Iraq and the Middle East

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 14th April 2003.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister 3:30 pm, 14th April 2003

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Iraq.

I should emphasise at the outset that the conflict in Iraq is not yet over. There will be tough times ahead, and fighting as well as peace building still to do. However, less than four weeks from the commencement of the war, the regime of Saddam is gone, the bulk of Iraq is under coalition control and the vast majority of Iraqis are rejoicing at Saddam's departure. Whatever the problems following Saddam's collapse—and in the short term they are bound to be serious—let no one be in any doubt: Iraq is a better place without Saddam. This was indeed liberation, not conquest, and the Iraqi people, given a chance, are every bit as much in favour of freedom as people anywhere in the world.

Our commitment now is clear. Just as we had a strategy for war, so we have a strategy for peace. Iraq will be better—better for the region, better for the world, better, above all, for the Iraqi people.

British forces have performed in Iraq with extraordinary skill, professionalism and compassion. We can be deeply proud of them. We also send our warmest congratulations to the American forces who bore the brunt of the advance on Baghdad, and did so with remarkable military skill. As we mourn our own soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty, so we mourn theirs. Our thanks too to the Australian and Polish forces who helped, to the Spanish forces and to the over 40 or so countries that have given support.

We grieve also for the loss of journalists and others killed in Iraq and for Iraqi civilians and many of those conscript Iraq troops forced into the front line. If the forecasts of mass carnage proved thankfully wrong, none the less, innocent people died along with the guilty, and it places upon us a special and profound responsibility for Iraq's future.

Let me give an assessment of the current situation. The south of Iraq is now largely under British control. The west is secure, and in the major town of Al Qaim fighting is diminishing. In the north, Kurdish forces have retired from Kirkuk and Mosul, leaving US forces in control. US forces are in and around Tikrit. They are meeting some resistance. But in essence, all over Iraq, Saddam's forces have collapsed. Much of the remaining fighting, particularly in Baghdad, is being carried out by foreign irregular forces. In Baghdad itself, the Americans are in control of most of the city but not yet all of it.

As is obvious, the problem now is the disorder following the regime's collapse. Some disorder, frankly, is inevitable. It will happen in any situation where a brutal police state that for 30 years has terrorised a population is suddenly destroyed. Some looting, too, is directed at specific regime targets, including hospitals that were dedicated for the use of the regime. But it is a serious situation and we need to work urgently to bring it under control.

Basra shows that initial problems can be overcome. I am particularly proud of the role that British forces, ably led by Major General Robin Brims, have played in Basra.

Iraqi technicians and managers are now making themselves known to British forces. Together we are restoring many key services. Most public health clinics are operational. UK forces have supplied oxygen to Al Basrah general hospital and are providing other medical support where they can. About 200 policemen have reported for work. Joint patrols started on 13 April. In surrounding towns, looting has either ceased or is declining, local patrols are being re-established and co-operation with city councils is going well.

Baghdad is the principal problem, though again the main looting is in areas not controlled by the American forces. It is, it must be said, still a highly dangerous environment for US soldiers. However, around 2,000 police officers have reported for work, there are some joint patrols in being and the head of the civil police department, not to be confused with the special security forces, has ordered police to return to work.

Some hospitals, where possible, are now being guarded and the first medical supplies are being flown in, but it is still very difficult. Staff are naturally still scared, water and electricity are a problem, but every effort is being made to improve the situation. As we speak, residents in some parts of Baghdad at least are now returning.

On weapons of mass destruction, of 146 possible sites known to us, investigations have begun in seven but, in any event, we know that for six months before the return of UN inspectors, Saddam put in place a systematic campaign of concealment of weapons of mass destruction. Until we are able to interrogate the scientists and experts who worked on the programmes, and the UN has a list of some 5,000 names, progress is bound to be slow. A specialised team, however, is beginning work and we are in discussion with allies and the UN as to what the future role of the UN in such a process may be.

Shortly, we shall begin formally the process of Iraq's reconstruction. We see three phases in this. In the first phase, the coalition and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will have responsibility under the Geneva and Hague conventions for ensuring that Iraq's immediate security and humanitarian needs are met. The second phase, beginning a few weeks after the end of the conflict, will see the establishment of a broad-based, fully representative Iraqi interim authority. Working with the UN Secretary-General, coalition military leaders and others will help the Iraqi people to identify which leaders might participate in that interim authority. Once established, the interim authority will progressively assume more of the functions of government. The third phase will then bring into being a fully representative Iraqi Government, once a new constitution has been approved, as a result of elections which we hope could occur around a year after the start of the interim authority.

In each phase, the UN will, as President Bush and I have said, have a vital role. I will have bilateral meetings at the Athens European Council with Kofi Annan and others. I welcome Kofi Annan's decision to appoint a special adviser, and I am pleased that at this weekend's World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meetings all countries agreed that the two institutions should start looking at needs in Iraq as soon as the security situation allows. But the essence of all that we do is, as we said at Hillsborough, to ensure that Iraq is run by and for the Iraqi people. Iraq is a nation with a creative people, potentially wealthy, with a dynamic and prosperous future ahead of it. They do not need to be run from the outside by the US, the UK or the UN, and they will not be.

I also discussed the wider middle east peace process at Hillsborough with President Bush. He reiterated his commitment to the publication and implementation of the road map for peace.

There will be intense diplomacy over the coming days and weeks. It will be important to rebuild international relationships that have been fragile in these past weeks, to reach out and show common cause with all who now want to put the past behind us and work together for a stable and prosperous Iraq and for a peaceful middle east. With good will, that can be done, and, for the coalition, I can say that that good will exists. I hope that it is reciprocated. In Europe, there have been divisions. Between parts of Europe and the US, there have been divisions. Indeed, in many countries, in many parties, there have been divisions, but at least there is now a clearer basis for future agreement. As the full horror of Saddam's regime has become better known, so I believe there is acceptance that it is good that Saddam is gone. As the Iraqi people taste the fruits but also the travails of freedom, so there is a common will to help them to prosperity and greater democracy. There is a huge desire across the world to see definitive progress on Israel and Palestine based on the two state solution, proposed so forcefully by President Bush last June. There is also, I hope, a recognition that a world split into rival poles of power can result in much discord but little advance for any new global order.

I am more convinced than ever before that partnership, not rivalry, is the best basis for future European-American relations. And for all the difficult times over the past few months, I remain committed to the United Nations, committed to making it more effective, committed to the notion that we need its legitimacy for the international community to be worthy of the name. But the surest way to make it so is to unify the nations that lead it. That will be a challenge in the weeks ahead.

So we are near the end of the conflict, but the challenge of the peace is now beginning. We took the decision that to leave Iraq in its brutalised state under Saddam was wrong. Now there is upon us a heavy responsibility to make the peace worth the war. We shall do so. We shall do so not in any spirit of elation—still less of triumphalism—but with a fixed and steady resolve that the cause was just, the victory right, and the future for us to make in a way that will stand the judgment of history.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Our armed forces have fought one of the swiftest and most successful military campaigns in modern times, and they are now winning hearts and minds in Iraq in building public order and in keeping the peace. I should like, on the Opposition's behalf, to pay tribute today to their skill, professionalism and courage, and to keep in our prayers and thoughts both those who have lost their lives, and the families who now grieve.

The fighting, as the Prime Minister said, is not yet over, but the world has been rid of an evil tyrant and an evil regime. The people of Iraq will at last have an opportunity to choose the Government whom they want, and to live, we hope, in peace and freedom. I should like also to congratulate the Prime Minister. He has carried, we certainly believe, a heavy burden in the past few weeks, but he will have been comforted throughout by the conviction that he was doing the right thing for Britain and for the rest of the world.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister about four specific issues: public order in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis there, its future government, and the wider prospects for the middle east. But before I do so, perhaps he could answer a question about another specific and relatively urgent issue. I understand that there are reports that the wife of Ian Seymour, a Royal Marines commando who was killed in a helicopter crash in Kuwait during the conflict, has been told to pay back his salary for the rest of the month and to move out of the home. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a poor way to treat a family who have sacrificed so much, and will he ensure that this decision is reversed, and that no other bereaved family is treated in such a way?

On public order, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said this morning that when tyrants fall, looting always follows, and we have seen pictures, particularly in Baghdad, of the looting of hospitals and shops, and even of the museum. The Prime Minister talked about the actions that are being taken. Will he now guarantee that no troops—certainly no British troops—will be withdrawn until Iraq achieves an acceptable level of stability and security? Can he also tell us whether other coalition countries have been asked to contribute to policing in Iraq, and, if so, what their response has been?

On the humanitarian crisis, can the Prime Minister confirm that only one hospital in Baghdad now remains open, and will he ensure, in line with what he said, that whatever drugs, medical equipment, doctors and nurses are needed will be flown in, if necessary, from our own field hospitals in Kuwait? The whole House will have been moved by the pictures of the plight and tragic case of Ali. Now that Medevac has confirmed that it can evacuate Ali to Kuwait, will the Prime Minister confirm that there will be no difficulty in the RAF's flying Ali or other, similar cases to Britain, if that is required medically?

The Prime Minister will also be aware that a humanitarian crisis is still unfolding. When does he believe the electricity and water supplies will be restored, perhaps in full? When does he believe the aid agencies will have a secure enough environment to return to the work that they say they are pledged to do?

As for the future of Iraq, the Prime Minister knows that oil revenues are essential to the country's reconstruction. Is he now pressing for the lifting of sanctions on all sales of oil? If so, when does he think that will happen? Does he agree that the welfare of Iraq's people should come before the repayment of state debts run up by Saddam's regime, and does he also agree that putting those state debts aside should be part of a new Marshall plan for Iraq?

The Prime Minister spoke about the three phases of reconstruction, but he knows that there are two views on a United Nations resolution and the interim Iraqi authority. The first, which appears to have been held last week by his Secretary of State for International Development and some others, is that a UN resolution is needed to make that authority legitimate; the second is that such a resolution is not needed. I asked the Prime Minister last week, and I must ask him again, whether he shares the view of his International Development Secretary.

Let me now ask about the wider prospects of the middle east. Does the Prime Minister accept that there is a danger that the coalition will give out mixed messages, particularly with regard to Syria? We understand that the Prime Minister has spoken to President Assad, and that he has sent a Minister to speak to the regime directly. Meanwhile, the American Government have said:

"There's got to be a change in Syria . . . The Syrians need to know they'll be held to account."

Is the Prime Minister's view the same as the Administration's in Washington?

In regard to the middle east peace process, we welcome the moves by the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazan, to establish his Cabinet, and also Prime Minister Sharon's reported concessions on the settlements. There are, however, reports that Yasser Arafat has very recently refused to accept some of the Cabinet candidates proposed by Abu Mazan. Does the Prime Minister see that as a retrograde step, and does he believe that it will delay the publication of the road map that is so needed to help stability in the region?

The war may be drawing successfully to a close, but a challenge at least as big now faces us—the reconstruction of Iraq and its restoration as a nation that believes in justice, the rule of law and the freedoms and rights of its own people. I assure the House that Conservative Members will be as resolute in seeing this through as we were in the prosecution of the war.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and for his support over the past few weeks. Let me say to him personally that there must have been times over those weeks when the issue presented, let us say, a tempting target for any Opposition, and it is to his credit that he remained steadfast in his support of the action.

Let me try to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points in the order in which he raised them. I understand from the Secretary of State for Defence that the facts about Mrs. Seymour are not correct, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that because if they were correct they would be wholly contrary to normal practice, we will make sure that whatever needs to be done there is done.

Of course the British forces will stay until there is proper security in the country, although obviously we hope to ensure that some of the policing is done by local people as soon as possible. That is why it is encouraging that joint patrols are already taking place. Although people may find this strange, much of the problem for Iraqi citizens came from the special security forces, not the ordinary civil police, if I may put it like that. Many of those people could perform an adequate and good task for the future of Iraq. Other countries are already offering help in relation to policing and security.

As we speak we cannot be sure of the exact situation relating to each of the hospitals in Baghdad. What I do know is that the American forces are trying to take special responsibility for protecting the hospitals and getting medical supplies in, and they will do their very best to ensure that that is done. It is difficult, because certain parts of Baghdad are not yet safe. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that both our soldiers and some of the American soldiers have been put at great risk when they have wanted to get on with the ordinary, normal business of protecting the population, but have found that the environment is not yet permissive enough for them to do so. We are well aware that that is a priority for us to tackle.

In relation to the evacuation of Ali Abbas or anyone else, we are in touch with the authorities in cases, such as his, which are not in the zone under our control. We will do whatever we can to help him and others in a similar situation. Within the past 24 hours, two Iraqi children have been flown out to the UK for medical treatment, but they were both from inside our area of control. We are working with the US forces to do what we can for Ali and others.

On electricity and water, one of the problems is that power has been sabotaged as the Iraqi special security forces have left particular areas. We are trying to repair it and we are working with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to do so as quickly as possible. In some parts of Basra, water and electricity have never been fully available to all the local population, but it is important to secure as great an availability as possible. I think that I am right in saying that the pipeline from Kuwait to Umm Qasr has already provided some 4 million litres of water. We are trying to repair the infrastructure there as quickly as possible—or to improve it, since it was often in an extremely bad state in the first place.

We obviously want to see sanctions lifted as quickly as possible, which will allow the Iraqi interim authority, once it is established, to operate far more freely. We should make as speedy progress as we can on that. The debts of countries were discussed at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings at the weekend and are being looked at by the Paris Club. I hope that people are generous in recognising Iraq's needs for the future.

In respect of the Iraqi interim authority and the UN, the issues have been somewhat superseded by the fact that we have agreed a process through which we will work with the UN Secretary-General to try to ensure that the right names and people come forward. In the south of the country we have already started the idea of a joint commission to get the right people to come forward—similar to what happened in Afghanistan—but in the end it will have to be endorsed by the United Nations. That was agreed several weeks ago and remains the case. I believe that, with good will, the problem can be well managed. In a sense, the IMF and World Bank meetings at the weekend went better than they might have gone, which is important.

In relation to Syria, the issue concerns any attempt by Syria to harbour people who are leading members of the Iraqi regime. When the US or anyone else talks about holding them to account, they mean in respect of that matter. I spoke to President Bashar Assad over the weekend, and he assured me that they would interdict anyone crossing the border from Iraq into Syria. I believe that they are doing that. The Foreign Office Minister will be present in Damascus to have further talks on the issue. Some of the wilder surmises in the media at the moment are simply not correct: there are no plans whatever to invade Syria.

As for the Palestinian Prime Minister and his Cabinet, it is important to recognise that he has to be satisfied that he has the right Cabinet in place. I have read reports, but cannot verify them, about some disagreement between him and Chairman Arafat. I hope that that is not the case. The sooner that Cabinet can be put in place, the sooner the road map can be published and we can get started on a matter of vital importance. It may be that the liberation of Iraq provides a new context in the middle east, as well as Iraq itself, in which we can make progress on a lasting middle east peace process. I certainly hope so, and the sooner the Palestinian Cabinet is in place, the better.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

In thanking the Prime Minister for his statement, we all endorse the genuinely felt sentiment about the skill and courage of the British forces who have undertaken their task and achieved an outstanding and remarkable victory.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm that it is crucial that the international community be involved in the rebuilding of Iraq, as regards both its infrastructure and its civic society? Does he agree that building consensus on the future of Iraq requires the securing of that degree of international support?

Stability in Iraq and the whole region must rest on the principle of legitimacy. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge, therefore, that the more the United Nations is involved in the process towards legitimacy, the more the post-war settlement will appear to be, and will be, stable?

The Prime Minister referred a moment ago to the UN, saying that he favours independent verification of weapons of mass destruction. Will he be a little more clear on that? Does he want the readmission of the weapons inspectorate under the auspices of the UN during the transition period? Does he favour that, and are the Government arguing for it?

The Prime Minister also spoke about Syria. A few days ago he said, and I use his words, that Syria should make a decisive break with its previous policies. To which policies was he referring? Were those policies in place when the President of Syria met Her Majesty the Queen officially not long ago? On the radio this morning, the Foreign Secretary said that he was unsure whether Syria had been developing chemical or biological weapons. He said that questions needed to be answered. What exactly will those questions be in the course of this weekend's discussions with the President of Syria?

A meeting will take place tomorrow between Iraqi opposition groups and coalition representatives. What more can the Prime Minister say about that? Will the UN be present, and will it participate in those discussions? Does the fact that those discussions are taking place mean that the earlier British idea for a UN-sponsored conference is off the agenda?

Does the Prime Minister agree that any policy for the rebuilding of Iraq must go hand in hand with a policy to rebuild our international institutions and the international order? We will never achieve one without the other.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In relation to United Nations involvement, we have the right framework within which that can happen. There should be a vital role for the UN at every stage, but we should not get into a competition between the coalition and the UN. If we approach the process in the right spirit—one of working together—we will find our way through. The fact that Kofi Annan has appointed a special adviser is a good omen in that regard.

That also applies in relation to any questions to do with weapons inspectors from the UN. That is a matter for discussion, and we should carry on those discussions in a reasonably calm way. There is no doubt that we will want some sort of objective assessment in respect of any finds that we make; that is in our interests as well as everyone else's.

On what was said about Syria and the break with previous policies, support for terrorism—terrorism that deeply, adversely affects the middle east peace process—should stop, and it should stop irrespective of what has happened in relation to Iraq. We have continually made that clear to Syria. On chemical weapons, people are simply pointing out that Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons convention. If Syria does have chemical weapons in its possession, it should be a signatory.

In relation to the coalition and Iraqi opposition groups, I hope that some of the conspiracy theories about people simply being parachuted in to take over the country can be laid to rest. What is important is that, in the end, the legitimacy of anyone—from inside or outside Iraq—will rest on their support from the Iraqi people themselves. The conference on Iraq that the Foreign Secretary has proposed is, I think, still possible. Some such event will be necessary, once we are further down the line, to ensure that we can bring the Iraqi interim authority into being. I have no doubt that the United Nations will have a vital role in that.

On international order, there is a lot of rebuilding. However, in the end, that will depend on the international order being formed around an international consensus about what it should contain. That is why it is important that the leading nations of the United Nations—especially those with permanent status on the Security Council—should come together through a common agenda. I repeat what I said in my statement: I do not believe that that will happen if people view the United States as one pole of power with some other pole of power set in opposition to it. That would be a disaster for the world. We should we work in strategic partnership with each other. That can be achieved, but it will require changes all round.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

Will my right hon. Friend clarifiy the answer that he gave to the Leader of the Opposition? My right hon. Friend has repeatedly, and rightly, said that this was a conflict not with the Iraqi people but with the regime. None the less, there were inevitable deaths and casualties. Should it prove necessary and possible to evacuate some individuals—in particular, injured children—to this country to receive the best possible medical treatment, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the ordinary processes of visa entry clearance and so on will not form any barrier to children receiving the speediest possible medical assistance?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Home Secretary has made provision for those ordinary processes to be set aside in respect of anyone who is evacuated.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I, too, commend the leadership that he has shown in recent weeks in partnership with President Bush, and, indeed, the leadership and support that has been offered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? Does the right hon. Gentleman still believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, we do. There is no doubt at all that, over the years, Iraq has possessed those weapons. We are being asked to believe that, having in effect pushed the inspectors out in December 1998, the regime voluntarily gave the weapons up. I have always thought that incredible.

It was inevitable, after the campaign of concealment, that we would go in and that human intelligence—through experts and scientists speaking about the programmes and knowing that they could do so safely—would guide us to the weapons, which I have absolutely no doubt exist.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

As the Prime Minister has said, our armed forces are carrying out their work with great skill. They still have a variety of military tasks to perform, such as the fighting of residual elements, the distribution of humanitarian aid and some difficult policing. What plans does the Prime Minister have for our forces—especially our reservists—to come home where work on their tasks is no longer required? Given that Tornado pilots will no longer need to police the no-fly zones, do we continue to need basing in Saudi Arabia?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Secretary of State for Defence informs me that some things are beginning to happen already with the reservists; basing is a matter that is under discussion.

My hon. Friend made an important point at the outset. The Chief of the Defence Staff—whom I thank for all his hard work and commitment over these past weeks, along with others at senior levels of our armed forces—has just come back from a visit to the region. He describes in graphic detail how our forces are still often involved, in the same area, in fighting at one end and policing at the other. It is important to acknowledge that, although the regime has in effect collapsed, there are still sporadic outbursts of fighting and our troops still face significant danger.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

All around the world, there is great concern about the looting of museums of Iraq and the threat to very important Iraqi antiquities, many of which were excavated by British archaeologists. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that the future of those sites and museums will be a high priority for coalition forces?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly will make it a priority. At the moment, we are trying to secure the sites and to investigate how much material was taken from the national museum. At present, we cannot be exactly sure about that. We are taking steps—I think there will be a conference this Thursday, which the director of the British Museum will attend—to see what we can do. We shall also make provision to ensure that no stolen works of art can come on to the market. We will do everything that we possibly can; we understand that it is a serious responsibility for us.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Surely the whole House will rejoice at the fall of an evil regime and at the fact that the worst predictions—about refugee flows, the oil wells, massive civilian casualties, regional fragmentation and so on—have been confounded. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is now a unique opportunity to make progress in the middle east? As the pressure on Israel has been lessened, surely the Palestinians can, if they want, prevent the suicide bombers. How can there be a viable Palestinian state if the territory is criss-crossed with roads leading to the various settlements?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. There is now a great chance for peace and stability in the middle east. It obviously depends in part on Iraq making the transition that we want to see. It depends, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, on us making progress in the middle east peace process. I hope that Prime Minister Sharon's interview today indicates that he is aware of Israel's responsibilities in that regard. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we have to deal with those who would try to upset any peace process by terrorism. That means not just the individual people carrying out terrorist acts, but also the states, groups or people who support terrorists in that work. Every terrorist activity undermines the prospect of the peace process working.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

Does the Prime Minister agree that, while the continuing danger to our forces on the ground most certainly must be recognised and given the highest priority, it is of fundamental importance in this sensitive period of transition to peace that the firing self-discipline of all coalition forces continues to be maintained?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

The Prime Minister said that there were "no plans", as he put it, to invade Syria or to take action against Syria, but does not he know that there are people in Washington with an agenda—James Wolsey in particular—who go on and on about the need for regime change in other countries of the middle east? Do we have the unambiguous assurance that the British Government will not in any circumstances support military action against Syria?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I said that there are no plans whatever to invade Syria. All sorts of things may come out of the newspapers about various conspiracy theories to do with parts of the American Administration, but I have the advantage of talking regularly to the American President and I can assure my hon. Friend that there are no plans to invade Syria. What people are saying, however, is that it is important that Syria does not harbour people from Saddam's regime or allow any transfer of material from Iraq to Syria. I have spoken to President Assad and he has assured me that that is not happening. I have told him that it is important that he makes sure that that assurance is valid.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the unfortunate consequences of the conflict in Iraq has been that, while the eyes of the world are understandably concentrating on Iraq, other evil tyrannies and despots are taking advantage of that to increase the oppression of their people? Will the Prime Minister show the same qualities of political courage and resolve that he has shown in the conduct of the military campaign in Iraq in a diplomatic campaign to deal with such evils? I am thinking especially of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where the British Government have not shown sufficient determination.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We must make sure that we take every action that we can in respect of what is happening in Zimbabwe, which is a terrible and appalling situation. It is something that we discuss regularly not only with our American allies but with others in Europe. There must also be concerted action by countries in the region.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the valiant role of service personnel from Northern Ireland, including those in the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards. We now have a problem in policing the new situation. Will the Prime Minister consider drawing on the expertise of officers who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30 years and who took premature retirement?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

May I, first, join in congratulating the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards on performing quite superbly in Iraq? We should look at using retired RUC officers. Indeed, the Defence Secretary tells me that representatives of our UK police have gone out to Iraq to see what assistance we can give. Obviously, former members of the RUC, for very obvious reasons, have particular expertise.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

How convinced is my right hon. Friend that the Americans will take an even-handed approach to the Palestinians and to the Israelis in getting a middle east settlement? I am sure that he knows that there is deep suspicion in Muslim communities that those approaches are not very often even-handed.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right; there is a lot of scepticism—indeed, cynicism—in certain quarters about whether the words that we have spoken recently in relation to the middle east peace process are meant and are genuine. I believe that what President Bush has said he means, and it is worth pointing out that the road map is important in part because it was drawn up by the US, but also by the EU, Russia and the UN. That is an indication of it being even-handed. The point about the middle east peace process now is that we have an objective that is agreed by everybody—President Bush was the first American President to articulate it—and it is a two-state solution, based on Israel confident of its security and a viable Palestinian state. That gives us a sound basis for hope in the future.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

There is obviously a pressing public relations need to have coalition troops patrolling the streets of Iraq's towns and cities as quasi-policemen, maintaining law and order, but will the Prime Minister assure the House that nothing will be done unnecessarily to damage the security of our troops, given that Iraq is still a very dangerous place?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, and that is a very valuable point, and it is why the judgment must be left to the commanders on the ground. Where they can and do judge that it is safe for soldiers to patrol in berets and so on and move to a different method of patrol—almost a policing method—they do so, but that has to be their decision, and it would be wrong to put the security of our troops at risk in any way. I simply say that, in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime, it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of disorder and problems, but it is interesting that in some of those cities, not least Basra, where a week ago those problems were very serious, they are at least now looking a lot better. There is still a distance to go, but they are looking better.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

If it is found or strongly suspected that members of Saddam's regime are taking shelter in Syria, or that Syria is hiding weapons of mass destruction, what action would my right hon. Friend take to persuade Syria to give them up?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have said that Syria should hand any people from the regime who may take refuge in Syria to the coalition forces. I have to say in fairness that the President of Syria has said that he does not believe that there are any such people in Syria. In relation to chemical weapons, I have nothing to add to what I said earlier, but there are conventions governing these things to which countries who have such weapons should be signatories.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

The excellent military campaign that has got rid of Saddam Hussein's regime is, obviously, to be welcomed, but will the Prime Minister clarify something that he said in his statement? He said that the war was about ending the brutalised state under Saddam Hussein. Was that actually the war objective?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. The objective is to make sure that Iraq is effectively disarmed of weapons of mass destruction, but while Saddam's regime refused to co-operate fully with the UN inspectors and refused to give up those weapons, its removal became an objective of ours, so things proceeded in that way. I think that I have said before, and I will say again, that although the reasons for our action and its legitimacy had to be contained within the issue of weapons of mass destruction, the appalling nature of the regime is a reason why we did take and should have taken that action with a strong heart and a good conscience.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

May I put it to the Prime Minister that the whole world saw the priorities of the United States when it guarded the oil ministry but stood by while other ministries were trashed by looters, and while the national museum and three or four hospitals were trashed? Many of us who opposed the war did not believe that the reason for it was to get rid of the elusive weapons of mass destruction, and are even more convinced that the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq to get at the oil.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have learned that nothing that I can say will eliminate people's conspiracy theories. The UK is a net exporter of oil, so we have no need of the Iraqi oil. Secondly, we and the US have made it clear that any oil revenues will go to the Iraqi people. Some indication of our good intent was surely shown in the renewal of the United Nations oil-for-food programme.

In relation to ministries in Baghdad, it is important to realise that the soldiers were going into a situation in which there were up to several thousands of snipers and people fighting in the streets, who were not necessarily armed with heavy weaponry but who intended to kill as many American soldiers as possible, and they could not provide immediate security cover to all the parts of Baghdad that they would have liked to have covered. It is important to have a sense of awareness of the dangers that American forces still face in those areas. It is not an easy environment in which to exist, but I know that they will do their level best to protect hospitals and sites of interest as soon as they can do so.

I simply say to my hon. Friend that I have had discussions on this matter for months and months, before the conflict began, and, clearly, I have intensive discussions on a daily basis. Not a single discussion that I have had with the American President has been about our desire, need or intention to get our hands on Iraqi oil.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Scottish National Party, Banff and Buchan

The Prime Minister says that there are no plans whatever to invade Syria, but Mr. Wolfowitz is quoted as saying that Syria is a problem that needs to be dealt with. At the third time of asking, can the Prime Minister give the only commitment that he can give under these circumstances: United Kingdom forces will not participate in an attack against Syria?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are no plans to invade Syria, so it stands to reason that we do not intend to invade Syria. When one looks at the statements that are supposed to come out of various parts of the Administration and one analyses their context, one finds that the context is the concern, which is why I spoke to the President of Syria: it is that Syria may be acting in a way, first, to support Iraqi forces, and, most latterly, to give refuge to members of the Iraqi regime. That is the problem with which we are trying to deal. It is being dealt with by my conversations with the President, and by the Americans and us making it clear what is acceptable or unacceptable. I suspect that this is another conspiracy theory that in time will fade away, but I have no doubt that it will be replaced swiftly by a fresh one.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

When the Prime Minister meets Kofi Annan and other members of the permanent five, will he raise the need for Security Council resolutions to include some method of compliance rather than the issue being left in a vacuous state? Will he also address the question of Iranian exiles in Iraq? Can we be assured that they will not experience what the Cossacks experienced in 1945, when, as victims of war, they were pushed over to the Soviet side and were dealt with severely? People who are in Iraq in exile from Iran should be regarded sympathetically.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is obviously important that any resolutions lead to action. Secondly, we will do our level best to protect any people in the circumstances that he describes.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Yesterday, The Sunday Telegraph referred to Iraqi papers that show the Russian Government in an unfavourable light and, indeed, that they assisted the Iraqis. The article implies that The Sunday Telegraph journalist discovered the documents. Is that correct, in which case should not the sources be better secured on the ground? If it is incorrect and the story is based on Government briefing, would not the best course be simply to tell the public just that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are all sorts of documents in circulation at the moment. I really have absolutely no knowledge of the truth of these documents. Although I can think of less secure vehicles for protection and security than The Sunday Telegraph, I will not enter into that point. We are trying now—this is important—to make sure that we conserve as many of those documents because they will be interesting not least for the issue of weapons of mass destruction, but perhaps for many other issues, too.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time to remember the dead and injured, to push forward with humanitarian aid and law and order, but to join the Iraqi people in rejoicing and celebrating in the liberation of Baghdad, Basra and the rest of Iraq and to build a new Iraq that is founded on peace and reconciliation and run by the people of Iraq for the people of Iraq? Such peace and reconciliation should be underlined by a system in which Saddam's henchmen are brought to book not in Guantanamo bay but under the auspices of the United Nations.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. I should say that about 30 countries are already pledging significant humanitarian aid.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

I join the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in recognising the gallantry, determination and, above all, humanity of British forces in Iraq and, especially at this time, the patience and fortitude of their families. I agree entirely with the Prime Minister about the need to gain total control of the security situation before waging the war for peace on a huge scale, but will he nevertheless take seriously the point made by Mr. Donaldson about the use of British police? Substantial numbers of relatively young men and women leave the police force and they would be ideally suited to going to Iraq to assist in the maintenance of good order. Will the Prime Minister see how he can push that forward?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly will. It is a priority for us, because the better we can maintain order, the better it is for the people of Iraq and the less is the pressure on our soldiers.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Everyone rejoices at the fall of a brutal dictatorship, but will my right hon. Friend share with the House his thinking about how any subsequent war crimes tribunal may be able to bring to justice the perpetrators of the very many human rights abuses that happened in Iraq over the years of the Saddam dictatorship?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Again, that is a pertinent issue. We are discussing it with our allies and with the United Nations. It is important that any such tribunal would have legitimacy and would obviously be based in Iraq.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Further to the Prime Minister's earlier response about the objects sadly being looted from Iraq's museums and archaeological sites, can he give the House a firm assurance that any cultural objects that turn up in the United Kingdom having been looted from Iraq will be returned to museums in that country and not sold into private collections, so making it clear to any potential looters that there is no market for such material?

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

The Prime Minister deserves the support of the whole House in the tone that he has set on the need to build co-operation and on a new spirit with the other permanent members of the Security Council—France, Russia and China. If we are to get back to the tasks of the war on terrorism and the building of the middle east peace process, that co-operation will be important much further afield. In passing, I point to Kashmir as one issue that needs attention.

In that context, does my right hon. Friend recognise that the loud and strident voices in Washington on the question of Syria lead precisely to the suspicions that have been raised in the House today? Will he pass on to Washington the words of Javier Solana that perhaps now is the time for a rather quieter period from Washington?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

To be fair, often people give the answers when they are asked the questions and that is one of the things that happens when there are constant debates and discussions. I think that the concerns that people have expressed about Syria are very clear and policy has not changed at all in relation to that. There has been a particular concern because of reports that senior regime figures were taking refuge in Syria. However, the worries about Syria's support for terrorist activity in connection with the Israel-Palestine issue are well known and have been there for a long time. I can only repeat what I said earlier. When my hon. Friend reads the context in which the remarks were made, he will find them a lot less alarming.

Kashmir is another issue and I hope that, with India and Pakistan, we can make progress on getting the resolution of a dispute that must obviously be resolved by those two countries. We will give any help and support that we can to ensure that the dispute has a better chance of diminishing as an item of conflict between the two countries, but that is a topic for another day.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Will the Prime Minister, whose leadership has been so well and properly recognised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, give some thought to a suggestion that I put to the Foreign Secretary the other day? During this difficult transitional period, will he consider appointing a member of his Government as a resident Minister in Iraq?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will certainly give that serious consideration.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

In view of one or two comments that have been made today, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no need to apologise in any way for the fact that one of the most murderous and brutal tyrannies has been destroyed? That, in itself, is a victory for not only the people of Iraq, but humanity as a whole. Is my right hon. Friend sufficiently confident that the United States will put enough pressure on the fundamentalists in Israel—both military and political—who will use any device or trick to stop a sovereign Palestinian state coming into being?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his support during the past few weeks; it has been remarkable and strong throughout. I hope that we recognise that fundamentalism on either side of the dispute in the middle east will not help. We have the basis of a settlement: the two-state solution. A process is set out in the road map to get us there, and I hope that we seize the opportunity that is offered of a new start in the middle east to make that progress.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley

Given that Iraq is now free, thanks to the heroic efforts of the coalition forces, does the Prime Minister think that any of the tens of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party could have a legitimate claim to asylum in this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I know of no applications that have been received and I doubt that any would be welcome.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

Will the Prime Minister confirm or deny that the coalition has a plan to sell off nationalised Iraqi oil to the highest bidder?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know of that plan. The plan that we have is to ensure that the Iraqi interim authority takes control of the oil wealth of Iraq as soon as possible. The great thing is that as the new interim authority comes into being, sanctions can be lifted and the Iraqi people can therefore have the prospect of future prosperity. The appalling situation, which is necessary at the moment because of what Saddam did to his country, in which 60 per cent. of the population are dependent on vouchers for food aid could be ended. It is a question not of selling off Iraqi oil to the highest bidder, but of ensuring that the substantial wealth is used not for palaces, a power elite at the top or weapons of mass destruction, but for the Iraqi people.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

No one can doubt the Prime Minister's commitment to the United Nations, but neither can those of us who are instinctive supporters of the United Nations be insensitive to the haemorrhaging of its support in Washington and elsewhere. Does he believe that that can be remedied with a change of attitude by France, China and Russia, or is he suggesting that more fundamental reform of the UN is required if it is to command universal respect again?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are issues to do with how the UN works and operates, and some of those will take a long time to resolve. They are well known—membership of the Security Council and so on—but unless the leading countries in the world come to some sense of how we handle similar situations in future, the UN will be ineffective because there will be no agreement between the leading countries. In the end, that is what we have to work on. In particular, the international community—especially Europe—has a fundamental question to resolve: do we want Europe and other countries to develop as a rival to the United States or do we want to work in partnership with it? If it is the former, I do not think that we will resolve such disputes in the UN because there will be the same disagreement that there has always been, as there was in the days of the cold war when the UN often could not work properly because there were two blocs of power that would not support each other's strategic interests. The only way in which we are going to make the UN more effective is by resolving some of those underlying political questions, and that political question in particular.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush

Further to that answer, is it not true that part of the rebuilding process requires the UN to take a hard look at how it deals with states that have developed weapons of mass destruction, are brutalising their own people and are destabilising the region, therefore making the middle east, in many respects, the cockpit of violence for so many years? Part of that reassessment must be an ability to deal with—let us face it—psychopathic killers who take over nation states, destabilise the area and kill their own people. We are not dealing with that because the UN was initially set up for a different purpose. The world has changed and we now need to change the UN.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is right in the sense that such states pose a real threat. However, there are different ways to deal with them. In some circumstances, we can enter into a dialogue with those countries and help them out of the situation that they are in. One thing is clear: the continuation of brutally repressive regimes, allied to weapons of mass destruction, is a threat. That is why we have to deal with them and why the UN has to come together to do that in a concerted way.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Three times the Prime Minister has been asked about Syria, in response to which he has said that there are no plans to deploy force against Syria. The trouble is that that phrase has been used by the Prime Minister and many others in other contexts just before they have done exactly the opposite—for example, the Prime Minister said, "I have no plans to raise taxes at all." Can the Prime Minister find more forceful language to allay the concerns of the conspiracy theorists?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let us not get into manifesto commitments on tax, which were very clear. I think that I have made the position clear enough. If people continue to raise that issue, it can only be because they are not listening to the very clear answer that is being given. I have given that answer throughout our proceedings today and give it again now: we have absolutely no plans whatsoever to invade Syria. I cannot put it any clearer than that. It is clear enough, I think, for most people. What is important is to recognise that no one on the other side of the water, so far as I am concerned, has said that there are such plans. We are in a situation in which I am asked about the latest conspiracy theory. Once it has been laid to rest, I have no doubt that will be replaced by the next one, as I said.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

May I say to my right hon. Friend that I have listened to what he said and have no reason to doubt his sincerity in relation to Syria? However, many of us are deeply troubled by some statements on Syria that have been made by sources around the Pentagon, and sometimes by people in the Pentagon itself and the White House. If we are to win Syria's co-operation for a middle east peace and its confidence in becoming a full member of that part of the world, would not it be better for the United States to be a bit more unambiguous and to acknowledge to Syria that we have some concern about the fact that parts of its territory have been occupied illegally since 1967?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The best way to resolve that is through a reinvigorated middle east peace process that deals with the Syrian track as well. I have engaged in a dialogue with Syria and its President over the past few months precisely to try, through partnership, to deal with the issues of concern in respect of Syria. I hope and believe that we can deal with them in that way.

After the debate about whether Syria is harbouring regime figures—to be fair, the president has made it clear that it is not—and when we get the middle east peace process back under way, it will be important for Syria and other countries in the region to stop any support for terrorist groups whose aim is to disrupt the very peace process that everyone wants.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

In joining in the Prime Minister's tribute to our armed forces, may I particularly flag up the bravery and professionalism of the aircrew, ground crew and airmen based in Norfolk? Many will be coming home shortly, but others will be staying in the Gulf for many months. Do they not deserve a tax rebate and a council tax rebate? Ironically, they would get the latter if they were in prison.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We apply the same rules that we have applied throughout. I pay tribute to the families of servicemen and women from Norfolk and elsewhere in the country. This must have been a deeply anxious time for them—it still is—and our thoughts should be with them. We are working to make sure that we bring servicemen and women back home as soon as possible.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

May I confirm what my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of his statement? I know from conversations with Iraqis inside and outside the country that there is great rejoicing at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and they are extremely grateful for the role that my right hon. Friend played. As he knows, the immediate needs of the Iraqi people are food, water, electricity and sanitation, and I hope that work on those can proceed very quickly.

I had a telephone call from an Iraqi woman who has lived in this country for many years. She asked me about information concerning the occupants of a certain prison. I asked her who she knew in the prison, and she said, "An uncle." I asked her how long he had been there and she said, "Twenty-eight years." We are short on information about what has happened to the occupants of those prisons, particularly notorious ones such as the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could obtain some of that information for the 4 million Iraqi exiles throughout the world who will have had relatives in many of those prisons.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, it is right to record our thanks to my hon. Friend, who has fought an extraordinary and sometimes lonely campaign to bring home to people the true nature of Saddam's regime.

As the situation becomes more stable, we are trying to turn our attention to issues such as the prisons. My understanding is that some of them are deep underground, and there are still problems, particularly around Baghdad, in finding their exact location. We are working very hard on that, and I hope that in the next few days we will have greater progress to report. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are many people in the diaspora throughout the world who will be anxious for news of their relatives. I only hope that in the coming weeks we will be able to provide that information.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister's chosen and considered words in response to questions about Syria. I should like him to assure the House that not only will there be no invasion, but there will be no air strikes and no military incursions into Syria without United Nations resolutions under chapter VII.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I really do not think that I can make the situation any clearer. If the hon. Gentleman reads my words he will see that they provide all the clarity that anyone could possibly wish for.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

The Prime Minister referred earlier to terrorist groups. He also said that most of the fighting in Baghdad is with foreign irregulars. Are not those jihadists from other countries who have no right to be there? Not only are they shooting at coalition troops but they are preventing the Iraqi people from returning to any semblance of normal life.

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider setting up a homeland security department that brings together our intelligence and security agencies and other Departments, so that the people of our country can know that the battle against terrorism will continue in a high-profile way, in their interests and in their defence?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On homeland security, I have nothing to add to the Home Secretary's remarks. As for the foreign irregulars, my hon. Friend is right to say that people have come from several countries in the region and from different parts of the world—people from Chechnya have been discovered. Some are among those who are carrying on the fighting, and some have been carrying on the looting. There is a lot of evidence that the flow of people into Iraq has stopped. Some of those who crossed over from Syria, for example, have returned rather bewildered by what happened to them in Iraq and the way in which the Special Republican Guard treated them. Others will stay and fight because they are fanatics. That is one of the reasons why sporadic outbursts of fighting will continue for some time to come.