The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Gulf War – 21 January 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s House of Commons statement on the Gulf War made on 21st January 1991.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) I beg to move, That this House expresses its full support for British forces in the Gulf and their contribution to the implementation of United Nations resolutions by the multinational force, as authorised by United Nations Security Council Resolution 678.

It is of course essential that the House should be fully informed of events in the Gulf and have the opportunity to debate them. With this in mind, I can assure the House that my right hon. Friends the Foreign and Defence Secretaries will make regular statements as events unfold, and there will be contacts through the usual channels to arrange appropriate debates.

This is the first time that the House has debated the situation since the start of hostilities on 17 January, but it is the third occasion on which I have spoken about the Gulf situation in the past week. I shall therefore be brief. This is an occasion for hon. Members to express their views and then to vote on a substantive motion.

We did not want this conflict. We tried hard, very hard, to avoid it. We failed because – to keep his spoils – Saddam Hussein was prepared for conflict. Because he made his decision, we were thereupon forced to ours. We are determined to give our forces every ounce of support to ensure that Iraq is defeated and the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions are implemented in full. Nothing more and nothing less will suffice.

It is as well to be aware what our forces face. They face an enemy that, having invaded Kuwait, is now well dug in; that has established extremely strong defensive positions, manned by many hundreds of thousands of his forces; that is equipped with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, together with substantial numbers of aircraft and helicopters and anti-aircraft defences; and that has some of the best equipped and most experienced units of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, the Republican Guard, held in reserve on the borders of Iraq and Kuwait. These forces are supported by an elaborate war machine.

Throughout the past decade, Saddam Hussein has starved his country of economic resources precisely to build up that military machine. It has sophisticated military communications. It has missiles, and it has chemical and biological weapons that Saddam Hussein has threatened to use. As we well know, he has not scrupled to use chemical weapons in the past, even against his own people.

The conclusion to be drawn is clear. We should not for one second underestimate the scale and difficulty of the task which confronts our forces. Nor should we underestimate the time which it may take to complete this matter. We have deliberately set ourselves the aims of keeping casualties to a minimum, both among our forces and among the civilian populations of Iraq and Kuwait and of avoiding damage to sites of religious and cultural significance.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East) Will the Prime Minister give way?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister In a moment, I shall give way to the hon. Gentlemen.

We must recognise that, by introducing these constraints, we are bound to lengthen the conflict. I am sure that that is right. The House should recognise what we are doing: by first destroying his air defences, we seek to save ourselves many casualties in any subsequent land battle. I give way to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).

Mr. Livingstone Has the Prime Minister had any estimate from his advisers about the level of civilian casualties in Iraq?

The Prime Minister I am going to deal precisely with that point in the next few moments.

Mr. Dalyell Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I undertook the other day to give way to the hon. Gentleman and, regretfully, did not. If I may, at the conclusion of this point on casualties I most certainly will give way to him.

We have heard very little from Iraq so far on the subject of casualties. I will tell the House why I believe that is. I believe that it is because our efforts to avoid harm to innocent civilians have so far been successful. The figures of tens of thousands of civilian casualties quoted by some anti-war groups seem to be entirely fictitious. There is no evidence for those claims. The evidence is entirely to the contrary.

Mr. Dalyell While accepting that Saddam Hussein, probably on purpose, placed his missile boosting factory near to Najaf and near Karbala; because of Karbala’s associations with the grandson of the prophet and because Najaf is the seat of the Islamic university and the spiritual leader of the Shiahs, the Ayatollah Khoi He Marje, is it not important that, as far as possible, they should not be damaged?

Can the Prime Minister say something about the nuclear destruction? After all that has been said about Chernobyl in this House, when we talk about damage to nuclear installations, do we mean power stations, research facilities, cooling or what? Could we have the facts?

The Prime Minister My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will deal particularly with the latter point in his reply. I reassure the hon. Gentleman on the former point that very clear instructions have gone to our troops to avoid sites of religious and cultural interest. That has been so since the beginning of this conflict and remains the case.

If I may, I shall return to the question of injuries. Although injuries on both sides so far have been relatively few, no one should imagine that this war will be an easy or painless business. There may well be times in the days and weeks ahead when we shall all need to bear bad news with fortitude.

Against that background, the first priority of the multinational force has been to engage and destroy military targets in Iraq and Kuwait through a massive air campaign. The targets in Iraq are chosen for one of two reasons – either because they are supporting the military occupation of Kuwait, or because they are of strategic importance. They include the Iraqi command and control system, communications, airfields, aircraft, missile sites, nuclear, chemical and biological sites, and other targets that enable Iraq to make war. Success in this air campaign will make it impossible for Iraq over time to sustain its forces in Kuwait, which will then become far more vulnerable to attack from the air and from land.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) Would it not be appropriate at this stage to tell the House that the International Red Cross will be asked by the allied Governments to make urgent inquiries about the position of allied prisoners of war? Would it not also be appropriate for the allied Governments to make it perfectly clear that, if any ill treatment and worse is given to allied prisoners of war in defiance of the Geneva convention, those who carry out such treatment will be held personally responsible and will not be able to get off later by saying that they were given instructions? Nuremberg dealt with that.

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I will be dealing specifically with that point, and with the news that we all heard this morning, later in my speech.

At present, the air campaign is still in progress, and, because there are many targets to be attacked, it will continue for some time. No one expects it to end speedily; certainly I do not. While it is clear that Iraqi air defences have been considerably weakened, in no sense have they been eliminated. As more and more military targets in Iraq are destroyed, the weight of the air campaign will shift increasingly to attacks on Iraqi ground forces in and around Kuwait.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will make some progress. Many hon. Members wish to speak in this afternoon’s debate.

Because of the attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia over the past two days, a particular effort has been devoted to eliminating Iraq’s Scud missile delivery systems, both fixed sites and mobile launchers. General Schwarzkopf has assessed that some 16 mobile launchers have been destroyed, but we estimate that a significant number still remain. The hunt for them goes on by day and by night, and will continue.

An especially important part in the air campaign has been played by RAF Tornado and Jaguar ground attack aircraft, supported by VC 1Os and Victor tanker aircraft. They have attacked large numbers of targets in western, central and south-eastern Iraq and in Kuwait. They have concentrated in particular on low-level attacks at night on highly defended airfields, using the JP233 runway cratering weapon, and have done considerable damage. The nature of these attacks makes them particularly hazardous, and they have been carried out with great skill and bravery.

One striking feature of the air campaign has been the way in which the air forces of seven nations have successfully worked together. The United States has made by far the largest contribution, but the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, Canada and Italy have all been involved.

In relation to the number of sorties flown – and by all historical precedents – the number of losses so far has been remarkably small, with 17 aircraft lost. Sadly, these have included three RAF Tornados lost in action, whose crews are missing. The House will be aware that Iraqi television apparently showed seven captured airmen yesterday, among whom seem to be the crew of one of our Tornados. Such broadcasts themselves are wholly objectionable in every respect.

Today, there has been a reported threat to use captured airmen as human shields. Such action would be inhuman, illegal and totally contrary to the third Geneva convention. The convention expressly provides that prisoners of war shall be evacuated as soon as possible after their capture to camps situated far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger. It expressly prohibits the sending of a prisoner of war to an area where he may be exposed to fire, or his detention there, and forbids the use of the presence of prisoners of war to render points or areas immune from military operations.

There is no doubt about Iraq’s obligations under the Geneva convention. I can assure the House that we have reminded Iraq very forcefully indeed of its obligations under that convention. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, summoned the Iraqi ambassador once again this morning to register beyond doubt what our views are in this matter. I remind the Iraqis that they are bound to give us the names of any prisoners that they take and to notify the International Red Cross and provide it with access. They are also bound to grant those taken prisoner all their rights under the convention. We shall hold them to that completely.

We have already asked the International Red Cross to seek access at the earliest opportunity to the two RAF aircrew apparently being held. Meanwhile, I am sure that the whole House joins me in expressing sympathy to the families of those air crews of all nationalities who are unaccounted for. We can only guess at the distress that their families must feel at present.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely plain that, if war crimes are committed, those responsible will be held to account after the war is over?

The Prime Minister I can absolutely reaffirm that point. That is most certainly the position.

While the air campaign goes ahead, we and our allies have continued to build up our ground forces and ready them for their part in liberating Kuwait. This calls for a massive logistics exercise. On average, over 3,000 tonnes of freight is arriving in the Gulf every day in support of British forces. The way in which these vast amounts of supplies and equipment have been brought to the area and then channelled to our forces can already be credited as one of the remarkable successes of this campaign.

So, too, can the activities of the Royal Navy. It continues to patrol the waters of the Gulf on anti-aircraft picket duty and to play a vital part in enforcing sanctions against Iraq, in escorting shipping and in keeping the shipping lanes free from mines. It has been responsible for challenging more than 2,800 ships and boarding 36 of them, as well as discovering and destroying a number of mines.

I pay tribute also to the many civilians who are playing a crucial part in the support for the multinational force in Saudi Arabia, among them those employed by British companies there. The way in which they have stayed at their posts and continued their work deserves our whole-hearted congratulations.

On Friday, I spoke directly to the commander of the British forces in the middle east, General de la Billiere, and was able to brief him on the tremendous support which there is in this country for our forces. In return, he was able to give me a very good report of their morale and their state of readiness. He left me in no doubt about his confidence in the outcome. Our forces want to get the job done and to get home to their families just as soon as they can. Our thoughts are very much with those families, both here and in Germany. More than any of us, they live with the war, day in and day out, and with the constant worry about the safety of those they love. They deserve and will have all the support that we can give them.

One most disturbing development in this conflict has been the Iraqi missile attacks on population centres in Israel. Such attacks are deplorable – utterly deplorable and wholly unforgivable. They would be so against a belligerent, but they are even more so against a country which is not even a party to this particular conflict. We know why it has been done. We know what Saddam Hussein wants. We understand the cynical ploy. He wishes to draw Israel fully into the war in the hope of inflaming Arab opinion, breaking the multinational coalition and inciting a holy war. He will fail. He will not break the coalition in the Gulf against his invasion of Kuwait.

I believe that he wholly underestimates the cohesion and resolve of the international forces. There is no indication at all of any weakening of the will of our Arab allies. They remain determined to carry forward and sustain the campaign against Saddam Hussein, until he and his forces leave Kuwait, either voluntarily or as a broken-backed, defeated military machine. It is their choice.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) rose –

The Prime Minister Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me? I wish to make a little progress.

I do not believe that that will change, because our Arab allies understand the threat that Saddam Hussein represents to the interests of the Arab countries. They know this, too: no one has been responsible for the deaths of more Muslims in Iran, Kuwait and Iraq than Saddam Hussein.

Every Government have the right to self-defence, and no one can take that away. But we have urged on the Israeli Government the importance, if at all possible, of not granting Saddam Hussein his objective of involving Israel in a conflict which is exclusively about his occupation of Kuwait and nothing else. The remarkable restraint which Israel has shown so far is a sign of strength, and not weakness and will be widely recognised as such throughout the world. I hope that the American decision to send Patriot missiles to Israel will be further reassurance to it, especially after the Patriot’s splendid performance against the Scud missiles.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) It is being widely speculated, especially in the United States, that a deal has been struck with Israel: that, in exchange for it not getting involved in the war, America will soft-pedal on European efforts to bring Israel to the negotiating table after the war is over. Will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that, notwithstanding Israel’s decision so far not to retaliate, the British Government’s determination that Israel must come to the negotiating table eventually with the Palestinians and must grant them their rights of self-determination is unmoved by current events around that subject?

The Prime Minister There is no such deal, and I shall come to the British Government’s position in a short while.

There is one aspect of the conflict to which I want to run – the very real threat from terrorism. We are dealing with a vicious enemy, and we have learnt that his threats must be taken seriously. There is therefore a risk of terrorist action in this country, of terrorist attacks against British premises and communities abroad, and a more general threat to air travellers. We must recognise and take account of that.

To counter that, the Government have taken several steps to protect people. One hundred and thirty members of the Iraqi community suspected of readiness to engage in terrorist acts have been deported or detained. Security has been tightened at airports, Government offices and other public places, as well as at embassies and high commissions abroad. We are also encouraging other countries to improve airport security. The dangers are considerable; everyone will need to be vigilant.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me? Many hon. Members wish to speak.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will undoubtedly be many calls for a pause in military operations to enable negotiations to take place. It will be said that negotiations should be given another chance and that compromises should be explored. We do not wish the conflict to continue a day longer than necessary. We do not wish to risk the lives of our forces if implementation of the Security Council resolution can be achieved by peaceful means, but I must say to the House that the Government do not favour such a pause. A pause in the period up to 15 January was one thing, but a pause after 15 January is quite another. Our forces are now engaged. Our prime consideration must be to protect them and to avoid any unnecessary casualties, and that we shall do.

We cannot agree to any suspension of hostilities, which would allow Saddam Hussein to regroup and strengthen his position, simply in the hope that that might lead to negotiations on the basis of some vague promise about his intentions. Hostilities cannot end – or pause – until we know that all Iraqi forces are out of Kuwait. There can be no other basis on which we can ever agree to explore any proposals for peace: once again, it is in Saddam Hussein’s hands.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) Does my right hon. Friend accept that the country and the House agree that Saddam Hussein must be removed from Kuwait? How much safer will we be if this evil man decides to withdraw his forces from Kuwait and regroups within Iraq’s borders? Is it not a fact that our argument is not with the Iraqi people but that, as long as a man as evil as Saddam Hussein stays in power, we can never hope for peace? If we do not beat this regime now, we shall have to beat it in two years’ time. Will we chase him out of office, or will we allow him to withdraw when he is beaten in Kuwait?

The Prime Minister We would need, of course, to be perfectly clear that there was no threat to Kuwait. That is absolutely clear under the Security Council resolutions, which we propose to implement in full.

Even while we are engaged in a conflict which may last for some considerable time to come, we are already giving thought to what might lie at the end of it: in particular, future security arrangements in the area, which will avoid any repetition of Saddam Hussein’s aggression.

Clearly, it if for the Arab Governments themselves to give a lead in devising such arrangements and in providing the forces to sustain them. The Gulf states are far from reaching conclusions about this yet, but they need to be given attention now, so that, when Saddam Hussein is defeated, the necessary arrangements can be instituted rapidly and effectively.

Those arrangements will almost certainly involve a contribution from countries outside the area: and if the Gulf states wish it, we will be ready to play our part. There are a number of options which will need to be carefully considered. They include guarantees, the pre-positioning of equipment, visits and exercises by military units and the continued stationing in the area of naval and air forces. I see no circumstances in which we would envisage the permanent stationing of ground forces in the area.

Mr. Cryer Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall make a little more progress.

We shall play our full part, too, in the vigorous efforts to solve the Arab-Israel problem which the international community will need to renew once the war is over and Saddam Hussein is out of Kuwait. This will be crucial to the search for stability in the region as a whole. We must recognise that what Saddam Hussein has done by invading Kuwait and now by attacking Israel has made a solution harder to achieve, but I believe that, once the war is won, there will be a general recognition by all parties to the Arab-Israel dispute that the time has come for some new thinking. We shall do everything we can to promote this.

At the end of the first few days of the conflict, we can be well satisfied with what has been achieved. Our forces have performed effectively and bravely. The air campaign has caused significant damage to Iraq’s massive war machine. Casualties and losses have been kept down. The international coalition has held together well.

By any yardstick, it has been a good start. There is no doubt about the outcome. As every day passes, it becomes clearer that Saddam Hussein cannot win this conflict, but there is still some considerable way to go before he has lost it. It is important only that he should not doubt our resolve. He should have no such false assurance. What he should have is the absolute certainty that our forces have the total support of the House as they risk their lives in a just and necessary conflict.