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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1213—continued

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): May I return to the small but important symbolic point I raised with the Secretary of State yesterday? There were reports this morning that the stars and stripes were flying over Umm Qasr to indicate that it had been successfully captured, which I think sends out an unfortunate signal about the nature of the operation. It would be singularly unfortunate if the stars and stripes were, for example, planted over the parliament building in Baghdad at some future stage of operations. In the full understanding of their attachment to their flag, I wonder whether the Secretary of State can find time to make representations to our American colleagues about the importance of symbols and the nature of the operation.

Mr. Hoon: I agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he made the same point yesterday, although we have to

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understand the way in which, at the end of a vigorous confrontation, any soldiers are likely to feel the need to demonstrate their success. I suspect that that is what happened overnight. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I will ensure that it is passed on.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): The Secretary of State will know that 3 Commando Brigade is based at Stonehouse barracks in my constituency. I join him in paying tribute to the professionalism and sheer dedication of the men and in sending condolences to the families of those who have been lost. Will he urge that the families get information as quickly as possible? Many families in Devon and Cornwall are anxious.

May I share my concern about reports this morning from Plymouth suggesting that the some of the national press are doorstepping the families—[Hon. Members: "Disgraceful."] That might be rumour, but will my right hon. Friend urge journalists to treat people in a respectful and appropriate manner?

Mr. Hoon: I have had the privilege of visiting my hon. Friend's constituency and meeting her constituents, many of whom serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. They will all be deeply affected by the tragedy that has occurred. I can only endorse her observations about the need for the press to behave responsibly in these very difficult times.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I join the House in expressing sympathy for both the American casualties and the British casualties from 3 Commando Brigade. I know the brigade well and am sure that this setback will serve to stiffen their resolve rather than to weaken it.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are enough reserves in place to take the place both of casualties and of exhausted units, and that training has started of forces to follow on once the fighting has finished to carry out reconstruction work and form the garrisons that will inevitably be required?

Mr. Hoon: I can give that confirmation. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, training has not been affected by the current deployments to Iraq or by our commitment to provide emergency fire cover should that prove necessary. Clearly, however, those factors have to be reviewed regularly, and I assure him that I shall report to the House if there are any such difficulties—but I emphasise that there are not at present.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): May I associate myself fully with the sympathy that has been expressed to the families of the troops who died in the helicopter disaster? That has a particularly meaning for me, because I visited al-Faw when I was in the forces in Iraq as a young man.

Why has the Secretary of State made no mention of the B-52 bombers that, according to reports, have now left Fairford? Is he aware that B-52s were used extensively to attack Basra during the Gulf war, flattening whole hosts of working-class areas in the town and killing many people. How will we be assured that this will not happen on this occasion?

Mr. Hoon: Coalition operations are clearly continuing. I made that clear in my statement, and I do

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not think that any Member of the House would expect me to anticipate the nature of those operations save to say that whatever targets are addressed will be targets associated with Saddam Hussein's regime. I made that clear yesterday to the House, and I repeat it again today. We will not engage in indiscriminate so-called carpet bombing. Each of the targets will be individually addressed and attacked.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): The commencement of military operations has provoked a number of demonstrations in this country. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to tell us whether the Home Secretary intends to issue to guidance to chief constables and the Commissioner of Police about the policing of our streets if, as seems likely, more protests take place? Does the Secretary of State not agree that we preserve the right to peaceful protest in this country—something that the people of Iraq do not enjoy—and that it does not seem appropriate that the police, who do more than anyone else to ensure that people can protest peacefully, should be rewarded with the kind of assaults and attacks that we saw here in London yesterday, or that the people of this country should suffer the dislocation of their normal life that occurred?

Mr. Hoon: I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the very effective policing that we saw yesterday. I thought the police maintained an excellent balance between the need to allow people to protest lawfully and legitimately and allowing right hon. and hon. Members access to the House, and the ordinary people of London and other cities to go about their lives in their normal way.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I would like to add my comments to the sympathies that have already been expressed in the House to the families of those brave young men whose lives have been so tragically and, in my view, somewhat needlessly, lost.

Kuwaiti officials have categorically averred that no Scud missiles were launched in the attack yesterday, but that they were, in fact, the al-Samoud missiles that were in the process of being destroyed before weapons inspectors were somewhat peremptorily withdrawn from Iraq. When will we be able to know who is giving us the proper detailed information as to what precisely those missiles were?

Mr. Hoon: May I strongly resist the suggestion made by my hon. Friend that those lives were needlessly lost? Those young men were engaged on important operations in carrying through the military objectives of the United Kingdom and its coalition allies. I pay tribute to the contribution that they made and that their colleagues are continuing to make. I assure my hon. Friend that, if she were to speak to their families and to those men's colleagues, she would find that they are proud of what those men achieved. They would strongly resist her observation.

I have said all I can at this stage about the nature of those missiles. I do not intend to repeat it again.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): The Secretary of State will be well aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I have about 450 constituents from the Yeovilton air base serving as part

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of the helicopter forces in and around Iraq. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them on the important and often very difficult work that they are doing? In the light of the optimistic comments that Admiral Kelly has made this morning, can the Secretary of State give us, at what is admittedly an early stage, his overall assessment of the progress of the operation to date?

Mr. Hoon: I have had the opportunity of visiting Yeovilton on more than one occasion, and I pay tribute to the excellent work that is conducted and to the forces who have been deployed from there to the Gulf. I do not think it is appropriate at this stage to make an overall assessment other than to say that things are going very well and that we are continuing operations that are consistent with our overall military objectives. Clearly, in the light of what has occurred, we should be cautious and recognise the risks that our armed forces are undergoing and continue to support them in the determined work that they are carrying out.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): May I add my sympathies to the many expressions of sympathy that have been made today?

I spoke late last night to friends of mine in northern Iraq. They welcome the military intervention and there is already celebration of that in northern Iraq. At the same time, however, they are deeply concerned about the possibility that the Turks, will once again cross their borders, make for Kirkuk and not go away. That is a strong feeling, so I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could give the people in that area assurances as soon as possible that the Turks will not be able to stay in northern Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has done more than most over the years to highlight the appalling threat to the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and, indeed, elsewhere. It is important to recognise that there are a variety of risks. I have talked of the risks faced by individual servicemen and servicewomen, and we have seen some of the consequences of that. There are also strategic risks. However, I emphasise to the House—I know that everyone will support this—that these risks are worth taking to achieve a better strategic situation and a safer and more secure place in the world for the people of Iraq and for the wider international community.

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