Safe Havens (Iraq)

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 18th April 1991.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence 3:30 pm, 18th April 1991

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the assistance which our armed forces are already providing to the relief effort for the Kurds in Iraq and our plans now to support my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's proposal for the establishment of safe havens in Iraq.

The Royal Air Force has now been operating in Turkey for 10 days, delivering supplies in the most difficult conditions. Hercules aircraft have already delivered more than 240 containers to the refugees in the high mountains. More recently Chinook helicopters have significantly increased our capability to reach the most inaccessible places and to continue operating in severe weather conditions. Yesterday, when bad weather meant that little else could operate, one Chinook alone made no fewer than eight successful supply missions. In addition to the existing three Chinooks available for this operation, two more Chinooks reached Turkey yesterday and a further four are due to arrive today. This will treble our heavy lift capability and, with our continuing Hercules effort, will now comprise a really significant supply capability.

The next priority, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, is to get the refugees down from the mountains and into the temporary safe havens which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed. That will not happen unless the refugees have confidence that they will be safe from Saddam Hussein. I can now tell the House the steps that we are taking to provide that security as quickly as we can and to initiate Operation Haven, as it is being called.

At the same time as the Foreign Secretary was making his statement yesterday, a team from my Department was completing the initial planning with the United States commanders, and we have been in close touch with the French Defence Ministry as well. We are particularly grateful also for the excellent help of the Turkish Government in these efforts.

A reconnaissance and advance party left this morning to prepare for the arrival of the first elements of our forces which will leave within the next 48 hours. I have decided that these forces will be based mainly on 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines. The Royal Marines are particularly well suited for rapid deployment and trained to operate in mountain areas. The brigade will include specialists in engineering, water supply, communications and medical and hygiene personnel. It will include substantial logistic support to sustain these operations, which are being conducted in very difficult terrain and weather, and well forward from the main airhead. They will also have Royal Navy Sea King helicopters which normally operate with the brigade. The brigade commander, Brigadier Andrew Keeling, is with the advance party which is arriving now at Incirlik. The present plan is that the bulk of the brigade will be based in Turkey with units rotating into Iraq.

The camps will probably take the form of a number of tented villages around a central distribution point and the aim will be that, so far as possible, the Kurds should be assisted to organise themselves within the camps with our forces providing the security.

The House will recognise that this is not an ordinary military operation. We are here engaged in humanitarian relief on a massive international scale when time is of the essence. It is a temporary arrangement to provide shelter and supplies to hundreds of thousands of people who desperately need them and to give them the confidence that, in these havens, they will be safe. That is our purpose and every effort is now being devoted to achieving it as quickly as we possibly can.

Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill Shadow Secretary of State

I am sure that the whole House will thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We are already indebted to the RAF for the sterling work that it has undertaken.

Can the Secretary of State tell us the size of the contributions from the United States and France? Does he think that the Franco-British contribution could have been sufficient on its own? I know that it is difficult, but can he give any estimate of the likely time that our troops will have to serve there? Will he bear it in mind that many right hon. and hon. Members recall that British troops were sent into Northern Ireland for a humanitarian purpose in 1969 and are still there.

Will the Secretary of State explain the rules of engagement, expand upon what he said and confirm that the aim will be to protect the refugee camps once the people have been brought down from the mountains? Can he assure the House that those camps will not become guerilla bases as that could easily happen if armed Kurds are allowed to take their weapons into refugee camps? Will he give us some idea of the nature of the air support that will protect our forces?

Finally, I note what the Secretary of State said about the RAF heavy-lift capability. In the event of its becoming inadequate for the purposes of the operation, will he look to civilian and other sources of heavy-lift support to carry on that vital work? I repeat that we welcome the Secretary of State's statement and wish our troops a speedy and effective solution to this dreadful problem.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) for his tribute to the RAF, which was very well judged. All right hon. and hon. Members have seen the conditions and the terrain over which our forces are operating. It is interesting that their skills will be shown not least by the Sea King helicopter pilots in 3 Commando Brigade who are trained to operate in the mountains where their particular skills and courage will be shown to great advantage.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we were doing enough and whether the French and British could cope on their own. The reality is that at present I am talking entirely about the Turkish border with Iraq, but there are also huge problems on the Iranian border, so we need all the help we can get. In that connection, I was pleased to hear from the Netherlands Defence Minister this morning that it is likely that the Netherlands will wish to join and contribute to the relief operation. That is excellent news.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer about the length of time, but I think that he is not challenging in any way the need for this humanitarian action and we are grateful for his support.

Obviously, we do not disclose rules of engagement in public, but they include the right to self-defence. That is implicit in them at all times and when our forces are involved in that task we shall ensure that they are equipped and work under rules and regulations that enable them to protect themselves properly.

We are not prepared to see camps becoming guerilla bases. They are intended for humanitarian purposes to save lives. We will not allow armed Kurds to use them as bases from which to pursue their campaigns, not least in the interests of the security and safety of our own forces who are guarding those camps. It would be most unsatisfactory if those camps contained factions of armed men who could put our people in a very dangerous position.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I hope that the House will understand it if, in a developing situation, I give preference today to those hon. Members who were not called yesterday or on Monday.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Having watched the Royal Marines in training on moors, in mountains and in the Arctic over some years, may I commend the choice of these excellent, elite troops? None could do a better job and I hope that they will set a standard that other nations will follow.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I know my hon. Friend's close interest in the Royal Marines. As she knows, they have just returned from an exercise in the mountains of Norway and are very ready to climb another mountain.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for his work on this matter, but express great reservations about the setting up of these camps. If a solution can be found from any talks between the Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi Government and an agreement requiring an international guarantee can be drawn up, would the Prime Minister be prepared to go to the United Nations to seek a resolution providing powers for the enforcement of such an international guarantee?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is well judged. My statement merely shows the speed with which we are carrying out my right hon. Friend's initiative and our determination to make sure that it is implemented.

The hon. Gentleman expressed reservations. I do not know his proposal or whether he has an alternative way to remove people from the high mountain areas in quite appalling climatic conditions where we are close to the last few minutes of getting people on the mountains down into areas in which they have some chance of survival. Far from having reservations about my right hon. Friend's initiative, I believe that it is the only possible way in which that can be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman put certain hypothetical proposals about the outcome. That does not fall directly to me. I made it clear that we are in phase 1. We are now looking to the situation in which we can move to phase 2 during which people can return to their homes in safety and confidence. It is not our purpose to see those people permanently established in temporary camps in the mountains. The initial purpose is to save lives, but it is not the long-term solution.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates , East Hampshire

Will my right hon. Friend pass to his staff in the Ministry of Defence and to our services all down the line our renewed thanks for the speed, efficiency and professionalism that we have come to expect from them when they are responding to a crisis? While we get on with the immediate task and, given the exemplary leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Government in moving ahead of world opinion in this matter, will my right hon. Friend, possibly through the military commission in the United Nations, make every effort to get more robust support from that organisation so that we can repeat the success of the relief of Kuwait with the full United Nations authority in carrying out this very important humanitarian task?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks from a position of considerable experience. All those concerned in my Department and the military side have moved with exemplary speed to initiate this activity. I assure my hon. Friend that he will see things happening very fast in the hours and days ahead. It is right to recognise that many of our friends and allies are also moving with considerable speed to make their contribution. Obviously, the United States is important and we are in close touch with the French. I mentioned the Dutch, and the Germans are also making their contribution. Turkey is the host nation and I am grateful to the Turkish Government for their support. I understand that Prince Sadruddin of the United Nations has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi Government about the operations of the United Nations agencies in Iraq. I think that we shall now start to see the United Nations agencies playing an active part as well, which is what we wish to see.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The Secretary of State's account of the professionalism of the Royal Air Force entitles the House to have the confidence that all our forces will prove more than adequate for the difficult and sensitive task that has been entrusted to them. Does the right hon. Gentleman also agree that we would be right to be concerned about the safety of our forces? Can he assure the House that, if any of our forces or those in their care come under any threat, all military means at the disposal of the allies will be used to neutralise that threat?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

We have given the Iraqi Government a clear warning that our purposes are entirely humanitarian and that we are determined to ensure that those to whom we bring aid can be safe. We have given the clearest warning that that activity is not to be interfered with. I give the hon. and learned Gentleman the absolute assurance that were there to be any such attempt to do that, it would be dealt with very severely indeed. I say that at the Dispatch Box to ensure that anyone listening who may be uncertain about the matter is left in no doubt whatever.

Photo of Mr Keith Mans Mr Keith Mans , Wyre

Will our forces going to Iraq have the use of airfields in that country during the phase, when they go in and thereafter?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

The initial base is Incirlik. That is the main airhead from which we are operating.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development is leaving today for Turkey and Iran, with a team, to see in what ways we can help the Iranians with their tremendous work for the Kurdish refugees. We shall be anxious to see what facilities may be available to help in that way.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

Does the Secretary of State accept that the aim of eventually restoring the Kurds to their homes must be the basic reason behind any action undertaken by the Government? But would not it have been better if the Ministry of Defence had foreseen that, at the conclusion of hostilities, many thousands of people in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and on the Iranian borders would be in need of medical assistance? It was not hidden from our knowledge that that would be the case. Why, therefore, did the right hon. Gentleman's Department, at the cessation of hostilities, arrange for thousands of pounds worth of medical equipment, including saline drips and hypodermic syringes, to be systematically destroyed in Saudi Arabia? Why did his Department refuse the request by the Saudi authorities for those medical supplies and undertake an orgy of destruction—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] I have photographic evidence should the House wish to question it. I have photographs of British troops destroying medical equipment that could have been used to help to relieve the ordeal of the Kurds. I have asked an important question; I hope that the Secretary of State can answer it.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

The charge that the hon. Gentleman makes is very serious. I am amazed that he should make such a charge against the medical staff—the nurses and doctors who went out to save lives and bring medical help to those who suffered injury during the campaign. The hon. Gentleman gave me no notice of his question. I take the matter very seriously, although the hon. Gentleman seems to be more interested in performing a publicity stunt in the House than in drawing the matter seriously to my attention so that it can be looked into.

Photo of Mr Robert Banks Mr Robert Banks , Harrogate

All those who have been appalled at the scenes of horror among the Kurdish refugees owe a great debt to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for what he has achieved and for the statement. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that representatives of the United Nations are present as early as possible, that they have access to the villages where the Kurdish people lived previously and that they play a part in helping them to resettle?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

That is certainly our objective. We are moving very fast. We had taken the decision before it was certain, for example, that the memorandum of understanding would be signed today. That memorandum of un-derstanding is good news because it means that the agencies can now start operating in Iraq. We shall be looking to the agencies to take over the operation of the camps at the earliest possible time while we ensure that the camps are safe.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

We appreciate that the need for speed and particular skills makes it entirely appropriate that our forces should be deployed in the way that the Secretary of State described. But does he appreciate the desirability of replacing our troops as soon as possible with a multinational United Nations force? The Secretary of State also referred to the rules of engagement of the troops to be deployed there and said that they included the right for them to defend themselves. Will he also confirm that the rules include the right for them to defend the camps at which they are deployed?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that they will have appropriate rules of engagement to do the job which they are going there to do. I also assure him that we wish to see it become a United Nations operation as soon as possible, but he will understand why we have not held up the achievement of that further objective in the interests of the absolute need for speed.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith , Wealden

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the integration of command in the Gulf war and the other collaborative arrangements made among the allies were one of the principal factors which led to the success of the coalition. In view of the fact that there is now a new leader of collaboration in the new enterprise, can he assure the House that sufficient attention is being paid to ensuring that there are proper integration and proper collaborative measures to ensure that there will be no muddle should an untoward event take place?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of the command and control arrangement. We are discussing it and the advance party which is going out will be talking about it. We shall run the operation from the joint headquarters at High Wycombe, but the operation on the ground, which was coming under the European command of the United States forces in Europe, is moving to Turkey, with a United States lieutenant-general in command. We are considering the best way of integrating with them.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Secretary of State said that the havens were being set up principally on a humanitarian basis. The second phase of the policy is to get the Kurds back to their towns and villages. Presumably the third phase is for the United Nations to take over. In that process, is not it conceivable that his people will tell him that one of the reasons why the Kurds have been engaged in a continual battle against the Saddam regime is that, notwithstanding what has happened recently, they believe that they should have their own homeland, called Kurdistan? Once the Government get involved in another country, as is the case in this instance, they will have to take a view about that. Do the Secretary of State and the Government agree that Kurdistan should be set up in that region? Now that they are involved, I think that they will have to make that decision at some point.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

Obviously those issues, which have existed for a long time, will arise. If we are to engage now in a debate on them, that can only obstruct the establishment as soon as possible of the relief operation that we wish to see. My concern is exclusively to bring immediate assistance and relief to people who are on the very edge of their lives and whom we need to help quickly if they are to be helped at all.

Photo of Mr Neil Thorne Mr Neil Thorne , Ilford South

We must all congratulate the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend on the speed and efficiency with which they have mounted the operation. It is early days yet, but has my right hon. Friend given any thought to the large number of units that wish to be associated with the exercise? In doing so, will he reach an early conclusion about how frequently he will turn the units round so that other units may have the opportunity to get experience in that part of the world?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

With his knowledge of the armed forces, my hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the most moving experiences for me in what is happening. It is a case not of finding units that are willing to go but of facing the anger and disappointment of those that are not asked to go. Certainly we shall take into account the point which my hon. Friend has made because there is tremendous enthusiasm and willingness. Some of the Chinook pilots to whom we have paid tribute, who have only recently returned from the Gulf and who were on leave, volunteered to return from leave because they were anxious that their resources and skill should be used.

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone , Brent East

Although we accept the two-stage approach announced by the Secretary of State, does he agree that the entire area has seen a series of systematic rebellions and upheavals by the Kurdish people in Iraq, Turkey and Iran over 70 years and that we bear the largest share of responsibility for that because it was this nation which betrayed the Kurdish people and denied them a Kurdistan 70 years ago? Does he accept that, as well as doing all that must be done now, the only long-term solution that will bring peace and security to the Kurds is for them to have the right to determine their own future which every other people should have?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

Those issues will no doubt continue to be debated by the House and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. My statement today dealt exclusively with this urgent and critical task. Nobody in the House underestimates how short time may be to bring help to avert what could otherwise be an absolute catastrophe.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the speed and professionalism with which the Government and Britain's armed forces respond to such crises and challenges, whether combat or humanitarian, command the admiration of the world? Can my right hon. Friend say something of the logistics involved and the medical back-up that will be provided?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful for the tribute that my hon. Friend has paid to our armed forces. The logistics are being worked out now. It will be difficult to operate in an area without much of the infrastructure that we would seek, but we shall have substantial logistical back-up and medical and hygiene teams will be available. We are looking at the scale of that, which will depend parties on what others provide, what is available there and what the United Nations agencies can provide. That is what the reconnaissance advance parties are working on now.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Bradford West

If the term "temporary arrangement" is not to haunt the Government and the nation, do the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister accept that the only effective way of persuading the Kurds from the mountains and, more importantly, back to their towns and villages will be real and genuine progress towards establishing a self-governing, autonomous Kurdistan guaranteed by the United Nations"

What discussions have taken place with Iran and what role will the United Nations play in securing the safe havens? Will there be joint United Nations and non-United Nations forces? If not, when will the United Nations become directly involved in the responsibility for security and administration of the safe havens?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say yesterday that our policy is to support the Kurdish pursuit of an autonomous region within a democratic Iraq and not an independent Kurdistan. Having said that, I do not think that anybody in the House who knows anything about the area or the background does not realise the problems and all the reasons why it would have been much safer to have stayed out of this entirely. We are not staying out because the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of people are of overriding urgency and we must act. I believe that it is the overwhelming view of the House to support the Prime Minister in that determination.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister took an extremely important and courageous initiative in proposing a safe haven in the first place? Does he also agree that those who were stupid enough to criticise what he did and to suggest that it was gesture politics were talking through their hats? Furthermore, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister deserves all the support that Conservative Members and the House can give him to ensure that this courageous decision comes to a satisfactory conclusion?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. These are tough decisions to take. We are embarking upon major undertakings, but we believe that they are right. This is the only way in which the help could have been brought as effectively as it will be now.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his choice of the Royal Marines to assist the Kurds. I know from contact with the Marines in my constituency that their skills, expertise and dedication will be a match for any task given to them. Will the Secretary of State further clarify the details of the operation that will be undertaken and will he come to the House as soon as possible to give details of the chain of command? Will he assure us that the welfare of the men and communication with their families back home will remain a priority throughout these operations?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

We paid much attention to communications. We shall, first, establish the aid agencies to ensure that supplies get through. Satellite communications have been established in the area by our first Royal Air Force forces and we shall try to ensure that the forces involved are able to maintain them. I shall seek to keep the House informed as this rapidly moving scene develops.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier , Canterbury

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is possible only because we have high-quality armed forces available to do the job and because the Government have the political resolution to send them? Does he further agree that it is hypocritical of those who opposed the use of force against any of Saddam Hussen's excesses to criticise the quality of our aid to the Kurds?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

This is a further occasion—we have seen it in other emergencies—when we have good reason to thank the quality, calibre and capability of our armed forces. They are undertaking challenging missions that nobody else could do. That would not be possible unless the Government were prepared to invest in training, equipment and pay for those forces year after year.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Is not it vital that we make the sharpest possible distinction between humanitarian aid and the establishment of safe havens, which I and the overwhelming majority of British people support? Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever the outcome of the Kurdish wish for automony, the political promotion of any group in Iraq, be it Kurds, Shi'ites or anyone else, must be a matter for the people of Iraq when they are free from the criminal tyranny of Saddam Hussein? All that we need do is provide aid to ensure that human beings—men, women and children— do not continue to exist in the present conditions.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

That is certainly our purpose, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of it. It is the overwhelming view of the House and of the country that it is necessary.

Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Clwyd North West

Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring the attempts of some newspapers, and certainly tonight's Evening Standard, to sow distrust among the allies—the British, French and American Governments—who have worked together so splendidly on this operation, in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister played so notable a role?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

It is encouraging, as the area and the Turkish bases are on the fringes of NATO, to see that quick and immediate co-operation has developed among the principal countries involved.

Photo of Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones , Ynys Môn

May I commend the Prime Minister for his initiative in the provision of safe havens for the Kurdish refugees? I wish the venture every success. However, despite the Secretary of State's reluctance to enter into discussion on self-determination for the Kurds, does he recognise that if the Kurdish refugees are to be persuaded to leave this difficult terrain they will need some guarantees about their future? Will he at least ensure that there is an international peace conference to consider this at an early date?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

My purpose is to determine that whatever the future may be for the Kurdish people there are some Kurdish people able to enjoy it. I am putting it bluntly, but the situation is as serious as that. Anyone who has any knowledge of the conditions, of where the camps are and of the altitude in the mountains knows that time is not on our side. That is why it was imperative to get them down from the mountains. We have no guarantee that it will succeed, but we believe that it is the best approach to the initial phase of saving the Kurdish people.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the House is most impressed by the speed with which he has put this operation into effect? Will he pass on to the Royal Air Force the House's praise for the airmanship and skill being shown by the helicopter and Hercules air crew, and by the ground crew serving them, in carrying out this operation in difficult terrain and weather?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has knowledge of the services. We sometimes take them for granted and when we switch on our televisions we expect to see the services doing their job. Most people do not begin to understand the incredibly difficult circumstances in which they operate, the speed with which they arrived at their destination and the accuracy of the work that they are now doing in countries that they have never seen before. I have had the opportunity to see at fairly close quarters that incredibly impressive operation.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Will the Minister accept from one who has consistently supported the Kurds that humanitarian assistance is welcome and desperately needed? However, will he turn his attention again to the long-term political question? Unless the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination is recognised, the civil war in that region will continue. There is a great danger of foreign forces ending up deciding the future of the countries in that region interminably, as part of a civil war. Does he agree that the Kurds have been denied their right to self-determination for too long and that it is time that their rights were recognised?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear our position on what a fair future for the Kurdish people should be. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not ducking the question, but identifying the critical first priority. I do not think that he challenges that. His questions are academic unless we succeed in phase 1, which is to save the lives of the Kurds in the high mountain areas, who probably now number more than 1 million. They are living in unsuitable climates and at unsuitable altitudes and will not be able to survive for much longer. It is a pressing priority to get them down into a climate and in circumstances that give them some prospect of survival.

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there has been a huge sense of relief in the House that the decisive lead given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has met with such an overwhelming professional response from our ground and air forces? Would he care to comment on the number of military personnel currently involved and, if he has any idea, of the civilian backup that will doubtless be needed to assist in running the camps? Having started with such commend-able zeal with the safe havens, could there be a demand for similar activity lower down, in Iran and so on, and are the operations flexible enough to deal with those?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

In the first air and helicopter deployment some 350 service men were involved. That will rise fast now, with further helicopters arriving in the past two days and with further supplies and logistic support. I shall check the figure, but it must be about 600 now. My hon. Friend mentioned the announcement of 3 Commando Brigade. The number will be between 3,000 and 5,000, depending on logistic support and the resources that we find there. The matter is now under active consideration by the advance recce party, which I sent this morning and which is due to arrive in exactly five minutes time. That will be one of the first questions that they look at. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the needs faced in Iran, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development is on her way there now. We shall wait for her reports on how we can help.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

Is the Secretary of State aware of the great concern and generosity of the United Kingdom public when they have seen the plight of the Kurds? They have given thousands of tonnes of foodstuff, medical supplies, blankets and clothing to organisations such as British Aid for the Kurds. That organisation is experiencing storage problems and difficulties with moving from storage the goods that have been collected so that they can be taken to the area where they are needed. The goods that are stored in Northern Ireland present a particular problem. It is important that a partnership is opened between the Government and such organisations to ensure that the material that has been donated goes where it is needed. If we send troops only to protect the Kurds, who are freezing, starving and dying, there is a limit to the activity in which we are engaged. Therefore, will action be taken by the Government to co-ordinate activities and to work with those voluntary organisations?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman's point is extremely important. It is vital that the goods that are given through the generosity and good will of the British people are properly delivered. The services are playing a major part in ensuring that those goods are not wasted and that they can be delivered where needed.

The Minister of State—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who is sitting beside me —will have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's question. The Ministry of Defence is more concerned with delivery at the other end. It is important that the whole channel works, and I shall ensure that that point is looked into.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I welcome this positive move. How many military doctors, nurses and other medical staff will accompany the Royal Marines? Does my right hon. Friend agree that at this critical time our military medical staff can play an important role in helping the Kurds in these dreadful conditions?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

There certainly will be some medical staff. The degree to which we reinforce that will depend on the advance party's report on the work that the Red Cross and other agencies can do.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Edinburgh Leith

As the Kurds were betrayed after the first world war, why should they trust the British Government now? The Secretary of State speaks eloquently about humanitarian needs, and the Opposition agree with him, but the overall issue must be addressed. The Kurdish people have a right to a homeland. There should be ongoing negotiations with the Turks, Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis and perhaps the Soviets. Clearly the issue will not go away. In some respects" aid is a red herring. We must get down to a political solution to the problem, just as we must get down to a political solution to the problem in Northern Ireland. If we understand that, we can have some respectability. The Government do not have such respectability. It is only because of pressure from below that they have been forced to react. That is the reality of this issue.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting in that typically idiotic contribution. Perhaps he believes that the people should stay on the mountain and die because they do not believe that the camps are provided in areas where they may have a chance of survival. That is strange advice.

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test

Will my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister accept the heartiest congratulations from my constituency on the speedy work that is being done? As they must be aware, there will be much whingeing and carping over the next few months. They must be steadfast in their resolve.

On the logistical side of the operation, will there be a role for the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy? Will there need to be safe supply routes in the future from, say, Aqaba to the camps?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am not unused to people seeing difficulties and dangers and whingeing, as my hon. Friend described, about actions that we took when those people thought that they were right. We are taking action now because we believe that our actions are right, and the overwhelming majority of people who have any sensitivity agree with us.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I realise that this matter is not directly the responsibility of the Secretary of State, but is he aware of any proposals to locate officials from the Foreign Office and the Home Office in the safe havens to process applications for political asylum in this country by Kurds who feel that their lives are threatened by Iraq?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I am not aware of any such proposals at the moment, but we shall obviously be working closely with the military commanders out there and with the representatives of the Overseas Development Administration on relief. If any further questions on that arise, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address them to another quarter.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

Does my right hon. Friend agree that once again the Royal Air Force has demonstrated the wisdom of having crews that are constantly in current operational flying capability, and that the helicopter crews gain much of that experience from search and rescue work in the United Kingdom? Will he accept from me that his choice of the Marine commandos is welcome in Tayside and that 45 Commando, which has its home in Angus, is very popular? As a member of the mess for many years, I recognise the skill — [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Well done, but come on.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

I recognise that the Marines have a special capability and quality, especially when operating in difficult mountainous terrain and in winter conditions, which makes them the right people to send in the present circumstances.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

I appreciate my hon. Friend's close connection with a number of units. I wonder whether we can find a unit with which he is not connected, but that might be — [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

What evidence is there that Iran, China or Russia, which knows how difficult it was to take its army out of Afghanistan having put it in there, will agree that this operation should become a United Nations operation? If we want to help the Kurds quickly, do we not at least have a duty to explore the proposals that have been put forward by Saddam Hussein, however unpalatable that may be? Since that charlatan Peter the Hermit preached the first crusade, has any western Christian military operation in the near east ever had any success in the medium or long term? Finally, when the Secretary of State turned to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and said, "Very severely indeed" if there are difficulties, he did not, did he, mean nuclear weapons?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman's contributions to these serious issues become more and more erratic and more and more frivolous and do less justice to the grave situation that we face. I wish that he would come down from the high cloud on which he sits and address the reality of the position. What contribution his words have made to helping to save the millions of Kurds whose lives are now at risk, I totally fail to see.