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Government press briefing by the Defence Secretary

Government press briefing by the Defence Secretary

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has said the military campaign in Iraq is proceeding 'according to our strategic planning'. Mr Hoon made the comments in his opening statement at a Government press briefing on operations in the Gulf.

Read the transcript in full below.

MR HOON

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. I would like to give you a brief update on the military campaign. Could I begin by paying tribute to the British and American Servicemen who have lost their lives over the past few days, whether through tragic accidents or as a result of enemy action. I offer our deepest sympathy to their families at this very difficult time.

You will have seen the reports this morning that two British soldiers are missing. Every effort is being made to find them. I also want to pay tribute to the ITN journalist, Terry Lloyd, who lost his life while doing his job in a very dangerous region of Iraq.

Turning to the military action, it is worth noting that before the campaign actually began, most people were predicting an initial phase of air strikes lasting for days, if not weeks, before any ground operations. In fact the start of the land operations, including 3 Commando Brigade's assault on the al-Faw Peninsular, was just as significant to the early part of the campaign as the use of air power.

Can I put the progress of the campaign into context. Over the weekend we have seen a consolidation of early gains on the ground and a significant push northwards, complemented by a continuation of precisely targeted air and cruise missile strikes. Southern Iraq is broadly under the control of coalition forces and the US Army's 5th Corps and the First Marine Expeditionary Force have continued north at a steady rate of progress. We should not under-estimate the huge logistical effort required to support this. The speed of the advance will have to take into account the demands of resupply and sustainment.

There are, as expected, continuing pockets of resistance. Although there have been a significant number of surrenders, some regular troops remain loyal to their commanders, if not to their government. But on the whole what we are seeing is the activity of relatively small numbers of desperate men, members of the security organisations or militias most closely associated with the regime, such as the Fedayeen Saddam, who believe that they have nothing to lose. The difficulty of dealing with such resistance should not be under-estimated, but it does not alter the fact that Saddam Hussein's writ no longer runs in large parts of the country.

The securing of southern Iraq is of considerable strategic importance as it accounts for a significant proportion of Iraq's demographic and economic resources. Umm Qasr is a city similar to Southampton and the country's major port. The southern oilfields and their infrastructure are crucial to the economic future of Iraq and to the welfare of its people. One of the coalition's major concerns prior to the campaign was the risk that Saddam Hussein might choose to destroy those fields by rigging the oilfields for demolition. Such sabotage would not have stopped coalition forces, but it would have threatened an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, crippling Iraq's economy for years to come. Achieving our objective of securing the oilfields and infrastructure virtually intact is a significant early success.

We are committed to the future of Iraq and to returning its governance and resources to the Iraqi people. That is why we want to avoid any unnecessary loss of life or destruction of infrastructure. That is why we apply so much care to the targeting process. I can personally vouch for the amount of time and effort that is devoted to this.

The first use of the Royal Air Force's newest weapon - Storm Shadow - makes a significant difference to our options. Storm Shadow is a deep penetrating precision guided weapon, it enables us to attack well protected high value targets which could previously only be destroyed by using massive force, carrying the risk, as it would have been, of high numbers of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Storm Shadow's precision greatly reduces this risk. Early indications are that storm shadow's use has been highly successful. We hope to provide a more detailed briefing on storm shadow in the near future.

In the meantime we are seeking to follow up the coalition's early successes, although our immediate priority must be the continued prosecution of the military campaign until the regime has been defeated and removed. We are also making plans to meet any urgent humanitarian needs in those areas under coalition control. One key element to this is the opening of the port of Umm Qasr to shipping. This in turn means that we need to sweep the Khawr Abd Allah waterway for mines. The Royal Navy's Mine Countermeasures Task Group, which includes mine clearance divers, has begun this difficult task. Owing to the extent of Iraqi mine laying, this may take a number of days.

In the meantime the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Sir Gallahad is being loaded with humanitarian supplies. We are also looking at the possibility of delivering any urgent assistance by land or air. In the slightly longer term the creation of a secure environment should make it possible for international and non-governmental organisations to deliver assistance.

The campaign is proceeding according to our strategic planning. As I said to the House of Commons last Thursday, I have never been one of those who predicted a quick and easy victory, and I am not intending to join that group now. But the surge of Iraqi propaganda in the last day or two, and what appears to be the disgusting treatment and exploitation of American prisoners of war, are the actions of a desperate regime that knows its time is coming to an end.

QUESTION

Can I ask about the next phase of the war. British and American forces haven't entered Basra, and of course are still some way from Baghdad. What happens when we get to Baghdad?

MR HOON

I don't want to anticipate that. I am not suggesting that there is a strict timetable. I have indicated that there may well be resistance, even from some of the regular forces under Iraqi control. But certainly the progress has been good, it is consistent with our plan, and as we approach Baghdad clearly the options available will be looked at carefully.

QUESTION

If I could just pursue that point. Many watching the progress of this war fear that things are about to get much, much worse, that Saddam is preparing for a last stand outside Baghdad. Are you preparing the forces and the country for that eventuality? And if I could just pursue your thoughts on prisoners of war as well. Disgusting though some people may find those pictures, they may also see pictures of surrendering Iraqi prisoners of war and want to know what the distinction is.

MR HOON

As far as a last stand is concerned, I think my concern, as I have indicated in relation to Basra for example, is the use of regular forces, militias, basically some of Saddam Hussein's thugs who in previous years have been responsible for terrorising and intimidating the Iraqi people. It is those kinds of people that are resisting. By and large the regular forces around Basra for example withdrew, and our concern obviously is not to expose our regular forces to the kinds of terrorist activities that some of those groups could carry out. But that will be a judgment made by the military leadership on the ground and advising us as to the best way forward. As far as prisoners of wars are concerned, it seems to me that there is an enormous difference, and

I think one recognised in the Geneva Convention, between factual photographs very often of the backs of prisoners surrendering, as against the appalling barbaric behaviour of Iraqi forces dealing with those American prisoners, and legally it seems to me, as well as morally, quite different to report factually that there are prisoners being surrendered, as against the kind of treatment that we saw of those young men and women at the hands of the Iraqis.

QUESTION

Two quick questions. One is can you give us a figure on the number of prisoners that you think have been taken on either side? And secondly, following this morning's broadcast, do you now accept that Saddam Hussein is at the very least alive and operating in Iraq?

MR HOON

I don't think actually it is sensible at this stage to talk about numbers of prisoners. We are certainly aware of the numbers of coalition forces missing. Obviously in one sense we hope that they are prisoners rather than they are fatalities, but it is a concern that we continue to investigate. As far as Iraqi prisoners of war is concerned, there is a very different picture, because many of those forces who surrendered around Basra actually surrendered following large numbers of those regular army members simply leaving the battlefield and going home, so actually those that were taken prisoner may well be a small number of the total simply because the Iraqi commanding officer found himself in a position of not being able to command his own forces since they had abandoned the fight, and that is a picture I think which has been seen consistently in many part of the regular Armed Forces. But I am not under-estimating the level of resistance that might be put up by Republican Guard troops for example. As far as the pictures this morning are concerned, obviously analysis continues. What I can say straight away is that those pictures were not live and therefore clearly there is still the possibility of Saddam Hussein's people issuing tape recording. We are well aware that he spent many hours recently tape recording various messages, so I think we have to do a little more analysis of what was actually said to see whether or not that was in fact Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION:

What do you say to the claim from Iraq over the weekend that they would let the coalition forces take a walk in the desert, but when it came to the cities that would be a different matter?

MR HOON

We have anticipated for some time the idea that there might be a defence with the regular forces of the towns and cities and we have no intention of falling into that particular trap. Equally I recognise at some stage Baghdad will have to be taken, and that is the kind of military judgment that we will make when the time is right, and we are not yet there.

QUESTION

To what extent does the seizure of the Euphrates bridges in the south compensate for the military disadvantage of not being able to open a second front with whatever it was, the 104th Mechanised Infantry in the north? And secondly, how do we explain away the failure of the friendly fire protection of the Tornado which came down? Can that be rectified or was it just bad luck?

MR HOON

Well as far as the bridges are concerned, they are a key element in the ability of forces to advance north, those bridges have been secured, and that advance continues. As far as the technical failure is concerned, I have been at pains on many occasions in recent months to emphasise to Members of the House of Commons that there is no single technological solution to the problem of friendly fire, I wish there were. We did all that we could to equip those Tornado aircraft with the very latest equipment, equipment that is actually available to American aircraft as well, but still we need to look again at the procedures, both our procedures and obviously the procedures available to those operating the missile batteries to make sure that those two systems operate effectively together, and that work is under way as a matter of some urgency.

QUESTION:

You seemed to imply at one point there that the failure was in the aircraft, not in the patriot missile?

MR HOON

No I wasn't implying that at all, but clearly there are separate procedures that govern the operation both of the missile battery and of the aircraft. What we need to ensure is that those two procedures work effectively together in a way that they clearly did not the other day.

QUESTION

Can you tell me why we haven't seen pictures of the cheering happy civilians that the Prime Minister led us to believe we were going to see as soon as our liberating forces went into their towns and villages?

MR HOON

Well there have been some such pictures and there are pictures in Umm Qasr which I have certainly seen on the television, and one of the issues related to Basra for example, we know full well that the militia are holed up in Basra, they have machine gun positions, they are moving some of the local population out of their homes and they are preparing to intimidate in the way that they have done in the past local people.

These people, you have got to remember, have had years of intimidation and terror from these same organisations and they are not likely going to risk taking heavily armed people on when actually they are ordinary civilians.

QUESTION:

... fall into the trap of getting into street fighting in Baghdad, but are you going to have to rethink your strategy towards the towns in the south, you have been by and large by-passing them rather than capturing them. Is it now time for you to take more full control of them in order to eliminate the pockets of resistance you have been talking about?

MR HOON

What I said about the south was that those towns and cities have no military strategic significance, and clearly ultimately they will have to be liberated, but I think it is best to be patient about the way in which we deal with that, rather than risking regular forces to in effect clean up those pockets of resistance when it is not militarily necessary to do so in the short term.

QUESTION:

There are reports that the British commandos fighting around ... have come under fire from Iranian military and that the Iranian Interior Minister has said that if there are any more violations of Iranian air space, Iran will react. Do you have any comments?

MR HOON

The reports certainly of missiles going into Iranian air space I am fairly confident now were Iraqi missiles and not coalition missiles. There is no reason to suspect that any of our missiles have strayed into Iranian air space. I am not aware of any more recent reports of firing.

QUESTION:

Inaudible.

MR HOON

Again I am not aware of those.

QUESTION:

Are you worried that people are becoming less enthusiastic for this war, given that we are now seeing prisoners of war, casualties, friendly fire, that people's appetite for it will diminish?

MR HOON

Can I put it this way, I don't believe that people have an appetite for war. People recognise that we had to take very difficult decisions to deal with a threatening situation, and clearly most British people, and certainly most people in the Ministry of Defence, want this over as quickly as possible, but at the same time recognising that there is a job to be done and that that job may take time, consistent with our military planning. I actually believe that the population when they see, as they are doing hour by hour, would see just how difficult that task can be, that this is real military action, this is not some game, some computer game, that is being played out before their eyes, there are real risks affecting individual men and women who courageously are fighting for this country's best interests.

QUESTION:

You paid tribute to Terry Lloyd, can you confirm that he was killed by British forces or by American forces, and if so would you express regret or even apologise for his death?

MR HOON

I can't confirm that. He was clearly operating in a very dangerous part of Iraq, operating beyond the frontline of British forces. He was out to get his story, as he has done on many previous occasions, and one point that I did make yesterday in an interview with ITN was the fact that he, above all else, was responsible for exposing the appalling treatment of people at Hallabja and courageously did it in that way at that time. So I have great respect for the work that he has done in the past and paid proper tribute to that.

QUESTION:

You think that the broadcast of Saddam was not live, but he did, as I understand it, refer to contemporary events. So are you still saying there is a possibility that he may in fact be dead? And there are reports that some chemical weapons factory has been discovered, do you attach any credibility to those?

MR HOON

The contemporary events referred to were not, and I am only in the same position that you are, watching the broadcast and listening to the simultaneous interpretation, the contemporary events did not appear to me to be unambiguously contemporary, if I can put it that way, and had he have wanted to indicate that this was live, or was recent, there were many events that he could have referred to which he clearly did not, so that is why we are continuing to analyse the situation.

QUESTION:

So you think he may be dead?

MR HOON

I do not think it makes a great difference to our military campaign whether he is alive or dead, that campaign will continue along the lines that we had previously planned As far as the suggestions that a chemical factory has been discovered, that is certainly being currently investigated and I will hope to have some answers to that in due course.

QUESTION:

What are the political risks to you, the Prime Minister and the government if there is even the perception amongst the public that this war is not going well?

MR HOON

The war is going well, I have indicated it is going according to the plan, and indeed I think that within what, 3 days of real military operations beginning, the idea that somehow people are losing confidence or heart is nonsense. You cannot expect after a short period of military conflict to have all of the results which you are by implication suggesting are necessary. This is a difficult demanding complex sophisticated military operation; it is not, I warned the other day, not going to be over in a matter of days.

QUESTION

You say you are looking again at the procedures designed to stop any repeat of the Tornado being shot down by the patriot missile. Are the Tornado missions being restricted while you look at those procedures, or are they flying under greater risk? And how confident are you that we will not see any repeat of such an incident?

MR HOON

We had done all that we thought necessary beforehand to both equip our aircraft and ensure that the people involved follow the necessary procedures to avoid precisely this kind of tragedy, but certainly further efforts have been made to review and to ensure that those complementary procedures operate effectively. But as I indicated, no-one can give you that 100% guarantee because it is not simply a question of technology, it is a question of how individuals in very difficult situations react to threatening events.

QUESTION:

With regard to contacts with leading members of the Iraqi leadership, the Republican Guard army, can you confirm whether those contacts are continuing or they have slowed up in the last 2 days?

MR HOON

There certainly were contacts before the surrenders around Basra and I think you can take it from me that similar sorts of efforts are being made to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. And part of our information campaign was designed to show to ordinary Iraqi soldiers that they need have no fear of surrender to coalition forces, but they perhaps had much greater fear of Saddam Hussein and his regime. And it seems to me particularly that ordinary Iraqi soldiers who themselves and their families will have been threatened and intimidated by elements of the regime, and that may continue even now, they have nothing to lose by surrender and everything to gain for the future of their country.

QUESTION

I would like to go back to this spectator chemical plant. If this is proved, are you going to use for this task for this investigation the special chemical unit serving in Kuwait?

MR HOON

We certainly know that the expertise is there and available and we are very grateful for that. I think at this stage we should not get too far ahead of ourselves. I have seen the suggestions, they are being properly investigated, we have the equipment to check whether this is a chemical plant, but I think for the moment it is better to remain cautious because the case is not yet proved.

QUESTION:

If you are now spread out over such a huge area, are you giving any thought to possible reinforcements or replacements, particularly in logistics and infantry?

MR HOON

There are other forces that in time will be available. That is not an issue for today, we are only a few days into the military campaign, clearly we do have to think through the implications as far as reinforcement, I mentioned resupply already, but that is not a pressing or immediate problem.

QUESTION:

On prisoners, and your request for fair just treatment of coalition prisoners of war, has that been compromised do you think by the treatment of prisoners, say, in Guantanamo Bay?

MR HOON

I don't believe that it is and we expect the military forces in Iraq to observe precisely the terms of the Geneva Convention with regard to military prisoners, and I have no hesitation in condemning any behaviour that departs from those standards.

QUESTION

It seems some of the American POWs may have been men and women who were on the supply forces behind the advancing soldiers and they were caught in an ambush from behind. Has this incident caused the US and Britain to reconsider their overall ground strategy in any way?

MR HOON

I think certainly we have got to recognise that it is not simply the frontline that are vulnerable, which might have been the traditional way of viewing risk in this kind of conflict, where there is such a fast moving advance then as we have seen, there are risks that those behind the frontline will face, and certainly we need to adjust our force protection to take account of those risks and to take account of the way in which the enemy is operating.

QUESTION

We understand that the coalition are anxious to achieve their military aims by inflicting minimum casualties where they can. It is reported that allied troops have been ordered not to open fire first unless fired upon. Are you confident that the rules of engagement we have got are robust enough given the resistance we are coming up against, or does that need reviewing?

MR HOON

Can I say that your premise doesn't entirely accord with the rules of engagement. People are entitled to take robust action to defend themselves, and since I personally approved those rules of engagement, I assure you that our people are not put in any risk by that and they are entitled to properly defend themselves in the way that they have always done.

QUESTION:

If it does take several days to clear the passage to take in humanitarian aid, surely that is a set-back on original plans to get aid in, and how are you dealing with the imminent humanitarian crisis in Basra? And secondly, if Saddam Hussein is dead, how many members of his regime would you want to kill to end this war, when you define that you are victorious if he is actually dead already?

MR HOON

Well as far as aid is concerned, there was no fixed timetable for the delivery of aid. I am not going to allow ships into a dangerous port area whilst there is still fighting going on, nor are we going to take ships into a waterway that has been heavily mined. Work therefore has to be done to ensure the safety and security of those ships in order that they can deliver humanitarian aid, and I don't think anyone should be at all surprised about that. But certainly work is under way loading Sir Gallahad and making other stores and supplies available whenever we judge it is safe for the delivery of that food and other equipment. On your second question, to be honest I don't think it is helpful to speculate at this stage. We clearly have to deal with the leadership, we have to see that leadership destroyed and that is absolutely essential to our campaign.

QUESTION

What can you tell us about any Iraqi air activity? Has any aircraft got up, have they challenged any of our aircraft, have they fled, have they all been bombed, what is the situation?

MR HOON

We have not seen any Iraqi aircraft flying so far.

ENDS

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