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Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on the role of Iraqi opposition leaders in the Iraq crisis. [111595]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I attended the conference of Iraqis in Baghdad last week. That gave me an opportunity to meet internal leaders as well as members of the diaspora opposition. A wide range of local leaders, academics, clerics and secularists were represented. We aim to create a broad-based Iraqi interim administration in a few weeks' time that can lead Iraq towards democracy. It should reflect the Shi'a, Sunni, Chaldean, Kurdish and Turkoman people but also women as well as men.

I am sure that the Minister shares my delight at seeing Iraqi opposition leaders elected to Mosul city council last weekend, but does he agree that the Iraq crisis will not be over until the weapons of mass destruction, about which the war was fought, are found and secured? Does he further agree that, should the intelligence that the Government received before the war be shown to be wanting in that respect, a fundamental review of our intelligence service will be required?

The coalition forces are actively pursuing sites, documentation and individuals connected with Iraq's WMD programmes. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have deployed specialist personnel and will send more in the near future. This investigation will not be a quick process. Saddam had ample opportunity to conceal his WMD programmes and he had considerable experience in concealment, dating back to the early 1990s. The process itself will be painstaking in detail. We want to establish the truth beyond any doubt. We cannot expect the coalition to conduct a proper forensic examination merely in a matter of weeks, so I ask hon. Members to bear with us while we conduct the investigation in what is still in some areas quite a dangerous environment.

Almost every week, I am telephoned by someone in Iraq who is concerned about the preservation of evidence. It is a matter that I have raised here time after time, but I still do not know what our Government are doing on this point. The point that I want to make now is that the mass graves are being uncovered not by forensic scientists or people who can assess the evidence that they are uncovering, but by people who are looking for their sons, daughters and relatives, which one can quite understand. But at the same time, we as the coalition, have a responsibility to preserve that evidence so that it can be used in the trials that will undoubtedly take place.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a responsibility to seek to preserve evidence, but in some circumstances it is still a dangerous environment and, within that context, we need to seek to preserve not only some of the sites but some of the documentation, some of which has obviously been disturbed—in some cases deliberately removed and in others ransacked by looters. There is therefore quite a large task to be undertaken, but as soon as we can establish effective security, I agree that our objective needs to be to seek to protect the evidence on which those who have committed such appalling atrocities under Saddam Hussein can be brought to justice.

Is there any reason other than security why the UN inspectors should not return to Iraq to fulfil the mandates given to them by the Security Council under resolutions 1284 and 1441? When does the Minister think that it will be safe for the inspectors to return to Iraq, and is there not now an overwhelming urgency about their return in view of the International Atomic Energy Agency's request today for access to sensitive sites?

Hans Blix himself has said that he believes that the circumstances are dangerous, and it would have been unsuitable to date for the inspectors to seek to return to Iraq and complete their task. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that it is the Government's hope that inspectors will be able to return to Iraq in due course and that they will be able to give independent oversight of the process of the finding of WMD. However, their objectives will be different. The objective will no longer be detection, more a validation of findings, and our objective is to see if we can ensure that there is some independent oversight of those findings.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked what the other restrictions are. Obviously, we will need to ensure that the United Nations Security Council is satisfied that that is the way to proceed, and we hope that we shall be able to obtain not only further resolutions from the Security Council, but agreement on how inspection and a range of other matters will proceed in relation to Iraq.

In light of my hon. Friend's previous reply, is he saying that validation of weapons of mass destruction, should they be discovered, will be the preserve of UN weapons inspectors, and will they also be responsible for the oversight of the destruction of any such weapons should they be found?

Certainly, it is our view that there should be some independent validation. We hope that the UN Security Council will decide that it can undertake that task through the inspectors, but, to some extent, we have to discuss not only with the United States but with the UN Security Council and with others how we can take this forward. We hope that the inspectors will be able to have a role, but there are still some steps to be taken to ensure that they do.

The vast majority of the people whom I met last week in Baghdad were deeply grateful to the coalition forces for liberating them from the regime of Saddam Hussein. I am afraid that a great many of them were also alarmed about the possibility of being shot, because there has been a huge increase in shootings. What steps does the coalition envisage taking to restore policing to Baghdad, as I believe is our obligation under the terms of the Geneva convention?

As the hon. Gentleman says, it is certainly our obligation to ensure that we establish law and order in Iraq, and we intend to do that. We have already begun the process in Basra, which we took before Baghdad was taken. We already have about 600 Iraqi police officers on the streets to patrol together with our British forces, so steps have been taken there. The Americans took Baghdad later and have begun to get a number of police officers to return to duty. They have begun making some patrols together with Iraqi police officers, so law and order is starting to come under some element of control. However, the situation is much more difficult in Baghdad in many ways. We still think that large numbers of foreign fighters remain in Baghdad and are taking potshots at people. Indeed, while the hon. Gentleman and I were in Iraq, we saw each other in Baghdad, and while I was doing an interview and he was watching, shots were fired in the background. There is still firing and it is still a dangerous place, but we are seeking to establish order.