PMQs – 26th March 2003 – Hansard

PRIME MINISTER
The Prime Minister was asked—
Engagements

Q1. [104854] Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Following reports of further British casualties, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of those who have died, and to praise them for their courage in giving their lives in the service of their country.

Simon Hughes : I associate myself with those remarks. Everyone hopes that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are destroyed speedily and effectively. When the Prime Minister meets the President of the United States later today, what proposals will he make to avoid any further divisions of international opinion on such issues and to make sure that in future, on issues of justice and peace in the world, there is the widest possible support in the international and national community?

The Prime Minister: The best way of ensuring that we keep the international community unified is that when we enter into understandings, as we did in resolution 1441, we keep to those understandings. It is also important to make sure that we are broad in the agenda that we present to the world, which is why I believe that issues such as the middle east peace process are especially important at this time, when we are taking military action in Iraq for reasons that we all know. Of course it is important to make sure that Iraq has its weapons of mass destruction removed. That is the objective of our campaign.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The Prime Minister may have noticed over recent days that opinion polls in the United Kingdom suggest that Britain is very respectful of his own position in terms of the middle east peace process, but that people are rather more uncertain and sceptical, if not cynical, about the US position. In his meeting with President Bush later today, will he

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underline how important it is that we get an unambiguous and definite date for the publication of the road map, that we see an unambiguous commitment from the United States to a United Nations resolution on the reconstruction of Iraq, and that we see a clear commitment to making sure that the illegal Israeli settlements start to be dismantled?

The Prime Minister: Of course we believe that the middle east peace process is important. For that reason, we have made it clear that when the Palestinian Prime Minister has his Cabinet in place, the road map will be given to both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority. From the conversations that I have had over many weeks with President Bush, and from the statement that we made in the Azores, together with the Spanish Prime Minister and the Portuguese Prime Minister, I believe that there is a commitment on the part of the United States to making sure that the road map is not merely published, but carried through. I point out that President Bush was the first US President to commit himself unequivocally to the two-state solution: Israel confident of its security, and a viable Palestinian state. That is what we must make sure is now done.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I take this opportunity to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed services for their bravery, commitment and sacrifice, and say to their families that they remain in our thoughts and prayers, as do the innocent civilians in Iraq.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that we send a clear message to the Iraqi people that those who do rise up will receive our full military backing, and that their cause has become our cause? Given that, can the Prime Minister inform the House of the latest developments with respect to the reported uprising overnight in Basra?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely that it is important that we give support to those people in Iraq who are rising up to overthrow Saddam and his deeply repressive regime. I think, however, that the way in which we do that and the timing have to be left to the commanders on the ground. That is important because they will know the true facts of the situation. We must be careful that we know we have support in place able to help them before we encourage them to do things that may lead to their deaths.

Having said that, however, of course all this is, as we have constantly said, about the liberation of Iraq, not its conquest. There is no doubt at all in our view that large numbers of people are waiting to see whether their greatest hopes can indeed be realised and the regime fall. When they know that that is clear, I believe that they will take action themselves, and we should be there ready to support them. That may be some way off.

In relation to what happened in Basra overnight, truthfully, the reports are confused, but we believe that there was some limited form of uprising. What is

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absolutely clear is that once people know that Saddam’s grip on power is being weakened, there is no doubt that they will wish to opt for freedom rather than repression.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Given the Prime Minister’s answer about losing grip on power with regard to Saddam Hussein, he knows that television is a powerful medium and that it is never more so than during times of war when it is used by a ruthless dictator, like Saddam Hussein. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress is being made to take Iraqi television off air permanently, how successful coalition attempts have been to jam Iraqi radio broadcasts in Iraq, and what methods are being used to pass information to the Iraqi people to let them know that, if and when they rise up, they will be supported?

The Prime Minister: In relation to any military targets, we have to ensure that they have a military objective—that is the legal requirement as well as the stated political objective that we have set. There is no doubt that one of the issues is how we can best communicate with the Iraqi people. That is being urgently looked at. There are different ways in which we can communicate with them, including through people inside Iraq who can tell them exactly what is happening.

A whole series of things are being looked at and planned at the moment. I will not go into the details, but one thing is very clear: at the present time, people in Iraq—I think that this is perfectly understandable—are simply watching and waiting to see what happens. They have had more than 20 years of a brutal, repressive regime and on two occasions, they rose up and, unfortunately, did not get the help that they needed. They are, therefore, naturally wary. We must work with them and, as I said, ensure that when they are in a position to rise up, we are in an absolutely secure and certain position to give them maximum help.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Despite some reports in the media, the march to Baghdad has been both fast and successful. However, the House will have heard reports in the meantime that the United States is planning to send some reinforcements to the region. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether Britain is also planning to send any reinforcements?

The Prime Minister: We believe that we have the troops in theatre that we need, but of course that is always kept under review. At the moment, the military advice that we receive is that we do have sufficient forces for the job. I believe that that is the advice also given by the US military to the President of the United States.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, there has been remarkable progress. We now have a situation in which, in the west of Iraq, we can protect those countries outside Iraq against any possibility of any external aggression; in the north of Iraq, for all the difficulties and problems, the situation is reasonably calm at the present time; and in the south of Iraq, as he knows, we have secured the oil installations and we now have Umm Qasr, which will very shortly be functioning properly as a port where we can get humanitarian aid through. Indeed, I believe that the first seven trucks of humanitarian aid have entered the port now. We have a situation in which troops are now 60 miles south of

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Baghdad. I think that the progress has been quite remarkable. The resistance is coming from exactly the quarter that we would expect—those security forces and people around Saddam who know that they have got everything to lose by the removal of his regime. That is what we would expect, but the military plans are in place to deal with them.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The House will have seen pictures confirming that Iraqi troops have been issued with chemical weapons protection equipment and will have read reports that they have access to chemical and biological weapons. Is it not essential that we make it clear to every Iraqi commander that the use of such weapons is a war crime, that obeying orders is no defence and that anyone guilty of such crimes will be prosecuted after the war?

The Prime Minister: Yes, that is important. We are making it clear to Iraqi commanders in the field that if they use chemical or biological weapons, they will be deservedly prosecuted with the utmost severity. There are increasing reports about the distribution of equipment to Iraqi forces. It is difficult to be sure of their accuracy, but we have obviously been prepared for such an eventuality from the outset.

Mr. Duncan Smith: On the work that will be required to rebuild Iraq after the war, does the Prime Minister believe that it is necessary to secure a UN resolution on the reconstruction of Iraq?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do. It is important to ensure that that is the case. There are two stages to the process. The first is to get a UN resolution on the humanitarian oil-for-food programme. I hope that that can be achieved in the next few days; it is the essential first requirement. It is also important that any post-conflict Iraqi Administration will have the broadest possible support. That is why the UN’s role is important.

Mr. Duncan Smith: In that answer, the Prime Minister made it clear that he wants to persuade the US Administration that pressing for such a resolution on Iraq is an objective. He, like everyone else, knows that the US Administration are deeply sceptical about the UN’s future role in reconstruction. If there is no UN resolution, does the Prime Minister have an alternative?

The Prime Minister: First, I keep reading about US scepticism, but it is clear from my conversations with President Bush that we should ensure that any post-conflict Iraqi Administration will have the UN’s full endorsement. That is important for the process because it releases funds and allows the international financial institutions to operate better and more effectively. It is better for everybody. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the position of both the British Government and the US Administration. It is clearly set out in the statement that we jointly issued in the Azores.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I ask the Prime Minister and the House to join my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and me in paying tribute to Corporal Stephen Allbutt and Trooper

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David Clarke of the Queen’s Royal Lancers who lost their lives so tragically in so-called friendly fire in Basra yesterday? Will the Prime Minister ensure that there is a full and immediate inquiry into the identification systems of Challenger 2 tanks so that any faults can be put right straight away?

The Prime Minister: I know that the House wants to express its condolences and sympathy to the families of my hon. Friends’ constituents. They were immensely brave people who died in the service of their country. I assure my hon. Friend that there will be the fullest possible inquiry into what went wrong to ensure that any lessons can be learned.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Obviously, the House endorses what has been said about the service personnel who have been lost.

I want to follow up the Prime Minister’s earlier comments, given his forthcoming discussions today with the President of the United States. Will the Prime Minister try to persuade the President that we want a United Nations-led rather than a United States-led Administration in any post-military conflict Iraq?

The Prime Minister: Again, let me say that I do not believe that there is a need to persuade the President about UN involvement. We made it clear in the statement that we issued that any post-conflict Iraqi Administration must be specifically accepted and endorsed by the UN.

Perhaps some of the issues arise from the fact that American and British soldiers have put their lives on the line—and, in some cases, given their lives—for the liberation of Iraq and the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. Obviously, we will have to discuss the details of the way in which we make any hand-over to civil administration in Iraq, because it is important to protect our troops and ensure that they did not give their lives in vain. Some of the confusion in the press stories probably derives from that. However, there is no difference between us on the basic principle.

There will be two stages to the process. Let me repeat that the first part is ascertaining how to get the oil-for-food programme back up and running. I need to discuss that with Kofi Annan as a matter of urgency. It is essential for the people of Iraq. The specific nature of a further UN resolution on post-conflict Iraq is for later discussion, which can take place over a longer period.

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Prime Minister for that detailed reply. As he has been quite correct in stressing his commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq, will he give the House an update on the number of Turkish troops who have crossed the border into northern Iraq, and on what exactly they are doing?

The Prime Minister: There always have been Turkish troops in that position and there are obviously large numbers of Turkish troops there now. They say—as they have said consistently—that that is to provide against the possibility of large numbers of people coming over the border from northern Iraq. We and the United States have done everything that we possibly can, however, to make it very clear to the Turkish

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authorities, the Turkish military and the Turkish Government that any attempt to break the territorial integrity of Iraq in any way would be utterly unacceptable. I do not believe that that is their intention, but obviously we are watching the situation carefully.

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