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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff - Lobby briefing at the Foreign Press Association, London 14 April 2003

Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon:
Three and a half weeks into the military operation in Iraq, on Day 25, coalition forces have made extraordinary progress. But I do want to note that it is important that you realise that the situation varies greatly from one place to another in Iraq. UK and US forces are demonstrating impressive adaptability and flexibility in confronting a range of challenges right across the country. We do need to recognise that there are a number of different and distinct lines of military activity. The conflict is not yet over. US forces are still involved in war fighting for example in and around Tikrit, they are now making real progress and have advance into the city. But in addition the coalition has to deal with significant pockets of resistance remaining in parts of Baghdad, and indeed in other towns and cities, where in particular in Baghdad we believe that the resistance has been led by foreign suicide bombers. We are having to deal with criminal elements. The first joint UK/Iraqi police patrols took place in Basrah over the weekend. It is not surprising that in cities such as Baghdad and Basrah there are criminal elements who will seek to take advantage of the current situation. We have all seen the pictures of looting. But coalition forces are working with local people to tackle this.

Our forces are also distributing humanitarian assistance. In the longer term the coalition will secure conditions in which UN agencies and NGOs can operate efficiently. Some have already begun to set up offices in Umm Qasr and the first NGO has asked to operate out of Basrah.

Finally, our forces are starting reconstruction work, for example restoring water and power supplies to the Iraqi people in our area of operations. Now I would like Admiral Boyce to tell you what he has seen on his very recent visit to Iraq.

Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce:
I have just got back from visiting the area in which the British forces are deployed at the moment, which is really roughly speaking from the Al Faw Peninsula, Umm Qasr, up to Al-Amarah and about 50 miles to the west, so the strip down the eastern part of Iraq. First of all you won’t be surprised to hear that they are in good heart. They know that they have done a good job and are quietly pleased about that. And as the Secretary of State has said, they have been engaged on every part of the spectrum of conflict, from high intensity warfare down to looking after the people of Iraq, and I think a good illustration of that was one particular group from 7th Armoured Brigade in taking a bridge up in the north of Basra a couple of weeks or so ago, in their column, which was about three kilometres long, at the front end of the column there was a furious tank battle going on with some really heavy engagement, in the middle of the column they were setting out vehicle control points to start bringing order, at the back end of the column they were handing out humanitarian aid packages, and so just in that very short space of time and distance we saw the full attributes of British Armed Forces being put to the fore.

The high intensity I think in our area is unlikely now, in fact extremely unlikely, although we are going to continue to find pockets of resistance and we will have to deal with them as they arise. But actually in the last couple of days or so we haven’t had any drive-by shooting incidents and so forth, so it is looking promising there, we are able to get on with our aftermath, our post-conflict operations and get properly engaged in humanitarian aid and reconstruction and so forth.

Our main focus really at the moment is to try to get alongside the Iraqi people because this is a country which has a sophisticated culture, these are bright people and they want to get back to running their own lives after some 25 years or so of the regime that has actually depressed them and oppressed them. And so there is a huge willingness amongst the people we are meeting in Umm Qasr, in Ramalia town, in Amarah, in Basrah and so forth now to start coming forward, now that they are less frightened about being taken out by the regime if they are seen to be volunteering to come along and be friendly or helpful, they are actually coming forward and whether they are policemen, whether they are magistrates, whether they are judges, whether they are oil workers or whatever, they are coming forward in increasing numbers every day. So in Umm Qasr for example, we are now getting that port rapidly up and running, the ro-ro ferry terminal is now workable, we have taken a couple of ships alongside there for humanitarian aid from other countries, there is a UAE ship alongside, more are expected shortly, we hope to get the grain silo up and running. In the town itself we have had judges and magistrates come forward saying they want to start taking order in the town, and we have the police working there with us.

In the Ramalia oilfield I was able to meet some of the Iraqi engineers, we are issuing them ID cards so they can actually get back into their facilities and start restoring the engineering works there so they can get oil production going. Up in Amarah town we are working with the Mullahs to try and get an understanding there, it is actually quite quiet in Amarah, but to make sure we can actually see where we can help them. And in Basrah itself, our people are on foot in the town working with people in all sorts of areas, from restoring power supplies and water supplies, policing, as the Secretary of State has mentioned, and really there is a good feel. The places I was driving through had a comfortable feel about them. Many of them are now already better off than they were before we arrived, certainly in terms of the fear under which they were operating before, but in many cases also in terms of the utilities. And the great thing, as I say, is that people on the whole, in fact more than on the whole, I didn’t meet anybody who was looking angry or cross, everyone was giving a cheery wave, people come along and talk very easily, it is a very good feel and I think our people are doing a good job to restore things, not back to where they were, but to considerably better than the way they were when we arrived out there just over three weeks ago.

Question:
Could I kick off by asking about the weapons of mass destruction. How is the search for that going and what implications would you draw from any failure to find them?

Mr Hoon:
The search is proceeding obviously as more areas are liberated, we are getting an increasing amount of information from local people as to where they think those weapons might be hidden. Clearly those are being followed up. But actually the most effective way of securing the weapons of mass destruction is by speaking to those from within the regime who have knowledge of their location, and that obviously is now under way as significant leadership elements are surrendering or coming over and are talking to us. Obviously it will take some time to fully analyse what they have to say, but that work is under way now.

Question:
You are sure they are there?

Mr Hoon:
We are absolutely convinced they are there, and not least because not only did we have the information originally about the efforts that the regime were making, we also had a wealth of information about the efforts they were making in the course of UN inspections to dismantle, to hide and to deceive the inspectors. So we are absolutely confident that they are there, but obviously in a very large country it will take some time to locate them. The most effective ways of locating them are through the evidence of those who are actually engaged in these programmes.

Question:
Admiral, I wonder if I could ask you about the deployment of British troops, how long you think it is likely to go on, bearing in mind as I understand it at some point Britain will hand over the area it controls to the American ORHA operation. And secondly, is there any chance of British forces being redeployed against Syria or Iran?

Admiral Boyce:
On the first question, we are working in parallel with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid – ORHA – and I don’t see that ORHA will take over our area as such. When ORHA is set up, it will be working as part of the ORHA organisation, and very complementary to it, so I think that we will be in the area that we are in at the moment for as long as it takes to make sure that we are satisfied the Iraqi people have got their country back on its feet. Hopefully that will be quite a short time, because as I say the people are very willing, they want to get going, they are sophisticated and I hope it will not be years and years for example. We will, however, if things continue as they are at the moment, we will be able to start reducing our military effort overall in the region, and indeed as the Secretary of State made clear to Parliament the other day, we have already started reducing for example some of our Naval and air elements, and it is my firm intention to get people back and reconstitute them just as soon as I possibly can and as soon as it is sensible to do so. So we will see a steady trickle of people returning over the next few months until we have reached some sort of steady state, the size of force we will require for if you like a restructuring organisation to help Iraqi people, and then that may be sustained for some months after that. But over the next two, or three, or four months, as I say provided things continue the way they are at the moment in terms of the whole country going peaceful, then I would expect to see a declining number of our people actually out in Iraq.

Mr Hoon:
There are no military plans for operations against Syria or Iran.

Question:
In light of what you have just said, how constructive are the comments coming from the US administration regarding Syria?

Mr Hoon:
We have all had concerns about Syria for quite some time, that should not come as any great surprise to anyone here. The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence submitted a Memorandum to Parliament in February 2002 setting out our concerns about Iraq, about North Korea, about Iran, Libya and Syria, so that will not be a surprise to you that those concerns are around. But I think our immediate concern is the risk that some of those involved in Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes might escape across the border into Syria, obviously boosting Syria’s own efforts in those directions. That is a concern and that is why it is right to raise that at this stage, and we are looking for cooperation from Syria that they will not allow access across their border, something that I know Mike O’Brien has been discussing with them in the course of his visit. So we want to maintain a dialogue with Syria but we do want to set out our continuing concerns.

Question:
Given that the regime did not use weapons of mass destruction, even though it was obviously fighting for its life, and we have been told endlessly how it has no care for human life, what conclusions do you draw from that? It does suggest there wasn’t an immediate risk. And following on from your last remark, do you think Syria is working towards or has chemical weapons?

Mr Hoon:
As far as their failure to use weapons of mass destruction, bear in mind that central to the military plan was to disrupt their command and control communications right from the outset, and that does appear to have been successful, denying them the opportunity, particularly in a totalitarian regime, of the leadership taking that decision and that appears to have been very successful. As far as Syria is concerned, I don’t think I can really add much to what I have said already. It has been a concern of ours for some time, it is a matter of emphasising to Syria that those are real concerns, as we have done in the past, but equally to maintain a dialogue with them so that they can understand just how anxious we are.

Question:
You said boost their efforts …

Mr Hoon:
We are certainly concerned that they are trying to develop a range of weapons that we would have some concerns about, and I would refer you to the memorandum that we submitted more than a year ago to parliament.

Question:
The Syrian government says they are not developing such weapons, so is it the position of the British government that we say the Syrian government is lying about this?

Mr Hoon:
No, I indicated to you that we had submitted a memorandum about a range of weapons that we were concerned about, that is not simply based upon weapons of mass destruction, it is also for example about their means of delivery. That was something that we have raised with Syria and we will continue to do so, but we do believe that it is important to maintain that dialogue with them at this stage.

Question:
Do we think they are lying then when they say they are not.

Mr Hoon:
I think it is important not to get into this kind of game. What we are saying is that we have concerns about Syria, we are anxious about the efforts that they have made, certainly in the past, we certainly are anxious that they should not take advantage of any scientist or military figure fleeing across the border from Iraq and that is why it is important to continue to emphasise this issue at this stage, but we are doing so through the kinds of conversations that Mike O’Brien is having with elements of the Syrian leadership.

Question:
The MOD has been criticised in some quarters for the way it has treated the families of some of the Servicemen killed in the Gulf, in particular we have spoken to the widow of a man who was killed in an accident in the Gulf, she has been told that she needs to leave her home in six months time, she has even been asked to pay back part of his salary, that portion paid to him after he died. Is that really a way to treat the widows of people that have laid their lives down for their country?

Mr Hoon:
If that is true that is very disappointing. When issues have been raised with me, and bear in mind that I have met a number of families who have lost husbands, or fathers, or sons in the conflict, I have asked the Ministry of Defence to treat all of those cases with extreme sensitivity. So if you want to let me have the specific details I will certainly ensure that that is looked at very carefully.

Question:
Why did you fail to predict the degree of looting that we have seen in Basrah and Baghdad. Was this a political or a military failure, and did you, given the British experience in Basrah, give the Americans any warnings before we saw the kind of scenes we did in Baghdad?

Mr Hoon:
I think what is important is to emphasise, what I sought to do this morning, that there are a range of military activities taking place simultaneously and in places like Baghdad sometimes within, as Admiral Boyce indicated, a few hundred yards of each other where you have people engaged in, as happened in recent times, high intensity warfare, but not too far away also trying to deliver humanitarian aid, and with certainly the risk of suicide bombers, the risk of snipers, we lost a number of people to sniping in the very early period of our operations in Basrah, it is understandable why perhaps the focus has not been at least at the outset on controlling looting. But that focus is there now, in Basrah and indeed in Baghdad a determined effort is being made to restore law and order, but ultimately, as I sought to emphasise, the best way of doing that is with cooperation with local people. I don’t know whether, Admiral, you want to add a bit on your visit to Basrah?

Admiral Boyce:
Certainly, to take your first point first, is that it is neither military incompetence or military oversight to say that we didn’t think there would be looting. There is going to be looting going on until you can get people on the street. I am not going to put people on the street until it is safe to do so, and certainly in the early days of us taking over Basrah it was certainly not safe to have people outside their armour, and you can’t take on looters that attack, or if you did I am sure you would complain even more. But as soon as we were able to get on the street and get into pose, we did so. Also by getting alongside the townspeople, we found a lot of them, the more senior responsible townspeople, going back to people and we have had loot returned, being returned, once we have actually got alongside the elders if you like or the responsible people. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to me and it will always be the case where you will have bad behaviour, with the police removed, and you are not in a position to intervene until it is safe to do so.

Question:
Minister, on the removal of the 33 Field Hospital, which I believe has been sanctioned now, I can understand there are sound military reasons for doing so, but how wise is it when there is such an obvious and large humanitarian crisis in looted hospitals not to offer the services of that hospital and the people in it to either local Iraqi people in our area or to the Americans. And for the Admiral, the FBU may again call strikes this week, how much are you worried that there may not be enough coverage?

Mr Hoon:
I think you have got the questions the wrong way round, if you will forgive me for doing so.

Admiral Boyce:
Let me answer the field hospital question. We are satisfied that our field hospital capacity in theatre, firstly is certainly good enough for looking after our own people, but also with the arrival of some of our coalition friends in the theatre, we are finding that the hospital facilities are burgeoning. For example the Spanish arrived in Umm Qasr, the port we have made safe, a couple of days ago with a hospital facility both on board their ship, and also one they can put ashore; the Czechs are offering something; the Kuwaitis are offering, there is a lot of hospital capacity being brought in by coalition, so we felt it was a responsible thing to do to bring 33 back and reconstitute it.

Question:
… more the bigger picture in the north.

Admiral Boyce:
I think about the southern region, but the Americans are in the process of restoring hospital facilities in Baghdad, the US Marine Corps are now guarding them all and now they are able to actually get in there and do so properly, as I say once again they can get their feet on the ground, and they will start to reprovision them very quickly. I would expect to see the hospitals in Baghdad being regenerated really quite fast, certainly quicker than it takes to get people down from Baghdad to 33 Field Hospital.

Mr Hoon:
And certainly I received in my overnight report an indication there were five hospitals up and running in Basrah and that there was, that being a superb set of facilities available, but certainly sufficient for the moment in and around the city of Basrah.

And on the FBU, we obviously would urge them not to take strike action.

Question:
Inaudible.

Mr Hoon:
I think that is a judgment we have to make when and if they take that decision, but certainly we would hope they did not take that decision.

Question:
Is there any evidence to show what has been suggested, that the looting was actually ordered by Saddam before he departed?

Mr Hoon:
I have not seen any evidence of that at all.

Admiral Boyce:
And taking away bathroom sinks and light fittings, this is pilfering rather than looting in a sense, and I am sure Saddam wasn’t down to saying take away door knobs, or light switches, or light bulbs, which was the extent it went.

Question:
Is there anything which you have noticed in the last three weeks to suggest that we may have any weaknesses or gaps in our military capabilities?

Admiral Boyce:
It has been a very good experience in terms of our military capability because we have been very pleased with the performance of our equipment. It has proved where we need to go in the future, so our longer term programmes, if you like, I suspect we will find when we do our lessons learnt are vindicated, but the reliability of some of our equipment, which was much castigated after the exercise in Saif Sareea, which by the way was an exercise to find out the very things we need to find out in order to fight a war properly, such as Challenger tank, the AS90 artillery, the SA-80 rifle and so forth have all performed brilliantly, in fact far higher than specifications. So I am pretty pleased about the way our equipment has actually performed.

Mr Hoon:
And I am certainly looking forward to seeing all those of you who wrote articles speculating about how poor the equipment was, writing similar articles with similar prominence in your newspapers, saying just how well it has performed.

Question:
Could I ask you both what you think happened to the thousands of Fedayin and Special Republican Guard and SSO, the thousands who are said to have melted away. Did they go with their guns, their weapons, are they any longer a threat?

Admiral Boyce:
Let me start off first of all, and it is the Regular Army and the Republican Guard as well, as far as their kit is concerned, I would like it to help our defence budget, the amount of kit we have actually found in the field, there are Divisions worth of kit, which is giving quite a headache to General Brims, our General Officer Commanding out there, to know what to do with it all, tank parts and artillery parts and so forth. So the kit was left. And I think what has happened certainly to the Republican Army and Republican Guard is they have just melted away, gone back to their homes, their farms, whatever, and have just disappeared out of sight. So far as the more unpleasant species out there, the Special Republican Guard, the Ba'athist militias, and the SSO, the Special Security Organisation, they have either been killed, and we have killed quite a lot of them, or they have actually left the country in the spread of all four whims, because they can’t stay in the country because they will be killed by their own people if they do, so I suspect they are not in town any more, literally.

Question:
Have they gone to Syria?

Admiral Boyce:
They could have gone to any country, any way they can get out, because if they stay around the Iraqi people themselves will kill them.

Question:
What is the decision on the foreign fighters who actually went to Iraq if they are arrested, will they go to Guantanamo Bay, will they be tried locally or under British laws? And this morning the spokeswoman in the Syrian Foreign Ministry said on Radio 4 that we have no love for Saddam Hussein and Syria will be a minority country opposing Saddam during the Iran/Iraq war, while Britain and America were supplying him with arms. What do you say to that?

Admiral Boyce:
As far as anybody who is in plain clothes or civilian clothes we find fighting, they are taken into our detention camps and we will sift them there to see whether they are regular army or uniform type people who have just taken off their uniform, or whether they are foreign fighters or whatever, and they will then be investigated by a special court, a tribunal out there, and then they are returned to their countries or will be kept under our jurisdiction until we decide what we are going to do with them.

Mr Hoon:
As far as the supply of arms are concerned, I saw some statistics the other day that demonstrated the overwhelming supplier of arms to Iraq historically had been Russia, some weapons had been supplied by European countries, but not including the United Kingdom, and a tiny amount, virtually insignificant …

Question:
Inaudible.

Mr Hoon:
I am quoting you the figures, I will make sure that they are sent to you, but an insignificant amount supplied by the United States and the United Kingdom, and these are the amounts of weapons actually supplied and they are infinitesimal as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. The major supplier was undoubtedly Russia and the sight of Russian tanks littering the battlefield, that should not come as a surprise to you.

Question:
What information do you have on Saddam Hussein or his top officials, and do you have any evidence that they have actually fled to Syria or other countries are welcoming them in and helping them?

Mr Hoon:
Well there is a wealth of speculation and a lot of material is coming out of Iraq as to where he and other leadership elements might be, and I do not think it is sensible at this stage to confirm any one or other of those stories. What is increasingly the case is the area in which they can operate is very limited and we are now beginning to see significant figures on the list either surrender, or in one case given up by the local population, pointing out where they were located. I think that is a process that we can anticipate accelerating over the next few days.

Question:
Inaudible.

Mr Hoon:
Unless and until we know that they have crossed a border, then our assumption is that they remain within Iraq. We have no evidence that they are crossing a border and indeed as I emphasised earlier, we want to see cooperation from neighbouring countries to prevent that from happening.

Question:
How important is it for the general success of the campaign that you either kill or capture Saddam Hussein?

Mr Hoon:
It is important. It will not, however, mean that the military campaign is any less successful if we happen to fail to do so, because the military campaign, as I said at the outset, has been extraordinarily successful in a very short space of time to essentially be able to control virtually all of Iraq, subject to some pockets of continuing resistance. But obviously it is important that we deal with the leadership, that we are able to bring them to account, and that process is continuing.

Admiral Boyce:
I think if I may, Secretary of State, you say that you can’t point to the success, we have had a successful campaign. There is no regime of the like of Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq now, and the best people to go and find out that from are the Iraqi people themselves, and you should see the relief in their eyes at having got rid of this dictator, and then you will know that this has been a successful campaign.

Question:
Are you going to be looking for the Kuwaiti missing and detainees alongside the WMD? And what is your contribution going to be in the Amarah meeting tomorrow?

Mr Hoon:
As far as the Kuwaiti missing are concerned, on the many visits that I have made to Kuwait I have been very moved by what I have seen from family members in particular, and it is an important part of the UN’s process to identify the Kuwaiti missing, to search out potential prisons where they may be held, and also to try and reassure those family members that every effort is being made to identify what has happened. As far as the meeting tomorrow is concerned, as I have indicated previously and I indicated to parliament, we want to see a number of such meetings at the local level, regional level, in order to see emerging local leaders, local figures who can take responsibility for Iraq and that is our ultimate ambition for Iraq to be restored to the Iraqi people. But no one meeting is going to be at this stage at any rate the decisive one, we have to organise these meetings in a number of different places and obviously it depends on the security conditions for us to be able to do so, but that is a continuing process.

Admiral Boyce:
I think you said that the meeting was at Amarah, it is actually at Talil, near Nasiriyah..

Question:
Can you shed any light on weekend reports which were quite confident and quite detailed that Russian intelligence had been assisting the Iraqis, possibly the make-up for those T55s you mentioned, including reporting on a conversation between the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Berlusconi. And Admiral, some of your senior military colleagues have suggested that the British media has been negative to the point of losing the plot. You are on the bridge this morning, how does it look from where you are?

Admiral Boyce:
Yes I think they have been, I think they have been very half empty, quite depressing at times and certainly lost the plot on a number of occasions.

Mr Hoon:
As far as those intelligence reports are concerned, one of the things we have said to you before the military conflict began is that we were increasingly concerned about high level documents being moved out of Ministry buildings and placed in the homes of the officials, and the kinds of reports that I too saw over the weekend from journalists who had seen the results of people going into these various private buildings.

Question:
Were they the negative journalists?

Mr Hoon:
They were just reporting, and I accept that these kinds of documents may well turn up in private homes, something that we did warn you about before the conflict began.

Question:
Given the continuing threat posed by suicide bombers both to coalition forces in Iraq, and also to progress in the Middle East peace process, is any consideration being given to dealing with the Hezbollah training camps in south Lebanon?

Mr Hoon:
We are obviously very disturbed about the number of so-called foreign fighters that we are locating in Iraq, and I would appeal to you to bear in mind what impact that has on the ability of soldiers to go out on patrol. And whilst we want to see patrolling by soldiers, without necessarily wearing helmets, without having armoured vehicles close by them, the impact of the suicide attacks has been very worrying. We certainly will continue our efforts with all those countries that are able to do so, but I think most notably Syria, to put pressure on those camps and those areas to prevent this flow from continuing either into Iraq, and we believe that that flow has now been ended, or indeed into other sovereign nations.

Question:
Inaudible.

Mr Hoon:
We are not at that stage and we are, as I say, discussing with Syria the role we believe they can have positively for reducing this kind of threat.

Question:
We have allied troops now in control of almost every major city in Iraq, Saddam’s regime has crumbled, he has disappeared, you have got very little pockets of resistance still, surely this war is already won isn’t it?

Mr Hoon:
It will not be won until those final pockets of resistance are resolved, and these are amongst the most fanatical elements, we have had illustrations sometimes of foreign fighters simply running at machine gun positions knowing full well that they will be killed. That kind of fanaticism is extraordinarily difficult to deal with militarily and until those final pockets of resistance are dealt with, I would be reluctant to agree with you.




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