BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 22.09.02

Film: IRAQ FILM. Terry Dignan looks ahead to the emergency House of Commons debate on Iraq.

TERRY DIGNAN: The spectre of war looms again over the Middle East. The armed forces of the United States are on the move. Eleven years ago America and her allies called a halt once the Iraqis had been ejected from Kuwait. This time they may go all the way - to Baghdad - with British troops risking their lives alongside them. Over Kosovo and Afghanistan Tony Blair didn't flinch from deploying our troops in support of what he regarded as just causes. But Iraq is a bigger test. Many Labour members and voters along with much of the European Union and Arab and Muslim worlds, oppose United States' plans to go to war with Saddam Hussain. Mr Blair, though, remains determined to stand alongside President George Bush even at the risk of splitting his party and isolating Britain internationally. MALCOLM SAVIDGE MP: There's a danger that Britain could be colluding in policies that I think the vast majority of people in Britain would feel very worried - might be dangerous and even evil policies. And I'm thinking of policies like pre-emptive, pre-emptive wars against countries who have not attacked us. ERIC JOYCE MP; I think we have to have resolve and if military action's what's required or at least a threat at this stage of military action, and I think it is required - that threat - then I think we should follow through with the threat. DIGNAN; Ministers and civil servants within Whitehall have been co-ordinating Britain's response to the Iraq crisis. They have been compiling evidence for a dossier which is meant to support American claims that Saddam has the potential to use weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair will present it to cabinet tomorrow and MPs on Tuesday. It's aimed at those who believe the Iraqi leader is no more of a threat today than he has been at any time in recent years. DOUG HENDERSON: I don't think there's any greater threat from Saddam Hussein today than there was four years ago - it's just that the international political situation's changed in the aftermath of September last year and that the Americans are much more gung-ho. DIGNAN: Hostility to military action stretches beyond those who routinely criticise Tony Blair. More than a hundred and thirty Labour MPs have signed a motion expressing deep unease at possible British government support for war against Iraq. They want the UN to find a solution. Even two cabinet members, Claire Short and Robin Cook, are said to share these sentiments. SAVIDGE: I think it's very important to recognise that concern in Parliament spreads right across the Parliamentary Labour Party - it's not just the usual suspects or the people who in the past opposed military action, it's people like myself who have supported previous military action. PRESIDENT BUSH: I welcome the prime minister back to Camp David ........ DIGNAN: At meetings with Bush, Blair has argued for UN support for military action. Iraq has reacted by allowing back UN weapons inspectors - an offer scorned by Blair and Bush, understandably say some former inspectors. TIM TREVAN: Generally speaking, Iraq was happy to make inspectors look foolish. So if they knew that a site had nothing then they would happily allow the inspectors to enter. If they knew the site was something which would embarrass the inspectors, they were even more happy to let them go in. For example, if the inspectors turned up at a place which turned out to be a chicken farm because of some error of map reading or a nursery school or something like that, but on the other hand, if the inspectors got close to a site which actually contains something they were trying to hide, then they would block physically the inspectors from entering. DIGNAN; So, the Americans fear that UN inspectors would again be obstructed. Plans for a war against Saddam would have to be put on hold. And that worries Washington because if there is to be an attack on Iraq, the Administration may want it launched before the summer heat returns to the Middle East. DR ROSEMARY HOLLIS: Time is the problem, the American timetable requires that if they are going to war they have to do it before the weather changes and that means doing it in the early New Year. They anticipate that the armed forces are going to have to equip for the potential use of biological and chemical weaponry. That is not a possibility in the middle of summer, and as soon as you get off the timetable, the political timetable of this year, you get into the run-up to the next presidential elections. So I believe that the hawks in Washington see this year as the optimum year to press home their quest for regime change in Baghdad. DIGNAN: Bush, backed by Blair, has responded to Saddam's offer by calling on the UN Security Council to set tough new conditions for the return of weapons inspectors. They should go anywhere they want including Saddam's presidential palaces and there'd be no room for negotiation. The Iraqis would face an ultimatum - co-operate or the countdown to war commences. But this weekend Saddam has vowed to defy any new UN resolution whose terms he says have been dictated by the Americans. HOLLIS: The Iraqi government would have to be feeling very desperate and frightened indeed to change its habitual attitude on this issue of weapons inspectors so completely that they could go anywhere in the country that they wanted, they could investigate any site that they wanted, with or without notice and so on. JOYCE; Saddam Hussein has ignored all the resolutions passed up till now; he is a well known liar and murderer and there's no reason we should accept his word at this stage, in fact there's every reason we should not and back it up with a clear, concrete statement of the resolve of the international community so I think it has to be toughly worded and we have to be prepared to back it up swiftly with action. DIGNAN: So far only two of the five permanent members of the UN security council - the US and UK - want to threaten Saddam with dire consequences if he doesn't co-operate. France, Russia and China have yet to be won over. But the Americans warn they'll block the return of the inspectors unless the threat of force is held in reserve. TREVAN: The inspections don't have much hope of success unless Iraq believes there are serious consequences of not complying with the inspections. Clearly Russia, China and France are very reluctant to mention the military threat so you're sending in inspectors without the military threat behind them, which means that Iraq is very unlikely to do anything beyond the minimal to allow them to come into the country and wander around and make fools of themselves. DIGNAN: In 1991 George Bush senior had United Nations' backing for a war against Iraq. His son is warning that he may take on Saddam regardless of the UN. That's what many Labour MPs fear. Even worse from their point of view is their worry that Tony Blair will ignore international opinion, commit Britain's armed forces to the conflict and cause a split in his party. HENDERSON: I think if Britain gives unconditional backing to the US it weakens our position as a broker between for instance European Union countries and the United States. It puts our own Prime Minister on the spot if on the one hand he's saying to the UN you must try and build a coalition, you must look at the question of inspections and at the same time he's saying well if you don't, we're going to go ahead anyway. JOYCE; When I look back and I think about Kosovo, I don't accept that it is absolutely essential that the UN give its full OK, I think at the end of the day what we need to do is to remove this threat and if it has to be done without the UN, the full UN backing, then so be it. DIGNAN: The prospect of the US deciding unilaterally to go to war may leave the UN looking weak, marginalised and humiliated. It's argued that many member-states are so appalled at the thought that they may decide to give America their backing. In theory this should make it easier for Tony Blair to win round those Labour MPs who say that without UN approval, war against Iraq is unacceptable. HOLLIS: They've been playing a game of bluff by threatening to go it alone if they don't get the necessary co-operation, that does corner the UN, they need to legitimise whatever the Americans do, otherwise it vindicates the idea that power might is right. SAVIDGE: I think it is very worrying to me that there are clearly a number of members of the Bush Administration who want war almost whatever happens, irrespective of inspections, irrespective of disarmament, they wish just to go for a regime change, and I don't want to see the United Nations simply used as a cover for pursuing a belligerent militaristic objective which is driven by the ideology of the US hard right. DIGNAN: But in Whitehall the plan appears to be to support Bush's strategy. That's what many Labour MPs believe. Which means Britain may be heading for war - with or without UN approval. It's a gamble - perhaps the severest test yet of the prime minister's leadership qualities. SAVIDGE: Before we start talking about the possible sacrifice of civilian lives or the lives of our armed forces, we should be very careful about saying that we're prepared to pay a blood price for the special relationship between our Prime Minister and this particular President. JOYCE: It does cause unease amongst some people within the Labour Party and elsewhere, but we have to be careful we don't define our response simply because the Americans are involved. Some people seem not to like our response to the Iraq problem simply because we're on the same side as the Americans. DIGNAN: Not so long from now our screens may again be filled with images of war. Tony Blair believes the use of force may ultimately be the only way of ensuring that Saddam Hussain is prevented from developing and unleashing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Proving this to his Cabinet and to his MPs this week will be a daunting challenge.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.