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Weapons Of Mass Destruction (Iraq)

Volume 407: debated on Monday 23 June 2003

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What progress has been made by British troops in Iraq in finding weapons of mass destruction. [120543]

I begin by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) to his new responsibilities at the same time as thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), both personally and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, for his excellent work as a Minister, especially his work as the first Minister with overall responsibility for veterans.

There are some 54 United Kingdom servicemen and women attached to the Iraq survey group. Over the next few weeks, the UK's contribution of military and civilian personnel will increase—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wrong question."] I thought that the House would like to know, in terms of the progress being made—the subject of Question 3—the number of United Kingdom personnel attached to the Iraq survey group. By coincidence, that is the subject matter of Question 2.

Investigation into Iraq's programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction remains a high priority for all coalition forces in Iraq. Elements of British forces are committed to this task as part of the Iraq survey group. Their priority—between 90 and 100 personnel—will be the search for weapons of mass destruction.

The Secretary of State may know that I considered the action in Iraq to be justified on the grounds that the regime of Saddam Hussein was both illegitimate and barbaric. However, it was the Government who made weapons of mass destruction such a central plank of their policy. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that he has undermined the success in Iraq due to the lack of discovery of weapons of mass destruction? Those of us who want the action to be vindicated ask him to instigate a full judicial inquiry so that we may be quite certain that British troops were not sent to their deaths on a false premise.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House of that fact. He implies that we are somehow responsible for our failure to find weapons of mass destruction. As I said in my answer a few moments ago, coalition forces are making a determined effort. I remind him that even by September 2002, having had many years in which to hide weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein rather surprisingly—as far as the international community was concerned—indicated that he would allow UN inspectors back into Iraq. There were approximately seven months between then and the start of hostilities during which he had plenty of opportunity to hide weapons of mass destruction. Since that time, about two and half months have elapsed, much of which has obviously been devoted to the initial aftermath of the conflict.

Significant coalition forces are now in Iraq with a specific responsibility to investigate evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The hon. Gentleman would only be fair by recognising that Saddam Hussein had many more months in which to hide weapons of mass destruction—in an country with which he was familiar, after all—compared with the situation faced by coalition forces.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that that argument is losing credibility very quickly and that many people wonder why the UN weapons inspection team was not allowed back into Iraq at the end of hostilities and must be run by the United States and Britain? They also wonder why, if there were all these weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi regime never used them.

On my hon. Friend's last observation, clearly one of the reasons why the Iraqi regime did not use its weapons of mass destruction was that it was not given the opportunity owing to the excellent and rapid advance of coalition forces. I am slightly surprised to hear his observations because he is someone who, to his credit, consistently criticised Saddam Hussein's regime. I assume that he is not saying that the weapons did not exist and did not provide a threat to the security of the region and the wider world. That remains the reason why action was taken in support of the United Nations efforts.

Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who regret that Saddam Hussein has not yet been found believe he exists?

I am always pleased to hear a quotation from my friend the Secretary of Defence for the United States.

Does my right hon. Friend sometimes get the impression from the critics that because weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found, we should apologise to Saddam and ask him to come back and rule the country again? There are those of us who believe that what was done was absolutely justified, and evidence of terrible atrocities has now been found. Is it not time for both Britain and America to get a firmer grip on the situation in Iraq, ensure that essential services are restored and tell the people of Iraq—after all, it is their country—what we intend to do in the immediate future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His approach to Saddam Hussein and the regime in Iraq is always forthright and robust. He is right that we need not only to continue the process of rebuilding that country but to make determined efforts, as we are doing, to restore that country to the control of its own people.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is the potential for far quicker discovery of weapons of mass destruction if many of the troops currently deployed by the coalition, and by us in particular, are replaced to some extent by civilians? I have just returned from the Basra region in southern Iraq, which is largely safe. Does right hon. Gentleman regret the lack of progress made by, for example, the Department for International Development in deploying people there? Does he regret the failure of the Secretary of State for International Development to go there? I appreciate that I may be more expendable than a Secretary of State—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It's the way I tell them. Does the Secretary of State not think that the civilian side of our Government should approach the work that it should he doing in southern Iraq with a little more urgency to free up military personnel to do military jobs?

I am delighted that the hon. and learned Gentleman attracts so much support on the Opposition Benches. It might be regarded as yet another leadership bid.

On the suggestion of changing coalition forces, had I been given a greater opportunity earlier, I would have said not only that the Iraq survey group is a military group, but that it consists of a number of civilians with particular investigative skills. In a sense, therefore, the process that the hon. and learned Gentleman outlines is occurring as we reduce the number of military personnel in Iraq, especially those who have had recent combat experience, and replace them with fresh troops and, in particular, civilians who are dedicated to the task of reconstruction, as he advocates.

Does my right hon. Friend give any credence to the suggestions of President Bush about weapons of mass destruction and looters? If he does, should we not, at least in British-controlled areas, be urgently seeking the assistance of the UN inspectors to try to reduce the risk of black market sales to terrorists?

I am aware of at least one incident in which equipment thought to contain the elements of a biological or chemical weapon was looted, although the looters were clearly more interested in the fridge than in its contents. So there is some evidence for what the President has set out, but such incidents largely relate to the early days and the immediate aftermath of the conflict. As hon. Members said, the situation in the southern area in particular, for which the United Kingdom has responsibility, is largely calm at present.

May I tell the Secretary of State that we believe that it is too early to say whether weapons of mass destruction will, or will not, be found? However, that search has exposed issues relating to the presentation of the Government's intelligence material on weapons of mass destruction that go to the heart of the debate about the integrity of Government. Now that we have seen a dramatic climbdown by the Government in this morning's announcement that Mr. Alastair Campbell will, after all, give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, does not that serve only to strengthen the case for the full and independent judicial inquiry that the Prime Minister continues to resist?

Moreover, in three weeks' time the House will rise for a two-month summer recess. Wi11 the Government come to the House before then to give a full account of progress in the search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? If there is nothing to add by that time, will not the case for a full inquiry be even stronger? How else can the Government restore public faith in their handling of the security services now that no one believes a word they say?

I was curious about the hon. Gentleman's opening proposition that it is too early to say—perhaps it is too early to say what his policy is on these matters, as he seems to change it according to circumstance. I must tell the House, in case it escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice, that I do not have ministerial responsibility for Mr. Campbell, so I am not in a position to deal with that matter. As for the hon. Gentleman's final observation, I was slightly surprised by his suggestion that he would prefer a judicial inquiry to one conducted by right hon. and hon. Members in the House of Commons. If that really is his position, he needs to articulate it more clearly.