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1997 Onwards - Mr Major’s Contribution to the Iraq Debate

Below is the text of Mr Major’s contribution to the debate on Iraq held in the House of Commons on 10th February 1998.


The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook) 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.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) The House will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate the situation in Iraq in full in the near future. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I have consistently made clear, we support the Government in their efforts to ensure that Saddam Hussein respects the will of the UN and the world community. We agree that he cannot be allowed to flout Security Council resolutions - to which he himself agreed - with impunity. We agree that every diplomatic avenue must be pursued, but that if diplomacy fails, it would be right to contemplate military action.

We have also said consistently that the military action must have a clear objective. Last Monday in this House - and again on the radio this morning - the Foreign Secretary said that the objective of any military action was to ensure that the UNSCOM inspectors could complete their task. Last Friday in Washington - with the Prime Minister beside him - President Clinton said that the objective was to reduce Saddam's ability to use weapons of mass destruction against his neighbours. On Sunday, the Secretary of State for Defence was talking about the risks to the survival of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Is there not a danger that those different descriptions of the objectives will lead to uncertainty and confusion? Do we not owe it to the British service men and women whose lives may be put at risk to spell out a clear objective and to stick to it?

On the Security Council resolution to which the Foreign Secretary referred, could he tell us a little more about what it is intended to achieve? Is it the Government's position that resolution 687 provides sufficient authority for military action? What would be the effect on any such military action of the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq?

Finally, could the Foreign Secretary tell us a little more about the attempts that he has made, as President of the European Union Council of Foreign Ministers, to secure a consensus in the European Union on this question? Does not the complete absence of any such consensus illustrate yet again the emptiness of ambitions to develop a common foreign and defence policy in Europe?

Mr. Cook On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, we are well aware of the acute interest in this matter in the House and of the importance of ensuring that the House has adequate opportunities to debate these issues. I am consulting the Leader of the House and the usual channels about what might be an appropriate day for such a debate.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly correct to draw attention to the fact that Saddam Hussein agreed to the UNSCOM regime, and accepted the inspection provided for in those resolutions. It was part of the ceasefire agreement to which he signed up. To take one of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's later points, there is therefore adequate authority already in that ceasefire agreement and in those resolutions.

It is nevertheless very important that we demonstrate that it is the international community that condemns Saddam Hussein's repeated violation of those resolutions. It is therefore important that the Security Council, on behalf of the international community, registers its criticism and rejection of Saddam Hussein's behaviour, and calls on him to abandon his plans to develop chemical and biological arsenals.

I see no conflict between what I have said and what the right hon. and learned Gentleman quotes from the Prime Minister. The objective is, indeed, to achieve compliance with the Security Council resolutions and to deny Saddam Hussein his ambition to develop weapons of mass destruction. Much the most effective way of doing that would be for the UNSCOM regime to be allowed to return to work. To increase the pressure for that to happen, we have made it perfectly plain that we have the resolve, if necessary, to use military force. If we cannot achieve an agreement by which UNSCOM can effectively hinder Saddam from developing chemical and biological weapons, military force will be applied to ensure that what UNSCOM inspectors cannot achieve can be achieved by direct action, so that Saddam is not left with arsenals of terror with which he could then seek to bully his neighbours.

I regret that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, at a time of immense international crisis, chose to make his own point about European policy. For the record, I have to say that he is behind the times. We are in close and continuous contact with the Government of France, and only this weekend Chancellor Kohl made it perfectly clear that he is willing to back and support us.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) May I avoid the textual analysis and the anti-European swipe by the right hon. Learned Member for Folkestone Hythe (Mr. Howard) and deal with the question of weapons inspectors? Clearly, the only real guarantee of the implementation of Security Council resolution 687 is effective and competent weapons inspectors. We cannot allow Saddam Hussein to pack the jury by picking and choosing whom he wants in that team. Nevertheless, is it not important to show our reasonableness by responding to the appeals of many other countries and trying to ensure a greater spread of nationalities among those inspectors?

Mr. Cook The present teams cover a large number of countries. Indeed, the last team to which Saddam Hussein took particular exception consisted of 44 inspectors from 17 different countries. It is wrong to suggest that a team containing members from 17 UN countries is dominated by one or two countries. We would welcome additional inspectors from other countries if they chose to take part in the exercise, if only because Britain pays for its own inspectors and therefore carries a share of the direct financial burden of the exercise. Inspectors must be effective, knowledgeable and capable of communicating in the common language of UNSCOM, which is English. We have no difficulty constructing an UNSCOM-plus, but we shall not settle for any outcome that gives us an UNSCOM-minus.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) I commend the terms of the Secretary of State's statement, which was balanced, firm and inherently logical. When he was making it, did it occur to him that it is symptomatic of Saddam Hussein's deception and obstructionism that, seven years after the end of the Gulf war, he has not yet fulfilled the terms and conditions of the peace settlement that he undertook? Had he done so, the condition of the children in his country might have been much improved. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, says that the parties must not be purist in their attitude, and must be willing to be flexible. Could that approach be adopted, so long as it was applied to the practicalities of the implementation of the resolutions, and not to the principle?

Mr. Cook I wholly agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that it is remarkable, and entirely down to Saddam's behaviour, that, seven years after the ceasefire, we are still debating whether he will comply with the terms of the ceasefire. Nobody at the time when the sanctions were first imposed foresaw that we would still be here seven years later. The only reason why we are here seven years later is that Saddam persistently attempts to obstruct, to conceal and to prevent the UNSCOM inspectors from going about their job.

It is important that we make it plain to the world and to the Iraqi people that, if Saddam Hussein complies with the terms of the ceasefire, and if he abandons his plans to develop weapons of mass destruction, sanctions can be lifted and the people of Iraq can return to their normal life.

As to flexibility, of course we are willing to consider any creative proposal that would help us to achieve a diplomatic solution. But we are absolutely resolute in our belief that there is no point in accepting flexibility if it means that UNSCOM cannot carry out effective inspections. The objective of the exercise is to ensure that we find and dismantle those weapons. Any flexibility that prevents us from doing that leaves us with an agreement that is not worth having.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) Is the Secretary of State aware that the most obvious gap in his strategy is that no diplomatic efforts have been made by the United States Government or the British Government to send Ministers to Baghdad, as many other countries have done? The impression is created that they are only playing for time to build up the military force for the strike that has already been decided.

Is the Secretary of State further aware that articles 41 and 42 of the United Nations charter make it clear that military action may be authorised only by the Security Council? If action were taken by Britain and America, it would be illegal in international law, and would undermine the authority of the United Nations. The moral responsibility for the deaths of civilians that could follow would rest with those who took that decision. For that reason, it would not be possible for those who believe in the rule of law and in the United Nations to support the military action that, in the view of the House, the Secretary of State clearly intends to take.

Mr. Cook There is no question of our merely playing for time, nor has any decision been taken that force will be used or will be used on any specific date. It is not a play: we are trying very hard to increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein to ensure that he responds to the many diplomatic overtures that are being made, perhaps by people who are more likely to be heard in Baghdad than me or my United States counterpart.

It is a bit rich to complain that the United States and the United Kingdom are undermining the authority of the United Nations. Saddam Hussein plainly demonstrates daily his contempt for the United Nations, for the resolutions that it has passed and for the agreement that he entered into with the UN. Britain is in the lead in New York in trying to obtain agreement on a text that makes that quite clear. If my right hon. Friend wishes to follow through the logic of his position, he should condemn Saddam Hussein, not the British or American Governments.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater) If the increased obstruction by Saddam Hussein in recent months may owe something to his perception of divisions within the Security Council, a lack of resolution there and, perhaps, divided views among our Arab friends, will the Foreign Secretary accept that I consider his efforts in the Arab countries to be commendable, and believe that they need to be reinforced? Does he also accept that, if we are to ensure that Saddam Hussein understands that the United Nations is determined in its position, it is essential for other members of the Security Council - senior and permanent members - to give clear backing to the position of the United States and the United Kingdom? The Foreign Secretary will recall that, on the earlier occasion, France was somewhat slow in reaching that position. I hope that he will succeed in his efforts to ensure that it speaks very clearly on this occasion, and that the Security Council has a united voice.

Mr. Cook I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his observation about our efforts in the Gulf.

The Governments of the Gulf countries fully understand the nature of Saddam Hussein. Riyadh, after all, had Scud missiles delivered on it during the Gulf war. Had those missiles contained anthrax, Riyadh would be uninhabitable to this day. Kuwait suffered invasion and looting, and 600 of its citizens were taken away by Saddam Hussein with his retreating army. To this day, seven years later, we have knowledge of only three of those 600; none has returned to Kuwait. The Governments of those countries therefore fully understand the importance of not leaving Saddam in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

I agree that it is desirable for us to demonstrate unity among the permanent members of the Security Council. Unfortunately, it was the appearance of disunity in October that sparked off the present confrontation, because it encouraged Saddam Hussein to be bolder. I hope that the Security Council resolution will give the clear message that members of the Security Council are unanimous in condemning Saddam's activities.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) Is my right hon. Friend aware that the military action taken in 1991 to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions was authorised not only by the Security Council, but - in relation to British participation - by an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons? Is he further aware that, if another such vote took place in the House, the result would be at least as overwhelming as it was then?

May I take up the question put by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell)? Does my right hon. Friend recollect that, in 1991, military action was brought to an end on the basis of an undertaking by the Government of Iraq to comply fully with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council? From that day to this, Iraq has not complied fully, or anywhere near fully, with those resolutions.

Although it is welcome that the League of Arab States, along with Russia and other countries, is attempting to facilitate a settlement by diplomatic means and not by force, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there can be no acceptance of attempts to broker a deal based on concessions by the Security Council, or on the lifting of Security Council resolutions? Will he reaffirm that total compliance by Iraq with Security Council resolutions is not negotiable?

Mr. Cook I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. The way in which Saddam and the Iraqi Government can obtain the lifting of the sanctions imposed by the resolutions is very simple: it is to comply with those resolutions, and to abandon their weapons of mass destruction. That is something that Saddam could have done at any time in the past seven years.

Nor can we accept the current demand by the Iraqi regime for eight presidential sites to be designated no-go areas for the inspectors. It is important for the House to understand that we are not simply talking about some kind of historical heritage palace; one of the sites is understood to be as big as Paris. We cannot allow such major loopholes in the inspection regime.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon) Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, in dealing with Saddam Hussein, he is dealing with a psychopath without conscience, who has repeatedly pushed the international community to the limits of its tolerance? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that, although diplomacy must be given the chance of success, there must be no concessions to this man and that, if it is necessary to use military action, first, the right hon. Gentleman will deserve the support of Opposition Members - and I hope that he will get it - and, secondly, he needs to take action that will not just be successful in the short term, but limit Saddam's ability to play these games with the international community again in future? If that required the difficult decision to target specifically the Republican Guard, which sustains his evil regime in his own country and which has been his shield thus far against the rest of the world, that would again deserve the support of the House.

Mr. Cook The right hon. Gentleman speaks with experience, and I am grateful for his support. I wish that the nature of the regime with which we are dealing were better understood. It might be helpful to mention that, in the past two months, Iraq has cleansed its prisons by executing every prisoner who had been sentenced to more than 15 years: in that time, 1,200 prisoners have been shot in prison courtyards in Iraq. That is the nature of the regime with which we are dealing.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not respond on any specific targeting plans, but Saddam does keep himself in power through fear and force. He should be under no illusion that, if military force is required on this occasion, the military power that keeps him in power will be hit hard.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) Does the House have the clear, unambiguous undertaking that, before military action is taken, we will return to the Security Council of the United Nations for its clear, unambiguous endorsement of that military action?

Mr. Cook A large number of diplomats in the Foreign Office have been working towards precisely that objective for several days. We hope to table the resolution in New York this week and I hope that the resolution will gain the support of the Security Council, so I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey) During the visits to the Gulf by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), was any contact made with the Gulf Co-operation Council to find out whether economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein could be strengthened, and whether greater unity among Arab states could be achieved, which is always difficult to do?

Mr. Cook We have explored the possibility of having a meeting with the Gulf Co-operation Council, to be attended by myself and Madeleine Albright. In practice, there have been difficulties in getting such a meeting together. However, by the end of this week, every member state in the Gulf will have been visited by myself or by a Minister of State from the Foreign Office or from the Ministry of Defence. We are rightly making a sustained effort to ensure that those Governments understand our position and support it.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin) Does the Foreign Secretary agree that far more weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed by UNSCOM inspectors over the past seven years in Iraq than were destroyed in the pulverising of Iraq by air power and land forces in the last Gulf war? Will he say how unleashing another Gulf war, and dropping tens of thousands of tonnes of high explosives on the Iraqis, is likely to convince them to allow those UNSCOM inspectors back in, to continue their important work?

Does the Foreign Secretary realise that many Labour Members are extremely uncomfortable at some of the militarist rhetoric that we hear from the Treasury Bench, outstormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and General Sir Peter de la Billiere, both of whom have expressed extreme scepticism about military action? Has the Foreign Secretary had time to read the letter in The Times this morning from Field Marshal Sir John Stanier, who says: Perhaps if we attempted to improve the lot of Saddam Hussein's people by offering a reduction in sanctions in exchange for evidence of his abandonment of weapons of mass destruction, a more realistic result might be achieved"?

Madam Speaker Order. This is still Question Time, when we do not have quotations. I remind the House that, although this is a serious matter, these questions are much too long. Hon. Members are standing to be called, and I hope that they will come to the point. Will the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) not quote because it is Question Time and we do not have quotations, but we have paraphrases?

Mr. Galloway Thank you, Madam Speaker. You have my sincere apologies. The field marshal knows much more about military affairs than some of the green-room generals who have been commenting in the media during the past few days. His words should be given appropriate weight, and I wonder what my right hon. Friend has to say about them.

Mr. Cook I have sought throughout my statement to maintain a calm and measured tone. I do not think that anyone could fairly accuse it of being militarist rhetoric. We wish, if possible, to resolve the matter through diplomatic means. If we cannot, the obstacle is Saddam himself and not anyone at the Dispatch Box. On my hon. Friend's concluding point, I agree up to a point with the letter from which he quoted, although I have not had the opportunity to read it all. We want sanctions to be lifted from the Iraqi people and for them to be able to resume normal life.

The way to achieve that is perfectly plain. It is for Saddam Hussein to comply with what he himself agreed to at the time of the ceasefire. At present, an exercise is being conducted between international experts and representatives of the Iraqi Government on the technical evaluation of what has been achieved so far by UNSCOM and what has yet to be done before we can say that all the programmes have been dismantled. That was offered to the Iraqi regime as a means of meeting its desire to understand what it needs to do to have the sanctions lifted. The Iraqis now understand that, and I hope that they will comply with it.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) Yesterday the Secretary of State for Defence told me that the political objectives for any possible military action would be the enforcement of the UN resolutions. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, short of a land invasion of Iraq, it is frankly impossible to enforce the resolutions, and that, if we are forced into military action, political targets such as the destruction of the Republican Guard and the sites to which the inspectors have been denied access are the proper political objectives, which will command political support in the country and enable military success to be identified?

Mr. Cook Again, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to specify which sites we might be considering targeting. However, much can be achieved that does not involve military action on the ground. We shall continue to make sure that, given that Saddam understands that there is the possibility of military force and the real probability that, if used, military force would be of a substantial character, under that pressure, he may yet respond to the deadline and back down, as he has in the past. We are quite clear that the world cannot back down in the face of Saddam Hussein's threat.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) If, after the military strike has taken place, the evil dictator Saddam is still in situ, will it be regarded as a victory?

Mr. Cook The objective of any military strike would be to ensure compliance with the Security Council resolutions or, in default of that compliance, through military action the reduction of the chemical and biological weapons that Saddam is preventing the UNSCOM inspectors from achieving. If we succeeded in removing a large part of those arsenals and the equipment and capabilities that produce them, I would regard that as having secured an objective of military action. However, it is not an issue in which anyone is looking for victory. Everyone is looking to make sure that the will of the international community is enforced, because, if that will is broken by Saddam Hussein, it will be of no value in any future confrontation with any future dictator.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) Does the Foreign Secretary agree, nevertheless, that the response of the European Union has been disappointingly incoherent and ineffective? Does he further agree that, at the very least, the Foreign Affairs Council should reach a unanimous conclusion that Saddam Hussein must be obliged to honour his obligations to the UN resolutions?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House, even while wholly agreeing with the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), that, before a single missile or bomb is launched against Iraq, he will go to Iraq as head of the Foreign Affairs Council to tell the Iraqi regime the views of 15 countries and 370 million people, all of whom demand that Saddam Hussein be obliged to honour his obligations?

Mr. Cook I would have no difficulty in obtaining agreement from all my Foreign Affairs Council counterparts that Saddam Hussein must comply with the UN resolutions. However, I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to go too far down the road of turning this into a European Union issue. We act at the UN not as the President of the European Union but as the representative of Britain. In case of any military action, we act on our own national initiative under UN authority. We would not welcome - as I doubt many Conservative Members would welcome - an explicit European Union involvement in any decision on such military action.

Currently, I am not encouraged to believe that any useful purpose would be served by my visiting Baghdad. Should circumstances change, we can examine the matter then.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) I am sure that there is not a single Member in the House who does not hope, at least, that diplomacy will triumph in the end. However, has my right hon. Friend seen the latest survey of public opinion, published today, showing that a clear, substantial majority in Britain support military action if it is required? It is the same type of support that was demonstrated when we had to fight past wars of aggression.

In view of the propaganda not only in the United Kingdom but particularly abroad, will the British and American Governments and the allies do their utmost to nail the malicious, poisonous lie - which it is - that Britain and the United States and other countries are engaged in warmongering? The full responsibility for the crisis lies with the criminal regime in Iraq: it lies with Saddam Hussein. Those who put responsibility for war and loss of lives on the allies are telling a lie, and they should be told so, whether they are in the House of Commons or outside.

Mr. Cook I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I also took encouragement from the results of that opinion poll. It is very important that we take every opportunity to get it across to our public why it is so important that Saddam is stripped of those weapons. That is why, last week, we put into the public domain a document that made a considerable impact on public opinion, listing the weapons that he possesses and the number of times that he has denied UNSCOM the right to inspect, to find those weapons. I am pleased to tell the House that a number of other countries are now considering producing a similar document of their own for their own domestic audience.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) Chemical, biological and nerve agents are not targeted weapons of war, but weapons of mass terror. As such, they do not require missiles to be delivered; a garage full of trucks will do equally as well. That being the case, and because an air war is unlikely to take out either the means of delivery or all those weapons of mass terror, should not the twin objectives be, first, to get rid of as many of the weapons as possible, and, secondly, to encourage the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Cook In the event of military force, we would of course seek to destroy as much of his capability in developing chemical or biological weapons as it was possible to do in such a strike. As for Saddam's own future, it is important that we keep ourselves very clearly fixed on the objective, which is to ensure that we degrade his capacity to retain those weapons of terror. If in the course of that strike his own military power was badly hit, his own capacity to remain in office might well be undermined. I hope that that is an issue on which he will reflect carefully in the days ahead, and that he will realise that it is in his interests as much as anyone else's that he should come to a diplomatic solution.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) May I say to my right hon. Friend that the question is not whether Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator - that has been proven - but how we shall deal with him? My right hon. Friend must have heard that King Hussein of Jordan, Kofi Annan - the Secretary-General of the United Nations - and, recently, Nelson Mandela himself have said that there should be a diplomatic and not a military solution. President Mandela said that America should not be involved in regional conflicts, and that America is not the policeman of the world.

If my right hon. Friend is - as, today, he again claimed in the House - speaking on behalf of the world community, will he put the question of military action to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which is a much more representative body than the Security Council? I assure him that, if he were to do so, he would find that he does not have a majority, and is therefore not speaking for the world community. I wish that he would say that he is speaking for certain vested interests and not for the world community.

Mr. Cook I robustly resist the idea that I am speaking for any vested interest in this matter. Britain has an interest in ensuring that the world regime of international law and international resolution of disputes is upheld. In pursuing that interest, we are acting not in any particular British vested interest but as a responsible and leading member of the world community.

Yes, the Security Council contains five permanent members; it also contains 10 non-permanent members that are elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations. They are deliberately and quite properly balanced by the General Assembly. They include countries from the third world and from each hemisphere. In our consultation with those 10 non-permanent members, we are getting overwhelming support for our resolution.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) Should not Saddam Hussein be fully aware of the awesome, coercive power of allied air power? Could not at least his generals comprehend its potential? At the start of the Gulf war, whole Iraqi formations were obliterated by the allied air forces, but since then, they have acquired further precision munitions and sea-borne cruise missiles of great accuracy. If the UK were to back down, would not American opinion take an extremely jaundiced view of our reliability as a security partner in Bosnia and other areas of mutual security interest?

Mr. Cook In response to the hon. Gentleman's last point, we have come to the view that we have and are pursuing the policy that we are, first, because we wish to ensure stability in the Gulf and that that is not undermined by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass terror, and, secondly, because as a permanent member of the UN we have a particular responsibility to uphold such stability. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, at present, we are seeing an excellent example of close co-operation between the two Atlantic powers, but that is not why we are taking this action. We have come to the conclusion for our own reasons and on the balance of policy that, on this, we are right to ensure a resolute stand against Saddam Hussein.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's point that weapons have moved on since the Gulf war. Saddam Hussein should not be under any illusion about what might happen if military force were used. That is why, when I was in Kuwait, I took the opportunity extensively to make statements on television stations that we know are beamed into Iraq and received in Baghdad.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) Has my right hon. Friend considered the possibility that both Saddam Hussein and President Clinton, for different reasons, need a war?

Mr. Cook It is not the case that anybody needs a war. Saddam would be badly wounded, hurt and undermined in his power base if there were a military strike. Madeleine Albright and I have repeatedly explored all possible ways in which we can achieve a diplomatic solution. I understand the deep concern of hon. Members who are reluctant to see military action. However, if they want to avoid military action, it would be helpful if they outlined the alternative course of action that would be open to us if Saddam failed to respond to diplomatic initiatives.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) The question of sanctions has been raised constantly, yet we all know that they have not worked in the past and cannot work at present. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the greatest help that Saddam has been getting is prevarication among international spokesmen, who give him credibility when he is acting incredibly? If people criticise the United States of America and the United Kingdom for their roles in the UN, they should stop asking us to bear the other burdens of the world. Will I cause consternation in the House if I suggest that those who have been holding back from supporting the concept of pressure on Saddam should be reminded that they, with Saddam, will share the guilt when innocent lives are lost?

Mr. Cook I put it to the hon. Gentleman that many hon. Members have genuine concerns. One of our strengths is that, unlike Iraq, we have a constitution that allows those concerns to be expressed. If Saddam had allowed 1 per cent. of the freedom that we claim for ourselves in Britain, he might well have been flung out of power by the Iraqi people.

In the meantime, the Government will continue to be resolute. I hope that Saddam Hussein will by now have grasped the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom are resolute in seeing this through, and that we have very wide backing throughout the international community. Countries that may not necessarily join us in military action will most certainly join us in exerting diplomatic pressure and in condemning Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) Will my right hon. Friend rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack on Iraq?

Mr. Cook Yes, I can rule that out straight away.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) The Foreign Secretary said that our quarrel is with Saddam Hussein and not the people of Iraq. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that we are about to punish the people of Iraq for the transgressions of the dictator. Seven years after the end of the Gulf war, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there can be no lasting peace in the middle east while Saddam Hussein remains in power? In preparing for military action, which I fully support, will he take steps to drive a wedge between the people of Iraq and the dictator by indicting him through the Security Council for crimes against humanity?

Mr. Cook The Government strongly support the case for an international criminal court. One of the reasons why, since the general election, we have come out robustly in support of such a court is precisely that it could provide an international legal framework before which a person such as Saddam Hussein could be arraigned. Regrettably, the court does not exist at present and will not exist in the time scale of the current confrontation. However, the confrontation reminds us why we need to strengthen the international law regime.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) Everyone must hope that the outcome of the present situation, whatever it is, will arise through diplomacy. May I support the call of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) - I have made it myself many times in the Chamber - for indicting Saddam Hussein before an international criminal court? Such a court is, by all accounts, likely to be set up by the United Nations after its conference in Rome in June. Can we then call for his indictment, as he will remain a problem, whatever the outcome of the present situation? Indeed, he and his closest associates are the problem, and they should be brought before the court on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of genocide.

Mr. Cook I assure my hon. Friend that we support Indict's campaign. As I said, if there was an international court before which we could bring Saddam Hussein, we would certainly now be trying to do so. My hon. Friend has a deep knowledge of the Iraqi situation; she is well aware of the immense suffering that has been imposed on the Iraqi people not by the international community, but by the direct oppression of Saddam. One of the reasons why he maintains his military force is that he has been known to amputate the hands of anyone who deserts his army. This is the behaviour of someone who has created immense suffering, hardship and grief for his own people, not to mention the other countries of the region.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Speaker Thank you. We must now move on.

Mr. Benn On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Last week, I asked about the possibility of a debate. Time is passing and we are approaching the moment when the option of military force may be taken. Neither the Government nor the Opposition have chosen to table a motion that would allow the House to debate the matter and, if necessary, vote on it. I wonder whether you could use your good offices to ensure that the House is a place not just for discussion, but where real decisions may be made.

Madam Speaker I recollect that the Foreign Secretary, in answering a question today, informed the House that he was in negotiations with the Leader of the House about a debate on this matter. I shall certainly keep that, and the right hon. Gentleman's point of order, in mind.