Parliament: PM's questions - Hague backs use of force in the Gulf

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THE PRIME MINISTER was given unequivocal backing yesterday by the Tory leader, William Hague, for the use of military action against Saddam Hussein providing it had "clear and achievable objectives".

But Tony Blair came under pressure from his own benches when Tony Benn, the veteran left-winger, claimed that any bombing of Iraq would be "illegal in international law", adding: "Why do you do everything you are told by President Clinton?"

Mr Blair insisted during the last Question Time of this year that President Saddam was operating a "plan of deceit" to prevent weapons inspections, threatening not just the Middle East but the "whole of the world".

He said: "Given Iraq's manifest failure to co-operate over the last month, I am quite satisfied that if we should choose to use force, we have the necessary legal authority to do so."

Expressing the Tories' support for military strikes, Mr Hague told the Prime Minister: "In the light of the fact that Saddam Hussein is still failing to comply with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction and bearing in mind your assurance last month that nothing less than complete compliance is acceptable, can I assure you of the full support of the Opposition for the use of military action in the days ahead, provided that action has clear and achievable objectives."

Replying, Mr Blair said the report by the chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, listed in very clear terms the "obstacles placed in the way of the weapons inspectors, the delays, the deceit, the refusal to provide documents, the restrictions on inspections".

He went on: "Nobody who reads that report can seriously doubt its conclusions that Unscom [the inspection committee] is unable to carry out its job properly. Indeed the report states that there are greater restrictions now than previously."

Mr Blair reminded MPs of the "very clear assurance" given by the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, on 14 November that Iraq would co-operate unconditionally with the UN inspectors, saying: "That promise is clearly now broken."

Mr Benn, MP for Chesterfield, warned the Prime Minister that military action would be contrary to the UN charter which required unanimity among the five permanent members of the Security Council.

He said: "It would also be illegal in international law, it will cause the death of many innocent people ... leaving Saddam stronger, and it will inflame the Middle East. And why do you do everything you are told by President Clinton, instead of taking an independent view in support of the charter?"

Mr Blair denied "such action would be unlawful", adding: "I take it as agreed that the regime of Saddam Hussein must be stopped from building these weapons of mass destruction. The question is how. It can either be done by him complying ... or we have to look for other ways in order to enforce his agreement."