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11 Mar 2003 : Column 182—continued

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I have in my hands the Government's document on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which was published last September. Does my hon. Friend still hold the view that everything in that document is accurate, even including the references to Iraq's nuclear weapons?

Mr. O'Brien: The document was published on the basis of the intelligence information available to us at the time. Obviously, when we have published information about particular aspects of Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction, I very much doubt that, the next day, Iraq will leave in place whatever items it has previously had in place so that they can be discovered. Obviously, therefore, there is a time limit on the value of intelligence information, and we were aware of that when we published the document.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), but I shall then move on, as I want to make my remarks brief and stick to the issue of terrorism at this stage.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), the same document stated that Iraq might be capable of developing nuclear weapons in as little as a year. Yet specialists have given the Select Committee comprehensive evidence to show that it would take at least several years, and that even then it

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would be difficult for Iraq to develop such weapons. Was that specialist information available to the Government when they produced their report?

Mr. O'Brien: I said earlier that when two lawyers are together in a room, an argument ensues. The same applies to specialists. We must take account of the various intelligence reports that we receive, and the assessment of the value of the information by the experienced specialists whom the Government employ. We also take account of the reports of various academics. It is then a matter of making a judgment, and the Government have reached a clear judgment.

In 1990, Iraq was within between 18 months and three years of developing nuclear weapons. Clearly, if it had developed that capability, it would have used the resultant power to intimidate others. That was a serious matter. It is also clear that Saddam Hussein has not changed his spots and suddenly become a peacenik. He remains determined to develop weapons of mass destruction if he can. I therefore have no doubt that, without constraint, he would try to develop nuclear weapons. We have an assessment, which we have published, of the length of time that it would take him. Others will take a different view.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I am trying to deal with the intervention and I want to make progress.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Will my hon. Friend give way on the specific point that he is considering?

Mr. O'Brien: No.

Mr. Savidge: Will my hon. Friend give way in view of what was said yesterday?

Mr. O'Brien: I am trying to deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Chichester. I want to do that and subsequently proceed.

We accept that, at the moment, Iraq does not have a nuclear weapons capability. There is no doubt about that. Its efforts to develop such weapons have been frustrated in the past 12 years, initially because of the inspectors. However, we believe that Iraq has taken steps to try to get around the restrictions, and that, had he the ability, Saddam Hussein would try to develop nuclear weapons.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps I can deal with Iraq in my closing remarks rather than answering all the questions now.

I want to focus on terrorism, which is the other issue that is important to British foreign policy. We face a genuine threat. Al-Qaeda may seek cynically to use any military action in Iraq as an excuse for further attacks in

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the short term. However, if such action proves necessary, we believe that it would remove a large threat to stability in the region.

In the current decade, the threat from terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are our two top priorities. We have helped to shape and maintain the international consensus on terrorism that is essential to change the odds in our favour so that the British public can go about their lives freely and with confidence.

Counter-terrorism operations are being maintained throughout the globe at an unprecedented level with unprecedented co-operation between countries. We shall continue to work with our traditional close partners—the EU, the United States, the G8 countries, NATO and the Commonwealth. However, we have also built on new relationships that we forged in counter-terrorism to ensure that the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee continues to deliver. We have developed new relationships with countries such as Syria and Libya. They, too, perceive al-Qaeda as a threat.

We are backing our commitment with technical assistance to several countries that would benefit from our help. We are currently helping more than 70 countries to improve their counter-terrorism capabilities. We shall also continue to focus on wider issues, including Palestine, about which many of us feel deeply. The injustice done to the Palestinian people must be remedied and we must seek a peaceful resolution in the middle east. That is in the interests of Israel as well as the Palestinians.

The position in Palestine is an underlying cause of terrorism. We must deal with other underlying causes such as poverty and political exclusion.

Joan Ruddock: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way on poverty.

Joan Ruddock: Will my hon. Friend confirm that al-Qaeda is now broadcasting again in Afghanistan? Does he agree that it is vital that the warlords in Afghanistan are disarmed and that there must be a demobilisation programme? Unless that is done, there can be no democracy, which we have promised. Does he further agree that the reconstruction that is currently occurring is not sufficient to bring that country into a condition whereby al-Qaeda can be driven out?

Mr. O'Brien: One of the key prerequisites for fundamental change in Afghanistan is ensuring that the transitional Government and any other Government elected after 2004 can deliver genuine change for the people of Afghanistan so that the economy is developed. Girls who were previously excluded from school have returned to education. That is enormously important and sends clear messages about the nature of the society that the current Afghan Government want to develop.

However, much more remains to be done. We must extend the authority of the Karzai regime, and that of any other democratically elected Government after 2004, to the wider provinces. Many warlords currently acknowledge the legitimacy of the central Government, but the Government are not capable of exercising their

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authority by forceful means in all the provinces. Giving them the capacity to do that by training an Afghan national army is important.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) knows, our Government and many others, including the United States Government, want to place various groups of armed forces from Britain, perhaps Germany, and the United States in various provinces. The groups will be small and their objective will not be enforcement. However, they will convey a signal to the warlords of our determination that the process in Afghanistan will be completed. We are determined that there will be a genuine opportunity for democracy, and we want it to be taken. Much work remains to be done in Afghanistan. We can ensure that al-Qaeda does not return only when that work is completed.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that one method of sending a signal to the warlords in Afghanistan is to stop giving them money and arms? Will he comment on American policy, which is to continue to give arms and money to warlords in Afghanistan?

Mr. O'Brien: We are attempting to build consensus in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend appears to suggest that, rather than getting the warlords to support the central Government, the writ of the central Government should be imposed on the warlords. That approach could produce instability. We are therefore trying to feel our way towards getting the warlords to acknowledge not only the central Government's legitimacy, but their authority. That will take time.

In the meantime, we need to exercise some control over the warlords to stop them causing problems until the central Government have sufficient power and authority to enforce their writ more effectively throughout the country. It will take time—there is no point in suggesting otherwise to my hon. Friend. However, I believe that it is possible to fulfil our programme in Afghanistan. We shall make every effort to do that. The United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and various other countries are making substantial contributions to trying to give the Afghan people the opportunity that they deserve. We shall keep working on that.

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