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Mr. MacDougall: I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Does he agree that the international coalition in the Balkans has been a great success and that the United States of America's intention to reduce the number of troops could influence stability in the area? The three presidents are due to meet shortly to discuss the matter. Premature withdrawal from the area should avoided as it would put at risk the stability that has been achieved. Will he assure me that there will be no threat to stability in the area?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations, and agree with him that operations in the Balkans have been an outstanding success. However, he will be aware that NATO Defence Ministersnot only the United Stateshave approved a series of changes to SFOR and KFOR following the joint operational area review.
The review advocates a regional approach to NATO's peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Both Bosnia and Kosovo will be treated as a single theatre for military planning purposes. That is because the security situation in the Balkans has changed since the initial deployment of SFOR and KFOR. NATO's operations will be restructured accordingly to provide a smaller, lighter and more flexible force that will be better able to meet current security challenges in the region. However, in no way does that reduction in troop numbers signal any reduction in NATO's commitment to the region. Rather, the changes are a sign of the alliance's achievements to date in bringing security and stability to the Balkans. The UK, with the rest of NATO, remains absolutely committed to
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): In his conversations with the US Secretary of Defence, has the right hon. Gentleman received information that convinces him of Iraqi involvement in support for international terrorism?
Mr. Hoon: There can be no doubt that Iraq has supported terrorism, or that Iraq has sought to undermine the stability of both its neighbours and the wider world. Equally, however, I have not seen any information directly linking Iraq to the appalling events of11 September last year.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): In the light of mounting press speculation over the past few days, will the Secretary of State confirm that, under the guise of the war against terrorism, British troops are not being situated in the middle east in preparation for participation in a war against Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear to my hon. Friend and the House that absolutely no decisions have been taken by the British Government in relation to operations in Iraq or anywhere near Iraq in the middle east? It follows, therefore, that no decisions have been taken to deploy British forces in that region for that reason. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that any such decision would be properly reported to the House, as right hon. and hon. Members properly expect.
David Burnside (South Antrim): Has the Secretary of State, in his discussions with his United States counterpart, been made aware of evidence given to the Committee on International Relationsa congressional committeethat one terrorist organisation, FARC, has contributed $2 million since 1998 to the Provisional IRA in exchange for training FARC in urban terrorism? Will he co-operate with his American counterpart and the international policing and intelligence authorities so that if illegally laundered money is brought into the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland and filtered through to Sinn Fein-IRA, legal action is taken against those organisations?
Mr. Hoon: I am well aware of the material that has been made known in the United States. It is a matter of discussion between the United Kingdom and the United States as to how best to deal with that, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that as this obviously is a matter for other Departments and Government agencies, the UK Government, and not simply the Ministry of Defence, will certainly take appropriate and effective action to deal with the information and links that he rightly set out.
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether, under United States influence, the Labour Government are abandoning the policy of the last Conservative Administration and all previous British Governments? During the Gulf war, John Major ruled out, explicitly and repeatedly in the House, the use of British nuclear weapons against Iraq, even in reply to a chemical or biological attack on our forces, on
Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear, as I have made clear to my hon. Friend and the House on a number of occasions, that the British Government's policy in that respect has not changed? We remain committed to a range of international agreements that have been supported by successive Governments. That remains the position, but may I make it clear to him that that position has always been within the wider remit of international law? I have made it clear to him and the House that the British Government would only use nuclear weapons consistent with our obligations under international law.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): May I return to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) about the assessment agreed by the United States and the United Kingdom of links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda? While there may be no hard and fast evidence of a direct connection, as the Secretary of State has put it, between the Iraqi regime and the events of 11 September last year, is there an agreed assessment of links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, and what exactly is it?
Mr. Hoon: We keep an open mind about the allegations of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. I have made it quite clear previously that there is no direct evidence to link Saddam Hussein's regime and the appalling events of 11 September, but if and when new information comes to light, we shall certainly investigate it. Let us not be in any doubt about Iraq. We cannot ignore the threat that it poses to the international community. We have always made it clear that the world would be a much better and safer place without Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Jenkin: I certainly concur with the right hon. Gentleman's final comments. It is clear that, while no decision has been made about what form of military action, if any, may be taken, the United States and the United Kingdom are making preparations for the deployment of a major force for possible combat operations. In that regard, may I invite the right hon. Gentleman to give the House some reassurance about the latest information on the performance of the SA80A2 rifle, which will obviously be vital in any contribution that we make to a military coalition?
Mr. Hoon: I emphasise not only that no decisions have been taken as to form, but that no decisions have been taken about military operations against Iraq other than those that are properly conducted to protect the people of Iraq under the no-fly zonesour air crew continue to face real danger in carrying out a humanitarian operation.
With reference to the SA80A2, there has undoubtedly been a significant improvement in that rifle's capability as a result of the recent upgrade. Equally, as I found for myself on a very recent visit to Afghanistan, there are concerns among the Royal Marines, who face extremely difficult environmental conditions in Afghanistan, about the reliability of the rifle. That is being assessed. The week that I was in Afghanistanthe week before lasta team from the manufacturers and from the Ministry of Defence was there, specifically to put the rifle through
Mr. Jenkin: Again, I fully endorse the Secretary of State's last comments. If we are to make an effective contribution to the military coalitionif there is onethe soldiers whom we deploy must have 100 per cent. confidence in their rifle. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the exercise in Afghanistan involving a platoon of 30, firing 90 rounds each, resulted in 20 out of the 30 rifles jamming? Can he confirm that the concern is that the cleaning regime and the handling regime of the rifle may not have been correct? Will he also confirm that unless he can restore 100 per cent. confidence in the rifle, he does not rule out scrapping the SA80 and replacing it with an alternative?
Mr. Hoon: I will not go into the details of what is contained in a report that is still being analysed in the Ministry of Defence, but I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I assure the House, that those matters will be properly set out before the House in due course. I want to ensure that there is confidence in the weapon. The hon. Gentleman knows, as do other right hon. and hon. Members from their own military experience, that there is no such thing as a 100 per cent. successful rifle.
A member of my constituency party with military experience asked me at a recent meeting whether I could confirm that both kalashnikovs and M16s routinely jam. That is the position. In certain circumstances and certain environmental conditions, any rifle will be subject to jamming. We must ensure that our armed forces have confidence in their weapon, and that that weapon is properly tested, and properly used and prepared for the missions that they have to undertake.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): In the context of international terrorism, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate Pakistan's authorities on having brought to justice those responsible and found guilty of the murder of the American journalist? Does my right hon. Friend recall the video that was made by the murderers, including the end of the journalist's life, with his head being cut off? Does that not illustrate how important it is to fight and campaign on an international scale against those vile, evil, racist murderers?
Mr. Hoon: I was recently in Islamabad, where I had the privilege of meeting the Pakistani President. We discussed the wide range of co-operation undertaken between Pakistan, the United Kingdom and other members of the international coalition against terrorism. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to Pakistan for the efforts that it has made to tackle terrorism. We want those efforts to continue and, along the border with Afghanistan, we want them to be redoubled.