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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon - Lobby briefing , London 7 April 2003

Mr Hoon:
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I want to try and bring you up to date with the campaign in Iraq and then take your questions. I intend to make a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon where I will set out the progress of the military campaign in Iraq and the activity the coalition is undertaking to help the Iraqi people begin rebuilding their country.

First of all I would like to offer my condolences to the families and friends of the three British Servicemen killed in action over the past two days. This brings the total British losses to 31. These men will not be forgotten, they have played their part in helping to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s barbaric regime.

Recent days have seen further significant progress against our campaign objectives. The United States V Corps has seized Baghdad
International Airport, defeated the Republican Guards Medina Division. The First Marine Expeditionary Force overcame the Baghdad and Alnida Divisions of the Republican Guard. This morning we have seen the pictures of US forces in the very centre of Baghdad.

Coalition air and missile strikes have continued to degrade the regime’s command and control capability, and the Republican Guard’s combat effectiveness. UK forces continue to control the south-east of the country and to work to secure a better future for the Iraqi people.

In Basrah, British troops began an operation to take control of the city on Saturday. Yesterday they moved into the heart of the city. They are now in Basrah to stay. Some desperate remnants of the regime continue to hold on in parts of the city. Operations to remove them continue.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Percival is expected to deliver a further cargo of humanitarian aid to Umm Qasr today. The water pipeline constructed by the Royal Engineers is now delivering up to 1.5 million litres of clean water each day, sufficient for some 160,000 people. UK troops have delivered around 170,000 sets of rations to people in south eastern Iraq.

But the regime’s resistance is not necessarily at an end. In Baghdad itself, as in other urban areas, coalition forces may well face a
difficult and dangerous period of flushing out the remnants of Iraqi forces, and particularly the various groups of irregulars, thugs and
fanatics who hang on to the coat-tails of the regime. And a number of Iraqi formations outside Baghdad may yet need to be defeated if they do not capitulate first.

What is clear is that Saddam Hussein’s regime is coming to an end and that a better future is in sight for the Iraqi people.

Question:
You mentioned the number of British casualties. How many Iraq casualties and how many American casualties have there been as far as you know?

Mr Hoon:
Well I don’t have the up-to-date figures for American casualties, I am sure that they can be made available to you. As far as Iraqi
casualties, we can only estimate the numbers. As I have indicated all along, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to minimise the number of civilian casualties and that effort continues today, but as far as their military losses are concerned, all I can say is that I anticipate sadly that they have been substantial.

Question:
How would you describe the British successes in Basrah overnight, and what is your message to the troops who are still fighting out there today?

Mr Hoon:
I think they have achieved a tremendous amount given the constraints that have been placed upon them, both to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, as well as not to take unnecessary risks for their own safety, and I think that the operations that they have conducted over a long period of time have been absolutely tremendous. What really happened over the weekend is that they continued this process of testing out the resistance by the militia forces based in Basra and simply found that that resistance was crumbling and therefore sought to take advantage of it in a military way by establishing themselves firmly in the centre of Basrah, and that process continues.

Question:
Are you proud of your troops?

Mr Hoon:
I am enormously proud of them, they have done a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances.

Question:
Do we have any good intelligence at all about the whereabouts now of Saddam Hussein and his sons? And do we now have confirmation one way or the other about the reports of the death of Chemical Ali?

Mr Hoon:
We are still not sure of the location of either Saddam Hussein or his sons. There are reports beginning to come in as to the whereabouts of some of those three. As far as Ali Hassan al Majid is concerned, we have some indications that he was killed in the raid conducted on Friday night, but I can’t yet absolutely confirm the fact that he is dead, but that would be certainly my best judgment in the situation.

Question:
You said you have some indications beginning to come about the whereabouts of Saddam.

Mr Hoon:
No, no, I said that in relation to Ali Hassan al Majid. What I said is that there are indications as to the whereabouts of the three, but
obviously at this stage that cannot be confirmed.

Question:
Have you been surprised that chemical and biological weapons have not so far been used from the Iraqi side, particularly now that the coalition forces have reached the centre of Baghdad, and do you think the threat has now disappeared?

Mr Hoon:
I have been relieved, I don’t think we can say that the threat has now absolutely disappeared, but certainly it was always part of our military campaign plan to move so quickly as to make the use of chemical and biological weapons very difficult for the regime, and that does appear to have been successful.

Question:
Is there any indication that you find about chemical weapons?

Mr Hoon:
Well we continue to see indications. The one that I have most heavily relied on to date is the fact that some Iraqi forces have been issued with protective equipment, and since neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has any kind of chemical or biological weapons, that protective equipment could only be designed to protect Iraqi forces against their own use of chemical weapons, so I think that is perhaps the strongest indication of all.

Question:
You have said that the British troops are there to stay in Basrah, that presumably is until matters are secure. What about the move to an interim authority, do you think that we actually need UN backing and a UN resolution for the interim authority?

Mr Hoon:
Let me say this as far as British troops are concerned. Obviously it is important when I say that they are there to stay to give confidence to the people in Basrah, we are beginning to see signs of that real confidence now. They have been understandably concerned over many weeks about the prospect of coalition forces abandoning them to their fate at the hands of the regime. That will not happen and they will stay there as long as it takes to provide the necessary security to people in and around Basrah and in other parts of the southern area for which we are responsible. As far as the future is concerned, as the Prime Minister has said, and I heartily endorse this on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, our troops will remain there only as long as is necessary, and indeed not a day longer. But as far as UN support is concerned, it is absolutely clear that we want to see UN authority for the operations there, in exactly the way that we did in operations in Afghanistan. But as far as maintaining security in the immediate aftermath of a conflict,
it is obviously right and indeed best that that should be carried out by those forces on the ground who are aware of the security threats, who are aware of the risks, and who are in the best position to safeguard people and indeed themselves. What we do want to see though is an early move to Iraq being controlled, and its future decided by the Iraqi people, and again I say that on behalf of the Ministry of Defence because we do not want our forces there for longer than is necessary, and it is right and proper that this country should be run by and for the benefit of the Iraqi people, and that is what we are working towards.

Question:
The Prime Minister and the President are meeting today to hopefully wrap up an urban guerrilla war which has been going on for 35 years since British troops went into liberate west Belfast from their perceived oppressors. It is a horrible scenario and you must have considered it many times, what is the basis for your optimism that you can avoid being drawn into low intensity urban warfare in Basrah and Belgrade and get out of this in less than 35 years?

Mr Hoon:
I think the real difference is that the kinds of forces that we are seeing used against coalition forces in Iraq are people, and I have said
this right through, whose entire existence and activity is motivated by their support for their regime. These are people who have done Saddam Hussein’s bidding and once that regime has gone there is no reason for them carrying on. Indeed we are seeing some signs already of some of those militias simply disappearing, some signs as well of the local population perhaps understandably turning on them. But these are people who are there only because of the regime and once that regime is removed there is no reason for their continuing opposition.

Question:
… but do you need to find them to legitimise the war?

Mr Hoon:
We will find them, they are there. We know of the determined efforts that the regime made to dismantle them, to hide them, to ensure that they weren’t readily available when the inspectors were there. We are aware of some of those moves made by the regime to disguise their location and we will obviously, once we have control of the country and once there is security there, we I am sure, not least because of the cooperation of people on the ground, will be able to take steps to locate them.

Question:
You don’t subscribe to the view they have smuggled them across the border to Syria?

Mr Hoon:
I don’t subscribe to that view, no.

Question:
When was the last time you spoke directly and personally, one to one, with Donald Rumsfeld?

Mr Hoon:
I speak to him very regularly.

Question:
When was the last time?

Mr Hoon:
It was at the end of last week, but I am not going to give you a running commentary on the days and the occasions. We have very regular conversations, that has always been the case, even before this conflict. I think it is fair to say that the number of occasions has increased during the conflict, but we have spoken and met on a very regular basis.

Question:
A senior British official said in my hearing the other day that you and Mr Rumsfeld was like getting pandas to mate, it was difficult, it could be done, but it did take time and patience.

Mr Hoon:
My children like pandas. But I have to say I find him very straightforward, very clear, we have an extremely good working and personal relationship.

Question:
Could you give us a description of the situation in other major cities in Iraq, like Najaf, like Amarah, about how far they have been under control of British or American troops?

Mr Hoon:
I think that is a very good question because it emphasises that this conflict is not simply about Baghdad and Basrah, but is also about other major centres of population, and inevitably the picture is a mixed one. In Al-Nasiriyah for example there is increasing real security. Further north, al-Hillah, Karbala, the picture is not as good, and certainly not as good yet as we might like, and there does appear to be continuing fighting there and continuing resistance, but that is the kind of picture that you would expect given the remarkable advance across the country from the south to Baghdad. Efforts will continue to be made to improve the level of security in each of those places along that route.

Question:
Could you say what appears to have happened to the Republican Guard. At one point we had 5 Divisions around Baghdad, they have broken up, what are they doing? And on the humanitarian operation, how is Britain going to contribute to the Jay Garner operation, are we sending, say, a General like Tim Cross to run the southern part in the same way that Garner will be running the northern part of Iraq?

Mr Hoon:
As far as the Republican Guard is concerned, an absolutely determined effort, very successfully, was made to reduce the effectiveness of the Republican Guard as they remained in position, and there were various estimates of how much their combat effectiveness, to use the expression, was reduced, but certainly in the order of some 50%. And as coalition forces have occupied territory they have been able to count the number of tanks and artillery pieces that have been destroyed, and 50%, although a nice round figure, certainly seems to be about right. What then happened was that the Iraqis appeared to break down those formed
units into much smaller elements. That probably reflected the collapse of their command and control, and actually those smaller units, whilst they have been ineffective in military terms because they are relatively easily dealt with, they are threatening, particularly along the sides of our lines of communication, and that still remains a concern. I have indicated where some of that resistance continues. So there appear to be Republican Guard elements continuing to threaten our lines of communication. I think it is equally fair to say, and this is much harder to judge, that many of those Republican Guard elements simply went home and we have found tanks apparently in perfect working order simply abandoned on the battlefield, and that again I think indicates that many of those forces were not prepared to fight for Saddam Hussein and once the threats and intimidation were removed, then they took a sensible course and abandoned their positions. As far as the role of ORHA (phon) is concerned, we have mentioned Brigadier Tim Cross, we
have others as well engaged in working alongside Jay Garner, we anticipate quite soon that the early phases of ORHA will begin to provide continuing humanitarian assistance in the south. I think what you see in the south of Iraq is the kind of process that we want to see unfolding elsewhere in the country, the establishment of security, then to have humanitarian help going in providing there is a secure environment. Increasingly as well we will see Non-Governmental Organisations moving in, that is now beginning to happen in the very southern part of Iraq. As we establish security we want to see that process continue elsewhere.

Question:
You say there is a growing sense of confidence among Iraqi civilians, in Basrah particularly, that the coalition troops are not going to leave them, abandon them as they have done in the past. How is the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people going, and are you heartened by scenes of British troops being welcomed by ordinary people?

Mr Hoon:
Yes, and the reports from our forces are extraordinarily encouraging, they are getting a very, very good reaction on the street. I don’t think that comes as a surprise, I suspect, as I indicated to the House the other day, was the shocking tactics used by the regime to enforce their will. Once that threat was removed then we all hoped and anticipated that people would then react as we expected, which is now beginning to happen in Basrah. I also do think it is of great credit to British forces and the way they go about their work and I think there is an obvious connection with Northern Ireland. In some ways I regret having to say it, but I think the experience of British forces over a long period in Northern Ireland of working in the community, of dealing with people on the streets, equips them superbly for the kind of tasks that they are now carrying out in the southern part of Iraq.

Question:
As we prepare for Terry Lloyd’s body to be flown back fairly soon, could you comment on the growing feeling, reluctant but growing, that if there isn’t a cover-up, it has certainly been extremely difficult to get any information about this appalling incident, and possibly that is because it could be extremely damning as far as the American forces are concerned?

Mr Hoon:
Well I don’t accept that for a moment. We have been in regular contact with ITN, I have spoken personally on a number of occasions to people from ITN offering our help and assistance, trying to establish what did in fact take place, and that process will carry on. But bearing in mind that the actual incident took place behind enemy lines in a very confused part of the battlefield, it has proved difficult to identify precisely what happened, but that effort continues.

Question:
Can you tell us anything about defections, and particularly there is a story in Today’s Times of a Brigadier General supposedly going to get asylum here in the UK.

Mr Hoon:
Well I don’t want to go into specific detail, but certainly we have had occasions on which quite senior commanders have indicated their willingness to assist, I think demonstrating that most members of the regular armed forces were not enthusiastic about supporting the regime, but certainly many were intimidated. I think it is fair to say as well that we had a number of indications from senior figures who were reluctant to come over because of their fears for their families and there is no doubt that over the decades Saddam Hussein not only terrified individuals, he managed to terrify their families as well, and many of those families were clearly in positions where he and his regime could get at them, whatever the views of the men involved.

Question:
Go back to Saturday and the 200 odd cardboard coffins in Basrah, what is to become of that material, when are forensic experts coming in, and do you see that as possible prime evidence for a potential war crimes trial against Saddam himself or members of the regime?

Mr Hoon:
Well I have seen various suggestions as to the explanation for these horrors. A team began work today looking carefully at the evidence and I am sure in due course they will be able to provide us with some information as to what precisely did take place there, but whatever it was, something pretty horrendous.

Question:
Can I ask you briefly what your reaction is to what has been happening in Baghdad with the American advance this morning?

Mr Hoon:
Well again it has been extremely encouraging and I think it has followed precisely the lines of the kind of operation that you have seen conducted in Basrah, the gradual surrounding of the city, not yet quite complete as far as Baghdad is concerned, efforts made then to test defences, armoured columns going into the city to demonstrate to the population that the coalition forces are there, and a continuing exploitation of that resistance, and I am sure that process will carry on for as long as it takes to take Baghdad.

Question:
The post-conflict situation may not be all that far away now. Would you be happy to see American companies get all the contracts for reconstruction in post-conflict Iraq, and if not, what will the British government be doing to see that British companies get a fair share?

Mr Hoon:
Those kinds of discussions are under way. But can I link that actually to what I said earlier about Iraq being for the Iraqis. What we want to do is to establish a situation where those kinds of decisions ultimately are taken by the people of Iraq and their leaders, and that is something that we are all, Americans and the United Kingdom, working to establish.

Question:
Does Saddam have to be killed or captured for this operation to be deemed ultimately a success?

Mr Hoon:
I think it would help.

Question:
Are we at the end of the war?

Mr Hoon:
We are not, no, and as I emphasised there is still a significant level of resistance taking place in Baghdad, still some significant pockets in Basrah, and resistance taking place in other major centres. So we still have a good deal of work to do and that obviously will continue.

Question:
Can you explain precisely what the difference between yourself and the Americans is over the status of illegal non-combatants?

Mr Hoon:
I don’t believe that there is any difference of opinion. We have in fact released a number of prisoners following tribunal hearings in
recent times, in very recent hours in fact. We are going through a careful process of identifying those who are prisoners of war and indeed those as well who might be considered to be illegal non-combatants. There are elements of the regime who are operating without the benefit of uniforms and appropriate insignia as defined by the Geneva Convention, those perhaps are some of the most threatening and intimidating people that we want to get hold of in order to prevent their continuing to terrify the population.

Question:
Didn’t we give medals to the French Resistance for doing that sort of thing to the Germans in 1944?

Mr Hoon:
I don’t think that is entirely comparable, Michael, as you well know.

Question:
… point, not mine, and he has the rank of a Four Star General, as we both know.

Mr Hoon:
I don’t think it is a comparable situation.




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