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British Defense Secretary Speaks to Reporters

Aired March 24, 2003 - 06:06   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Geoffrey Hoon now is talking in London, the British defense secretary. We will listen and get back to Rym right after this.

GEOFF HOON, BRITISH DEFENSE SECRETARY: ... or as a result of enemy action. I offer our deepest sympathy to their families at this very difficult time.

We 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 by 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 airstrikes 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 peninsula, was just as significant to the early part of the campaign as the use of their power.

Can I put the progress of the campaign into context? Over the weekend, we've seen a consolidation of early gains on the ground in a significant push northwards, complimented by a continuation of precisely-targeted air and cruise missile strikes.

Southern Iraq is broadly under the control of coalition forces, and the U.S. Army's 5th Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force have continued north at a steady rate of progress. We should not underestimate the huge logistical effort required to support this. The speed of the advance will have to take into account the demands of re-supply and sustainment.

There are, as expected, continuing pockets of resistance. Although there have been a significant number of surrenders, some regular troops may 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 organizations 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 a resistance should not be underestimated, 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 South Hampton and the country's port. Southern oil fields 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 oil wells 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 oil fields and infrastructure virtually intact is a significant early success.

We are committed to the future of Iraq and to returning its governments 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.

Our 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're seeking to following 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 Shatt al-Arab (ph) 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 Galahad, is being loaded with humanitarian supplies. We're 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 organizations to deliver assistance.

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. 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.

Questions -- Andrew.

QUESTION: Andrew Mar (ph), BBC. Can I ask about the next phase of the war? British and American forces haven't entered Basra and of course they're still some way from Baghdad. What happens when we get to Baghdad?

HOON: Well I don't want to anticipate that. I'm not suggesting that there is a strict timetable. I've 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's consistent with our plan and as we approach Baghdad, clearly the options available will be looked at carefully.

QUESTION: Fleet Robinson (ph), ITV News. 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 in the country for that eventuality?

And if I could just pursue your thought 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. I want to know what the distinction is?

HOON: As far as a last stand is concerned, I think my concern, as I've indicated, in relation to Basra, for example, is the use of irregular forces, militias, basically some of Saddam Hussein's thugs who in previous years have been responsible for terrorizing and intimidating the Iraqi people. It's 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 war are concerned, it seems to me there is an enormous difference and I think one recognized in the Geneva Convention which we, in fact, show photographs very often of the backs of prisoners surrendering as against the appalling, barbaric behavior of Iraqi forces dealing with those American prisoners. And legally it seems to be, 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: Sky News. 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, you now accept that Saddam Hussein is at very least alive and operating in Iraq? HOON: I don't think actually it's sensible at this stage to talk about numbers of prisoners. We are certainly aware of the numbers of coalition forces missing. Obviously we -- 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 are concerned, there's 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 is -- which has been seen consistently in many parts of the regular armed forces. But I'm not underestimating a 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 straightaway is that those pictures were not live and therefore clearly there is still the possibility of Saddam Hussein's people issuing tape recordings. We're 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 there was roughly 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?

HOON: Well we have anticipated for some time the idea that there might be a defense with irregular forces of the towns and cities and we have no intention of falling in to that particular trap. Equally I recognize 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're not yet there.


QUESTION: Michael Atkin (ph) from (UNINTELLIGIBLE). What sense 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 the, whatever it was, the 104th Mechanized 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?

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've been at pains many occasions in recent months to emphasize to members of the House of Commons that there's no single technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. I wish there were. We did all we could to equip those Tornado aircraft with the very latest 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...


HOON: If I may finish, Michael, sorry, to make sure that those two systems operate effectively together and that work is under way as a matter of some urgency.

Sorry, Michael, you wanted to ask something else?

QUESTION: I did. Was -- you seemed to imply at one point though it was -- the failure was in the aircraft not in the Patriot missile.

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 insure is that those two procedures work effectively together in a way that they clearly did not the other day.

QUESTION: James Might (ph), the Miracle (ph). Can you tell me why we haven't seen pictures of the cheering, happy civilians that the Prime Minister lead us to believe we were going to see as soon as our liberating forces went into their towns and villages?

HOON: Well there have been some such pictures and there are pictures in Umm Qasr, which I've certainly seen on the -- on the television. 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 a way that they have done in the past, local people. These people, you've got to remember, have had years of intimidation of terror from these same organizations and they are not likely going to risk taking heavily armed people on when actually they are ordinary civilians.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that you're going to fall into the trap of getting into street fighting in Baghdad, but are you going to rethink your strategy towards the towns in the south? I mean you've been, by and large, bypassing 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've been talking about?

HOON: Well, 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: Nazari Nasari (ph) here in London.

There are reports that the British commandos fighting around the south 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?

HOON: Well, the reports certainly of missiles going into Iranian air space, I'm 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'm not aware of any more recent reports of firing.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is against British commandos?

HOON: Well, again, I'm not aware of those.

QUESTION: Are you worried (UNINTELLIGIBLE) enthusiastic for this war given that we're now seeing prisoners of war, casualties, friendly fire, that people's appetite for it will diminish?

HOON: Can I put it this way, I don't believe that people have an appetite for war. People recognize 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 defense want this over as quickly as possible. But at the same time recognizing 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, 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: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) British forces or by American forces? And, if so, would you express regret or even apologize for his death?

HOON: Well, I can't confirm that. He was clearly operating in a very dangerous part of Iraq, operating beyond the front line 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 Al-Abjah (ph) and courageously did it in that way at that time.

So I, you know, I have great respect for the work that he has done in the past and pay proper tribute to that.

QUESTION: Do you see (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that the forecast with 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 the second question is there's reports that have, that some chemical weapons factory has been discovered. Do you attach any credibility to those?

HOON: Well, the contemporary events referred to were not -- I'm in the same position that you ware, 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 analyze the situation.


HOON: Well, 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: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) political risks to you, the prime minister and the government if there's even the perception amongst the public that this war is not going well?

HOON: The war is going well. I've indicated it's going according to the plan. And, indeed, I think that within, what, three 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 that you're, 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: Robin Oakley, CNN.

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?

HOON: Well, we had done all that we thought necessary beforehand to both equip our aircraft and ensure that the people involved followed the necessary procedures to avoid precisely this kind of tragedy. But certainly further efforts have been made to review and to ensure that those complimentary procedures operate effectively.

But as I indicated, no one can give you that hundred percent guarantee, because it's not simply a question of technology. It is a question of how individuals in very difficult situations react to threatening events.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I'm Alajunjdi (ph) from "Al Sharq Al-Awsat (ph)" newspaper.

Secretary of State, 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 down in the last two days?

HOON: Well, 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: Yes, I'm Aramas Whye (ph), the Czech section of BBC. I would like to know, I would like to go back to this suspected chemical plant, if this is approved, are you going to use for this task, for this investigation the special Czech chemical unit serving in Kuwait?

HOON: Oh, 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've 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: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) such huge area, are you giving any thought to possible reinforcements or re-replacements, particularly in logistics and infantry?

HOON: Well, 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: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) prisoners, your request for fair, just treatment of coalition prisoners of war, has that been comprised, do you think, by the treatment of prisoners, say, in Guantanamo Bay?

HOON: Oh, 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 behavior that departs from those standards.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 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 U.S. and Britain to reconsider their overall ground strategy in any way? HOON: Well, I think certainly we've got to recognize that it is not simply the front line 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 than as we have seen. There are risks that those behind the front line 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.

Matthew (ph).

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

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 they are not -- 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: You said it would take several days to clear the passage to take in humanitarian aid. Surely, that's a setback on the original plans to get aid in. And how are you dealing with the eminent humanitarian crisis in Basra?

And can I just ask secondly, if Saddam Hussein is dead, what -- how many members of his regime would you want to kill to end this war? When do you define that you are victorious if he is actually dead already?

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 the Sir Galahad, making other stores and supplies available whenever we judge it as safe for the delivery of that food and other equipment.

I'm going to take one last question.


HOON: To be honest, I don't think it's 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.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You have been listening to British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon speaking live in London. We will continue monitoring the remainder of this press conference, but there is a lot going on, and we want to get you up to date of what's happening at this hour.


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