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Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on ensuring that weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are independently verified. [117941]

We recognise the need for credible, independent validation of any discoveries by the coalition. Dr. Blix noted last week that UNMOVIC remains ready to resume work in Iraq as an independent verifier, or to conduct long-term monitoring, should the Security Council so decide. United Nations Security Council resolution 1483 explicitly tasks the Security Council with reviewing the inspectors' mandates. This work will be undertaken in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, as the security situation in Iraq stabilises, the work of the 1,400-strong Iraq survey group of coalition forces will get under way.

Given that the position of the coalition, and of Her Majesty's Ministers in particular, depends almost entirely on the credibility of assertions that have been made about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and given that, to put it mildly, that credibility is still very much in question, does the Foreign Secretary accept that it is essential that an element of the verification process should be independent and be seen to be independent, that the process should not be subject to any editorial steering by any other party, and that it should begin as soon as possible?

I do not accept the first part of the hon. Gentleman's claim. The simple truth of the matter is that if anybody still needs convincing about the holding of weapons of mass destruction by the Iraq regime before military action was taken, they need only read the very extensive reports of UNMOVIC and its predecessor UNSCOM, which set out in forensic detail the holdings of Iraq and its failure to explain what had happened to them. That point was made by Dr. Blix in his valedictory report to the Security Council just last week.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I accept that if there are further—I emphasise the word further—finds of evidence they need to be independently verified.

Will my right hon. Friend impress on our US allies that the early unrestricted return of both UN inspection agencies would help in reasserting the authority of the UN and establishing international credibility, and, if weapons of mass destruction do exist, could speed the urgent task of preventing them from spreading via the black market to terrorists? Subsequently, both agencies could play a vital role across the world in implementing the G8's non-proliferation proposals.

As a result of military action the security situation in Iraq has changed totally, and the big threat that—as accepted by the international community—it posed while Saddam remained in power, has now been removed. As for the future of UNMOVIC, operative paragraph 11, which was agreed unanimously by the Security Council, required the UK and the USA to keep the Security Council informed of our activities in respect of Iraq's meeting its disarmament obligations, so that it would revisit in due course the mandates of UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency. That remains the position of Her Majesty's Government.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when the matter will be revisited, and what action he intends to take to ensure that that is done fairly quickly? That is important, because it will bring international legitimacy to whatever the findings may be.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact timetable, but I can say that now that the security situation in Iraq is stabilising—that is the first priority of the coalition forces—the 1,400-strong Iraq survey group is getting going. It should be allowed to do its work. In tandem with that, discussions with the US and other international allies about the future role of UNMOVIC are continuing.

As my right hon. Friend suggests, the security position in Iraq is one of the reasons why the inspectors have been unable to go back into the country. However, is it sensible for the Coalition Provisional Authority to have disbanded the Iraqi army, discharging 500,000 men without any rehabilitation or retraining, and to have allowed them to keep their armaments when they are on the streets without any alternative employment, at the same time as calling for a weapons amnesty? Is such action not likely to destabilise the security situation in Iraq and make it less possible for the inspectors to return?

I accept the burden of my hon. Friend's question—that a difficult balance has to be achieved between the necessary de-Ba'athification process and the need to maintain security and ensure the continuation of some of Iraq's institutions. I am not saying that all the decisions taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority have been correct, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we are in constant discussion with our US colleagues—at Government-to-Government level and within the CPA in Baghdad—about how to achieve the most appropriate balance in order to get Iraq going again at the same time as reducing internal security threats.

The thing about verification is that the weapons have to be found first, but the new Secretary of State for International Development has said that looking for them is no longer a high priority. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it does remain a high priority, because the trust that we placed in the Government—and in particular, in the Prime Minister—now appears to have been abused by deceitful spin, all sorts of embellished arguments and by "sexed-up" propaganda? Does not independent verification also require an independent assessment of what we were told existed? For the sake of the Government's tarnished credibility, will the Foreign Secretary now confirm unequivocally that Alastair Campbell will be required by the Prime Minister to appear before any Committee of the House that may be investigating weapons of mass destruction?

The appearance of members of the Prime Minister's staff before Select Committees is a matter for the Prime Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "And the House."] Ultimately for the House, of course, but initially for the Prime Minister, who will clarify the matter. I recall that the hon. Gentleman made a fine speech on 18 March, summing up the resolution that was agreed overwhelmingly by the House. On that occasion he was unequivocal in his support for the military action on the basis of the evidence then available—[Interruption.] It does the Opposition no good to try to change the terms on which they backed the Government. The basis on which we took the decisions still applies today, and the hon. Gentleman knows that very well.

Did the Foreign Secretary hear Dr. Blix, in the course of his thoughtful reflections, refer to the difficulties of Iraqi pride, and the way in which weapons would have deteriorated over the years? In the light of the forged Niger documents, and what Paul Wolfowitz has now said about weapons of mass destruction, is not it the case that—with the best will in the world—nobody will believe us unless there is an independent investigation?

I do not accept that and I refer, yet again, to the clearest possible evidence, published by Dr. Blix himself, of the unanswered disarmament questions—173 pages of them—which was made available to the Security Council on 7 March. My hon. Friend has always been remarkably charitable towards the former Saddam regime, but to try to explain their lying, conniving, abuse of human rights and refusal to co-operate fully with the inspectors on the basis of hurt pride is, frankly, testing the credulity of all of us.

Last week the Prime Minister dismissed comments from the Opposition about weapons of mass destruction on the basis that the war in Iraq was justified because the people of Iraq had been relieved of a dreadful dictator. Nobody can deny that they have been relieved of that pressure, but will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the legal basis for the military action was the issue of weapons of mass destruction and UN resolution 1441, and that simply invading a country to relieve it of an oppressor is not legal under international law?

The legal basis for the military action was clearly set out in the Attorney-General's advice, a summary of which was made available to the House, and a longer letter that explained the background to his decision was also published by me in evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The reason why we took military action was agreed by the House in a lengthy resolution, which was essentially a paraphrase of resolution 1441, which set out that Iraq posed a threat

"to international peace and security"
because of its
"proliferation of weapons of mass destruction",
its unlawful missile systems, and its defiance of the United Nations and a host of Security Council resolutions. It was for those reasons—that Iraq was already in material breach and, under resolution 1441, in further material breach—that the House rightly decided that that country had to "face serious consequences": military action. That was what the House agreed, and it was successfully undertaken.

Are any Iraqis coming forward with details of where weapons of mass destruction might be found? Some might be motivated by money, members of the Ba'ath party might want to do deals to protect their future, and others who were opposed to the regime might have ideological reasons, so one would expect that information to be forthcoming from Iraqi sources.

As the Iraq survey group gets going—it has only just started, for reasons that I have explained, including the need to stabilise the security situation—I am sure that many scientists will come forward for interview. However, the House would, rightly, be the first to complain if people were not able to give free and unfettered evidence in such interviews.