Statement to the House of Commons - Secretary of State for Defence on 3 April 2003
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq.
We are now two weeks into the campaign. The Coalition continues to make remarkable progress, following the main outlines of our military plan. Since my last statement on 26 March, Coalition forces have been establishing a presence in northern Iraq and moving ever closer to Baghdad. Another important phase has been reached, as the first troops engage Saddam's Republican Guard divisions on the approaches to the city. At the same time, British forces are consolidating their position in the area in and around Basrah.
I want to repeat the warning I made in my first statement to this House two weeks ago. Do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces, or the length of time that it may take to complete. We are still very much in the second phase of steady progress that my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister has set out.
On behalf of the Government, I want to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those Servicemen who have lost their lives in recent days. I would like to mention as well those who have been injured, some seriously, since the start of military operations, either in combat or through the usual course of their duties. 39 UK battle casualties are currently being treated in theatre, and 35 have been evacuated. I know that the House will join me in sending our best wishes for their speedy recovery.
In this conflict we have been accused by commentators of underestimating the resistance of the Iraqi regime. We always knew that the regime would fight - but what has shocked us, as democratic states observing the rule of law, is the extent of the Iraqi regime's capacity for brutality and the killing of their own people. Every aspect of what we do is rightly - and understandably - held up for public scrutiny. In contrast, Saddam Hussein's murderous thugs go about their brutal work out of sight of the media.
There are those who have been surprised by the caution with which the Iraqi people have greeted coalition forces. But this should not be surprising. This is a regime that has deployed every horror in maintaining its stranglehold on power - torture, rape and execution. In recent days, our forces on the ground around Basrah have been appalled by the actions of the regime's thugs as they struggle to maintain their grip on the city. On 25 March, there were disturbances in Basrah which irregular regime forces suppressed with mortar fire against their own people. On 28 March, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people were preparing to leave Basrah, regime militia travelling in white vehicles opened fire with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Since then irregulars have been routinely firing on civilians in the South East of Basrah. This is the kind of brutal suppression which has been going on inside Iraq for many years.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Iraqi regime shows no greater respect for the country's cultural wealth than it does for its people. The Coalition is taking every precaution to avoid damage to the holy sites in An Najaf and Karbala. By contrast, we know that Saddam Hussein has plans to damage these sites and blame the coalition. Indeed he has used the site at Najaf as a defensive position, firing on US forces, who in fact did not return the fire.
The steady advance of the coalition continues. Our strategic grip on Iraq is tightening. In the south, British forces continue to operate in the Al Faw Peninsula, the Southern oilfields, and the Basrah area. 7th Armoured Brigade is preventing Iraqi forces in Basrah from hindering the main advance, whilst establishing corridors for the safe movement of civilians and humanitarian aid. We have been striking key regime targets in the area. These operations have included successful attacks from the air on the Ba'ath Party headquarters in Basrah, and by 7th Armoured Brigade on the intelligence and militia headquarters in Basrah and the local State Security Organisation headquarters in Az Zubayr, to the south of Basrah.
3 Commando Brigade engaged substantial Iraqi forces in the area of Abu Al Khasib in the south-east outskirts of Basrah, capturing significant numbers of enemy forces, including senior Iraqi officers. This daring raid resulted in the death of one Royal Marine. There were in addition a number of casualties. On the night of 31 March, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with artillery and air support, engaged Iraqi forces, destroying an estimated 17 T55 tanks and five artillery pieces as well as other Iraqi vehicles and infantry positions. We are now focusing on building the confidence of the local people. We will continue to patrol aggressively, striking hard at the regime and its militias. Key suburbs of Basrah have now been seized. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing.
Further north, elements of the United States' Army's V Corps have now passed through Karbala, and are moving towards Baghdad. US forces have been engaging with the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisions, and have secured crossings over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The lead elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are now on the outskirts of Baghdad. Over 9,000 Iraqi prisoners of war have been taken by coalition forces. Royal Air Force aircraft have contributed to the close air support of these forces. They have also attacked Iraqi forces in the field, and have continued to degrade the regime's command and control facilities, and the combat capability of the security forces which support it.
Coalition forces have taken the utmost care over the targeting of the air campaign. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of any civilian casualties or damage to the civilian infrastructure. The House will be aware of the explosions in market districts of Baghdad on 26 and 28 March, and reports of significant numbers of fatalities and injuries. Neither of the market places were targeted by the coalition, and we continue to investigate how these tragic events might have occurred. We have long been familiar with the false claims of civilian casualties made by Saddam's regime, and it would be foolish to accept these claims at face value without proper investigation.
Offensive operations are, however, only part of the picture. The expertise and flexibility of our forces are essential to the battle to win the confidence of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been terrified. Over half the population of Iraq have only known life under Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of fear. The older generation have an appreciation of his cruelty that is borne out by bitter experience. That is why it is so important that in a number of areas where UK forces are operating, there is a growing sense of return to normal life. People are going back to work. The United Nations has now declared Uum Qasr a Permissive Environment - allowing UN agencies to begin their work there.
Essential services such as water and electricity are being restored and even improved, in part due to the skill of the Royal Engineers. The Umm Qasr Water Treatment Plant, which can treat up to three million litres a day, is now operational. In addition, the water pipeline constructed by UK forces from Kuwait to Umm Qasr is complete, delivering up to two million litres of drinking water daily - enough for 160,000 people per day - and providing vital temporary relief.
Schools and markets are being re-opened. 7th Armoured Brigade has removed Ba'ath party thugs from the Az Zubayr medical centre - where treatment was previously only available to those close to the regime - to enable access for ordinary Iraqis. Humanitarian aid is being distributed. The security situation in a growing number of areas is such that troops are patrolling on foot rather than in armoured cars, and have in some cases exchanged their combat helmets for berets. The UK Armed Forces are putting the full range of their expertise and experience to use, with striking effect.
The Royal Marines have disabled the last remnants of the Iraqi Navy and the port of Umm Qasr is under coalition control and open to shipping. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels continue operations to expand the navigable width of the Khawr Abd' Allah channel. They have discovered 105 mines so far - 11 laid in the water, and a total of 94 intercepted on Iraqi tugs and patrol boats. These operations are crucial to the humanitarian operation, bringing vital supplies to the Iraqi people. On 28 March the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad unloaded its humanitarian cargo of around 300 tonnes of water, medical supplies, food and equipment for providing shelter. Water and perishable goods have already been distributed in the Umm Qasr area; other supplies are being stored until such time as they are required. Two Australian ships, each loaded with some 50,000 tonnes of grain, are expected in Umm Qasr shortly.
The UN Oil for Food programme was re-established by Security Council Resolution 1472 on 28 March - an important milestone for the people of Iraq. But it will take time to take effect. 1 (UK) Division therefore has authority to spend up to thirty million pounds for special humanitarian purposes within the first month, and a further ten million pounds available for "quick impact" projects, such as restoring electricity and water supplies.
Mr Speaker, after two weeks of military operations against the Iraqi regime, the Coalition continues to make progress. Every day we are further weakening Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq and moving another day closer to the end of his appalling regime and the liberation of the Iraqi people. We are engaged in an important and determined effort to convince the Iraqi people of our commitment to them - to their political security and their economic welfare. Above all, our commitment to see through what we have begun - to remove the regime that has terrified the Iraqi people and impoverished their nation for two decades. It will take time.
But we have made an excellent start. But there is still much more to achieve, and our Servicemen and women will continue to brave difficulties and dangers in the process. I know the House will join me in wishing them well.
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