§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)
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 Defence. The Statement is as follows:
"Mr Speaker, with permission I should like to make a Statement about military operations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
"President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired at one o'clock this morning. Just as Saddam failed to take his final opportunity to disarm by peaceful means, so he has now failed to take his final opportunity to depart in peace and avoid the need 387 for coalition military action. I draw the House's attention to Hans Blix's comments in New York yesterday that he was disappointed that three and a half months of inspection work had not brought clear assurances from the Iraqis of the absence of weapons of mass destruction.
"President Bush announced at 3.15 this morning, on behalf of the coalition, that operations had begun with attacks on selected targets of military importance. Those attacks were carried out by coalition aircraft and cruise missiles on more than one target in the vicinity of Baghdad, following information relating to the whereabouts of very senior members of the Iraqi leadership. Those leaders are at the very heart of Iraq's command and control system, responsible for directing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
"Saddam Hussein's regime is the chief obstacle to the disarmament of Iraq. The military plan is therefore crafted around his removal from power. We will place a copy of the Government's military campaign objectives in the Library of the House later today.
"In addition to those attacks, coalition forces yesterday carried out certain preliminary operations against Iraqi artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and air defence systems within the southern No Fly Zone. Those were prudent preparatory steps, using coalition air capabilities previously used in the No Fly Zones, designed to reduce the threat to coalition forces in Kuwait. The protection of our servicemen and women will remain a matter of paramount importance.
"The House will be aware of reports of Iraqi missile attacks against Kuwait. Those incidents are being investigated by personnel with the appropriate skills and the necessary protection. There are no reported casualties so far, but I am afraid that there is nothing more that I can confirm to the House at this stage.
"I should like to draw the attention of the House to two particular points. First, coalition forces will take every possible care to minimise civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. While the coalition will use modern weapons, which are more accurate than ever, we can unfortunately never exclude the possibility of civilian casualties, tragic though they always are. However, people should treat with caution Iraq's claims of civilian casualties. The Iraqi people are not our enemies, and we are determined to do all that we can to help them build the better future that they deserve.
"Secondly, I caution the House against suggestions that the campaign will be over in a very short time. We certainly all hope that offensive operations will be over quickly, but we should not underestimate the risks and difficulties that we may face against a regime that is the embodiment of absolute ruthlessness with an utter disregard for human life.
388 "Turning to the United Kingdom's Armed Forces, I have set out in successive Statements the forces that we have prepared for this purpose. We have deployed a substantial naval force of 29 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including the aircraft carrier, HMS "Ark Royal", and the helicopter carrier, HMS "Ocean"; a land force led by Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division and including 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 16 Air Assault Brigade, 7th Armoured Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade; and an air force comprising about 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters.
"In all, about 45,000 servicemen and women have been assigned to the campaign to disarm Iraq. Our forces will make a major contribution to the military action to disarm Iraq, which we will pursue at a time and on a schedule of cur own choosing. They are trained, equipped and ready for the tasks that they may now need to undertake. British forces are already engaged in some military operations, although the House will understand why I cannot give further details at this stage.
"Events over the coming days will dominate the 24-hour media. The House will recognise that we must all be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of 'breaking news' before there has been time to conduct a proper investigation. Similarly, the House will understand—and I hope the media will too—that if we respond to media pressure for instant operational detail, we could risk the security and safety of our forces. We cannot therefore offer a running commentary on media reports.
"I will, however, ensure that the House is kept fully informed of significant developments. That is why I am making this Statement today. In addition to Statements as and when necessary, I will arrange for a short summary to be placed in the Library of the House, and copies made available to Members in the Vote Office, as warranted by the day's events.
"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be travelling to the European Council this afternoon. Once military action has begun and UK forces are substantially engaged, the Prime Minister will ask to make a broadcast to the nation.
"Once again, we are placing an enormous weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our Armed Forces. We have not taken the decision to do so lightly. The commitment to military action of service personnel is always the gravest step that any Government can take. I know that the thoughts and prayers of the House and our country are with them, and their families, as they embark on their mission. We hope for their safe and swift return".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place and for assuring the House that he will keep your Lordships informed and that short summaries will be placed in the Library, as warranted by the day's events.
389 Military operations are likely to be unpredictable, as events in the early hours of this morning confirmed. It is appreciated that throughout this conflict targets will present themselves at short notice and it will be essential that military commanders are able to react immediately and with the necessary autonomy. It is also important to ensure that those commanders in the field are left to get on with the job and win the battles, and that Ministers do not interfere with decision-making on the battlefield.
The Statement refers to last night's aerial attacks being carried out using coalition aircraft and cruise missiles on targets in the vicinity of Baghdad. Will the Minister tell us whether those coalition forces included the UK? If so, what part did we take? Will he confirm that the coalition is far wider than just the United Kingdom and the United States of America and comprises some 35 nations, although not all are directly involved in military operations? There are reports of some four Scud-B missile attacks on Kuwait. If it is confirmed that those are A1 Sammoud missiles with a range of at least 600 kilometres, it would prove beyond dispute that Saddam Hussein had continued to lie and deceive and had failed to disarm. Can the Minister provide more detail about the reported exchange of artillery fire? We welcome the recovery of all the crew and the special forces from the United States helicopter crash in southern Iraq.
It would also help the House if the Minister could provide more information about the situation regarding Turkey. Apparently the Turkish parliament is sitting now. Does he consider that there will be a positive outcome to the request for approval of coalition overfly rights and the movement of US troops through northern Turkey? Is there any likelihood of interaction of Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq?
It is assumed that Iraqis will be given prisoner-of-war status on surrender. But, bearing in mind that it is a very expensive manpower operation to guard prisoners of war and costly on rations, water and medical facilities, what role might they be invited to play in later stages of the conflict, perhaps as volunteers fighting for us?
I endorse caution in respect of claims that the conflict will be over in a very short time. We hope sincerely that it will be. Cautious optimism is the best approach to adopt. There will inevitably be events in the next few days or weeks that involve bad, distressing news. It will test our determination to continue the fight. However, momentum must he maintained, and we must all have the strength and resolve to see this through to the end.
I feel a special affinity with the troops deployed as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, with which I spent the greater part of my life, and the 16/5th Queens Royal Lancers—now the Queens Royal Lancers—which I commanded, who are both about to be in action. I wish them and all other units, including our coalition partners, the best of good fortune. I pray for their safe return and for their families to be given strength during this worrying time.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I echo the support for the servicemen and servicewomen from all three services in the Gulf in what is a very frightening time for them and their families. I realise that the Minister will find it extremely difficult to answer many questions on a fluid situation. I shall try not to ask any to which he obviously would not have answers.
I have only three questions. The first concerns the attacks last night. Can the Minister confirm the process by which targeting was agreed between the British and the Americans? Does all targeting go through the British chain of command, ending with the Prime Minister, for such sensitive targets? I ask that, in particular, because it will be a difficult conflict to prosecute, considering that we are trying to change the regime but at the same time spare casualties on the Iraqi side and as much as possible of the infrastructure which will be so necessary for humanitarian assistance in the coming few weeks.
My second question is this. Of the 35 countries mentioned by the spokesperson for the Official Opposition, which have supplied military support in the field? At present it appears that around three have done so.
Obviously, the Minister may not be able to answer the particulars of my next question, which relates to a matter of some concern, but he may be able to give the reason behind any action taken. There are indications that prisoners of war have been trying to surrender to the allied forces. It is rumoured that they have been turned away. The Minister may be able to confirm or deny that. On what basis would such soldiers be turned away, considering the uncertain fate of any soldier trying to desert the Iraqi army?
Now that we are at war, we support our soldiers. However, there is a perception that it will be a short and bloodless war. That may well not be the case, but we hope that it will be. We thank the Minister for all the information that he can give Parliament in the coming few weeks.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I am truly grateful to both noble Lords for their comments, questions and, in particular, for their support of the Statement that I have repeated. For the moment, I pick out the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. I found what he said quite moving, because he has real, distinguished experience over many years in the British Army. He spoke to the House with the benefit of that experience. We also have in our thoughts today our colleague, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who is serving his country as we speak.
I shall answer those questions of the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Redesdale, to which I can respond. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, insisted that commanders in the field should have considerable freedom. They will have that freedom, as he knows they have in the past.
As I understand it, the United Kingdom was not involved in last night's engagement. The noble Lord mentions 35 nations in the coalition; I understand that 391 there are more than 35. In response to the question of which nations provide what assets, all provide an asset by supporting what, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, is a noble cause. I am not in a position to say which nations have or have not provided military assets.
I am afraid that it is too early to say whether the missiles that the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, refers to are in breach or not. Whether or not they are, I do not think that we would be surprised to find during the next few anxious days and weeks that quite a number are in breach. I am afraid that I have no more details about the artillery fire incidents that occurred yesterday.
On Turkey, I cannot speak for the Turkish parliament. We very much hope that it will decide to allow coalition aircraft to fly over Turkey. But I am afraid that we will just have to wait and see.
Both noble Lords asked about prisoners of war. It goes without saying that they will be looked after entirely appropriately under international law. I cannot comment on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on the rumour about incidents yesterday. Yesterday was a particularly difficult day on the border between Kuwait and Iraq, but I cannot confirm or deny what is said to have happened.
All that I may say about last night's incident over Baghdad is that the British Government knew about it in advance, as one would expect. Targeting is taken extremely seriously by the whole coalition. I tell the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that we take very seriously our responsibility to act within the framework of international law regulating international conflict. Very careful attention is applied to ensure that we minimise the risk of damage from any quarter to civilian populations and infrastructure. I think that those points answer the questions that the noble Lords posed.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Lord Rea
My Lords, did not the Statement do Hans Blix an injustice by using only part of his statement to the Security Council? He went on to say that he regretted that he had not had more time to finish his 'work. The British-American coalition seemed to be in a great hurry to get started, and one of the reasons given for that was the weather conditions. Could it not also have been the fact that Mr Blix might have found that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction that warranted a pre-emptive strike, rather as my right honourable friend Robin Cook suggested in his resignation speech?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, it was not the job of Hans Blix and the inspectors to find such prohibited weapons of mass destruction. It was the duty of the Iraqi authorities to hand such weapons over immediately after the passing of Resolution 1441—well before that, one might say. The inspectors were not supposed to be detectives, and Resolution 1441 was expressly clear on what it required the Iraqi authorities to do.
392 My noble friend is right. I heard the interview with Hans Blix on the "Today" programme this morning, in which he expressed disappointment. I acknowledge that, but, in his turn, my noble friend must acknowledge that Hans Blix also made it clear that he was disappointed that, after three and a half months of inspection work, following the passing of Resolution 1441, there had been no clear assurances from the Iraqis of the absence of weapons of mass destruction. In my view, that justifies what we are doing.
§ Lord Eden of Winton
My Lords, I welcome the references in the Statement to media reporting. Does the noble Lord recall the excessive coverage during the previous Gulf War by CNN and the damage that it did to the allied cause? On this occasion, might not the media be reminded that it is not some form of showbiz in which they must compete for coverage? This is for real, and lives will be at risk the whole time. In those circumstances, is it too much to hope that they will show some measure of self-restraint and some sense of responsibility?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I remember the reporting of the Gulf War. The noble Lord makes a fair point, but I must say that there is, as yet, nothing to suggest that the media have not learnt lessons from that experience. There is some time to go before we can make a judgment on that, but what the noble Lord said should be borne in mind by all the media—there are thousands of media people in the Gulf—in their reporting of the news.
§ The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
My Lords. I was saddened this morning to hear the news that military action against Iraq had begun, in spite of recent strenuous efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution. As we have heard numerous times in recent days, many people in our country and the world, including me and other noble Lords, had great hopes of a diplomatic solution. It is of the greatest concern when such diplomacy fails and armed conflict is perceived to be the last resort in settling the world's problems.
Like many noble Lords, I remain less than convinced that sufficient evidence was produced to justify the action, but that is now history. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said in the recent debate in your Lordships' House, we must now refocus our concerns. We can and will unite with those who have always supported military action, and we can do so in several ways.
We will pray that the conflict will be over as speedily as possible. We will pray that casualties will be as few as possible. We will hope and pray for the appropriate rehabilitation of Iraq and its civilian population and for proper humanitarian treatment for families, especially the children. We will pray that a new and better Iraq, free of tyranny, will emerge when the conflict ends—soon, we hope.
In the debate in your Lordships' House the other evening, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford drew our attention to the vital ministry of our service chaplains in the conflict. I am glad to draw 393 our attention to their work and promise them my strong support for their ministry. I assure them and all the members of our armed services with whom they serve and their anxious families and loved ones of our earnest and continuing prayers.
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the right reverend Prelate, but I must ask him to frame a question.
§ The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
My Lords, will the Minister ask the Churches to continue to pray, to keep their churches open for such prayer and continue to strive, with other faith communities, to stand firm together in this difficult period?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for those remarks. The United Kingdom Government had exactly the same hope as he and his colleagues had that we could solve the issue by diplomatic means.
I also thank the right reverend Prelate for what he said about service padres. I know that priests of different denominations and faiths already play an important part in keeping British troops—and other troops as well, no doubt—feeling wanted and important. They are helping them at a difficult time for them and their families. We have all seen on television the services that have taken place in the past few days. Importantly, they are inter-faith, rather than being for just one faith.
Finally, I say to the right reverend Prelate that many of us will have listened to his colleague—our colleague—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford this morning on the "Today" programme and will have heard him use the prayer of St Augustine. I found it very affecting.
§ Lord Vincent of Coleshill
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear and timely Statement and for the helpful information that he made available to the House in his answers to subsequent questions.
The Minister indicated the number and type of the forces deployed out there. If my mental arithmetic is right, we have more there than at the time of the Gulf War, when the Armed Forces were about 330,000 strong. Today, they are 250,000 strong, and 19,000 at home have to stand by to act as fire-fighters. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government are considering the long-term sustainability of the operation, if it turns out to be a longer and harder struggle than we hope?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, who had great experience of the first Gulf War some years ago. Undoubtedly, he is right. The fact that 19,000 of our Armed Forces personnel must stand by for possible Fire Brigades Union strikes is shocking. I believe that most members of that union will appreciate how shocking it is at this time, when our troops are putting themselves on the line.
394 As the noble and gallant Lord will understand better than most, there is much consideration in the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere of the dispositions of our Armed Forces, if the conflict takes any length of time. At this stage, I can tell the noble and gallant Lord only that those discussions are going on.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord for making the Statement and for the manner in which he made it, whatever side we take on the conflict. However, I must press him on the treatment of prisoners of war. This is an extremely important aspect, bearing in mind that the United States has incarcerated in Cuba, without trial and in not very good conditions, Taliban fighters who are as much soldiers as anyone. It has kept them without access and, apparently, without much representation from our Government.
Will the Government ensure that prisoners of war captured in this war are treated according to international standards? Will the Minister ensure that the Government make representation to the United States and any other country's forces which might be involved in this war that they do likewise? If they do not, we are not acting quite like Saddam Hussein, but nevertheless we are not acting in accordance with the high principles of which this country is rightly proud.
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I agree with everything that the noble Lord says. He can rest assured that we shall ensure that any prisoners of war are looked after in accordance with international law. Anything else would be quite wrong. Indeed. if we look forward to a new Iraq, which we should do now, it will be doubly important that those poor conscripts, who in many cases have been dragged into the Iraqi army without any choice, are well looked after. They have a place in the future of Iraq and we must ensure that they do not lose faith in that.
§ Lord King of Bridgwater
My Lords, I offer my best wishes to the Minister and his colleagues, who are to face a very tough time indeed. In the first 24 hours—or barely that—one can see how the wealth of rumour is spreading and the difficulty that the Ministers will have in trying to give accurate information. There is one particular aspect that I hope Ministers will ensure is followed through. If we were, sadly, to suffer casualties, it is of prime importance that the next of kin are told at the earliest possible moment in a properly sympathetic and considerate way and do not learn it from the media. It is important that if casualties have to be announced the Minister can say then that the next of kin have been informed. That is very important because when casualties are announced everyone thinks that their son or brother is involved—all 35,000 of them. Therefore, from the point of view of morale, it is very important that that information accompanies any announcement. It is a major challenge and a major test, but I hope that that will be met.
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for his good wishes to Ministers. He had a very responsible role during the previous Gulf war. He speaks with a great deal of experience from that time. His good wishes are much appreciated by all Ministers.
He is absolutely right about the dangers of rumour. As the noble Lord, Lord Eden mentioned, we live in an age of constant, 24-hour media coverage. There is a real responsibility on the media as regards the prospect of casualties. As he would expect, there are papers in the Ministry of Defence that I have seen that deal anxiously with this particular issue. I reassure him that as far as the Ministry is concerned it will he essential that any announcement of casualties is done in an appropriate way—namely, in the way he outlined.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, I strongly welcome the tone and content of what the Minister has said to the House today. I have two questions. My first question concerns the issue of deserters and the report that the half-brother of Saddam last night went into exile in Syria. Is the Minister able to share any information on both that move and the desertion of troops at the border with Kuwait? Will the Minister tell us how we shall prosecute those responsible for crimes of genocide? Is it our intention to use the International Criminal Court or will we be setting up a separate tribunal in order to ensure that those who have been responsible for such crimes against humanity inside Iraq are brought to justice? That is the reason why many of us have supported the Government in the stand that they have taken in prosecuting this war.
Does the Minister agree that the words spoken yesterday by Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins were both eloquent and moving and that he summed up the purpose of this conflict when he said,We go to liberate not to conquer"?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I cannot help him on his first two questions about deserters. I should rather make no comment on that at this stage, not having the information in front of me. Indeed, it would be dangerous to do so and we would not be keeping to our word unless we actually knew what occurred before announcing it.
Secondly, beyond saying that the Iraqi leadership should beware of prosecutions at the conclusion of hostilities, it is much too early to say under what provisions and to which court. I am sure that that is a matter to which we shall return. Thirdly, I back up the comments made by Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins. Many people heard them and thought that they were in the best tradition of the British Army.
§ Lord Maclennan of Rogart
My Lords, I express appreciation of what the Minister said and I understand why he said that it would not be possible for the Government to comment on all the stories that appear and the inevitability of very widespread coverage, much of which will not originate from this 396 country. If the inference is that the Government recognise at this stage that censorship would be unhelpful, I welcome that.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, will the Minister comment more fully on the firefighters' strike? Are the Government taking, or considering taking, any action to stop this totally unjustified and deleterious action?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, as I understand it, thankfully, the strike that was called for tomorrow has been called off. We know that there has been some conflict between the leadership and other parts of the Fire Brigades Union. We call on that union to say as soon as possible that it will agree the settlement and will call off the risks of any further strikes.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I want to press the Minister further on the prosecution of war criminals. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the Royal Irish Regiment captures Saddam Hussein. He is obviously, on what anyone has said, a barbarian of the first order. Would it not be an irony if he were caught and charged in front of the International Criminal Court when the United States does not recognise the ICC?
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I turn to another aspect of what the Minister said in terms of deployment of our forces. Does it not make it absolutely clear that British forces are now a substantial part of a coalition and not, as some people have said, just an add-on to the Americans?
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. What he says is absolutely right. We are an essential and important part of the coalition force. The best proof of that is that our American allies say precisely that. We have a very large proportion of our Armed Forces in theatre at present. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, made that point. The jobs and work that they will have to do will be essential if and when we are to win this conflict.