Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction
11:30 am

Photo of Mr Tony Blair

Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Mr. Speaker, thank you for recalling Parliament to debate the best way to deal with the issue of the present leadership of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Today we published a 50-page dossier, detailing the history of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme, its breach of United Nations resolutions, and its attempts to rebuild that illegal programme. I have placed a copy in the Library.

At the end of the Gulf war, the full extent of Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes became clear. As a result, the United Nations passed a series of resolutions, demanding that Iraq disarm itself of such weapons and establishing a regime of weapons inspections and monitoring to do the task. The inspectors were to be given unconditional and unrestricted access to all and any Iraqi sites.

All this is accepted fact. In addition, it is fact, documented by UN inspectors, that Iraq almost immediately began to obstruct the inspections. Visits were delayed; on occasions, inspectors threatened; matériel was moved; special sites, shut to the inspectors, were unilaterally designated by Iraq. The work of the inspectors continued, but against a background of increasing obstruction and non-compliance. Indeed, Iraq denied that its biological weapons programme existed until forced to acknowledge it after high-ranking defectors disclosed its existence in 1995.

Eventually, in 1997, the UN inspectors declared that they were unable to fulfil their task. A year of negotiation and further obstruction occurred until finally, in late 1998, the UN team was forced to withdraw.

As the dossier sets out, we estimate on the basis of the UN's work that there were up to 360 tonnes of bulk chemical warfare agents, including 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent; up to 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals; growth media sufficient to produce 26,000 litres of anthrax spores; and over 30,000 special munitions for delivery of chemical and biological agents. All of this was missing and unaccounted for.

Military action by the United States and United Kingdom followed and a certain amount of infrastructure for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and missile capability was destroyed, setting the Iraqi programme back, but not ending it.

From late 1998 onwards, therefore, the sole inhibition on Saddam's WMD programme was the sanctions regime. Iraq was forbidden to use the revenue from its oil except for certain specified non-military purposes. The sanctions regime, however, was also subject to illegal trading and abuse. Because of concerns about its inadequacy—and the impact on the Iraqi people—we made several attempts to refine it, culminating in a new UN resolution in May of this year. But it was only partially effective. Around $3 billion of money is illegally taken by Saddam every year now, double the figure for the year 2000. Self-evidently, there is no proper accounting for this money.

Because of concerns that a containment policy based on sanctions alone could not sufficiently inhibit Saddam's weapons programme, negotiations continued, even after 1998, to gain readmission for the UN inspectors. In 1999, a new UN resolution demanding their re-entry was passed and ignored. Further negotiations continued. Finally, after several months of discussion with Saddam's regime, in July this year, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, concluded that Saddam was not serious about readmitting the inspectors and ended the negotiations.

All this is established fact. I set out the history in some detail because occasionally debate on this issue seems to treat it almost as if it had suddenly arisen, coming out of nowhere on a whim in the last few months of 2002. It is actually an 11-year history: a history of UN will flouted, of lies told by Saddam about the existence of his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, and of obstruction, defiance and denial.

There is one common, consistent theme, however: the total determination of Saddam to maintain that programme; to risk war, international ostracism, sanctions and the isolation of the Iraqi economy to keep it. At any time, he could have let the inspectors back in and put the world to proof. At any time, he could have co-operated with the United Nations. Ten days ago, he made the offer unconditionally under threat of war. He could have done it at any time in the last 11 years, but he did not. Why?

The dossier that we publish gives the answer. The reason is that his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programme is not an historic left-over from 1998. The inspectors are not needed to clean up the old remains. His weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing. The policy of containment is not working. The weapons of mass destruction programme is not shut down; it is up and running now.

The dossier is based on the work of the British Joint Intelligence Committee. For over 60 years, beginning just before world war two, the JIC has provided intelligence assessments to British Prime Ministers. Normally, its work is obviously secret. Unusually, because it is important that we explain our concerns about Saddam to the British people, we have decided to disclose its assessments.

I am aware, of course, that people will have to take elements of this on the good faith of our intelligence services, but this is what they are telling me, the British Prime Minister, and my senior colleagues. The intelligence picture that they paint is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population, and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.

On chemical weapons, the dossier shows that Iraq continues to produce chemical agents for chemical weapons; has rebuilt previously destroyed production plants across Iraq; has bought dual-use chemical facilities; has retained the key personnel formerly engaged in the chemical weapons programme; and has a serious ongoing research programme into weapons production, all of it well funded.

In respect of biological weapons, again, production of biological agents has continued; facilities formerly used for biological weapons have been rebuilt; equipment has been purchased for such a programme; and again, Saddam has retained the personnel who worked on it prior to 1991. In particular, the UN inspection regime discovered that Iraq was trying to acquire mobile biological weapons facilities, which of course are easier to conceal. Present intelligence confirms that it has now got such facilities. The biological agents that we believe Iraq can produce include anthrax, botulinum, toxin, aflatoxin and ricin—all eventually result in excruciatingly painful death.

As for nuclear weapons, Saddam's previous nuclear weapons programme was shut down by the inspectors, following disclosure by defectors of the full, but hidden, nature of it. That programme was based on gas centrifuge uranium enrichment. The known remaining stocks of uranium are now held under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But we now know the following: since the departure of the inspectors in 1998, Saddam has bought or attempted to buy specialised vacuum pumps of the design needed for the gas centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium; an entire magnet production line of the specification for use in the motors and top bearings of gas centrifuges; dual-use products, such as anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and fluoride gas, which can be used both in petrochemicals but also in gas centrifuge cascades; a filament winding machine, which can be used to manufacture carbon fibre gas centrifuge rotors; and he has attempted, covertly, to acquire 60,000 or more specialised aluminium tubes, which are subject to strict controls owing to their potential use in the construction of gas centrifuges.

In addition, we know that Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, although we do not know whether he has been successful. Again, key personnel who used to work on the nuclear weapons programme are back in harness. Iraq may claim that that is for a civil nuclear power programme, but I would point out that it has no nuclear power plants.

So that is the position in respect of the weapons—but of course, the weapons require ballistic missile capability. That, again, is subject to UN resolutions. Iraq is supposed only to have missile capability up to 150 km for conventional weaponry. Pages 27 to 31 of the dossier detail the evidence on that issue. It is clear that a significant number of longer-range missiles were effectively concealed from the previous inspectors and remain, including up to 20 extended-range Scud missiles; that in mid-2001 there was a step change in the programme and, by this year, Iraq's development of weapons with a range of more than 1,000 km was well under way; and that hundreds of people are employed in that programme, facilities are being built and equipment procured—usually clandestinely. Sanctions and import controls have hindered the programme, but only slowed its progress. The capability being developed, incidentally, is for multi-purpose use, including with WMD warheads.

That is the assessment, given to me, of the Joint Intelligence Committee. In addition, we have well founded intelligence to tell us that Saddam sees his WMD programme as vital to his survival and as a demonstration of his power and influence in the region.

There will be some who will dismiss all this. Intelligence is not always right. For some of the material, there might be innocent explanations. There will be others who say rightly that, for example, on present going, it could be several years before Saddam acquires a usable nuclear weapon—though if he were able to purchase fissile matériel illegally, it would be only a year or two. But let me put it at its simplest: on this 11-year history; with this man Saddam; with this accumulated, detailed intelligence available; with what we know and what we can reasonably speculate, would the world be wise to leave the present situation undisturbed—to say that, despite 14 separate UN demands on the issue, all of which Saddam is in breach of, we should do nothing, and to conclude that we should trust, not to the good faith of the UN weapons inspectors, but to the good faith of the current Iraqi regime? I do not believe that that would be a responsible course to follow.

Our case is simply this: not that we take military action come what may, but that the case for ensuring Iraqi disarmament, as the UN itself has stipulated, is overwhelming. I defy anyone, on the basis of this evidence, to say that that is an unreasonable demand for the international community to make when, after all, it is only the same demand that we have made for 11 years and that Saddam has rejected.

People say, "But why Saddam?" I do not in the least dispute that there are other causes of concern on weapons of mass destruction. I said as much in this House on 14 September last year. However, two things about Saddam stand out. He has used these weapons in Iraq itself—thousands dying in those chemical weapons attacks—and in the Iran-Iraq war, started by him, in which 1 million people died; and his is a regime with no moderate elements to appeal to.

Read the chapter on Saddam and human rights in this dossier. Read not just about the 1 million dead in the war with Iran, not just about the 100,000 Kurds brutally murdered in northern Iraq, not just about the 200,000 Shia Muslims driven from the marshlands in southern Iraq, and not just about the attempt to subjugate and brutalise the Kuwaitis in 1990 that led to the Gulf war. I say, "Read also about the routine butchering of political opponents, the prison 'cleansing' regimes in which thousands die, the torture chambers and the hideous penalties supervised by him and his family and detailed by Amnesty International." Read it all and, again, I defy anyone to say that this cruel and sadistic dictator should be allowed any possibility of getting his hands on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

"Why now?", people ask. I agree that I cannot say that this month or next, even this year or next, Saddam will use his weapons. But I can say that if the international community, having made the call for disarmament, now, at this moment, at the point of decision, shrugs its shoulders and walks away, he will draw the conclusion that dictators faced with a weakening will always draw: that the international community will talk but not act, will use diplomacy but not force. We know, again from our history, that diplomacy not backed by the threat of force has never worked with dictators and never will.

If we take this course and if we refuse to implement the will of the international community, Saddam will carry on, his efforts will intensify, his confidence will grow and, at some point in a future not too distant, the threat will turn into reality. The threat therefore is not imagined. The history of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda. The history and the present threat are real.

If people say, "Why should Britain care?", I answer, "Because there is no way this man, in this region above all regions, could begin a conflict using such weapons and the consequences not engulf the whole world, including this country." That, after all, is the reason the UN passed its resolutions. That is why it is right that the UN Security Council again makes its will and its unity clear and lays down a strong new UN resolution and mandate. Then Saddam will have the choice: comply willingly or be forced to comply. That is why, alongside the diplomacy, there must be genuine preparedness and planning to take action if diplomacy fails.

Let me be plain about our purpose. Of course there is no doubt that Iraq, the region and the whole world would be better off without Saddam. Iraq deserves to be led by someone who can abide by international law, not a murderous dictator; by someone who can bring Iraq back into the international community where it belongs, not leave it languishing as a pariah; by someone who can make the country rich and successful, not impoverished by Saddam's personal greed; and by someone who can lead a Government more representative of the country as a whole while maintaining absolutely Iraq's territorial integrity.

We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Indeed, liberated from Saddam, they could make Iraq prosperous and a force for good in the middle east. So the ending of this regime would be the cause of regret for no one other than Saddam. But our purpose is disarmament. No one wants military conflict. The whole purpose of putting this before the UN is to demonstrate the united determination of the international community to resolve this in the way it should have been resolved years ago: through a proper process of disarmament under the UN. Disarmament of all weapons of mass destruction is the demand. One way or another, it must be acceded to.

There are two other issues with a bearing on this question which I will deal with. First, Afghanistan is a country now freed from the Taliban but still suffering. This is a regime we changed, rightly. I want to make it clear, once again, that we are entirely committed to its reconstruction. We will not desert the Afghan people. We will stick with them until the job of reconstruction is done.

Secondly, I have no doubt that the Arab world knows that it would be better off without Saddam. Equally, I know that there is genuine resentment at the state of the middle east peace process, which people want to see the international community pursue with the same vigour. Israel will defend its people against these savage acts of terrorism, but the very purpose of this terrorism is to prevent any chance for peace. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are suffering in the most appalling and unacceptable way.

We need therefore urgent action to build a security infrastructure that gives both Israelis and Palestinians confidence and stops the next suicide bomb closing down the prospects of progress. We need political reform for the Palestinian Authority, and we need a new conference on the middle east peace process, based on the twin principles of a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state. We can condemn the terrorism and the reaction to it. As I have said many times in the House, frankly, that gets us nowhere. What we need is a firm commitment to action and a massive mobilisation of energy to get the peace process moving again, and we in Britain will play our part in that in any way we can.

Finally, there are many acts of this drama still to be played out. I have always said that Parliament should be kept in touch with all developments, in particular those that would lead us to military action. That remains the case, and to those who doubt it I say: look at Kosovo and Afghanistan. We proceeded with care, with full debate in this House, and when we took military action, we did so as a last resort. We shall act in the same way now, but I hope we can do so secure in the knowledge that should Saddam continue to defy the will of the international community, this House, as it has in our history so many times before, will not shrink from doing what is necessary and what is right.

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Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green, Conservative)

Let me start by thanking the Prime Minister for providing me with a copy of his statement and the Government dossier in advance of today's debate. I am relieved that this evidence has finally been made public and hope that hon. Members will have time to digest it before taking part in the debate.

Many will want to argue today about the conduct of American foreign policy, the degree of influence that the UK Government have with the Bush Administration, and whether Britain is simply following the United States. That is not, I believe, what this debate should be about in any way. The key question is whether Saddam Hussein has the means, the mentality and the motive to pose a threat to Britain's national security and the wider international order.

As to the means, we know that Saddam used chemical weapons during the 1980s and developed biological weapons at the same time. David Hannay, our former ambassador to the United Nations, has stated openly that Iraq would have been a nuclear power by the mid-1990s had the Gulf war not intervened. The evidence produced in the Government's report shows clearly that Iraq is still pursuing its weapons of mass destruction programme. As the Prime Minister says, the policy of containment is not working. The ex-head of UNSCOM, Richard Butler, said that the UN was unable to destroy Saddam's biological and chemical weapons capabilities.

The Government dossier confirms that Iraq is self-sufficient in biological weapons and that the Iraqi military is ready to deploy those, and chemical weapons, at some 45 minutes' notice. We also know that three years ago Iraq attempted to get enriched uranium from Serbia in the dying days of the Milosevic regime—evidenced and documented. Today, the report says that Iraq has sought to acquire uranium from Africa and is trying to turn it into weapons-grade material. No doubt during this debate some will want to quote the former UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, who apparently said last week:

"Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability has been verifiably eliminated".

Let me give them this warning. That was not Mr. Ritter's assessment four years ago when he was inspecting the very sites that he now talks about.

He said then:

"The sad truth is that Iraq today is not disarmed".

It

"has lied to the special commission and the world since day one."

He went on to say:

"This lie has been perpetuated . . . through systematic acts of concealment."

So Saddam has the means. There should be no doubt about his mentality. He has fought a protracted war with Iran costing at least a million lives, gassed his own Kurdish population, persecuted the Marsh Arabs, invaded and occupied Kuwait, and launched missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia. He has been willing to defy the world order and terrorise and starve his own people in order to continue his weapons programme. He has diverted $3 billion in the last year alone for that very purpose; money that could have gone to feeding his own population.

So the only question remaining is whether Saddam has the motive to strike against Britain, and I believe that it is fair to assume that he has. We have repeatedly supported Security Council resolutions against Iraq, we were a major component of the allied coalition during the Gulf war, and today British forces are still engaged in Iraq policing the no-fly zones to protect Kurds in the north of the country and Shi'ite Muslims in the south.

The report shows that Saddam has illegally retained at least 20 al-Hussein missiles, with a range of 650 km, capable of carrying the various warheads that he needs, and that he is also developing new ones.

I remind the House that there are more than 3,000 British service men and women in Cyprus, 200 in Turkey, 300 in Saudi Arabia and 400 in Kuwait, all of whom are in range of the missiles that Saddam possesses today.

Notwithstanding that evidence, there are still a number of important questions that I should like to ask the Prime Minister.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that any new Security Council resolution must set out the precise terms under which Iraq is to dismantle and destroy its weapons? Will he give a clear timetable for that and an unequivocal declaration that failure to comply will trigger military action?

Given that the Prime Minister has said that Saddam is already in breach of nine existing resolutions, can he confirm the legal advice that he has received and whether we need a new Security Council resolution to take military action under international law?

I am reminded of the words of the Prime Minister's then Foreign Secretary, the current Leader of the House, who, in December 1998, said that we had

"clear backing in UN resolutions"

to take military action against Iraq, and that those resolutions had warned Saddam of

"the severest consequences if he broke his undertakings"

to stop his weapons of mass destruction programme.

Will the Prime Minister also say what resources Britain would be likely to contribute in the event of any military action? Will he tell us what plans the Government are making should Saddam be removed from power, as he indicated earlier, and whom he has met from many of those Iraqi opposition groups that now seek to take Saddam's place?

No one wants to see British troops or any other troops engaged in war. War should be the last resort when all other efforts have failed, but Britain should never shy away from its responsibilities in a time of international crisis. As King Abdullah of Jordan only a few days ago said:

"the decision in the end is that of the Iraqi leadership, they bear the responsibility before their people, nation and the world".

Those who refuse to contemplate military action at any price must ask themselves how we are to force Saddam to comply with UN resolutions that he has flouted for a decade. They must also ask themselves why only now, under the threat of military intervention, has he talked about letting the UN weapons inspectors back.

History is littered with the desire of decent people to give the likes of Saddam Hussein a second chance, but he has had 10 years of second chances. Now, surely, is the time to act. This matter is now in Saddam Hussein's hands.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I think that I can reply to the right hon. Gentleman very briefly, and I thank him for the general support that he has given in his response to my statement.

I want to emphasise these points. First, it is important to remember that we do not merely have British service men in that region; our planes and our pilots are involved in policing the no-fly zone the entire time. It is not something that gets into the news every day, but British service men and women are already out in that area performing a vital task in relation to the Iraqi regime.

In respect of the new UN Security Council resolution, its precise terms are obviously a matter of discussion but we should be absolutely clear and unambiguous about what is expected from Saddam and about what will follow if he does not comply. In respect of the legal advice, we do not disclose such advice but, of course, we will always act in accordance with international law.

In respect of any military options, we are not at the stage of deciding those options but, of course, it is important—should we get to that point—that we have the fullest possible discussion of those options and of how we ensure that we enforce the will of the international community. I have not personally seen the opposition Iraqi groups but I know that the Government are in touch with them.

It is worth emphasising that the purpose is the disarmament of Iraq, and that decision—as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned a moment ago—is for Saddam. I do not think, however, that people should be in any doubt or have any illusions about this. The people who would rejoice the most at getting rid of Saddam are the Iraqi people.

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Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness West, Liberal Democrat)

This important opportunity provided by the Prime Minister's statement, the publication of the accompanying dossier and the debate that will follow gives all of us a chance, after the long summer recess, to reflect the legitimate anxieties of our constituents and, in particular, the representations that many of us have received from the Muslim community in this country. This also gives us the opportunity to raise legitimate questions, a number of which have not yet been adequately answered for many of us, either by the Prime Minister's statement or by the dossier.

There is, of course, general consensus that Iraq constitutes a grotesque, amoral regime, and that that must be dealt with. I say to the Prime Minister, however, as I did when I questioned him in the House just before the summer recess, that there are two important issues involving founding principles. The first is the role of the House of Commons. There is no specific proposal before the House today, but, if and when there is one, there must be an absolute, up-front opportunity for the House to vote on any proposal involving the possible use of British forces. In his statement today, the Prime Minister said that the House would be kept fully "in touch". Does "in touch" mean a democratic Division in the Lobby of the House?

The second consideration is the overriding supremacy of the United Nations. In the penultimate paragraph of the preface to the dossier, the Prime Minister states:

"The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding he stops his WMD"—

weapons of mass destruction—

"programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with this programme; that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly; and that if he refuses, or if he makes it impossible for them to do their job, as he has done in the past, the international community will have to act."

That stands, at least rhetorically, in contrast to some of the recent statements that we have heard, this week alone, from the American Administration.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister has been subject to fair criticism over the intensive international effort that he has made since the events of 11 September, or the efforts that he has made to invest the United Nations with its proper authority. I urge him, however, to continue to resist calls—whether they come from certain people in this country or from others in the United States—for precipitate action. In that context, he is surely right to lay emphasis on the fundamental need to restart the middle east peace process.

Those of us who have never subscribed to British unilateralism are not about to sign up to American unilateralism now, either.

What we must be clear about—the Prime Minister touched on this at some length—is the notion of regime change, which is ill-defined, and remains so today. It would set a dangerous precedent in international affairs. We have to be clear about the possible consequences of a regime change. What will the reaction be in the rest of the Arab world? If Saddam's regime falls, what kind of government system is envisaged as a replacement?

In his statement, the Prime Minister spoke about the need for Iraq to be led by someone who variously can abide by international law, bring Iraq back into the international community, make the country rich and successful, and make its Government more representative of the country. However, he was silent on the question of who or where that person or set of people is. The Prime Minister, quite rightly, with our support and that of others, was able to point to the mobilisation of forces in Afghanistan, which could lead to an alternative, more acceptable Government there. Is there the capacity or potential for a similar mobilisation to take place within Iraq?

In the context of Afghanistan, the Prime Minister made it clear that, if such a course of action proved successful—which it did—this country and the international community would then not walk away. Is a similar approach being identified for Iraq? Does such an approach encompass the mindset of the present American Administration? If we were not to walk away following the toppling of Saddam, who would provide the necessary presence to police and create the ongoing stability in Iraq that would be essential because of the shell-shocked nature of that country?

When the American Defence Secretary speaks of a "decapitation strategy" with a view to Iraq does he reflect the mind processes of the British Government? Should we not instead be talking about the longer-term need for a rehabilitation strategy for Iraq, not least for its innocent, oppressed people with whom none of us has any argument whatever?

On the question of the UN weapons inspectors, the report makes it clear that, despite the conduct of the Iraqi authorities towards them, they have

"valuable records of achievement in discovering and exposing Iraq's biological weapons programme and destroying very large quantities of chemical weapons stocks and missiles as well as the infrastructure for Iraq's nuclear weapons programme."

They are therefore best placed to assess the situation, and that is why the political emphasis must be on getting the UN inspectors back in. The worry from this side of the Atlantic has to be that, even if that were conceded, it is no longer of primary interest to the United States Government. That must be a deep concern, which we in this House are correct to reflect.

Finally—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am only asking questions unasked by the leader of the Conservative party. Does the Prime Minister truly believe that, on the evidence published today, a sufficient case has now been made that both clarifies Iraq's present capacity, as well as its intent?

There is much that will unfold, but it is vital that the British Government maintain their moral authority, the authority of this House and of the United Nations, and do not at any stage in the weeks and months ahead overlook the decent moral instincts of our country, which deserve to be heard here today.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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 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.

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Mr Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

In his speech to the TUC two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

"I believe it is right to deal with Saddam through the United Nations."

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?

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

"We must restart the Middle East peace process. We must work with all concerned"

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—

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

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?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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 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.

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Mr Barry Gardiner (Brent North, Labour)

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?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

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Mr John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling, Conservative)

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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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Yes, indeed we do. There is a continuing threat from al-Qaeda, not only in this country but in others. Although the hub of its operations has been effectively shut down in Afghanistan, none the less it still has tentacles around the world and it is important that we go after those too.

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Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr, Labour)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to the enforcement of the UN resolutions on weapons inspections in Iraq. Will he affirm his belief that all UN resolutions should be respected, particularly resolutions 242 and 338 concerning Israel and Palestine, which, if implemented with a time scale, would have a far-reaching impact on the stability of the whole region?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I believe that it is important that the UN's will is implemented fully. That is why I said what I did about the middle east peace process. I think that one thing, however, must be stated clearly: the UN resolutions in respect of the middle east impose obligations on both sides. They impose obligations in respect of support for terrorism and recognition of Israel as well as withdrawal from the occupied territories. That is why, in the end, the only way of making progress in the middle east is for all the aspects of the UN's will to be implemented in relation to the middle east. My hon. Friend did not do this, but sometimes people are selective and look simply at Israel's obligations without recognising that those obligations cover all the states in the region.

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, Plaid Cymru)

The Prime Minister said earlier that there must be genuine preparedness and planning to take action if diplomacy fails. Has he given the United States any commitment that the United Kingdom would support unilateral action against Iraq?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

As I said a moment ago, we are not at the stage of taking decisions about military action. However, it is important to recognise that in the event of the UN's will not being complied with we must be prepared to take that action. We are not at the point of decision yet, but no one should be in any doubt that it is important to express very clearly that should the UN's will not be resolved through weapons inspections and monitoring, it has to be resolved in a different way.

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Mr John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

The Prime Minister refers, in detail at times, to the report published today and has just made a reference to the inspection of presidential establishments. The report says that Iraq consistently refused to allow UNSCOM inspectors access to any of the eight presidential palaces. Yet on 15 April 1998, a report was prepared by UNSCOM inspectors on the inspections of the presidential sites, which were conducted on the 10 days running up to 15 April. If we are to rely on the Joint Intelligence Committee, should not our intelligence be more accurate than it is in this report?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I will say exactly what happened; my hon. Friend may recall it from the time. The Iraqis began what was clearly a ploy to prevent the inspectors from doing their job by designating certain sites presidential palaces. After massive pressure, the inspectors were allowed in to certain of those presidential compounds. However, the inspectors said later that because of all the obfuscation, prevarication and delay, they had no real belief that they had been able to inspect the sites properly.

I can understand people's hesitations about military action in these circumstances, because of course any sensible person has to hesitate before taking such a strong step. However, I find it hard to credit that anybody could look at the behaviour of Iraq over the past 10 or 11 years and say that the regime had co-operated with the UN inspectors. It did not and one might think that the reason for that is that it wanted to keep the weapons of mass destruction it should not have had in the first place.

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Dr Brian Mawhinney (North West Cambridgeshire, Conservative)

Does the Prime Minister accept that those of us who believe in the concept of evil support his cautious but tough analysis and approach? Does he also accept that, given the 11-year history of this problem, it would help the House and the country to form a judgment if we had some idea of how long he was prepared to allow the United Nations to reassert its authority before looking at alternative strategies?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We are at the stage of discussing with our partners in the Security Council the form of a new resolution and what demands we might make. At this stage, therefore, I am not in a position to say that it will be so many weeks or that it will be done in a particular way. Let us be clear: there is no point in the UN taking charge of this again unless we are precise and clear about what we expect the Iraqi regime to do. As I said to my hon. Friend John McDonnell, we know from experience that it will try to avoid weapons inspections. We know from current intelligence that that is its intention. So, there will have to be a tough and clear mandate, but the precise terms of that are under discussion.

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Mr Michael Connarty (Falkirk East, Labour)

May I put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend for honouring the tradition of the House and calling this recall? Can he give me a clear and simple answer as to whether he thinks that UN resolution 1999 is adequate for the UN to enforce the weapons inspectors' return and any programme of disarmament, or is he thinking about using another resolution on behalf of the United Kingdom? Also, will that resolution deal only with the return of the UN inspectors and not be a fig leaf for the American intention to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We do need a new resolution and it should focus on the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. That is what I believe we should do. It is important to have a fresh resolution because the international community needs to reassert its will very clearly and because we need to make sure that any new inspection and monitoring system is not subject to the same problems as the old one because, in the end, that was not able to do its job.

The only thing that I would say to my hon. Friends about the intentions of the United States is that, if we look at the history of this Iraqi regime over the past 10 or 11 years or throughout its time, we can see that the Americans are right to be cautious about believing that it intends to comply. In fact, I am sure that the regime does not intend to comply at all, although it may be forced to do so. Therefore, it is important that we make it clear that the pressure is there all the time. The purpose of any new UN resolution should be focused on disarmament because that is where the UN has expressed its will clearly.

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Mr John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon, Conservative)

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that there are many threats to our security that emanate from countries in the middle east and that while those posed by Iraq may be amenable to a military solution, others are not. What I want to hear from the Prime Minister is that our policy towards Iraq is part of a coherent policy for the region and for dealing with security threats and the Islamic terrorist threats that emanate from other countries. I hope that our policy towards Iraq will be part of that.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. I raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction three days after 11 September and before my first meeting with President Bush in the February before that, when international terrorism was not the issue that it is today. I said that we had to have a coherent approach to weapons of mass destruction. That will mean different things in relation to different countries. I fully accept that Iraq is not the only concern. There are other countries in that region and elsewhere that are trying to develop such weapons and we need a differential strategy in respect of each of them.

I want to make it clear that, in my judgment, if we do not deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their retention by highly unstable states, often with dictatorial regimes, then perhaps not this year or next year, but in the not too distant future, that problem will explode on to the consciousness of the world. I believe that passionately, which is why, whatever the issues in relation to Iraq and apart from anything else in relation to it, it is important to take a stand now and say that, where we have made determinations on behalf of the international community, we will see them through. If we do not, the message to Saddam and anyone else will be that they can develop these weapons with impunity and that the international community lacks the will to deal with them.

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Mr David Winnick (Walsall North, Labour)

Most of us hope that military action can be avoided, but does not the responsibility lie fully with the Iraqi regime? Whether we go to war or not surely depends on whether it is willing to comply with all the resolutions. Would not it be helpful if the UN Security Council showed a united front and did not allow itself to be divided time and again by a criminal dictator?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I totally agree, and I hope that the UN Security Council will be so united.

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Mr Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham, Liberal Democrat)

Ignoring the mini-me performance by the leader of the Tory party, may I ask the Prime Minister a simple question to which yes or no will suffice? Does he support regime change without UN authorisation—yes or no?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I have made it clear that the purpose of any action should be the disarmament of Iraq. Whether that involves regime change is in a sense a question for Saddam as to whether he is prepared to comply with the UN resolution. I consider it odd that people can find the notion of regime change in Iraq somehow distasteful. Regime change in Iraq would be a wonderful thing. That is not the purpose of our action; our purpose is to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if he studies the Iraqi regime carefully, he will find that it is not very redolent of anything to do with the Liberal Democrats.

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Mr Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow Govan, Labour)

The Prime Minister will be aware that when Saddam Hussein waged a war against Iran and used chemical weapons against his own people, Britain and the United States supported him. By promoting Ariel Sharon as a man of peace, President Bush has lost his credibility in the Arab world as an honest broker. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that war on terrorism cannot be won unless the conflict in the middle east reaches a peaceful resolution and we tackle poverty?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I understand exactly why my hon. Friend feels as strongly as he does on this issue, but I want to say two things. First, it is not for me to defend the actions of the previous Government in the 1980s, but it is simply not true to say that when Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people or against the Iranians the international community endorsed it. It did not. It condemned it very strongly in a presidential statement from the UN Security Council at the time.

Secondly, in relation to Israel I think it is right that we have relaunched the middle east peace process, but if we are to get the middle east peace process back on track again, three things need to happen. The trouble is that people select one or other of them, but they all have to happen. First, the right of Israel to exist and its security have to be recognised by the whole Arab world, as indeed the UN wants. Secondly, there has to be a viable Palestinian state; and thirdly, there has to be a proper security infrastructure built within the Palestinian Authority. Otherwise, my fear is that the moment the process gets going again, it will be wrecked by a suicide bomber or a terrorist. We have to have the indemnity against that of a proper security infrastructure. All three of those things will have to happen before the process is back on track.

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Mr David Trimble (Upper Bann, UUP)

It is a reasonable conclusion that it was only the threat of force that led Saddam Hussein to offer to admit inspectors. There must therefore be hope that a reinvigorated inspection and containment regime will work, but if it does not and other measures become necessary, will the Prime Minister please bear it in mind that, looking at the middle east as a whole, there is probably a greater threat from the militancy that we saw in al-Qaeda and the Taliban? That militancy is not limited to Afghanistan; it grows out of Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and it will be exploited by Saddam Hussein to try to destabilise other areas. Can we please have some policies that will be directed towards the instability that comes out of Saudi Arabia, as without such policies there will be no lasting peace anywhere in the middle east?

Finally, while many people applaud the clarity and the vigour with which the Prime Minister is pursuing this matter, many people feel that there are similar problems nearer home that would benefit from the same approach.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, which I thought he might make and which he is entitled to make, I still believe that the peace process in Northern Ireland offers a better opportunity for a peaceful future than does any other alternative.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that fundamentalism is a real and serious issue. We must deal with it in two ways. First, we must make it clear yet again, as we had to in respect of action in Afghanistan, that this has nothing to do with the religious complexion of the particular regime. Indeed, Saddam's victims are Muslims. The idea that we should pursue Saddam because he is a Muslim is as absurd as saying that we should have pursued Milosevic because he was an Orthodox Christian. This has to do with the nature of the regime. That is what is important.

Secondly, we must give thought to how we engage with the Arab world. In that context it is important that we try to push forward the middle east peace process without apportioning blame on either side: we can blame one side or the other for a long time and get nowhere. We need a huge mobilisation of energy to get that process going. It is not simply the state of the process itself that concerns Arab opinion; it is the sense that we lack the will to push this forward. We must show that we do, provided that it is on a basis that is just for the security of Israel and for the rights and needs of the Palestinian people.

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Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside, Labour/Co-operative)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that Iraq stands uniquely condemned for violation of Security Council resolutions based on chapter 7 of the United Nations charter? What assessment has been made of Iraq's potential for supporting terrorist groups whose aim is to undermine international peace?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the unique status of Iraq in relation to weapons of mass destruction. Although we did not deal with this in the dossier, there is no doubt, for example, that certain forms of terrorism in the middle east are supported by Iraq. That is another indication of the nature of the regime.

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Mr David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells, Conservative)

Will the Prime Minister be explicit about his aims regarding the Government of Iraq? Ambiguity on that point will cause immense confusion later as this drama unfolds. Specifically, would he and the Government be satisfied if Iraq accepted or could be made to accept verifiable, unconditional and unrestricted access by weapons inspectors, leading to verifiable disarmament of Iraq's international weapons? If that were successfully concluded, is it not his aim in addition to seek to change the Government of Iraq or its leader?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

It is precisely our aim to make sure that the United Nations will is implemented. That has to do with the disarmament of Iraq and the proper verification, inspection and monitoring regime that is able to do its job properly. We are in the present position in order to enforce exactly that. We have not been able to enforce that. For 11 years Iraq has refused to comply with that demand. I have no doubt that if the weapons inspectors are able to do their job and we are effectively able to disarm Iraq, that will indeed change the whole nature of the regime. Our ability to do so has to depend on the United Nations being prepared to assert its will firmly and to back it by the threat of force, which is the only thing that will work.

Whether I would like to see the regime of Saddam Hussein change is another matter. Personally, I think it would be wonderful for the Iraqi people and for that region of the world. Our process is fixed on the issue of disarmament because that is the UN demand that has been made. I do, however, think—this is one of the reasons why for 11 years Saddam has ducked the issue of proper inspection—that that would have a huge bearing on the regime, but that is, if you like, an incidental consequence of having a proper weapons inspection regime there, able to do its work properly.

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Mr Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff Central, Labour/Co-operative)

What few in the House or outside would disagree with in the document is the statement that Saddam Hussein's regime represents a threat, although we may have arguments about the extent of the threat, but the document is silent on what happens in the event of the Iraqi regime's being replaced by force of arms. What threats would ensue? How do we take a decision if we are not allowed to compare the threats to the area that would result from replacing the Iraqi regime by force with the threat of the Iraqi regime's being allowed to continue?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Although some of these questions—if we get to the stage of military options, what are the right options, and if we get to the stage of regime change, what replaces Saddam—do not arise for decision now, as I have said throughout I of course agree that they are very serious questions, which we need to look at. The only thing that I would say to my hon. Friend about regime change is that it is hard to think of an Iraqi regime that would be worse than Saddam, but that said, it is obviously important that we deal with all these issues, including making it quite clear to the people of Iraq that should it come to the point of regime change, that has to be done while protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq. That is an important point.

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Mr Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire, Conservative)

It is still not clear to me what happens if the Prime Minister does not get the UN resolution that he is seeking.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

If we cannot get the UN resolution—I believe that we can—we have to find a way of dealing with this. As I said in my Trades Union Congress speech some time ago, the international community must be the way of dealing with this, not the way of avoiding dealing with it, but I am confident that the international community will respond to what President Bush has said, what I have said and what others have said and will recognise that it is important that we lay down a very clear mandate for the UN.

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Ms Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby, Labour)

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.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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

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Mr Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton, Conservative)

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?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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."

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Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase, Labour)

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?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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 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.

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Mr Lembit Ípik (Montgomeryshire, Liberal Democrat)

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?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

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Mr Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire, Labour)

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.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

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.

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Mr Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

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.

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

Several hon. Members:

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