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House of Commons

Monday 31 March 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): If he will make a statement on the deployment of British armed forces to the Gulf region. [105447]

4. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): If he will make a statement on the present involvement of British forces in Iraq. [105450]

6. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): If he will make a statement on military operations in the Gulf. [105452]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives or suffered injuries in tragic accidents or through enemy action during the current military operations in Iraq. I also pay tribute to those who continue to put their lives at risk in often difficult conditions in pursuit of our objectives to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime of his weapons of mass destruction and to free the people of Iraq from his appalling behaviour.

Major deployments of United Kingdom forces to the Gulf region were completed by 10 March in time for the commencement of military action on 20 March. Some 45,000 United Kingdom servicemen and servicewomen are now in theatre. United Kingdom armed forces have played a key role in the early stages of military action to disarm Saddam and remove his regime from power. Coalition forces are now engaged in a range of operations deep inside Iraq. The majority of southern Iraq is under coalition control and the leading elements are about 50 miles from Baghdad.

Ross Cranston: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will have seen statements by commentators over the weekend that we should withdraw British troops from Iraq. Does he agree that we have undertaken the task of disarming Iraq pursuant to

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resolution 1441 of the United Nations and that we have to continue with that commitment, consistent, of course, with our obligations under the laws of war?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. After 12 days, we are making steady progress in achieving our objectives in Iraq. As I indicated, the coalition now has effective control of southern and western Iraq, although pockets of resistance clearly remain. Coalition forces have secured the al-Faw peninsula and the Rumaylah oilfields, averting the danger of an environmental disaster caused by the Iraqi regime and thereby safeguarding the oil resources for the people of Iraq.

David Taylor: British forces are largely deployed in southern Iraq, where UNICEF estimates that more than 1 million people lack access to safe water and therefore that already weak and malnourished children are particularly at risk. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that we will listen to the plight of the southern Shi'as, not act as we did in 1991, and move quickly to head off the looming humanitarian crisis?

Mr. Hoon: I am pleased to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The humanitarian catastrophe that we have seen over very many years in southern Iraq and indeed elsewhere in Iraq is entirely the responsibility of Saddam Hussein's regime and the brutal repression that it has caused to the people there, often denying them basic necessities. The coalition is now bringing security and humanitarian assistance. RFA Sir Galahad arrived in Umm Qasr last Friday, loaded with food, blankets and other basic provisions. British forces have also constructed a pipeline to bring water from Kuwait to Umm Qasr, which is now operating. We will obviously continue to provide such help and assistance when we are able to do so.

Mr. Brady: British and American troops have rightly been doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq, but they are now facing a threat of suicide bombs and also of Iraqi troops dressed as civilians. What is being done to protect the safety of our troops in those circumstances?

Mr. Hoon: Obviously, I have absolute concern for our forces faced with that kind of threat. Certainly, commanding officers are making it clear that extra vigilance will be necessary in dealing with apparent members of the public. I emphasise that the real victims of such a policy perpetrated by Saddam Hussein are ordinary Iraqis as it obviously makes it far more difficult for them to go about their lives normally in areas where they have been freed from his oppressive regime. That is obviously something to which our forces must have regard in dealing with Iraqi civilians.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): In expressing unqualified admiration and support for our forces, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will comment on the remarks of the Secretary of Defence over the weekend, in which he sought to distance himself from the accusations that the politicians and military were not in step? Will he

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reassure the House that they are in fact in step? Will the Prime Minister be reporting tomorrow on his conversations in America?

Mr. Hoon: I can give that reassurance. As I indicated, we are some 12 days into military operations. Much of the problem has been caused, frankly, by commentators suggesting that this would be a very short conflict in which there would be little or no resistance. As I indicated to the House in the very first statement that I made to it at the start of military operations, this was always likely to be a difficult, demanding and, indeed, dangerous conflict. I think that it is right that we should see it in that way.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): Has my right hon. Friend been able to make any estimate of the actuality of or propensity for disaffection, desertion or defection in Iraqi civil and military ranks, given that many will have been forcefully prevented from doing what they want to do and others will have simply merged back into local surroundings?

Mr. Hoon: There have been, as yet, no defections by very senior politicians or military commanders, but that does not mean that there have not been significant surrenders. We currently hold about 8,000 prisoners of war, many of whom surrendered and were pleased to surrender, if I may put it that way.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I join the Secretary of State in his tribute to our fallen heroes. In the first 12 days of the coalition military campaign, we should be proud of the role played by our armed forces. The overall advance has been termed, by the professor of war studies, Michael Clarke,

Our forces have carried out spectacular actions, started a flow of aid and started to build a relationship with the people in their area of operations. Whatever difficulties may lie ahead, is that not a remarkable achievement? Given the heavy pressure on our armed forces in Iraq, does the Secretary of State still rule out sending reinforcements?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about coalition forces' remarkable advance to very close to Baghdad. That is a great achievement and it is important to consolidate the supply and support lines and to continue to control an increased area of Iraq outside Baghdad. I have never ruled out sending reinforcements. It is important to replace units and individuals who have been in theatre for several months as and when that is necessary. I am ruling out—at this stage at any rate—the need for a substantial increase of the total number of our forces in theatre. We judged at the time—I made a series of announcements about this to the House—that around 45,000 members of our forces were likely to be sufficient for the job that we were required to undertake. Nothing has changed my assessment of that position.

Mr. Jenkin: I would ask the Secretary of State to keep the matter under review because the intensity of the operations and the pressure on our troops may be a good deal greater than previously anticipated. The

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language chosen by the Chief of the General Staff last week was interesting because in answer to a question on reinforcements, he said:

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will keep the matter under review and that if it becomes necessary to send additional troops, we will have the flexibility to do that and he will not hesitate to send them?

Mr. Hoon: Those issues are always kept under review. The hon. Gentleman has simply asked me the same question in a different way. Individuals will be replaced as and when that is needed, but we judge that there is no need for a substantial increase to the total number of forces in theatre at present.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is the Secretary of State aware of public concern that more British troops have been killed in tragic accidents than killed by the enemy? Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done to minimise the number of British soldiers who die because they have been shot at accidentally by American soldiers?

Mr. Hoon: A great deal of effort has been made to reduce risks but as we have tragically seen from recent incidents, such accidents will sadly occur, especially during periods of high-intensity conflict. That is notwithstanding the use of additional equipment and the latest technology. Continuing efforts will be made to understand the nature of the accidents and to find, if possible, solutions to their causes.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): May I associate myself with the words of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State about our forces in theatre? I again ask the Secretary of State to join me in offering our condolences to the families of the Iraqi civilians who have died in the conflict.

On rotation of troops, will the Secretary of State tell us whether it is likely that further members of the Territorial Army will be called up for action in the Gulf in the near future, and whether that will be necessary if the action is to be prolonged? He mentioned Sir Galahad. Will he assure the House that we are delivering smart aid and that aid has gone to Iraqi civilians, not the regime? What other ships are likely to follow to deliver aid? Will he also assure the House that we will fight this war in a way that minimises the number of civilian casualties? That might mean that the conflict will take longer, but it will certainly be beneficial in the long term, in that it will improve relations with Iraqi civilians and assist the wider middle east peace process.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations about the role of reservists. They are playing a valuable role in operations in Iraq, particularly in a number of specialist areas. As and when those specialisms are required, I anticipate that the TA and other reservists will be called on to provide assistance. The hon. Gentleman is right about humanitarian aid. It is an indication to the ordinary people of Iraq that we are there not because we have any

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quarrel with them, but because we have a serious difference with the regime that has oppressed their lives over so many years. Our efforts to supply humanitarian aid—specifically, in the short term, supplies of fresh water—will continue. However, that operation can be successful only if there is safety and security for the people delivering that aid. While elements of the regime continue to intimidate, harass and even kill people from their own population, the delivery of humanitarian assistance is made all the more difficult.

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