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24 Sept 2002 : Column 20—continued

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Recently I met Professor Christine Gosden, who is professor of genetic medicine at Liverpool and also a doctor who has extensive knowledge of the health of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. She is desperately concerned that after the bombing of Halabja, significant numbers of people have cancer and there is high infant mortality. She and her team have recently put a proposal to the Department for International Development to construct a cancer hospital in Kurdistan, where there are absolutely no medical facilities. That proposal has been turned down, and I would ask my right hon. Friend to ask the Secretary of State for International Development to reconsider that decision.

The Prime Minister: I am not aware of that proposal; I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has heard what my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend is of course right to draw attention to the appalling consequences of the attack on Halabja, in which thousands of people died in a chemical

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weapons attack by Saddam, which is one very good reason why he should be disarmed of these weapons in their entirety.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The Prime Minister has been very convincing about the need to take action against Iraq, but slightly less convincing about how to handle the knock-on effect of even a successful elimination of Saddam Hussein. That is why, surely, the international community needs to be galvanised behind this effort, and why many people in this country really do have concerns about the apparent American policy, which is to go for Saddam Hussein and damn the consequences. Can the Prime Minister reassure us that he has had deep conversations with President Bush on how we handle what will be a very uncertain situation in the middle east, even if Saddam Hussein is removed?

The Prime Minister: I would respond to the hon. Gentleman in this way. First, in relation to some of the concerns expressed from America, it is perfectly natural to look at the history of Saddam Hussein and what he has done and to be sceptical about whether we shall be able to get a weapons inspection regime back in there that will be able to do its job properly. That is what they are saying, and they are perfectly right in saying it. But the very reason we have gone down the road of saying, "Let the UN Security Council pass a resolution and have it implemented" is to enable us to take this step by step. We are at the stage of discussing and ensuring that we get a strong and proper mandate laid down, and then seeing that it is implemented. Later, should Saddam not comply, some of these other questions will have to be answered, and they are obviously very important questions, to which we should give careful thought.

The only thing that I would say in relation to regime change is that it is very difficult to think of a situation where the Iraqi people most of all would not be better off without Saddam. I agree that that is not an answer to the question; it is not, but I do not think we should start from the presumption that it is an impossible question to answer. I think that we will find the answer to it, but we are not at that stage yet; we are at the stage of saying, "This is the UN's will; the UN's will has to be implemented."

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): If a strategic choice opens up between international action to keep Saddam in his box and unilateral American action to destroy that box, which choice should we make?

The Prime Minister: We should make sure—I hope that this is what we have been trying to do—that the United States and the international community are working to the same agenda, and I believe that they are. I say to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that I have seen a lot about the American relationship and criticisms of it. I believed this before I became Prime Minister, but I believe it even more strongly—in fact, very strongly; it is an article of faith with me—the American relationship and our ability to partner America in these difficult issues is of fundamental importance, not just to this country but to the wider world. Those people who want to pull apart the transatlantic relationship—my hon. Friend is not in this category, incidentally—or who can

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sneer about the American relationship that we have, may get some short-term benefit, but, long term, that is very dangerous to the people of this country.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Prime Minister really saying that countries already in possession of weapons of mass destruction attacking those that have not is an acceptable form of preventing weapons proliferation around the world? If he is saying that, how on earth can he convince us that this approach will make the world order more stable, rather than less stable?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that I totally followed that, but if the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Well, I am sorry, so forgive me if I am not answering his question. Surely the point is that if we know that someone has weapons of mass destruction, if they have used them before and if, as a result, the international community has said that they must be disarmed of those weapons, surely the greatest risk is letting them carry on developing those weapons and not doing anything about it.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): History tells us that there are hidden agendas in every war. On that basis, does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the timing of the proposed conflict with Iraq, particularly when the US economy is in free fall and there is evidence of corporate corruption in America involving some senior American politicians? If he is to lead us into conflict with Iraq, it should be for the right reasons, not clearly as a diversion from domestic politics in America.

The Prime Minister: No, I am afraid that I do not agree with that, but I just want to say to my hon. Friend that it is important to realise that, yes, I think it would be true to say that 11 September has made a difference to the way that America views such things. I cannot think that any country subject to that type of terrorist attack would not view the world differently as a result, and it has made the Americans anxious to ensure that the threats that they can see do not materialise and become reality, as indeed happened with the threat that was posed by al-Qaeda.

Apart from that, what is really important is that it is often difficult when things are not in the news the whole time because people think that they have not really been an issue, but I can tell my hon. Friend that in the past four or five years the issue of Iraq, weapons inspections and what we do about that regime has come over my desk pretty much week after week. It is true that the issue has not been in the news in the way that it has been in the past six months, but it has been there as an issue the whole time because people know that there is something deeply rotten in that regime. What we know now from the assessment given by our Joint Intelligence Committee is that the very thing that we feared is the very thing that the Iraqi regime is working on.

As I said earlier, I cannot say that that has to be dealt with this month, or even next month—or even, frankly, within the next six months or so. We cannot be that specific, but we can say that it would be foolish to let that regime carry on developing in the way that it is and for the world community to do nothing. What has happened—this is the point that I would make to people—is that, whether we like it or not, now is the point of decision. Occasionally, that happens in politics whenever there are time lines.

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One of the reasons why, when I came back a few weeks ago, I realised that I would have to go out and really explain to people why the issue was of concern was that suddenly such things come to the point of decision. That is where we are at in the international community; we are at the point of decision for Iraq. We have to be clear that the consequences of saying now to Iraq that we are not going to do anything will be really, really serious.

As I say, perhaps it would be better for everyone's sake if this issue was not on the agenda, but it is on the agenda, and it is inevitable that it is. Therefore, we have to make the decision, and I do not think that we can duck the consequences of that decision.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Many of our constituents are aware that our military forces are in action over Iraq, as the Prime Minister has said. Whether further action will be necessary if Saddam does not comply depends on whether it is right, whether it is necessary, whether it will work and whether we care. The dossier spells out the consequences if we do not care.

May I pass to the Prime Minister a view of some of my constituents? If we go from saying "No" to Saddam to saying "Action now", not everybody in this House will think that we should have a debate before a surprise attack.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the position of our armed forces and their security would have to be uppermost in our minds as we choose how to deal with that issue. He is also right—I hope that his constituents are right as well—that, looking back, when Saddam annexed Kuwait there was no way we could stand aside. People ask why it matters to Britain. It does not matter because I am standing here saying that tomorrow Saddam is going to launch an attack on Britain. That is not the threat; the threat is that within his own region, or outside it given the missile capability that he is trying to develop, he launches an attack that threatens the stability of that region and then the wider world. All the evidence that we have is that if there is such a conflict in that region, we will not be able to stand apart from it.

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