Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 10th February 1998.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary 3:30 pm, 10th February 1998

Madam Speaker, at the end of last week I visited the Gulf and held meetings with leading figures in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. With your permission, I should like to share with the House the three key points that they made. First, they have real fears about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to their region. Secondly, like ourselves, they would prefer a diplomatic solution. But lastly, if Saddam does not accept the diplomatic initiatives that have been offered to him, as Prince Saud said, it is the Iraqi regime that will bear responsibility for the consequences. I agree with them on all three counts.

On the first point, there is no room for doubt over the scale of Saddam's chemical or biological capability, nor over his repeated attempts to conceal it. Last week, I published a paper setting out the statistics of Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and documenting his persistent deception.

Saddam claimed that he had only 650 litres of anthrax. The figure turned out to be 8,400 litres. He continues to have the capability to manufacture enough extra anthrax to fill two more warheads every week. One such warhead could depopulate an entire city. Saddam also has programmes to produce at least three other germ agents.

Saddam claimed that his VX nerve gas programme had ended in failure. The truth turned out to be that he has the capability to produce 200 tonnes of the VX agent. One drop of it is enough to kill. Ten years ago next month, Saddam used chemical weapons to kill 5,000 Iraqi citizens at Halabja. He also used them against fellow Muslims in his war with Iran. He will not scruple to use them again.

As Richard Butler, the executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission has noted, Saddam avoids answering questions and prevents UNSCOM from finding the answers. In the past nine months he has delayed or denied access to four out of five sites where UNSCOM believed concealment was taking place.

The UN inspectors are our only guarantee that Saddam will not fulfil his ambition to acquire the weapons that could wipe out whole cities. However, that guarantee is of little value if they are not allowed to carry out effective inspections of the sites where they suspect chemical or biological weapons, or vital information on them, are concealed.

We also agree with our allies in the Gulf that it would be better if we could resolve this confrontation by diplomatic means. That is why Britain took the lead in proposing to the Security Council and our partners a new resolution condemning Saddam' s repeated obstruction of UNSCOM' s work. That approach has received widespread support among Council members. Japan has offered to co-sponsor the resolution.

We are also in close touch with the attempts at diplomatic mediation by Russia, France and the Arab League. Saddam has a history of backing down under pressure, and we welcome the recent signs that Iraq is ready to consider a diplomatic solution. However, I have to say to the House that, as yet, the proposals coming out of Baghdad fall well short of our requirement that any agreement should be convincing and should enable UNSCOM to resume its work without restrictions, without deadlines and without any no-go sites. While we want a peaceful solution, an outcome that left him able to develop chemical and biological weapons would make it only too likely that the peace of the region would be broken again by Saddam himself.

Our quarrel is with Saddam Hussein, not with the Iraqi people. We support the territorial integrity of Iraq and would like to see it rejoin the international community. Meanwhile, we are at the forefront of the diplomatic efforts to bring relief to the Iraqi people. We have led the negotiations at the UN to more than double the oil-for-food programme. We are the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Iraq. There are no sanctions against food or medicine. It is Saddam, not the UN, who has decided to use his resources to construct presidential palaces for himself and to create weapons of mass destruction for his regional ambitions, rather than to purchase food and medicine for his people.

Finally, we agree with our major Gulf allies that, if diplomacy fails, the responsibility for the consequences will rest solely on Saddam. The best prospect for a diplomatic solution is to leave Saddam in no doubt of our resolve that, if he persists in his ambition to develop chemical and biological arsenals, we will not allow him to continue. He would be making a major miscalculation if he mistook our reluctance to use force for a lack of determination to use it if necessary. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support that clear and firm message to Saddam.