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Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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Q5. [112959]

What instructions coalition forces have received about seizing documents in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and secret police headquarters that are likely to form the basis of legal action.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence indicated on 6 May, UK commanders have been told that evidence believed to be linked to war crimes or crimes against humanity is to be secured so that it may be examined by investigating authorities. I understand that similar instructions have been issued to US forces in Baghdad. Now that the security environment in areas of Baghdad is more permissive, efforts are under way by the coalition to secure and assess the kind of documents to which my hon. Friend referred. However, at the time of entry into Baghdad, coalition forces were naturally engaged in other priority tasks, in particular seeking to stabilise the security situation and minimise loss of life.

Pertinent to the Prime Minister's opening statement on the dreadful events in Saudi Arabia yesterday is the question of why there was no proper custody of documents of such potential importance that they could have thrown light on the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction or possible links with al-Qaeda. What does that say about the priority, or lack of it, accorded to intelligence?

The instructions issued to both UK and US coalition forces were to attempt to secure any documents that might be in the possession of the Iraqi authorities. However, when they were first going into Baghdad, their priority was obviously winning the conflict, and they had to pay close attention to the security of their own forces.

Now that the situation has cleared somewhat, we are trying to make sure that we gather up all the documentation in relation to weapons of mass destruction and in relation to appalling crimes, the like of which we are now seeing. We will obviously want to use those documents in order to show people exactly what happened.

The premise of my hon. Friend's question is not right. It is not that we did not bother about documents. As the coalition forces were going into Baghdad, the priority was winning the conflict. Now that the situation has cleared somewhat, we are, of course, doing everything we can to gather up the documentation. It is in our interest to do so.

The Prime Minister's explanation is inadequate. On Monday the Defence Secretary told the House, in answer to a similar question, that the reason why The Daily Telegraph got its hands on the documents before the coalition forces was that it had journalists on the spot. The true situation is that The Daily Telegraph journalist returned by land to Baghdad from Jordan on 11 April, two days after the fall of Baghdad. He did not go into the Foreign Ministry headquarters where he got the documents until the following Saturday. On the following Tuesday—that is, 13 days after the fall of Baghdad—he told the BBC that

"Iraqi government ministries are effectively open to anybody who wants to walk in and look for documents."

That was a straight failure by the coalition, and the Prime Minister should accept responsibility for the failure to get such important documents under our control.

I cannot comment on what the hon. Gentleman knows—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] about The Daily Telegraph, as I suspect that his sources in The Daily Telegraph are better than mine. In relation to the documents, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the building in Baghdad was not in the British area of control, but the instructions given to coalition forces from the US and the UK were identical. As far as I am aware, every effort was made to secure the documentation and to secure those buildings. Even two days after the fall of Baghdad—[Interruption.]—even a few days after the fall of Baghdad, there was a desperately difficult security situation, and it is not surprising if the commanders on the ground were paying attention first to the security of their own forces. However, I have no doubt that any documentation that we have managed to secure will be extremely helpful, both in respect of the crimes against humanity and in respect of weapons of mass destruction.