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24 Sept 2002 : Column 11—continued

The Prime Minister: The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's last question is yes. I do believe that the information we published today shows that there is a continuing chemical and biological weapons programme, and an attempt by Saddam Hussein to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. That is what I believe, and that is the assessment of the Joint Intelligence Committee—and, frankly, I prefer its assessment to the assessment of the Iraqi regime, which, let us say on the basis of experience, is not one that should carry a lot of credibility.

In relation to the House of Commons, let me say to Members in all parts of the House—as I said in my statement—that in the cases of Kosovo and of Afghanistan we gave the House ample opportunity not only to debate, but to declare and express its view. I am sure that we will do so again, in accordance with the normal tradition of the House. We are not actually at the stage of military action yet; I simply emphasise that point.

Yes, it is very important that we mobilise international opinion through the United Nations. But, as President Bush rightly said to the UN General Assembly, this is a challenge for the United Nations too. Although there are

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many difficult questions that I have to answer, there is one difficult question that I think everyone has to answer: if the will of the UN continues to be ignored and flouted by Saddam, what then? Unless people have an answer to that question, we cannot really proceed in a way that fully reflects the reality of the situation with which we are dealing.

As for precipitate action, I do not believe that the United States, any more than ourselves, is interested in that. One of my purposes in setting out the history of this affair, however, is to show that the issue has not been dormant for 11 years, but has always been there. At some times it is thrown into sharper relief than at others, but it has always been there—and it has always been there for the very reason why the UN passed the original resolutions at the end of the Gulf war. People were astounded at the extent of the chemical-biological weapons programme. They did not know the full extent of the nuclear weapons programme. They considered, on the basis of the evidence—how could they consider otherwise?—that Saddam was not a fit person to have control of those weapons.

Throughout the past 11 years we have been trying to find different ways of dealing with this: weapons inspections, sanctions, these negotiations, more negotiations with the Iraqis. What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman—this is why I think all of us who believe that the issue has to be dealt with must choose our language carefully—is that the one thing I am sure of is that there is no prospect of a proper weapons inspection regime going back in there and doing its job properly unless Saddam knows that the alternative is his being forced to comply with the UN will.

In relation to regime change, incidentally, I would say that whatever the difficulties in Afghanistan, anyone who actually went and talked to ordinary people there would find that they much prefer the current situation to the situation that they experienced under the Taliban.

As for not walking away, we should not walk away from the situation in Afghanistan, and the US Administration themselves have made clear that should it come to regime change in Iraq they will not walk away from that either. I simply emphasise this point. Of course all sorts of issues still have to be resolved, but the fact is, as I said a few weeks ago, that the first decision we must make is this: do we allow the situation to continue, with this weapons of mass destruction programme? If we say no to that, do we try to mobilise international support? Answer, yes—that is what we are trying to do. But if the international support is not adhered to, then we must have the courage and determination to take action. Otherwise, in the end, all those expressions of international will are going to count for nothing.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): In his speech to the TUC two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

Having today made what is an incontrovertible case against Saddam, will my right hon. Friend confirm that any action taken by our Government will be solely for the implementation and pursuit of United Nations Security Council policy?

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Also in his speech to the TUC, my right hon. Friend said

so that terrorism could end, and the Palestinians have their rights. Can he explain—if not today, as soon as possible—what action he and the Government will take to restart and advance the middle east peace process?

Has my right hon. Friend noted that, following the terrible murder of the Glasgow student, Yoni Jesner, by Palestinian terrorists last week, one of his kidneys was used to save the life of a seven-year-old Palestinian girl—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is far too long.

The Prime Minister: Let me respond to the two points that my right hon. Friend very fairly made. The first answer is yes: the action that we need to take is to ensure that the UN resolutions are properly implemented—that is the clear purpose. Secondly, I entirely agree that it is important for the middle east to restart the process. What are we doing on that? We are working with the Americans and others to try to put together a proper conference on the issue to get the peace process restarted. We stand ready to help, in any way we can, on issues of both security and political reform, which are important prerequisites to getting that peace process under way.

My right hon. Friend will know of the UN Security Council resolution that was passed last night, which is an important indication that the world should deal with this. The only point that I make about this is that I am always in one sense nervous of talking about the middle east peace process, either in the context of Afghanistan last year or in that of Iraq this year, because quite apart from the specific issues of Afghanistan and now Iraq, it is important to restart the process. It is important to reflect that, because it is my judgment, having talked to the leaders of the Arab world, that they do not hold any brief for Saddam Hussein but feel that we should pursue with equal vigour a just resolution in the middle east. As I point out to them, that just resolution must involve security for Israel as well as a viable Palestinian state.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Does the Prime Minister recollect that, in the half-century history of various states acquiring nuclear capabilities, in almost every case—from the Soviet Union in 1949 to Pakistan in 1998—their ability to do so has been greatly underestimated and understated by intelligence sources at the time? Estimates today of Iraq taking several years to acquire a nuclear device should be seen in that context, and within that margin of error. Given that, and the information from defectors five years after the Gulf war, that 400 nuclear sites and installations had been concealed in farmhouses and even schools in Iraq, is there not at least a significant risk of the utter catastrophe of Iraq possessing a nuclear device without warning, some time in the next couple of years? In that case, does not the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh the risk of taking action quite soon?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree, and I would just add two points to what the right hon. Gentleman said. His point about intelligence is an interesting one, and it is right. For the preparation of the dossier we had a real

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concern not to exaggerate the intelligence that we had received. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to reflect the credibility of the information, and we rate the credibility of what we have very highly. I say no more than that.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right about the obstruction. An example is the presidential sites—so-called presidential palaces that are in fact vast compounds covering the area of a reasonably large town—in which the Iraqis conceal documentation and evidence in relation to their weapons programme.

For all those reasons, I entirely agree that the danger of inaction, in my view, far outweighs the danger of action.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): The Prime Minister knows that action against Iraq that is supported by the authority of the United Nations would be acceptable to the vast majority of Members of Parliament across the House. Does he agree that those MPs who oppose independent action must explain why something that they believe to be right and justified when undertaken by many nations together becomes wrong and unjustified if we should act alone?

The Prime Minister: The point that my hon. Friend makes is exactly why the United Nations must be the way of resolving the issue. That is why I think that it was right that President Bush made it clear to the UN General Assembly that the United Nations was faced with a challenge. That is why it is important that that challenge is met and the UN resolutions are implemented.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): Given that key elements of al-Qaeda remain at large and given the proven murderous intent of al-Qaeda against the United States and its allies, can the Prime Minister assure the House—notwithstanding everything that he has said about the importance of eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, with which I entirely agree—that he continues to give the utmost priority to the detection and elimination of al-Qaeda?

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