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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1091—continued

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right. Those armed forces deserve our support. It is a characteristic of our society and the values that we are trying to uphold that we have a democracy and the opportunity to demonstrate, that we can set out in full the different views expressed by a mature democracy. That is what we are trying to achieve. Therefore, I would not necessarily go all the way with him in his remarks. As for his constituents, our thoughts are also with the families who are obviously concerned about the people who are

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engaged in action and will be engaged in the near future. It is important that we remember those people as they support those who have gone to war on our behalf.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Given what we know about Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to deal swiftly with any false information, or disinformation, that will come out of Iraq? Does he have any intelligence on rumours that Saddam has built up a body bank that can be used to inflate the civilian casualty figures?

Mr. Hoon: Before I answer that specific question, may I commend my hon. Friend on his strong support of the military operations and on the strong support of his son, who is presently serving in the Gulf? The whole House will join me in congratulating him on that.

I caution the House, as I did in my statement, about relying too much on propaganda from the Iraqi authorities. We have many experiences of Iraq claiming civilian casualties in the no-fly zone on days when we have not had a single aircraft flying.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the role of the media. Will he go a little further? Will he take this opportunity to remind the media—both written and visual—that what we are embarked upon is a very serious action to relieve the people of Iraq and the world of these weapons? This is not some form of entertainment. It is not designed as a spectacle for people to sit glued to their screens to watch as entertainment. Will he urge upon all commentators and reporters a sense of dignity and responsibility in the way that they report what is going on? Will he urge discretion upon them not necessarily to report every single detail if doing so could cause distress to families or individuals in this country? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

Mr. Hoon: I do not think that I can improve on the remarks of the hon. Gentleman. He puts his case extremely well and I entirely endorse it.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will my right hon. Friend outline the precautions that our forces and the forces of our allies will take to ensure that the Iraqi people have adequate access to clean water and food during the actions?

Mr. Hoon: On previous occasions, when I have set out to the House the details of the British force deploying to the Gulf, I have made it clear that it is a flexible force—certainly designed for war-fighting but also designed for peacekeeping. As soon as any conflict draws to an end, forces will be in place to provide security to the people of Iraq but also to attend to their obvious humanitarian needs. Iraq has been devastated by the regime of Saddam Hussein over many years. It is a much poorer country than it should be. We will assist in the process of rebuilding that country.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): If at all possible, will the Secretary of State seek to ensure that there is no Turkish incursion in the north of Iraq? That would be destabilising and downright dangerous. Will the

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Kurdish people get co-operation if, in any internal uprising, they seek to take over Kirkuk or to help the allied forces to remove Saddam Hussein's evil regime?

Mr. Hoon: A clear message has been sent to Turkey along the lines of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion; the Turkish ambassador visited the Ministry of Defence this morning. As far as the Kurds are concerned, I emphasise—as I did in response to an earlier question—the importance of preserving the position of the Kurds. They have, in the past, been the target of appalling attacks by Saddam Hussein's regime and we will never allow that to be forgotten.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): The Secretary of State has said that he wants civilian casualties to be minimised and yet, when my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) asked about cluster bombs, he would not rule out their use. Does he not see the contradiction between his two statements? The record of the use of cluster bombs is that they do, by their very nature, cause civilian casualties. In the first Gulf war, the United States used something like 60,000 cluster bombs, containing up to 20 million bomblets, in Iraq and Kuwait. Does the Secretary of State really believe that a repetition of that sort of behaviour will not cause civilian casualties?

Mr. Hoon: I made it clear that those particular weapons have a particular purpose. They will be used to achieve that purpose if it is necessary. Their use will be limited to those circumstances. I assure my hon. Friend that they are not used in a random way; but I would be failing in my duties as Secretary of State for Defence if I did not allow our armed forces to use the most appropriate weapons to deal with the threats against them.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Now that the troops are engaged and potentially under attack, we all wish that they may return safely and swiftly to this country. We all give them that support. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the attacks last night were in residential areas of Baghdad and were, in fact, an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein? Will he take this opportunity to spell out in more detail the UK MOD processes for ensuring the protection of civilians in such situations? What advice is taken and given in order to achieve that? Will he also say a little more about the co-ordination of the humanitarian relief that will have to follow? How will it be achieved? Will it follow a similar military chain of command, or will it be a different sort of operation?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman probably understands more about the nature of Iraqi society than he is letting on. In the past, we have heard many references to the palaces that the regime has constructed. Those palaces are residential—if the hon. Gentleman chooses to describe them as such—but they are also command and control centres that are operated by leaders of the regime simply because they are afraid of any close contact with their own people. In reality, those targets are perfectly legitimate military targets

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because they are the places from which Saddam Hussein exercises command and control over his own people and over weapons of mass destruction. It is entirely consistent with our campaign objectives that such military command and control facilities should be targeted.

A great deal of effort has been made in recent months to ensure proper co-ordination. As I have said before, it is important not only that we win any war but that we win any subsequent peace. I was in Washington some weeks ago, primarily to discuss the role that the military can play in ensuring the reconstruction of Iraq. My military advisers are at pains to emphasise that we are further forward in that way than we have ever been in any previous conflict. We recognise in particular the outstanding role that Britain's armed forces can play in these kinds of peacekeeping operation. However, it is important that we get through any military conflict before we can turn our full attention to such an operation. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that a great deal of effort is being made by the Government, in co-operation with other Governments, to ensure the co-ordination of that humanitarian effort.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): A criticism that has been levelled at this military action has been the tag "unilateral action by the United States". Given the variety of degrees of enthusiasm with which hon. Members in this House reached the conclusion that we did the other night, if my right hon. Friend could confirm that the number of countries that are actively engaged in one way or another in supporting the present military action is 30—or, better still, if he could confirm that the number is higher than that—it would reassure many of us.

Mr. Hoon: I can confirm, as I did earlier today, that there are at least 30 countries that are actively engaged in support of military operations, and, indeed, that still more countries are offering strong political support.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): It is clear from the action overnight that the military is targeting Saddam Hussein himself. Should Saddam Hussein be killed or overthrown, would military action cease immediately? If not, how would the Iraqi military bring the conflict to a close? What would it have to say to us to bring the conflict to an end?

Mr. Hoon: We are pursuing lawful military targets. Clearly, part of that effort is designed to disrupt the command and control of the regime. As I have said, and as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, we are seeking to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. However, with the expiry of the ultimatum to the regime and to Saddam Hussein, the means of achieving that will be through the removal of the regime. The removal of the regime will be the specific focus of our military operations.

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