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Volume 622: debated on Monday 19 February 2001

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3.7 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make a Statement about coalition operations to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq. Since the end of the Gulf conflict in 1991, the goal of our policy has been to contain the threat to regional security posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. This policy has been successful. Without our efforts, Saddam would have been free to maintain and develop his weapons of mass destruction and military capability, and he would have been free to bully and threaten his neighbours with impunity as he did in the past. As we approach the anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, we can look back with satisfaction that these aims have been achieved.

As your Lordships will be aware, coalition patrols of the no-fly zones have been conducted since the early 1990s in support of UN Security Council Resolution 688, which demanded an end to Saddam Hussein's repression of his own people. They have served a vital humanitarian purpose over the past decade in limiting Saddam's ability brutally to repress the Shias and the Kurds. Without them Saddam would be free, as he was prior to their establishment, to use aircraft and helicopter gunships to further his barbarous ends. The patrols are justified in international law as a legitimate response to prevent a grave humanitarian crisis.

Since January 1999 Saddam's air defence units have mounted sustained and concerted efforts to shoot down coalition aircraft conducting this legitimate task. Over that period there have been over 1,200 attempts to shoot them down, using surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Coalition aircraft have rightly been authorised to respond to this aggression in self-defence, and have done so on some 250 occasions over the past two years. They do so entirely within the constraints of international law, attacking only those military facilities that contribute, as part of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, to the threat to coalition aircraft. All targets are carefully selected with a view to minimising and, if possible, avoiding civilian casualties.

Military commanders have been able to manage this risk, with 2000 seeing a reduction in the number of threats compared with 1999. Over the past few weeks, however, the Iraqis have redoubled their efforts which amount to a qualitative and quantitative increase in the threat to coalition aircraft. January saw more surface-to-air missile firings than were effected in the whole of 2000. We have seen the Iraqis using innovative tactics, including the use of radars and command centres located outside the southern zone to cue offensive systems, linked by a new secure communications network, within it. The threat is real: Saddam Hussein is trying to kill our aircrew.

Friday evening's action was planned and carried out against that background. It was a proportionate response in self-defence, taken solely in order to reduce the risk to our aircrew carrying out routine patrols of the southern no-fly zone. As such, it was entirely in keeping with all such operations conducted over the period since January 1999 when Iraq started challenging our patrols.

The operation was carefully planned and cleared by Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Targets were carefully selected and precision guided weapons used to minimise and, if at all possible, avoid the risk of civilian casualties. In all, six sites were engaged, comprising elements of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, including radar, command and communications sites. Five of the targets were north of the zone, ranging up to no closer than 10 miles from Baghdad. All were directly involved in threatening coalition aircraft. Aircraft conducting patrols of the northern no-fly zone have previously engaged targets south of the 36th parallel, but this is the first time that coalition aircraft have attacked targets outside the southern no-fly zone—above the 33rd parallel—since Operation Desert Fox.

RAF participation included four Tornado GR1 strike aircraft, two Tornado F3 air defence aircraft and two VC10 tankers. All aircraft returned safely. Although detailed battle damage assessment is still ongoing, initial reports are that our attack was successful with weapons impacting on or very close to the targets. We are confident that the mission degraded the Iraqi air defence system and reduced the threat to coalition pilots.

We cannot confirm Iraqi allegations of civilian casualties. No military action is without risk, and we deeply regret any casualties. But we learnt long ago to distrust Saddam Hussein's claims. He routinely claims that there were civilian casualties on days when coalition aircraft have not released weapons; and we know that on occasions he has alleged civilian casualties when only military personnel have been injured. We suspect that to be the case on this occasion.

The operation was conducted in response to an escalation on the part of the Iraqis. It does not represent a change in policy. RAF aircrew undertake a difficult and dangerous mission with great skill and fortitude. Faced with a substantial increase in the threat to them in recent weeks, we had no choice but to act to protect our people. All this could stop now if Saddam stopped trying to kill our aircrew.

3.13 p.m.

My Lords, the House is very grateful to the Minister for the Statement. However, the Minister rose to speak at seven minutes past three. We received the Statement at 2.41 p.m. That really—I suspect I speak too for the spokesman from the Liberal Democrat Benches—has not given us sufficient time to make a reasoned response. I must ask that in future more consideration is given to the Opposition parties.

Having said that, on these Benches we believe that the action was fully justified. Ten years on from the Gulf War Saddam Hussein is still a source of aggression in the Gulf. The need for the Government to develop a resolute policy is as strong as ever. The no-fly zones were essentially the invention of my right honourable colleague John Major. It is appropriate that from these Benches we should support fully the current policy.

The Minister made it clear that Friday's air strikes were against military targets, including radar and command and control sites, around Baghdad. The attacks were aimed at defence installations which threatened allied warplanes in one of the no-fly zones.

President Bush stressed that it was a "routine" enforcement of the no-fly zones. If the no-fly zones are to be supported, the need to use our air power preemptively from time to time against Iraq's anti-aircraft missile system is an inevitable consequence of our continuing to enforce the no-fly zones.

The Minister made the point that the no-fly zones are the inevitable consequence of Saddam Hussein's continued persecution of his minorities—the Kurds in the north and the marsh Arabs in the south. Our patrols have successfully prevented Saddam Hussein from using his helicopter gunships and using air-delivered chemical weapons to wage war against these minorities, which he did previously. The Iraqis cannot be allowed to do that with impunity. They have been playing a game of cat and mouse with our jets, and have tested the scope of the no-fly zone.

The Minister stated the major increase in surface-to-air missile figures for the month of January. Even if these missiles are not fired, it is not possible for an aircraft, or any of its systems, to decide whether the radar or system facing it is actually loaded and is intended to be fired. It is right that we should do all we can to ensure that the threat to our airmen flying patrols over Iraq is reduced as far as possible. For years Saddam Hussein has built up his weapons of mass destruction, including biological weapons. He has increased their range. He has possibly even come near to the possession of nuclear devices. He poses a serious and growing threat, both to the region and to Europe.

I have some questions. First, what happens now? Does this presage the tightening of sanctions against Iraq? What is the attitude to the regime and to the ballistic missiles? We note that when push comes to shove it is the United States and Britain who stand up and actually act to protect the minorities and the countries which are affected by dictator-run regimes like Iraq. We have had no response from Germany, and, with the response we have had from France it is clear that the other countries are not so resolute in their determination to act in the way that we have done.

I have one further point. If matters get worse—Saddam Hussein has been threatening retaliation as a result of these strikes—will the United States and this country and other countries be able to act as they did in 1991? Will they be able to produce the firepower and the activities that will once and for all ensure that Saddam Hussein is unable to behave in the same manner as he has for the past 11 years?

3.19 p.m.

My Lords, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches support the action which has been taken within the limited context in which it has been taken. Clearly, any action which lessens the danger to British pilots and aircraft is necessary. We have no illusions about the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. However, we are concerned about the long-term context in which this action has taken place and about the dangers of continuing with an action for which the strategic rationale appears less and less convincing.

We are also concerned about the wider Middle East context of the action taken against Iraq against the background of the most serious situation in the Arab-Israeli conflict that we have seen for some years. Anything which contributes to increasing Saddam Hussein's popularity among Arab radicals in the current circumstances should not be done lightly.

We are also somewhat concerned about the overuse of the term "humanitarian intervention". We have already heard in other contexts from the Russians that humanitarian intervention seems to them to be being used by the United States as an all-purpose justification for unilateral intervention in defence of western interests as defined by the United States. We see this as containment, as the Statement says at one point, but the humanitarian elements seem to us less clear than they were 10 years ago, given that the United Kingdom is not committed to the division of Iraq and that the prospects for a change of regime are rather less optimistic than they were.

There are reports in the newspapers that there are to be talks on 26th February between the United Nations and Iraq on the inspection regime. I note that the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr Amr Moussa, is quoted in one of today's newspapers as saying that this action could seriously undermine those talks. I note that the non-White Paper, The Future Strategic Context for Defence, states on page 17 that the UK has an important role to play in preventing misunderstanding between the United States and European partners. How are we playing that role at the present moment and what plans do we have to consult with our allies in the EU as well as the with the US? What plans are there for the British Government to reconsider the long-term guidelines for the containment policy?

3.23 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Burnham and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the support they have offered Her Majesty's Government in the action that has been taken in reinforcing our position in the no-fly zones. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, was disappointed by the short notice he had in receiving the Statement. I asked for the Statement to be somewhat fuller than it was in its original form. I believe that in so doing, although there may have been some slight delay, I was able to present more information to your Lordships as a result. It is always a difficult issue trying to balance both the time given to Opposition parties, which I recognise is very important, and trying to get as much information into a Statement as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, is quite right that the no-fly zones were established under the previous Prime Minister, the right honourable Mr Major, and of course we have continued to support those no-fly zones throughout the lifetime of this Government. Indeed, when the Iraqis started to attack the coalition aircraft, that did not deter us in any way. I am grateful to both noble Lords for recognising that.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, described the Friday night air strikes as pre-emptive. But actually they were a response to the increased activities of the Iraqis. I wish to make it clear to the House that this could all stop if only the Iraqis would stop trying to shoot down coalition aircraft. I remind the House that in January this year there were more attacks than we saw in the whole of last year. To have more attacks in a single month than in the whole of last year represented a significant increase.

It is important for us to remember why the no-fly zones were established. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was concerned about what he described as the overuse of the word "humanitarian". The noble Lord does not need to be reminded of the appalling atrocities that were carried out against Halabja in the north no-fly zone, when more than 5,000 civilians were murdered by the activities of Saddam Hussein's forces. The Shias and the marsh Arabs in the southern no-fly zone suffered appalling attacks as a result of the activities of Saddam's helicopter gunships. I believe that the no-fly zones and their protection are at the heart of what we are talking about.

Both noble Lords asked what will happen now. We believe that we have taken out some of the offensive capacity. As I hope the Statement made clear, we are still assessing just how much of that offensive capacity we have been able to deal with. That will be important if it means that there are fewer attacks on coalition aircrew as a result. However, the basic policy remains the same—the pursuit of UNSCR 1284, a resolution that was supported in the United Nations not only by the coalition but also by the Arab nations.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, asked what will happen if the situation gets worse. If it gets worse, that will have to be assessed against the threat as it evolves. It is difficult to answer that question hypothetically, but, as all of us will be aware, it is an issue which demands constant vigilance, as indeed it has, from the coalition forces. We did not go into this action lightly. Of course the issues around the delicacy of the Middle East peace process have been considered very fully, but I am glad not to be having to stand before the House today to present noble Lords with a Statement about our aircrew having been shot down. The House must recognise that that was the possible alternative if we had done nothing to try to take out these installations.

We all recognise that Saddam Hussein has never wasted an opportunity to present himself as a champion of the Arab cause. Those of us who know the Gulf states and the Middle East will realise how deeply embarrassing many of his Arab neighbours find his self-portrayal in that way.

The humanitarian basis of establishing the no-fly zones is at the heart of what has been going on here. Of course we should like to see the inspections resumed. That is clear in UNSCR 1284. And of course the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is entirely right. Consultations on this matter should not be just across the Atlantic; we also have to consult closely with our allies in Europe and elsewhere. We have to put before them the incontrovertible evidence that we have about the way in which Saddam Hussein has been building up his military capability to try to shoot down coalition aircraft. That is why this action was so necessary.

3.29 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for making the Statement and assure her that as long as we have no-fly zones none of us will seriously object to making certain that our aircraft are properly protected or are able to protect themselves. However, is not the problem that the relevance of the no-fly zones to our real purposes in dealing with Iraq is not now as clear as it was?

As my noble friend reminded us, Saddam Hussein remains a major threat to stability in the whole area. I should like to think that weapons of mass destruction are not again being, as it were, recreated in Iraq. But what can we do about getting the UN inspectorate back into that country in order to make certain that Saddam Hussein has not been able—we know how near he was—to manufacture nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction?

Furthermore, how do we propose to react to his reiterated public threat made only a week or two ago to the independence of Kuwait? While I do not object to our actions, what we are dealing with here is only one symptom of the major problem.

My Lords, as my noble friend pointed out, for so long as the no-fly zones are in place, we must ensure that our aircrew are properly protected. My noble friend went on to question the relevance of the no-fly zones. I do not think that my noble friend should believe for one moment that the threatening stance adopted by Saddam Hussein towards the Kurds in the north of his country and the marsh Arabs in the south has in any way abated. Indeed, my noble friend himself pointed out that, within the past few weeks, Saddam Hussein has once again threatened Kuwait. That being the case, I believe that we are justified in drawing the conclusion that Saddam Hussein still harbours very considerable territorial ambitions in the region and that he continues to be extraordinarily ruthless. We are well aware that he has the ability to feed his people. However, Saddam simply does not care to feed some of his people. That has resulted in a great deal of the anguish and difficulty within Iraq itself.

My noble friend asked what we can do here. We have a vehicle with which to deal with Saddam Hussein; namely, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1284. We should not lose sight of the importance of that Security Council resolution. It was secured through the United Nations. It has enjoyed and still enjoys the support of the entire United Nations. It does, of course, point the way towards sanctions, but it should be remembered that those sanctions could cease tomorrow if Saddam Hussein were to allow the inspectorate back into Iraq. It is that which is so necessary: inspectors must be allowed back into Iraq. That has to be done because we have been given no reason whatever to believe that Saddam Hussein is not still pursuing his programme of developing weapons of mass destruction.

My Lords, while fully supporting the action which has been taken, for the removal of doubt will the noble Baroness confirm that the joint decision with the United States Government had nothing to do with a Republican, President Bush, being elected as President of the United States?

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that. The decision was taken in order to protect coalition aircrew. It was a legitimate decision which had nothing whatever to do with the political parties to which anyone belongs. I am absolutely confident that, were the opposition party to be in power in the United Kingdom, it would have taken the same decision as Her Majesty's Government. On that, I do not think there can be any doubt.

My Lords, in the Churches we are aware of the brutal character of Saddam Hussein's regime towards his own people. Furthermore, one must remain aware of issues of safety for our pilots. One appreciates the dilemma in which Her Majesty's Government found themselves when faced with escalating attacks last month, which the noble Baroness described to us. Nevertheless, one hopes that the Government are aware of the considerable and longstanding disquiet in the Churches about the effects of this country's policies towards Iraq and its people. This disquiet is grounded in no small part on our contacts with the considerable Christian communities whose ancient home is in Iraq. Does the Minister accept that history will judge last Friday's actions above all by two criteria: first, in the wider context, will they turn out to have served peace or the increase of tension; secondly, what will they have done for the ordinary people of Iraq?

My Lords, I do not think that anyone could fail to be aware of the disquiet felt not only in the Churches, but also among many people of good will about the effects, as they see them, of sanctions in Iraq. However, I would say to the right reverend Prelate that that is not the direct effect of sanctions; it is the direct effect of the way in which Saddam Hussein chooses to use sanctions as an excuse to withhold from his people the food, medicines and humanitarian equipment that they could so easily be given under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1284.

We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. I do not know how many times I have said those words from this Dispatch Box. My noble friend Lady Scotland of Asthal has said exactly the same. However, when the right reverend Prelate asks me how history will view this action, I answer by saying that I hope that history will recognise that the enforcement of the no-fly zone has protected a considerable number of people on Iraqi territory. We must not forget that. What would happen if the no-fly zones did not exist? We might then find ourselves discussing another incident such as Halabja. We might be discussing further clearances of the marsh Arabs and the brutal repression of people living in the south of Iraq. It is enormously important not to lose sight of why the no-fly zones exist.

I understand absolutely the fears and concerns articulated by the right reverend Prelate as regards the ordinary people of Iraq. However, I hope that history will remember that, over the past few years, Saddam Hussein has built no fewer than 48 palaces, many of them furnished with gold-plated taps and other accoutrements. A splendid new park has been created for the pleasure and delight of senior officials, which ordinary people will never see. While children may fail to be given food, there are no shortages whatever of whisky and cigarettes for those in favour in Iraq.

My Lords, what is the nature of the joint activities announced today between the armed forces of the United States of America and Israel in southern Israel? Given the timing, is there any connection whatever between what is taking place in Israel and the coalition forces for Iraq?

No, my Lords, we understand that the previously planned joint US-Israeli exercise is entirely unconnected with the attacks on Iraq.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, if our aircrew are required to fly in harm's way, then the Government are obliged to seek to reduce the peril that they face? Does my noble friend further accept that the Government would be justified in suggesting to politicians of member states of the EU and those in other parts of Europe that, if they tacitly accept, perhaps endorse, or in some cases, service this abominable regime, then they are hardly entitled to criticise actions taken either by the Government or our aircrew, who are implicitly serving the humanitarian cause?

My Lords, I believe that not only are we right to keep our aircrews out of harm's way as far as possible, but that it is our absolute duty so to do. Those who choose to criticise what has happened over recent days must ask themselves about the realistic alternative to what we have done. The alternative would be to abandon the no-fly zones and thus to expose innocent people living in the north and the south of Iraq to a brutal, murderous regime. I put it in those terms not because we think that it might happen, but because we know that it has happened and we are quite sure that it would happen again.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has repeated several times the word "coalition". Is not the coalition in this case quite remarkably small? Is that not the case because virtually every other country is fully aware that the policy which has now been pursued for over 10 years has conspicuously failed and is probably illegal? Is it not therefore time for a reassessment of the position? If the Government, quite rightly, are so concerned about the savage repression of people in southern Iraq, what are they doing about savage repression in Palestine?

My Lords, the noble Lord is, of course, quite right; the coalition consists of the United States and the United Kingdom. I did not mean to imply anything more or less. I thought I had made it perfectly clear who was involved in the coalition and I certainly did not mean to imply otherwise. I do not think that the noble Lord really thought that I did.

The fact that others do not wish to join the coalition does not mean that what we are doing is not right. Sometimes one has to have the courage to do what is right, even where others choose to criticise. It is not illegal either. It was not illegal to establish the no-fly zones—which were established when the noble Lord's party was in office—and it is not illegal for us to defend our aircrew having established those no-fly zones.

The noble Lord will know that Her Majesty's Government offer friendly, critical advice and concern where it is merited to other countries. It is not fair to imply that no such criticism is ever made of actions elsewhere when we believe it is merited. Where it was due, I have certainly offered such criticism from this Dispatch Box, as has my noble friend Lady Scotland. I do not think that it is right and proper, in all conscience, to compare the democratically elected regime in Israel to the brutal repression of innocent people which has taken place so barbarically in Iraq.

My Lords, while my noble friend has, very convincingly, explained the Government's position so far as concerns the actions over the weekend—the whole House will respect that—does she agree that it is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, emphasised, that central to what we face is the continued presence of Saddam Hussein and everything that he represents? Can she assure the House that when the Prime Minister goes to Washington in the near future, high on the agenda will be the need to agree with the Americans and others a political strategy for a lasting solution in the area involving the effective dispatch of Saddam Hussein? We can then stop talking about what is necessary for containment and start talking about how we build peace and security in the region.

My Lords, I must remind my noble friend that it has never been the aim of Her Majesty's Government's policy to remove Saddam Hussein. I have listened with some concern to some of the commentary over the weekend to the effect that our presence in the no-fly zones has been a failure because it has not resulted in Saddam Hussein's fall from power. Our presence there concerns trying to ensure that the people covered by the no-fly zones do not suffer brutal oppression. We have also been concerned to control Saddam Hussein's programme for weapons of mass destruction through the use of Security Council resolutions.

Much as we may despise and abhor how Saddam Hussein has behaved, it is a matter for the Iraqi people to decide who governs them. We have not sought to remove him by force but to control the threat that he poses to the region. I am sure that my right honourable friend will discuss these matters when he visits Washington. I am sure that he will discuss lasting solutions not only to the issues in the Gulf—particularly in relation to Iraq—but to the wider issues in the Middle East as a whole.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the Iraqi people have limited opportunities to get rid of this tyrant? Does she further agree that the immediate, almost reflex, reaction of some of our European allies goes a long way towards enhancing the fears and anxieties which many of us have about the proposed European rapid reaction force?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, on one point; that is, that the Iraqi people, sadly, do have very limited opportunities to get rid of their leaders, unlike, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, the people of Israel, who have demonstrated that they are able so to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, may recall that we had discussions with opposition parties from Iraq about ways in which the opposition might be strengthened. That is a very different matter from getting directly involved in a military overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

I do not believe that there is any connection whatever with the European rapid reaction force. We are evolving that force with our friends and colleagues across Europe in relation to humanitarian tasks we are able to agree and where NATO as a whole will not be engaged. I genuinely believe that the noble Lord seeks to draw an erroneous conclusion.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the decisive decision was the setting up of the no-fly zones in the first place? Does she further agree that, if one accepts the no-fly zones as being necessary as the only way open to us to protect the marsh Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north, it logically follows that appropriate steps must be taken to enforce them? If the attacks on the command and control centres were discriminate and proportionate, as they appear to have been, then it is totally inconsistent to condemn them and at the same time try to support the policy of the no-fly zones.

My Lords, I could not have put it any better than the right reverend Prelate.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, whatever the military justification for these recent attacks—which I do not dispute—the impression has been given in the Middle East and elsewhere that the United States Administration, with the support of the Government, are paying insufficient attention to the real political problem of the Middle East, which is the Arab/Israel problem? There is a need to show some awareness of the suffering of the Palestinians under the Israeli Administration and armed forces over the past few months since the intifada was provoked by Sharon's entry into the Dome of the Rock. The fact that there is insufficient awareness will have been underlined by the news that the United States is entering into joint military exercises with the Israeli armed forces.

My Lords, as I indicated in response to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, Saddam Hussein has never wasted an opportunity to present himself as the champion of the Arab cause. Sadly, there will be those who, at this time of heightened tension in the Middle East, will choose to take that impression from what has happened. We all understand that the current, very real, very difficult situation in relation to the Middle East peace process will have raised Saddam's popularity in the region. We were aware of that at the time we took the decision to engage in military action on Friday.

We have to reiterate over and over again—it cannot be said too often—that the attacks were not related to the Middle East peace process or in any way to the commitment that we have to finding a peaceful, just and lasting settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I am sure that we all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that that is enormously important.