Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:36 pm on 24th September 2002.

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Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford 7:36 pm, 24th September 2002

I thank my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary for so clearly stating today the case for the rule of international law, the return of the UN weapons inspectors and the necessity of destroying the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I too believe that doing nothing is not an option. But as the Prime Minister said today, we have not been doing nothing. Our right hon. Friends have said that the policy of containment has not worked. Well, perhaps not. But we need to ask, could we have done more and differently? Could the threat of war have been avoided, and can actual war now be averted? I believe that the answer to all three questions is yes.

Last year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke movingly of a new world order—the primacy of multilateral agreements, not just in tackling terrorism but in poverty alleviation, development and reconstruction. Since that time, by contrast with the exemplary behaviour of our own Government, the United States has opted out of effective multilateral co-operation and developed an increasingly unilateralist and pre-emptive military stance. Furthermore, I believe that President Bush has sought to use international support for the war against terrorism to justify regime change in Iraq. That connection deserves examination.

A year ago, the United Kingdom was committed to military action against al-Qaeda. I supported that action, as I did the military action in the Gulf. I accepted the justification of self-defence under international law, but I do not believe that at present we have the same justification of self-defence in respect of the Iraqi regime. I do believe that the risks involved in war against Iraq are greater than the risks of pursuing the alternative strategy of diplomacy and UN inspections, and I do not underestimate how difficult, time-consuming and frustrating that will be.

I have just returned from a conference in Egypt, hosted by the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak. Immediately before that I was in Afghanistan. I believe that both experiences are relevant to today's debate.

The year-long war against terrorism in Afghanistan has been waged by 10,000 combat and support troops but, despite the disruption of the al-Qaeda operation in that country, very few al-Qaeda militia have been captured and US intelligence believes that their leadership largely remains intact. It is commonly acknowledged that al-Qaeda's threat to the west derives from its primary aim of replacing the house of Saud, establishing an Islamist state and ridding Saudi Arabia and the middle east of American bases and influence. Nothing, I suggest, could provide al-Qaeda with more ready recruits and the pretext for further attacks on the west than Saudi support for a US strike on Baghdad.

Even more of a paradox in the prosecution of this war against terrorism is the deterioration in the security situation in Israel and the occupied territories. Despite the constant cycle of violence, the suicide bombings, assassinations, detention, punishments and the horrific events of the past few days, the US Administration continues to arm and support Israel unconditionally. So where is the justice? Where is the security? Where is the new world order?

We have to ask ourselves whether a military attack on Iraq would enhance or undermine justice and security in the middle east and whether a military attack would increase or decrease the threat of terrorist attack against the west. I believe that such a war risks huge loss of life, massive environmental damage and the possible destabilisation of the very states in the middle east that the US says it seeks to protect from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Surely a strategy of regime change by military means, as other hon. Members have said today, risks Saddam using the very weapons of mass destruction that we so fear.

During the past few days in Egypt, I have talked extensively to women from a number of Arab states. Without exception, they are opposed to the Iraqi regime and, without exception, they are opposed to military action. Each confessed to being afraid—afraid for their own countries, for their economies and for their environments, and deeply angry at the prospect of the Iraqi people having to suffer more pain. Being there in Egypt gave me a profound sense of being one of them, looking at us and wondering how we could contemplate such a war—a feeling which is further reinforced by talking to women from the United Nations, who are quietly preparing the camps, transport and food sources for the anticipated humanitarian crisis.

That brings me to Afghanistan. I was there on 11 September. Just before I arrived, 25 people had been killed in the street and President Karzai had just escaped an assassination attempt. I went to see how the international community was fulfilling its promises to the Afghan people, and I saw much that was very positive. I was proud of the role that the UK Government have played and are playing in support of reconstruction, but in the context of Iraq and the new world order, we should consider not what has been achieved since regime change, but what remains to be done.

The transitional Government are vulnerable, with a serious ethnic imbalance. There is as yet no trained police force and no army loyal to the central Government. Nearly 2 million refugees have returned to Kabul, yet not a single home has been built by the transitional authority. All calls for an extension of ISAF have failed to get results, and warlords continue to rampage through the rest of the country. Many of the financial promises made in Tokyo have yet to materialise, and the World Food Programme has just put out an appeal for funds because it does not have the money to buy the wheat for the essential winter feeding programmes.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly reminded the House today that the international community made a solemn promise not to walk away. I have no doubt about his sincerity, but I tell the House that in Afghanistan people believe that the United States is about to move on. We cannot make promises to the people of Iraq unless we are absolutely certain that we will honour those that we have already made elsewhere.

In conclusion, I urge my right hon. Friends to continue vigorously to pursue their efforts to secure the peaceful re-entry of the UN inspectors, to build more effective alliances in the region and to reinvigorate the middle east peace process. Only with greater justice do I believe that war can be avoided and that the goal that unites us all—the destruction of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—can be realised.