HC Deb 08 July 2003 vol 408 cc892-4
8. Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

When he last met representatives of the US Administration to discuss Iraq. [123873]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

On 27 June, I met National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in London, and on 2 July I met ambassador Paul Bremer, who heads up the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad. On Sunday, I discussed Iraq with Secretary Powell on the telephone. The House will wish to know that the first meeting of the new Baghdad city council took place yesterday. The 37 members of that council were chosen from among the members of the 88 neighbourhood advisory councils of Baghdad. With the launch last week of the Basra city council, every major Iraqi city now has its own local government.

Mrs. Gillan

It is a shame that the Foreign Secretary did not have a chance to meet Senator Richard Lugar, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, and who, after visiting Iraq last week, said: This idea that we will be in"— Iraq— for just as long as we need to and not a day more … is rubbish … We must reorganise our military to be there a long time. Is not that latest American assessment rather closer to the truth than what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary say on the subject; and do we not face a similar situation to that in Bosnia, where British troops are still deployed after 11 long years?

Mr. Straw

Frankly, I do not see a huge distinction between the comments of Senator Richard Lugar, whom I know and greatly respect, and what the Prime Minister and I have said. We all recognise that we have a long-term commitment to security in Iraq, but we also have to recognise the importance of reducing our presence, then leaving Iraq altogether as soon as the security situation allows and the Iraqi people wish it.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that for many of us the decision to go into Iraq was a question of a choice between the failed policy of containment and the historic opportunity to liberate the Iraqi people from fascist tyranny; and that we in this country who made that choice will know over the next decades that it was right? Does he agree that just as the countries of central and eastern Europe that are now coming into the European Union were liberated by various means, and Germany and Poland were liberated from Nazi tyranny many years ago, we can be proud today that in the long historic sweep ahead of us we will have made a contribution to democracy and freedom for Muslims and Arabs in Iraq and throughout the region?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I do accept that. The key question for everybody, not least those who, for reasons that I understand, opposed the war, is to ask what condition that region and international peace and security would now be in if, in the face of that defiance of the will of the United Nations, we and the US had walked away. I shall tell hon. Members what the position would be. Saddam Hussein would have been re-empowered and re-emboldened. He would have increased the terror in his country and acted with even greater thoroughness to increase his chemical and biological capabilities and develop his nuclear capabilities. He would have continued to disrupt any chance of an effective peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and increased the threat that he posed to international peace and security. That is the truth and I look forward to newspapers debating that rather than their extraordinary obsession with 45 minutes.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

At the St. Petersburg summit, the Prime Minister made much of his exclusive interview with Sky's Adam Boulton to announce, doubtless ever so sincerely, that evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be assembled and given to people.

He said,

just wait and have a little patience". Now that the Foreign Secretary has been promoted and is, since yesterday, Alastair Campbell's official spokesman, will he tell us what evidence has been accumulated, how much longer we must wait and how much more patience we shall need?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why did you vote for the war then?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asks a pertinent question. [Interruption.] I shall answer the question of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), but, after languishing for 18 years in opposition, I shall also offer the Opposition gratis advice: it would be unwise for them and their reputation if they started to rewrite history, as they are trying to do.

The Iraq survey group has been established and is carrying out its work. Neither my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister nor I can say how long it will take. It will take as long as it takes. However, if the hon. Gentleman has any doubts about whether he made the correct decision on 18 March, I commend to him all 173 pages of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission's last report on unanswered disarmament questions. It sets out in horrifying detail Iraq's failure to answer questions about the whereabouts and capabilities of chemical and biological weapons. That was the truth, and the document, from an entirely independent source, was one of the main considerations in the minds of hon. Members when they carried the vote with a large majority on 18 March.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Although the Foreign Secretary is correct in saying that we need more time to look for weapons of mass destruction, the Government could usefully make some interim statements. For example, how long does it take to find whether a nuclear programme and undiscovered nuclear reactors exist? How long does it take to find a chemical factory? The Government could usefully make some initial decisions and determinations now so that we were at least in a better position to know what weapons of mass destruction Iraq did not have even if we do not know what weapons it had.

Mr. Straw

First, parts of the September document that we published have already been proved true. They include the parts that relate to the shorter-range missile systems and the import of far larger quantities of missile engines than Iraq ever conceded. Indeed, it failed to admit to them when it was forced to make its second set of disclosures on 9 December. I can recall no claim that Iraq had built a nuclear reactor, so my hon. Friend should not invent claims to knock them down.

It is in our interests as much as those of anyone else to continue the search. However, given the reign of terror, the destruction and looting that unfortunately took place during and immediately after the war, and our knowledge of Iraq's continued efforts at concealment, which the dossier pointed out, the task will be difficult and painstaking. I remind those who would make glib assumptions that, 30 years on, we still do not know the whereabouts of IRA arms dumps, despite the fact that we know the country far better and that our intelligence penetrated it far more successfully than we have ever been able to penetrate Iraq.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I agree with what the Foreign Secretary has just said. Does he accept that many who voted as they did on 18 March, and have no regrets, believe that we should not spend more than another 45 minutes on the nauseating nitpicking that has been going on recently?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am in no doubt about that, I know that he is in no doubt about it, and I see from the nods all around him that a large number of Conservative Back Benchers, at least, take the same view. I hope that their advice is passed to the Front Bench, because the Conservative party, which has an honourable history, will simply be a part of history if it tries to rewrite it.

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