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Blair: A war not of conquest but of liberation

PM: A war not of conquest but of liberation

Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that the campaign in Iraq will be carried out to minimise the suffering of its people and to safeguard the wealth of the country for their future prosperity. Mr Blair was briefing MPs on the latest European Council meeting in Brussels last week.

Read the statement in full below.

[CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY]

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council which I attended in Brussels on 20 and 21 March; and report on the conflict in Iraq.

This meeting was the fourth of the special summits on economic reform in the European Union. But, of course, the summit was dominated by Iraq.

I should like to place on record what I know will be the heartfelt gratitude of the entire House for the valour of British servicemen and women.

I send the deepest sympathy of the government and the whole House to the families of those who have died. They gave their lives for our safety. They had the courage to take the ultimate risk in the service of their country, and of those who value freedom everywhere in the world. We owe them an immense debt.

I would also like to extend my condolences and those of our nation to the families of the American personnel who have sadly been lost in recent days.

We are now just four days into this conflict. It is worth restating our central objectives. They are to remove Saddam Hussein from power and ensure Iraq is disarmed of all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes. But in achieving these objectives, we have also embraced other considerations. We want to do this campaign in a way that minimises the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people, brutalised by Saddam; to safeguard the wealth of the country for the future prosperity of the people; and to make this a war not of conquest but of liberation.

For this reason, we did not, as some expected, mount a heavy bombing campaign first, followed by a land campaign. Instead, land forces were immediately in action, securing oil installations, gaining strategic assets and retaining them, not destroying them. The air campaign has been precisely targeted. Of course there will have been civilian casualties. But we have done all we humanly can, to keep them to a minimum. Water and electricity supplies are being spared. The targets are the infrastructure, command and control of Saddam's regime not of the civilian population. And we are making massive efforts to clear lines of supply for humanitarian aid, though the presence of mines is hindering us.

By contrast, the nature of Saddam's regime is all too plainly expressed in its actions. The oil wealth was mined and deep-mined at that. Had we not struck quickly, Iraq's future wealth would even now be burning away. Prisoners are being paraded in defiance of all international conventions. Those who dare speak criticism of the regime are being executed.

Let me now give the House some detail of the military campaign.

In the south, our aim was to secure the key oil installations on the Al Fawr Peninsula; to take the port of Umm Qasr, the only Iraqi port to the outside world; and to render Basrah, the second largest city in Iraq, ineffective as a base for military operations by Saddam against coalition troops. In the West, in the desert, our aim is to prevent Saddam from using it as a base for hostile external aggression. In the North, our objective is to protect people in the Kurdish autonomous zone, to secure the Northern oil fields and to ensure the North cannot provide a base for Saddam's resistance.

Then, the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer.

There is a limit to how much I can say, about the detail of our operations, especially those involving Special Forces, as I'm sure the House understands. But, with that caveat, at present, the British and US troops have taken the Al Fawr peninsula. That is now secure. The southern oil installations are under coalition control. The port of Umm Qasr despite continuing pockets of resistance is under allied control but the waterway essential for humanitarian aid may be blocked by mines and will take some days to sweep. Basrah is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base. But in Basrah there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops and so we are proceeding with caution. Basrah international airport has been made secure. The Western desert is largely secure. In the North, there have been air attacks on regime targets in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit. We have been in constant contact with the Turkish Government and the Kurdish Authorities to urge calm.

Meanwhile, coalition forces led by the American 5th Corps are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad near Karbala. It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina Division of the Republican Guard who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will be a crucial moment.

Coalition forces are also advancing on Al Kut, in the East of Iraq. The two main bridges over the Euphrates south of Baghdad have been taken intact. This is of critical significance.

The air campaign has attacked Iraqi military installations, the centres of Saddam's regime and command and control centres. A total of over 5000 sorties has taken place.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. Still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating. But there are those, closest to Saddam that are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite that are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan.

At the European Council, there were of course deep divisions over the coalition action. That is well known. But it is not that all of European opinion is one way. On the contrary, there was both understanding and support for the British position from many nations represented at the Council and near unanimous endorsement from the 10 accession countries who joined our Council on Friday afternoon. In any event, whatever disagreements about the conflict itself, Europe came together to set out clearly its wishes and responsibilities in post-conflict Iraq.

The Council agreed the need to be active in the humanitarian field and to ensure that the oil revenues are held for the Iraqi people by the UN and that the Oil for Food programme continues.

The Council further agreed that the UN Security Council should give the UN a strong mandate for post-conflict Iraq and make sure that the new administration is one that is representative, careful of the human rights of the Iraqi people and allows the people to live at peace inside Iraq and with its neighbours.

In addition, the Council stressed the vital importance of the Middle East Peace Process and the publication of the Roadmap drawn up by the US, EU, Russia and the UN and now endorsed by us all. I reported on the talks we had had both with the US Administration and the Palestinian Authority. I welcomed the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Prime Minister. I also welcomed the US intention to publish the Roadmap for peace as soon as the Prime Minister and his government are in place.

I know it seems out of place but I should say one word on the conventional subject matter of the summit. Though overshadowed by Iraq, this summit on economic reform regained some momentum. In the last few months, energy liberalisation, a single Europe-wide Patent and a single Europe Sky policy have all been agreed. An Employment Taskforce due to report on ways to cut unemployment without generating new regulation was agreed. This marks progress, though much remains to be done.

To return to the conflict, there are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents. We grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war. And it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms. But it is worth recalling the nature of what is not always apparent, what we do not see: a nation, degraded and brutalised by decades of barbarous rule, a country that is potentially rich but whose people go hungry and whose children die needlessly from malnutrition and disease; and a regime to whom repression, torture, the abuse of human rights and possession of WMD define their very nature.

That is why we must achieve our objectives. Saddam will go, this regime will be replaced. The Iraqi people will be helped to a better future. The weapons of mass destruction - for which a peaceful Iraq has no use - will be eliminated. That we will encounter more difficulties and anxious moments in the days ahead is certain. But no less certain, indeed more so, is coalition victory.

ENDS

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