Iraq Bombings: Commons Debate: Chaos in House as Gulf vote is halted

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THE HOUSE of Commons erupted into chaos last night when rebel Labour MPs complained bitterly that they had been denied the chance to vote against the UK's bombing of Iraq.

Up to 25 MPs were due to register their opposition to the air strikes, but the Government failed to put up tellers for a vote.

The rarely-used move appeared to reflect a tacit agreement between the Government and opposition parties that no vote should be allowed.

George Galloway, MP for Glasgow Kelvin and a leading critic of the military action, accused fellow MPs of being "cowards" and said Parliament was being "abused and mocked".

"The country is at war and as a result of a procedural trick the minority opposition to that war is being cheated of its opportunity to vote," he shouted.

Mr Galloway was so furious that he crossed to Opposition benches and moved within feet of the Deputy Speaker, Michael Lord, to shout his protest. "This is a farce," he said.

Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow, said that the Government's move "brings the House and its procedures into disrepute".

Proceedings were disrupted for more than 15 minutes as MP after MP complained.

Amid some of the most chaotic scenes in the Commons this year, the Deputy Speaker said: "I understand the feelings that arise from a debate like this, but we have done things correctly."

Earlier, the Prime Minister told the House that the military attacks against Iraq over Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with United Nations resolutions on weapons inspections had been "substantial" in inflicting military damage.

In a sombre statement to the Commons, Tony Blair denied that it was a "specific objective" to remove the dictator, stressing that such action would require the insertion of ground troops on a massive scale.

"The decision to take military action against Iraq was taken with great regret. It is a heavy responsibility. There will be casualties in Iraq, despite all our efforts ... we have absolutely no quarrel with the Iraqi people but we have acted because we have to counter a real and present danger from a tyrant who has never hesitated to use whatever weapons come to hand."

Rising to a crowded chamber, Mr Blair strongly refuted the timing of the air strikes was "somehow linked to the internal affairs of the United States", saying: "I have no doubt whatsoever that action is justified now."

Had Bill Clinton acted differently, out of regard to internal US politics, that would have been a dereliction of his duty as President, he added.

The Prime Minister said once the military action was over, the United Nations would be better placed than if it had to go on dealing with a Saddam Hussein whose military capability had not been weakened.

"First reports from last night's operations suggest that they were successful and inflicted the kind of military damage we were seeking.

"If Saddam will not see reason, then after this military operation is concluded, we will work to ensure that Saddam's weakened military capability cannot be rebuilt and that the threat he poses is fully contained. We have the ability to do so, even without Unscom if necessary."

Britain would "maintain and enforce" rigorously the existing sanctions, Mr Blair said. "If necessary, and if we have serious evidence from our intensive surveillance, or from our intelligence, that his capability is being rebuilt, we will be ready to take further military action. Saddam should have no doubt of our continuing resolve."

Mr Blair told MPs it was "vital that people understand that the threat from Saddam Hussein was real, not theoretical", because the UN weapons inspectors had been "constantly harassed, threatened, deceived and lied to".

The Prime Minister also praised the bravery and professionalism of the allied forces. To cheers from all sides, he added: "We are proud of them."

Later, opening a debate on the air strikes, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said: "As long as Saddam remains in power, we will remain resolute in our determination that he will not be allowed to fulfil his ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction."

The Tory leader, William Hague, offered "full support",pledging: "We on this side of the House share your view that you and President Clinton had no alternative but to order a military response to the continuous deceit of Saddam."

Mr Galloway was jeered by his own party when he said Britain was "diminished and degraded" by the attacks.

He told the Prime Minister: "I wonder if you thought, as I did at lunchtime, as the bleeding women and children were carried into hospitals that those who were diminished and degraded were not the Iraqis, but us - diminished and degraded by being reduced to being a tail on this verminous and mangy Desert Fox.

"The attack has not been led by Richard the Lionheart, but by Clinton the Liar."

Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk, added: "British and Iraqi lives are being put at risk in a desperate attempt to save Clinton's skin."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman, said these were "sombre and anxious moments" for Britain. "The air strikes should be seen neither as a cause for celebration nor for satisfaction, but as a painful necessity and as a last resort to which we have been driven when all other options have been exhausted."

However, Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, condemned the attacks and said the Government was breaking UN regulations because two members of the security council, Russia and China, were opposed to the air strikes.

"Military action was tried seven years ago when 200,000 Iraqis were killed, many of them quite innocent, and Saddam is stronger than he was," he said. "There are many people in the world - and I am one of them - who believe that what has been done is deeply immoral and contrary to an ethical foreign policy of which we boast."

Gerald Kaufman, MP for Manchester Gorton, said there was a "feeling of nausea" among MPs at the suggestion that Mr Blair was doing a "cronyish favour" for Bill Clinton. "When our men are being asked to risk their lives, that is despicable."

Ann Clwyd, chairman of the all-party group for human rights and Labour MP for Cynon Valley, backed the actions but stressed she wanted to see Saddam stand trial for his crimes.

"Those who, like myself, stood on the mountains in 1991 and saw the Kurds flee in their thousands, over those snow-covered mountains in scanty clothing, with no shoes on their feet - thousands of those died because Saddam Hussein chased them out of their own country. I will never forget that experience, of having women coming to me in the sleet and the snow and pushing bundles at me, and the bundles were dead babies."

Former BBC foreign affairs correspondent Martin Bell, Independent MP for Tatton, who was in the Saudi desert with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars in the Gulf War, urged caution on Britain taking the role of "deputy chief sheriff" to the world by taking part in the bombing of Iraq.

Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, attacked being dubbed "an apologist" for Saddam Hussein because she opposed the bombing of Iraq. "Morally I cannot support the bombing of Iraq. I don't think we have got the authority from the UN to take this action," she said.