New Forest East

THE BOMBING OF IRAQ - 17 December 1998

THE BOMBING OF IRAQ - 17 December 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr Frank Cook) has introduced some novel points at a late stage in the debate. I do not wish to be diverted from my main comments by his interesting contribution, but I think that it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to try to cast Israel as some sort of covert villain in this scenario. It is particularly unrealistic of him to try to use Israel's possession of a deterrent – it is a democratic state that would never envisage using that deterrent unless it was under aggressive attack from someone else – as an excuse or a reason for Saddam Hussein's attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction for his own use.

As for General Scowcroft's rather noncommittal answer when confronted with the hon. Gentleman's convoluted conspiracy theory, all I can say is that that is precisely the sort of answer that I would give to anyone who presented a particularly unbelievable theory in a constituency surgery on a cold Saturday afternoon. I fear that General Scowcroft employed the words he did for the same reason that I employ the words I do under such circumstances. It is rather like the solicitor who, when confronted with an odd opinion, tactfully says, "I hear what you say."

When considering whether to support any military action, one must have three questions answered satisfactorily: is it justified; what is it trying to do; and will it work? I say at the outset that, if there is a vote at the end of this evening's debate, I will – together with all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I am sure – vote with the Government, as I did on 17 February. On that occasion, I voted with a degree of reservation, and I will probably have the same reservations tonight because I am not yet convinced that the third of the three questions has been answered satisfactorily.

I shall touch briefly on the first two questions. Is the military action justified? Anyone who has heard the evidence outlined by a variety of hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), cannot have the slightest doubt about the justification of the measures proposed. What is the military action trying to achieve? It is beneficial that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary made no bones about the fact that air strikes alone will not succeed in removing Saddam Hussein. They said that the action is designed to weaken his military machine and prevent his developing weapons of mass destruction. Rather revealingly – it may have been a throw-away line at the end of his remarks – the Foreign Secretary also said that the aim was to disarm Iraq on the ground from the air.

I fear that that is where the right hon. Gentleman may have problems, because we must then ask: will it work? That depends upon whether we believe that Saddam Hussein already has a substantial stock of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction or whether we think that he is still only trying to amass that stockpile.

On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, a Foreign Office paper on the Iraqi threat and the work of UNSCOM earlier this year stated:

"One hundred kilograms of anthrax released from the top of a tall building in a densely populated area could kill up to 3 million people."

We have a problem: if Saddam Hussein already has that potential, will air strikes remove it? Although one does not generally agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr Dalyell) about everything, it does not mean that occasionally one should not agree with him about something. On 17 February, he asked a rather pointed question – which he reiterated today, perhaps slightly less pointedly – about what would happen if a bomb hit a stockpile of chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction. On that occasion, the Foreign Secretary replied:

"We are entirely clear about the dangers of hitting such a stockpile. That is why we have taken great care in our targeting plan to ensure that we do not hit such completed weapons." – [Official Report, 17 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 902.]

Mr Wareing: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should refer to the targeting directness of missiles. He may care to know that CBS has just reported that a bomb or missile has hit a hospital in Baghdad.

Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because one of the points on which I hope to conclude is that it is a big mistake to think that we can have a war without casualties on both sides.

Let us assume for the purposes of the argument that the weapons are sufficiently accurate that we can guarantee that they will miss the stockpiles, if that is our objective. We would have tried to miss the stockpiles in February if we had launched an attack, so presumably we are trying to do the same job in December. It cannot therefore be maintained that one of our aims is to remove Saddam Hussein's stockpiles, if he has them. That is why I look to Ministers to tell us whether we anticipate that Saddam Hussein already has mass destruction weapons or whether, as the Foreign Secretary said earlier, we are simply trying to prevent him from developing the earlier stages in the manufacturing process so that he cannot amass those stockpiles in the future.

I shall not take up much more time because I know that other Members are keen to speak, but I shall refer briefly to points that have been made by authorities on the efficacy of aerial bombardment alone. Earlier this year, the former Gulf war commander-in-chief, Sir Peter de la Billiere, said:

"There are few, if any, examples of air power alone succeeding in defeating and bringing to heel such a determined and resolute enemy as Saddam."

The former Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Sir John Stanier, said:

"It is unlikely that air strikes will destroy Saddam's stockpile of weapons or topple him."

What, then, about alternatives? In February, when we faced exactly the same situation, Professor Lawrence Freedman, a well-known academic strategist, said:

"the Allies are in an awkward position because they are forced to rely solely on air power . . . Sending troops into Iraq would be an altogether more serious operation... Yet it may well be that the best way to convince the Iraqi leader . . . would be to announce the sending of a US Marine taskforce to the Gulf."

I do not want to sound like a latter-day convert to pacifism or disarmament. Members change sides of the House and Governments change too. I recall that, at the time of the first Gulf war, several members of this Government were wholly opposed to bombing Baghdad on perfectly respectable, or at least arguable, grounds. One of those Members was the current Foreign Secretary, who criticised the bombing of Baghdad in the first Gulf war as making it "more difficult to achieve peace and security."

At that time, when ground troops were involved, we had a workable plan, which the present Foreign Secretary opposed. Now that we have a plan that is not, I fear, entirely workable, he supports it.

I draw different conclusions from those of hon. Members on the left of the Government Benches who have been nodding in agreement with some of my points about stockpiles. Their argument is that we should do nothing at all. My argument is that if we are going to do something, we must do something that will be effective. If we will the ends, we must will the means. We cannot have war on the cheap. We cannot have war without casualties, and it is no good saying, in a latter-day version of what people said in 1914, "It'll all be over by Ramadan," because it will not.

We are unwise to be saying in advance that we shall not continue fighting the war into Ramadan – because that sends a signal to Saddam Hussein that he has only to hang on for a certain number of days and the bombardment will cease. If we are serious about taking out his potential to use mass destruction weapons, we must recognise that air power alone will be insufficient. Aid to the resistance alone will be insufficient. The only way to deal with this menace to the security of the region and, possibly, to world security is the use of ground forces. If we are not prepared to consider that, it is very debatable what else we should be doing.