HL Deb 28 April 2003 vol 647 cc497-512

6.3 p.m.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords. with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on Iraq and on the Middle East peace process. First, let me start with the security situation in Iraq. Large-scale combat operations are over. The overwhelming majority of the country is under coalition control. The vast bulk of Saddam Hussein's forces have been defeated, dispersed or isolated, although minor pockets of resistance remain in Baghdad and some other towns.

"When the House rose for the Easter Recess, the main challenge confronting coalition forces was civil disorder and looting in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the regime. It would have been a miracle had there not been such an outburst of anger, frustration and lawlessness in a country where the population had lived for so long in daily fear of torture, arbitrary arrest and summary execution.

"Over the past two weeks, the looting and civil disorder has declined. In Baghdad, local police have offered their services and joint patrols with coalition troops are under way. An effective curfew is in place. Baghdad's main hospitals are working and the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq reports that clean water is available to most parts of the city.

"More widely, schools and markets are reopening. Local hospitals are resuming normal service and field hospitals, including those supplied by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are functioning well. Electricity and water supplies are reaching most of the country.

"In Basra—the centre of the area under British military control—UK forces are carrying out joint operations with local police, and providing food and water through aid distribution points established on the outskirts of the city. A local judicial system is being established. And thanks to help from British engineers and local Red Cross workers, the three main power stations supplying Basra are now up and running, and the city's electricity and water supplies have been restored to pre-conflict levels. In certain respects in the south, facilities are already in better shape than they were before military action started. The seaway into Umm Qasr is being dredged to take larger vessels, and the grain store is open. The railway line from the town to Basra, which had not been working for many years, is now running thanks to British military engineers, and plans are in hand to reopen the line to Baghdad.

"In northern Iraq, essential supplies of wheat, oil and medical goods are being delivered unhindered. UNICEF reports that all schools in the north have reopened and that the vast majority of people displaced by the conflict have now returned to their homes.

"In the coming weeks, coalition forces will increasingly share the burden for the delivery of essential services and aid with the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), and with UN agencies and NGOs. When I visited Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia just before Easter, I discussed ORHA's plans with its head, Jay Garner, and colleagues based in Kuwait. Mr Garner moved into Iraq just a week ago. A number of countries are making substantial contributions to ORHA. Australia, Denmark and Japan have already provided personnel. Others, including Spain, Romania, South Korea and Italy, are about to do so. For our part, we have so far provided 20 British staff, including one of Mr Garner's three deputies, Major General Tim Cross. We will be making further contributions to ORHA to help get Iraq back on its feet.

"As well as meeting humanitarian and other essential needs, and starting the process of physical reconstruction, a key objective of the coalition is to support a viable political process which allows the Iraqi people to create representative, democratic government. In the Basra and south-eastern sector which we control, we began this process at a local level by sponsoring representative town meetings. Similar local and regional level meetings have been held elsewhere.

"On 15th April, the first meeting of national Iraqi representatives was held at Al Nasiriyah. This was attended by a senior British diplomat, Edward Chaplin. A second such meeting—on a larger scale— is being held today in Baghdad. My honourable friend the Member for North Warwickshire, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and a senior FCO official are attending. We will of course ensure that the House is informed of the outcome of the meeting.

"We hope that the current process of consultation will culminate in a national conference of Iraqi representatives. This would, first, set up an Iraqi Interim Authority to take over progressively responsibility for the administration of Iraq. Secondly, it would create a constitutional framework to prepare the ground for the election of a democratic government run by the Iraqi people themselves.

"As President Bush and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister have made clear, the United Nations will have a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction. Last week the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1476 which will extend the new arrangements for the UN's Oil for Food programme until 3rd June. In the coming weeks, the Security Council will have to consider a range of other issues. This will include the future of the sanctions regime and the subsequent management of Iraq's oil revenues.

"There is also the question of the future arrangements for verifying Iraq's disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. In his presentation to the United Nations Security Council last week, the head of UNMOVIC, Dr Hans Blix, recognised that, 'in a situation that is still insecure … civilian international inspection can hardly operate', and that, 'some of the premises upon which the Council established UNMOVIC and gave it far-reaching powers … have changed'. He also accepted that coalition authorities would be as eager as UNMOVIC to find weapons of mass destruction.

"In the absence of the secure environment referred to by Dr Blix, the task of locating this material inevitably falls to coalition forces. We are actively pursuing sites, documentation and individuals connected with Iraq's programmes. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have deployed specialist personnel and will be sending more in the near future.

"But the investigations are unlikely to be quick. The inspection process itself will be painstaking and detailed: we want to establish the truth beyond any doubt. The testimony from scientists and documentation about WMD development and production programmes will be the key to determining the fate of prohibited equipment, materials and munitions. But we cannot expect witnesses to come forward until they are confident that they can speak freely.

"Even so, I know that some Members of this House have expressed concerns about the justification for military action in the absence of discoveries of illegal Iraqi weapons. Let me make two observations here. First, military action was taken on the basis set out in SCR 1441; namely, that Iraq's, 'non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles', posed a threat, 'to international peace and security'. "The evidence against Iraq then was—and remains—overwhelming. It was charted by UNMOVIC in damning detail in the 173 pages of its report on Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes which was published on 7th March. My second point is that Saddam had ample time to conceal his WMD programmes prior to the start of military operations. Indeed his experience in concealment dates back to the early 1990s.

"Before I move on to the Middle East peace process, let me say this. It is only 19 days since Baghdad was liberated and barely two weeks since the end of serious fighting. In that time civil disorder has subsided and—as we saw in the joyous Shia pilgrimage to Karbala last week—the Iraqi people have begun to enjoy the taste of freedom. Of course there are some problems associated with this dramatic change for the Iraqi people after more than 20 years of coping with a brutal and vicious regime. But a new and representative Iraqi Government, run by the Iraqi people for the Iraqi people, will help to guarantee this freedom for future generations. For all the immense challenges which lie ahead, one thing I know for certain: Iraq's future will be better than its past.

"Of course the Middle East will never look forward to a secure future as long as a settlement to the region's oldest dispute remains beyond reach. For the past months, the Government have worked tirelessly to secure the publication and implementation of the road map, a document agreed by the Quartet Group of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which sets out a path to a peaceful settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I greatly welcome the commitment from President Bush to devote as much effort to this cause as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given to the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

"Later this week the Palestinian Legislative Council will be asked to endorse the appointment of a new Cabinet for the Palestinian Authority. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, one of the main architects of the Oslo Accords, this Cabinet has, I believe, the courage and ability to take the tough measures necessary to clamp down on terrorism and to lead the Palestinians into a constructive dialogue with the Israelis and the international community. This, and action by the Israeli Government to ensure that the Israeli Defence Force acts strictly within international law, should bring an end to the spiral of killings which has claimed over 3,000 lives on both sides over the past two and a half years.

"Once the Palestinian Legislative Council endorses Mahmoud Abbas's Cabinet, the road map will be published. For the first time for a long time we should then be able to speak of a peace process in which the parties themselves are actively engaged. The road map charts a course to the outcome which the entire world wants to see—a secure state of Israel and a viable Palestinian state, consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions and the principle of land for peace. We will maintain our very close dialogue with the United States to push this process forward and we will do all we can with it and our European partners to help with the implementation of the road map.

"With visionary leadership and courageous statesmanship from both sides, the outcome I have described can, in our judgment, be achieved by 2005. This would not just bring an end to the misery of millions of Israelis and Palestinians who live every day under the shadow of indiscriminate violence, it would remove the single greatest source of resentment and mistrust which bedevils relations between the West and the Muslim world. I know that all sides of the House will support the Government's efforts to secure this great prize".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.17 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, we are deeply grateful to the Minister for repeating that full and helpful Statement. The war has been successfully prosecuted and concluded. The professionalism of our Armed Forces greatly shortened the war and mitigated substantially the innocent deaths and injuries that might otherwise have occurred. This was openly recognised to me and was in fact the first comment of the US Secretary of Defence, Mr Donald Rumsfeld, when I saw him in Washington recently. From these Benches we pay a great tribute to the Armed Forces.

The rebuilding of confidence in Iraq and in the wider region is now the overreaching priority. We have always made clear that we would be also looking for a well-prepared plan of reconstruction and re-democratisation of Iraq and a firm plan for making progress on the Middle East peace process. It is on these areas that I wish to raise some questions.

The first priority for post-Saddam Iraq must be the restoration of law and order and the creation of security and stability. One of the greatest problems facing the coalition is the disparate nature of Iraqi society. The news today that one of Iraq's main Shi'ite organisations might boycott today's meeting called by Mr Jay Garner underlines the battle we will face in the months ahead.

A future system of government that excludes any group from the representative process will only exacerbate tensions. What plans are there to ensure that this does not happen, and what is the UN's participation in them? It is vital at this stage that local leaders in civic society, and in particular the main Shia clerics and organisations, are part of the discussion on these matters.

The elimination of weapons of mass destruction was a main objective of the action. I thank the Minister for updating the House on this matter. The Foreign Secretary talks of the need for independent verification, but will this—despite the Defence Secretary's words—be undertaken by UN inspectors? And if not, why not?

While on the subject of the UN, can the Minister clarify what role it will play in the Oil for Food programme? Can the Minister shed any light on a report yesterday that suggested that the UN was grossly mishandling the Oil for Food programme? Could that be the reason why Washington wants sanctions lifted and the Oil for Food programme phased out? Russia wants the UN Secretary-General to run the entire programme until an internationally recognised Iraqi government come into power, which could take several years. What is the Government's view of that?

It is important that legal processes are planned at this stage to deal with members of Saddam Hussein's regime for the war crimes committed against the Iraqi people. Justice must above all be seen by the Iraqi people to be done. Where and under what law will they be tried?

The confidence of the whole region will be massively strengthened by genuine progress in the Middle East peace process. Does the Minister agree that the dialogue between the two sides, at whatever level, would be an important step forward? Does she join me in welcoming Ariel Sharon's reported invitation to Abu Mazen to meet him in Jerusalem for discussions? Will she give such a dialogue all possible encouragement, especially if publication of the road map is further delayed? Does she see any reason why it might be?

We have supported the Government in the removal of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction because it was right and in our national interest to do so. Now the challenge is to build confidence and stability throughout the region. That, too, is right and in our national interest. So long as that remains the Government's objective and they pursue it with due competence, they will continue to have our support.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Government's information on progress being made, especially in areas under British control, in re-establishing essential services and law and order and in laying the foundations for a return of self-government to Iraq. We regret the confusion, not mentioned in the Statement, of the first days of occupation of Baghdad and the destruction and looting of hospitals, ministries and the Iraqi national museum.

We are puzzled by the uncertainty about the future role of the UN. Paragraph 8 refers to UN agencies and NGOs as a sort of afterthought, but in paragraph 12 we are told that President Bush has now agreed that, the United Nations will have a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction". We hope that it will also have a role in legitimising the transfer of authority in Iraq, not simply in providing humanitarian aid. It is important that the international community as a whole shares the responsibility for reestablishing legal authority in Iraq. That should not be left to the occupying powers alone.

On inspection, we are unhappy about the rather selective quotations in paragraph 13 from Hans Blix. That is not what I understand to be the tenor of Hans Blix's remarks to the UN Security Council. We are conscious of a fairly active campaign of character assassination against Dr Blix and the UNMOVIC team within Washington. I recall someone pointing out that Dr Blix was not only Swedish but, worse, a Swedish liberal.

If the truth is to be established, as stated in paragraph 15, it is important that the truth is seen to be established. The confidence and trust of those outside is likely to be much stronger if UNMOVIC can be reintroduced as soon as possible. I am not entirely clear why Washington is resisting that so strongly. To whom are the British members of the coalition inspection team directly responsible? Are they a junior partner in an American-led inspection team or do they have independent authority to report both to the British Government and to publish their findings?

We are puzzled about the reference to the inspections needing to take time. We were told before the intervention that time was not necessary, that the inspectors did not need very much more time and that if they wanted more time they were clearly not doing their job seriously.

My concern on the question of inspection is that, throughout the process over the past nine months, our Government and the American Government have oversold the information established. Reference is made to the dossier of 7th March, with its 173 pages, as being a damning dossier. When I read that document in detail after the previous Statement, it did not seem quite as damning as the Government suggested. There was a debate as to whether anthrax had been produced in 1991 as well as in 1990, and it was suggested that under some ideal conditions some of the anthrax produced in 1990 or 1991 might possibly still be of some utility. The question of where we are now with weapons of mass destruction and what is found is of prime importance to legitimising what has been done.

We regret that no mention is made of the neighbours. Much discussion has taken place within the US Administration of the role of Syria and future relations with Iran. We need to ensure that the neighbours share some responsibility for re-establishing legal authority in Iraq and, given that the majority of people in Iraq are Shia, the role of Iran is clearly of extreme importance. It is desirable to rebuild co-operation across the region. Inviting other Arab governments to share in responsibilities for reconstruction and rebuilding therefore seems to us extremely important.

Lastly, the Statement turns to Iraq and Palestine. We are happy to see confirmation that the road map is not intended to be amendable and is to be implemented as rapidly as possible. President Bush has given the remarkable commitment to devote as much effort and attention to the process of peace between Israel and the Palestinians as our own Prime Minister has done in Northern Ireland. The Israeli response has not yet been very encouraging; Prime Minister Sharon indicated that settlements will continue and will not be cut back. A wall is being constructed that will make the process of land for peace and a viable Palestinian state, to which paragraph 21 refers, a great deal more difficult.

Israel has the responsibilities of an occupying power within Palestine. Will the Minister explain what the phrase in paragraph 20 means in referring to, action by the Israeli Government to ensure that the Israeli Defence Force acts strictly within international law"? What exactly does that refer to?

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their response to my right honourable friend's Statement. I agree strongly with what the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said about the professionalism of our Armed Forces, an absolutely crucial part of the success of the military alliance. I would also say and I am sure she would agree—that their courage and their humanitarian approach were absolutely crucial. Our Armed Forces may have learned their compassion and humanitarian approach for the saddest possible reasons, from patrolling Northern Ireland. However, the fact that they patrol as they do, taking off their helmets and getting into their berets as quickly as possible, has been absolutely crucial in Basra.

I agree with comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, about the role of law and order. That is a first priority. I hope that she agrees that the Statement's references to the re-establishing of law and order is encouraging, although it is not there yet by any means. I was a little surprised by the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that the Statement does not mention looting: it is mentioned at the beginning. The Statement says that it would have been a "miracle" if there had been no such incidents in the initial period after Baghdad fell. I believe that to be a fair statement. It is one I have made in response to points raised by the noble Lord's Liberal Democrat colleagues in the past.

The meeting today in Baghdad is, indeed, very important. It is true that not everyone is there that we should like to see present. However, there is a significant Shia participation. A significant proportion of the Shia groups have attended. We should like to see all of the groups properly represented in any decisions over the future of the Iraqi government. I understand that in the current discussions the majority of participants are Shia. We understand that SCIRI, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—I believe that that is the group which the noble Lord may be thinking of—was reluctant to attend, but we hope very much that it will do so in future. The principles set out at Al Nasiriyah in the 13-point plan are those upon which we hope it will operate. As I am sure your Lordships will have seen, included in those principles are the provisions that the rule of law and order must be paramount in any future Iraqi state and that Iraq must be built on respect for diversity, including, of course, respect for the role of women.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was concerned about the role of Dr Blix and claimed that some rather unfair comments had been made about him. I am bound to say to the noble Lord from this Dispatch Box that I have defended Dr Blix time and time again when the noble Lord or others have raised certain difficulties. I have expressed the confidence of Her Majesty's Government in Dr Blix. I have no difficulty in doing so again. Her Majesty's Government accept that independent verification will be important. However, there is not an altogether permissive environment at the moment, as Dr Blix's statement made clear. The noble Lord says that the Statement is selective. I am bound to say that Dr Blix has acknowledged that there is not a secure environment at the moment. The exact method by which independent verification can take place is under discussion. We hope that we shall come to an agreement on that. When we do come to such an agreement, we shall say exactly what that agreement is.

Some matters are under investigation. As the Statement makes clear, there is documentation to be studied, sites to be visited and people to be interviewed. It is very important that we try to do everything we can, not to say that we are not touching any of the issues connected with WMD until we can get independent verification. There is a job that we can be getting on with although we absolutely acknowledge that independent verification will be important in due course.

I turn back to the rest of the UN's role. We have made it clear in the past that the United Nations must have an important role in the reconstruction of Iraq. Not only the British Government have made that clear, President Bush also made it clear in his statement at Hillsborough. The exact nature of the role is, of course, for the United Nations and, if I may say so, for the Iraqis to decide upon. We should like to see active cooperation. We should like to see active collaboration. For example, we should like to see the UN supervise the lifting of sanctions and the future of the Oil for Food programme on which the noble Lord asked questions. The current UN Security Council Resolution 1476 runs only until 3rd June. If, at that point, there is still no decision about the longer term, the question will be raised about the rollover of the Oil for Food programme. The United Nations is obviously the authority to which any such questions will have to be addressed. The future of Iraqi oil also needs to be discussed. That will be crucial in the building of the future of the Iraqi people for the Iraqi people.

I believe that we share many of the objectives for reconstructing Iraq with our friends elsewhere in the United Nations. The main point is that the reconstruction of Iraq should be something in which the Iraqi people have a major say. If I can put it this way, it should be made as easy as possible for the Iraqi people to embrace their future.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, says there is nothing in the Statement about neighbours. There is something in the Statement about four of the neighbours: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of whom were visited by my right honourable friend two weeks ago. By my reckoning that is a majority of the neighbours. The Statement does not mention Syria, Iran or Jordan, except in so far as Jordan is providing some of the field hospitals. That is five out of the seven. But, of course, the fact is that Syria and Iran are the countries that are raised as matters of concern. The noble Lord will know that my right honourable friend has been in constant touch with his opposite numbers in both countries. We have a dialogue with both countries. I believe that that dialogue has been pursued very successfully. In fact, my honourable friend Mr O'Brien has also visited those two countries in the very recent past—in the past few weeks or so—so we have maintained a good deal of contact with Syria and Iran as well as with countries specifically mentioned in the Statement.

The Middle East peace process is a vital issue. The noble Lord asked about the Israeli defence forces. Your Lordships will know that in the past we have often discussed some of the reactions of the Israeli defence forces. Questions have been raised about their reactions to some of the terrorist outrages perpetrated by extremists on the Palestinian side. The point is that we wish to be even-handed about the implementation of any road map. What we wish to see is both sides agreeing to stop the spiral of violence. That is enormously important. We hope that the publication of the road map will take place this week. I cannot guarantee that but it is clearly implicit in the Statement. We welcome any invitations from either side to talk seriously to each other about a way forward. We hope that all sides in this terrible conflict will welcome an opportunity for peace although we understand all the misgivings that will arise and all the people who will wave their hands and say, "There are 100 different reasons why we should not go forward on this". That is inevitable after the years of distrust and violence. I hope that all sides and all your Lordships will welcome this as a genuine opportunity to make the best of a real chance for peace that may exist in a way that we have not seen for a number of years.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, will my noble friend say more about the United Nations as I was intrigued by her comment that it was for the UN to decide its role? I ask my noble friend what I hope is a fairly clear and relatively simple question. Do the Government envisage the United Nations playing a role, and if so what role, in the administration of Iraq and in its transition to a democratic state?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government see the role of the UN as providing the authority during any future interim period before the Iraqi state can be governed fully by the Iraqi people. The length of such a period may be very much open for debate. We have so far had the two meetings mentioned in the Statement—one in Al Nasiriyah a couple of weeks ago and one in Baghdad today. Indeed, your Lordships may have heard more about the outcome of today's meeting in Baghdad than I am aware of as I have been waiting on the Front Bench to make the Statement to your Lordships. In my judgment the meeting in Baghdad must now be drawing to a close.

The United Nations will be the authoritative body under which any administration takes place between the period of ORHA under Jay Garner and an interim Iraqi authority taking up the reins of power in Iraq. I cannot tell how far off that period may be, nor indeed how long it will last, but I do know that the authority of the United Nations will be vital. That is not the same as saying that the United Nations will be the administrative authority, if that was what the noble Lord asked me. That is not necessarily the position at all. But the United Nations should provide the authority for any such administration before the Iraqi people are able to govern themselves.

Lord Elton

My Lords, on the matter of humanitarian urgency, the noble Baroness will remember that she assured us that every time cluster bombs were used the event was recorded with precision. Can she tell us how many have been used in the British sector and, if possible, in the American sector? What steps are now being taken to defuse the up to 9 per cent of the lethal bomblets that they leave unexploded behind them? Are steps being taken to leaflet the areas where they were dropped in the local dialect and with clearly recognisable pictures that the parents of children playing there can see and understand? In future will it be common practice to leaflet those areas from the air when the ordnance is originally used because we shall see a lot of maimed children if something of that sort is not done?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I absolutely understand the noble Lord's concern about the use of those weapons. I am bound to say that they are used only when we have no alternative and, so far as we are able, we do not use them in closed areas where they would undoubtedly do civilian damage. We use them where necessary. They have particular kinetic properties that, in the judgment of our military, are sometimes very necessary to use when coming up against heavy artillery or heavily armoured ordnance from a combatant.

We take very careful note when we use such weapons. We are fully aware of the fact that just under 10 per cent of them do not explode on impact, as the noble Lord indicated. We tell people when we are using them, but I cannot tell him how many we have used, nor how many the Americans have used. If that information is available—I do not know that it is—I will write to him with it and place a copy of my letter in the Library.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for speaking again about the UN role. In at least my opinion, that vital role is in need of a bit of vitalisation, of which it has had singularly little so far.

I have three specific points. The first is on the political process. Is it sensible to start the process of bringing Iraqi parties together—that is highly desirable—to get them to work out the basis for a future Iraqi body politic without any involvement of an external kind other than that of the United States and the United Kingdom? Is that the best way to achieve legitimacy for what may issue from that process? Would it not be better if the United Nations were at least involved, although not in the role of the authority, which can clearly not be taken away from the occupying powers? However, it should be involved at an early stage in the evolution of that new body politic.

Secondly, on the question of verification, the arguments against any involvement at this stage of UNMOVIC and Dr Blix are frankly a little thin Iraq seems filled with civilians, NGOs and others doing absolutely necessary and vital work. No one is saying that they cannot go in because the security situation is so terrible that they might be at risk. Is it not possible that, in some limited way at least, the United Nations inspectors could again begin to give legitimacy to the very necessary work being done by the coalition experts, some of whom, I understand, are civilians anyway?

My third question is on trying Iraqis of the regime for the appalling human rights abuses and other crimes that they have committed. Is it seriously to be believed that they can be tried in an Iraqi court? That does not seem to make much sense. We would not have thought much of that idea in 1945 in Germany. Is it not right that there has to be some kind of international involvement? If there is to be international involvement, would it not be better shared with the United Nations which, for example, in Cambodia is trying to move ahead with trials of war crimes in a mixed format, as it is in Sierra Leone?

On all those fronts, it would be wise to bring a bit more vitality to that vital role.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord says. However, I remind him of the point made in my right honourable friend's Statement that it is only 19 days since the statue of Saddam Hussein came down in the central square of Baghdad, and only two weeks since the serious fighting stopped. I ask the noble Lord to exercise his customary diplomatic skills and patience, and I hope that, by arguing very forcefully for the UN's vital role we use the word advisedly— we go towards the process of vitalisation that he described so eloquently.

The fact is that Resolution 1476—the Oil for Food programme resolution—is pretty vitalising. Work is going on in the United Nations to try to establish how the future might be resolved in ways that not only bring the Iraqi parties together, but that involve some authority from outside. I agree that it is important that a wide coalition of bodies be brought together. So far as I understand it, the Iraqi conference in Baghdad today represents enormous diversity. The regional, tribal, political and ethnic groups that have come forward have been much more varied than those able to attend in Nasiriyah.

However, I am bound to say that the security situation in Iraq remains very fluid. For example, we in the United Kingdom are still advising against travel to Iraq. Although we are aware of the important work of the humanitarian aid workers and others who may be able to give important advice on, for example, the re-establishing of civil society in Iraq, it is not a permissive environment at the moment. It is becoming more so on a day-by-day basis, as the Statement was able to describe, in terms of not only law and order, for example, but the provision of clean water and electricity. Those are very important elements in bringing stability to the country.

We are trying to ensure that we get UN expertise into Iraq. There is a sensitive and difficult question about the proper means of going forward with any trials or administration of justice against those who may be thought guilty of war crimes. The noble Lord will know that Iraq is not a party to the International Criminal Court, but I take his point that it may not always be wise for people to be tried in courts where there may be some local scores to settle. It is important that we keep an eye on ensuring that, however the trials take place, the demands of justice are met.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, the Minister mentioned looting in the Statement and that it was almost inevitable. It came as no surprise to anyone that looting took place; it is only unfortunate that it took place in the Baghdad museum. That is particularly unfortunate to members of the all-party archaeological group, considering that the noble Lords, Lord Renfrew and Lord Lea, and I wrote a letter to the Minister before Easter specifically pointing out the areas at particular risk. Nothing was done at any of those sites.

Obviously it would be wrong of me to say that something should have been done, because it has not been done. However, what will now be done to protect the very rich and varied archaeological heritage of Iraq? It is likely that such heritage will be ransacked in the period when the interim authority has not got to its feet and will not be able to protect it.

Further to the question about cluster bombs, were maps made of where depleted uranium munitions were used? A very worrying recent report talks about the combination of not only their low-level radioactivity, but their increasingly worrying high-level toxicity. That means that we could have been using munitions that will be incredibly dangerous for many years to come. What is being done to clear up those munitions? What steps are we taking to protect our own soldiers in such a toxic environment, as well as Iraqi civilians?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that the looting was particularly unfortunate because three Members of the House wrote to say that it might happen; it was a dreadful thing to happen anyway. Looting of cultural and archaeological sites such as took place in the Baghdad museum is a matter of enormous concern. Coalition forces have taken direct action where possible to post military personnel at vulnerable sites. However, every time the troops stopped, they were shot at. The noble Lord must remember that our forces and the American forces were involved in a real, full-scale military engagement. The absolute priority was the saving of civilian life and the lives of our own coalition forces. No one could argue with that.

Of course such items must be looked after. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the DCMS and her colleagues are looking beyond the immediate problems of looting and acting to prevent the treasures of Iraq coming on to the international art market. We believe that some of the looting took place almost to order by individual collectors who knew what was in the museums and paid criminals to go in and fetch out the items. I understand that FBI agents have joined Interpol in a recovery operation for those stolen works. I am able to tell the noble Lord that a seminar to be held tomorrow at the British Museum will be attended by representatives of a number of national museums, including the Baghdad museum.

I hope that the noble Lord feels that we are doing everything we can. I am bound to say to him that it was not a simple case of telephoning someone and saying, "Please stop the looting of Baghdad museum". The noble Lord fails to understand what was really going on in Baghdad in the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad.

As to the matter of depleted uranium, we shall consider the questions raised by the noble Lord. At present I am not able to tell him the full range of the munitions used. As I have already undertaken to write to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on the question of cluster bombs, I shall ensure that my letter also covers the issue of depleted uranium. I absolutely understand that it is a matter of real concern to your Lordships and one that they have addressed on a number of occasions.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that both hands must clap if there is to be peace in the Middle East? Does she accept that, whatever his perceived faults, Prime Minister Sharon has made it plain that he is prepared to accept—and believes it to be right that there should be two states living side by side in peace and that he will work on the settlement issue not when terrorism and suicide bombing stops but when there is a visible, real and clear effort to stop them?

In those circumstances, does my noble friend accept that the leaders of all Israel's political parties, most of whom I met last week, wish there to be peace but do not believe that it will be possible while Chairman Arafat has real control? I join in welcoming my noble friend's words about Abu Mazen and the new Cabinet. We wish them well. But does my noble friend accept that only if that Cabinet can sideline Arafat can there be movement towards peace because otherwise it will not be acceptable to those who believe that he has been, and is, the creator of the terror and the suicide bombing and the provider of support for both?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sorry to say that I cannot agree with all of that. I know that my noble friend's heart is in the right place when he says that both sides must make an effort in this matter—he was clear about that—and that the priority is to stop the violence on both sides. I can agree with that. But I must remind my noble friend that Mr Arafat is the elected leader of his people and that it is not up to us to decide that his role as the president of the Palestinian Authority should end.

I say to my noble friend that it is important to remember that Abu Mazen, the new Prime Minister, is also the Minister of the Interior. He will be supported in that role by Mohammed Dahlan, who is the Minister of State for Internal Security Affairs and, I believe, also enjoys a considerable amount of international confidence. The Minister of the National Economy, Maher Al-Masri, will also have a very important role in shaping the future Palestinian Authority.

Therefore, I hope that we shall not criticise particular individuals and their role in the recent past. I hope that, with the publication of the road map, we can now look to the future and what that may hold for both sides in this extraordinarily damaging and vicious conflict.

Lord Renton

My Lords, do the Government accept that the rebuilding or repair of hospitals and people's homes and workplaces should be regarded as a high priority, although a costly one? Perhaps I may suggest that we should accept responsibility for work at Basra, which we managed to occupy without very great damage. But how else will work be paid for throughout the tremendous area of Baghdad and the other places where such damage has been done?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the immediate priorities are the humanitarian ones. They include ensuring that the people of Iraq obtain sufficient food, which we know has been secured—at least for the next couple of weeks or so; the provision of clean water, which, as the Statement set out, is now well under way; the provision of electricity; and ensuring that proper transport and infrastructure systems are in place. It is also vitally important that the schools and hospitals are open. I was able to tell your Lordships that in the north of the country that is largely the case and that situation is now spreading throughout the rest of Baghdad.

The question of who is to pay for all of that is obviously one that we shall wish to discuss with the United Nations. Let us remember that Iraq is potentially a very rich country. The point is that in the recent past the proceeds of Iraqi oil wealth have not been used for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Our job must be to ensure that the huge potential wealth is used for the people as a whole and not, as in the recent past, for a few members of a vicious regime.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend agrees that the entire situation in the Middle East would be transformed if there were an Israeli/ Palestinian settlement. But is she aware that there is concern that the widespread enthusiasm which we all share for such a settlement may not be matched by the necessary actions that have taken place in the United States? Will she take account of the fact that there is justifiable scepticism about the content, the publication and the implementation of such a road map?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I accept that there is a great deal of scepticism. My noble friend says that the enthusiasm may not be matched in all parts of the United States. I point out to him that I do not believe it is necessarily matched in all parts of the Palestinian Authority nor, indeed, in all parts of the Israeli Administration.

The fact is that the President of the United States made a forceful statement on this matter when he was in Northern Ireland with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago. The repetition in my right honourable friend's Statement this afternoon of the fact that the President of the United States said that he would pursue the peace process in the Middle East with the same vigour as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has pursued the peace process in Northern Ireland was very telling. I rest on the position of the President of the United States rather than on that of some other members of the Administration who may not be as enthusiastic as he is. He is the one with the real authority.

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