Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we have, I believe, the very best trained and best qualified pilots of any armed force in the world. Will the noble Baroness ensure that the support of this House is made known to those involved in this action, not just the front line troops but also those who work behind the scenes to make these operations possible?

On the more substantive parts of the Statement, can the noble Baroness inform the House what diplomatic activity is being carried out in parallel with the military operation to maintain good relations with our allies and to broaden as much as possible the coalition against Saddam Hussein? Is she in a position to tell the House which countries in the European Union have offered messages or assurances of their support to this operation--that was not entirely clear from the Statement--and whether any of our partners in Europe have criticised the operation?

I recognise what the noble Baroness said in the ministerial Statement about the timing of the development. However, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether the Prime Minister discussed the timing of the beginning of the United States part of the operation with the President of the United States? Was he among those who urged the President to start the operation at this time?

17 Dec 1998 : Column 1528

Is the noble Baroness the Leader of the House also aware that one of the concerns of British citizens is the potential risk of direct or proxy terrorist action against British nationals or their property here or abroad? Will the noble Baroness assure the House that all possible steps have been taken to guard against such threats?

It is also important that the political objectives of military action are clear. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness will therefore again confirm to the House the purpose of the operation. Am I right in understanding from the Statement that its aim is to destroy known or suspected weapons of mass destruction and the ability to make them: that it is to degrade the Iraqi military capability overall, presumably by killing soldiers and destroying material and command and control systems, but that it is not to unseat the Saddam regime? Can the Minister also say whether, after this action, the British Government will be prepared to resume efforts to negotiate with Saddam Hussein?

Finally, and on a slightly different note, can the Minister inform the House of the plans that she and the Government have to ensure that Parliament as a whole, and this House specifically, is informed and consulted in the event of any major change in the operation or its objectives during the coming Recess? I understand the special arrangements which are being taken today to deal with the Statement. I am also aware that I have asked many questions and I will accept answers at the end of the debate from the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert.

It is coming up to Ramadan in the Middle East and Christmas in the United Kingdom and the western world. It is a particularly sad time for the world to come into conflict. As I said earlier, our thoughts and our prayers should be with all those involved.

4 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Rodgers as a result of a family bereavement outside London, I rise to support the Statement on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches. In the circumstances, it was unavoidable that Britain should take action with the United States. Clearly, Saddam Hussein has broken all the terms of the UN conditions attached to his regime. Under those circumstances, we had no choice but to intervene. The hardest question to answer is: what follows? How do we avoid endless destructive confrontations with the Iraqi regime?

I welcome the declaration in the Statement that it is not the intention of the British Government that the action is intended to remove the current regime and the recognition that it is impossible for us to do so. Does the noble Baroness note that within the United States much comment has been that the objective ought to be the removal of Saddam Hussein? Are we clear that from the British Government's point of view, our objectives remain limited?

I also note in the Statement the suggestion that UNSCOM is unlikely to be able to continue with the task and that from now on we are into the business of containment and surveillance most likely from the outside. We on these Benches recognise that the most

17 Dec 1998 : Column 1529

useful way forward is sharper military containment with the further easing of economic sanctions to aid the civilian population.

I wish to ask the Minister about some of the wider issues within which the confrontation has to be seen. After all, it is part of the whole problem of western policy towards the Middle East. This morning I was told by one of my friends that in Amman one can buy pictures of Saddam Hussein and Yassar Arafat together. There is an unavoidable linkage between the Arab confrontation with Israel--the Israeli/Palestine peace process--and the extent to which the current Iraqi regime is able to count on popular support within other Arab countries. One recognises that Saddam Hussein's chances of destabilising other regimes in the Middle East is considerably increased by the collapse in the international oil price and that not only weakens other regimes in the Gulf but, potentially, Saddam Hussein himself.

How far do the British Government consider that in dealing with the future of Iraq we must also look at the immensely complicated Kurdish question which overlaps Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran and which nearly brought Syria and Turkey into a conventional armed confrontation only some weeks ago?

Does the Minister believe that there is more that the British Government might be able to do in the current extremely delicate process of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? I understand that today the Israeli Finance Minister resigned and has called for the formation of a government of national unity in Israel as a means of furthering the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. From these Benches we welcome that. It seems to us that that is a step forward in the direction that we and other European governments would welcome. Are the Government now pursuing much closer European co-ordination in relation to future policy towards the Middle East as a basis for a closer US-European dialogue?

I ask two other final questions. Given that the build up in arms throughout the Gulf, the original build up of Saddam Hussein's original capacity, was aided by arms sales from the West, and others, to that region, do the Government now consider it important to reduce future arms sales to the Middle East? Do we believe that there is potential in building a closer understanding among the major member states of the United Nations so that it is possible on future occasions to build a Security Council consensus which, unfortunately, on this occasion we have been unsuccessful in building?

4.7 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords who have commented and asked questions on the Statement. In particular, I thank them for their general support for the action which the British Government have taken with, as both noble Lords made clear, great regret which I know is shared on all sides of the House.

I reinforce the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the support of this House for the servicemen serving in the Gulf. I shall, of course,

17 Dec 1998 : Column 1530

convey that support and the good wishes which he expressed to them on behalf of the whole House. It was important that he also mentioned those who served behind the scenes and not simply those in the front line. Again, I shall make that very clear to people when I pass on those messages.

The noble Lord asked about the reaction of our European allies, and, in particular, whether comments had come from them. They are still coming in. There are a variety of actions. For example, a French news agency quotes the French Foreign Minister as saying that he regretted that Saddam Hussein had not demonstrated the necessary co-operation and he deplored the serious human consequences that would follow. On the other hand, he supported the necessity for the air strikes on Iraq for which, he said, Saddam Hussein bore the prime responsibility. The Spanish Government has issued a statement saying that Iraqi behaviour has forced the international community to have recourse to force. Italy has said that the crisis caused by Iraq's continuing obstructive attitude produced this result. Saddam Hussein has demonstrated a persistently negative attitude. From Austria it was said:

    "We understand the action and we hold Saddam Hussein responsible".
That is not a comprehensive record of everything which has come through diplomatic channels but those remarks are still coming in. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands has said that the air strikes are necessary.

The noble Lord asked also--and this was reflected in some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire--about the diplomatic efforts that are continuing alongside military action. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as well as the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of State, Mr. Fatchett, who has special responsibilities for that region, have all had, and continue to have, extensive contacts with a wide variety of countries in the region, including those about whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was particularly concerned. That responsibility to continue diplomatic efforts, in so far as is possible in this very complicated military situation, is continuing. There is no question of those efforts being suspended or ignored.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred to the reaction from the Arab world. As I said in repeating the Statement, we understand that those countries stand by the statement made at the beginning of November when they met in Doha on the question of the responsibility for any military action lying firmly with Iraq. It is important to look more broadly at the issues which the noble Lord rightly raised in relation to Israel and they will be part of the ongoing diplomatic initiative which I described as continuing with my right honourable friends in the Foreign Office and in the defence department. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Gilbert will speak later about his own efforts.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked whether the President of the United States and the Prime Minister had spoken on the subject of the timing of this military action. I can confirm that they have done so and I believe that they did so yesterday before any

17 Dec 1998 : Column 1531

announcements were made. On the question of terrorism, we are all aware of the difficulties that that potentially poses to citizens of our own country and the necessary steps are being taken to minimise that threat.

Both noble Lords asked about the purpose of this military action and, without unnecessarily repeating the words used in the Statement, perhaps I can paraphrase that again. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, it was a long Statement and the purpose was given at the beginning. The purpose was,

    "to degrade the ability of Saddam Hussein to build and use weapons of mass destruction and to diminish the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to his neighbours by weakening his military capability"
to threaten them across a broad front. It is not--as was said in the Statement--the explicit purpose to remove Saddam Hussein himself; it cannot be. In any form of international legal situation it would be impossible for that to be an explicit aim. But, again to quote from the Statement and as the Prime Minister said in another place:

    "No one would be better pleased if his evil regime disappeared as a direct or indirect result of our action".
But the military objectives remain the clear and simple ones described in the original Statement.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked whether it would be possible for UNSCOM to continue, whatever the result of the military action. That is the aim of the allies involved and of those involved from the United Nations perspective in this international work. We hope that it will be possible for UNSCOM not merely to resume, but also to complete its original task and do so with greater vigour, clarity and support than has been possible in the many years since it tried to start to do this work.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked what arrangements will be made for this House to be kept informed over the Christmas Recess. We are aware of that on this side of the House and I know that my noble friend the Chief Whip has in his mind--as he always does--various fall-back arrangements which could be invoked if that became necessary. I am sure that will be taken forward through the usual channels and the usual constructive dialogue will help us all to achieve what we need to do.

Mention of the Recess re-emphasises the point made by both noble Lords; that is, that this is a sad moment to have to make this kind of Statement and to respond to noble Lords at the time of the beginning of the Christmas holidays. I know that we all feel the weight of responsibility which the Prime Minister personally described for this action and hope that it will have at least a satisfactory outcome without extending the appalling suffering which we know the Iraqi people have been enduring for many years.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, as Chief of Defence Staff during the Gulf War I have great sympathy for the Government and my successor as members of a war Cabinet which must decide whether or not to commit forces. It is of course the Government's responsibility to decide when to commit

17 Dec 1998 : Column 1532

them but there must always be a clear understanding of what the military objectives are. The Prime Minister said last night, and it was repeated again this afternoon in the Statement, that,

    "Our objectives in this military action are clear. To degrade his capabilities to build and use weapons of mass destruction and to diminish the military threat he poses to his neighbours. The targets chosen therefore are targets connected with his military capability".

The two words "degrade" and "diminish" are not precise. I am not necessarily asking for precision, but I believe that it is very important, when military forces are committed, that there is a clear understanding between those who are committing and those who are committed on how the objectives are to be measured.

In the Gulf War I set out to ensure that there was a very clear military objective. It was perhaps easier then than on this occasion. In the Gulf War of 1991 the objectives were to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait and to destroy and damage the Iraqi military capability, particularly the Republican Guard, so that they could not return immediately to Kuwait when the coalition forces had departed. That second part was generally taken to mean that there was about a 50 per cent. reduction in the fighting capability of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

My intention is not to seek any particular percentage but to suggest, I hope, that such measurements are clearly understood between our Government and the American Government and between the two armed forces. Now that Saddam Hussein is aware that we are seeking to diminish and degrade his capabilities, he will be extremely tempted to delude and deceive us on those two scores. Our intelligence and reconnaissance of the results of our attack will be extremely important so that we can judge whether the diminishment and degradation have been sufficient.

I finish with one other thought. At the moment we are relying entirely on military action to achieve the objective of stopping Saddam Hussein--I hope, for good--but no other methods of dealing with that objective appear to have been addressed with quite the same clarity. I may have misunderstood the position. It would have been nice to have heard more about an Iraqi government in exile which was getting greater and greater support. It would have been nice to know that internal resistance in Iraq had been helped and aided much more than appears to have been the case, at least from what one reads in the newspapers.

Those sort of actions--a government in exile and assisting resistant forces--paid enormous dividends in World War II. This is a much smaller type of engagement, but I do not think that it necessarily means that those types of activities should be overlooked. Certainly, to all those on the military side who are committed, and who are willingly and bravely doing that which is required of them, I believe that those other activities have a very important part to play in the overall strategic objective of Her Majesty's Government.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page