Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. Can I just press this point because it is very important. In that case, in the event that Hans Blix and his team were able to say that from the baseline or the amended base, whatever you wish to call it, they were satisfied that Saddam Hussein had complied—admittedly a little tardily—with the requirements of the Security Council and had destroyed or it had been possible to verify that he had destroyed the list of weapons of mass destruction, as we have set out, would the British Government be prepared to accept that that was the fact?
  (Mr Straw) We would take the fullest possible account of it and it is a very—

  181. Would you accept that as fact?
  (Mr Straw) Hang on, Mr Chidgey. It is a huge if. Of course if they came along and said "On our best information we have checked back on what UNSCOM has said, that is the baseline and we are satisfied that they have destroyed or got rid of all this stuff or else they have made available what they have not destroyed and got rid of the capabilities behind that; we believe they have effectively disarmed" then why would there be an argument about it?

  182. The reason I ask that, Foreign Secretary, is because it has been well mooted by many experts that it is incredibly difficult to confirm in a country the size of France that what would be significant amounts of weapons of mass destruction in such small quantities as 20 tonnes could ever be found.
  (Mr Straw) This is why we want full, active and complete co-operation and why we want the inspectors to be able to freely interview, in a non-intimidating environment, all the scientists.

  183. Are we, in the event, asking Saddam Hussein to try to prove a negative? In the event that we can never actually prove that he has—
  (Mr Straw) In other words, are we setting him a test he cannot fulfil? No. Did the international community find him guilty 12 years ago? Yes. That is set out with absolute clarity in earlier United Nations Security Council resolutions. Did they say he remains guilty? When we passed 1441, bear in mind that operational paragraph 1 says that Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under resolutions including 687 and it goes on to spell out why. So he remains guilty. It is for them, as it were, to purge themselves of their contempt of the international community by saying what they have done, or not done, with all this unaccounted-for, very dangerous weaponry. That is the key. We know very well that they can explain this. Bear in mind, Mr Chidgey, that we are now in the same position that we were in 12 years ago when Saddam was denying that he had a biological weapons capability. It is so important people understand this. They denied and denied and denied they had a biological weapons programme. They ran the same kind of propaganda efforts they are doing at the moment. Four years later the son-in-law defected. He blew the gaffe on the whole thing and it turned out to be a bigger programme than people had anticipated. Then he was lured back to Iraq on the basis of safety and he was taken out and murdered. That tells two stories: one about the nature of their deception then but it is also a rather important reminder that if you are an Iraqi scientist today you know what torture and intimidation they are going for routinely. It concentrates the mind.

  184. Does that not, therefore, unfortunately lead us to the conclusion that we can never be confident, given the situation of weapons of mass destruction and the difficulty of finding them—and we recognise it is not the role of the inspectors—that weapons of mass destruction have been completely removed from Iraq unless there is a regime change?
  (Mr Straw) No. I, maybe rather naively, live in hope of redemption. Not only for myself but for others as well. I do not accept that. I think if there were a decision by the Iraqi regime fully, actively and immediately to comply and they started to act as, for example, the South African Government did in respect of their atomic energy, nuclear weapons programme; you had the interviews with scientists and you had a free environment and you found out an awful lot more than the current inspectors have and you, also, would have to have a continuing presence of the inspectors, then we could be as satisfied as we could. Mr Chidgey, let us be clear, do I believe that it is possible for Iraq to disarm itself of its weapons of mass destruction and its capability in a peaceful way? Yes, I do.

  Sir John Stanley

  185. Foreign Secretary, are there any circumstances in which the British Government will not be following the United States Government into a war against Iraq?

  (Mr Straw) Again, it is a hypothetical question. There may be, but I am not going to speculate about what they would be. What we are seeking to do is to work closely with all our allies. As you know, we have troops present in the region and they have worked very actively to back diplomacy with the credible threat of force. What we are seeking, and we are doing this jointly with the United States and Spain, is a second resolution. Beyond that I am not going to speculate.

  186. I am surprised you are not willing to give a basic indication of those circumstances. Do you still think the British Government has an independent foreign policy?
  (Mr Straw) Yes, of course I do.

  187. In those circumstances, would not one of the circumstances in which the British Government would not follow the American Government into an invasion against Iraq be if the British Government was satisfied with Saddam Hussein's compliance with the resolution?
  (Mr Straw) I rather suspect that if we were satisfied with his compliance most other people would be. We use the same intellectual processes and analytical processes as anybody else. I think it defies imagination, with respect, Sir John, to imagine that we could be at one end of a spectrum believing that Saddam Hussein had been disarmed peacefully and the United States' Government or any other government—the Government of the Russian Federation or France—was at the other end of the spectrum saying "No, they have not". May I say that what we are seeking and what is at the core of our policy is implementation not of United Kingdom policy nor of United States' policy but of United Nations' policy.

  188. I am interested in your response, Foreign Secretary. As you know, this Committee has had a lot of discussions with the United States' government and there is quite a wide spectrum of views as to the degree of co-operation or not from the Saddam Hussein regime. Can I turn to your opening statement? You painted a graphic picture of very large volumes of weapons of mass destruction; you referred to 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals and a number of other substances of large volume and therefore difficult to conceal; you painted a graphic picture of those being moved around the country; you referred in this public evidence session to the intelligence basis for saying that you have a view as to the types of locations in which these bulky items have been hidden; and you referred to the way in which the Iraqi counter UNMOVIC operation is being conducted to make certain that the UNMOVIC inspectors do not find any of it. You painted a picture of a huge programme of concealment and deception of the UNMOVIC inspectorate. Against that background, do you not find it deeply perplexing and, indeed, a matter of great concern that that picture of systematic deception of UNMOVIC does not seem to be reflected certainly in plain language in the two reports which Dr Blix has given—indeed, the second report was somewhat more positive in terms of the degree of co-operation—and how do you explain the vast difference between the picture which you have portrayed, I am sure accurately to the Committee this afternoon, and what we have seen from Dr Blix himself in front of the Security Council?
  (Mr Straw) You would have to ask Dr Blix that but the statement he made on 27 January was excoriating of Iraq, as was the statement he issued on 28 February. The one which he made on 14 February was somewhere in between those two but it is worth bearing in mind that at the end of his statement, and I am just turning up the quotation, I think some of the language was slightly softer in tone than the language of the report of 27 February, and some people thought that this had meant that Dr Blix had given Iraq a clean bill of health and that is simply not the case. If I may read to you from the report which is in the Diplomatic White Paper I published on page 80, he says: "How much, if any, is left of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and related proscribed items and programmes? So far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed. Another matter—and one of great significance—is that many proscribed weapons and items are not accounted for. To take an example, a document, which Iraq had provided, suggested to us that some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agent were `unaccounted for'."—and he then asks where they are. He then says in talking about the declaration: "The declaration submitted by Iraq on December 7 last year, despite its large volume, missed the opportunity to provide the fresh material and evidence needed to respond to the open questions. This is perhaps the most important problem we are facing. Although I can understand that it may not be easy for Iraq in all cases to provide the evidence needed, it is not the task of the inspectors to find it. Iraq itself must squarely tackle this task and avoid belittling the questions." He then said at the meeting at Baghdad "no open issues were closed" and at the end he says: "If Iraq had provided the necessary co-operation in 1991, the phase of disarmament—under resolution 687 (1991)—could have been short and a decade of sanctions could have been avoided. Today, three months after the adoption of resolution 1441 (2002), the period of disarmament through inspection could still be short, if `immediate, active, and unconditional co-operation' with UNMOVIC and the IAEA were to be forthcoming". In other words, it is not forthcoming, and that is the same position as the British government.

  189. Could I just put two other questions to you in relation to UNMOVIC? May I say how much I welcome what you said in your opening statement about the fact that unaccompanied interviews with scientists represented no concession at all. That concession was seized upon by some commentators with a degree of naivety as being a concession when of course, for the reasons you rightly explain, it is absolutely no concession whatsoever. The question I would like to put to you concerns two more potential "concessions" that might arise in this very delicate possibly end-game business. Would you agree that, if there was a concession to have an interview outside Iraq, that too would be a probably meaningless concession unless the scientist himself or herself was taken out with both his immediate family and also his extended family, because otherwise the scientist in question would know that that was going to be the end of any sort of sensible life or life at all for the family left behind if he said the wrong thing and, secondly, could you give the Committee any view as to whether there is a risk that fabricated documentation might suddenly be discovered, surprisingly, somewhere in Iraq and produced by the regime to provide so-called evidence of the destruction of previous WMD?
  (Mr Straw) Sir John, on your first point, I am not going to be proscriptive about how many members of the family would need to leave with a witness but if the family were allowed to leave—query what we mean by "immediate" and "extended" and who is under attack, that is a matter for judgment—then that would provide a much higher degree of assurance that the witness was able to speak in safety, and that his or her evidence would not be recorded and passed straight back to the Iraqi regime nor would their family be intimidated. It is a terrible commentary on the Iraqi regime that this has to happen and it is something that those who seek always to put the best gloss on the Iraqi regime need to take it into account because you are right that some of the critics of the United Nations' position on Iraq really are guilty of huge naivety and sadly, but perhaps understandably, judging Iraq by their own standards, and this is the thing that Saddam has played on all the time—the fact that we in the international community have very much higher standards of behaviour than he does. On your second point, he is capable of everything including fabricating documents and evidence—that is how he has both survived in a tactical sense but ruined his country strategically over the last 12 years.


  190. If on Friday Dr Blix were to ask for extra time, would you be able to reject that?

  (Mr Straw) Mr Chairman, we take account of what Dr Blix says—as we have all the way through.

  191. But you might overrule it?
  (Mr Straw) Well, let us see what he says, with great respect. I did not anticipate his last three reports and I am not going to anticipate this one.

  192. How would you answer those who fear that there is a certain inevitability that the only remaining superpower has so many forces assembled with our own forces on the frontier of Iraq that, if only for saving face, they dare not withdraw without regime change?
  (Mr Straw) I do not accept that. The United States, more willingly than any other nation precisely because it is the most powerful, signed up to 1441 in terms. 1441 is about the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction; 1441, by what it does not say rather than what it does say but very plainly, makes clear that if there is that compliance—full, active, and immediate compliance—by Saddam Hussein of all his obligations going back to 1991 then he will remain in government and President Bush accepted that reality in an important speech he made in Cincinnati in November of last year, so that is there and there is no issue of loss of face. I know for certain that nothing would please the American government more than if this could be resolved peacefully.

  Mr Hamilton

  193. I think in answer to an earlier question by Mr Mackinlay you said that you were indeed a proponent of a substantive government resolution before any conflict was entered into and, indeed, last week you successfully secured a resolution through the House of Commons but not without some debate or proposed amendment. One of the main points in that amendment was that the case for military action had not yet been made. Now, as you know, France and Germany, and we mentioned this earlier, have requested the inspectors be given more time, and indeed Hans Blix himself has said that he is making progress but wants more time. We have waited twelve years, and I know you have dealt with this partly already, to disarm Iraq. Why is the government so hesitant to allow a further four months, if that is the necessary time, to bring more public opinion and other governments on board for stronger support for military action?

  (Mr Straw) Well, the purpose of this strategy is not military action; the purpose is to secure the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. If I felt that four months, or any additional period, was going to bring this issue to a satisfactory conclusion then we would all be up for it but just to repeat the point that Mr Ricketts made a moment ago, the four months that is being proposed is a staging post; it could lead to another four months and then to another and then we would be back in the situation that we have been in for the last twelve years where Saddam plays on the resolve of the international community to keep going, that other crises' agendas take over, that the intellectual, diplomatic, political capabilities to resolve this degrade and he is still there, and then that would send out a terrible signal not only to him but also to other tyrannical regimes and rogue states as to what they could get away with. So that is why we do not accept that kind of approach if it is clearly going to be with the aim of getting to full implementation of 1441, but I also come back to the point of 1441 in that it talked about "immediate".

  194. The problem is that there seems to be a big gap between what our government is proposing—indeed Parliament has approved that last week—and public opinion, and I think and I am sure many colleagues believe that in order to wage a successful war, if it should come to military action—and I think we all agree we hope it does not; we want to see Saddam disarmed without military action but if it does come to that—surely we cannot conduct that action if we do not have the support of the British public. What are your views on that?
  (Mr Straw) I have dealt with the issue of the support of the British House of Commons which is presumably a representative of democracy and a very active one and is the cockpit of the nation and is representative of this country, and of course there were deficiencies last week and they were reflected in the speeches and the votes but I do not think they are as wide as you suggest, Mr Hamilton. I could have made the point, and I thought about this in advance of my speech last Wednesday that we too, in the words of the resolution, do not believe that the case for military action has yet been made—indeed, we have not made the case for military action so there was, if you like, an argumentative point to be made that we were in a similar position. Now because some people had a different strategy and they were expressing on that resolution I did not make that point, and also because the amendment was striking out the final words of my motion which talked about the final opportunity, but those who marched into the lobbies on this amendment did so endorsing 1441 so they have come quite a long way on that, and I will be saying to colleagues if necessary: "Look, you too signed up entirely voluntarily to 1441; does its mean what it says or not?"

  195. Can I ask you a little bit about Secretary of State Colin Powell's strong efforts to try and convince fellow Security Council members to support the US position on Iraq? They do not appear really to have succeeded and one of the problems as far as public opinion is concerned is that certainly people come to my advice surgeries and many of my colleagues, I am sure, saying: "Yes, we accept Saddam Hussein has these weapons, we accept he is an evil man, we accept the regime is a threat in the region but why does this affect us?" Have you any plans to publish further intelligence which you must surely have which will at least begin to persuade swathes of the doubting public that there is a case for immediate disarmament and that Saddam and Iraq are a threat to this country as well as the rest of the world?
  (Mr Straw) So far as Secretary of State Powell's diplomatic efforts or any of ours are concerned the effort is not complete yet, and I know it is not quite the same but I do recall over the many weeks in the run-up to 1441 that there were moments when I thought we would never get a resolution, and moments when I thought it might get nine votes and face a couple of vetoes, and then the negotiations in the last five or ten days were really very difficult but it came together, as we will see, so far as this is concerned. We did get a 1441 and I have already talked about the strength of 1441 and the legal base that it provides and when we judge it appropriate we do give more information based on intelligence assessments—that was the purpose of the original report that was published to Parliament on the 24 September in anticipation of the debate for which the House was recalled and of other information which had been made public, but if people ask me what is the case, I think the best statement of the case is 1441. It is not an intelligence assessment where people may argue about who is making the judgment: this is very open information. The third preliminary paragraph of 1441 says: "The Security Council . . . Recognising the threat Iraq's non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security", and all 15 members of the Security Council signed up to that statement. The history of the threat posed by Iraq is set out in forensic detail in the earlier resolutions here, 45 pages of them. I read some of them out in the House of Commons last Wednesday—it is there. Now, people will have to make their own judgment about the extent of the threat but no one should be in any doubt there is a threat and that if you have a tyrannical rogue regime like Saddam's in such an inherently unstable region as the Middle East in any event, and if you allow it to continue to be in defiance of the only single international organisation which covers the globe, the United Nations and the source of international law, then the consequences are going to be serious. First of all, you will find that this regime may decide to do what it did 12 years ago which is to invade a neighbour or to use chemical or biological weapons on its own people or neighbours; it is certainly supporting terrorism in Israel and the occupied territories and helping to foment instability there; that then leads to instability elsewhere and in addition to that, to repeat a point I have made, it sends out a message to other regimes that they can go ahead in defiance of all kinds of international obligations to which they have signed up that they too can defy these obligations, develop nuclear programmes and other weapons of mass destruction, and no-one is going to take any notice. There will then come a moment when these are being developed under our noses when we really do have to do something about it but it may be too late, and that is the answer.

  196. Finally, I accept those very cogent arguments that you and the Prime Minister and members of the government have made, but why do you think that the majority of the British public are still not in favour of the ultimate threat of military action against Iraq for non-compliance?
  (Mr Straw) I think where the British people seem to be—and opinion polls vary on this—is in accepting that there is a serious threat from Saddam Hussein, accepting he needs to comply, and also accepting that they would support military action if there were a second resolution. There is less support in the polls if there is not a second resolution and I understand that. It is the British public investing faith in the United Nations system. Also not wishing to use military action except as a last resort for the very good reason that people get killed in military action—innocent and guilty people get killed and areas are disrupted—and there is, rightly, an abhorrence of war in our society and long may that continue. That is the same position as the position of the British government.

  Mr Pope

  197. If we cast our minds back to the immediate aftermath of September 11, there was a huge outpouring of public sympathy in this country for the United States and our government managed to transform some of that outpouring of public sympathy into a broad, international coalition that supported the war against terror. If we then bring ourselves up to the current day, it seems to me that the situation is completely transformed. We have a million or a million and a half people marching on the streets against President Bush; we have a rebellion in the Parliamentary Labour Party which is completely unprecedented of, I think, 122; MPs' mail bags—and yours must be the same as mine—just from this morning I had 20 or 30 e-mails this morning accusing me of being cowardly, shallow, misguided, objectionable. How do you account for this collapse in public support from a position in September/October 2001 which was really sympathetic of the United States to where we currently are? I put it to you, Foreign Secretary, we are acting at the edges of the limits of democracy here, and are finding it very hard to take with us public opinion for a course of action which I firmly believe to be absolutely right.

  (Mr Straw) And the world's most important newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, said you were quite right, too—so no worries! Mr Pope, the issues are different. Of course they are related but they are different. Everybody could see—literally see and watch with horror—as those two planes collided with the twin towers on September 11 and then heard the evidence in respect of al Qaeda's involvement in that which was very credible; there was an acute crisis; there were British people who had lost their lives as well as Americans and all the other nationalities in New York; it was in New York—if you like the most international of all capitals and one with which we have huge empathy and sympathy. There was, by the way, however, a process in which the American government did not go the unilateral route but the United Nations route, and issued an ultimatum to the Taleban to yield up al Qaeda. They then failed to do so and military action was taken, and the United States were fully entitled to do that under their inherent rights under the United Nations charter. It is different because that was an acute crisis: this is a much more chronic crisis. It has been going on for 12 years so, as I readily accepted in the House of Commons when I was speaking last Wednesday, the first couple of questions in people's minds are "Why Iraq?" and "Why now?", and one has to answer those. I have done my best to answer them but it requires more argument. There really was not a choice before the world community post September 11: we had to do something about al Qaeda. There was not a chronic solution to this which was just to leave them because there would have been more September 11s almost certainly, and in any event such was the shock in the United States of them being attacked on their own territory for the first time for—

  Mr Maples

  198. Since 1812.

  (Mr Straw)—since 1812 when we did so, or we tried to call them to order, that there was bound to be a desire to deal with the people responsible. Now here there is a degree of choice—I do not think personally it is much of one but there are people who argue, "It has been going for 12 years, we do not like them, why not leave them?"—the containment argument essentially. I have an answer to that which is that containment equals rearmament. Others say they are still willing to accept a degree of rearmament on the Saddam Hussein regime but it is a more subtle argument. My own experience in the constituency is like yours, and they have a very similar profile, which is that people are worried about it as they are across the country, but they accept the arguments if you take them through them, and they have great faith in the United Nations.

  Mr Pope

  199. One of the issues that has been put to me repeatedly by constituents and others is that there is a certain inevitability to this. When A J P Taylor famously said that the First World War broke out by railway timetable, there is a certain momentum here; there are troops gathering and it will be impossible to restrain that. Can you tell us a little further what your view is on that? I heard a retired US General on the radio only last week and when this question was put to him he said, "There is a quarter of a million troops in the Gulf; they are not there on vacation", and I want to put to you that there is a kind of inevitability to all this, and it will be very hard at this stage to withdraw those troops and if we did, unless we have absolute complete rollover compliance, it would send an appalling message to other tyrants as well as to Saddam?

  (Mr Straw) Whoever that was was right about their purpose there, and they have already served part of their purpose because they have been the key reason why Saddam has co-operated to the limited extent that he has. I have heard it said about the First World War that this was a war by railway timetable: my own reading of the cause of the First World War suggests that there were genuinely other reasons. With the benefit of perfect hindsight it is not a military action which I would have advised the British government on but it looked different at the time, and do not forget at the time the general view was that it would be over very quickly but things turned out differently. If you are saying, Mr Pope, is it important that decisions about military action are always taken with reference to the political considerations rather than simply military ones, the answer to that is yes. It has to be.

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