With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about coalition operations to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq.
Ten years ago today, we celebrated the success of Operation Desert Storm, the coalition operation to expel Saddam Hussein"s forces from Kuwait. The contribution of the United Kingdom, which included the deployment of 50,000 service personnel, was a significant one on which we can look back with immense pride.
Since the end of the Gulf conflict, the overall aim of the policy adopted by successive Governments has been to contain the threat to regional security posed by Saddam Hussein"s Iraq. That policy has been successful: without our efforts, Saddam would have been free to maintain and develop his weapon; of mass destruction and conventional military capability, and free to bully and threaten his neighbours with impunity, as he did in the past.
A further aim of our policy has been to limit Saddam" s ability to kill and terrorise his own people. That is why we have conducted patrols of the no-fly zones since the early 1990s in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 688, which demanded an end to his brutal repression. The zones have served a vital humanitarian purpose over the past decade in constraining Saddam" s ability to carry out such repression, particularly in relation to the Shias and the Kurds.
The patrols are justified in international law as a legitimate response to prevent a grave humanitarian crisis. Without them, Saddam would be free, as he was prior to their establishment, to use aircraft and helicopter gunships against innocent civilians. The humanitarian consequences would be as unconscionable as they were in 1991. Many tens of thousands would be displaced from their homes, thousands would lose their lives, perhaps—as happened in 1988 at Halabja—following the use of chemical weapons.
Since January 1999, Saddam" s air defence units have made sustained and concerted efforts to shoot down United Kingdom and United States aircraft. During that period, there have been more than 1,200 attempts to target them, using surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Coalition aircraft are legally authorised to respond to those, attacks in self-defence. They do so entirely in accordance with international law, attacking only those military facilities that contribute, as part of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, to the threat to coalition aircraft.
Military commanders must manage the risk to service personnel. Over recent weeks, the Iraqis have significantly increased their efforts, amounting to a qualitative and quantitative increase in the threat. In January, there were more surface-to-air missile attacks than in the whole of 2000. The Iraqis have used new tactics, including the use of radars and command centres located outside the southern zone to cue offensive systems within it. That threat to our service personnel is real and present.
The operation on the evening of 16 February was therefore planned and carried out against that background. It was a proportionate response in self-defence, taken solely to reduce the risk to our aircrew carrying out routine humanitarian patrols of the southern no-fly zone.
As such, it was entirely in keeping with all such operations conducted over the period since January 1999, when Iraq started attacking our patrols. The operation was planned and cleared by Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic. Targets were carefully selected and precision-guided weapons used to minimise and, if at all possible, avoid any risk of civilian casualties.
Six targets were engaged, comprising elements of the Iraqi integrated air defence system, including military radar, command and communications sites. Five were north of the zone; all were directly involved in threatening coalition aircraft. Aircraft conducting patrols of the northern no-fly zone have previously engaged targets south of the 36th parallel, but this was the first occasion on which coalition aircraft had attacked targets outside the southern no-fly zone—that is, above the 33rd parallel—since Operation Desert Fox.
RAF participation included four Tornado GR1 strike aircraft, supported by two Tornado F 3 air defence aircraft and two VC10 tankers. A Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft was also airborne at the time. All our aircraft returned safely, as did those from the United States. The operation was a success. Both weapons dropped by the RAF hit their intended target, a military communications site. Overall, we are confident that the coalition caused significant disruption to the Iraqi integrated air defence system, degrading its ability to threaten our aircrew. We will, of course, monitor the situation very carefully over the coming weeks.
There have been Iraqi allegations of civilian casualties. No military action is without risk, and we deeply regret casualties, if any were caused. We have no means of verifying Iraqi claims, but we learned long ago to distrust them. In 1999, for example, Iraq claimed on some 30 occasions that there were civilian casualties on days when coalition aircraft did not actually release any weapons, and on several days when they were not even patrolling over Iraq. We know that, on a number of occasions, Saddam has alleged civilian casualties when only military personnel have been injured.
The operation was conducted in response to a deliberate escalation on the part of the Iraqis. Our action does not represent a change in policy. RAF aircrew undertook a difficult and dangerous mission with great skill and great bravery. Faced with a substantial increase in the threat in recent weeks, it was right that we took the minimum necessary steps to reduce that threat.