HC Deb 03 July 1961 vol 643 cc1006-12
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement.

The House will remember that on Wednesday, 28th June, in reply to a Question from the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal made it clear that in the situation created by the claim of Iraq to sovereignty over Kuwait Her Majesty's Government assured the Ruler of their support. At the same time, they took certain precautionary military measures in order to enable swift action to be taken should the situation deteriorate.

As the House knows, the claim by the Iraqi Government to the territory and sovereignty of Kuwait followed swiftly on the exchange of Notes of 19th June. This claim was accompanied by a violent Press and radio campaign from Baghdad.

The Iraqi forces at Basra, only about 30 miles from the Kuwait border, were clearly quite sufficient to occupy Kuwait by a rapid movement against the modest Kuwait Army. On 29th and 30th June, evidence accumulated from a number of sources that reinforcements, especially reinforcements of armour, were moving towards Basra. In these circumstances, the Ruler felt it his duty to make a formal urgent request for British assistance under the exchange of Notes. This he did on the morning of 30th June.

Her Majesty's Government, who are under a clear obligation to meet such a request under the exchange of Notes signed on 19th June, responded at once. British forces were landed in Kuwait on the morning of 1st July.

At the same time, the Ruler of Kuwait sent to the President of the Security Council a complaint in respect of the situation caused by the threat by Iraq to the territorial independence of Kuwait, which was likely to endanger peace and security, and asked for an immediate meeting of the Council to consider it. The United Kingdom representative in New York also reported our action to the Security Council in accordance with the provisions of the Charter, and supported the Ruler's request for an urgent meeting.

The Security Council met yesterday morning. They took note of the situation and adjourned until Wednesday.

Her Majesty's Government earnestly hope that counsels of moderation will prevail in Baghdad. Our forces are in Kuwait purely for defensive purposes and in accordance with our Treaty obligations. They will be withdrawn as soon as the Ruler considers that the independence of Kuwait is no longer threatened. They present no threat to Iraq, with whom we wish to maintain the friendliest possible relations.

I am convinced that it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government to act as they did. I believe that they will receive the general support of the House and the country.

I will keep the House informed of further developments.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister aware that, much as we regret the fact that British troops have had to be landed in Kuwait, most of us, I think, will feel that in view of the treaty obligations and the formal request of the Ruler following the threatening posture adopted by Iraq, Her Majesty's Government had really no option but to take the action they did? No doubt the House will wish to have an opportunity of debating this matter a little later, when the situation is rather clearer. I take it that the Prime Minister will keep us informed of any developments there may be.

In the meantime, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, in view of the unfortunate possibility that this situation may continue for some time without being properly cleared up, would it not be a good idea to propose to the United Nations that we would be willing to support the idea of a United Nations force to take responsibility for the protection of Kuwait, since this will, at any rate, do much to get rid of the misrepresentation to which we are undoubtedly being subjected at this very moment—[HON. MEMBERS: "By whom?"] By propaganda in the Middle East, and many other parts of the world.

Secondly, is it not a fact that the situation in the Middle East, and particularly the position in Kuwait, is liable to be somewhat extended and uncertain in view of the great disparity of wealth between different countries there, and would it not be a good plan to propose, through diplomatic channels, to the Arab States concerned the creation of a fund to which both the oil-producing countries and the oil companies might contribute for the benefit of the Middle East generally? Is it a fact that the Ruler of Kuwait has himself indicated his willingness to subscribe to such a fund? Would Her Majesty's Government consider putting their authority and influence behind this idea?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for what the Leader of the Opposition has said. I feel sure that what he has said was the general view that we bad no option but to act as we did in the circumstances as they were on Friday.

We do not, of course, rule out any solution by a United Nations or other force, but first things first. The force that has been landed in response to the Ruler's request is at present the only effective method of maintaining the independence of Kuwait, and I cannot tell what will happen in the next two or three days, or two or three weeks. There are no signs at all of the threat diminishing; rather the contrary, as the attitude of the Iraqi representative in the Security Council seems to show.

There may, of course, come a later stage when it would be possible to support the independence of Kuwait by an arrangement made upon a wider basis. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that we have no desire to carry on with this considerable military and financial burden for any longer period than our obligations require.

The right hon. Gentleman's second question is, of course, a much wider one. Meanwhile, I think that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the Ruler of Kuwait has shown himself conscious of his responsibilities in the Arab world. The Government of Kuwait have, for instance, recently agreed to employ part of their revenue in certain projects of a constructive kind in the Arab world.

Mr. Nabarro

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of British people warmly support the action taken by Her Majesty's Government and, in particular, the contrast it offers to what occurred ten years ago in Abadan? Would my right hon. Friend give the House some information about the American attitude? Is it not the fact that 50 per cent. of the output of oil from Kuwait is British-controlled and that 50 per cent. is American-controlled? Are the Americans proposing to participate militarily in the defence of Kuwait, or will it be a solely British responsibility?

The Prime Minister

I think that the great thing is to deal with each crisis as it occurs. My colleagues and I found this, as the House can understand, quite a difficult decision to take, and I am much supported by the general sense of the House that we could not afford to leave Kuwait hopelessly undefended against forces poised to attack them.

We have been in the closest touch throughout with all the Commonwealth countries. I have personally been in touch with the Prime Ministers and heads of the Commonwealth States, and we have had the closest co-operation with the United States. I do not think that now we ought to embark on the larger issues. Let us, first, just see if we can get through this immediate crisis.

Mr. Gaitskell

If, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman desires, the general support of the country is to 'be forthcoming, then it is as well not to confuse an invitation from the Ruler of a State under treaty obligations for a request by the Ruler of that State that we go to his assistance with intervention against a Government who happens to have nationalised an oil company in which we hold a large proporion of the shares. It is better to make clear the distinction between these two things if we want to have a degree of national unity on this issue.

While I entirely support what he has said about the immediate situation, would the Prime Minister not agree that there is no inconsistency between holding firm on the policy on which Her Majesty's Government have been obliged to embark and, at the same time, looking further ahead for reasons that the Prime Minister has given and seeking, as soon as possible, that wider basis for the protection of Kuwait which is so obviously desirable?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, of course. One of the things which we failed to understand was the fact that only a fortnight ago—or a short time ago—the Government of Iraq appeared to recognise the independence of Kuwait and were discussing with them questions which clearly regarded them as an independent country. Now it is suddenly reversed and it is that which has caused so much anxiety.

As for the future, we must carry out our obligations. At this particular moment, only because of certain arrangements which exist—and, I am bound to say, if I am allowed to, an efficient operation on behalf of the defence services—have we been able to move so rapidly. There is always the great difficulty of trying not to move into a territory until the last moment and, at the same time, not to leave it so long that intervention would be ineffective. That has been a very delicate position to hold and I am not sure now how this will work out.

But we must look at the longer issues, because these are heavy burdens on our economy. We want to create a general state of harmony in the Arab world and we are encouraged by the degree of understanding that we have had from the Arab countries as a whole.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

The Leader of the Opposition has been full of advice this afternoon. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the 'British nation recalls the advice that the Leader of the Opposition gave on the defence of British interests gave on the defence of British interests in the Middle East a few years ago? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the British nation does not want the United Nations to meddle and muddle in Kuwait?

Mr. Grimond

Gould the Prime Minister give a little more information on three points? First, what is the system of command in Kuwait? Is it a joint British and Kuwait command? Secondly, has the right hon. Gentleman any information about what is happening on the frontier? Have the Iraqis moved up, is the frontier closed, or have there been any incidents? Thirdly, as it appears that the Arab neighbours are willing to defend the independence of Kuwait, have they taken any further steps in this direction, or are consultations going on?

The Prime Minister

The nearest Arab neighbours are quite a long way off. This is some of the most difficult country in the world. The only possible means of approach are the resources of the kind which we have utilised. I am happy to see that the Saudi Arabian Government have expressed their support and have sent some token of it.

The forces are under the command of a British officer, Air Marshal Ellworthy, and the Kuwaiti forces are working in close co-operation with him.

There is—happily or not I do not know—quite a heavy sandstorm at the moment and visibility is bad. It is hard to get accurate reconnaissance, but there are a number of methods by which we can obtain information. It is true that the forces now at Basra, recently reinforced, would constitute, effectively managed, a serious menace, even with the forces now under our command.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the risk of possible incidents in the present situation, would the Prime Minister consider proposing, through our representative on the Security Council, that a contingent of United Nations observers be stationed on the Iraq-Kuwait border?

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows the territory well, but there is 40 to 60 miles of desert. It is quite easy for the frontier to be crossed. That is what we were afraid of, without any Kuwait opportunity of making effective defences.

I would like to consider a little more whether it would be a good thing to station observers on the frontier in the desert. All that will develop. What we had to do on Friday was to decide whether to take certain action which, I hope, will lead to the Government of Iraq having second thoughts. That was the first thing. We have to see how we have to develop and the best way of getting out of this very tangled situation in such a way as to maintain the independent life of a State when we recognise as an independent State.

Sir A. V. Harvey

As British forces are living under well-nigh impossible conditions in the desert, will my right hon. Friend see that everything is done to give these men reasonable amenities, even to the laying on of additional transport aircraft to do so?

The Prime Minister

I think that the Service Ministers have been told that everything should be done for the corn-fort of the men. I should like, once more, to congratulate them and the spirit of all those concerned, who, I think, are quite prepared and ready to do their duty in the way that British people would expect.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Who is to pay the bill for this adventure? Is it to be the wealthy, fabulous Ruler of Kuwait, or the British taxpayer?

The Prime Minister

We have not yet got to the question of sending in the bill.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we can debate this now without a Question before the House.