Backbenchers urge caution over military action

War on terrorism: Parliament
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Indy Politics

The time for action against Osama bin Laden is drawing near, Tony Blair told the emergency sitting of Parliament yesterday.

"We are now approaching the difficult time when action is taken. It will be difficult, there are no easy options," he said.

The Prime Minister outlined the "overwhelming evidence" linking Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida network to last month's terrorist attacks on the United States.

He said three hijackers had been identified as associates of Mr bin Laden and said one of the terrorist leader's closest associates had admitted that al-Qa'ida was involved in the operation.

MPs sat silent as Mr Blair told a packed House of Commons: "The coalition is strong. Military plans are robust. The humanitarian plans are falling into place, and the evidence against bid Laden and his network is overwhelming.

"The Afghan people are not our enemy, for they have our sympathy and they will have our support.

"Our enemy [is] Osama bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida network who were responsible for the events of 11 September. The Taliban regime must yield them up or become our enemy also."

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, replied: "I am convinced that Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'ida and the Taliban are guilty as charged. Any war against these people is a just war.

"We must stand ready to fight for our democracy and for civilised values everywhere."

He called for an overhaul of anti-terrorist legislation and appealed for a "concerted war against the mafia subculture" that sustained terrorist activity in Northern Ireland.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, also pledged his support for action. He told MPs: "There must be no doubt that the evidence to hand is indeed persuasive. Persuasive as to culpability and persuasive as to breathtaking criminality."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, opening the emergency debate, insisted that the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was not the primary objective of the military response to the attacks on America.

But he told MPs: "If the Taliban continue to harbour terrorists they will be considered our enemy and will have to face the consequences. Whether the Taliban becomes a target is essentially a matter for them and not for us."

Backbench MPs appealed for a proportionate response to the crisis, and urged Mr Blair not to allow military action to inflame tensions in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, asked: "How best can we assist the Afghans to clean up their own country? It would make no sense whatsoever if we substituted for the Taliban a different kind of civil war."

Chris Mullin, Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "In my view our immediate priority is not to start bombing anybody. Let Osama bin Laden stew for a while. The immediate priority is to make sure food and help is available to feed those six or seven or however many millions of people whose plight is so desperate."

He warned Mr Blair not to abandon the Afghan people to the warlords who had allowed the Taliban to seize power. He said: "I do not want to see our Prime Minister being forced to defend the indefensible in the month to come."

Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, said the world would only defeat terrorism if it understood the "deep-rooted alienation" of people in the Middle East. She warned: "Bombing with cruise missiles at $1m a time the poorest country in the world will do nothing whatsoever to help to save the millions of starving people." She added: "I believe that the great priority is saving the Afghan people. We have to have the food in there. We have to have shelter and have medical help that should start winning the friendship and trust of the Afghan people."

Tony Lloyd, a former Foreign Office minister, added: "Our response has to be proportionate, not about vengeance, but about taking out the terrorists and safeguarding our system."

Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, speaking on behalf of both his party and the Scottish National Party, said military action against Afghanistan went beyond the right to self-defence. He said: "I want to make it clear that we would not support and we would not in any way condone the UK going to war against the Afghan people."

The former Conservative defence minister Nicholas Soames told MPs the Arab-Israeli conflict was at the heart of the problem. He said: "When the pieces in the Prime Minister's kaleidoscope settle, truly the Government must see to it that we do bring all our influence to bear on a resolution to this problem."

Mike O'Brien, Labour MP for North Warwickshire and a former Home Office minister, warned of the danger of extremist attacks on British Muslims. He said: "I hope that the Home Secretary will consider extending the Race Relations Act to protect Muslims against religious discrimination, something that was being considered in the Home Office, and I hope that an announcement will be able to be made on that in due course."

Piara Khabra, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, called for action against extremists in Britain and backed military action against Afghanistan. He said: "The Taliban must be made to hand over Osama bin Laden and we are right in using targeted force to bring this about."

Andrew Mackay, Tory MP for Bracknell, compared the terrorist attacks in America to Northern Ireland. He said: "Terrorism is wrong wherever it comes from, it can never ever be justified. It can least be justified in a democratic country where every citizen has equal voting rights."

David Burnside, Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Antrim, added: "The Royal Ulster Constabulary have the same evidence on the guilt of the Real IRA on the Omagh bombing, every bit as much credibility as the evidence defined by the FBI and CIA which is persuading this Government to take military action."

Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, warned that a disproportionate response to the attacks would increase fanaticism. He said: "We should never respond to terror with terror. We should respond to terror with humanity."

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, accused the US of not signing up to an international criminal court. He said: "When President [George] Bush talks about bringing Osama bin Laden or whoever to justice, I'm just working out what kind of justice he actually means. Successive US administrations have specifically ignored or condemned decisions of the world court that were inconvenient to them."

The former Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Clive Soley condemned an attack on an Afghan minicab driver from his west London constituency of Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush immediately after the 11 September attacks.

He told MPs: "What sort of people didn't put two and two together and think: 'Maybe this guy is an Afghan refugee and if he is a refugee maybe he has got problems with the Taliban and maybe he is our friend rather than our enemy'."

MPs were highly critical of Baroness Thatcher for claiming that Muslim leaders had failed to speak out against the attacks on America.

Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East and a former Europe minister, said: "I don't know what she has been reading or what programmes she has been listening to but the only representations and comments that I have heard from the British Muslim community and the Asian community in Britain are words of condemnation for what has happened in New York and strong and total support for the actions being taken by the Prime Minister."

Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, added: "I have heard nothing from those Muslims I have discussed the situation with but condemnations for this atrocity. We stand shoulder to shoulder not just with our American friends, but with our Muslim friends."

Gerald Kaufman, a former Labour shadow foreign secretary, said Lady Thatcher had made "silly, ill-informed" comments. Those who attacked law-abiding Muslims were "squalid disciples" of Mr bin Laden, he said.

Patsy Calton, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle, said: "We need not just to voice the message that this is not an action or activity against Muslims and against Islam. We need to go further than that in our own constituencies.

"We are leaders in our own communities ... we need to go out and assist with the integration of people from other cultures and other faiths."

Some MPs warned of the danger to civil liberties of increased anti-terrorist measures. Edward Garnier, Conservative MP for Harborough, said: "ID cards are but fool's gold in the current crisis. They would only be useful for identifying the bodies of the victims of the next atrocity."

He warned that "even in grave emergencies there are limits beyond which a state can go and it's open to question whether, and how far, the normal restraints on government must yield to the higher interests of the state".