HL Deb 26 March 2003 vol 646 cc803-14

3.14 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a further Statement about military action in Iraq. Coalition forces have made significant progress since my Statement to the House last Friday.

"Saddam Hussein's calculation in this conflict is that western democracies are weak, that they have no stomach for a fight, that they will not stand up and go on standing up for the things they believe in.

"Tyrants misunderstand and miscalculate the values that are at the heart of our democracies— that we are here in this House only because people are able freely to elect us, and that we uphold and observe the rule of law. They also forget that the members of our Armed Forces volunteer to serve their country.

"Our Armed Forces comprise free men and women with their own often strongly held individual views and ideas. They serve together and risk their lives together because they choose to, not because some thug stands behind them or their family with threats of torture or execution.

"Those free men and women choose to risk their lives in the defence of values we share. And when those lives are lost we pay proper tribute to them and to their families, because they stand in our place, and we must in turn resolutely stand up for them.

"That is why on behalf of the Government I extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who died—20 individuals with 20 grieving families. Whether they died in tragic accidents, or from enemy fire, these men gave their lives in the service of their country and in defence of the highest ideals. We owe them and their families a profound debt of gratitude for their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.

"We have all seen the reporting from the 24-hour media over the last few days. Inevitably, such reporting reflects the immediate situation around specific journalists. It does not always give an overall picture or strategic perspective.

"I would therefore like to set out the context by reporting progress against the tasks identified in the Government's military campaign objectives published on 20th March.

"After six days of conflict, the coalition has made steady progress, following the main outline of our military plan, towards the objective of overcoming resistance from the Iraqi security forces. The Al Fawr peninsula, Umm Qasr and the southern oilfields have been secured, and Iraqi resistance in those areas defeated. 3 Commando Brigade is in control, and the United States 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been released to return to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force which is now heading towards Baghdad.

"16 Air Assault Brigade is deployed in the southern oilfields and the 7th Armoured Brigade dominates the Basra area. Resistance in nearby Az Zubayr has been defeated and British forces are in place in much of the area around the city of Basra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The first stage in providing that help to Iraq must be defeating Saddam Hussein's forces and establishing a secure environment. That is necessary before we can begin to conduct humanitarian operations. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel "Sir Galahad" is loaded with water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. It is waiting to enter Umm Qasr as soon as the sea lanes have been cleared of mines. At the same time, in a co-operative effort with Kuwait and the United States, Royal Engineers are constructing a water pipe from Kuwait into Iraq to provide drinking water.

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

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.24 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, from these Benches we are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I say at the outset that all our thoughts and sympathy are extended to the families of the courageous troops who have lost their lives and been wounded. We are grateful for the overall view of the campaign repeated by the Minister, as television reporting covers a mass of small incidents that can on occasion be misleading and unhelpful. On balance, it is clear that the coalition forces are doing well, that things are going to plan and that there has been no real setback for our forces. In fact, significant progress has been made.

However, it is with great regret that casualties have occurred. It is regrettably likely that more may occur, but we must stiffen our resolve in that respect. With regard to the tragic friendly fire accident of a Queen's Royal Lancer tank being destroyed by our own troops, I do not feel that it is wise to comment further until we know the Outcome of the inquiry, but of course it does demonstrate how essential it is that our own Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles have proper, working Identification Friend or Foe systems. In particular, I send all my sympathies to the families of the two tank crewmen who were killed and the two who were severely wounded.

I have several questions for the Minister. Why has it taken so long to silence the Iraqi television and broadcasting system? Although the main transmitters have been destroyed, other systems keep it running. If we want the people of Iraq to rise up, it is essential that speeches by Saddam Hussein are not seen or heard. Why should we have to listen to commentary by Saddam's generals broadcast by the BBC?

Will the Minister say a little more about the role of 16 Air Assault Brigade in the Ramaliah oil fields and of the Royal Marines on the Iranian border, to which he referred? I am not asking about their missions, but I should be interested, as I expect the House would be, to know a little more about their overall roles.

We have achieved what the plan required so far. Those achievements are excellent. We must keep stressing those achievements, and 7th Armoured Brigade is to be congratulated on its operations around Basra. The clearance of the Umm Qasr port and the waterways by the Royal Navy and its minesweepers has been an exemplary operation. It is to be congratulated on having done such a dangerous job so well.

I am sure that all sides of the House wish to convey our messages of good fortune to all our soldiers, sailors and airmen. We pray for their safe return. We owe them a vast debt of gratitude and I pay respectful tribute to them all.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, we echo that support for our soldiers fighting in Iraq at present and our regret for those who have died, especially through friendly fire. That is obviously one of the worst situations that the Armed Forces can face. Considering how complicated and dangerous is the operation that has been embarked on, it is almost to be expected. When soldiers are fighting at night and in sand, such tragedies may well take place. I hope that the Government will ensure—as I am sure that they are doing—that the systems that safeguard our troops against friendly fire incidents are satisfactory.

The Iraqi regime has not collapsed in the way that we were led to believe, mostly by the press. I hope that the Government will continue their careful and cautious policy, and that the constraints protecting Iraqi civilians from the overwhelming firepower of the coalition forces will not be relaxed.

It is extremely welcome that no chemical weapons have yet been used. However, there was a report in the press that a chemical weapons factory had been discovered. Was there any truth in that, or was it press speculation?

One issue that is now coming to the fore as ground is taken is humanitarian aid. It is a source of some relief that I believe that half of the water supply in Basra is now back on-line. It will be important for troops to get into Basra to normalise the situation, because it is not just the lack of food and water that will cause real upset, it will also be the inability of Iraqi farmers to take their tomatoes to market and sell their produce.

Although that is just a short-term crisis, in the long term it will affect how the Iraqi people view the coalition forces. I believe that only three countries have given military support to the action in Iraq. Can the Minister indicate how many countries have committed forces or units for humanitarian relief? I ask that question particularly because, until the situation is settled in Iraq, the military will have to guard humanitarian convoys and allow non-governmental organisations to work in safety. That will cause a great drain on our military resources in the Gulf.

Obviously, our thoughts are with the soldiers in Iraq. But our thoughts are also with the people of Iraq who face such fear and danger.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords from the Front Benches for their helpful and supportive comments at this time. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, perhaps I may say a word about the sad deaths of the two soldiers in the Challenger tank. The noble Lord did not mention it but I know, and your Lordships House would want to know, that the soldiers came from the same regiment that the noble Lord served in so notably for many years. While we all feel the pain of that appalling incident, I dare say that the noble Lord feels it as much, if not more, strongly. I am sure that your Lordships would want to ask the noble Lord to pass on our best wishes to that brave regiment.

There is an ongoing inquiry into the incident. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked questions about it. He will forgive me if I say very little, save that a range of equipment was fitted to Challenger 2 tanks before the operation to contribute to the combat ID capability. Whatever is or is not fitted, I regret that the ghastly truth is that in war—I dare say this was true of olden days as well as in modern times—there can never be 100 per cent guarantee that these particularly appalling incidents of friendly fire do not occur. That is all I shall say on that topic now.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asked questions about some British forces and whether I could give more detail. I am afraid that I am not in a position to give that information to him today.

As regards weapons of mass destruction, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked a question in relation to the site about which we have all read in the newspapers. The position has not advanced much since those reports. We are aware of reports that a so-called chemical weapons factory has been discovered near Najaf. The Pentagon will not be drawn on these reports—quite understandably—while they are unconfirmed. Of course, we will not be drawn either. But I assure noble Lords that extremely careful research is going on to establish whether there is anything in that newspaper story.

On humanitarian relief, I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, an exact number for the nations involved. Indeed, I am not sure that knowing precise numbers of nations involved in various aspects adds very much. I am neither confirming nor denying the statement that he made; namely, that three countries are involved in war fighting at present.

The point is that the military action against the regime to enforce disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is supported by a broad coalition of well over 40 countries. Some 20 countries are providing or have offered military forces or host nation basing to the coalition and supporting activity. A large number of other nations are providing logistical support as well. Many countries have expressed their desire to help the crucial humanitarian assistance part of this campaign.

Finally, I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that my understanding, too, is that 50 per cent of the water supply to Basra has now been restored.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, the Minister no doubt in error overlooked the question about television being disabled.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend; I wish he was always there to remind me. This is an important point and fairly sensitive to describe. My understanding is that the television station hit last night also had a military connection. Bearing in mind that very careful targeting is central to the coalition's aims in this campaign, one of the reasons why television studios or centres have not been hit is that they were considered too close to civilians. I am told that a way has been found around that. That is why the damage was done to the particular television station last night. But the frustration that the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, expresses is one I think we all share.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does the Minister not agree, while not advocating censorship of our broadcasting media, that it would be a good idea for the Government to suggest that it is neither in good taste nor compassionate to keep showing pictures of coalition prisoners of war who are in a state of shock? This causes them great distress in later years and distress to their families.

Lord Bach

My Lord, the noble Baroness tempts me and I cannot resist the temptation. She is absolutely right. I shall not enter into a general criticism of how the media have handled events so far. They have a job to do and, in many ways, they have done it extremely well. On that particular matter, those sections of the media that have shown the pictures can be criticised. Undoubtedly, putting those prisoners of war before the media was a gross breach of the Geneva Convention, but we should not be surprised that Saddam's regime encourages such breaches. I hope that after that rather poor beginning in terms of allied prisoners of war, it will not be repeated.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister to send from me and from all the ladies of the War Widows Association of Great Britain our deepest love and our greatest sympathy to the widows and families of all the servicemen we have lost in Iraq.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. I guarantee that that message will be relayed as she asked.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear this thought in mind because I think that it is very encouraging? The numbers of casualties have been absolutely tiny in this war. More people have been killed on the roads in England during the past week than have been killed in battle. In half an hour, a squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry was wiped out at Villiers Bocage in 1944. In 218, 30,000 Romans were killed in three hours at the Battle of Lake Trasimene. We have had a stupendously great victory so far. Our soldiers have done brilliantly. Just a minor point. The forebears of my noble friend Lord Vivian were not allowed to continue the pursuit at Waterloo because there had been a big blue-on-blue by the Prussians shooting up the Oxon Bucks Light Infantry, so the Prussians continued. There is nothing new on shooting our own side, tragic though it may be. Surely, we should congratulate people on the infinite care and lack of casualties, both to ourselves and to the enemy, in what we have achieved so far.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I thank him for his comments. One of our main aims is to ensure that casualties—no matter where they come from—are kept to an absolute minimum. Every fatality is a tragic loss. I hope that the number of casualties remains low, but I would be foolish to forecast that that will continue to be the position. War is a dreadful thing and will undoubtedly lead to casualties. The noble Earl prefaced his question with the words "so far". Each casualty is terrible, but so far there have not been as many as expected. We have a long way to go and we have to keep our nerve.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, there has been much speculation about calls from Sulaymaniyah last night for a northern front incorporating PUK and KDP posh merga forces with the coalition forces. Has my noble friend anything to report on that matter?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid I do not have anything to report on that matter. My noble friend can rest assured that the coalition is keeping a close eye on events in northern Iraq.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, there seems to be an increasing tendency for members of the Iraqi armed forces to abandon their uniforms and dress in civilian clothes while keeping their weapons. Is that not likely to make it more difficult for our forces to distinguish between such people and genuine civilians whom they are instructed not to injure if at all possible. If this is true and results in more civilian deaths, is it not clear that the fault will lie not with our side but with the Iraqis? Will the Government and the American Government make this very clear, by all means possible, to the world and to Iraq?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as always, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point. Such tactics, which appear to be being employed, are completely ruthless, as one would expect. The coalition seems more concerned about civilian casualties than the Iraqi regime, whose citizens these people are. It is clear that in some of the southern towns and cities about which we have heard so much, the intensity of the regime has dominated people's lives. We are seeing still the intensity of that domination in the way the Iraqi authorities are behaving.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, many will have welcomed the Prime Minister's statement yesterday that we will not make the same mistake we made in 1991 by failing to support the uprising that took place then. He said that we would not fail the people of Iraq this time. Given the tyranny and the brutality to which the Minister referred, can he tell the House the current situation in regard to the uprisings of resistance in Iraq, not least in Basra.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can say little more than I have said so far. As the Prime Minister said earlier today, the picture is confused. There may have been an uprising in Basra but, as yet, we do not have a clear picture of its scope or scale or where it will take us. However, coalition forces are engaging groups of enemy and other paramilitary forces as they try to flee the city. Once matters become clearer we shall look to assist and exploit the situation in order to liberate the brave people of Basra and allow humanitarian aid to flow into the city. The noble Lord can rest assured that the people of Iraq will not be left in the position they were 12 years ago.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what success we have had in putting out the fires in the, luckily, relatively few oil wells fired by the Iraqi authorities.

Lord Bach

My Lords, in comparison to the total number of oilfields, very few fires indeed have been started. I believe that nine have been set on fire, although we have found many where charges have been laid but not set off. The clear reason for that is the brilliant campaign undertaken by the British forces to get there quickly and efficiently. Saddam Hussein sought to invoke an environmental disaster 12 years ago. No doubt he would have attempted to do so again had he been able to, but this time he has seemingly not succeeded. Not all the fires have been put out, but all of them are under control.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I add further expressions of gratitude and admiration from these Benches for the courage and professionalism of our servicemen and women and send profound sympathy to those injured and bereaved so far and offer our prayers for them.

Can the Minister elaborate further on the restoration of the water supply to Basra? Has the International Committee of the Red Cross been involved in helping to restore the water supply? Does the Minister see a possibility of other NGOs being able to be involved fairly soon in areas of Iraq where relative peace has been re-established? Can he say more about his expectations of the role of NGOs and how soon they will be able to operate?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we know that in Basra a high order of humanitarian needs existed well before the conflict began a week or so ago. I am not in a position to give the right reverend Prelate more specific information. Our policy is clear. We want to see humanitarian aid going into Iraq—into Basra in particular—as soon as possible. We shall have to establish a secure environment before we can do so, and that is what we are working to achieve.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for being absent during the opening moments of the Statement. Is it not inevitable that the extraordinary news coverage that is taking place, together with the insatiable demands of the various networks for more and more news, has led directly to a feeling of impatience and that something has gone badly wrong? In that connection, is it not worth remembering that, although the land campaign in the previous Gulf War took four days, the entire campaign took 42 days to achieve a much more limited objective? Perhaps I may offer this advice to the Minister when dealing with this impatience that may lead to confusion and to a feeling that perhaps the campaign is failing. There is obviously a heavy load on the Minister and his colleagues to inform the people. The media will not change—they will continue to press and to demand more action—and he will have to convey the messages. In conveying those messages, may I suggest that it is very important that all the government and military spokesmen under-claim rather than over-claim and follow any rumour. In the famous and tragic fog of war, it will give easy propaganda victories to Saddam Hussein and his cohorts if they can prove that stories we appear to be supporting are unfounded. That is a very important aspect of the present campaign.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater. He is right. Some of the expectations which have appeared in the media and elsewhere have always been ridiculous. The noble Lord, better than anyone, can make comparisons between the Gulf War, and perhaps Kosovo, and this conflict. We have had huge successes very early in the campaign. No one really thought that by this time we would have got as far and done as well as we have. We shall bear in mind his second point about under-claiming. I hope that we are doing that. We are trying to be as cautious as possible with a 24-hour media and some of the absurd claims that have been made. We have to feel our way when we have to counter the occasional exaggerated story. We do not want to say that it is not true when it may be true in part.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord King, is the Minister satisfied that the massive press presence, with its TV cameras and instantaneous reporting of events, is not a hindrance or even a danger to our fighting forces? Do the commanders on the ground have clear instructions on how to deal with the press the moment it becomes a nuisance, without having the fear that they themselves will be pilloried if they tell members of the press to get lost?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the great majority of the journalists now in the Gulf working with the coalition and our Armed Forces are, to use the parlance, embedded in the coalition; that is, commanders on the ground have the authority that the noble Lord asked about. Clearly, if journalists are in danger of representing a real challenge to our troops, then of course I am sure that they would be told to get lost; or in military terms, something a good deal stronger than that.

On the other hand, it is important to recall that there is no better proof of a free society than one in which journalists are able to comment as they please, able to watch battles taking place and witness the campaign being waged, and are then able to report back to a free people. If anything like that could take place in Iraq, then things would be very much for the better.

Lord Fearn

My Lords, can the Minister explain why Turkish troops have amassed on Iraq's borders? Is there a reason for that?

Lord Bach

My Lords, to a limited extent, Turkish troops have been within northern Iraq for many years. We know that the Turks have a legitimate interest in what is now taking place in Iraq and they fear what may happen. However, along with the rest of the world, we have advised the Turks to act cautiously. Although they fear a break-up of Iraq's territorial integrity, that is not something that the coalition is going to allow to take place.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am slightly disappointed that, to date, not a great deal of mention has been made of our reserve forces serving in the Gulf. Perhaps I may remind the House and the Minister that some 5,000 men and women are currently serving in the Gulf. Those people have given up their civilian jobs and a large part of their daily existence and lives for the next nine months. They are professional people comprising medics, signallers, sappers, members of REME and many other specialists. Whenever and wherever possible, and when the opportunity presents itself, can I ask the Government to make more mention of the vital role that these great and to date unsung heroes are playing on our frontline and right through to our rear support? The reservists will be hugely important to the success of the outcome in the Gulf.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl very much for his words and certainly I take on board the message that he has sent to us. I believe that earlier today my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place responded to certain specific questions on the position of the reserve forces. However, what the noble Earl has said is absolutely right. The sacrifice made by the volunteers in giving up their everyday lives in order to serve their country—in passing, I do not apologise for mentioning again one of our colleagues in this House, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee—is something that the rest of us can only wonder at.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that many countries are now providing logistical support. Can he tell the House whether any Arab countries are openly on that list? Furthermore, can he comment on the reaction in their own countries?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer the noble Earl's question.