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3.56 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I also wish to add my congratulations to the Minister on repeating the Statement made in another place. I wish to underline the extraordinary significance and concern that all in the House will feel about the information she has given to the House on the biological and chemical weapons availability in Iraq at present. It underlines more clearly than anything else could the extreme importance of ensuring that inspectors have access to all the sites in which such weapons may be developed or produced.

May I also ask the Minister, following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, whether she could make clearer the objectives that the Government and their major ally, the United States, have in mind? As the noble Lord said--and he was correct to say it--there has been a certain ambivalence about the ultimate goals of the operation. Clearly, for the sake of our forces and of others, it needs to be made as clear as possible precisely what those objectives are.

I wish to ask the noble Baroness three questions. First, have there been consultations between the foreign ministers of the European Union countries with regard to the resolution that is to be tabled by the Arab League, Russia and France? In that context, is the United Kingdom circulating its own draft resolution in the hope of getting greater support from the European Union for that resolution?

Secondly, can the Minister tell us whether, if access is given to the weapons sites, including the presidential palaces, by Saddam Hussein, there would be a willingness on the part of Her Majesty's Government to consider some phased easing of sanctions?

Thirdly, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether there is any opportunity for reconsideration to be given to the composition of inspection teams, if that access is granted, given the earlier initiative taken by Russia with regard to Security Council members being represented on the teams.

Lastly, perhaps I may comment that one of the difficulties we encounter in the whole operation is that there is a perception, not least among those Arab countries that took part in the original Gulf Co-operation Council, that the treatment of the breaches by the Netanyahu government of some of the UN resolutions currently standing with regard to the peace negotiations with Israel is a real difficulty in bringing them on board, as it is crucial to attempt to do.

4 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for their support at this

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difficult time. The noble Lord asked for an assurance that all diplomatic avenues would be exhausted, first and foremost. I can reiterate what my right honourable friend said in another place; that is, that all such avenues are being pursued. My right honourable friend was in the Gulf last week. My honourable friend Mr. Fatchett will be going to the Gulf shortly, as will my noble friend Lord Gilbert; and my right honourable friend Dr. Reid has also been in the Gulf.

The United Kingdom Government are doing everything they can to seek a peaceful and diplomatic solution to this problem. The noble Lord asked for assurances that the clearest possible targets--diplomatically, strategically and militarily--are set and that the objectives are clear. Again, I can give him that assurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was concerned that perhaps there were slightly conflicting messages emerging as regards objectives. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear that our objective is the compliance with Security Council resolutions. I remind your Lordships that Security Council Resolution 687 sets out the ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire agreement compelled Saddam Hussein to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and to undertake not to create any more such weapons. The noble Lord said that that was somehow in conflict with the statement that Saddam had to be prevented from threatening the region and the world. In fact it is not. If Saddam Hussein complied with Resolution 687, he would be removing the threat that is perceived by the United Kingdom, the United States and many other countries which have made their position clear over the past week.

The noble Lord asked about discussions elsewhere. My right honourable friend's discussions with many countries over the past week or so indicate their agreement not only with the objectives set out by Her Majesty's Government, but also with the position of Her Majesty's Government that if those objectives cannot be secured through diplomatic channels, we should not rule out the use of military force. That has been agreed by Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand among others.

Others take the position at the moment that they wish to pursue diplomatic channels. However, in pursuing diplomatic channels they are also saying that it is essential that Saddam Hussein complies with Security Council Resolution 687 and that he must allow the unfettered access of UNSCOM to places where weapons may be stored or made. We must ask ourselves whether, if that is not achieved through diplomatic channels, Saddam Hussein will take any such measures if he does not believe that there is the threat of military action behind those diplomatic channels. Unfortunately, the history of dealing with Saddam Hussein tells us that he is more likely to discuss the issue if he believes that a military threat may be deployed.

The noble Lord also asked about the position of the Turks in northern Iraq. Her Majesty's Government have seen the reports about the Turks entering northern Iraq. At the moment those reports are denied by the Turks.

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The leadership of the Turkish Democratic Party told us that the reports are untrue and the Foreign Office is checking out the situation. I asked an official in the Foreign Office this morning to check out the reports and unfortunately he was unable to confirm the position in northern Iraq. Of course, Ministers have asked officials to keep the matter under constant review. It is an important factor.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, raised questions in relation to consultation. Of course we are in consultation. In fact, the diplomatic effort at the moment is second to none--and rightly so, as I am sure all your Lordships would expect. The noble Baroness raised in particular the efforts of the Arab League, the French and the Russians over coming to an agreement and a possible Security Council resolution. Those discussions are ongoing at the moment. But we will have to see whether a Security Council resolution will enable UNSCOM to have free and unfettered access to the places that need to be visited in Iraq. Last week the Russians came forward with some suggestions, but those suggestions involved only one-off visits to those sites, after which there was no latitude for further visits. That is not acceptable. We must have unfettered, free access at times of UNSCOM's choosing.

Also, the noble Baroness asked whether, if access was given, there would be a phased easing of sanctions. We are not in a position to be able to agree that. Once we see full compliance--I emphasise, full compliance--with Resolution 687, then we shall be able to revisit the question of the issuing of sanctions. But I stress that at no point has the United Nations introduced sanctions against food or medicine. The vital humanitarian aid needed by the people of Iraq could go to the people of Iraq tomorrow if Saddam Hussein would allow it. Moreover, we have supported unconditionally the suggestions put forward by the Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, to increase the oil for food provisions, as I was able to report to your Lordships' House last week.

The noble Baroness asked about the composition of inspection teams. There are 44 people on the inspection teams at the moment covering 17 nationalities. The inspectors are selected for their professionalism and expertise in a highly specialised field. It is not a United States selection; it is not a British selection; it is a selection made by Richard Butler, who happens to be an Australian. He makes his selection on behalf of the United Nations from the people who are most suitable and who have the best expertise to carry out their direction under Resolution 687.

Questions were also raised by the noble Baroness regarding the Gulf Co-operation Council and some of the difficulties in the region in relation to what is perceived to be a double standard concerning the Netanyahu government. We have discussed this matter in your Lordships' House before and I must reiterate to the noble Baroness what I said earlier this afternoon. The difference is that the Netanyahu Government--whether or not we agree with what they are doing--are a democratically elected government with whom we are discussing the Middle East peace process. Her Majesty's Government made clear that we do not accept their position over Jerusalem; that we do not accept their

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position over the settlements on the West Bank; and Her Majesty's Government have said that in our view those settlements are illegal. But that is a different position to the position of Saddam Hussein and his flouting of what is, in effect, a cease-fire agreement; his stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and, I am afraid I must say to your Lordships, his entirely discredited record of the way he has treated his own people and his neighbours in the use of those weapons of mass destruction.

4.8 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness from these Benches that the prayers of Christian people throughout the country are with those involved with this situation, especially those who bear heavy responsibility at this time and who will be making crucial decisions in the days ahead. In the diocese of Oxford, for example, Thursday is being kept as a special day of prayer. Churches will be open and people have been invited to come to church to pray and light a candle for peace.

As I say, those prayers are for those who bear heavy responsibility and who will be making crucial decisions in the days ahead. It will be a prayer especially that the terrible threat posed by the presence of the weapons of mass destruction can be averted by peaceful means even at this late stage.

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