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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 17th February 1998.


The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook) I beg to move, That this House condemns the continuing refusal of Iraq to comply with its obligations under the relevant post-ceasefire UN Security Council Resolutions, by allowing UNSCOM to carry out without restrictions the required inspections of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes; believes that these programmes represent a continuing threat to international peace and stability; fully supports the efforts of the Government to reach a diplomatic solution to the present confrontation with Iraq within the framework of these Security Council Resolutions; and expresses its full support also for the resolve of the Government to use all necessary means to achieve an outcome consistent with these Resolutions. This debate takes place at a critical moment in our confrontation with Saddam Hussein. We still seek a peaceful end to the dispute. Military action is not inevitable. We do not want to take military action, and we would willingly stand down our forces if we can secure our objectives by diplomacy.

It is Saddam - not us - who has refused to engage in the diplomatic efforts to find a solution. He persists in refusing to accept that all sites must be open to inspection. In particular, he is still insisting that inspections of the so-called "presidential" sites must be one-off visits, rather than continuing inspections. At no point during this crisis has he ever put in writing the offers of a compromise which others claim he has made.

We are keeping the door to peace as wide open as possible for as long as is reasonable. Britain believes that Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, should visit Baghdad to explore whether there is a basis for securing Saddam's agreement to the resumption of effective inspections by the United Nations Special Commission.

Until late last night, the permanent five members of the Security Council met to agree on a common position which would provide the brief for the Secretary-General's discussions with Saddam. Discussions centred on a text drafted by Britain, and I believe that all quarters of the House can be proud that, throughout the present crisis, Britain has taken the lead in drafting work at the UN.

I am pleased to tell the House that the remaining areas where agreement has not been reached are narrowing and we are hopeful that an agreed conclusion can be reached later today, after the representatives at New York have had an opportunity to consult their capitals. I am therefore optimistic that we can secure an agreed authority for the Secretary-General to travel to Baghdad. I cannot express the same confidence to the House about the prospects for his success in Baghdad. That will depend entirely on whether Saddam is willing to take seriously the visit of the most senior UN official, and whether Saddam is ready to recognise that any agreement must be fully consistent with the UN resolutions.

We want a diplomatic agreement. We also want an agreement that will be lasting. We are willing to entertain a solution to the dispute over the presidential palaces through which UNSCOM inspectors might be accompanied by diplomatic representatives. We have never resisted a solution that would result in what has become known as "UNSCOM-plus". What we cannot accept is an "UNSCOM-minus" solution. There can be no agreement that compromises the ability of UNSCOM to carry out effective inspections without restrictions, without time limits, and without no-go areas. That is our bottom line.

We do not draw the line there because of diplomatic nicety. Even less do we draw it there because, as was put to me in an interview this morning, we are concerned with saving face. We draw the line there because UNSCOM's job is to prevent Saddam acquiring weapons that could wipe out whole cities. A gutted UNSCOM could not do that job.

UNSCOM and the associated inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have scored major successes in reducing the capacity of Saddam to threaten the stability of the region and the peace of the world. They have halted his long-range missile programme, which could have brought Europe within range of Saddam's arsenals, and they have dismantled the nuclear programme, which could have given him an atomic bomb. Through a process of inspection and verified destruction, the UNSCOM inspectors have demolished more weapons capability than was destroyed by the allied forces during the Gulf war.

However, there were four areas in the original mandate given to UNSCOM. It has yet to secure the same success in dismantling Saddam's capability in the other two areas - chemical and biological weapons.

The germ and nerve gas weapons that Saddam is known to covet would be lethal to whole cities. The volume on which Saddam hopes to produce such weapons is on such an irrational scale that it leaves frightening questions over his intentions.

Saddam has not accounted to UNSCOM for 600 tonnes of chemical precursors for the VX nerve agent. That would be sufficient to produce 200 tonnes of the agent itself. One drop of VX is enough to kill.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) Are we clear about what would happen if a bomb or a missile hit such a stockpile?

Mr. Cook We are entirely clear about the dangers of hitting such a stockpile. That is why we have taken great care in our targeting plan to ensure that we do not hit such completed weapons. There are many points on the supply chain that can be interdicted. Saddam has the capability in the form of chemical precursors. He needs large equipment to turn it into the final form. Those points in the supply chain could be interdicted without any risk to human life, and would set Saddam back many years in acquiring the capacity to threaten human life in the Gulf.

Saddam's biological weapons programme goes in parallel with his chemical weapons programme. It is dominated by anthrax. UNSCOM estimates that Iraq has the equipment and the growth agents to produce 350 litres per week - enough to fill two more missile warheads each week. Saddam is also known to have sought to acquire at least two other forms of biological weapon - the botulinum toxin, which kills over a week by progressive paralysis, and the bacterium Clostridium, which causes gas gangrene and produces the most painful death of all three.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) Will the Foreign Secretary address a point which I know concerns even those of us who do not believe that doing nothing is an option? That is that the present course of action might result in the bombing of Iraq and the inevitable risk of civilian casualties; and that the position of Saddam Hussein might be entrenched in Iraq, his capacity to oppress his own people unimpaired and his capacity to threaten others only set back if not removed. Will the Foreign Secretary address that real concern?

Mr. Cook Yes, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall address that at some length in my speech. Since he has raised the questions at this point, I shall make two points in response to him. If military force had to be used - the objective of our policy is to try to find a solution without it - Saddam most certainly would not be strengthened. He stays in power by military power and force. He should be under no illusion that that military power would be hard hit in the event of a military strike. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about doing nothing not being an option, but walking away from the crisis and leaving Saddam in possession of such weapons would not be a peaceful outcome, either. It would only guarantee that the peace of the region was broken at a future date when Saddam felt strong enough.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook Yes, but then I must return to my speech.

Mr. Mullin Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that Saddam has taken some of his weapons to third countries such as Libya, Yemen and Sudan? Is there any truth in that?

Mr. Cook I am not aware of those reports. It would be a very difficult transfer to effect. I shall certainly make inquiries about my hon. Friend's allegations, although we are not aware of any evidence at the moment to support the claim. He is of course correct to draw attention to the fact that the weapons could potentially be easily transported - if Saddam were able to acquire them - and the threat could spread well beyond the immediate neighbours of Iraq.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook No, I said that I would return to my speech - if my hon. Friend will allow me.

It is important that we remember that, with Saddam, the use of such weapons is not merely theoretical. He used mustard gas extensively in the Iran-Iraq war against fellow Muslims. Next month will see the 10th anniversary of his most notorious use of chemical weapons, when he wiped out the entire town of Halabja and its population of 5,000 Iraqi Kurds with a mixture of nerve and cyanide gases. The great majority of those who were killed that day were women, children and elderly men who were not under arms. That fact demonstrates that the weapons are not legitimate weapons of military defence. They are weapons of terror for use against civilian populations.

It is for that reason that Britain, like most other nations, signed up to the chemical and biological weapons conventions, which outlaw the production or use of such weapons. Those international agreements will be pointless if we allow the weapons that we have tried to ban to be retained in the hands of Saddam Hussein. Saddam himself, as a condition of the ceasefire, pledged to abandon his attempts to build an arsenal of mass destruction. He accepted the UNSCOM inspectors as the means of verifying that he had fulfilled his own undertakings. Far from honouring his commitments, Saddam has persistently sought to defeat the inspectors by an organised conspiracy of deception and concealment. As one paper noted at the weekend, he has woven not so much a tissue, as a wall-to-wall tapestry, of concealment.

Three years ago, Iraqi defectors brought with them evidence of a co-ordinated and sustained programme of concealment by Saddam of his chemical and biological weapons. Since then, UNSCOM has attempted to uncover the key points in the supply chain of those weapons programmes. It has been met by determined obstruction of its work. In the 18 months to November 1997, UNSCOM sought access to 63 sites where it believed that concealment was taking place. It was obstructed and delayed from carrying out inspections at 38 sites. It was flatly refused access to a further 14 sites. In other words, Iraq complied with its obligation to permit prompt access at only one in five of the sites under suspicion. As Richard Butler, the executive chairman of UNSCOM, noted: Saddam avoids answering questions and prevents UNSCOM from finding the answers. Against that background, it is wholly false for Iraqi diplomats to appear on television pretending to be the reasonable party, which wants only to discuss some matters of detail. The only reason why, seven years after the Gulf war, the UNSCOM regime and the sanctions to enforce it are still in place is that Saddam has never reconciled himself to dismantling his weapons of mass destruction, and has persistently done everything he can to frustrate the inspections.

The current dispute over the presidential sites shows how unreasonable Saddam's demands can be. The compounds around the presidential palaces are vast, and are typically home to the very organisations that oversee his military and weapons programmes. It is a measure of the magnitude of these sites that the UN has had to dispatch a special team to Iraq to map them. We understand that their total land mass may be 70 sq km. No inspection regime can be effective if Saddam is allowed to punch such big black holes in the area where UNSCOM's writ runs.

The number and size of the presidential compounds exposes as fraudulent the Iraqi propaganda that sanctions are the cause of the hardship and suffering of the Iraqi people.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) Does my right hon. Friend recall that, after Saddam was defeated in the Gulf war, he set fire to all the oilfields in Kuwait in an act of spite? If, as my right hon. Friend says, Saddam has anthrax and chemical weapons, I suspect that he would unleash them on the rest of the region if he were defeated again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if that is the case, war should be the very last resort, and every effort should be made to secure a diplomatic solution to this crisis?

Mr. Cook I have absolutely no difficulty in agreeing with my hon. Friend's punch line. All Labour Members - and, I think, all Opposition Members - agree that military force should be used only as the last resort. We are exploring every possible avenue to achieve a diplomatic solution, which is why we strongly back the visit to Baghdad of Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. If, however, he goes to Baghdad to discuss in good faith with Saddam Hussein the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution, but is unable to persuade him to reach a meaningful agreement, we are nearing the point of last resort.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) The Government's motion clearly expresses the hope of a peaceful settlement. However, if it is carried and Kofi Annan's visit is a failure, the Government will have the authority of the House to use force. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to table such a motion in the Security Council authorising the use of force? If so, can he assure the House that the five permanent members would agree to it, as required by the United Nations charter?

Mr. Cook I cannot guarantee what other permanent members of the Security Council will do - I can speak only for Britain. However, I can certainly confirm that Britain very much wants a further resolution in the Security Council. Indeed, for the past two weeks, we have been negotiating the draft of such a text with the other permanent members and with a number of the non-permanent members, from which we have received overwhelming support.

We believe that, whatever the outcome of Kofi Annan's visit to Baghdad - even if he secures agreement - it will be prudent to introduce a further resolution to ensure that any agreement is codified before the Security Council, so that we are all, including Saddam Hussein, quite clear about what he has agreed to.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey) On legitimacy, the use of force is authorised by Security Council resolution 687. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that 687 also reaffirms resolution 678, which authorised Operation Desert Storm? Is he happy that that authorisation covers the use of ground troops as well as air strikes? Some of us are concerned that air strikes alone will not be enough to bring about a satisfactory conclusion of military conflict, if that is the way that we have to go.

Mr. Cook Neither we, the United States nor any other member of the United Nations have any plans to deploy ground troops. My hon. Friend is correct: resolution 687 is a ceasefire resolution - in other words, it sets out the terms of the ceasefire of the Gulf war, and that is the ceasefire that Saddam Hussein is breaking, which in turn gives rise to a legal interpretation about authority. Having said that, our view is very strong. There should be a further Security Council resolution to demonstrate to Saddam and the rest of the world that any action taken by the United States and the United Kingdom has the support of an international consensus.

As I said, it is Saddam Hussein, not sanctions, who is responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people. There are no sanctions against the import of food or medicine. Those are in short supply in Iraq because Saddam's first priorities are his presidential sites and his weapons programmes.

Unlike Saddam, we are neither afraid of the Iraqi people nor are we foe to them. On the contrary, Britain has continuously been in the lead at the United Nations to increase the oil-for-food programme. I am pleased to tell the House that we intend to table before the Security Council this week our resolution more than doubling the volume of that programme, and we are confident that it will be adopted. It enables Iraq sharply to increase the oil revenues that it can earn, but they must be earmarked for humanitarian purposes, and they will be closely monitored to ensure that they are not diverted from food and medicine into the military machine or internal repression.

Mr. Corbyn Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook I will give way to my hon. Friend on this occasion, but I must make progress, and this may be the last intervention.

Mr. Corbyn Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, under the current arrangement, only half the value of the oil sold under the oil-for-medicines-and-food programme is spent on medicines and food, and that the rest is taken by the oil companies and the United Nations itself?

Mr. Cook No, I cannot confirm any such thing. The receipts from that programme are closely monitored. It is not merely food and medicine - about that, my hon. Friend is right - as Saddam Hussein is allowed to purchase equipment that would help him to restore water supplies and to provide for other humanitarian forms of relief. The problem has been that the Iraqi regime has constantly obstructed the programme. Indeed, when the original oil-for-food programme came on stream, the Iraqi regime undercut much of its value by making an offset reduction in its contribution to the rations of the Iraqi people.

Today, we will have a frank and open debate. The House will weigh carefully the gravity of the situation and the complexities of achieving an acceptable solution. Those in the House who may agree with the Government on our objectives, but disagree with the Government on our tactics will be free to deploy their arguments.

Of course, we would not be having this debate at all if Saddam allowed one tenth of that freedom and democracy to his own people. He does not do so because he knows that, if he did, he would be toppled. Any statement critical of Saddam Hussein is punishable by death under Iraqi law.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) Just like the Labour party.

Mr. Cook That was a flippant response to what is a very serious question for the Iraqi people. Saddam and his family remain in power through force and fear. He even murdered both his sons-in-law when they disagreed with him.

If any hon. Member doubts the brutality of Saddam's regime, I invite them to study the report of Max van der Stoel, the UN special rapporteur on Iraq, who only last November described the human rights situation there as "terrible", and concluded: the system of military dictatorship effectively requires that human rights violations occur in order to retain the positions and privileges of those in power. His report describes the use of murder by the internal security forces as routine. Since that report only last November, Iraqi security forces have shot 1,200 prisoners, following a directive from Saddam's son to reduce prison overcrowding.

I began by stressing that we would prefer a peaceful solution to the crisis, but, as I have said, a solution that left Saddam with his present capability would not be a peaceful solution. Saddam Hussein has already used such weapons in the past. If we leave him in possession of those weapons, sooner or later he will use them again. That is why, while seeking a diplomatic solution, we continue to prepare for the use of military force if necessary.

The task of UNSCOM is to find and destroy Saddam's chemical and biological weapons. If we cannot get agreement that enables UNSCOM to do that task effectively on the ground, we are ready to do it by air power. Saddam should not doubt our resolve, nor should he doubt that, in the event of military action, his military power base would be hit hard. The air power now in place in the Gulf is substantial.

There has been some recent speculation that Saddam might retaliate with chemical or biological weapons. Our assessment is that the threat of such retaliation is low, and it would be difficult for him to square any such retaliation with his continual claim that he does not possess any such weapons. As in 1991, he should be in no doubt that, if he were to do so, there would be a proportionate response.

To those who want us to rule out military action now, I warn them that that would make it impossible for us to achieve a satisfactory diplomatic solution. Saddam has a history of backing down under pressure. The more clearly we demonstrate that we are ready to use force, the better the chance we will have of securing the diplomatic solution that all reasonable people would prefer.

That message is widely understood throughout the international community. The majority of our European partners have recognised that the twin tracks of intensive diplomatic efforts, backed by the pressure of military preparations, offer the best prospect of a satisfactory solution. At the informal meeting of the European General Affairs Council last week, the majority of the countries present supported that approach. Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands have all offered support facilities for military preparations.

All the countries of the Gulf peninsula have been visited by me or another British Minister. Our diplomatic success is reflected in the strong communiqué issued by the Gulf Co-operation Council at the end of last week, which stressed that the current crisis has been created by the Iraqi regime alone", and concluded that Iraq alone must bear responsibility for the severe results of what might happen as a consequence of what the council described as Iraqi intransigence".

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) I thank the Minister of State for giving way. How far will it be possible for the Government, the Government of the United States and the United Nations fully to inform the Iraqi people of the situation and ensure that they know what is being said over here, and do not just have to listen to the propaganda of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Cook I hope that the hon. Lady does not know something about my demotion that has not yet been notified to me. To respond to her precise point, we have made all reasonable efforts to make sure that that message is heard in Iraq. Indeed, I made a point of spending an hour on television in Kuwait when I visited the Gulf, in the full knowledge that its broadcasts can be received throughout Iraq.

I will not deny to the hon. Lady that it is extremely difficult for us to get past the censorship of Saddam Hussein. The one thing that he cannot censor from his own people is their clear knowledge of the degree of oppression, hardship and brutality that he imposes upon them. We note that he has not had the courage to appear in public in Iraq for a long time now.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook In view of my hon. Friend's long interest in the matter, I shall give way, but it must be the last time I do so.

Mr. Galloway I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary. Can he say how free the debate was in the Parliaments of those countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council that have even the pretence of Parliaments? How free was the debate in the mass media of the countries that belong to that council? Have any of the Governments of the member countries of that council supported his plan to bomb Iraq?

Mr. Cook I quoted at length from the strong and tough statement of the Gulf Co-operation Council, which pins clear responsibility on Saddam Hussein for any military action. My hon. Friend is well aware of the constitutional arrangements around the Gulf. I can tell him that the press conference I held in Kuwait was a vigorous one, at which I was cross-examined effectively by what were obviously extremely lively media, whatever the limitations on democratic practice elsewhere in the Gulf.

I have mentioned that we have support in Europe and understanding in the Gulf. Around the globe, we have received strong statements of public support - from Australia to Argentina in the southern hemisphere, and from Canada to Japan in the northern hemisphere. At the United Nations, we have obtained overwhelming support for our position among the non-permanent members of the Security Council, and we are working particularly closely with our European partners, Portugal and Sweden, which are currently non-permanent members. Last night's meeting demonstrated the wide common ground and the agreement on objectives among the permanent members of the Security Council.

That broad degree of international support underlines the other issue that is at stake in the current confrontation. It is vital that we win this confrontation because of the clear and real danger posed by Saddam's arsenals of terror; but it is also important that we win this confrontation because the authority of the UN itself is at stake. It was the UN that approved the terms of the ceasefire in the Gulf war; it was the UN that passed resolution 687, which provides the authority for UNSCOM to carry out effective inspections; and it is the UN's Secretary-General who may be about to depart for Baghdad with the full authority of the UN for his mission to get Saddam to abide by the undertakings that he gave to the UN.

If Saddam were now to be permitted to set aside all those decisions of the UN, and if we were to walk away and allow him to do so with impunity, there would be no point in invoking the power of the UN the next time we are confronted by a dictator threatening the security of his region or the lives of his people. There would be no point, because we would have allowed the authority of the UN to become another of the many casualties of Saddam Hussein.

The Government firmly believe that, in the modern world, we need a United Nations that can speak with authority for the international community, and can act effectively against those who threaten the peace of member states. That is why we are determined that Saddam Hussein must recognise the authority of the UN, by abandoning for all time his programmes for weapons of mass destruction. We ask the House to show the same resolve by backing us tonight.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) I beg to move, To leave out from the second "Resolutions" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: fully supports the resolve of the Government to use all necessary means to achieve an outcome consistent with these Resolutions; and emphasises the importance of setting the clearest possible objectives linked to any action that might be taken.". I am grateful to the Government for arranging this debate, for which I and others called last week. It is essential that the House has the opportunity to consider what is undoubtedly a very grave situation. No one who has taken part, as I did before the Gulf war, in a Cabinet decision to authorise military action can be insensitive to the difficult judgments that the Government have to make. We are discussing today matters of life and death.

We in the Conservative party support the stand that the Government have taken: we support their efforts to find a diplomatic solution and to keep the military options open. The Foreign Secretary has this afternoon described in detail the evil nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein. We endorse that description in full, but the justification for military action goes far beyond the evil nature of the regime. To understand that justification, it is necessary to go back to the Gulf war and its immediate aftermath.

The Gulf war was a great achievement by the international community: naked aggression was reversed and the rule of international law upheld. British Governments, under the leadership first of my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher and then of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), played a critical part in that achievement. British forces played a crucial part in the military campaign, displaying great skill in what was widely acclaimed as a campaign notable for its support, planning and execution.

However, there are different views about the outcome of the Gulf war. There are those who say that we stopped too soon, that the coalition forces should have continued to Baghdad and that Saddam Hussein should have been toppled. Others point out that there was no authority for action of that kind, that the resolution that the Security Council had then passed did not authorise it and that in the circumstances such action would have been difficult to justify. The point that links that outcome to the dilemma that we face today is this: faced with that difficulty, the Security Council did not do nothing; it did not simply abandon the area or wash its hands of the problems that remained.

The Security Council passed a resolution that formed the basis for what was intended to be a comprehensive settlement. That resolution was Security Council resolution 687 and it was adopted on 3 April 1991. It dealt with several questions that remained to be resolved in the aftermath of the Gulf war. It dealt with the boundary between Iraq and Kuwait and with reparations to Kuwait. It made it clear that the trade embargo against Iraq that had been authorised by previous resolutions did not apply to materials and supplies for essential civilian needs, in addition to the previously authorised exemptions for medicines and health supplies and certain foodstuffs.

The resolution also dealt with the question of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, with stocks of related materials and with ballistic missiles. It recorded that Iraq shall unconditionally undertake not to use, develop or acquire any of those weapons; and that Iraq shall unconditionally accept the destruction, the removal or the rendering harmless under international supervision of those stocks. In order to ensure that Iraq complied with those undertakings, the resolution authorised the formation of a special commission, which we know as UNSCOM. UNSCOM was to inspect Iraqi relevant capabilities and Iraq was to yield to UNSCOM the weapons and stocks referred to in the resolution. Those provisions were at the heart of the settlement in the aftermath of the Gulf war.

Of course, resolution 687 is not the only relevant Security Council resolution - in particular, it has to be read with the resolutions that went before it - but it sets out the basis of the settlement that was reached. It was accepted by Iraq and it represents the clearly expressed will of the international community.

Had the questions then been asked, "What happens if Saddam Hussein ignores these provisions? What happens if he reneges on these undertakings? What happens if he flouts this resolution?", it is inconceivable that the answer would have been, "We should allow him to do so with impunity."

The provisions that I have cited to the House were not empty requirements. They were not formalities. They were not meant to be taken lightly. They were not meant to be defied. They set out a real, compelling obligation. It is an obligation that must be enforced.

It is not, of course, an abstract obligation. Since 1991, UNSCOM personnel have unearthed 48 Scud missiles, 30 chemical missile warheads, 480,000 litres of live chemical agents and a manufacturing plant designed to produce anthrax and other biological weapons. Therefore, the obligation of securing full, comprehensive and continuous access to those sites is not just an abstract question of enforcing Security Council resolutions, however important that is; it is about preventing a dangerous dictator from acquiring the means to destroy whole populations.

We have horrifying evidence of Saddam Hussein's disregard for human life. We have seen his brutal aggression against neighbouring states, against his Kurdish citizens, against his Arab citizens, against members of the Baath party, against members of his own Takriti clan - even against members of his immediate family. Such a man, armed with the capacity to cause destruction at a distance, would not hesitate to use it.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall that, after repeated pleas from Labour Members, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to stop the export of the precursors of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons from this country, a previous Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told me and the House, on 20 April 1990, that I should remember that Saddam Hussein was a signatory to the international non-proliferation treaty and that, as such, the previous Government had full confidence that he would not manufacture nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction? Should not we have at least some apology from the previous Government, who treated today's evil dictator as a trusted ally?

Mr. Howard The truth is simple. We know now much more than we knew then. Those matters have been exhaustively canvassed since then, and if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the point that he raises has any relevance to the issues before the House this afternoon, he needs to make that clear to the House in a way in which he has not done so far.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) Over the weekend, I read that, in 1994, an export licence was given for growth medium to be exported from this country by a British subsidiary of Unilever; the culturing mechanism to grow anthrax spores was exported from this country to Iraq. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House how that was allowed?

Mr. Howard I heard the Secretary of State for Defence reply to a question on exactly those lines on a television programme last week. He said that he would investigate those reports, and I am sure that he will. The Secretary of State also made the point that distinguishing between materials that can be used for genuine medical purposes and those that can be misused for the type of purpose to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is by no means easy. I expect that it is common ground across the House that it is sensible for us to make available materials that can be used to heal the sick in Iraq.

For the reasons that I have given, securing access to Saddam Hussein's weapons sites is, first and foremost, a measure designed to save human lives - perhaps millions of lives. Another reason why we support the Government's stand is that we believe that lawbreaking, terrorism and violence must never be rewarded. That is an issue of absolute principle. Every time aggression achieves its goals, or is seen to do so, the fabric of the law is torn. If a dictator can use violence to his advantage, others will be encouraged by his example.

That was the lesson of the League of Nations. It is a lesson well understood in this House and in this nation. It was in support of that principle that the United Kingdom fought for the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. It was in defence of that principle that we joined the original coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

Mr. Dalyell If that principle is so immutable, why does it not apply to Israel?

Mr. Howard I shall deal later with the comparisons frequently made between Israel and Iraq, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to exercise a little patience.

The question, then, is: how is that obligation to be enforced? There is no one in the House who would not prefer it to be enforced without military action, and without the suffering, misery and death that will inevitably accompany any such action. That is why it is so essential that every diplomatic avenue that remains should be fully and thoroughly explored. That is why, if the Secretary-General of the United Nations goes to Baghdad, he will carry with him our hopes and prayers.

Saddam Hussein has stepped back from the brink on many previous occasions; we all hope and pray that he does so again. But - it is a "but" that must be faced - if he does not, are we to walk away and content ourselves with empty gestures? Or are we to combine with our allies to take whatever action we can to enforce those solemn obligations?

We in the Conservative party believe that it is right to take such action. That is why we support the Government in the stand that they have taken. However, we make this plea: let there be no confusion or uncertainty in our objectives. Let there be no doubt or ambiguity about them.

Those objectives have in the past been expressed in different ways. The Foreign Secretary has spoken of the need to allow the UNSCOM inspectors to complete their tasks. The President of the United States has spoken of the need to reduce Saddam Hussein's ability to use weapons of mass destruction to wage war on his neighbours. The Secretary of State for Defence has spoken of weakening the ability of Saddam Hussein and his regime to survive.

The Foreign Secretary used different language again on the radio this morning. Not only do the words of those statements differ; they mean different things. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that there must be clarity and consistency in our objectives.

Clear objectives, diplomatic, strategic and military, must be linked to the action that the Government propose to take - and they must be objectives capable of being achieved by that action. That is the purpose of the amendment on the Order Paper in the names of my right hon. Friends and myself.

However, as the Foreign Secretary will be aware, among the things that I have never sought to press him to make public are the range of military options available to the allies, and the specific targets of any air strikes. Ministers have, rightly, stressed the difficulty of discussing those options in public, for the obvious reason that that would alert Saddam Hussein to the allies' intentions. Given that, was it wise of the Foreign Secretary to be quite as precise as he was on the "Today" programme this morning in discussing options and targets?

I have set out the Conservative party's position. There are, however, some other matters touched upon by the Foreign Secretary with which I must deal before I finish.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) May I ask the shadow Minister, just so that I can get it clear in my own mind, whether he is suggesting that his favoured outcome would take us beyond the UN resolution, and that he seeks the removal of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Howard Not at all. I have not said anything that would give ground for any such supposition. Indeed, it is for the Government, with their knowledge of all the relevant factors, to define their objective with clarity and without ambiguity.

There are some matters touched upon by the Foreign Secretary with which I must deal before I finish. It is, of course, a matter of intense regret that the coalition of forces that has been assembled to enforce the will of the United Nations is not as broad as it was at the time of the Gulf war. It is a matter of particular regret that there has not been unanimous support from within the European Union. The countries of the European Union are, after all, those with which for the most part we work most closely. They are those with which we have many interests in common. It is bound, therefore, to be a matter of particular regret that notwithstanding welcome declarations of support from many of our partners, agreement across the board is lacking.

I must deal also with suggestions that are made not only in the House but by many of our friends in other parts of the world that we and the United States would in some way be guilty of double standards in taking action to enforce Security Council resolution 687 - the point that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) had in mind.

It is one thing to criticise the actions of the current Israeli Government in the context of the peace process and the lack of progress in reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. We have made such criticisms and we shall continue to do so. However, it is quite another thing to attempt to equate Saddam Hussein with the democratic Government of the state of Israel. We do not believe that there is any such equation. We think that the differences should be recognised.

The Foreign Secretary was somewhat less than wholly forthcoming when he answered a question from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about the fresh Security Council resolution that the Foreign Secretary has mentioned to us in the past. Can we be told in the wind-up to the debate what progress the Government have made in securing it? Given what the Government have previously told us about the legal authority provided by resolution 687, what is the purpose of this resolution? What are the prospects of success in achieving it?

Mr. Galloway Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman see the pictures last week of Mordecai Vanunu, the longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner in the world, being led into a courtroom in Israel with his face in an iron brace like the one for Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs", to prevent him from speaking out about the weapons of mass destruction in the possession of Israel? On the subject of UN resolutions, has not Israel been in breach of resolutions 242 and 338 for more than 30 years?

Mr. Howard As I have just said, it is perfectly possible and indeed legitimate to criticise Israel for a number of its actions, but that does not mean that it is right to make the equation that the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends are wont to make between a dictator such as Saddam Hussein and the democratic Government of the state of Israel.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as a Jew, agree with me, as a Jew, that many of the actions of the Israeli Government are disgraceful, loathsome and contemptible, but that such actions cannot be allowed to confuse or cross lines with the gross violations of the dictator who has murdered millions of people and who is ready to murder more if given the opportunity?

Mr. Howard I have never sought to compete with the right hon. Gentleman in his command of invective. I will not follow him precisely in the first part of his question, although I have readily acknowledged that there are many aspects of the decisions that have been taken by the Government of Israel which are the object of legitimate criticism. I agree with the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, and he makes a telling point.

I welcome what the Foreign Secretary told us about the oil-for-food resolution. It underlines the fact that our quarrel is with Saddam Hussein and not with the Iraqi people.

I hope that when the Secretary of State for Defence winds up, he will tell us a little more about the command arrangements in the event that military action should be necessary. Will British forces on this occasion defer to overall US command? If so, will there be a right of access to a higher political level, as there was during the Gulf war? I hope that we can be enlightened during the wind-up to the debate.

As the crisis in the Gulf reaches its denouement, the Government will have difficult judgments to make. Conservative Members will be scrutinising those judgments with vigilance, as is our duty. We shall continue to insist on clear objectives linked to the means of achieving them. But, in regard to the essentials of the stand that they have taken, the Government can rely on the support of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon) I support the Government's policy. I do so reluctantly, because the situation at present is fraught with danger; but, if diplomacy were to fail, doing nothing would be no acceptable option. For that reason, I believe that the Government deserve the support of the House at the present time.

Let me say at the outset that the present crisis is no rerun of the Gulf war. In 1990, Iraq had invaded a sovereign nation: it had invaded Kuwait. The Gulf war was a mission of expulsion - a mission to throw out an aggressor who had occupied a peaceful neighbouring country. On this occasion, there is a separate problem. This time, the diplomatic action - and, perhaps, the military action to follow - is to enforce international law as set out in United Nations resolutions, and to prevent something that might happen if we did not do so: to prevent the danger of a dictator continuing to develop chemical and biological weapons and the means to use them, perhaps over a wide region.

That is, for many people, a more difficult and a more subtle objective, and the risks associated with it are certainly different. The political decisions to be made, in many ways, may be more difficult than those that were to be made at the beginning of the 1990s.

I want, very briefly, to make four straightforward points. The first is to do with international support. Of course, a diplomatic solution is the preferred option: no sane person would wish for anything else, if it is available. I hope - I trust that every hon. Member hopes - that, if agreement can be reached and Kofi Annan goes to Baghdad, he will be successful. A great deal has been happening, and continues to happen, on the diplomatic front. But whether Kofi Annan's mission is successful will not depend just on what he says to Saddam Hussein; it will depend on whether Saddam Hussein is prepared to accept the will of the international community when, yet again, it is presented to him by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

There is one other element of diplomacy that I think is very important to the Gulf, and very important not just to the international community but, particularly, to the British nation. I think it absolutely essential for the Government to continue to use all our diplomatic resources to explain our policy, and to enlist support from our friends across the middle east. I know that the Foreign Secretary has had meetings in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; I know that the Prime Minister is seeing King Hussein; I know that Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office have met other Gulf and middle east leaders. All that is immensely welcome.

Let me say to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary that I hope that that effort will continue. Speeches in the House - important though they are - or at the United Nations are not a substitute for continuing face-to-face contact with our allies across the Gulf to explain why we are following the policy that we are following, and what we believe the dangers would be if we were to do anything else.

We British have many long-standing friends and allies in the Gulf. They will have said to the Foreign Secretary, as they have said to many of his predecessors, that they believe that the British have a better and deeper understanding of the wider region of the middle east than many other western democratic nations. For that reason, I hope that the Government will continue to explain personally to our friends that we are not engaged in a knee-jerk reaction to Saddam Hussein, but we are concerned that there are great dangers in not upholding international law - not least to those very friends in the Gulf who are so concerned at the moment. Last time, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. No one doubts that, had he been successful, his next target would have been the Gulf states themselves, which are unable to resist a military might of the size of Iraq's.

There is a further point that I hope we shall emphasise on every occasion. We have no hostility to the Iraqi people or to the Iraqi nation as a whole. We have no intention - neither have the Americans, nor any other western democratic nation - of dismembering the state of Iraq now or at any stage in the future. That may seem self-evident to us in the cosiness of the United Kingdom, but it needs stating and restating all across the middle east, because, outside mosques in every middle eastern country, after every prayer meeting, a different message will be cried out daily to fuel anti-British and anti-American sentiment. We should lose no opportunity to refute that whenever we are in the middle east or have access to a middle eastern audience.

My second point is about what we delicately call collateral damage. It is a fashionable phrase. Bluntly, it means the death of innocent people in any military action that we may be forced to undertake. In our country and in the democratic west as a whole, if military targets are at risk, we move civilians away from those targets, to protect them. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein may well move people to the targets, to protect the targets themselves.

The Foreign Secretary and our other allies will be well aware of that, but if we are driven to military action, I hope that the targets will be the means of production of chemical and biological weapons, and that we shall be as cautious as possible to ensure that we are nowhere near known storehouses - I know that we have a great deal of information about where they are. Our job is to stop Saddam Hussein making more chemical weapons, not by accident to release existing stocks into the atmosphere. The whole purpose is to be able to get at those stocks and safely and securely to destroy them.

I hope that, among the military targets, we shall look at the assets of the Republican Guard and other elements of the Iraqi war machine. They are not only legitimate targets, but their destruction would weaken the apparatus of repression that has kept this man in power, abusing his position and the lives of the people in his country for too long.

My third point is, perhaps, less often examined, but should be: what will Iraq do in the present circumstances? We know little or nothing about what Iraqi intentions may be. I remember that, in the middle of the Gulf war, to our complete surprise Saddam Hussein flew a whole squadron of aircraft to Iran. We were never entirely sure why. To the best of my knowledge, it was not a smart move - he never got them back. It was wholly unexpected. He might have other surprises for us. He fired Scud missiles successfully at Israel - at Tel Aviv. We do know why he did that - to provoke a reaction; to unite Arab opinion against the west and against Israel. I am not confident that he will not do that again.

The Foreign Secretary has assessed the risk as low. I pray that he is right, but it is not a negligible risk. It could occur. For that reason, I hope that Saddam Hussein will be warned, as he was before, of massive retaliation should he attack any third country, including Israel. Those countries, including Israel, should be assured that massive retaliation will come from countries other than themselves. In those circumstances, I hope that Israel - we can all understand how difficult the decision would be for the Israeli Cabinet - would leave the retaliation to other people, were it to prove necessary, as it wisely did in the early 1990s. It would require restraint and bravery on the part of the Israeli Cabinet, but it is necessary. Iraq's motives would be to provoke Israel to retaliate, because if it did so, many of the Arab states would be diverted into an anti-Israeli coalition, and it would magnify the risk of a wider war.

Do not brush aside and underestimate that danger, because, quite apart from extreme Arab opinion, moderate Arab opinion is very sour indeed at present because of the total lack of progress recently in the middle east peace process. I hope that both the United States Government and our own Government will make it clear straight away that, quite apart from this dispute, it is the clear priority of our Governments to re-establish a momentum in the negotiations before that bitterness continues to sour so much of what happens across the middle east.

Mr. Dalyell Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of Iran, as a visitor to Iran in October, I ask him why those who have suffered casualties of first world war proportions - one sees the war memorials to the horrendous Iran-Iraq war in every city and small place in Iran - and who have every reason to loathe Saddam Hussein, and do, still do not think that a British-American air pounding of Iraq, particularly of Karbala, An Najaf and other places of the Shi'ites, is either sensible or justified?

Mr. Major With respect to the hon. Gentleman, who feels deeply about this issue, that is a question for the Iranians and not for me. I can answer from our point of view. Suppose that we were to do nothing. Suppose that we decided to take no action because it was too difficult or too uncomfortable, or it might go wrong - all those things could happen - and two years from now Saddam Hussein had a delivery system for chemical and biological weapons and used it. What would the House say to itself and what would history say if we knew that we had the opportunity to take action now and we chose not to? I do not suggest for a moment that this is an easy option. The Government have no easy option, and they deserve our sympathy in the decisions that they have to take, but the securest option, the option of least long-term risk, is to accept the policy on which the Government have embarked. For that reason, they have my full support.

My fourth point concerns the internal situation in Iraq - a situation that is intolerable for millions of ordinary Iraqis. We were absolutely right some years ago to allow the sale of oil for the purchase of medicines and food in Iraq. I very much regret that that was not taken up in the interests of the people of Iraq in the way that it could have been, and for the reasons that we intended it to be taken up.

I was very pleased to hear what the Foreign Secretary had to say about a new UN resolution to enable a greatly increased amount from oil revenues to be used for the benefit of the people of Iraq, but it depends on Saddam Hussein taking up the option. I wonder whether he will. Does he really regard that as the way in which he wishes to go? Based on precedent, he might well not. Therefore, I hope that we shall look again at how we might alleviate the hardship of innocent people in Iraq, if necessary through targeted, specific aid, delivered and approved under UN resolution - a most welcome initiative - if we can achieve it. That at least bypasses the obvious and easy block that Saddam Hussein has at present on assistance.

In 1991, in a different range of circumstances, we led the world in establishing the safe havens policy in northern Iraq. I believe that time and circumstances are right to look again at innovative and fresh ways in which we might help other people who are in great distress across Iraq. Not only does that seem right in terms of ordinary humanity, but it would emphasise our concern for the Iraqi people and strengthen support from friendly Arab leaders, who are appalled at the hardship in Iraq and fearful of it worsening. It would also have the incidental advantage, but advantage none the less, that it would massively embarrass the present Iraqi regime if the nations against which Saddam Hussein is whipping up such hatred were to seek to help the very people whom he oppresses so vilely.

We are in a miserable and dangerous situation. This is no time for jingoism: only a fool goes into battle smiling. If diplomacy fails, the Government will be faced with unpalatable choices. Do we allow Saddam Hussein to flout international law, to break his word, to build up a weapons arsenal and to increase greatly the danger of a wider middle east war? Surely that is unthinkable.

Do we accept that there are other would-be strutting dictators around the world who would be encouraged and emboldened if Saddam Hussein were to get away with turning up his nose at the rest of the world? Surely we accept that.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) A year ago, the right hon. Gentleman lent his support to a campaign to indict Saddam Hussein as a war criminal. Does he agree that whatever happens, we must focus attention on Saddam Hussein's crimes? He should appear before an international criminal court to answer for those crimes.

Mr. Major I believed that a year ago, and I believe it just as strongly today. It applies not only to Saddam Hussein, but to other people. The sooner such an international mechanism is in place and workable, the better.

Diplomacy might not fail, because Saddam Hussein has backed away at the last minute before. From what the Foreign Secretary said, it seems that we can hang on to at least a glimmer of hope for a little while. However, if diplomacy failed, it would be right for us to use force. I do not like it: indeed, I hate it, but I know that it might have to be done. As I understand it, that is the Government's position. If so, they deserve support. I am here this afternoon to declare that they have mine.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) When the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was Prime Minister, he had to deal with problems comparable to those with which my right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench now have to deal, and Her Majesty's Opposition gave him their full support. Not only did the elected shadow Cabinet of the parliamentary Labour party give him its full support, so did the parliamentary Labour party, the national executive committee of the Labour party, and the Labour party conference by an eight to one vote. It is essential to draw the House's attention to the fact that the Labour party is pursuing the very same policies in government as it pursued in opposition.

It perplexes me that certain Labour Members have tabled an amendment that, among other things, "notes" the failure of the Iraqi Government to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. The amendment does not condemn or deplore, but notes the failure of Saddam Hussein to conform to those resolutions. Clause 4 of the Labour party's constitution contains a commitment to the defence and security of the British people, and to co-operating with European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies. The words "the United Nations" were inserted into clause 4 by one of the principal signatories to the amendment that "notes" the failure of Saddam Hussein to conform to United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The situation is clear. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. When he gained possession of Kuwait, he murdered and tortured Kuwaitis, destroyed their property, looted their homes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) pointed out, risked environmental catastrophe by blowing up Kuwaiti oilfields. He had previously invaded Iran, causing massive casualties both to his own population and to innocent Iranians who had never provoked any fight with him.

After Saddam Hussein gained possession of Kuwait, he launched unprovoked missile attacks on civilian populations in Saudi Arabia and Israel. He has murdered, tortured and poison-gassed countless of his own citizens.

There are many dictators and many deplorable Governments in the world today, but there is no Government whose record of murder of their own and other populations compares remotely with that of Saddam Hussein. He has violated every one of the United Nations Security Council resolutions that has been passed since 2 August 1990. More relevantly, he has violated ceasefire resolution 687. If one goes through that resolution clause by clause, one realises what he has failed or refused to do despite the specific commitment he gave when he agreed to the ceasefire in 1991.

The Security Council has affirmed all 13 resolutions that it has passed since 2 August 1990. Let us put on record in Hansard what Saddam Hussein accepted in the ceasefire resolution. He accepted unconditionally the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of … All chemical and biological weapons and all stocks of agents and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities and All ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres and related major parts, and repair and production facilities". We have heard from the Foreign Secretary that Saddam Hussein was working on missiles that could have delivered warheads to this country, which is much more than 150 km away.

As part of the ceasefire agreement, Saddam Hussein unconditionally undertook not to use, develop, construct or acquire any of the items and he accepted that there should be a plan for developing the future ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq's compliance". There was not a limited timetable. I utterly fail to understand what is going on in the heads of hon. Members who table an amendment saying that the United Nations Security Council should abandon what was decided in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, given that the resolutions originally passed were unconditional. Saddam Hussein accepted "ongoing monitoring and verification". That resolution is as valid today as it was when it was carried seven years ago, and Saddam Hussein has violated it deliberately, repeatedly and continually.