HC Deb 07 April 2003 vol 403 cc21-38 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, 1 would like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq and the efforts that we are making to help the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.

Since my last statement on 3 April, coalition forces have continued to make excellent progress. Following a series of raids and patrols into the centre of the city, British forces have now deployed in force into Basra. United States Army and Marine Corps units have with remarkable speed advanced on Baghdad, seized the international airport and conducted patrols into the city centre.

Those military successes have not been without cost. On behalf of the Government, I extend our condolences to the families and friends of those three British servicemen who have lost their lives during the last few days and in the coalition campaign to date. I speak for this House, and for the people of this country, in paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of all British and American service personnel deployed in Iraq. It is through their efforts that we will end the threat posed by the Iraqi regime's weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi people will soon be rid of Saddam Hussein, his barbaric regime and the suffering that he has visited on them.

Throughout this campaign, the coalition has sought to use minimum force to achieve our military objectives. We have never sought to inflict unnecessary suffering on Iraqi civilians, or, indeed, on members of the Iraqi armed forces. We have consistently encouraged members of the Iraqi armed forces to end their increasingly futile resistance and return to their homes and families. We are now beginning to see indications that these messages are having an impact, at least on some Iraqi soldiers. That does not mean, however, that the regime's resistance is necessarily at an end. In Basra, Baghdad and other urban areas, coalition forces will face a difficult and dangerous period dealing with the remnants of Iraq's forces. We owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to proceed with care.

We took great care in the planning of recent operations in Basra: the aim was to remove remnants of the regime while minimising the risk to civilians and to our armed forces. For the last two weeks, 1 Division has consolidated its presence in and around Basra, carrying out patrols and raids deep into the city, undermining the grip of the regime and gathering the intelligence vital to developing the unfolding operation. Raids and patrols into Basra during Saturday night met with much less resistance from Iraqi forces than on previous days. The opportunity was therefore taken yesterday morning to launch a major operation to secure strategic positions deep within the city. That involved personnel from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards attached, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion Black Watch, the 2nd Royal 'Tank Regiment and 3 Commando Brigade.

Significant progress has been made. We assess that coalition forces can now go to all parts of the city, albeit under the cover of armour. UK forces were warmly received by crowds of local people, demonstrating that the coalition is winning the confidence and support of the Iraqi population. Power, water and food are now assessed to be available to the majority of the population. Key facilities are being secured by British forces in Basra, bringing much-needed security, safety and support.

In a very similar manner, the past few days have seen US forces make considerable progress in and around Baghdad, supported by coalition air and missile strikes which have degraded the regime's command and control capability and the Republican Guard's combat effectiveness. That strategy has worked remarkably well. The final 50 miles or so of the advance on Baghdad were completed at great speed. The US army's Fifth Corps defeated the republican guard's Medina division and seized Baghdad international airport on Friday. The first coalition aircraft landed at the airport yesterday. The First Marine Expeditionary Force overcame the Baghdad and al-Nida divisions of the republican guard in a matter of days, and is now on the south-east outskirts of Baghdad. US forces now control the major routes into and out of Baghdad.

Elsewhere, the men and women of the Royal Air Force continue to contribute significantly to the overall military campaign, providing close air support to US forces around Baghdad. Some 1,500 sorties have now been flown.

Our maritime forces, building on their early success on the al-Faw peninsula, and having created a safe channel for shipping into Umm Qasr, are now working hard to clear the whole Khawr Abd' Allah waterway of mines and obstructions. They are dealing not only with recent Iraqi mine-laying but with the legacy of the 1991 conflict. That is yet another example of coalition forces not only rebuilding Iraq for the future but improving on what was there before. Following the delivery by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad of 300 tonnes of food, water and other humanitarian assistance, RFA Sir Percival arrived this morning at Umm Qasr with a similar cargo.

The water pipeline constructed by the Royal Engineers is now delivering around 1.5 million litres of clean water a day and UK troops have delivered 170,000 sets of rations to people in south-eastern Iraq. While we should not underestimate the humanitarian problems that we face, we have not yet seen any indications that there are widespread shortages of food or water.

The United Nations security co-ordination department has declared Umm Qasr to be a "permissive" environment, an important step allowing UN agencies to begin operating there. In addition, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has announced that the 24 grain silos at Umm Qasr port are safe and ready for use.

At a local level, significant steps are being taken to help the Iraqi people to begin to take control of their own affairs and to deal with decades of deprivation. UK forces have purchased shoes, stationery and books for children in Imman Anas. An Arabic computer has been purchased to enable the production of a news sheet for the civilian population of Az Zubayr. British officers have met with local people at Rumaylah to discuss future reconstruction projects—the renovation of the local primary school has already begun. Those developments, together with the fact that we are seeing the reopening of shops and markets, represent at least the beginning of a return to normal life in southern Iraq.

The pace of events over the past few days has been remarkable, but it will take time for the Iraqi people to adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances. We should not underestimate the traumatic effect of living under such a brutal and venal regime for so many years, its terror and corruption devastating the lives of Iraqi citizens at every level. Just as it is taking time for the people of Iraq to come to terms with the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime is coming to its inevitable end, it will take time, after so many years of relentless propaganda, for them to begin to trust the good faith of the coalition. We must all be patient as there are many difficult and dangerous challenges lying ahead.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

First, I associate the Opposition fully with the Secretary of State's comments about those of our servicemen who have given their lives during this conflict.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating British and American forces on their spectacular progress both in Basra and in the attack on Baghdad over the past four days, capitalising on opportunities as they arise. The Secretary of State is right to be cautious about the future speed of events, even though the eventual outcome is not in doubt. I think of the evil King Balshazzar, who once ruled in that land and was slain. It is time that Saddam Hussein also saw the writing on the wall for his evil regime.

May I first ask about events around Basra? The Secretary of State makes no mention of 16 Air Assault Brigade; can he say anything about its role? There are also reports of increasing chaos and looting on the streets. The Secretary of State says that power, water and food are "assessed to be available", but is also clear that our armed forces' efforts to distribute food and water are severely limited because we simply do not have the manpower. I shall not press the right hon. Gentleman again on reinforcements, except to leave the issue on the table, and to note that the tasks for our troops are not getting any lighter, and that we are having to withdraw elements from front-line operations to give them rest. May I ask when he thinks that non-governmental aid organisations will feel able to join our troops' efforts to distribute aid? I note that the United Nations has declared Umm Qasr a "permissive environment"; so what is holding up NGO involvement? Is there sufficient port capacity to increase the flow of aid? When will Umm Qasr be open for the deep-water shipping on which the future flow of aid depends?

Turning to the question of post-conflict Iraq, in which the UK's armed forces will continue to play a significant role, can the Secretary of State clarify the Government's policy on the role of the United Nations? The Prime Minister has stated that the objective is for the occupying powers to return control to an interim Iraqi administration as soon as possible, and the United States clearly supports that view. However, what are the Government's plans for the pre-interim administration phase—referred to as the initial phase—which may last as long as six months? Does the Secretary of State agree with the Secretary of State for International Development, who told the House last week that "our armed forces are in Iraq as an occupying power … They do not, however, have the authority to re-organise institutions or establish a new Government. That requires a UN mandate"—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402. c. 277.]? Will the Secretary of State for Defence explain what the Secretary of State for International Development means by "requires a UN mandate"? Although we would like the UN to play a role, surely the Geneva and The Hague conventions oblige the US and the UK not just to provide security and humanitarian relief, but to take the necessary steps to set up a transitional administration as quickly as possible.

Do the Government agree with the United States' National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the pre-interim administration should be run by the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, under the leadership of retired US General Jay Garner? Will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be a substantial British role in this, and can he say what it will be? Ms Rice further said at a press briefing on 4 April: "The precise role of the UN will be determined in consultation between the Iraqi people, coalition members and the UN officials … the coalition will naturally have the leading role for a period of time." Does that reflect the view of Her Majesty's Government?

Following the conflict, the coalition will be responsible for the destruction of any weapons of mass destruction that are found. Will the Secretary of State make it clear—unlike his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, on Saturday's BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme—that he does indeed hope to discover their whereabouts? Will he tell the House not what intelligence he may have, but simply answer this question: does he have fresh intelligence on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? Is it possible that weapons of mass destruction have been moved out of Iraq?

May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that the liberation of Iraq is a noble cause, but that the elimination of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is the prime objective, and we will hold the Government to that task until it has been achieved?

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and in particular for his congratulations to UK and US armed forces, who have worked tremendously well together throughout this conflict, and who continue to do so. As far as 16 Air Assault Brigade is concerned, it is using its very considerable abilities and mobility to support other forces, and in order to be the key—especially in the operation to the north of Basra—to cutting off contact between Basra and other parts of Iraq.

The hon. Gentleman referred to looting, and I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be concerned about that issue; indeed, I have sought to identify the extent of it. Fortunately, it appears so far to be confined to Iraqi citizens—shall I use the word—"liberating" those items that are in the charge of the regime by entering its former facilities and the secret organisations, and redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people. I regard such behaviour as good practice, perhaps, but that is not to say that we should not guard against more widespread civil disturbances.

As far as power and water are concerned, I referred to British forces securing key facilities in Basra. That was specifically directed at locations that provide water and electricity. Until Saturday and Sunday, we were in no position to identify whether water shortages, probably the result of power outages, were capable of being repaired because we did not control that part of the city. Now that we do, we can take matters in hand to secure a more reliable electricity supply and, thereby, a supply of pure fresh water.

NGOs are beginning to enter the south of Iraq. Obviously, the more parts of the country are safe and secure, the more it will be possible for those NGOs to use their considerable ability to distribute food and other humanitarian assistance. That also depends on port capacity, and urgent efforts are being made both to widen the channel into Umm Qasr and to make more berths available in the port. For the moment, however, it is judged that there are some limitations on what can be achieved because of the continued threat from mines.

As to the role of the United Nations, we certainly want to see UN authority for operations in Iraq, but, equally and as quickly as it can be achieved, we ultimately want the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own affairs, to take their own decisions and to engage in a form of representative government. That was set out clearly by the Government at the start of the military campaign, and it remains fundamental to our objectives.

The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will certainly be responsible in the early period for the distribution of humanitarian assistance, of which the United States has amassed a considerable stockpile, as well as for the early administration of areas freed from the Iraqi regime. It is common ground and shared between all members of the coalition that we want to see the ORHA move on quickly to allow an interim Iraqi Administration, which will lead to the Iraqis taking responsibility for their own affairs. That is what we are trying to achieve, and British participation in that process will he considerable, not least through the efforts of Brigadier Cross, who will be familiar to many hon. Members after his excellent work in the Balkans.

The destruction of weapons of mass destruction continues to be our priority. We are continuing to search the areas that have been freed, but our first priority must be an end—a successful end—to the military conflict. Thereafter, we will certainly pursue the location of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today. I also welcome his attendance in the House, which has been assiduous, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are grateful for that during the current crisis. I also want to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces as they continue to do their difficult job in Basra and the surrounding areas. I also add my condolences to the families of all members of coalition forces who have been killed so far. I should also like to remember the Iraqi civilians who are caught up in the fighting. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we have no argument with them.

By all accounts the people of Basra have welcomed British forces into their midst, but I want to ask more about the looting to which the Secretary of State has already referred. There are appalling suggestions from some elements of the media that British troops may have condoned such action. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we have not done so, other than the understandable "liberation"—as he put it—of food stocks, and that we will endeavour to keep order in the parts of the country that we are liberating? As part of that process, what troops have been earmarked for peacekeeping operations in Iraq in the near future: have they been placed on standby, ready to go?

On weapons of mass destruction, there have been conflicting reports today that chemical agents may have been found. The Government's own military objectives recognise that UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency will have a role in dismantling these weapons, should they be found. Is that still the case? Were the missiles that fell on Kuwait at the beginning of the conflict Scud missiles or al-Samoud missiles? Will he comment on the role—or, rather, the lack of role—of the Iraqi air force during the conflict?

Incidents of friendly fire have come to the fore, and I am sure that all hon. Members regret that. However, I have been approached by some of the relatives, as other colleagues will have been. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the US Defence Department refused to allow its combat soldiers to give evidence at British inquests into friendly fire incidents in the first Gulf war? Has agreement been reached in this conflict that all coalition forces will co-operate if there are to be inquests or inquiries in the UK or the United States? Finally, the thoughts of all hon. Members go out to our British men and women who are continuing the campaign in Basra; they are a credit to the whole nation.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations about the role of British forces, and for his emphasis, which I share, on the fact that we have no argument with the Iraqi people. As I have said, British forces will keep control to avoid unnecessary looting, but they have not been specifically earmarked for peacekeeping operations. The House will be aware that British forces tend to see their role in offensive terms, when that is necessary, as well as conducting peacekeeping immediately thereafter. We are seeing British forces at their very best in providing both that offensive role in and around Basra and a peacekeeping role further south.

On chemical agents, some interesting findings are being investigated on which I will be able to report to the House in due course. I am not yet in a position to confirm that the missiles that fell on Kuwait were of a particular kind, although I can say that they did not travel in excess of the distance allowed under previous UN resolutions. I think it is fair to say that the Iraqi air force was confined to ground operations.

There will be inquests in due course.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not the case that if we had listened to the critics, there would be no purpose in debating post-Saddam Iraq, since that tyranny would have lasted for years and years and, in time, that murderous dictator would have been succeeded by one of his sons, no less murderous and thuggish? Would it not be wise for those criminal elements of the elite forces fighting the coalition armies to realise that if they do not surrender, they will be killed either by our troops or, given half a chance, by the Iraqi people themselves?

Mr. Hoon

I have long admired my hon. Friend's consistency and steadfastness on the issue, and he has been a pillar of support throughout.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

In relation to the future government of Iraq, the Secretary of State for Wales said at the weekend: "What is crucial is that the UN is put in charge after the interim transitional arrangements. That is vital to us and the whole of the European Union." Is that the Government's view?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear that we want to see UN authority; that is a view shared between the United States and the United Kingdom. It is wholly consistent with the way in which previous peacekeeping operations have been conducted, such as in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

While pockets of agents loyal to the regime continue, and will continue, to provide resistance to coalition troops, the one cohesive mechanism that the Saddam regime seems to possess right across Iraq is the continued control of Iraqi state radio and television. What is our planning in relation to the seizure of mobile transmitters and fixed facilities, and in relation to increasing our broadcasts in Iraq so that we can bring this action to a speedier conclusion?

Mr. Hoon

Although coalition forces have not specifically and directly targeted the media as such in Iraq, my hon. Friend is certainly right to draw attention to the means whereby the regime has sought to disseminate information through broadcasting. In fact, other targets—often co-located with radio and television transmitters—have been addressed, especially those that have provided the regime with command-and-control facilities. The level of broadcasting has been significantly reduced. I anticipate that, today, little broadcasting actually takes place that reaches many people in Iraq.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The enthusiasm with which it appears that British troops have been greeted in Basra goes some way towards vindicating those of us who believe that we are liberating Iraq, and I very much hope that it continues. However, can the Secretary of State tell us what use is being made of Iraqi exile groups both in assisting with the liberation of Iraq and in perhaps laying the groundwork for some form of democratic government in the future of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the growing enthusiasm in Basra. As I have previously indicated to the House, it depended on people there having confidence and believing that coalition forces were there to stay, and would see the job through and remove those elements of the regime. I have certainly given them that assurance. The growing presence of Iraqi exiles to assist in that process, not leas(by going into towns and villages and explaining what is taking place, is of enormous value. That is beginning to happen.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether searches have yet taken place of specific sites identified by US or UK intelligence as possibly containing weapons of mass destruction? Does he share the view that appears to have been expressed at the weekend by one of his Cabinet colleagues that it is possible that nothing will be found?

Mr. Hoon

I do not share that view. Searches are under way and obvious sites have been looked at. We have been aware for some time that the regime had removed many of the more obvious elements of its weapons of mass destruction and had sought to hide them in the more remote parts of the country as well as to keep them mobile. I have no doubt that those weapons of mass destruction will he found.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Would it not assist the armed forces in the difficult task that they face, and achieve more co-operation locally, if the Secretary of State and his United States colleague made it abundantly clear that they do not contemplate further military action of any kind against any other nation in the middle east?

Mr. Hoon

I am not aware of any such contemplation. Indeed, we have made it plain that action against Iraq was unique, not least because of Iraq's very, very long history of flouting the will of the international community and United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Can my right hon. Friend give more details about the situation in Basra? The media tend to give a mixed picture: on one day, they say that British troops are entering and occupying Basra, while on the next, they say that we have experienced strong Iraqi resistance. Can my right hon. Friend give an overview of the different levels of security in Basra and tell us what coalition troops are actually doing to encourage security, and confidence in coalition troops in the city?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend makes an excellent observation. There are inevitably different levels of security, especially in this kind of conflict. I made it clear that the ground commanders of British forces going into Basra feel confident so far that they can go to any part of the city, provided that they are protected by appropriate armoured vehicles. The next stage is to be confident that they are sufficiently secure to conduct foot patrols. Thereafter, we may see them conducting foot patrols without helmets, perhaps patrolling with berets, as we have seen them do in other towns and cities in southern Iraq. It is a progressive effort, to build up the level of security for our forces; but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the different degrees of security and the efforts being made by British forces to build on them.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

Given the attention that people who oppose the war and the liberation of the Iraqi people are increasingly drawing to the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction, can the Secretary of State clear up a question that I am increasingly asked—as, perhaps, are other Members? To what extent does the legality of the operation depend on our finding these weapons, and might it retrospectively be deemed illegal if we fail to find them?

Mr. Hoon

As I have made clear, we will find weapons of mass destruction.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will my right hon. Friend accept everybody's gratitude and admiration for the extremely professional way in which our armed forces have achieved their objectives to date? Does he also accept that none of us should be complacent about the end of the conflict, although it looks as though we may be approaching the end game? Can he say something about the likely period within which the oil-for-food programme that the UN voted to restart under the auspices of the Secretary-General could be put back into effect in those areas that have been liberated from Saddam's regime?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations. She is right to be cautious, as I sought to be in my statement. A great deal of work still remains to be done to remove the continuing remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. That work may well prove difficult and dangerous, so she is right to strike that appropriate note of caution.

As for the oil-for-food programme, the first stage—the renewal of the appropriate resolution—has been completed and is now in place. That will allow the release of some of the funds built up in trust, which can then be used to continue the previous efforts made to extend the benefit of the oil-for-food programme to the Iraqi people. Ultimately, and as quickly as possible, we want oil to be pumped again, not least from the oilfields in the south of Iraq for which we are responsible, in order to build up the wealth available for the people of Iraq. There is no reason why that should not happen quite quickly.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Secretary of State referred to the use of minimum force and the need to minimise Iraqi civilian casualties. Does riot the continued use of cluster bombs make that more difficult, and in due course will it not make the huge task of reconstruction much more difficult and dangerous?

Mr. Hoon

As I have said on previous occasions when that issue has arisen, the use of all weapons involves striking a balance. All weapons are capable of damaging the civilian population as well as those against whom they are targeted. It is necessary to strike a balance between not only the risk to civilians, but equally the protection of coalition forces. In relation to the use of cluster bombs, I am confident that the right balance has been struck.

Colin Burgon (Elmet)

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the residual strength of the Ba'ath party and the level of support that it will command? In particular, what are the implications for any future democratic regime or Government in Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

Some work is currently under way on that. It is a very difficult question to answer at this stage, not least because the only way of assuring success in Saddam Hussein's Iraq was to be a member of the Ba'ath party and to operate under his rule. On the other hand, there may well be decent people who had no part in the excesses of the regime and who will, in turn, return to rebuild their country. I suspect that it will depend on their ability to persuade people in their own areas that they have not been involved with the regime and that they can therefore he relied on and trusted.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

In his most welcome statement, the Secretary of State paid tribute to the successes of our armed forces. Is it not particularly noteworthy that as well as being highly effective at prosecuting the war, they have already shown themselves to be extremely skilled at peacekeeping; and should we not note the experience that they have already brought to bear in. for example, differentiating between paramilitaries and civilians?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said a few moments ago, it is a particular characteristic of Britain's armed forces that they can move very quickly from intense war-fighting to—if I can put it this way—intense peacekeeping. Not least because of their long years of experience in Northern Ireland, they are well used to mixing in with the local population, talking to people on the ground and treating people with the respect to which they are entitled after a conflict has come to an end. That is why they are already proving so successful in southern Iraq, and I anticipate that they will continue to be so.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Despite what the Secretary of State said earlier, how does he possibly think that we can win over the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians by using cluster bombs?

Mr. Hoon

No one is suggesting that we win over the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians by using cluster bombs other than in this sense: it is necessary to succeed in the military conflict in order to win over those hearts and minds. We will not succeed in the military conflict if we prevent our armed forces from protecting themselves when they are confronted by a determined and often ruthless opposition. I invite my hon. Friend to weigh that in the balance. Is she really prepared to put the lives of our forces at risk in order to prolong the conflict, and thereby make it more difficult, in the longer term, to win the hearts and minds necessary to rebuild Iraq?

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does the right hon. Gentleman share our respect for those who have expressed hesitation about and, indeed, opposition to the armed conflict? No one wanted the war, hard decisions had to be taken and we must respect those who expressed their opposition. Based on briefings at the United Nations two weeks ago and on meetings of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly over the weekend, two things are clear. First, our armed forces have won a new reputation for courage and skill, which is based, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on their experience in Northern Ireland. Their international standing has never been higher. Secondly—we should all unite behind this point—the armed conflict should be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible so that we can move on to peacekeeping.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations about the skill of Britain's armed forces, but I would not want him to overlook the remarkable skill at arms that has been displayed by US forces. I anticipate that their advance from the south of Iraq to Baghdad will be lectured on for years to come in staff colleges throughout the world. I am told by those who know, that it is one of the most remarkable armoured advances ever seen in modern warfare.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. It is necessary to try to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion, and that has always been our ambition. At the same time, consistent with observations of right hon. and hon. Members on these occasions, it is necessary to do so in a cautious and practical way while minimising risk to Iraqi civilians and safeguarding our forces. The operation in and around Basra that has been conducted by British forces is absolutely characteristic of that approach.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

While welcoming very much the military successes in Basra and Baghdad reported by the Secretary of State, will he tell us a little more about the conflict elsewhere? Will he confirm reports that I have received from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which I reported to his private office late on Friday afternoon and this morning, about four bombing raids on the military camps of the People's Mujaheddin of Iran? The group is dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian Government and notified the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in writing, through the foreign affairs chairman of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that it would not get involved in the war at all. Why were the four raids carried out, during which three women were killed and four were wounded, and what evidence do we have about them?

Mr. Hoon

I thank my hon. Friend for the assistance that he has provided and I assure him that his observations have been followed up. The border areas, especially where Iraq shares a border with Iran, contain groups with shifting alliances, if I may put it that way. Some groups are regarded as terrorists, depending on the side of the border from which they operate. I assure my hon. Friend that we have regard to the different alliances as we prosecute the campaign.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

The Secretary of State spoke of the need for Iraqis to take control of their own affairs as soon as possible, and I am sure that everyone agrees with that. However, there is a timing issue. Do the Government feel that the opposition parties that exist, plus the exiles to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred, form a cohesive unit that is ready to be put into play to form a Government? If not, what are this Government doing to ensure that that will happen?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly sets out the principle that we want the Iraqi people to take control of their own affairs. Equally rightly, he points out one of a number of difficulties that we face—that of establishing a degree of cohesion between exiled groups and opposition groups inside Iraq. Because of the pervasiveness of the oppression conducted by Saddam Hussein's regime, it has been extremely difficult to find effective opposition groups. Opposition was stamped down on very hard by the regime. One of our challenges will be to find the necessary cohesion between exiled groups—who, as I said earlier, will come back into the country—and groups who have sought to oppose the regime from within Iraq. That will be a challenge.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

It has been reported that tanker drivers are collecting water from the military in the areas that we control and then selling it to a thirsty population. If that is true, does the Secretary of State agree that it is hardly the way to win hearts and minds, and will he look into the matter and get it stopped?

Mr. Hoon

There was an isolated account of that taking place and action was taken by British forces to deal with it.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The Secretary of State may have seen the interview on television last night with a couple of Arab fighters from southern Lebanon, who I presume were from Hezbollah. Does the Secretary of State have a feeling for how large a problem that involvement now is in Iraq? What part does he feel such people might play in the battle for Baghdad?

Mr. Hoon

As I said in response to questions last Thursday, people have been willing to come into Iraq and offer themselves for various operations. We are addressing that issue, which we take seriously. However, I hope that, as the regime shows signs of collapse right across Iraq, we will be able to deal with the issue effectively.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I want to return to the issue of high-level defections from the Iraqi military. How many approaches have been made to the United Kingdom Government and what inducements, if any, are being offered to those senior military people to encourage them to defect?

Mr. Hoon

For at least some of the senior figures to whom my hon. Friend refers, I suspect that survival is the most important inducement. We are pleased that some people have recognised that it is rather better to surrender than to continue to risk their own lives and the lives of those under their command. Obviously, we have to pursue such matters carefully and it has been extraordinarily difficult on this occasion. I know that some commentators were expecting widespread surrenders; however, over and over again we have heard that, although commanders in the field might be willing to surrender, they have not done so out of fear of what would happen to their families or their children back home, wherever they happen to live.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Secretary of State will know that, in the next couple of hours, Air Force One will touch down in my constituency, conveying the President to Hillsborough to join the Prime Minister in pursuing the successful conclusion of the conflict in the Gulf and then the start of the task of reconstructing Iraq. That is the important item on the agenda. However, the Secretary of State will also know that there will be a break in the proceedings tomorrow morning for a less important, although not unimportant, item, when the President and the Prime Minister will meet the Northern Ireland political parties. Will the Prime Minister convey the strong feeling of this House and the British people that we need the destruction of all the weapons that have killed and hurt people in Ireland? When the President and the Prime Minister meet the parties tomorrow morning, will they send out the message that we want an end to terrorism worldwide, including terrorism in Ireland?

Mr. Hoon

I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman is here rather than greeting the President of the United States in his constituency. He is right to suggest that we need to make progress, working with the United States, on a range of issues. We will not only be continuing the peace process in Northern Ireland, but holding important discussions on the middle east peace process and, obviously, on the military situation in Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will have a full agenda. High on that agenda will be the destruction of weapons wherever they are.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

If we do indeed owe a duty of care to the Iraqi people, how is it possible that we can still contemplate the use of cluster bombs, as it is well known that the greatest number of deaths and injuries are experienced by civilians from the hundreds of unexploded bomblets that lie around on the ground? What steps are being taken to ensure that civilians may not enter the areas where those bombs have been used before the bomblets can be removed or exploded?

Mr. Hoon

I have dealt with the general question on a number of occasions, so I will not repeat that again, but, on the specific point, careful note has been taken of where and when cluster bombs have been used and, as I have indicated to the House before, the people who most often risk their lives in dealing with the small failure rate of those weapons are members of Britain's armed forces.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

I thank the Secretary of State for his recent visit to Colchester garrison to meet the wives and other dependants there. That visit was very much appreciated. He rightly drew attention to the pride that we have in our armed forces and the way that they have performed in Iraq; in particular, I should like to draw attention to 16 Air Assault Brigade. However, does the Secretary of State agree that things are far from being over, and we must impress on the public the need for caution because there is a long way to go yet? With that in mind, does he have any plan to make an announcement about the possible replacement of those troops who are currently there?

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to Colchester to participate in an excellent meeting with the families of those in 16 Air Assault Brigade based there. It was a remarkable occasion because it demonstrated the debt that we owe not only to members of the armed forces, but to their families. I was profoundly impressed by the support that they were able to give not only to their men, but to the country in its efforts. As for making sure that we go on providing that support and in respect of any replacements, I told the House last week that we will replace certain units, particularly those that have been in theatre for some months now, as and when necessary, but I shall not make any specific announcement at this stage. Some units will be rotated as a matter of routine, but there is certainly no need at this stage to complete any major reinforcement of our forces there.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask for the co-operation of the House. I can call every Member standing, provided that each Member asks one question and makes it as brief as possible.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Have officials at the Ministry of Defence brought to the Secretary of State's attention the work of a brave former Member of the House? I refer to Colonel Colin Mitchell and his work at the Halo Trust, and to the sheer difficulty of retrieving cluster bombs.

Mr. Hoon

I am well aware of the work of the Halo Trust. Indeed, it is an organisation with which the Ministry of Defence has worked—supplying equipment and providing advice and expertise—and I strongly support the efforts that that organisation has made.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Does the Secretary of State recall that as long ago as 1992, the Public Accounts Committee said that the Ministry of Defence should redouble its efforts in dealing with friendly fire? We now have a policy paper a decade later. Will he confirm whether it is true that all US vehicles in theatre are fitted with transponders that can respond to a threat of friendly fire, while UK vehicles merely have symbols, chevrons and the like? Is the problem foot-dragging in NATO? Will he put sufficient, commensurate resources into dealing with that problem as well as into developing high-technology weapons?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman continues to suggest that there is a technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. No one underestimates the tragedy of such incidents and, as we have seen in recent days, they are not solely confined to confusion between the forces of different nations. Very recent incidents demonstrate that those problems are also not solely confined to British military vehicles operating on the ground. It would be enormously helpful if he turned his mind to the wider problem of friendly fire and got away from the idea that there is a single technological solution. Indeed, I commend to him an article in The Times today in which Wesley Clark makes that point very strongly, as a very experienced senior military commander. If the hon. Gentleman would understand that, he would be able to see that the problem is much more difficult than simple technology can solve.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those of us who support the Government and our servicemen with our voices and our votes do not believe that our servicemen are risking, and in some cases losing, their lives so that post-war Iraq can become the fiefdom of the right wing of the United States Republican party and the reconstruction of Iraq can be the playground of American corporate capitalism? Will he also bear in mind that we look to our Prime Minister to push forward the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, regardless of any obstruction from the Israeli Government?

Mr. Hoon

As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will have a full agenda for their talks this evening and tomorrow. They will certainly consider the best and most effective means of restoring Iraq to its own people and of renewing the peace process in the middle east, while also giving thought to the need to reinstate the effective peace process in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that the United States President has come to the United Kingdom for that purpose.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

I join the Secretary of State in praising the professionalism, skill and courage of all our armed forces during the liberation of Basra, which we have witnessed in the past few days. As he will understand, the west country is particularly proud of the role played by the Royal Marines, who have been at the forefront of that activity.

Has any evidence emerged of recent sanction-breaking by French or Russian defence companies, and of any munitions that they may have sold to Iraq in recent years? If so, what does the Secretary of State propose to do about it?

Mr. Hoon

I, too, pay tribute to the Royal Marines, who have done a tremendous job in doing all that we have asked of them in and around Iraq. I am not in a position to comment on possible breaches of any sanctions at this stage, but we continue to look at that carefully.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the role of the British forces in liberating Basra, and that of the American coalition allies in beginning the liberation of Baghdad. He did not, however, mention the important role in the coalition of the Iraqi Kurdish forces—the peshmerga, who are, after all, Sunni Muslims—in liberating large swathes of northern Iraq from which the Kurdish people were ethnically cleansed by Saddam's regime. Does he agree that the carping critics should remember that the Kurdish forces are there and able to do this only because our no-fly zone has made their existence possible?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the close co-operation between American military forces and Kurdish forces in the north. They continue to work extremely effectively together, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's observations about their efforts to re-establish themselves in their traditional areas are entirely right.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I echo the tributes and the condolences, but I must press my right hon. Friend again on the question of cluster bombs. As he will know, the manufacturers accept a 5 per cent. failure rate, but in the battlefield it is likely to be many times that. As my right hon. Friend says, it is sometimes the forces' duty to clear up afterwards, but for many years subsequently that tends to be the job of the international community and aid agencies such as Landmine Action. Will the British Government pay for the non-governmental organisations that will do the work when the conflict is over?

Mr. Hoon

I have had regular contact with various NGOs that are engaged in this extremely important, demanding and often dangerous work. The Ministry of Defence has been able both to discuss with them the most effective means of dealing with unexploded ordnance and, from time to time, to supply appropriate equipment. I assure my hon. Friend that that will continue.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South)

I am sure that all hon. Members were horrified at the weekend by the pictures of the warehouse with over 200 coffins containing human remains. Reports suggest that those may well be the remains of Iranian prisoners of war. Given the catalogue of war crimes by the Saddam regime during that war, the first Gulf war and almost certainly the present Gulf war, what priority will be given to hunting clown those who committed war crimes, and under what jurisdiction will they be prosecuted and tried?

Mr. Hoon

Whatever took place in that warehouse was horrific, and it is necessary for us to identify the explanation. One plausible explanation may be, as my hon. Friend suggests, that they were prisoners from the Iran-Iraq war. There are other possible explanations as well. A British Army investigation team began work today to try to identify at least some of the explanations for those horrendous discoveries. If it is found that individuals are responsible, they will be arrested and dealt with in an appropriate way.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Does the Defence Secretary agree with what the International Development Secretary said on "Newsnight" last week—that until it is safe for aid agency operatives to work in Iraq, humanitarian aid is solely the responsibility of the military? If so, how is the medical aid to get to the hospitals, how is sustenance to get to the people, and how is law and order to be maintained? Is it all to be done by tank? If so, for how long?

Mr. Hoon

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) are right to draw attention to the responsibility of the armed forces for providing humanitarian support in the immediate period after a conflict. I am delighted at the excellent co-operation that exists between my right hon. Friend's Department and mine in that respect. The sums of money that I indicated were available for humanitarian action to be carried out by the armed forces when I made a statement on Thursday is part of that process. We are all working towards a situation in which non-governmental organisations— the United Nations and others—can come in. That is why I regard it as so important that the United Nations has declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment. That is because the UN judges that it is now possible for the UN and other organisations to come in and begin the process of distributing aid. I assure my hon. Friend that the British Army and other members of the armed forces of the United Kingdom have an excellent record of delivering humanitarian assistance. They use their own doctors to provide medical assistance to the people on the ground, and they will provide a range of support and facilities in delivering humanitarian aid. Clearly, we want to see NGOs come in and continue that work, but h e should not underestimate the ability of our armed forces to do it.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the manic-depressive nature of media coverage of the war, we risk seeing within 48 hours headlines saying, "Coalition bogged down again"? Do not most hon. Members, on both sides of the House, want the coalition to proceed at the appropriate pace to minimise losses to our own armed forces, losses to Iraqi civilians, and even casualties to Iraqi armed forces, so that we can end the war with the least long-term damage?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right. The word that I used at the end of my statement, which I think encapsulates what he describes, is "patience". We need to approach the matter in an appropriate, patient manner. I shall resist any temptation to criticise the media, because I find that they are remarkably sensitive to such criticism. They tend to react very strongly when we criticise them, although they routinely criticise us.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

With reference to an earlier question, is it true that at inquests into friendly fire incidents held after the first Gulf war, US soldiers refused to give evidence? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that if inquests are held into friendly fire incidents after the present war, all coalition soldiers will give evidence, as appropriate?

Mr. Hoon

We are already examining some of the jurisdictional issues arising out of friendly fire incidents. They are not easy, as I suspect my hon. Friend's question indicates. The matter is something that I can come back to the House in due course and explain.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

My right hon. Friend referred earlier to when the textbooks would be written after the war. Does he agree that one of the lessons written in those textbooks will be the way in which troops, often in conditions where they are under fire and in conflict, have carried out humanitarian and regeneration works? Will he also confirm that in reconstruction of the water and electricity supply to Basra, it is the intention of the coalition and any interim administration to extend water and electricity to the whole population and not just to the part of it that previously received them?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, as I said in my statement, our ambition is to improve the situation that was, in effect, inherited by British forces. Equally, we want to ensure that other organisations—NGOs, the United Nations and the like—come in and play their part. Certainly, we believe that we can improve the level of assistance for people in southern Iraq over and above that which was made available to them by the regime.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I thank my right hon. Friend for today's statement. We can all be extremely proud of the way in which British forces are conducting themselves in this war. Will he join me in paying tribute to the role played by Group Captain Lockwood, who has effectively become the highly respected and reasoned voice of British services in the Gulf? Finally, on a technical point, will he confirm that it is now possible to send 2 kg packages to British service personnel in Iraq by BFPO and free of charge?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that the group captain would not want to be picked out from the very many people who are working extremely hard in Britain's forces, but I shall ensure that a copy of my hon. Friend's observations reach him. On the point about the packages, the new arrangements are not yet in place, but I shall certainly inform the House as soon as they are.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Further to two earlier questions asked from both sides of the House, my right hon. Friend is fully aware that comments have been made by certain American leaders in the past couple of weeks to the effect that the war could be widened to Syria and Iran. Will he take this opportunity to tell us about any discussions that he has had about the matter with the Washington regime? Will he make it absolutely clear that the British Government will have no part in this lunacy?

Mr. Hoon

I have had no such discussions with the democratically elected Administration in the United States, and as I have made clear, the campaign that is being conducted against Iraq is a unique campaign based on that country's failure to observe UN resolutions over a very long period.