Press Briefing on IRAQ and War on Terror
Press Briefing: 3.45pm Wednesday 8 January 2003
Asked to clarify the Prime Minister's comment during PMQs today that it would be up to the 'international community' to decide whether military action against Iraq should be taken, the PMOS said that in this context, the 'international community' meant the UN. If there was a material breach, there would be a discussion at the Security Council by the 15 members who represented the international community. Hans Blix was due to present an interim report to the UN Security Council tomorrow and a further progress report on 27 January. Asked if he was implying that the Government would rule out any military action unless it had been authorised by the UN, the PMOS said we had always maintained that the UN should be the means of dealing with this issue, rather than avoiding it. Under the terms of Resolution 1441, any breach would have to be discussed by the Security Council. The Foreign Secretary had made clear that a further Resolution would obviously be preferable. However, 1441 stipulated that the Security Council would only have to discuss the issue first.
Asked if the Prime Minister would be prepared to accept the view of the weapons inspectors if they found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the PMOS said that the weapons inspections were continuing to take place in Iraq and it would not be helpful or sensible to pre-empt that process. However, as the Prime Minister had underlined again today, what was inevitable was that Saddam Hussein would be disarmed of his WMD. How that might happen was up to Saddam himself to decide. As the dossier we had published last year had demonstrated, we believed that he had WMD capability and that, on first reading, his declaration which he had issued last month was disappointing and incomplete. In the meantime, the weapons inspectors were continuing to do their job and that was the right way for this issue to move forward. It was important to recognise that we had only been able to get this far by pursuing the diplomatic track alongside the credible threat of force. That was why military preparations were continuing, but it did not make military action more inevitable.
Asked if the weapons inspectors were the only way through which the international community would reach a judgement on military action, the PMOS said it was important to remember that Saddam Hussein was in breach of innumerable UN Resolutions set out by the Security Council which had called on him to disarm in the past. A further Resolution - 1441 - had given UNMOVIC new powers. It was for Hans Blix and his team to test the declaration through the current inspections regime. Asked whether the weapons inspectors would be allowed to continue their work until they uncovered WMD in Iraq, the PMOS said that we did not view the 27 January date as a deadline. It was simply an opportunity or staging point for Hans Blix to give an update on progress to the Security Council. No time limit had been set. The inspectors had to be allowed to carry out their work in the way they saw fit. It was important to remember that they had only been back inside Iraq for a matter of weeks. Questioned as to whether military action against Iraq might be launched regardless of the evidence the inspectors might or might not uncover, the PMOS said that Resolution 1441 set out very clearly what the process would be were a breach to occur. As the Prime Minister and Ministers had made clear countless times, war was not inevitable. That position had not changed. Asked who would decide whether the inspections would be allowed to 'drag on' if the inspectors did not find any evidence and in the light of the Prime Minister's belief that WMD existed in Iraq, the PMOS said that that it wasn't a question of the Prime Minister's 'belief'. He pointed out that there were successive UN Resolutions which called on Iraq to disarm. In his preliminary response to Saddam's declaration, the Foreign Secretary had made the point that a lot of the material from the previous inspections regime was unaccounted for. We were giving UNMOVIC the time and the space to carry out their work, which we believed was the right way forward to deal with this issue.
Put to him that if the threat of force was going to be credible then it followed that the weapons inspections would have to have an endpoint such as 27 January, the PMOS pointed to the Foreign Secretary's FT interview today in which he had spoken about timelines for Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors and had underlined that we did not regard the 27 January as a deadline. It was important for them to have the opportunity to carry out their work in the manner in which they decided to do it and to be given the time and space to do so.
Asked if the UK and the US would be allowed to make a judgement as to whether there had been a breach or if it would be the prerogative of the Security Council, the PMOS said we had always maintained that if there was a breach then it would be reported to the Security Council. Within that process there was scope for a discussion - by the Security Council - on the matter. As we had made clear from the outset, it would be preferable to have an additional Resolution if it was decided that military action was necessary. However, as the Prime Minister had said in his Sedgefield news conference, the UN had to be a way of dealing with the issue rather than avoiding it, and as he had underlined in the House today, we reserved the right to take military action if we thought it necessary.
WAR ON TERROR
Asked if the Government was concerned about the threat to public safety given reports that associates of the men who had been arrested yesterday were still free, the PMOS said that there was an ongoing police investigation into the matter to which he was not privy, as was perfectly right and proper. He drew journalists' attention to what David Veness, the Met Assistant Commissioner, had said yesterday about the public being warned because 'we had to entertain the possibility that some material might have been made that was beyond our control. However, the process was relatively low-scale and any material beyond our control was also low-scale'. Questioned further, the PMOS said that he didn't have the answers to all the questions being put because an investigation was still ongoing and the individuals who had been arrested had yet to be charged. Nor did he want to pre-empt any police inquiries in a way that might prove to be unhelpful in the future in relation to any criminal proceedings.
Questioned as to whether the Government would be reconsidering its domestic counter-terrorism strategy now that the threat had become a reality, the PMOS said that our strategy was clear. The thing which guided us first, last and always was the safety of the public and the Government would take whatever action it considered necessary to protect people in the UK. That might mean increasing security in certain circumstances. It could also mean taking action in the way we had seen over the last 72 hours. Should there be specific intelligence that demanded it, then we would also obviously warn the public. Asked whether the Government was already stepping up security in the light of the arrests and the Ricin find in Wood Green on Sunday, the PMOS said that if there was a specific threat, the Government and law enforcement agencies would take whatever action they considered to be necessary to counter it. He reminded journalists that although there was a continuing general threat, we had to be careful not to do the terrorists' job for them. Clearly there was a judgement and balance to be struck. Given the British public's experience of terrorism over the years, we believed they were strong and stoic in character and that they recognised that it was important not to over-react.