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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Defence Secretary and Chief of the Defence Staff: Press Conference at the Ministry of Defence, London - 22 March 2003


Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon:

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. If I could say first of all that I am sorry that I have to confirm that two Sea King Mk 7 Royal Navy helicopters were involved in a mid-air collision over international waters south of Iraq. I can confirm that 7 air crew are missing. A search and rescue mission has been mounted, but as yet no survivors have been found. Our priority at this time is to notify the next of kin at the earliest opportunity. Cause of the accident is being investigated. And although this will be of no comfort to the families concerned, the crash is not believed to be the result of enemy action. I hope that you will understand why we cannot give further information until next of kin have been contacted.

With regard to yesterday’s CH-46 helicopter crash, I can confirm that the next of kin of the 8 men killed in the crash have now all been informed. At the request of the families, we will not release further details until later.

Over the past 24 hours you will have seen the military plan start to take shape on the ground. What we are looking to do is to achieve a series of effects to which the Iraqi regime simply cannot respond. We can do this whilst at the same time reducing the risk of civilian casualties. Indeed we believe that this is the right way to minimise such risk. The coalition is now therefore working simultaneously along several lines of operation. First of all, through information operations, we are making clear to the Iraqi Armed Forces and to Iraq’s civilian population, the coalition’s resolve to achieve our objectives - the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its weapons of mass destruction. You will have seen pictures of the Iraqi Armed Forces responding to this and recognising that there is no need for them to fight for Saddam Hussein. Through ground manoeuvre we are rapidly securing Iraqi territory. Again as you will have seen from reporting overnight, the Iraqi 51st Division has stopped fighting. The US Army’s Fifth Corps has secured two bridges over the Euphrates. Admiral Boyce say more about events on the ground in a moment.

But last night was of course dominated by the air campaign, and in particular by attacks on targets in Baghdad. I want to say a little more about the underlying purpose of that campaign. It has sought to meet a number of objectives. As far as possible we have been attempting to minimise the risk of the Iraqi regime using its weapons of mass destruction. First and foremost this has required attacks on the regime’s ability to communicate and exercise command and control over these weapons, as well as attacking potential delivery sites. A particular focus has therefore been on communications facilities both within Baghdad and throughout Iraq.

I want to show how we are aiming to inflict damage on the Iraqi regime itself, whilst leaving civilian infrastructure intact. This first slide shows a map of central Baghdad. Many of the key regime facilities are concentrated in the centre along the West Bank of the Tigris river. The box which in a moment will be highlighted in greater detail, you will be able to see the concentration of so-called Presidential Palaces and regime headquarters in one particular area of the city. All along the river bank is in effect an area closed to ordinary Iraqis, populated by senior figures in the regime from which they operate. And our attacks therefore have sought to send clear signals to that regime that it can no longer exercise its tyranny over the Iraqi people. By isolating regime leaders from security forces under their control we are sending a very clear message, a message that they can no longer exercise control through the threat of force, a clear message as well to the ordinary people of Iraq that the days of this appalling regime will soon be over. Finally in order to facilitate such attacks and enable close air support to our ground forces, it has been necessary to achieve air superiority by reducing the threat from the Iraqi integrated air defence systems.

Again I want to give you some general examples of the kinds of targets that we have been attacking. They include, as you see here, intelligence and security organisations which are instrumental in the repression of the Iraqi people. Command and control structures, for example bunkers in the so-called Presidential palaces. Iraqi military capability, for example surface to surface weapons and their integrated air defence system, radar and surface to air missiles. The targets have been selected for the effects that will be achieved, rather than to produce physical destruction for its own sake. In considering every pre-planned target we go through a rigorous process of weighing the military advantage against the danger to civilian life and property. I personally oversee this process.

Let me illustrate this point with two examples of the types of targets which our forces attacked last night. The main headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in Baghdad, a key part of the regime’s intelligence and security network, was attacked last night by a United Kingdom tomahawk missile fired from a British submarine. This was a carefully targeted strike which will have had significant effect on the ability of the Iraqi intelligence service to contribute to the internal repression carried out by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Attacks on this and other Iraqi intelligence service facilities will remove from the Iraqi regime a key source of its power, reducing the potential threat to coalition forces and reducing its ability to terrorise the people of Iraq.

We also carried out a successful attack against the main sector air defence bunker in Kirkuk. This operation centre provides command and control for Iraqi Air Force interceptors and strategic surface to air missiles. By destroying or disrupting the operation centre, we gain and maintain coalition air space superiority, reducing the risk to our aircraft operating in the area.

I was asked at yesterday’s press conference how we resolve the apparent dichotomy between our commitment to the use of minimum force and the overwhelming nature of the air campaign. I hope that what I have said today has addressed this issue for you. The use of overwhelming force during last night’s attacks was not designed to turn Iraq into a wasteland, rather it was aimed at inflicting damage on the Iraqi regime, whilst leaving civilian infrastructure as intact as possible. As last night’s dramatic television coverage showed, the lights stayed on in Baghdad, but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing.

Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Well as you have heard from the Secretary of State, coalition forces have continued to make significant progress in all environments. But before I give you some details about our campaign so far, I would like once again to echo the words of the Secretary of State and send my deep condolences to the families of the Servicemen who lost their lives last night in that mid-air collision between two of our helicopters in the Gulf.

Well we did have a huge increase in activity in the scale of our coalition effort last night and this tightening of the screw on Saddam’s regime included the high intensity attacks on targets in Baghdad, in Kirkuk and other areas along the lines the Secretary of State has described. And in terms of scale I can tell you that as of early today coalition Air Forces have flown some 3,000 plus sorties and delivered a very large package of precision weapons, including the tomahawk missiles which were fired by our own submarines.

Now let me give you some more detail about other operations. Some of you might have expected there to have been some sort of pause to coalition progress, but this has not been the case. In the Basra area the Iraqi 51st Division has surrendered and we have many thousand prisoners of war. 7 Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, have been very much involved in the approach to Basra and they are on the outskirts at the moment and they will be consolidating their position today. Further off to the west, the United States 5 Corps advance has gone well and they have reached beyond Talil airfields in the Nazaria area, and they have secured also bridges over the Euphrates, and they are well placed now for rapid exploitation towards the north, the west and of course Baghdad.

Meanwhile back in the south of Iraq, 16 Air Assault Brigade is now on the move to occupy the southern oilfields and consolidate the coalition position there. And with these oilfields now firmly in coalition hands, our UK engineers are now at work making safe the well heads which had been prepared for demolition, and we are also expecting contractors to help them today. We believe that 9 well heads will need the services of the contractors. We have had specialist UK teams trained to deal with ordnance disposal and RAF and Royal Tank Regiment NBC teams also deployed forward with the United State regimental combat teams.

The report all over the oil infrastructure is that practically all of the oil and gas separation platforms were mined or booby-trapped. It doesn’t say a lot for Saddam Hussein’s thoughts of his own people that he is prepared to blow up his entire economy. The challenging task of making all these areas safe is now well under way. So the southern Iraq oil infrastructure has been captured intact by the coalition and it certainly averted the potential possibility of an environmental disaster, and it really does raise the hope that Iraq’s natural resources can be turned back to the advantage of the Iraqi people, and of course this is so important for the Oil for Food Programme.

On the maritime front there are a number of challenges, but the biggest is the need to ensure that seaborne access to Umm Qasr Port is safe to allow humanitarian aid to flow quickly into southern Iraq. On the Al Faw Peninsular operations by 3 Commando Brigade restarted at first light this morning to secure the entire area. But the sea mines threat in the waterway there is real and must be dealt with, and so our mine counter-measure vessels are on the job – HMS Brocklesby, Blythe, Bangor - they have been at work to ensure safe delivery of that waterway. And we have also had our UK fleet clearance diving teams busy in the port area to make safe any demolitions there. This early start to mine clearance operations of course, as I said, is to allow access to key shipping, and particularly RFA Sir Gallahad will be bringing humanitarian relief into the port.

I mentioned yesterday the subject of prisoners of war. We are looking after their safety. I was asked about that yesterday. Some have been injured and some of them are being treated in our mobile hospital, the RFA Argus.

Turning now to air. Overnight, alongside the USAF and USN, the RAF have been heavily involved in the widescale attacks we have been talking about against key targets, including Baghdad. All of our aircraft returned safely. And last night during the air raids we saw the first operational use of our new United Kingdom’s Storm Shadow missile. This is a missile which is designed for long range, highly accurate, deep penetration against key regime targets, and this missile was flown by our GR4 Tornado aircraft. It was a successful outing.

Now you will be very aware, as the Secretary of State has made you aware, of last night’s intense bombardment, but as I say, and as he has said, such intense warfare is not conducted lightly. Our aim is to dislocate and destroy the apparatus of the Iraqi regime. And this morning, as I am speaking, we still have water, we still have power supplies and so on in Baghdad, and especially to such essential services as hospitals. We have no quarrel at all with the Iraqi people.

Question: What are your estimates of the casualties? The Iraqis have been talking about 200 plus injured, is that a figure that you could agree with?

Mr Hoon: I obviously can’t at this stage confirm Iraqi claims about casualties. As I indicated, we have taken great care in the selection of targets, those targets have been ones associated with the regime. And as I hope the illustration on the map showed as well, many of those targets are in areas that are away from centres of civilian population, they are not areas that are associated with ordinary Iraqis. I can’t rule out the risk of some civilian casualties, but what I can say is that enormous efforts were made in the careful targeting to avoid those casualties.

Question: I wonder if you could answer these two points. First, the reports about Saddam being killed or wounded. Secondly, the fact that so many people were doubting that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, after the firing of the 5 scud missiles, or whatever type of missiles on Kuwait, is it clear now that he still possesses weapons of mass destruction?

Mr Hoon: There are of course continuing reports about Saddam Hussein. I am not in a position to confirm them. It will not affect our determination to destroy this regime and free Iraq for its people. As far as missiles are concerned, we have had a number of missiles fired into Kuwait. Obviously it demonstrates the ability of elements of the regime at any rate to continue their campaign. We are confident that when we have the opportunity of doing so, we will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Question: Can I just ask you about what is going on in Baghdad, because I think the indications from our correspondent and other reporters there on the ground are that the bombing has been having the effect of rallying the Iraqi people behind Saddam Hussein. Isn’t that a major concern for you given that these people that you are committed to liberating don’t seem too keen on the idea at the moment, perhaps understandably.

Mr Hoon: I have not seen the slightest evidence of that, indeed all of the evidence that I have seen points in exactly the opposite direction. You will have seen the numbers of surrenders that have occurred lately, and indeed one particular example of one group surrendering simply because the commanding officer recognised that his own men were drifting away and were no longer prepared to fight for Saddam Hussein. Equally we all know the restrictions imposed on reporters in and around Baghdad, I doubt that there is much evidence for what you are suggesting.

Question: There are reports that two missiles have caused damage in southern Iran, could you please clarify that, whether they were stray missiles from the coalition forces or maybe from Iraq itself. And also the degree of surrender by the Iraqi forces, have they slowed down the operations within Iraq?

Mr Hoon: Well I can’t confirm any suggestions that any of our missiles have gone astray into Iran. I have seen those suggestions, obviously they are being investigated and we are continuing our contacts with the government there. As far as prisoner surrenders are concerned, clearly that is helping in the sense that obviously as our forces are able to move northwards, the surrenders allow that to take place more easily. Clearly we have regard to treating prisoners properly. I deployed an extra set of Britain’s forces in order to be able to cope with prisoners of war, but obviously as the campaign unfolds, we anticipate those kinds of surrenders continuing.

Admiral Boyce: People surrendering will slow you down far less than people fighting.

Question: Could you clarify for us something overnight. There have been various suggestions we could have it all over by Monday, somebody else was saying it could be 3 or 4 days. Could you give us your best estimate as to how long this war is likely to last?

Mr Hoon: I really do not think it is sensible to talk in terms of a timescale. This is a military operation and military operations are subject to a whole set of uncertainties. What I can say is that this operation is going according to plan and in many respects is ahead of the plan, but I don’t think it is sensible to go further than that.

Question: Are you concerned about the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq? Do you think that is a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq, and not least because it might encourage Iran and other powers to do it. And can you please update us on any contacts that have been made with senior Iraqi officers and the Republican Guard?

Mr Hoon: We are aware that a small Turkish force has gone into the north of Iraq, that the size of that force is consistent with a border policing operation and the Turks have made clear that they are only concerned to prevent instability along that border and to the extent that their forces carry out those limited operations, then clearly we are relaxed about it. But obviously it is a sensitive situation and one that we will keep clearly under control. I don’t want to go into the details of what contacts there might have been, but it is clear that there are results on the ground of Iraqi forces surrendering.

Question: There have been reports of British and coalition military activity in two vital airfields, H2 and H3, can you comment on that at all?

Admiral Boyce: Not really, no, that is an area on which we don’t have any particular information at the moment.

Question: You mentioned that we are on the outskirts of Basra at the moment and we are consolidating positions there. Does that mean our troops are digging in now, or can we expect Basra to fall at some point today?

Mr Hoon: Again I am not in the prediction business. Certainly our forces are close to Basra. It appears to be the case that regular Iraqi armed forces have withdrawn from Basra, but there are continuing elements of Saddam’s security services in position maintaining resistance. And actually that seems to me to be a model for the way in which this regime operates, the regular armed forces are not armed forces that you would expect we hope to fight for Saddam. The ones that we would expect to meet resistance from are those who have a vested interest in this appalling regime, that is the security services that have so terrified and intimidated the Iraqi people over so many years, it is those people that will continue to resist.

Question: Sir Michael, you talked about 3,000 air sorties, was that simply last night? And also you talked about the oil and gasfields being booby trapped and mined, can you give us any detail on that?

Admiral Boyce: Yes, the 3,000 sorties were of that order last night. I can’t give you more details because I haven’t had them myself yet, but what is reported is that the oil platforms in the mouth of the waterway up to the port of Basra and Umm Qasr, what we found in the Rumalia oilfields where 16 Air Mobile Brigade are moving into today, and also on the Al Faw Peninsular we have found demolitions which were obviously set to go, but we managed to get in there fast enough to prevent them being blown, and now we are defusing them.

Question: Two questions. If Saddam’s death is confirmed, will that change strategy? And secondly, how many days would you say it will be before ground forces reach Baghdad?

Mr Hoon: As I said earlier, the objective is to remove weapons of mass destruction and the control of Saddam’s regime in Iraq. If the news of Saddam’s death is confirmed and that affects the resolve of the remaining elements of his regime, well and good, but it will not affect our determination to continue to rid Iraq of those appalling elements and that is central to our campaign objectives. And I think I have made clear that the campaign will continue until we have achieved those objectives.

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