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7 Apr 2003 : Column 23continued
I join the Secretary of State in congratulating British and American forces on their spectacular progress both in Basra and in the attack on Baghdad over the past four days, capitalising on opportunities as they arise. The Secretary of State is right to be cautious about the future speed of events, even though the eventual outcome is not in doubt. I think of the evil King Balshazzar, who once ruled in that land and was slain. It is time that Saddam Hussein also saw the writing on the wall for his evil regime.
May I first ask about events around Basra? The Secretary of State makes no mention of 16 Air Assault Brigade; can he say anything about its role? There are also reports of increasing chaos and looting on the streets. The Secretary of State says that power, water and food are "assessed to be available", but is also clear that our armed forces' efforts to distribute food and water are severely limited because we simply do not have the manpower. I shall not press the right hon. Gentleman again on reinforcements, except to leave the issue on the table, and to note that the tasks for our troops are not getting any lighter, and that we are having to withdraw elements from front-line operations to give them rest. May I ask when he thinks that non-governmental aid organisations will feel able to join our troops' efforts to distribute aid? I note that the United Nations has declared Umm Qasr a "permissive environment"; so what is holding up NGO involvement? Is there sufficient port capacity to increase the flow of aid? When will Umm Qasr be open for the deep-water shipping on which the future flow of aid depends?
Turning to the question of post-conflict Iraq, in which the UK's armed forces will continue to play a significant role, can the Secretary of State clarify the Government's policy on the role of the United Nations? The Prime Minister has stated that the objective is for the occupying powers to return control to an interim Iraqi administration as soon as possible, and the United States clearly supports that view. However, what are the Government's plans for the pre-interim administration phasereferred to as the initial phasewhich may last
Do the Government agree with the United States' National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the pre-interim administration should be run by the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, under the leadership of retired US General Jay Garner? Will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be a substantial British role in this, and can he say what it will be? Ms Rice further said at a press briefing on 4 April:
Following the conflict, the coalition will be responsible for the destruction of any weapons of mass destruction that are found. Will the Secretary of State make it clearunlike his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, on Saturday's BBC Radio 4 "Today" programmethat he does indeed hope to discover their whereabouts? Will he tell the House not what intelligence he may have, but simply answer this question: does he have fresh intelligence on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? Is it possible that weapons of mass destruction have been moved out of Iraq?
May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that the liberation of Iraq is a noble cause, but that the elimination of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is the prime objective, and we will hold the Government to that task until it has been achieved?
Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and in particular for his congratulations to UK and US armed forces, who have worked tremendously well together throughout this conflict, and who continue to do so. As far as 16 Air Assault Brigade is concerned, it is using its very considerable abilities and mobility to support other forces, and in order to be the keyespecially in the operation to the north of Basrato cutting off contact between Basra and other parts of Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman referred to looting, and I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be concerned about that issue; indeed, I have sought to identify the extent of it. Fortunately, it appears so far to be confined to Iraqi citizensshall I use the word"liberating" those items that are in the charge of the regime by entering its former facilities and the secret organisations, and redistributing that wealth among the
As far as power and water are concerned, I referred to British forces securing key facilities in Basra. That was specifically directed at locations that provide water and electricity. Until Saturday and Sunday, we were in no position to identify whether water shortages, probably the result of power outages, were capable of being repaired because we did not control that part of the city. Now that we do, we can take matters in hand to secure a more reliable electricity supply and, thereby, a supply of pure fresh water.
NGOs are beginning to enter the south of Iraq. Obviously, the more parts of the country are safe and secure, the more it will be possible for those NGOs to use their considerable ability to distribute food and other humanitarian assistance. That also depends on port capacity, and urgent efforts are being made both to widen the channel into Umm Qasr and to make more berths available in the port. For the moment, however, it is judged that there are some limitations on what can be achieved because of the continued threat from mines.
As to the role of the United Nations, we certainly want to see UN authority for operations in Iraq, but, equally and as quickly as it can be achieved, we ultimately want the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own affairs, to take their own decisions and to engage in a form of representative government. That was set out clearly by the Government at the start of the military campaign, and it remains fundamental to our objectives.
The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will certainly be responsible in the early period for the distribution of humanitarian assistance, of which the United States has amassed a considerable stockpile, as well as for the early administration of areas freed from the Iraqi regime. It is common ground and shared between all members of the coalition that we want to see the ORHA move on quickly to allow an interim Iraqi Administration, which will lead to the Iraqis taking responsibility for their own affairs. That is what we are trying to achieve, and British participation in that process will be considerable, not least through the efforts of Brigadier Cross, who will be familiar to many hon. Members after his excellent work in the Balkans.
The destruction of weapons of mass destruction continues to be our priority. We are continuing to search the areas that have been freed, but our first priority must be an enda successful endto the military conflict. Thereafter, we will certainly pursue the location of weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today. I also welcome his attendance in the House, which has been assiduous, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are grateful for that during the current crisis. I also want to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces as they continue to do their difficult job in Basra and the surrounding areas. I also add my condolences to the families of all members of coalition forces who have been killed so far. I should also like to remember the Iraqi civilians who are caught up in the fighting. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we have no argument with them.
By all accounts the people of Basra have welcomed British forces into their midst, but I want to ask more about the looting to which the Secretary of State has already referred. There are appalling suggestions from some elements of the media that British troops may have condoned such action. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we have not done so, other than the understandable "liberation"as he put itof food stocks, and that we will endeavour to keep order in the parts of the country that we are liberating? As part of that process, what troops have been earmarked for peacekeeping operations in Iraq in the near future: have they been placed on standby, ready to go?
On weapons of mass destruction, there have been conflicting reports today that chemical agents may have been found. The Government's own military objectives recognise that UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency will have a role in dismantling these weapons, should they be found. Is that still the case? Were the missiles that fell on Kuwait at the beginning of the conflict Scud missiles or al-Samoud missiles? Will he comment on the roleor, rather, the lack of roleof the Iraqi air force during the conflict?
Incidents of friendly fire have come to the fore, and I am sure that all hon. Members regret that. However, I have been approached by some of the relatives, as other colleagues will have been. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the US Defence Department refused to allow its combat soldiers to give evidence at British inquests into friendly fire incidents in the first Gulf war? Has agreement been reached in this conflict that all coalition forces will co-operate if there are to be inquests or inquiries in the UK or the United States? Finally, the thoughts of all hon. Members go out to our British men and women who are continuing the campaign in Basra; they are a credit to the whole nation.