Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:27 pm on 24th September 2002.

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Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 7:27 pm, 24th September 2002

"In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers."

As some Members may know, that is a quote from Neville Chamberlain in July 1938. While history has not been kind to him, it would be astonishing if we did not all sympathise, although perhaps not agree, with those sentiments.

As we discuss war or military action tonight we should remember how ghastly it is. There is always death and every soldier, British, Iraqi, Serb or Afghan, is some mother's son. Nobody who has seen war will relish seeing it again. Chamberlain's sentiments were based on experiences of the first world war.

War may be the lesser of two evils. If Saddam Hussein would comply completely with all UN resolutions, there would be no need for this debate or, for any military action and certainly no need for war. I come to this debate with a slightly different perspective. Excellent speeches have been made, but I should like to discuss the issue from my minor experiences of the Gulf war in 1991 when I rejoined as the chief of staff of the prisoner-of-war guard force in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It is only limited experience, but I saw something from ground level.

First, the Iraqi army—we captured some 8,000 prisoners of war—was not well motivated. Almost as soon as British troops appeared morale collapsed and they surrendered. I am not suggesting that we should be complacent about any Iraqi troops now, but we should know that there was no morale and no motivation. The soldiers were not well equipped. Far from it. Most of their tanks were T55s built in 1955. They were all Soviet tanks and by 1991 Soviet tanks had progressed to T82s, as I recall. It was old, obsolete equipment. Their kit was dreadful.

In field hospitals I saw soldiers that we were treating who had been shot by their own side when they tried to surrender, because that was how they made people serve. We saved many Iraqis from starvation, from dehydration and from dying of cold. The first Iraqis that I encountered on the first day of the war were all very swarthy, dressed in British NBC—nuclear, biological and chemical protection kit. I wondered why they were all dressed like that. The answer was that they were dying of exposure and we saved them. We put in a special Chinook helicopter filled with water, because we took so many prisoners who were dying of thirst because their side had not tried, or not been able, to feed or water them.

When these conscripts saw that they were not in danger, and that they were in a prisoner-of-war camp being well treated and fed, it became like a school outing because they were so happy. Imagine British soldiers with bayonets fixed—18-year-old boys wondering what to do when these unarmed Iraqis would crawl under the fences between the cages to get a second meal. They did not want to shoot or bayonet them, so in the end the Iraqis just got two meals. They were very happy to be under our protection; there was no question about that.

The prisoners were not in any way pro Saddam Hussein. Some of them had literally been rounded up in the fields or in factories. They had been taken away and press ganged; that is well documented from the Iran-Iraq war. They were certainly not in favour of the war and, like all conscripts, they wanted to go home to their families. They wanted peace. They were terrified of informers—Iraq was a police state then as it is now—but I spoke to many in private who were willing to say how desperately they wanted to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime. That was not true of the Republican Guard—they were a different matter—but it must be said that they also surrendered when they were confronted by superior force.

The huge majority of these people wanted the end of Saddam Hussein and we let them down. I was told that many, when they were finally taken back some six months later by the Iraqi regime, were murdered or imprisoned by the regime.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the end of the war in 1991—about how we could not go on and occupy Baghdad. All that we had to do was fight on for about another two days. It was not easy; we were coming to the end of our supply chain and lines of communication were very stretched, but if we had moved on at the same pace for another two days we would have cut off the bulk of the Republican Guard, who were north-east of Basra, and if we had done so we would have cut off Saddam Hussein's support.

I hear people say that we had to stop the war because of the coalition. It seemed to me that all members of the coalition were astonished that we stopped, and indeed the Arab leaders were very distressed that we had not deposed their enemy, Saddam Hussein. We read self-justification in the papers now, but I remember being told, when I was woken in my basha on the Iraqi sand, that there was a ceasefire coming, which would be exactly 100 hours after the invasion started, because they wanted a 100-hour war. That decision was taken by George Bush Sr. There was no consultation. Douglas Hurd—he can correct me if I am wrong—now Lord Hurd, who was Foreign Secretary, was in Washington DC and he was not consulted. I remember seeing James Baker, then the Secretary of State, standing on the steps of the White House saying, "We have taught Saddam Hussein a lesson." I believe that he misjudged the situation terribly. Now, 11 and a half years on, Saddam Hussein is still a bloody tyrant who terrorises his own people.

I will not dwell on the million people killed in the Iran-Iraq war, or the fact that 600-odd Kuwaiti prisoners of war and deportees who were taken to Iraq have still not been accounted for. Although I will not dwell on it, we should remember that the Iraqis set light to all those oil wells, creating ghastly pollution in the Persian gulf in 1991, and that Saddam killed 5,000 people in Halabja. I will mention the fact that Saddam butchered his own sons-in-law in 1996, having given them a guarantee of safety, and that he has butchered thousands of others. Since 1991, he has defied endless UN resolutions.

Saddam has been compared to Hitler, which people say is completely inappropriate, but I do not think that it is. It is much more appropriate than comparing the foreign policy of George Bush to that of Hitler. I do not believe that Saddam's brutality and his actions against Iraqis are enough to force a war because, with my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie, I do not believe that it is our right to impose regime change on Iraq—although I think that it may occur.

However, Saddam Hussein continues to work to threaten us, and we see that in the dossier. Nothing much in it is new, but it does show that he has the intent to threaten other people. He is a threat to his own poor people and, I believe, a threat to the peace of the world, the region and the middle east. Those who dismiss that assertion should judge him by his past actions.

Saddam launched Scuds against Israel in 1991. Would he launch a nuclear missile against Israel now if he had one? I do not know, but I think that it is a possibility because, as people have identified, it would bring all the Arabs to his side. Perhaps he might.

We should have learned from the experience of the past 12 years, or indeed the 23 years that Saddam has been in power, that we cannot trust him. We cannot negotiate with him. We cannot ride this crocodile.

War is never easy and always ghastly. We have heard some navel-gazing from the Liberal Democrats in particular, asking, "What if this? What if that?" It is very fair that these questions should be asked, but could the result of, for example, Iraq's breaking up be worse for the Iraqi Kurds or the Iraqi Marsh Arabs or the Shi'ites than it is now? They have lived a ghastly life under this regime. If the Iraqi Kurds want self-determination, is not that to a very large extent up to them? It seems to me that it should be, within the United Nations.

Saddam Hussein has flouted the United Nations for well over 12 years. He is certainly a threat to his old enemies, such as Iran, and perhaps also Saudi Arabia. I think that he is a threat to us in the United Kingdom and the United States, who are also his old enemies. However, the legal position, which has been addressed, is very important. United Nations resolutions are very important. We should remember that Saddam Hussein has no legitimacy himself. He got there by force; he keeps himself there by force. He oppresses, tortures and executes his people. The greatest beneficiaries if, God forbid, we should have to go to war, of his defeat and—I believe it should be an object also—his subsequent removal from power would be the poor, oppressed, benighted people of Iraq.


Maha Aldoujaily
Posted on 7 Jun 2009 11:45 am (Report this annotation)

"Almost as soon as British troops appeared morale collapsed and they surrendered"

This statement is based on ignorance. Iraq's troops were all conscripts with no choice, talking about morale is a total nonsense -- one hundred thousand retreating Iraqi troops in southern Iraq were attacked from the air and burned alive with DU weaponry and then the US/UK moved in with massive machinery scooping and buried thousands of these young people regardless of whether they were alive or dead, they remain in a mass graves under the sand. That is the reality, not the nonsense you speak of of morale and surrender. Shame on you.