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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Statement to the House of Commons - Secretary of State for Defence on 26 March 2003

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq. Coalition forces have made significant progress since my statement to the House last Friday.

Saddam Hussein's calculation in this conflict is that western democracies are weak - that they have no stomach for a fight - that they will not stand up, and go on standing up for the things that they believe in.

Tyrants misunderstand and miscalculate the values that are at the heart of our democracies - that we are here in this House only because people are able freely to elect us, and that we uphold and observe the rule of law. They also forget that the members of our Armed Forces volunteer to serve their country.

Our armed forces comprise free men and women - with their own often strongly held individual views and ideas - who serve together and risk their lives together because they choose to - not because some thug stands behind them or their family with threats of torture or execution.

Those free men and women choose to risk their lives in the defence of the values we share. And when those lives are lost we pay proper tribute to them and to their families, because they stand in our place, and we must in turn resolutely stand up for them.

That is why on behalf of the Government I extend our condolences to the families and friends of those servicemen who have died. Twenty individuals with twenty grieving families. Whether they died in tragic accidents, or from enemy fire, these men gave their lives in the service of their country and in defence of the highest ideals. We owe them and their families a profound debt of gratitude for their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.

We have all seen the reporting from the 24 hour media over the last few days. Inevitably, such reporting reflects the immediate situation around specific journalists. It does not always give an overall picture or strategic perspective.

I would therefore like to set out the context by reporting progress against the tasks identified in the Government's Military Campaign Objectives published on 20th March.

After six days of conflict, the Coalition has made steady progress, following the main outline of our military plan, towards our objective of overcoming resistance from the Iraqi security forces. The Al Faw peninsula, Umm Qasr and the southern oilfields have been secured, and Iraqi resistance in those areas defeated. 3 Commando Brigade is in control, and the US 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been released to return to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force which is now heading towards Baghdad.

16 Air Assault Brigade is deployed in the Southern oilfields and the 7th Armoured Brigade dominates the Basrah area. Resistance in nearby Az Zubayr has been defeated and British forces are in place in much of the area around the city of Basrah.

US forces are spearheading an advance northwards with lead elements at Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad. US Marine combat units have also crossed the Euphrates and are proceeding northwards. Hon Members will have seen accounts of the serious engagement near al Najaf last night in which US forces from the 5th Corps repelled an attack by Iraqi forces.

Over 5,000 sorties have now been flown in the air campaign, and we have achieved significant degradation of Iraqi regime and command and control facilities. The focus of our effort will now shift towards close air support of coalition ground forces advancing on Baghdad.

On our most important campaign objective - to deny Iraq use of its Weapons of Mass Destruction - our efforts have centred on disabling the command and control facilities through which the Iraqi regime would order the use of such weapons. Our experts have already begun to investigate potential weapons sites in coalition controlled areas. To date, we have no evidence of Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction during this campaign. But it is impossible to know whether this is the result of successful military operations or a deliberate tactical judgement of the Iraqi regime. Indeed, we do know from Prisoners of War that protective equipment was issued to southern Iraqi divisions.

As the Prime Minister has made clear, it will be the removal of Saddam Hussein's appalling regime which will ultimately lead to Iraqi disarmament. To achieve this, we have been seeking to isolate the regime at all levels in every part of Iraq: - in Baghdad, in Tikrit, in Mosul and in Basrah - primarily by the use of precision attacks against regime and military targets. Although the regime has not yet collapsed - Saddam Hussein's thugs continue to resist in some areas - the regime has effectively lost control of southern Iraq. The regime must know that its days are now numbered.

British Forces have made a key contribution towards the objective of ensuring that essential economic infrastructure is secure. The Southern Oil fields and associated infrastructure have been secured, with very little damage. Umm Qasr, the country's one significant port, is under coalition control and is in working condition. A mine countermeasures task force, under Royal Navy command and including US and Australian elements, is making steady progress in clearing the Khawr Abd Allah waterway of any mines. This is necessarily a slow and painstaking process.

In the areas now under our control, British commanders are making contacts in the local communities, in order to begin the process of restoring normality.

We seek to deter wider conflict both inside and outside Iraq. The situation in Coalition-controlled Iraq is generally stable, although we are keeping a close watch on events in Basrah. I can assure the House that the welfare of the people of Basrah is at the forefront of the concerns of Coalition commanders. Coalition forces are engaging groups of enemy forces as they try to flee the city and we have successfully struck key regime targets within it - notably the Ba'ath Party headquarters overnight.

Northern Iraq remains stable and we intend to preserve that position. The situation remains calm along Iraq's other borders. Much of Coalition-controlled Iraq bordering Iran is under British command. But the suggestion that the Royal Marines were sent to guard against Iranian forces is simply not true. We are seeking close contacts with the Iranian authorities to reduce the scope for any potential misunderstanding.

Overall, our campaign looks to secure a better future for the people of Iraq. Our fight is not with the people of Iraq. There can be no greater demonstration of that than the efforts we are making to provide immediate humanitarian support and assistance where we can. Let us be clear: there has long been a humanitarian crisis in Iraq - caused by Saddam Hussein's misrule and the plundering of that country's resources for military spending, including his programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction. Many Iraqis have long been dependent on aid from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and more than half of Iraqis living in rural areas have no access to safe water.

The first stage in providing that help to Iraq must be defeating Saddam Hussein's forces and establishing a secure environment. This is necessary before we can begin to conduct humanitarian operations.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad is loaded with water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. It is waiting to enter Umm Qasr as soon as the sea lanes have been cleared of mines.

At the same time, in a co-operative effort with Kuwait and the United States, Royal Engineers are constructing a water pipe from Kuwait into Iraq to provide drinking water.

The humanitarian effort will build up over the coming weeks. It is impossible to know for certain the full extent of the resources that will be required. But, in conjunction with the Department of International Development, we have plans to address what we know are likely to be the most immediate and pressing needs. This must be part of a wider international effort, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is already providing support to the Iraqi people in Basrah and elsewhere.

Mr Speaker, after six days of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the Coalition has made steady progress. Our Servicemen and women have played a pivotal role in what has been achieved and we can be proud of their courage, their resilience and their determination. But there is much more to achieve, and much more we can offer the people of Iraq. The Government's position is clear. We will remain resolute until our objectives have been met.

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