HC Deb 21 March 2003 vol 401 cc1209-20

11 am

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

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

British forces have been heavily engaged in maritime, land and air operations overnight. Those operations are continuing, and I know the House will understand why I cannot give all the details at this stage.

I regret that I have to confirm that a United States CH-46 helicopter carrying British and United States personnel crashed in Kuwait, close to the border with Iraq. There were a number of fatalities. A recovery team is at the site of the crash. Our urgent priority is to confirm the identities of those who died and notify the next of kin at the earliest opportunity. The cause of the incident is being investigated, but I can assure the House that it was not the result of enemy action. I recognise that this will be of little comfort to the families of those killed. I hope that the House will understand why we will not issue further details until next of kin have been informed.

That helicopter was engaged in an operation led by 3 Commando Brigade on the al-Faw peninsula in southeastern Iraq. It began with an assault on the southern tip of the peninsula, using support helicopters from Kuwait and from the Amphibious Task Group in the north Arabian Gulf. The tip of the peninsula was secured as planned by 40 Commando Royal Marines, and without damage to the oil infrastructure, averting any attempt by the regime to cause an environmental disaster in the Gulf. Some resistance, including the use of mortars and artillery, has been encountered, and there was a small-scale engagement with individual Iraqi troops resulting in four known Iraqi fatalities.

Importantly, most of the oil infrastructure on the peninsula has been secured intact. I can, however, confirm reports that the Iraqi regime has set fire to a number of oil wells. Our latest information is that up to 30 oil wells are alight, among hundreds in southern Iraq. A primary aim of our current operations is to prevent further opportunities for such deliberate destruction, and to enable remedial action to be taken as soon as is practical. The security of Iraq's oil infrastructure will, of course, be a key factor in enabling the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.

At 0430 hours this morning, coalition ground forces including elements under the command of 3 Commando Brigade commenced an operation to seize the port of Umm Qasr and a nearby naval base. In addition, this morning, 42 Commando were deployed by British aircraft to a blocking position north of al-Faw. Throughout that operation, Royal Navy ships including ELMS Chatham and Marlborough provided naval gunfire support to 3 Commando Brigade. Umm Qasr, which is roughly equivalent in size to Southampton, will be vital to the economic future of southern Iraq. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels are on stand-by to conduct mine clearance operations to provide a secure shipping route into the port and allow an inflow of humanitarian supplies. Although action is continuing, we expect Umm Qasr to be fully under coalition control shortly.

In addition to the al-Faw operation, coalition land operations across the Kuwait-Iraq border are well under way. Preparatory action began yesterday afternoon using fixed-wing and rotary air forces and artillery. At 1715 hours yesterday, the 5th US Regimental Combat Team launched operations to secure the South Rumaila oilfield and gas and oil platforms in southern Iraq.

At 0300 hours this morning, the main land offensive began with coalition forces advancing across the Kuwait-Iraq border. Two battle groups of 7th Armoured Brigade are providing flank protection as part of that assault. We understand that stiff resistance has been encountered, and that 7th Armoured Brigade has engaged in contact with Iraqi forces.

Turning to air operations, at 1800 hours yesterday, 50 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles were launched at regime targets in Baghdad closely associated with Saddam Hussein. A number of missiles were launched from Royal Navy submarines, and we believe that all hit their regime targets. A large number of RAF aircraft, including combat and support aircraft, have been active during the past 24 hours, including Tornado GR4s using Enhanced Paveway 2 precision munitions.

I am now able to give further details on yesterday's attacks by Iraqi forces. Between 0720 and 1510 hours yesterday, Iraq launched at least five missiles of various types into Kuwait in the vicinity of coalition forces. Three landed and two were intercepted by Patriot missiles. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Troops did, however, put on their nuclear, biological and chemical equipment as a precautionary measure.

It is less than 24 hours since these operations were launched. They are making steady progress. Our objectives remain as set out in the document placed in the Library of the House yesterday: to remove the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people and will continue to take every precaution to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. As the helicopter crash has demonstrated, however, our own people are always at risk in a military operation. I pay tribute to the courage of those who tragically lost their lives last night. Our thoughts are with their families, and we hope for the safe return of all their colleagues.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement, for keeping the House so fully informed and for giving me sight of his statement in advance.

The news of casualties this morning is the news that we all feared most, but it is inevitable in any such conflict. Of course, there will be an inquiry following such an accident, but I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could reiterate the assurance that he has already given me privately that there are no concerns about the airworthiness of the American CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. The whole House, of course, joins him in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families who have lost loved ones.

This must, however, do nothing but strengthen our resolve to disarm Saddam Hussein and liberate the people of Iraq. As we hear this morning of the regime in Baghdad ordering the armed forces of Iraq on suicide missions under pain of torture for their families, can there be any doubt that those men died for a noble cause?

I have a few questions of which I have given the Secretary of State prior notice. First, a large number of oil wells have now been fired by the regime in southern Iraq. Is there any doubt that those are the desperate acts of a desperate regime? Does not that underline the need to capture the oil wells as quickly as possible, to preserve the ecology of Iraq and to enable the economic infrastructure to remain in place to enable the reconstruction of Iraq as soon as hostilities have ended?

Secondly, we hear continued speculation about yesterday's early raids on the regime, and this morning the Iraqi Information Minister has protested, "Saddam is safe". I wonder whether the Secretary of State is in a position to enlarge on the speculation that is taking place.

Thirdly, yesterday, I asked briefly about relations with Turkey, and the decision of the Turkish Parliament to enable the mobilisation of Turkish forces. It was welcome news that some Kurdish forces have been placed under coalition command. Will the Secretary of State say whether it is the objective to place Turkish forces, too, under coalition command, to enable stability to ensue?

Finally, I congratulate the Government on the steady progress that they are making with this action. We join the Secretary of State in wishing our forces well.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations and his support. Obviously, there will be a thorough investigation into the causes of this tragic crash, and I will report to the House in due course as to what we are able to establish. I have no doubts at present about the airworthiness of this particular aircraft.

As I made clear, the firing of oil wells is something that we anticipated and feared, and something that has driven the strategic objectives of the early phase of the military action. Clearly, those are the desperate attempts of the regime to destroy the wealth of Iraq, which should be benefiting Iraq's people. Clearly, our continuing operations in the south are designed to ensure that that wealth is preserved for the benefit of people in that country.

As regards the continuing speculation about Saddam Hussein, the only clear evidence of his continuing to be alive is in the form of a television broadcast. There seems to be a great deal of controversy as to whether it was Saddam Hussein in that broadcast, and analysis continues as to whether it was him or one of the many body doubles that we know that he has used in the past.

We are still having detailed discussions with Turkey, which are positive and encouraging. We believe that it will make an effective contribution to our campaign in northern Iraq.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for returning to the House so soon after his statement yesterday; it is entirely right that he should do so.

The report that members of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, with US colleagues, have been killed in action is indeed news that chills us all. Does the Secretary of State agree that despite the best training and all the precautions, in war, accidents do happen? It was the House of Commons that authorised the action, and the families of those who have died, their comrades in arms, their commanders and the Secretary of State should know that our thoughts are with them today.

On the wider news overnight, I especially welcome the news that coalition forces are securing the oilfields to prevent Saddam's forces from setting them alight. We all hope that that will help to avert an environmental catastrophe of the sort we saw in Kuwait 10 years ago.

On Turkey, will the Secretary of State clarify the overflight rights? It was suggested this morning that the arrangements might have changed. Still on the subject of Turkey, will he reiterate the Government's commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq's borders?

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the missiles fired yesterday by Iraq at Kuwait were Scud or alSamoud missiles? I am sure that we would like to know.

I, too, pay tribute to the courage of our armed forces in the Gulf. Our thoughts are with them and their families at home.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I emphasise that of the hundreds of oil wells in southern Iraq, a relatively small number—about 30--have been set on fire to date. That emphasises the importance to us of securing that part of Iraq for the long-term benefit of the people of that country.

We are continuing to discuss with Turkey the nature of overflight rights. The Turkish authorities are being positive and helpful, which we welcome.

As set out in our military objectives, contained in a statement that I placed in the Library yesterday, we are absolutely committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. We want Iraq to be quickly restored to its rightful place in the international community.

As for missile types, a number of different missiles were used. Analysis to determine their exact nature is continuing, not least because two were comprehensively destroyed by Patriot missiles.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in so far as it is compatible with the attainment of military objectives, it is our policy to maintain as intact as possible the public utilities infrastructure in Iraq to avoid causing unnecessary hardship to the Iraqi population and so that, when hostilities are concluded, it will be easier to rebuild the lives of the people of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making an excellent point, one that I sought to emphasise yesterday. I recognise that when they hear the number of munitions involved in bombing campaigns, many right hon. and hon. Members immediately think of the type of bombing campaign conducted in the second world war, in which utilities were targeted. This will be a very different type of campaign, aimed at regime targets in and around Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Certainly, in our preparation of the campaign, we have had clear regard to the need to rebuild Iraq thereafter. I give my right hon. Friend the assurance that, wherever possible, we will avoid striking any target that is of long-term benefit to the people of Iraq.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I associate myself with the expressions of deep condolence to the families of the Royal Marines who have lost their lives in what seems to have been a tragic helicopter accident, as well as the families of the United States aircrew who also lost their lives.

Can the Secretary of State tell us what Spanish forces are being deployed to the theatre? The press is suggesting that naval units and medical units are to be deployed to the Gulf and an air defence squadron to Turkey. Will he say what forces the Australians are committing? The press say that Australian forces are in action alongside those of the United States and the United Kingdom. Is it not the case that when the bullets begin to fly, we know who our true friends are?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the fact that the helicopter involved had both US and UK personnel on board, demonstrating the joint nature of the operations and how closely together our marine forces operate.

On Spain and its forces, discussions are under way and decisions are anticipated in Spain, but I do not think it is appropriate to comment further at this stage. However, I can confirm that Australian forces are engaged in military operations.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South)

It is being widely reported that, in yesterday's indiscriminate attacks on the population of Kuwait, Saddam's military used two Scud missiles. Given the UN resolution that clearly prohibits the use of Scud missiles, and given the fact that as recently as December the Iraqi regime was telling Hans Blix's people that it had no operational Scuds, can the Secretary of State confirm or deny whether Scuds were used and what the significance would be of finding that Scuds are still being used operationally by the Iraqi regime?

Mr. Hoon

As I indicated earlier, analysis to determine the exact nature of the missiles used by Iraqi forces against Kuwait is under way. Inevitably, there is little left of two of them, which is not assisting, but that work will continue to establish the point that I anticipate will be made and that my hon. Friend has made today. I have no doubt that, as events unfold, we will see just how dishonest the Iraqi regime has been with the international community.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

May I return to the small but important symbolic point I raised with the Secretary of State yesterday? There were reports this morning that the stars and stripes were flying over Umm Qasr to indicate that it had been successfully captured, which I think sends out an unfortunate signal about the nature of the operation. It would be singularly unfortunate if the stars and stripes were, for example, planted over the parliament building in Baghdad at some future stage of operations. In the full understanding of their attachment to their flag, I wonder whether the Secretary of State can find time to make representations to our American colleagues about the importance of symbols and the nature of the operation.

Mr. Hoon

I agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he made the same point yesterday, although we have to understand the way in which, at the end of a vigorous confrontation, any soldiers are likely to feel the need to demonstrate their success. I suspect that that is what happened overnight. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I will ensure that it is passed on.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

The Secretary of State will know that 3 Commando Brigade is based at Stonehouse barracks in my constituency. I join him in paying tribute to the professionalism and sheer dedication of the men and in sending condolences to the families of those who have been lost. Will he urge that the families get information as quickly as possible? Many families in Devon and Cornwall are anxious.

May I share my concern about reports this morning from Plymouth suggesting that the some of the national press are doorstepping the families—[HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] That might be rumour, but will my right hon. Friend urge journalists to treat people in a respectful and appropriate manner?

Mr. Hoon

I have had the privilege of visiting my hon. Friend's constituency and meeting her constituents, many of whom serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. They will all be deeply affected by the tragedy that has occurred. I can only endorse her observations about the need for the press to behave responsibly in these very difficult times.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I join the House in expressing sympathy for both the American casualties and the British casualties from 3 Commando Brigade. I know the brigade well and am sure that this setback will serve to stiffen their resolve rather than to weaken it.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are enough reserves in place to take the place both of casualties and of exhausted units, and that training has started of forces to follow on once the fighting has finished to carry out reconstruction work and form the garrisons that will inevitably be required?

Mr. Hoon

I can give that confirmation. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, training has not been affected by the current deployments to Iraq or by our commitment to provide emergency fire cover should that prove necessary. Clearly, however, those factors have to be reviewed regularly, and I assure him that I shall report to the House if there are any such difficulties—but I emphasise that there are not at present.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May I associate myself fully with the sympathy that has been expressed to the families of the troops who died in the helicopter disaster? That has a particularly meaning for me, because I visited al-Faw when I was in the forces in Iraq as a young man.

Why has the Secretary of State made no mention of the B-52 bombers that, according to reports, have now left Fairford? Is he aware that B-52s were used extensively to attack Basra during the Gulf war, flattening whole hosts of working-class areas in the town and killing many people. How will we be assured that this will not happen on this occasion?

Mr. Hoon

Coalition operations are clearly continuing. I made that clear in my statement, and I do not think that any Member of the House would expect me to anticipate the nature of those operations save to say that whatever targets are addressed will be targets associated with Saddam Hussein's regime. I made that clear yesterday to the House, and I repeat it again today. We will not engage in indiscriminate so-called carpet bombing. Each of the targets will be individually addressed and attacked.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

The commencement of military operations has provoked a number of demonstrations in this country. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to tell us whether the Home Secretary intends to issue to guidance to chief constables and the Commissioner of Police about the policing of our streets if, as seems likely, more protests take place? Does the Secretary of State not agree that we preserve the right to peaceful protest in this country—something that the people of Iraq do not enjoy—and that it does not seem appropriate that the police, who do more than anyone else to ensure that people can protest peacefully, should be rewarded with the kind of assaults and attacks that we saw here in London yesterday, or that the people of this country should suffer the dislocation of their normal life that occurred?

Mr. Hoon

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the very effective policing that we saw yesterday. I thought the police maintained an excellent balance between the need to allow people to protest lawfully and legitimately and allowing right hon. and hon. Members access to the House, and the ordinary people of London and other cities to go about their lives in their normal way.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I would like to add my comments to the sympathies that have already been expressed in the House to the families of those brave young men whose lives have been so tragically and, in my view, somewhat needlessly, lost.

Kuwaiti officials have categorically averred that no Scud missiles were launched in the attack yesterday, but that they were, in fact, the al-Samoud missiles that were in the process of being destroyed before weapons inspectors were somewhat peremptorily withdrawn from Iraq. When will we be able to know who is giving us the proper detailed information as to what precisely those missiles were?

Mr. Hoon

May I strongly resist the suggestion made by my hon. Friend that those lives were needlessly lost? Those young men were engaged on important operations in carrying through the military objectives of the United Kingdom and its coalition allies. I pay tribute to the contribution that they made and that their colleagues are continuing to make. I assure my hon. Friend that, if she were to speak to their families and to those men's colleagues, she would find that they are proud of what those men achieved. They would strongly resist her observation.

I have said all I can at this stage about the nature of those missiles. I do not intend to repeat it again.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

The Secretary of State will be well aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I have about 450 constituents from the Yeovilton air base serving as part of the helicopter forces in and around Iraq. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them on the important and often very difficult work that they are doing? In the light of the optimistic comments that Admiral Kelly has made this morning, can the Secretary of State give us, at what is admittedly an early stage, his overall assessment of the progress of the operation to date?

Mr. Hoon

I have had the opportunity of visiting Yeovilton on more than one occasion, and I pay tribute to the excellent work that is conducted and to the forces who have been deployed from there to the Gulf. I do not think it is appropriate at this stage to make an overall assessment other than to say that things are going very well and that we are continuing operations that are consistent with our overall military objectives. Clearly, in the light of what has occurred, we should be cautious and recognise the risks that our armed forces are undergoing and continue to support them in the determined work that they are carrying out.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May I add my sympathies to the many expressions of sympathy that have been made today?

I spoke late last night to friends of mine in northern Iraq. They welcome the military intervention and there is already celebration of that in northern Iraq. At the same time, however, they are deeply concerned about the possibility that the Turks, will once again cross their borders, make for Kirkuk and not go away. That is a strong feeling, so I would be grateful if my right hon.. Friend could give the people in that area assurances as soon as possible that the Turks will not be able to stay in northern Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has done more than most over the years to highlight the appalling threat to the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and, indeed, elsewhere. It is important to recognise that there are a variety of risks. I have talked of the risks faced by individual servicemen and servicewomen, and we have seen some of the consequences of that. There are also strategic risks. However, I emphasise to the House—I know that everyone will support this—that these risks are worth taking to achieve a better strategic situation and a safer and more secure place in the world for the people of Iraq and for the wider international community.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Everyone will, of course, accept precisely what the Secretary of State has said about keeping the identity and the units of the people tragically killed in the helicopter crash secret until such time as their next of kin have been informed. However, will he go further than that and accept that even the identity of the nature of the service—Navy, Army, Air Force or Marines—being put out on the airwaves causes families unnecessary anxiety? Could he not take steps to make sure that no hint as to those men's identity is given until such time as their next of kin have been informed?

Mr. Hoon

Clearly, there is always a balance to be struck. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In the context of the House of Commons, it is a very sensible point, but unfortunately, given the nature of the modern media, it is extremely difficult to control the kind of speculation that takes place. However, he is right to the extent that many families of many service personnel from right across the country will be worried about the events that have taken place. It is my responsibility to ensure that those who are directly affected hear the news first from the Ministry of Defence rather than from elsewhere.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

Now that the officer class on the two main Front Benches has been joined by the sad sacks of the Liberal Democrats who have deserted at the first time whiff of grapeshot, there is an iron-clad consensus in the House in support of this war. But that is not, of course, the case in the country. Flow does the Secretary of State explain to our armed forces the fact that, for the first time in history, the actions—not the soldiers—that he has ordered them to take are not supported by the majority of the British people, as is shown by the demonstrations all over the country yesterday and will be shown again by the demonstrations in London, Glasgow and elsewhere tomorrow?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend raised precisely the same point with me yesterday, and I defended his right to protest as I defend the right of anyone to protest against the decisions taken by the Government. That is essential to the values that underpin why we are all here. As I said to him yesterday, his protests—sincerely held though they are—would have been much stronger if, on the opportunities that he has had to go to Baghdad, he had protested publicly about the need to allow the opposition to speak in Iraq rather than to have their tongues cut out when they protest.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

The establishment of the southern beachhead is very welcome, not least because of the avoidance of the mass environmental damage that could have been caused by the pumping of oil into the sea. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) asked about the capture of the oilfields, but will the Secretary of State address the question of what we will do with the burning oilfields? Will he explain the arrangements that are being put in place to minimise the damage to the environment?

Mr. Hoon

We have a number of specialists available who, as soon as their safety and security can be guaranteed, will start work immediately on putting out the fires and ensuring that those oil facilities are made available for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

I wish to add my voice to the sympathies that have been expressed about those who were lost in that tragic accident. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is, no doubt, having a difficult time at the moment in her constituency.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if bombs are falling on Baghdad, the people of that city will feel that they are being targeted? What steps are being taken to reassure Iraqi civilians that our war is not against them, but against a barbarous, tyrannical regime?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her expression of sympathy. On the bombing campaign in Baghdad, I anticipate that the great majority of people there will see for themselves the nature of the targeting. It will be clear that regime targets—Saddam's Ministries and palaces—are being destroyed. As the campaign evolves, there will be no clearer message to the people of Iraq that we have no quarrel with them, but that we do have a serious difference with Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

May I start by associating myself with the comments of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)? May I also thank the Secretary of State for mentioning the mine countermeasure vessel, HMS Ledbury, named after the town in my constituency?

What steps does the Secretary of State propose to take on the media coverage of events? Some of it is helpful, but some could be detrimental, especially to the special forces who are drawn from my constituency.

Mr. Hoon

I indicated earlier and also yesterday the nature of the modern 24-hour media. From the opportunities that I have had to follow the television reporting of events, I believe that journalists have by and large behaved responsibly. Clearly we have some concerns, but in general they have observed the rules set for them.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

May I associate myself and my constituency with the expression of regret for the forces who have been lost? All of us who participated in the armed forces scheme were impressed by the dedication and courage of our servicemen and servicewomen.

Will the Minister clarify how wide the coalition is? How many countries are participating in the military action and how many have forces who are currently engaged in action? Have any commitments been given to Turkey on her post-war role should she participate, as she now apparently is, in military action?

Mr. Hoon

In fact the number of countries that are providing political and practical support to the coalition is increasing by the day. I mentioned the figure yesterday of at least 30, but the revised figure is at least 40. That support is being given in a range of ways. As I said, I am very encouraged by positive discussions with Turkey. As a NATO ally, we would expect it to be of assistance.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

May I ask the Secretary of State to consider the future not just of Iraq, but of our servicemen? Many ex-servicemen served in Iraq in the earlier war and many who are serving there now will retire. If they retire to France, they will get inflation-proof pension increases, but if they retire to, say, Australia, they will not. That is manifestly unfair and I hope that he will consider that in time.

Mr. Hoon

I am well aware of the anomaly that the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights. It is something that we continue to consider.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I take the Secretary of State back to the issue of Turkey? Yesterday the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed two resolutions, one of which was on over-flying rights. The second allowed Turkish armed forces, under Turkish command, to cross the frontier into Iraq. Will the Secretary of State make it absolutely clear that there is no agreement with Turkey that its forces can cross into Iraq or that it will be allowed to occupy in any way, or stay for any time at all, in the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq? There is real fear among the Kurdish community in this country, all over Europe and, of course, in Iraq and Turkey itself about the activities of the Turkish army. We need that important issue clarified.

Mr. Hoon

I spoke earlier about the continuing discussions with Turkey on over-flying rights and the importance of Turkish forces showing restraint. However, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that Turkey shares our view that what is of paramount importance is respect for the territorial integrity of Iraq. That is as important to Turkey as it is to the United Kingdom.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

On the media coverage, the Secretary of State may have seen reports that coalition forces could be in Baghdad in three or four days. Does he agree that exaggerated claims of success in the media will distress the families of service personnel and lead to unrealistic expectations of when their relatives may come home? I worked in Baghdad in 1982 and know that taking the city could be difficult. Every building is designed to have a bunker underneath it and it could take a long time to take people out if they try to resist.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of good points, which I endorse, as I tried to do yesterday. I do not believe that it is sensible to overplay expectations, not least because of the risks faced by our servicemen and servicewomen.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

I join colleagues in offering my condolences to the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in the Gulf yesterday. Last night, I watched my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister address the nation on the reasons for military action in Iraq. May I stress to the Secretary of State that it is important that we maintain a direct link with the British public to ensure that they are fully informed about what the Government are doing, with the support of the Opposition, to bring about a swift conclusion to the hostilities in Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

Whatever view people may have taken in the past about the appropriateness or otherwise of military operations to support the international community's decisions on Saddam Hussein's regime and weapons of mass destruction, there is now strong support for the actions taken by British forces.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Secretary of State knows that the American Government will do anything to avoid their citizens going back in body bags, and I hope that our Government would take the same view. However, does the fact that B-52s have left RAF Fairford mean that "operation shock and awe" is going to take place? If it does, how will we avoid killing civilians in such a massive dropping of ordnance on urban areas?

Mr. Hoon

As I told the House yesterday, inevitably there are risks to civilians, but the efforts taken by the UK, the United States and elsewhere to target the campaign accurately against regime targets continue. Although I cannot give a guarantee that civilians will not be affected, I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no ambition whatever to target civilians. Our quarrel is with the regime in Iraq and our targets are designed accordingly.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

Like me, many of my constituents have friends and family in the services. The one issue that has been raised with me most in recent days is a small, but important, concern relating to packages sent to loved ones. What arrangements have been made since war was declared for those to be delivered?

Mr. Hoon

There are arrangements for the delivery of small packages to members of the armed forces serving in the Gulf. When the conflict is concluded, I anticipate that those arrangements will be more extensive to allow for the delivery of larger packages. However, I am sure that hon. Members will understand why it is not possible in the early stages of a conflict to design arrangements that allow for large packages to be delivered, not least because there is simply insufficient space on board transport aircraft to deliver them when vital military equipment is being delivered into theatre.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the B-52 bombers that have left RAF Fairford do not, and will not, carry cluster bombs?

Mr. Hoon

Cluster bombs are unlikely to be delivered at this stage of the operation, as I already told the House. The present stage of the campaign is concerned with identifying regime targets and making it clear to the population of Iraq that it is the regime that we are attacking, not the people of that country.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

May I associate myself and my constituents with the expressions of sympathy for the servicemen lost last night? Contrary to the accusation that they died needlessly, those men died in the service of their country. Their families and the House are proud of them.

May I ask the Secretary of State about environmental damage to Iraq caused by fires in oil wells? Has he any intelligence to show whether, so far, the wells have simply been set alight—in which case the fires should be fairly easy to extinguish—or whether they have been sabotaged with the use of explosives, in which case the environmental damage could take far longer to repair?

Mr. Hoon

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. The strategic significance of the current operations is the effort to avoid just the sort of environmental risk that we feared the regime would pose, involving both the destruction of oil wells in the south and the potential release of large amounts of oil into the Gulf, which would cause an environmental and ecological catastrophe in that part of the world. The first stage has gone well, in that we have managed to avoid such a catastrophe.

There are clearly problems, but according to the best information I have at present there are only fires in about 30 oil wells--although we are worried about the possibility that they have been mined and more deliberate damage caused.