject the timetable set out by France and Germany for the reasons that I gave. I do not think that it deals with the central point—whether Saddam is willing to co-operate fully. As for our own timetable, it is obviously open, but we have already said that this has to be resolved within weeks, not months. The coming report of Dr. Blix will evidently be extremely important in that, but the precise moment at which we put the second resolution in the UN to a vote is something that we are discussing with key allies.

To deal simply with the issue of Army equipment, about which there are many stories, I should say that those stories are categorically denied both by people in the military and ourselves. I urge people not to take everything that they read at face value. I very much hope that people understand that not only are our armed forces among the finest in the word but they are also among the best equipped. The best testament to that comes from members of the armed forces themselves.

In relation to humanitarian considerations and what type of Government might succeed the Government of Saddam, again that is something that we are discussing closely with allies and the UN. I should like to emphasise that in my view if it comes to conflict, the UN's role in the resulting humanitarian situation and in finding the right way through for Iraq will be immensely important, so we will continue to work with allies, even if there are differences on the military side of things, to find the right answers to those questions.

Finally, on the middle east peace process, I very much hope that we will be in a position to announce further steps on that in the not too distant future. It is tremendously important in its own terms, but it is also obviously important in the broader context of giving a very clear statement to the Arab and Muslim world that we approach these issues in an even-handed and just way. There is nothing more important but that they understand that, and our commitment to taking that process forward remains absolute.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Given that there is unanimous agreement in the House about supporting the United Nations in its efforts to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, and that the best route for doing so is the UN-authorised weapons inspectorate, will the Prime Minister amplify his opening remarks, as there will be considerable anxiety in this country and others that in tabling what could be construed as a pre-emptive draft resolution, Britain is in fact undermining the very work of the weapons inspectors? Given Dr. Blix's explicit statement that he feels that the inspectors are meeting with a degree of success but that more time is required, should not we as a country subscribe to that view rather than conducting ourselves as we are?

Why is the Prime Minister so fundamentally hostile to the memorandum that the French and others have now tabled? Should we not respond more positively? Would that not offer a better way forward? On several occasions, senior military opinion in this country has been publicly expressed to the effect that the best route for disarmament is the location, detection and dismantling of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by the weapons inspectors themselves. Is that not preferable to a precipitate war?

Is the essence of what the Prime Minister has told us today that there are now no circumstances in which, if the Americans decide to take action against Iraq, Britain will not be there in support? Is that not the fact of the matter, whether it is UN-authorised or not?

As for the conflict itself, which seems increasingly inevitable, will the Prime Minister clarify an issue that he has not chosen to clarify thus far? What will be the operational military chain of command? Will British forces that this House of Commons will ask to go into battle in our name be under an American chain of command? I think that those forces and the House have a right to know the answer.

Finally, what post-war scenario do the Government envisage? Would they prefer a United States-administered post-conflict Iraq or some form of UN protectorate? What will our contribution be in such circumstances?

The fundamental anxiety felt by many in this country is that the argument has shifted from regime change last summer, through the UN route—which we strongly support—to the Prime Minister's most recent utterances about the overwhelming moral case for this action. When the argument keeps shifting like that, there can be little doubt, and every reason for people in this country to remain highly sceptical about the wisdom of the current approach.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman asked about post-conflict Iraq, if it comes to conflict. I have made it clear that the UN must have a key role; exactly what that role will be is another thing that we are discussing with the UN and with allies now. As for the military chain of command, it will be as it has been in previous military conflicts. We will set out all the answers to those questions very plainly if it comes to military conflict. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there is any problem in the military chain of command itself, because I think that that would be irresponsible and unfair to our armed forces.

There is one issue on which I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that it would be preferable for the disarmament of Iraq to take place by means of the UN route. I agree: that is exactly why we have tried to use the UN route. With respect, however, the question is this: if disarmament cannot happen by means of the UN route because Saddam Hussein is not co-operating properly, then what? We shall be left with a choice between leaving him there, with his weapons of mass destruction, in charge of Iraq—the will of the UN having therefore been set at nothing—and using force.

The right hon. Gentleman described the resolution as pre-emptive. I must take issue with him. Resolution 1441 has this logic—to which I see no answer in what the right hon. Gentleman said. It called on Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily, and to comply fully, unconditionally and immediately with the inspectors. It said that he was in material breach, and that this was a final opportunity. Now, is Saddam Hussein co-operating fully? No. Not a single person disputes that. He is therefore in breach of resolution 1441. This was supposed to be his final opportunity. With the greatest respect, it is not us who have to justify why we are putting down a resolution stating what is a fact—that he is not co-operating fully and is in breach of resolution 1441—it is for others to say why, having given him the final opportunity that he has not taken, we still should not act. My worry in that situation—no doubt it is Saddam's hope—is that what people really mean when they put forward these alternatives is that we are not prepared seriously to force him to disarm.

On the chances of conflict, I should tell the right hon. Gentleman that the bitter irony of some of what has happened in the past few weeks is that unless Saddam gets a clear and united message—unless he knows that there is no alternative to voluntary disarmament—he will not disarm. That is the history of 12 years in which we played this game of to and fro, back and forth with him.

Let me deal with one other point. The argument about regime change has not changed. I have always said that the purpose of any action has got to he the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. That is the purpose, but the nature of the regime is relevant in two ways. This is not a regime that has weapons of mass destruction but is otherwise benign; it is—as I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees—a deeply murderous, barbaric regime that subjects its people to terrible humiliation, and which, every time it has been able to do so, has conducted external aggression.[Interruption.] Well, some of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues may disagree, but I think that objective people will agree with that proposition. Those people who say that the regime is not relevant ignore the fact that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam are a greater threat precisely because of the nature of the regime, and because of the fact that he has used them.

The second point is that there is a reason why I responded to a moral case, namely, that a moral case was being put against action. It was being said that, of course, innocent people will die in conflict, and that is true. Innocent people do die, which is why we have striven so hard over 12 years to avoid going back into conflict with Saddam. However, it is also right, in responding to that moral case, to point out the utter misery and deprivation of the people in Iraq, and to state what is a fact: that those who have most to gain from the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein are the Iraqi people themselves.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

As we enter a crucial three weeks that will decide whether there is peace or war, my right hon. Friend has made a very powerful case. It is clear that Saddam Hussein responds only to pressure, and that his aim is to divide the Security Council and to buy time. My right hon. Friend and the Cabinet have tabled a motion for tomorrow, so he clearly agrees with its observation that Iraq has a

final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations. Does he equally accept that, as the likely amendment to it states, the case for military action is as yet unproven, until Dr. Blix reports to the Security Council this Friday and during the following week on whether Saddam Hussein has complied with his disarmament obligations?

The Prime Minister

The truth is, of course, that it is clear that Saddam is in breach of resolution 1441, because he was supposed to co-operate fully and is not doing so. However, because we want—consistent with the attitude that we have taken throughout—to give every single possible chance for him to co-operate fully, we are prepared, even at this stage, to delay in order to give him that chance. What my right hon. Friend implies is absolutely right: Saddam is not co-operating fully, and there is no great mystery in what is being asked of him. Anyone would think that the problem with Saddam is a failure to communicate with him adequately—that, somehow, he is not quite sure what this disarmament process means. He is probably more familiar with the ins and outs of UN inspectors and with the demands of UN resolutions than any one of us. However, the fact is that at the moment he believes that he can trick us back into the game that he played in the 1990s. That is why I honestly say that if there is any chance of getting him to change his mind and his heart, it will happen only if we send the strongest possible signal at this stage.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Will the Prime Minister accept—[Interruption.] This may not help him, but will he accept from a long-standing critic and opponent that his policy is absolutely in the interests of this country and the wider world? Will he explain to the leader of the Liberal Democrats that British and American forces have been familiar with a shared chain of command since D-day in 1944 and before? Will the Prime Minister stress that any lifting of the threat of invasion of Iraq would set Saddam Hussein off once again on the search for nuclear weaponry, with probable success? On the implications for European policy making, does the Prime Minister consider that if an EU diplomatic service—as will be proposed by the Convention on the Future of Europe—were now in existence, it would be lobbying for his resolution or against it?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and for showing us what we are all missing—[Interruption.] Including me. I agree with the points that he makes, but I wish to make one thing clear about the European convention. There is no way that the foreign or defence policy of this country will be conducted by an EU diplomatic service. It will carry on being conducted by the Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

My right hon. Friend's statement did not refer to what must be the main argument for a potential war—the nature of the threat that Saddam Hussein's regime poses to this country and others, especially through weapons of mass destruction and whether they might fall into the hands of terrorists. I would also like some analysis of the level of that threat and what happens to those threats in the event of a war that is not supported by the international community, especially given the backdrop of the current bloody conflict in Palestine. Would we end up, post-war, in a world more threatened by terrorism, not less?

The Prime Minister

On the nature of the threat, it is the UN resolution that described Saddam Hussein's programme of weapons of mass destruction as a threat, so that was established by the international community. I have not gone into the arguments about the link with international terrorism again, but I believe that link to be real. It is important that we understand that if we allow rogue or unstable states to develop or proliferate weapons of mass destruction, the links with international terrorists who are trying to acquire those weapons will be all too clear. I agree with my hon. Friend that if this is done with a unified UN and against the background of progress in the middle east, it will become easier to unite the international community. That is why I am trying to ensure that both things are done.

We should know enough about terrorists to realise—although I understand why people worry when we take a strong profile on the issue that we may make our country a target in some way—that they will strike at us wherever and whenever they can. A trial took place in the last few days in Germany of international terrorist groups. A big cache of arms was found near Charles de Gaulle airport in France a short time ago. All over the world such groups are being arrested. Who would have said that Indonesia was a great supporter of America, or the war against terrorism? Who would have said that Bali had made itself into a threat? The terrorists will not leave us alone if we are pleasant to them, but will come after us whenever they can. That is why the best signal to send them is a signal of strength.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

What does the Prime Minister say to the statement by Hans Blix the day before yesterday that after eight years of inspections and four years of no inspections, to call it a day after 11 weeks of inspections seems a bit short?

The Prime Minister

I would say to him what I have said to him and others throughout—the time is relevant only if the will is there to co-operate. If it is not, nobody seriously suggests—and in my conversations with Dr. Blix, he has not suggested—that if Saddam is not co-operating, the inspectors can go in and search out the weapons. The best proof of that is what happened in the 1990s when there was a complete denial of the existence of an offensive biological weapons programme. For four years the inspectors were in there searching for it and they did not find it, because it is very difficult to find it if there is no co-operation from the authorities. Then Saddam's son-in-law defected to Jordan and said that there was an offensive biological weapons programme. The Iraqis then admitted as much, and at that point the programme was at least partially shut down. The son-in-law was then lured back to Iraq and murdered.

I think that all the evidence of the past 12 years shows that disarmament cannot be accomplished without the full co-operation of the Iraqis. That is why I say that time is not the issue. The issue is that Saddam must decide to change the nature of his regime from one that relies on weapons of mass destruction to one that does not. All the evidence that we have, and all the intelligence evidence, shows that he has no intention of doing so.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the strong emphasis that he continues to place on the utterly essential nature of a peace process in the middle east between the Israelis and the Palestinians? In light of the daily almost casual slaughter of Palestinians by Israelis, and of the threat to the Israelis from terrorism, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, regardless of the outcome of this crucial confrontation with Iraq, he will continue to ensure that this Government will yield to no one in their assurance that there will be a middle east peace process that will give dignity and safety to the Palestinians, and security to the people of Israel?

The Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely. That is precisely what we will do.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Does the Prime Minister agree that, where major issues of security are concerned, the clear responsibility of the elected Government is to lead, and not to follow, and that this is the moment for clear-sighted and brave leadership?

The Prime Minister

I do.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I recognise the huge efforts that the Government have made to work through the UN, and to encourage and persuade the Americans to do the same. I also recognise that without the threat of action the inspectors would not be back in Iraq. However, will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the timing of the renewed push against Saddam Hussein arises from evidence and knowledge of his activities, and not from a political agenda on the part of President Bush?

The Prime Minister

I can assure my right hon. Friend on those points, which are precisely the ones that concern people. That is why we decided to take the issue back through the UN last year. In his speech to the UN—which was, I think, very well received—President Bush corrected a lot of the problems that had existed between the US and the UN. At the time, I had conversations with President Bush in which I said—and he accepted entirely—that, if the UN ended up being able to disarm Saddam voluntarily, that would be an end to the matter, detestable though the regime is. That is why we took such care to ensure that the resolution made it clear that it offered Saddam the truly final opportunity to disarm. The difficulty is that he has not taken that final opportunity. I think that that is because he believes that it is still possible, somehow, to divide the international community and play us all off against each other, and thereby to manage to retain his capability. However, I assure my right hon. Friend that when we went back through the UN, we did so in the full knowledge that if Saddam Hussein complied, that had to be an end to the matter. That is precisely why I still hope and believe that the UN can be the instrument for resolving it.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

The Prime Minister has made a very convincing argument, with which I wholly agree. I agree especially about the need to threaten war in order to try prevent it and to make Saddam comply. However, although we all hope that there will not be a war, it is becoming ever more likely. Is it not perhaps time for the Prime Minister to share with the House the overall aims of the war? He says that the objective is disarmament, but does he expect that to be achieved by allied forces occupying Iraq and seeking out weapons of mass destruction, or simply by defeating the present regime and installing one that will comply with 1441?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely fair point. The objective is the ridding of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, and while Saddam's regime stands in the way of that it is an obstacle that has to be removed if it is not prepared to disarm voluntarily. Whatever successor regime comes in must of course comply with the UN instruction, because it is an instruction to Iraq, and whoever the Government of Iraq are, the WMD programme has to be dismantled. I am sure that that can be achieved—if Saddam maintains his present position—by a different regime. What is more, in those circumstances the sanctions can be lifted and the country can revive, grow and prosper. It is potentially a very wealthy country.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

My right hon. Friend has the whole House with him on the fact that Saddam's regime is an odious one. However, what he has not demonstrated, not only to many hon. Members but to the country as a whole, is the fact that the threat posed by Saddam to us and to his neighbours is sufficiently serious to warrant the act of war—a war that will have many human casualties. Does my right hon. Friend believe that between now and any potential military conflict that evidence base will be put into the public domain in this country?

The Prime Minister

The threat from Saddam is serious, and the fact that the UN has tried so hard over such a long period shows that the international community accepts that it is serious. When the UN came together last November, the whole basis of resolution 1441 was that he did indeed constitute a threat, as he still does. Moreover, there is a whole set of related dangers to do with unstable states developing or proliferating such material and with potential links with terrorism. That is why, in the end, the world has to take a very strong view of the matter and deal with it.

I agree, of course, that the dangers of military conflict are clear. That is why it should only ever be a last resort. That is why, as I stand here today, we are not at war—there is not a military conflict in place at the moment. What is important is to ensure that the will of the United Nations is upheld. Otherwise, what we will have said as an international community is that yes, the threat is serious, but we lack the will to do something about it. I assure my hon. Friend that if there is any military conflict we will do everything that we possibly can, as we have in previous conflicts in which this Government have been engaged, to minimise any potential civilian casualties.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I note the Prime Minister's reference to his part welcome, at least, for the German, French and Russian memorandum, and I welcome his reference to continued efforts to disarm Iraq via the UN. I nevertheless contrast that with the publicly known behaviour of America towards Germany and the current bribing and cajoling of other Security Council members in order to secure a UN mandate. How can that be part of the right hon. Gentleman's moral case for war? Does he realise that such behaviour will not only undermine the UN, but may well be the beginning of the end for the UN?

The Prime Minister

Despite what is put across in various conspiracy theories, I have had many conversations with UN Security Council members—those who are in the permanent five and those who are not—and each of those conversations has related simply to the justice or otherwise of the case against Saddam. The idea that this is about bargaining, commercial contracts or any of the rest of it is nonsense. It is a genuine desire to make sure that Saddam ceases to be a threat to the world.

As for the UN, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that the UN's authority is upheld, but I still cannot understand the answer to this point: we gave Saddam a final opportunity with which he was supposed to co-operate fully; nobody accepts that he is cooperating fully, so why has he not taken his final opportunity?

Someone asked earlier, "Is not war now inevitable?" Of course it is not. However, part of the reason for such a question is that nobody, even those who oppose military action, seriously believes that Saddam wants to co-operate fully. People sense that matters may come to conflict because they know that he has no intention of changing his heart or mind. However, that is his choice, not ours. Our choice, preference and desire are to resolve matters peacefully through the United Nations.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

Can my right hon. Friend see any special circumstances in which the Americans might attack Iraq without this country's support?

The Prime Minister

We have worked closely throughout with the United States and we shall continue to do that. There is no point in my speculating about various matters that may not happen. However, the international community made a request to President Bush last year to go through the United Nations. He agreed and did that. If Saddam fails to comply with the UN demand, it is important to take action, not only for the sake of all our other objectives but to show that the UN means what it says.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

During the past few weeks, the Prime Minister has held many meetings and conversations with President Bush. Has he raised with him the status and future of the eight UK citizens who are now held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba? What steps is the right hon. Gentleman personally taking to ensure that those people are either charged or released, and that they otherwise have their status defined and receive the full protection of the law?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That does not relate to the statement.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

May I support all my right hon. Friend's comments today? I especially welcome his response to the question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the middle east. Will he assure the House and the country that dealing with Saddam Hussein will not be the end of UN and international community action on weapons of mass destruction? Will we move on to deal with North Korea and the Indian subcontinent and to create a nuclear-free zone in the middle east?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, disarming Iraq must not be the end of the international community's effort and activity to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction that are held by unstable states. Many such issues will be tackled differently, but they need to be dealt with. It is also true, as I believe my hon. Friend implied, that if we fail to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, it will be much harder for us to make our will plain and implement it in respect of any other nation.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I welcome the careful and cautious way in which the Prime Minister is leading his Government in order to avoid war at all costs, and his consequent determination to use every avenue of diplomacy that is open to him. Will he do what he can to shake the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council from their seeming lethargy and helplessness and ask them to play a greater role in jointly and severally persuading Saddam Hussein of the necessity for him and his wicked cronies to go, thereby avoiding visiting terrible suffering on the rest of the middle east?

The Prime Minister

There is a real role for the Arab world and I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. It remains possible to envisage circumstances in which matters can be resolved peacefully in the way he describes. However, the best chance of doing that is through the international community demonstrating a strong and unified will and the Arab world demonstrating an equally strong resolve. We are in close contact with many Arab nations to achieve that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

In the unlikely event that Saddam decides fully to co-operate with the UN weapons inspectors, has my right hon. Friend had time to consider what UN processes would be involved following that co-operation and whether it would simply involve weapons inspectors or whether there would be any attempt to impact on human rights abuses in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

That is a very good point. Yes, of course, we would try to ensure that there was also an impact on the human rights situation. Of course, there are UN resolutions in respect of that situation as well, all of which are being breached. There is a sense, certainly on the part of Saddam, which indicates that he sees the maintenance of the weapons, which he has used against his own people, as essential to the machinery of repression. The truth is that the regime would be a different type of regime without those weapons of mass destruction. That is why it is certainly important that we highlight the human rights aspect of the situation as well.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

The briefings—[Interruption.] Those Members could not silence me when I was on the Labour Benches, and they certainly will not silence me on the other side of the House. The briefings given to the United Nations on 14 February said that there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons programme, that access was freely being given for the 400 inspections without any problems and that the 300 chemical and biological samples taken were completely consistent with the Iraqis' declarations. Therefore, surely the answer is to give the United Nations inspectors many more months to let them do their job and bring about a peaceful change, rather than enter into a war that will kill thousands of men, women and children.

The Prime Minister

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is, of course, a point that people frequently make, but if he looks at the UN inspectors' reports, he will find that both Dr. el-Baradei and Dr. Blix make it clear that full co-operation is not happening yet. The point about testing whatever they manage to find simply comes back to what I think is the central fallacy of those people who simply say "Give the inspectors more time." Unless there is full co-operation, the time will not work because the inspectors could stay in the country for months and years. Simply trying to search out the weapons is a hopeless task to expect them to carry out. That is why, when the UN passed resolution 1441, it said that there had to be not merely passive co-operation, but active co-operation with the inspectors in every way—and there is simply no such co-operation at the moment.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

Every day, particularly in the American press, it seems that a report emerges about how the Americans will administer Iraq, and which particular general will do so, after the war is over. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he has not been party to any such agreements and that he agrees that the consequence of taking the UN route is that Iraq, after the war, will be administered by the United Nations until a democratic state can be set up there?

The Prime Minister

Again, the point that my hon. Friend makes is entirely right and justified. All I can say to him is that no decisions have yet been taken on the nature of how Iraq should be administered in the event of Saddam's regime being displaced by force. I said earlier that I thought that the role of the UN had to be well protected in such a situation. The discussions that we are having on that matter are proceeding well. When we have reached conclusions and decisions, we can announce them so that people can discuss them.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Prime Minister rightly raises the credibility of this Government as being at issue if we do not act after 12 years of bitter experience. If he took Saddam Hussein with him to Belfast next Monday, what reaction does he think Saddam Hussein would have if he did not outline sanctions against republican and loyalist terrorists who have not disarmed over the past five years?

The Prime Minister

I do not really think that it is fair, whatever the difficulties in Northern Ireland, to compare Northern Ireland with Iraq. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the peace process in Northern Ireland over the past few years, unemployment there is 6 per cent. today—it is no longer the region that has the highest unemployment in the UK; inward investment and money are coming in; and many people's lives have been transformed. There is still a long way to go, but I do not think that we can read across between the two situations.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I can absolutely understand my right hon. Friend's wish to stand firm alongside our friends and allies in the United States—who have, after all, sacrificed much in the cause of wider humanity over many years. However, is not the role of a true friend, in present circumstances, to be candid with the President of the United States and tell him that the evidence is not yet compelling, that the work of the inspectors is not yet done, and that the moral case for war—with all its consequences—has not yet been made?

The Prime Minister

I agree—it is indeed our function to be candid with the President of the United States and. indeed, with all our allies. I have to say to my right hon. Friend, however, that I think that the evidence is indeed compelling. That is the reason the United Nations passed resolution 1441 last year. The evidence of the resolution is there for all to see. The evidence that Saddam is not co-operating fully is accepted by everyone. Indeed, the statement yesterday by France and Germany accepted that he was not yet fully co-operating. There was not a single person in the Council of the European Union who said anything other than that the co-operation was less than full. Dr. Blix has said the same.

Surely the position is really this: if we meant what we said in resolution 1441, that it was Saddam's final opportunity to disarm and that he had to comply fully, unconditionally and immediately—and everybody accepts that he is not fully complying, not unconditionally complying and certainly not immediately complying—then surely our statement that Iraq is in material breach is clear. We have delayed action to go through the UN—even again now—in order to give Saddam a final chance. However, that is not going to happen unless he has a real change of heart and mind.

The other point that I would make to my right hon. Friend—I know that he has thought about these issues very deeply—is this: if we were dealing with a regime where this was the first time that this issue had arisen, and if there were no history of dealing with Saddam or weapons of mass destruction, one might think that there was some problem in the way that the inspectors were communicating their wishes to him, or that there was some difficulty in what he understood he had to do. However, this regime has had 12 years of this. It knows perfectly well what the UN is asking it to do. When Saddam's son-in-law defected to Jordan and disclosed the regime's offensive biological weapons programme—a programme that it had utterly denied the existence of, saying that it was all a CIA and British intelligence conspiracy—Iraq suddenly discovered the means to co-operate fully, and did co-operate fully for a time. There is no mystery for Iraq about what it needs to do.

I know that there is a very delicate balance about the time, but the danger is that, if we give a signal of division at the moment, it will allow Saddam to go straight back into the game that he has played before, and will allow him to pull the international community into months of delay. Once the international community's attention has gone, he is back, free to do what he has done again. That is my worry.[Interruption.] Yes, of course, I should be candid with the President of the United States, but my strong view is that we have given Saddam, time and time again, the opportunity to comply. Now is the time when we have to force the issue to a decision, making sure that he does comply or face the consequences.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In providing the national leadership for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir John Stanley) called—and which the Prime Minister is providing with exemplary calmness and courage—will he consider making a broadcast to the nation, explaining to all the doubters that, if we do not stand firm on this issue, the United Nations will go the way of the League of Nations?

The Prime Minister

Whatever way we may communicate will be a decision for a later time. I will bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman says. The point that he makes is obviously right.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

My right hon. Friend has constantly used the expression "full co-operation". However, does he understand that many people in this House want to see a sufficient degree of co-operation by Saddam Hussein to achieve a peaceable decommissioning of the weapons of mass destruction of that barbaric regime? Does he accept that the people who are in the best position to say whether that degree of co-operation is being achieved are the weapons inspectors themselves?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that the weapons inspectors have made it clear that, at present, there is not that full co-operation. My hon. Friend says "sufficient co-operation", and it is important to go back to the words of resolution 1441. Presumably, when we passed it, as an international community, we were aware of what we were saying, and we said that the co-operation had to be full, unconditional and immediate. The reason for that is that we had 12 years of trying to have a sufficient degree of co-operation, but it has never actually been sufficient to disarm Saddam, so that is the problem that we face.

I agree that the very reason why we went through the UN route is precisely so that the inspectors could go into Iraq and witness the facts of what is happening, but the reason why Dr. Blix has sent a whole series of further questions and demands to the Iraqis is that they know that they are not co-operating. The best test of that is twofold. First, the leftovers were unaccounted for in 1998—all that is properly documented—and we need to know what has happened to them; we have not the faintest idea because Saddam has denied the existence of the stuff.

The second issue relates to the witnesses and the way to deal with such programmes. For example, when South Africa was disarmed, nine inspectors went in and they interviewed the scientists—the people concerned in the programme—and they were told all about it. There have been, as I understand it, only about half a dozen interviews so far. Not one of those interviews has been without either a minder or an insistence that it is tape-recorded. The fact is that I cannot seriously believe in those circumstances that they are free and fair interviews. So those are the tests. If Saddam is prepared to come forward and say that they will deal with all those issues, it would put the thing in a different framework.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I asked earlier—as a number of hon. Members have done—about contingency plans for government if military action takes place in the event of Saddam Hussein being deposed. Will the Prime Minister now clear up some of that confusion? First, will he say whether contingency plans for future government are being discussed and formulated right now between members of the UN and the US and UK Governments? I understand that Kofi Annan has described those arrangements to members not just of the Security Council, but of the General Assembly, so will the Prime Minister share with the House and for the benefit of the British people what such contingency plans may well entail, so that they can secure in their minds whether there are not just short-term plans, but long-term plans as well?

The Prime Minister

Such contingency plans are being discussed. The reason why I have not given the details of those discussions is that they are not yet concluded. There is no point in us speculating about them before their conclusion, but, yes, they are being discussed among members of the UN, with the key allies. I would like to make it clear that whatever disagreements there are—for example, among European countries at the moment—it is still important, when all this is done, that we try to reach the broadest common agreement in the UN as to what the nature of any future regime in Iraq may be if it comes to conflict and, in particular, how we make sure that there is the proper humanitarian provision for people in Iraq.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We now come to the ten-minute Bill.

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