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11 Mar 2003 : Column 253—continued

Mr. Savidge: Given that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) expressed the same concern that many people have expressed about pre-emptive war, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in those circumstances, it is particularly important to have very solid grounds in international law before considering taking such action?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North came up with a number of reasons as to why he felt that there was justification. He was very clear about that and I shall not rehearse his opinions for the benefit of those who were not present. They can read his speech tomorrow; it is certainly worth reading.

There is a serious practical worry, as the Minister must also address the question of what happens in the event of a challenge or a suggestion that the United Kingdom has not acted within international law. I am advised that our troops are now so embedded in joint military structures with the Americans that the situation recently put to me by a soldier will be brought about, so he will be answerable to a United States senior officer. If the International Criminal Court were to feel in such circumstances that it had some jurisdiction regarding actions taken as a result of a conflict in Iraq, what would be the status of our soldiers? The United States has not

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signed up to the International Criminal Court, Iraq has not done so and France has a seven-year exemption—not that we need to trouble ourselves too much about France in these matters. Nevertheless, those are serious issues that affect the confidence of our troops and could affect the manner in which they can conduct military operations if they are called upon to do so.

I turn now to post-conflict reconstruction. Even if the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made a late entrance, he certainly made some valuable points. It was well worth his while to come along and take pot luck as to whether he could get in on the debate. He took up an issue to which the Committee has rightly drawn attention. It states:

The Government's reply states:

Last week, I told the Secretary of State for Defence—and I tell the Minister now—that the Government are missing a trick. The hon. Member for Gedling is right. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the British people, let alone the Iraqi people, the Government and the Americans must make the case that they have the interests of the Iraqi people at heart. Detailed plans for dealing with post-conflict circumstances in Iraq are essential.

When I was in New York and Washington, the Americans were much more forthcoming than officials here. They are working on detailed plans. We were told that no one could buy bottled water anywhere in the Gulf because the Americans had bought it all for providing essential supplies to the people of Iraq. Even Kofi Annan told us that he had briefed the United Nations that morning about the possibility of post-conflict reconstruction. That is not based on a presumption of war; it is simply a sensible precaution.

The Government should be much more open. I appreciate that they have no firm plans yet and that there is a state of flux and uncertainty. However, I urge the Government to share the ideas that are currently being discussed to enable the transition from Saddam Hussein to a reasonable regime and to secure peace and prosperity for the people of Iraq.

The Minister should also take it into account that a peaceful transition to a secure future for Iraq is likely to involve British troops. They are already heavily overstretched. From where does the Secretary of State for Defence believe that he will get extra troops to undertake that obligation, which will be part of reconstruction, especially if Afghanistan is providing further problems that he must take into account?

Where do we go from here in trying to sort out future problems in the world? I believe that North Korea represents a threat and we should take it seriously. However, in the aftermath of whatever happens in Iraq, we must accept that there must be a limit on the number of sequential or simultaneous actions that one can take against regimes that one does not like. The United States must face that issue because it is the only

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superpower in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester made some interesting observations about that.

It is also essential to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have a feeling in my bones—I cannot justify it further—that the United States acknowledges that if it is not to be reviled in the Arab world, it must bring as much pressure to bear as possible to try to resolve once and for all the problem of Palestine. The resolution must secure the borders of Israel, protect the Israelis from suicide bombing and give the Palestinians a proper stake. That must be done.

We have had a good debate in which the Foreign Affairs Committee's excellent report has acted as a catalyst for a considered and measured assessment of the threat from international terrorism and the way ahead in dealing with Iraq. We have some way to go in formulating a comprehensive defence against terrorism. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) said, Irish republican terrorism has been the main threat to this country for the past 30 years. It remains, but we have been able to contain it in part, or at least come to terms with it.

The new threat emanates from Islamic fundamentalism, which is willing to resort to chemical and/or biological weapons, and operates through networks that may be harder to penetrate. It is a tribute to the security services that they have secured such successes, but a formidable challenge lies ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark made the important point that we cannot ignore the ability of Baghdad and its associates to launch an attack on the United Kingdom through terrorism.

A wide range of views has been expressed articulately if predictably on Iraq. Some hon. Members argued for more time, but they are unwilling to specify its length. We all agree that Saddam Hussein is vile and that his time has come. If we are serious about upholding United Nations authority—resolution 1441 must be upheld—the Government owe it to the House to tell us what they intend to do if there is no second, or 18th, as the Americans call it, resolution. The Americans have taken the United Nations route. The Government must tell us what they plan to do if a second resolution is not forthcoming.

As we sit here tonight, we should bear in mind the difficulties of our troops who are poised like coiled springs out there in the desert. It is not possible that they can be maintained at that tempo for ever. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I think that we should end the debate by thinking of our troops out there, serving the interests of our country and defending our freedoms.

6.40 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to some of the points that have been raised—and, as is the custom, leave a minute or two for my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) to comment. I echo the congratulations expressed to him and all Committee members by Members in all parts of the House on an excellent report. Our debate on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has also been excellent, and serious. I am surprised that more Members were not present throughout.

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I have many questions to get through. I want to deal with most of the initial ones quickly, and I will therefore respond to no interventions at that stage so that I may be able to respond to some on Iraq.

I was asked a number of questions by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). Do we know whether Osama bin Laden is still alive? We believe that he is. We are still awaiting the results of the questioning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. As for the nature of the relationship between the European security and defence policy and NATO, we are very pleased with the growing agreement and progress on that. I was asked how NATO would implement the Prague agreement. The Government's reply to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report makes it clear that detailed plans are being drawn up to deliver the new concepts for defence against terrorism. They include the development of the NATO rapid response force, a mixed force able to deploy quickly in the face of emerging threats. The changes will give NATO an enhanced capability to protect us from a range of threats, including terrorism.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk asked how the Government would strengthen the United Nations. We are working hard to ensure that its resolutions are enforced, and if its resolutions are complied with, its authority will be enhanced. Countries will know that resolutions are not mere hot air. If resolutions on Iraq are important, so are resolutions on Palestine. If resolution 1441 is not enforced, what price resolutions 242, 338 and 1397?

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) raised the distinction between different kinds of terrorism. He rightly condemned all kinds of terrorism, but distinguished terrorists with a negotiable political agenda—an agenda making it possible to negotiate an end to their terrorism, as we hope we have done in Northern Ireland—from terrorist groups with whom we cannot negotiate because their demands are too extreme. Although he has a good point, he will surely agree that we must not fail to condemn all kinds of terrorism. As the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) pointed out, after 11 September, the days of the terrorist calling himself a freedom fighter are gone.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke of the need for political change in the middle east. We all need to see that there is political change in the middle east. The west needs to recognise that real, long-term stability in the middle east must rest not with regimes of stability—that has been the case all too often in the past—but with economic reform and democracy. Iran is an example, in that in the past we supported regimes like that of the Shah. We were wrong to do so: it produced political extremism. In the long term, the only way to deal with the middle east, as with any other part of the world, is to promote economic reform and the spirit of democracy. If we believe that that is best for our people, we should believe that it is right for all people. We must also recognise that in the future, stability will require real reform. That is right for the Arabs, and right for the west.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) suggested that we should enforce a settlement in the middle east. I agree that the outlines of an agreement are clear, but the devil is in the detail, and it is the details that are crucial. He was unclear about the nature of the enforcement that he favours if, for

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example, Israel or the Palestinians say no. Frankly, it is difficult to see what further sanctions could be applied against the Palestinians if they decided to say no, given the extent of the sanctions already against them. It is an interesting idea, but it requires agreement from the Security Council, and as we have seen, such agreement is not that easy to achieve.

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