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24 Mar 2003 : Column 32—continued

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): Now that the international rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle, can the Prime Minister tell the House whether, when he met President Chirac at the European Council, he told him that most of the British people dissociate themselves from the xenophobic insults that have been hurled at France by some of his Ministers in recent weeks?

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The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I have a certain fondness for France, so I would not join in any of those insults either in relation to France or the French people. He mentioned the law of the jungle: if he wants an example of the law of the jungle, he should look at the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Many of those who opposed war, including me, were worried about inflaming Arab nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism. There was always a concern that such people would hole themselves up in towns and cause enormous difficulties to our troops. Indeed, that appears to be happening in Umm Qasr, a town of only 4,000 people, whereas Baghdad has millions. What is the Prime Minister's strategy? Will he be fair and honest with the British people and warn them that while we all hope that this regime will haul up the white flag, a long war of attrition is possible? We cannot defeat this regime by staying on the outskirts of the cities or by staying in the desert. We must go into the centres. It may be wiser to warn the British people now that if we are to win the war, we must do that.

The Prime Minister: On the latter point, I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we are about four days into the conflict at present, and I think that the progress of the troops has been remarkable, despite the tragedies and the accidents that necessarily happen in such a situation. As for inflaming Arab nations, I repeat what I have often said on this subject: I do not believe that the Arab nations will be inflamed by the removal of Saddam; I do, however, believe that they will be hugely encouraged by our even-handedness if they see us proceed genuinely with the middle east peace process.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): Can my right hon. Friend say how long he thinks it will be before the much-needed road map to peace is published? Is it a matter of days or weeks?

The Prime Minister: I very much hope that it is a matter of days, but it depends on the new Palestinian Prime Minister appointing his Cabinet, which will take him some time. As soon as that is ready, the road map will be given to him—that is the commitment of the President of the United States and myself, and is indeed what he himself wants.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): Would the Prime Minister dissociate himself from the anti-French rhetoric that has been coming out of his Government in recent weeks? Does he recognise that, although he and the Government may disapprove of French foreign policy, the French have a perfect right to take a different view of the world? Will he instead reserve his condemnation for those who have written or drafted the European constitution, which seeks to impose a single foreign and security policy on all member states


That is not a harmless fantasy—it will attempt to impose binding obligations on the Government and the House, contrary to our interests.

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The Prime Minister: First, I can respond to the right hon. Gentleman's stout defence of French policy, or at least their right to have a policy. I entirely agree—of course, the French are entitled to have a point of view different from ours, but we are entitled to point out why we were unable to secure a second United Nations resolution. On the common foreign and security policy, I do not agree, for the reasons that I gave earlier. I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, as a result of the agreement that we secured, there is no question of British forces being committed in any European defence effort without the express permission in each individual instance of the British Government.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Turning to the European Council, clearly, the European Union agenda is much wider than Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend have any fears that the divisions and bitterness on Iraq will spill over and sour areas in which we have considerable interest, such as the Balkans, and asylum and immigration? Does he have any fears, for example, that the French will be less than helpful in respect of a new UN Security Council resolution on reconstruction?

The Prime Minister: I hope, first, that everyone accepts that it is good for the United Nations to be involved in a post-conflict Iraq, so I hope that the difficulties to which my right hon. Friend drew attention will not arise. Secondly, I very much hope that the disagreements here do not in any shape or form contaminate other areas of policy. It is interesting, for example, that we have agreed the European defence mission in Macedonia, which will go ahead as planned. There are real and important issues that will have to be resolved at the end of this, primarily to do with the relationship between Europe and the United States of America. It is right that we have that debate—I do not think that there is any point in masking or hiding the divisions, and it may be time after this to try to sit down and resolve them sensibly.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Prime Minister will be aware of the air of sadness mixed with pride in the west country over the weekend at the tragic news of the loss of so many Plymouth-based Royal Marines, closely followed by the loss of helicopter pilots from nearby RAF Culdrose. Does he agree that the famous green berets have already played a significant part in the liberation of the Iraqi people, and will he send a personal message and tribute to the families of armed forces in the west country, many of whom are grieving for the loss of their husbands?

The Prime Minister: The west country has often provided some of our finest forces, and of course I send my deepest condolences to the families of servicemen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency who have lost their lives. I hope that they realise that they gave their lives in a just cause, which is important not just for British security but for the safety and security of the world. I am sure that in time we will remember them as people who gave their lives in that way with immense courage.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What are the implications of Saddam Hussein's decision to use civilians as a human shield in the course of this war?

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The Prime Minister: There is no doubt at all that Saddam Hussein will try to do so, as he did in the last Gulf war, which is one reason why it is important that we are careful with the targeting of the air campaign. However, there is a constant risk because there is no doubt at all that there is evidence that where he has troop movements, he will try to surround them in areas of civilian sensitivity. As we have reflected many times before, there are no lengths to which he will not go.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Can the Prime Minister be a little more specific about his discussions with his EU partners at the European Council this weekend? Considering that a quarter of all our overseas aid—more than £700 million—goes to the aid budget in the European Union, surely the British taxpayers who have paid that money would expect Britain to make a really good contribution through Europe to the reconstruction of Iraq after the war.

The Prime Minister: Well, we will do so on our own behalf and also in the European Union. That is why it is important that we work together with the other European countries to get a new UN resolution both on the humanitarian front and elsewhere. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is fair to say that many countries were speaking in our support at the European Council; indeed, virtually all the accession countries did so.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Coalition forces are clearly doing everything in their power to minimise the number of civilian casualties, but we hear stories of non-uniformed armed Iraqis attacking British troops. Does the Prime Minister believe that this is a case of ordinary Iraqis arming themselves or, as seems far more likely, of cowardly Iraqi troops deliberately masquerading as civilians?

The Prime Minister: It is certainly the latter, as far as we can make out. My hon. Friend is right; these people will be fiercely loyal to the regime, as they will have suppressed the local population. They are armed at the present time and we will do all we can to root them out. Where those pockets of resistance are taking place, they come from the Fedayeen and people who are fiercely loyal to the regime. That is only to be expected, as they are the people, not the Iraqi people or the ordinary Iraqi soldiers, who have most to lose from the departure of Saddam's regime.

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Iraq (Relief and Reconstruction)

4.21 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the humanitarian situation in Iraq and the preparations for reconstruction.

I should begin by apologising to the House for the fact that I was unable to be here to respond to the urgent question tabled by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on 19 March. I gather that the exchanges were unsatisfactory and I am sorry about that. The reason was that I visited New York and Washington to meet the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Administration to try to ensure that arrangements are in place to provide adequate humanitarian relief and that proper preparations are being made for reconstruction in Iraq. I had detailed talks with Kofi Annan and his senior staff, Horst Köhler at the IMF and Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank. I also met senior officials at the US National Security Council, the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department. There is, I think, a growing will to reunite the international community behind the humanitarian and reconstruction effort in Iraq.

As I made clear in my previous statement, the immediate responsibility for humanitarian support for the people of Iraq in the territory that they occupy lies with the US and UK military forces, in line with their duties under the Geneva and Hague conventions. My Department is providing humanitarian advice to the UK military and the Treasury has agreed to provide £30 million to ensure that UK forces can play their role. The US Administration have made their own plans with the help of USAID.

The UN humanitarian system has also made detailed preparations to resume its role in Iraq and provide for refugees, displaced people and continuing humanitarian needs. The UN employs 1,000 international staff, who have recently been withdrawn from Iraq, and 4,000 local staff in Iraq, and has considerable experience of working in the country. My Department has contributed £13 million to help UN agencies to make preparations to resume their work in Iraq and prepare for the possible consequences of conflict. We are expecting a flash appeal to occur shortly so that they can make their plans operational. We will make an appropriate contribution. The UN will return as soon as it is possible to do so.

We provide regular briefings to non-governmental organisations with the experience and capacity to work in Iraq to enable them to plan to take up their role, and we are urgently assessing their funding requests. We also strongly support the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has a critical role to play as it can operate in the acute conflict phase and is a highly effective and impressive organisation. We have provided £2.5 million for the ICRC's work in Iraq this year and also expect to respond to its appeal, which has just been received.

However, it is important that we are all clear that the most important humanitarian priority is to restore the operation of the oil-for-food programme. To achieve this, there is a need for a new Security Council resolution to give the Secretary-General authority to continue to

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operate the programme. The Secretary-General is making preparations and we are supporting his efforts to ensure that a suitable resolution is passed.

The scale of the programme is massive. It spends $10 billion a year and is funded by the sale of Iraqi oil. Almost all Iraqis receive assistance from the oil-for-food programme and 16 million are totally dependent on it for their daily survival. I should, however, say that they were given a couple of months supply before the conflict began. People are supplied for the time being, but we need to get the programme up and running very quickly.

The programme provides not only food but water, fuel, medicines and other basic requirements. It is organised through 45,000 local distribution centres, which are all run by Iraqis. If the programme were not reinstated, it would be difficult to avoid a serious humanitarian crisis. We are therefore committed to supporting the Secretary-General of the United Nations in every way possible to get the oil-for-food programme up and running again as rapidly as possible. Talks in New York toward a resolution are positive and we hope that the resolution will be secured so that the international community will be ready to go forward.

At the same time, we are making preparations for the reconstruction of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime has gone. It is clear that we can rise to that challenge only if we heal the rifts in the international community and engage all major players in supporting the people of Iraq to rebuild their country. The UN must provide a mandate for the reconstruction effort because that is a precondition for the engagement of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and many countries. Their engagement is key to the reforms that are needed to move the economy forward and to secure an agreement on debt rescheduling and a reparations strategy that will enable the Iraqi economy to recover and grow. I held detailed talks with officials of the UN and the US Administration about how that might be achieved and I am hopeful that we will soon make progress in line with the agreements reached between the Prime Minister and President Bush in the Azores.

As the House is aware, a precondition for the reduction of division, bitterness and anger about double standards in the wider region is progress on the middle east peace process, as the Prime Minister has said. The UK's efforts were crucial in getting President Bush's commitment to publish the road map toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. That, and Abu Mazen's appointment as the new Palestinian Prime Minister, offer the chance of a way forward. The Government are committed to driving forward the process to bring hope and peace to a new Palestinian state and security to Israel. I discussed the issue with Department of State and National Security Council representatives who said that President Bush was determined to take the commitment forward. The IMF and World Bank also have detailed plans to provide support. We are all aware that full implementation of the road map will not be easy, but it is essential.

There is a sense of regret and dismay among the UN, the IMF and the World Bank about the divisions that were allowed to arise during the international community's handling of the Iraq crisis. There is agreement that our duty now is to minimise the suffering of the people of Iraq during the conflict and to ensure that humanitarian relief and support for reconstruction

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is in place. That requires the healing of international divisions, as the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) said, and I hope that a united effort to provide humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq and to support them in reconstructing their country will help to bring that about.

Last, I make it clear that I shall keep the House regularly updated on the humanitarian situation in Iraq. We have provided a response to the International Development Committee report. Hon. Members must understand that it has been difficult to provide full information to the House before now because so many international agencies were unwilling to be seen as preparing for conflict and for their plans to be publicly available, although we were in touch with them and knew what was going on. That constraint has now been removed and the House will be kept fully informed. Reports on the humanitarian situation will be placed in the Library of the House on each weekday morning.

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