HC Deb 26 March 2003 vol 402 cc291-305 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

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

Coalition forces have made significant progress since my statement to the House last Friday. Saddam Hussein's calculation in this conflict is that western democracies are weak—that they have no stomach for a fight, and that they will not stand up, and go on standing up, for the things in which they believe. Tyrants misunderstand and miscalculate the values that are at the heart of our democracies: we are here in this House only because people are able freely to elect us, and we uphold and observe the rule of law. They also forget that members of our armed forces volunteer to serve their country. Our armed forces comprise free men and women with their own, often strongly held individual views and ideas. They serve together and they risk their lives together because they choose to—not because some thug stands behind them or their family with threats of torture or execution.

Those free men and women choose to risk their lives in the defence of the values that we share, and when those lives are lost, we pay proper tribute to them and to their families because they stand in our place, and we must, in turn, resolutely stand up for them. That is why, on behalf of the Government, I extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have died: 20 individuals with 20 grieving families. Whether they died in tragic accidents, or from enemy fire, these men gave their lives in the service of their country, and in defence of the highest ideals. We owe them and their families a profound debt of gratitude for their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.

We have all seen the reporting from the 24-hour media over the past few days. Inevitably, such reporting reflects the immediate situation around specific journalists. It does not always give an overall picture or strategic perspective. I would like, therefore, to set out the context by reporting progress against the tasks identified in the Government's military campaign objectives, published on 20 March.

After six days of conflict, the coalition has made steady progress, following the main outline of our military plan, towards the objective of overcoming resistance from the Iraqi security forces. The al-Faw peninsula, Umm Qasr and the southern oilfields have been secured, and Iraqi resistance in those areas defeated; 3 Commando Brigade is in control, and the US 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been released to return to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is now heading towards Baghdad; 16 Air Assault Brigade is deployed in the southern oilfields, and the 7th Armoured Brigade dominates the Basra area. Resistance in nearby Az Zubayr has been defeated, and British forces are in place in much of the area around the city of Basra.

US forces are spearheading an advance northwards with lead elements at Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad. US Marine combat units have also crossed the Euphrates and are proceeding northwards. Hon. Members will have seen accounts of the serious engagement near Najaf last night, in which US forces from the 5th Corps repelled an attack by Iraqi forces.

Over 5,000 sorties have now been flown in the air campaign, and we have achieved significant degradation of Iraqi regime and command and control facilities. The focus of our effort will now shift towards close air support of coalition ground forces advancing on Baghdad.

On our most important campaign objective—to deny Iraq use of its weapons of mass destruction—our efforts have centred on disabling the command and control facilities through which the Iraqi regime would order the use of such weapons. Our experts have already begun to investigate potential weapons sites in coalition-controlled areas. To date, we have no evidence of Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction during this campaign, but it is impossible to know whether this is the result of successful military operations or a deliberate tactical judgment of the Iraqi regime. Indeed, we do know from prisoners of war that protective equipment was issued to southern Iraqi divisions.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, it will be the removal of Saddam Hussein's appalling regime which will ultimately lead to Iraqi disarmament. To achieve this, we have been seeking to isolate the regime at all levels in every part of Iraq—in Baghdad, in Tikrit, in Mosul and in Basra—primarily by the use of precision attacks against regime and military targets. Although the regime has not yet collapsed—Saddam Hussein's thugs continue to resist in some areas—the regime has effectively lost control of southern Iraq. The regime must know that its days are now numbered.

British forces have made a key contribution towards the objective of ensuring that essential economic infrastructure is secure. The southern oilfields and associated infrastructure have been secured, with very little damage. Umm Qasr, the country's one significant port, is under coalition control and is in working condition. A mine-countermeasures task force, under Royal Navy command and including US and Australian elements, is making steady progress in clearing the Khawr Abd Allah waterway of any mines. This is necessarily a slow and painstaking process.

In the areas now under our control, British commanders are making contacts in the local communities, in order to begin the process of restoring normality.

We seek to deter wider conflict both inside and outside Iraq. The situation in coalition-controlled Iraq is generally stable, although we are keeping a close watch on events in Basra. I can assure the House that the welfare of the people of Basra is at the forefront of the concerns of coalition commanders. Coalition forces are engaging groups of enemy forces as they try to flee the city and we have successfully struck key regime targets within it, notably the Ba'ath party headquarters overnight.

Northern Iraq remains stable and we intend to preserve that position. The situation remains calm along Iraq's other borders. Much of coalition-controlled Iraq bordering Iran is under British command, but the suggestion that the Royal Marines were sent to guard against Iranian forces is simply not true. We are seeking close contacts with the Iranian authorities to reduce the scope for any potential misunderstanding.

Overall, our campaign looks to secure a better future for the people of Iraq. Our fight is not with the people of Iraq. There can be no greater demonstration of that than the efforts that we are making to provide immediate humanitarian support and assistance where we can. Let us be clear: there has long been a humanitarian crisis in Iraq—caused by Saddam Hussein's misrule and the plundering of that country's resources for military spending, including his programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction. Many Iraqis have long been dependent on aid from the UN oil-for-food programme, and more than half of Iraqis living in rural areas have no access to safe water.

The first stage in providing that help to Iraq must be defeating Saddam Hussein's forces and establishing a secure environment. This is necessary before we can begin to conduct humanitarian operations.

The royal fleet auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad is loaded with water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. It is waiting to enter Umm Qasr as soon as the sea lanes have been cleared of mines.

At the same time, in a co-operative effort with Kuwait and the United States, Royal Engineers are constructing a water pipe from Kuwait into Iraq to provide drinking water.

Humanitarian effort will build up over the coming weeks. It is impossible to know for certain the full extent of the resources that will be required but, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, we have plans to address what we know are likely to be the most immediate and pressing needs. This must be part of a wider international effort, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is already providing support to the Iraqi people in Basra and elsewhere.

After six days of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition has made steady progress. Our servicemen and women have played a pivotal role in what has been achieved and we can be proud of their courage, their resilience and their determination. But there is much more to achieve, and much more that we can offer the people of Iraq. The Government's position is clear. We will remain resolute until our objectives have been met.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

The whole House will join the Secretary of State in his tribute to our armed forces and, in particular, his expression of sympathy for the casualties that have recently been suffered, as well as the casualties among the Iraqi people. Friendly fire casualties are particularly painful to bear. However, our armed forces know the risks, which does no more than underline their courage and bravery: we owe them an immense debt.

Moreover, it is a terrible time for all the families of our servicemen. There has been a notable change in the treatment of news of casualties by the media. Will the Secretary of State join me in recognising how very welcome that is in terms of enabling his Department to inform relatives of casualties before they are reported in the media? Will he clarify what support there is for families of reservists, who are not attached to home bases and therefore do not have the family welfare support that our other servicemen enjoy?

I welcome the Secretary of State's overview of the military operations, which puts all the hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute reporting that we see on our television screens into a full and proper context. Will he join me in congratulating all coalition forces, particularly UK forces, on the dramatic progress that has been made? Does he agree that we can have every confidence in the military strategy; that, whatever may be reported in the media, there have been no surprises that were not anticipated at the outset of the campaign; and that our armed forces remain fully trained, fully prepared and fully equipped for any eventuality that we anticipate may arise?

On the question of Basra, does the Secretary of State agree that the flexibility of the tactics of 7 Armoured Brigade underlines how we are maintaining the humanitarian objective as one of the highest priorities, and that while there may be an ebb and flow in hourly events, we can look forward to the full occupation of Basra as and when 7 Brigade are ready to take full occupation?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the mine-clearing operations in the waterways approaching Umm Qasr are an arduous and dangerous exercise, and that those undertaking the mine clearance are hitherto unsung heroes of this campaign who undertake operations that are every bit as dirty and dangerous as elsewhere on the front line and deserve our unfailing support and gratitude?

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm what role 16 Air Assault Brigade is now playing in addition to securing the oilfields in southern Iraq? Is it true that it is now actively pursuing remnants of Iraqi forces that are seeking to disrupt the extensive and exposed supply lines for the American operations much further forward to Baghdad? He has already clarified somewhat the role of the Royal Marines along the Iranian border, but can he confirm that they are doing nothing more than occupying and holding that territory, and that there is no perceived threat from the other side of the Iranian border?

There may be dark days ahead—indeed, the Americans are saying that we may still be nearer to the beginning of the campaign than to its end—but we must maintain our resolve to disarm Saddam Hussein, to liberate the people of Iraq, and to give our armed forces the backing that they so richly deserve.

Mr. Hoon

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations, particularly concerning those who have died and their families. As the Prime Minister said a few moments ago, our absolute priority is to inform relatives as quickly as possible, but I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that it is necessary to get that right. Greater pain could be caused by making mistakes in that difficult and sensitive task, and we go to a great deal of trouble to ensure that it is handled properly and appropriately.

I assure the House that welfare arrangements are in place to support the families of reservists. For ex-regular reservists in the Army, the regional brigades in the UK provide welfare officers, helplines and the same sort of structure that is available to our regular forces. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force regional arrangements are in place. If right hon. and hon. Members have concerns about the position of reservists in that respect, I would certainly be delighted to hear from them, and I would hope to be able to put their minds at rest.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to deal flexibly with the situation in Basra in accordance with circumstances on the ground, which is why it is so important that commanders on the ground who have up-to-date and detailed information about what is happening in the city should be left to decide how best to occupy that city, which certainly ultimately will be necessary.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning those engaged in mine clearance. The waters around Umm Qasr are filled with silt and are dirty and very dangerous. So, it is right to pay tribute to a Royal Navy capability—a capability that is the envy of the world. We have the very best people engaged in that task.

Force protection of supply lines is being addressed by commanders on the ground, and it is something to which we must have proper regard.

I dealt in my statement with the issue of Royal Marines along the Iranian border. That is simply part of their normal area of operations.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

May I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement and associate myself with the sympathies he expressed to members of the coalition forces who have been killed in action and their families? Can we also remember the families of Iraqi civilians who have been killed, because as the Secretary of State rightly said, our battle is not with them?

On the role of 16 Air Assault Brigade in securing oil installations in southern Iraq, have Iraqi troops been preparing to shell the oilfields as well as to mine them? The Secretary of State mentioned British troops on the outskirts of Basra. Will he clarify the aims of entering Basra? Is it to prevent the Iraqi army firing on its own people, or is the control of Basra now a military objective?

I pay tribute to the Royal Navy-led operation in demining the waters around Umm Qasr. We also welcome the news that humanitarian shipments are about to begin. When will Sir Galahad be docking, and will further ships follow? Is it still the British Government's objective to deliver humanitarian assistance alongside ongoing military operations?

On the situation on the Turkish border, are Kurdish forces now under coalition control? Is there coalition contact with Turkish troops entering the area? Without prejudicing the operations of any of our troops, will the Secretary of State outline the role of British forces in that area and any plans to improve arrangements for the British in the north?

Suggestions that this might be akin to a six-day war were always optimistic. As the conflict continues, our thoughts remain with our forces and with their families at home.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. To pick up his concluding comment, I made it clear in my statement to the House last Thursday that we should not believe commentators who suggest that this might be a short, simple conflict. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will not fall into that trap.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about Iraqi civilians, their deaths and their families. It is no part of the coalition effort to target those civilians, although necessarily in conflict there is clearly a risk to them.

I set out the current position of 16 Air Assault Brigade. We have long been concerned about the threat to the oil infrastructure from Saddam Hussein's regime, which is why the military plan targeted those areas at the outset in order that they could be preserved for the benefit of the Iraqi people subsequently.

Our aim is certainly to protect the population of Basra. There is clear evidence of Iraqi forces occupying Basra and firing on their own people in order to continue the process of intimidation that we have seen there and in other parts of Iraq for so very many years.

Humanitarian shipments are under way, although not necessarily at the moment by sea. They will begin by sea as soon as we can secure the waterways. As I said, that is a slow and painstaking process. Kurdish forces are in close co-operation with coalition forces in the north of Iraq. That is the case for Turkey as well. We are in close contact with Turkey and we understand its concern about the sensitive situation along the border. However, strong indications have been made to Turkey about our anxieties over any move into Iraq.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I am confident that this campaign is making good progress and I support the targeting policy, which is designed to minimise civilian casualties. How does that policy affect the pace of the campaign? Will it increase the need to deploy further forces?

Mr. Hoon

It was anticipated that there would be a risk to civilians in the military operations; that risk has been built into military planning. As we move forward, the risk increases. The aerial campaign has demonstrated the risk to civilians. However, I do not believe that that has in any way slowed down the campaign—nor will we allow it to.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The Secretary of State is right to state that the priority must be the welfare and maintenance of our armed services in the field. Part of that welfare is their knowledge that their families back home are being cared for. The armed services and organisations such as SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—are no doubt doing a good job, but mail that MPs have received has shown that we must also consider families who live off-base and families of reservists and of those serving with the Territorial Army. They feel that they are outside the loop.

Through their homefront programme, the Americans have established an internet website and other means of ensuring personal contact with families. Will the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State take a further look at this issue, and consider how we may enhance the support and information that we offer to families, whose support for their men and women is so vital?

Mr. Hoon

That is a very helpful and sensible suggestion. We will certainly look into that as far as reservists are concerned. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as regards our regular forces, an enormous amount of work is being done to support families at this difficult time.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As Napoleon and Hitler found with the snow at the gates of Moscow, President Bush and the Prime Minister might find that the biggest weapon of mass destruction before the gates of Baghdad is the April sun. As one who has had to work in a tank suit—admittedly in cooler conditions with the Rhine army—may I suggest that it might be wise to pull out the troops before they are cooked in the sands of the desert while laying siege? Or is it proposed that there be a war—in the view of the assistant legal adviser to the Foreign Office, an illegal war—in which we ask soldiers to fight in the alleyways of Baghdad at l35°? In order to avoid planet environmental catastrophe, and, frankly—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That was far too long a question.

Mr. Hoon

As the advice from the Attorney-General has set out for all right hon. and hon. Members to see, this is a perfectly lawful campaign. It will proceed resolutely to its conclusion—which is the removal of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and the overthrow of the regime that has harboured them.

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

Lieutenant-Commander Tony King was killed in the crash between Royal Navy helicopters at the weekend. He and his wife grew up in Congresbury and went to the local Churchill school. His parents—Ann and Colin King—live in Congresbury, which is also my home village. Tony was very highly thought of in the services and in the village. Does the Secretary of State agree that, regardless of the circumstances, we should pay tribute to the work of Tony and others, and offer our condolences to the family? The Secretary of State will confirm that the helicopter operations that Tony King was involved in were very difficult.

We welcome the assurances that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have given about relatives being informed speedily. It is not for me to tread into the area of the free press, but—especially when there are accidents involving Sea King, Lynx or other helicopters—it is more urgent than ever that families be notified speedily, as such accidents immediately identify specific concerns.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying proper tribute to his constituent and his family. I have indicated to the media the need for restraint and sensitivity in the way in which they approach people at this very difficult time.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I was one of those who did not think that we should be going to war at this moment, but I now believe that we should prosecute the campaign as effectively as possible. I hope that, in the end, we get to Saddam Hussein and remove his evil regime. Does the Secretary of State agree that the nation will have to brace itself for far more casualties than we had been led to expect? What is going on away from the gaze of journalists? For example, what is going on in the western part of Iraq, where we had feared that missiles could be sent towards Israel?

Mr. Hoon

There will certainly be more casualties on both sides. That is a necessary consequence of taking military action and why the Government strove so hard to avoid military action. However, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, once military action is under way, it is necessary to see it through to its conclusion. Coalition operations in the western part of Iraq are continuing. I do not intend to comment on them in great detail, but they are proving successful.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that northern Iraq remains stable. Turkey has been a steadfast ally in NATO in the first Gulf war and in other circumstances. Those of us who believe that Turkey is of enormous geopolitical importance are greatly reassured by the statement from Turkey that no further incursion into northern Iraq is intended. Are the Government fully seized of the need to keep that predominantly Muslim but secular democracy fully engaged in dialogue in both the civil and the military context?

Mr. Hoon

I agree with my hon. Friend that Turkey is a close ally in NATO. We work closely with Turkey and we have been in regular contact throughout this crisis.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House about the status under international law of Iraqi soldiers who dress as civilians and are then caught? Do they have the same status as regular soldiers in uniform? Will he also tell the House whether he thinks it wise to talk of large groups of Iraqis as having no future in the new, post-Saddam Iraq? I am thinking in particular of elite soldiers, who may be soldiers first and followers of Saddam second. If they think that their only option is to die with a spear in the chest or a spear in the back, what reason is there for them to surrender?

Mr. Hoon

Coalition commanders have expressed considerable concern about the practice—which we have seen on more than one occasion—of Iraqi soldiers apparently surrendering but then attacking the forces to whom they appeared to be surrendering. That is clearly a serious breach of the Geneva convention and one that we will continue to highlight when appropriate.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must distinguish those elements of Iraqi society that have a vested interest in the continuation of Saddam Hussein's appalling regime. Fortunately, they represent only a small proportion of that society when set against the regular forces and large elements of the republican guard—who are professional soldiers and who very often, in my judgment, only continue their military operations because many of Saddam Hussein's henchmen are embedded in their units and threatening the commanders with execution, or their families with torture, if they do not continue the battle.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Given the 24-hour media coverage of the conflict and the rapid progress made so far, are not the British public's hopes of a quick end to the war being raised unrealistically? Is not it important that the military are mindful of and sensitive to the needs of local civilians, as well as dealing with the infrastructure and the water and electricity that are so vital to humanitarian aid post-war? Is not it important that people realise that this is a serious war with a serious end and that it is not a video game?

Mr. Hoon

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to explain to people, as I sought to do in my statement earlier, that those images are snapshots of particular parts of the campaign, in particular parts of Iraq, as seen by particular correspondents. What we also need to do, as I tried to do in the House today, is to put that in context. That context includes our being successful not only in military operations but also in winning the peace by providing appropriate humanitarian help and assistance to the Iraqi people.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

As is always the case in war, there are conflicting reports about what is going on. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about Basra, but may I respectfully remind him that the UN recently said that about 100,000 children are at imminent risk of disease due to the lack of clean water? I realise that the right hon. Gentleman has said as much as he can at this stage, but I urge him to keep the House informed about the humanitarian situation with regard to Basra.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he made his remarks.

For many years, Basra has not had a reliable supply of clean, safe water. For many years, it has not had a reliable electricity supply. Our ambition is to provide both those things so that the people of Basra will be much better off than they have ever been—certainly than they were under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the continuing concern about the Turkish incursions into northern Iraq? My colleagues in the adjoining constituencies of Haringey and Islington and I represent the largest Kurdish community in the UK, many of whom fled to this country from Turkish oppression. They will take some convincing that Turkish intentions in northern Iraq are benign.

Mr. Hoon

Many of those people also fled from the repression of Saddam Hussein's regime. It is important not to overlook that. As I indicated in my statement, we are working closely both with the authorities in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq and with our Turkish ally to preserve stability in that otherwise difficult and sensitive part of the world.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In his statement, the Secretary of State emphasised the intensity of the air campaign, which is crucial to minimise allied casualties and to shorten as much as possible the length of the war. Can he assure the House that there are sufficient reserves on which he can draw if required, as ground crews are working around the clock? As the battlefield moves on and the length of the supply line increases, the importance of close air support is greater.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in the Royal Air Force for many years. He always comments with great knowledge and understanding of the RAF's arrangements. We are paying attention to the need for sufficient reserves and we shall go on doing so.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the World Service is reporting that cluster bombs are being used in the area around Basra? I am sure that he is aware, as I am, of the long-term consequences for the civilian population of post-war Iraq of unexploded bomblets. Will he make it clear to his American counterpart, when they discuss Iraq, that we strongly disapprove of the use of anti-personnel land mines?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear when dealing with such questions on previous occasions that it is necessary to allow our forces to use the most effective and appropriate weapons against the threats that they perceive. My hon. Friend may or may not be aware that 17 tanks sought to attack British forces yesterday. Every one of those tanks was destroyed, fortunately without allied losses. I would not be confident in saying to our forces that they could not use a particular weapon that protected them against those kinds of attack—I should not be doing my job properly. As I have indicated to my hon. Friend and others on previous occasions, we look carefully at the use of weapons, and use particular weapons only when it is absolutely appropriate to do so.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Does the Secretary of State recall that in July last year the Public Accounts Committee published a report on friendly fire. In that unanimous report, we reminded our readers that, as long ago as 1992, our predecessors concluded that the Department should redouble its efforts to secure an agreed approach", yet, A decade later, the Department has only just approved a policy paper". The Committee found that many of the systems were years away from implementation; for example, battlefield target identification will not come in until 2006. Our report concluded: It is unsatisfactory that the Department has made such slow progress in developing combat identification. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the recommendations of the PAC that the MOD accepts are being implemented at a vastly increased tempo? Although he may not be able to take up all the points made in the Committee's report, I should be grateful if he could write to me as there is, naturally, public concern about the issue.

Mr. Hoon

I understand and share that concern, but there is no single, simple technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. I am sure that the PAC report does not suggest that there is. Indeed, the Tornado aircraft involved in the tragic accident the other day was equipped with the latest combat identification system, similar to the one provided in US aircraft. There was no technological reason why such an appalling accident should have occurred: but occur it did, and we need to investigate the reasons, which cannot just be solved by some technological fix. We have to ensure that our procedures work effectively in high-intensity warfare. That also appears to be the position in relation to the tragic incident involving two of our Challenger tanks. Although they were equipped with appropriate identification equipment, unfortunately, in the heat of battle that was not necessarily the first thought in the tank that considered it was under attack and which reacted with tragic consequences.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

What are the rules of engagement for British forces undertaking humanitarian relief operations if they are attacked by Iraqi units who have been previously waving a white flag, or if they are attacked or threatened by republican guards dressed as civilians?

Mr. Hoon

It is not the practice of successive Governments to comment in detail on rules of engagement, but I assure my hon. Friend that the rules of engagement available to British forces are robust. They are certainly more than adequate to deal with that kind of situation.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the many personnel based at Brize Norton in my constituency who are playing their part in terms of transport, air—to—air refuelling and tactical communications? Does he agree that some of them may have to stay on after the war fighting has finished to help deliver humanitarian aid? Although we all hope for a clear UN mandate, does he agree that we have to prepare for all eventualities, including that of the mandate not being agreed? In those circumstances, could he have a word with the Secretary of State for International Development and explain to her that she must choose her words carefully? To talk about the British Army being an occupying force under international law, as she did in the Chamber an hour ago, is not particularly helpful. We must choose our words carefully at this difficult time.

Mr. Hoon

I have been a regular visitor to Brize Norton and know of the excellent support provided there not only to Secretaries of State for Defence but also to all those who pass through that excellent RAF facility.

It is important that we are able to put humanitarian aid in place. Initially, that will be as the result of efforts made by members of the military, by coalition forces delivering aid to secure areas. As my statement indicated, that is what we are currently working on.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Has the Iraqi regime been warned, as it was during the first Gulf war, that any use of chemical and biological weapons would meet with a nuclear weapons response; and does such a response remain the policy of the British and American Governments?

Mr. Hoon

The Iraqi regime has certainly been warned that there would be very serious consequences in the event of its using weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the contribution of hundreds of soldiers from Northern Ireland who are serving in the Gulf. We were all inspired by the remarks of Lt. Col. Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment. Of course there are many other soldiers. I have a brother with the Royal Tank Regiment in southern Iraq, and it is an anxious time for families, as they await news of the conflict. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the soldiers from the Territorial Army and the reserve forces—some of them from Northern Ireland—who are making a significant contribution to the efforts to liberate the people of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. During a number of visits to Northern Ireland, I have had occasion to see the Royal Irish Regiment in action, and it does a superb job on behalf of not only the people of Northern Ireland, but the whole of the United Kingdom. As someone who has visited the TA and reservists as they have come to Chilwell, close to my constituency, as part of their preparation for going to the Gulf and, indeed, elsewhere, I can testify personally to the enthusiasm and determination that they show in taking on sometimes very different tasks from those in their civilian lives.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

May I associate myself with the condolences that have been expressed to the families of service people who have lost their lives? Is my right hon. Friend able to comment on the news that, I gather, is coming in about a day-light bombing of a marketplace in which civilians have lost their lives?

Mr. Hoon

I cannot confirm the responsibility for that incident. Certainly, a marketplace has never been targeted by coalition forces—nor will it be—but we will certainly continue to look at the ways in which we minimise civilian casualties.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

In his statement and in reply to an earlier question, the Secretary of State mentioned the 24-hour media reporting. Can he tell the House whether there are any restrictions of movement on reporters? Given that an ITN reporter was killed recently, ought there not to be such restrictions or, at least, very strong advice given to people following events?

Mr. Hoon

The main restriction placed on reporters relates to not identifying their location at times of military significance—not indicating how far their unit may have advanced—because that information is clearly of considerable value to the enemy. I have been very impressed by the way in which reporters have recognised that restriction and not sought in any way to abuse our confidence.

As far as the tragic death of Terry Lloyd and perhaps his crew is concerned, it has led news organisations to reflect on the dangers faced by new correspondents in such fast-moving conflicts. It is important that we do not further complicate the battlefield by having to have regard to reporters—however determined they may be to bring the story home—the precise location of whom we do not know.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I have no doubt that men and women in our forces are doing their utmost to prevent civilian casualties, but we are receiving reports that Saddam Hussein's forces are using civilians to confound us, putting their lives in severe danger. One report indicated that women and children were left in a Ba'ath party headquarters that had been used by Saddam's forces when the fighters had abandoned them. Will my right hon. Friend comment on those reports and that totally scandalous use of civilians in this conflict and assure me that any such report is recorded and guaranteed so that we can take account of it when the war is over?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is not a new tactic by Saddam Hussein's regime. It has long used civilians to prosecute its aims and, indeed, deliberately to invite coalition attacks on civilians to be able to publicise them subsequently, and we are well aware of schools, day-care facilities and hospitals constructed next to important military facilities for precisely that reason.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Returning to the situation in the north of Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that Kurdish help in the liberation of places such as Kirkuk is endangered if Turkish forces are a distraction on their northern border? Will he make it clear that the Turks could make things a lot easier if they were to make it very clear that they will not go into northern Kurdistan? Can he confirm whether the Kurdish position has changed? A few years ago, I met the Kurdish leaders from the PUK and the KDP, who said that they wanted an autonomous region in Iraq, not independence.

Mr. Hoon

I emphasise that a main aim of the UK Government. which is shared by Kurdish forces in that area, is the preservation of the existing international borders of Iraq. That is why it is so important to preserve the stability in that sensitive northern area. We all know from our history how difficult is the combination of people in northern Iraq, and we necessarily have to handle that not only with sensitivity, but in full consultation with representatives of the Kurdish community, as well as our allies in Turkey.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I thank the Secretary of State for the tribute that he paid to those members of the armed forces who have lost their lives.

Further to the question that I asked the Prime Minister this afternoon, can he assure the House that there will be an immediate and urgent investigation into the friendly fire involving the Challenger 2 tanks? May I also ask him about the medical contingency plans because I am aware that others were injured in that incident last night? Can he perhaps give the House a little more detail about medical contingency plans, including convalescence for people who may have to return to the UK to convalesce before they are fully fit again?

Mr. Hoon

Again, I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be an immediate and urgent investigation. The medical arrangements have been reviewed and are in place, and they are proving to work very successfully. Not only are we able to stabilise people where necessary on the battlefield, but we have the RFA Argus in position, providing state-of-the-art facilities that are the envy even of personnel from the United States.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

It is good to know that the International Committee of the Red Cross is now operating in Basra—we must commend it for the fantastic work that it does—but the Secretary of State will know also that the Red Cross has asked for permission to visit the prisoners of war to make sure that they are being treated humanely. I understand that, as of yesterday, it had not received a response. Can he confirm whether we have granted the Red Cross access to all Iraqi prisoners of war and whether Iraq has granted access to our coalition service men and women who are currently being held by the regime?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those remarks. I made the point about the International Committee of the Red Cross and the excellence of the work that it continues to do in Basra. We will certainly seek to support its efforts. I am aware of an agreement with the committee on visits to Iraqi prisoners of war, and I anticipate no difficulty about that being achieved. I am certainly not aware that the Iraqi authorities have extended the same opportunity to visit coalition prisoners of war.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Can my right hon. Friend give a little more detail about the reported uprising in Basra yesterday and whether that uprising was effectively quelled by the Iraqi regime? Can he describe any further steps that can be taken to support future uprisings? Can he say what happened to the civilians who were involved in that uprising?

Mr. Hoon

The position inside Basra is necessarily confused. Certainly, there appear to have been reports of, if not an uprising, certainly a protest against Saddam Hussein's regime. We are aware that the thuggish elements of that regime that lie behind Saddam Hussein turned their fire, including the use of mortars, on the civilian population—the civilian population of one of their own cities, I emphasise. We took immediate action to assist. A substantial bomb was dropped on the Ba'ath party headquarters—I am aware that not much is left of it, which certainly appears to have reduced some of the activities of those thuggish elements—but we will obviously continue to take every opportunity to support the people of Basra to achieve their liberation.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Along with RAF Brize Norton, I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to join me in paying tribute to the airmen and women of RAF Lyneham, in my constituency, who pride themselves on the fact that their Hercules aircraft are the first in and the last out of every conflict, and this conflict is no exception.

On the media coverage, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the unique feature of this war, as opposed to any previous one, is the fact that 600 journalists are, as the expression has it, embedded with our troops? Does he agree that they will need to show particular sensitivity during the forthcoming battle for Baghdad?

Mr. Hoon

One of the advantages of having been in my position for a number of years is that I have visited most of the armed forces facilities around the country. I have certainly been most impressed on the occasions that I have visited RAF Lyneham by the work that is carried on there, and by the excellence of the Hercules operation, for which I have good reason to be grateful—even if, sometimes, at the end of the journey, I did not feel quite as I did at the start. Certainly, the issue of embedded journalists is a difficult one, to which we must all face up as we watch the television screens hour by hour. Its real benefit, I believe, is in avoiding the kinds of problems that were mentioned earlier in relation to freelancing—independent journalists going off on their own into very dangerous circumstances in a fast—moving battlefield. The information being brought back by embedded journalists is of great assistance in explaining what is taking place, providing that, as I indicated earlier, it is put into a proper context in the overall campaign.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

There is a tremendous appreciation in Moray for the often difficult but vital work being done by the welfare staff and support staff at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss in informing relatives and friends of developments. I endorse fully the Secretary of State's comments earlier about greater restraint by certain parts of the press being welcome—I speak as a former journalist who has covered conflicts. Greater restraint is needed. More restraint might ensure that certain family members would not hear directly or indirectly about the death or injury of a loved one, which would be most welcome.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I entirely agree with his comments. I hope that that message is heard by all those involved.