HL Deb 25 February 1991 vol 526 cc780-7

3.52 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows: "The final phase for the liberation of Kuwait and the achievement of the UN resolutions was launched in the early hours of Sunday 24th February. After more than six months of international endeavour to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis, the continuing refusal of Iraq to comply with the UN resolutions and the rejection of the final deadline from the coalition left us no alternative but to proceed with the final ground campaign. The need for this was further confirmed by the fact that at the very time that Tariq Aziz was still purporting to negotiate in Moscow, Saddam Hussein was giving orders for the wholesale destruction of Kuwait and its oil fields and further outrages against its citizens.

"These land operations involve forces of no fewer than 11 countries: the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Egypt, France, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and of course Kuwait. They have now been under way for 38½ hours. So far progress has been rapid and relatively little opposition has been encountered.

"Excellent planning and preparation, and above all their determination, have enabled the coalition forces rapidly to penetrate the extensive obstacle belt that the Iraqis had constructed both along the Saudi/Kuwait border and along a substantial part of the Saudi/Iraq border. To the east of this front coalition forces have now penetrated well into Kuwait and have taken a significant number of prisoners. Many of the Iraqi units encountered surrendered almost immediately. To the west, US, UK, Saudi and French forces have mounted an operation into Iraq against Iraq forces supporting the occupation of Kuwait. Some elements are encircling Iraqi units; others are breaking through defensive positions and beginning to engage Iraqi units direct. The First British Armoured Division is fully involved in this thrust and is now moving steadily forward.

"The Saudis have announced that the number of prisoners of war taken by the coalition has now risen to 20,000. Casualties on the coalition side have been very light. As the House may be aware, two British soldiers lost their lives in the days immediately before the start of the ground offensive, and their families have been told of their deaths. On my latest information there have been no British casualties in the main advance.

"In support of these land advances allied air forces, including British aircraft, have continued their attacks both on strategic targets in Iraq and on the Iraq ground forces in Kuwait and Iraq. These attacks are continuing in spite of poor weather conditions and without serious interference from the smoke of burning oil wells.

"Maritime and amphibious forces in the northern Gulf are playing their part in the coalition attack. In particular, the Royal Navy is playing a crucial role in mine clearance operations. During these operations last night the Iraqis fired a Silkworm missile which was destroyed by a Sea Dart fired from "HMS Gloucester".

"It is vital that we give all the suport we can to the coalition forces in their challenging task. One of the key advantages is the lack of intelligence that the Iraqis have about our exact positions and plans. We must preserve this advantage. That is why we have been so concerned to restrict any information about the military operations that could be of help to the enemy at a critical time. I understand the great interest of the whole country in the progress of our forces, and particularly among the families of all those involved, and we shall do all we can to give accurate information, provided that it can be done safely without putting lives at risk. In the meantime, we look for full understanding and co-operation of all those reporting and commenting on the battle.

"This further phase of the campaign has started well and every credit is due to General Schwarzkopf and all the coalition forces. However, they know that the Iraqi forces in the front line are their least capable and likely to be of the lowest morale "The news so far has been good: there may be days ahead when it is more difficult. But whatever the ups and downs, British forces know that they have the support of all the House and the nation. Our prayers and our best wishes go with them as they complete the task."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. Perhaps I may first of all assure him and agree with him that, whatever the ups and downs, the British forces know that they have the support of the House and the nation. This certainly goes for the Benches from which I speak.

So far as concerns the Statement, there is not very much I have to ask the noble Earl. I respect the thoughts he gave us about the necessity for confidentiality while wishing to keep us as fully informed as possible. I have one or two questions which I hope will not be too embarrassing under these circumstances. The actions of the Iraqis in Kuwait have been deplored by the noble Earl and are deplored by us. It is appalling when people go in and slaughter innocent citizens, sabotage oil wells and set alight whole cities without, as far as one can see, any motive whatsoever. Can the noble Earl tell us whether, in the words of the Statement, it is a fact that at the very time Tariq Aziz was still purporting to negotiate in Moscow Saddam Hussein was giving orders for the wholesale destruction of Kuwait? To some of us it has been presented as possibly being local commanders who took the initiative into their own hands. The Statement seems to go further than that and says it is confirmed by the fact that it was Saddam Hussein who gave orders for the wholesale destruction of Kuwait. I should be grateful if the noble Earl could confirm that my interpretation is right.

Secondly, we join him in congratulating General Schwarzkopf and his staff on the excellent planning and execution of the operation to date. To penetrate the obstacle belt that the Iraqis had put up on the Saudi/Kuwait border and along a substantial part of the Saudi/Iraq border in such a short period of time has been a remarkable military achievement. Equally, a remarkable political achievement, if I may use the word "political" in this sense, is that General Schwarzkopf has managed to involve forces of no fewer than 11 countries. This shows rightly that this is a coalition operation and not simply an American operation. We are grateful for that.

Can the noble Earl also tell us a little more about the Iraqi units which were encountered and which surrendered almost immediately? Are we to suppose that they were placed there because they were the weakest elements in the Iraqi forces, in the knowledge that they would be bombed to bits by the allies, and that Saddam Hussein did not want to expose his stronger forces on the front line? In the Government's view, is that the kind of tactic that Saddam Hussein has been adopting?

We are also very glad that casualties have been kept to an absolute minimum on the allied side. We are especially glad to know that there were no British casualties in the main advance. As the noble Earl pointed out, allied air forces have continued their attacks. However, can he tell us whether there has been any indication that the Iraqi air force is in operation, or do we now have total air supremacy? From everything we have seen on television and everything we have heard, it seems that the coalition has total air supremacy. I should be most grateful if the noble Earl could confirm that fact or, alternatively, perhaps he can give us what information he has on the matter.

The noble Earl said that it is vital that we give all the support we can to the coalition forces in their challenging task. We shall certainly do so. Of course, there is the delicate balance to which he referred as regards the reporting of events. We have discussed that aspect of the matter previously in your Lordships' House. I am sure that we on this side of the House wish to echo the noble Earl's plea that those people in the media who are reporting these events should adopt a responsible attitude towards the forces and that they should not put any of them in jeopardy by anything that they may say or show.

These are early days as yet, as General Schwarzkopf pointed out in his briefing yesterday. We endorse what has happened so far and we congratulate the coalition forces and General Schwarzkopf on what has taken place so far. We are, however, resolute that there may be worse to come and that we should not get into the state of euphoria which we experienced on the first day of the air war when some people thought that it was all over after 24 hours. There may indeed be harder tasks to follow and we must be prepared to meet them. All we can do now is to reiterate, in the words of the noble Earl, that our prayers and our best wishes go with our forces as they complete their task.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, we on these Benches would also like to thank the noble Earl for repeating that important and encouraging Statement. Our view is that the success of the coalition is really remarkable. It is extraordinary, in particular, how the problems of command and co-ordination in such a diverse coalition have been solved so well. It is indeed extraordinary that Syrian, French and American forces should be fighting side by side in the same complex battle plan. It is an unbelievable event. It is also extraordinary that a weapons system of such enormous complexity and sophistication should apparently be working so reliably and smoothly, especially as regards the anti-missile missiles from the brand new Patriot to the old Navy Sea Dart, which I was delighted to hear the noble Earl say had yesterday intercepted and destroyed a Silkworm missile which was destined for an American battleship.

We look forward to hearing the noble Earl's answers to the many questions which have already been put to him. I shall not repeat them. I do not think that this is a very good time to be asking questions on operational subjects. But, nevertheless, there is one question I should like him to answer. Surely it is the dearest wish of all of us that in one way or another Saddam Hussein should be eliminated. However, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it quite clear, on more than one occasion recently, that they do not consider that to be an aim of the coalition. Can the noble Earl say whether that position still holds and whether that is still the Government's view?

We noted the warning at the end of the noble Earl's Statement. We shall certainly bear it in mind. However, it is impossible not to regard the overall military situation with extreme relief and satisfaction.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, obviously I am most grateful for the general warmth and agreement which has been expressed from all sides of your Lordships' House and for the welcome that the Statement received. Perhaps I may deal first with the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. They are not especially embarrassing questions and I shall do my best to answer them. However, I am not so sure that the answers are totally known. That is why I shall be somewhat hesitant in my replies.

The noble Lord's first question concerned timing. He asked whether Saddam Hussein was in fact giving orders for the Kuwaiti oil fields to be set on fire at the time when Tariq Aziz was negotiating. I can only repeat the information contained in the Statement: at the very time that Tariq Aziz was still purporting to negotiate in Moscow, Saddam Hussein was indeed giving orders for the wholesale destruction of Kuwait and its oil fields and for further outrages to take place against its citizens. Those actions were, therefore, simultaneous.

The noble Lord went on to praise the strength of the coalition forces now operating in these dangerous manoeuvres. He referred to the fact that 11 countries have now joined together and that they are doing their very best to oust the Iraqi forces from the area and to restore the government of Kuwait to its rightful owners.

It would be speculating too much for me to say a great deal about whether Saddam Hussein wished his weaker forces to be in the front line and his stronger forces behind. Frankly, we do not know what his deployment plans were, let alone what they may be at present. However, it may be sensible to suggest that that was indeed his purpose. As regards any indication of action on the part of the Iraqi air force, we have no information on any further action by those forces. Therefore, under the present conditions, we hold air supremacy.

I turn now to deal with the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. He rightly talked about the great and determined strength of the coalition forces. Your Lordships will find it both remarkable and pleasing that this should have happened. We are certain that this will continue to happen throughout the length of the campaign. The noble Lord also raised the question about the elimination of Saddam Hussein. That is not the case. As we all know, the case has been clearly set out in the Security Council's Resolutions Nos. 678, 660 and indeed in others. The aim is to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and to restore the legitimate government. But, as has been said by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, we would not shed a tear if Saddam Hussein were to go. Indeed, the prospects for peace and security in the region would certainly be enhanced. However, that is not a coalition aim and not an aim of this Government.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that while we are entitled to receive a general picture of what is taking place, it may not be especially wise to try to anticipate any future movements of the coalition? Further, can he tell us whether Her Majesty's Message has been conveyed to the British troops? Would it not be possible for the department from time to time to send, on behalf of Parliament, our congratulations and admiration to the coalition forces, and in particular to the British servicemen, for what they are achieving?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is obviously in the interests of all our troops that the coalition's aims with regard to future military manoeuvres should not be made known. On the noble Lord's second point about Her Majesty the Queen's message to the troops, I am sure that our troops are aware of it and appreciate it.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister back to his answer to the first question put by my noble friend Lord Williams about how we know that it was Saddam Hussein who ordered the firing of the oil wells and the recent killings in Kuwait. Will he give a careful answer because much more may be heard of this matter? On the one hand, if someone's army starts doing something the natural inference is that it has been told to do so by its commander in chief. On the other hand, we are aware that the coalition forces have been seeking over the weeks, with some success, to disrupt Iraqi communications. I shall repeat the question. Was it a natural inference? They must have been ordered to do it, must they not? Or was it the result of certain knowledge obtained through intercepted communications or other means? The importance of the point lies in the fact that the justifications advanced by President Bush for not waiting until today—the time asked for by Mr. Gorbachev for the Soviet initiative—and for insisting on attacking on Saturday have more to do with Iraq's recent savage actions in Kuwait rather than any difference between the American and the Soviet proposals, as pointed out by President Bush.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord will realise that Saddam Hussein is commander in chief of his own forces. The atrocities and the firing of the oil wells took place while Tariq Aziz was in Moscow. Saddam Hussein is responsible for the actions of his men.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, is it wise and sensible to allow Moslems to demonstrate in our streets against us presumably protected by some 100 police who have other more necessary duties?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that this is a free country. If the Moslems feel that they want to demonstrate, they must be allowed to do so although they must be carefully controlled by the police.

Lout Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, it is gratifying to hear that casualties have been so light, but there is no cause for rejoicing. In war there rarely is. The main battle has not yet been joined. Forces that are still solid and united in the cause of international law have made an impressive impact in the initial assault to relieve Kuwait. Should not therefore Saddam Hussein now be aware of the ultimate outcome and that a surrender would save many lives, mostly those of his own countrymen? Further, the Iraqi republican guard, possibly with chemical weapons, may fight fiercely on their own soil but will inevitably be defeated with such a massive deployment of professional forces and equipment ranged against them. How best can that message be put across to Saddam Hussein?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we have been endeavouring for the past six months, by every possible means, to put that message across. Saddam Hussein has done nothing but prevaricate. He has been obtuse, difficult, totally irrational and unreasonable to the detriment of the whole of his country.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are informed that the people of Iraq are given totally false and misleading reports about the course of the war and almost everything else. What steps are being taken to counteract that—for example, by dropping pamphlets or through other means?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the coalition forces are dropping pamphlets telling the Iraqis the truth and urging them to surrender.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the BBC Arabic service broadcasting eight hours a day is the biggest overseas service of the BBC?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am sorry, I did not hear the question. Will the noble Lord be good enough to repeat it?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, it was not really a question. I asked whether the Minister was aware that the BBC's Arabic service, which broadcasts for eight hours a day, represents the biggest portion of the BBC's overseas broadcasts? Presumably that service is conveying the message to the Iraqi people in every possible programme.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I was not aware of that fact, but I am now.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, perhaps I may ask two questions arising from what has happened since the House met last week. First, did the third and final Soviet peace plan differ from American requirements only as between seven days and 21 days for the withdrawal to be completed? Was that plan ever put before the Security Council? Secondly, who gave the order to start the ground offensive? Was it the Security Council or the President of the United States?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it was the President of the United States in agreement with the coalition forces and the heads of government represented by the coalition forces. As regards the Soviet peace initiative, I have said on other occasions that we are faced with the problem of deciding who to believe—the Iraqi foreign minister, or Saddam Hussein making belligerent statements in Baghdad.

Lord Zuckerman

My Lords, is it not the case that, as in the Second World War, the commander in chief on the spot will be given a general directive of probably not more than a few lines and a certain latitude as to when to launch the assault? If that is the case—I shall be corrected if I am wrong—I imagine that General Schwarzkopf will not have been standing by waiting for a call from the White House telling him when to proceed?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am sure that the general commanding in the arena is given his objective and the timescale within which to achieve it.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, my question was: does the Minister agree that there is a difference between the Security Council's action in this case and its action 40 years ago in the Korean case when the power to order the war involving United Nations blue berets was given to the commander in chief under the aegis of the Security Council?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is now too late for Iraqi half promises and half acceptances. The world now needs a clear and unambiguous statement from Saddam Hussein that he fully accepts the United Nations resolutions and is now withdrawing his forces from Kuwait completely and unconditionally.

Lord Annan

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, was correct to say that it is impossible to fight a war—something we are doing at the moment —unless the commander in chief has discretion to initiate action to achieve the tactical objectives.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that must surely be the prerogative of the general commanding in the area.