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24 Mar 2003 : Column 29—continued

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, may I associate myself fully and sincerely with what the Prime Minister has said in tribute and in condolence? It has been encouraging to hear the Prime Minister mention three times the need to protect the Kurdish community to the north of Iraq. I urge him to consider a federal system for post-conflict Iraq, to protect those boundaries and those people.

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The Prime Minister: The precise nature of any Government for the whole of Iraq will have to be considered carefully at a later time. The Kurdish community in the north, because it has been protected by British and American pilots over the past 12 years, has achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy. It has achieved at least something of the beginnings of democracy. As a result of that, and as a result of the way that the area is governed free from Saddam, that community actually has a far better record on things such as the poverty of its people, the building of schools and hospitals, and the reduction of child mortality. We must ensure that we retain the gains that have been made by that community. However, as I say, the precise nature of the government of Iraq will be a matter for discussion at a later point.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I deeply regret all the loss of life and all the injuries that have been caused over the past five days. Has the Prime Minister studied the footage from al-Jazeera, which went in to report on the 50 or so civilians who were killed in Basra after the bombing or shelling? There were terrible pictures of women and children—one child with half its head blown out. Just before I came into the Chamber, I heard a report on the radio that we are shelling Basra yet again. How does the Prime Minister think that we can protect civilians when that kind of thing is happening?

The Prime Minister: First, let me say to my hon. Friend that we regret any loss of civilian life in Iraq. I think that most people would agree that we have done everything that we can in the targeting to ensure that we minimise the dangers of that. However, of course, there will be innocent civilians who die in any war; that is why we have struggled so long to ensure that Saddam disarmed peacefully.

Although the pictures are not as vivid and not as shocking, the fact is that people have been dying the entire time in Iraq under Saddam. We will do everything that we can to make this conflict as swift as possible and to minimise civilian casualties. As I say, every civilian casualty is one that we regret. However, we are doing all that we humanly can to keep them to a minimum.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): I welcome what the Prime Minister said in answer to an earlier question about the adequacy of reserves, but does he agree that the length of the supply line makes the coalition forces very vulnerable to ambush and other guerrilla forms of insurgency, and that may well extend to service personnel engaged in delivering humanitarian aid along those supply lines in future? Will he assure the House that he is satisfied that not only the British reinforcement position but the American reinforcement position can ensure that those crucial long supply lines are fully protected, possibly for an extended period?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the length of the supply line. All I can say to him—without going into detail because that would not be sensible—is that the issue of force protection is one that we visit and revisit constantly with the military commanders, and I am satisfied that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that those lines of supply are secure.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on the de-

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mining of Umm Qasr? Is it the case that that work cannot start yet because there are still pockets of resistance; or is it the intention to start that work very soon? Obviously, the sooner it starts, the sooner we can begin to deliver our promise on humanitarian relief.

The Prime Minister: As I understand it, the position is really this: it is not the pockets of resistance, which are fairly limited now in Umm Qasr; it is more to do with the fact that there is the prospect of mines being in the waterways approaching the port. We cannot be sure exactly how many are there at the moment. That is what we are investigating, and at this stage—obviously, before we see what we are up against—we cannot give a definitive time, but we hope that we will be able to get the humanitarian aid moving in the next few days.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Although we clearly have to wait a little longer to decide Iraq's long-term future—I hope, with the UN's involvement—would it not help to gain greater international acceptance of our actions and encourage the Iraqi people to surrender wherever possible if the Prime Minister were a bit more specific about what he sees immediately after the war? It is difficult to believe that he has not already carefully considered who should be part of any interim Administration, representing Iraqi exiles and people presently in Iraq, so could he not tell the House a little more about how he envisages Iraq being governed for the first few weeks and months, while a new constitution and Government are put in place?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, we have to be careful of being too specific on that—otherwise it renders somewhat nugatory the discussion that we will have in the UN about exactly what the form of government should be—but we can lay down certain principles very clearly. It should be as representative as possible; it should move Iraq along the road to democracy as much as possible, given the history and the circumstances; it should protect human rights; and it should protect Iraq's territorial integrity. At this stage, before we have discussions with the UN and other allies, I cannot be more specific than that, but I believe that most people in Iraq can see the basis of how Iraq could be governed differently, and they can do so not least because, in the northern part—protected, as I say, by British and American pilots—a different Iraq has already taken shape.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Although I am very clear on the need for this action, may I put on record my strong opposition to the use of cluster bombs, as experience suggests that they are contrary to our stated aim of causing the minimum possible civilian casualties? If the Prime Minister raises that inconsistency with the President, could he also diplomatically point out that if the Americans were not so flagrantly breaching the rights of prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan, their current justified outrage for our own POWs would be less inconsistent and more effective in securing their safe return?

The Prime Minister: On the latter point, the people at Guantanamo bay are not combat troops in the service of a country. However, I have said on many occasions

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before that there will have to come a point when the situation at Guantanamo bay comes to an end, although it is also true to say that information is still being provided by people there that is of importance.

In relation to cluster bombs, I will not comment on what munitions we may use, except to say that I am personally satisfied that whatever munitions we are using are in accordance with international law.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): May I commend the Prime Minister on not only his brave and courageous action, but his statement this afternoon? Will he confirm whether it is true, as has been claimed in a number of tabloid newspapers, that a chemical plant has been discovered by coalition forces? Secondly, will he confirm whether Turkish troops have entered Iraq from the north? If he can do so, I am sure that a great many people will be reassured.

The Prime Minister: On the latter point, we have no reports of that in respect of Turkish troops. In respect of the chemical plant, that is still being investigated. As soon as we have news on that, we will state it.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): Millions of people at the weekend will have heard Donald Rumsfeld opine:

I therefore ask the Prime Minister: who is? Are we?

The Prime Minister: I think that people know that the campaign that we have conducted has of course included targets in Baghdad, but they have been targets designed to weaken the regime, not destroy centres of the Iraqi population.

Bob Russell (Colchester): The Prime Minister rightly drew attention to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. In particular, I want to draw his attention to 16 Air Assault Brigade, the 3,000 troops from the Colchester garrison who are currently in the Gulf. He has also drawn attention to the concerns, anxieties and worries that wives and other dependants have back home. May I offer an invitation to him to visit Colchester garrison for a two-way exchange with families so that he can reassure them and benefit from their response, too? I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for Defence for the briefing that he has just given.

The Prime Minister: First, of course I admire and applaud the work that the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others from that garrison are doing. I cannot give any commitments as to when I may visit, but I understand that the Secretary of State for Defence is due to visit next week.

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