|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Bach: My Lords, British forces have a long established tradition of allowing correspondents to accompany them on operations going back to the Crimean War and right up through all modern wars, including the Falklands War and the Gulf War. Embedding journalists may well inhibit those journalists' freedom of movement but it allows our Armed Forces to help ensure their safety. We live in a free society with a free press. When the press report what we like, we never complain about it. When the press report what we do not like, that is when we must come to its defence.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the view that my noble friend expresses is felt not just inside this House but also outside it. However, I am afraid we have to accept that the 24-hour media is a reality with which we must live. One of the dangers of embedded journalism can be that it tends to provide snapshots of the action which, taken together, can produceI choose my words carefullya less than complete picture of the wider position. It is important that we do not lose sight of the wider campaign objectives.
Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the differences between democracies and totalitarian states at times of war is that in democracies there continues an informed national debate about that war and that for that informed national debate we depend upon the courage of war correspondents? Does the Minister accept that we on these Benches endorse what he says about a free media? Does he further accept that the longer we prevent government interference in the BBC and the other media, the better our people will understand what is happening in Iraq and the better the likely outcome?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I accept the basis of what the noble Lord says about a free press. I also accept what he says about the bravery of correspondents, embedded or otherwise. I pay tributeas have many since yesterdayto the distinguished BBC cameraman, Kaveh Golestan, who died tragically yesterday. Along with that freedom, of course, goes responsibility. It is getting that balance right that many in this House are concerned about.
The journalists embedded in the frontline are very brave people. However, is not their difficulty that they are inclinedin particular if they are inexperiencedto report every shot as heavy fighting, every wound as massive casualties and every pause as the Army being bogged down? Although we must leave the press entirely free to report events, could we not encourage more of the sense of balance that the Minister has just described? If journalists were covering matters a little less close to the immediate front line and giving more perspective to the broader scene, the result would be totally different from the impression we have been receiving.
Lord Bach: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:
"Since my last Statement on 26th March, coalition forces have been establishing a presence in northern Iraq and moving ever closer to Baghdad. Another important phase has been reached as the first troops engage Saddam's Republican Guard divisions on the approaches to the city. At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basra.
"I want to repeat the warning I made in my first Statement to this House some two weeks ago. Do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces, or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of the steady progress that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has set out.
"On behalf of the Government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days. I would like to mention as well those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations, either in combat or through the usual course of their duties. Thirty-nine UK battle casualties are currently being treated in theatre and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes for their speedy recovery.
"In this conflict, we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fightbut what has shocked us, as democratic states observing the rule of law, is the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and the killing of its own people. Every aspect of what we do is rightly and understandably held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media.
"There are those who have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces. But that should not be surprising. This is a regime that has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on powertorture, rape and execution. In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basra have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city.
"On 25th March, there were disturbances in Basra which irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On 28th March, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basra, regime militia opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then irregulars have been routinely firing on civilians in the south-east of Basra. This is the kind of brutal suppression that has been going on inside Iraq for very many years.
"Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Iraqi regime shows no greater respect for the country's cultural wealth than it does for its people. The coalition is taking every precaution to avoid damage to the holy sites in An Najaf and Karbala. By contrast, we know that Saddam Hussein has plans to damage these sites and to blame the coalition. Indeed, his forces have used the site at An Najaf as a defensive position, firing on US forces, who commendably did not return fire.
"The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the Al Faw peninsula, the southern oilfields and the Basra area. 7th Armoured Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basra from hindering the main advance, while establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid.
"We have been striking key regime targets in the area. These operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Ba'ath Party headquarters in Basra, and by 7th Armoured Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basra and the local state security organisation headquarters in Al Zubayr, to the south of Basra.
"3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines engaged substantial Iraqi forces in the area of Abu Al Khasib in the south-east outskirts of Basra, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were in addition a number of casualties.
"On the night of 31st March, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with artillery and air support, engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 tanks and five artillery pieces, as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions.
"We are now focused on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias. Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.
"Further north, elements of the United States' Army's Fifth Corps have now passed through Karbala and are moving towards Baghdad. US forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The lead elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad. Over 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces.
"Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field, and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities, and the combat capability of the security forces which support it.
"Coalition forces have taken the utmost care over the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure. The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on 26th and 28th March, and reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the marketplaces were targeted by the coalition and we continue to investigate how those tragic events might have occurred. We have long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation. What we do know is that the air defence commander in Baghdad has been replaced, partly because of his concerns that Iraqi surface-to-air missiles had been malfunctioning, failing to hit their targets and falling back on Baghdad.
"Offensive operations are, however, only one part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. Over half the population of Iraq has only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation has an appreciation of his cruelty that is borne out by bitter personal experience. That is why it is so important that in a number of areas where UK forces are operating, there is a growing sense of return to normal life. Some people are going back to work. The United Nations has now declared Umm Qasr a 'permissive environment'allowing UN agencies to begin their work there.
"Essential services such as water and electricity are being restored and even improved, due in part to the skill of the Royal Engineers and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Umm Qasr water treatment plant, which can treat up to 3 million litres a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by UK forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to 2 million litres of drinking water dailyenough for 160,000 people per dayand providing vital temporary relief.
"Schools and markets are being re-opened. 7th Armoured Brigade has removed Ba'ath Party thugs from the Al Zubayr medical centrewhere treatment was previously available only to those close to the regimeto enable access for ordinary Iraqis. Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armoured cars, and have in some cases been able to exchange their combat helmets for berets. The UK Armed Forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use, with striking effect.
"The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi navy, and the port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and being opened to shipping. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd' Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far11 laid in the water, and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats.
"Those operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation, bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people. On 28th March the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel 'Sir Galahad' unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tonnes of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area; other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required. Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tonnes of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.
"The UN Oil for Food programme was re-established by Security Council Resolution 1472 on 28th March, an important milestone for the people of Iraq. But it will take time to take effect. 1 (UK) Division therefore has authority to spend up to £30 million for special humanitarian purposes within the first month, and a further £10 million is available for 'quick impact' projects, such as restoring electricity and water supplies.
"After two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the coalition continues to make progress. Every day we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq, and moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people.
"We are engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to themto their political security and their economic welfare. Above all, we must convince them of our commitment to see through what we have begunto remove the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished their nation for two decades. It will take time.
"We have made an excellent start, but there is still much more to achieve. Our servicemen and women will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know that the House will join me in wishing them well".
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that very detailed and helpful Statement, which updated us and clarified matters on the campaign. Will he accept that we on these Benches totally associate ourselves with his remarks about the skill and courage of our troops? We look with pride at the way in which our soldiers and Armed Forces are conducting this very skilled and sensitive operation with such good humour, determination and willingness.
Of course, there have been casualtiesadmittedly few, but each is a tragedy. We therefore also echo the noble Lord's words of condolence and deepest sympathy. Above all, our hearts go out to those who are widowed and the parents of sons or daughters who will not be coming back. I also add a word of praise for the special forces. They are conducting incredibly dangerous operations, unseen and often unpraised. Nevertheless, they are offering their lives for the crucial purpose.
The Statement confirms what amazing progress has been made in the 13 days so far of the campaign. I believe that the first Gulf War lasted 43 days, and someone reminded me that even the German blitzkrieg of 1940 on Paristhe most famous and fastest Panzer advance of all timetook 44 days. Here we are after 13 days, 15 miles from Baghdad, with south and west Iraq more or less secured except for certain areas. That is frankly an amazing achievement.
The oil fields around Ramallah, or most of them, have been secured without destruction. Best of all, as the Minister indicated, there has been growing co-operation and I believe intelligenceit will be vital as we get into Baghdadfrom Iraqi citizens. Are not the great pundits who advise us so freely and fully nearly always wrong? Many of them said that everything would be over in a week, and they were wrong about that. Now they have swung to the other extreme and are saying that we will have months of siege round Baghdad, but I suspect that they will be wrong about that too.
The only very mild point of disagreement that I have with the Statement is in the expression of shock about the brutality. Surely it is obvious that the Ba'ath Party is a Nazi-modelled regime, designed on Nazi lines with Nazi ideology by Michael Aflaq. There really should be no surprise at all that its members are behaving like Nazi fanaticssurrendering and then shooting, executing and strangling their own people to the last, ruling by ghastly torture and terror as the Minister mentioned, disguising as civilians, desecrating their own holy sites, and using every other device of people who have no future at all outside the regime and the party. If any of them survives, their future when Iraq settles down will be very terrible indeed.
What the Minister says about the post-conflict situation is encouraging. It must be obvious that everyone's aim is to return Iraq to the Iraqi people as soon as possible. Whether the transition is run by the coalition military, a United Nations authority or, as I suspect will be necessary, both, is not the aim to do
Is the Minister aware that we welcome the Government's adoption of the scheme proposed by my colleague Iain Duncan Smith for an early conference of political groupings to work out the next stage in Iraq's political development? If possible, that should be held on Iraqi soil. Without any complacency that the battle is overit obviously is notwe should look further ahead from there and plan to help with social and educational reform. It is even proposed, and I think rightly, that we think about welcoming back Iraqi students into our own universities. There used to be a great many, and we should bring them back and enable them to see how the benefits of a freer and, one hopes, a democratic society work.
Although there are clearly many dangers ahead, and Arab passions may well be enflamed a bit furtherthey were enflamed before anywaycan we keep in mind the attainable vision of a benign and prosperous Iraq? Instead of pumping poison into the surrounding region, as it has done for the past 12 years, it should start to radiate peace and prosperity throughout the Arab world. It could do so, as it is basically a very wealthy and powerful nation. There may be many risks in what is happening in this campaign, but there are also many possibilities, and I suggest that we think a little more about those.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I also thank the Minister for the Statement. I am conscious that in the middle of a war there is one thing worse than armchair generals, which is armchair politicians, so I do not intend to comment on the details of the Statement or what is happening on the ground.
As noble Lords will recall, our party was not convinced of the case for war starting when it did. Now that it is under way, it is important that it is conducted successfully, quickly, according to the laws of war, and with proportionate and appropriate force. We are most impressed by the behaviour of British troops, particularly by what we have seen of the Black Watch and the Marines in the outskirts of Basra, in terms of the extent to which they have used the bitter experience that British forces have gained over 30 years in Northern Ireland. They have put that to good use in beginning to rebuild the confidence of the people of what is now occupied Iraq. We are also impressed by the restraint of American troops in respect of the extremely delicate issue of the holy places. We regret the number of British casualties and we understand the bitterness of the relations of those killed in accidents as well as in combat. We send our sympathies to those who have suffered.
I want to ask about the important issue of the conduct of the war. The Minister mentioned prisoners of war. It is important that prisoners of war are treated entirely appropriately, according to the laws of war and the Geneva Convention. A number of prisoners of war are being taken who are not currently wearing uniform and whose status is ambiguous. Questions have been raised in the British press and there have been reports that some of them may be handed over to the United States. Will the Minister assure us that prisoners of war who are taken by the British will remain under British control? If not, what justification is there for handing them over to the control of our allies?
We also ask about reports that air-launched cluster bombs have been used. A large number of questions have been raised about them. There is a 5 per cent failure rate which means that many unexploded bomblets are left in an area, even if British troops have given a commitment to clean them up afterwards. Two British soldiers were killed in Kosovo in the process of clearing up cluster bombs that had been used there. There are highly likely to be civilian casualities before the clear-up operation has taken place. Those weapons are to be used only under the most extreme circumstances against massive concentrations of Iraqi troops. I was not aware that we had yet met massive concentrations of Iraqi troops.
I turn to the whole question of weapons of mass destruction, which was, after all, the rationale for going to war. I read in an e-mail this morning a quotation from a senior American official who said that the most disastrous outcome of the war would be if we do not find any weapons of mass destruction. I fear that if it is only the Americans who find evidence of weapons of mass destruction a substantial proportion of the worldcertainly of the Muslim worldwill not be entirely convinced. Does the Minister accept that getting independent inspectorspreferably UN inspectorsalongside coalition forces to verify if and when weapons of mass destruction are found will enhance the credibility of what we are doing?
Winning the peace is clearly the most important element. We are happy to see the way in which British forces are already concerning themselves with that even while the war continues in terms of humanitarian assistance and nation-building. That will involve some co-operation with some people who have been serving the current regime because that is the way in which one has to operate when rebuilding an administration in what used to be called assistance to the civilian plan. That involves the whole question of the re-establishment of domestic order and self-government. As that operation proceeds with the restoration of local authority and some form of local administration in UK areas, will it be subject to US suzerainty or will it primarily be a British responsibility?
We welcome ideas which I know that the Foreign Secretary has been floating for consultation with other states in the region. If a peaceful Iraq is to be established in a peaceful region, the greater will be the
I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his points about the progress during the past fortnight. He also discussed the need to ensure that Iraqis became free and lived in a benign and prosperous state. I agree with every point that he made. He sought to disagree with us on one small aspect, which was, of course, our naivety in being shocked by the enormities of the Iraqi regime. I believe that he meant that chiding fairly gently. My goodness, we live in a society that has its own problems, unnecessary violence and difficulties. However, when compared with the Iraqi regime, we are for the most part perhaps too used to living a comfortable, ordinary life. It is still shocking to hear the tales that troops tell about what has happened to those in, for example, Basra who dared to rise up against the tyranny that has oppressed them for so long. I thank him very much for his comments.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was equally supportive and I am grateful to him, too, for his comments. He asked specific questions about some fairly broad subjects. He will forgive me if I do not go into huge detail on any of them. I know that some time early next week we will be able to discuss in this House, if only briefly, the question of prisoners of war.
The coalition currently holds about 7,600 confirmed prisoners of war, of which the British forces hold 4,100. All those captured by British forces are being treated strictly in accordance with our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international law, as he would expect. Some prisoners of war currently being held by British forces are in fact United States detainees and they will continue to be held until United States facilities are of a standard that the custody can be transferred. The numbers that we hold may drop in the next couple of weeks. Responsibility for the treatment of prisoners of war rests with the detaining power but the Geneva Conventions allow for transfer to the custody of another party. However, we will retain responsibility for their treatment. Captured Iraqis will be given prisoner of war status until proved otherwise and will be treated, as I said, according to the obligations that we know so well.
It is important to point out that cluster bombs are not in any sense illegal; they are allowed and serve a useful military purpose, which has nothing to do with civilians or confined areas. It has plenty to do with areas in which there are enemy vehicles spread out over an area where it is necessary to ensure that those vehicles cannot be used against us and that they are
On weapons of mass destruction, we await to see what is found around the Baghdad area in particular. It is interesting that on 29th March United States marines discovered chemical suits, masks and nerve gas antidote in buildings in Nasiriyah that were clearly used by members of Iraq's 11th Infantry Division. I have actually been asked on the media whether that means that those soldiers were expecting a chemical/biological attack from coalition forces. Just to ask that question shows its absurdity. The United States and Britain are signed up to every convention forbidding our use of such weapons. Iraq, it goes without saying, is not. Those chemical suits, masks and nerve gas were to protect the Iraqi troops from their own government's actions.
Both noble Lords spoke movingly about casualties. Thankfully, as of now, they are not as high as might have occurred in previous wars; however, I say "as of now" because we never know what may occur. The bravery of those men who have died is well known to all of us. Reading today's newspapers, I thought that the mother of a member of the Armed Forces who died in that first terrible accident between Sea Kings spoke in an ordinary voice for all of us when she said,
Lord Elton: My Lords, first, I endorse everything said by my noble friend on this Front Bench and in particular pay tribute to the gallantry of our troops. Secondly, can the Minister comment on a report published yesterday which states that there has now been a refinement of cluster bombs enabling similar ordnance to be fired from howitzers? We are all agreed that the future peace and stability of Iraq is of the first importance politically and from a humanitarian point of view.
We are all aware of the public statement that up to 5 per cent of the bomblets in cluster with ordnance do not explode on impact. Can the Minister assure the House, therefore, that proper procedures are established at battery headquarters and at the forward observation post when this ordnance is used to record both the intended target and the actual fall of shot so that in the follow-up we can clear the ordnance from the ground and avoid the prospect of seeing one-legged children as witnessed in the wake of other campaigns where that sort of weapon has been used?
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page