Major to conduct review of Bosnia operation: Heath angers Tories by saying coalition strikes on Iraq have alienated Britain in the Arab world

Click to follow
Indy Politics
A FUNDAMENTAL review of the British commitment in Bosnia will be carried out today by a Cabinet committee of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister, following the Owen-Vance peace initiative and growing Conservative concern about further casualties.

John Major has invited Lord Owen, the Prime Minister's EC mediator, to the meeting, which is expected to be briefed by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence.

No 10 said last night that the ministers, and defence officials, would review 'possible scenarios'. The stock-taking exercise follows further progress with the peace initiative.

But ministers will also have to tackle key questions being asked by many Tory backbench MPs about the risks being faced by British troops, the measures to protect them, and evacuation plans if the fighting worsens.

Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, yesterday declared himself 'strongly opposed' to the commitment of any further British forces to former Yugoslavia and the sending of any troops at all to Kuwait.

Provoking protests from Mr Hurd and Conservative backbenchers as he delivered his warning during a Commons debate on the RAF and events in the Gulf, Sir Edward said the coalition strikes had strengthened Saddam Hussein's position within Iraq and alienated Britain from the Arab world.

'There is no point the Foreign Secretary shaking his head. He is just not in with the Arab world,' Sir Edward told the man who was once his parliamentary private secretary. Mr Hurd should step back and take an entirely fresh look at the situation, he said.

Mr Hurd, winding up the debate, said the 'misgivings' expressed about the recent action would have been much greater if the coalition had sat back and allowed Saddam Hussein's challenges to UN resolutions to unfold without reaction. 'Then people would have been really disturbed. Then the coalition would really have come unstuck.'

Sir Edward warned that once British troops were sent to Kuwait, 'you won't get them out'. 'We shall find ourselves landed with yet another commitment abroad where there are no direct British interests.

'My opposition to British forces going into Kuwait is only equalled by my opposition to any further British forces going into former Yugoslavia. This is a ghastly civil war and they are trying to wipe out the legacy of generations. . . and we cannot do it for them.

'If we put forces in and those up in the mountains start carrying on as they did in the Second World War and the casualties start coming home, then what is the public going to say?'

Opening the debate, Mr Rifkind said the Government had not yet received any request for forces from Kuwait. 'Only if such a request was received would it be necessary to consider it.'

He said the recent action had been 'highly successful'. It had significantly enhanced the safety of coalition aircraft and ensured the continuation of effective no-fly zones protecting Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi'ites in the south.

Countering Labour backbench criticism of Sunday's US cruise missile attack when the Rashid hotel in Baghdad was hit, Mr Rifkind said ultimate responsibility for any accidents lay with Saddam Hussein whose behaviour had caused the coalition action in support of UN resolutions. Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, said the bombing had strengthened Saddam and undermined the authority of the UN Security Council. The policy Mr Rifkind had announced so proudly only eight days ago was 'in shreds', Mr Benn said.

Labour critics also gave their own party defence spokesman, David Clark, an awkard time as he supported the action so far. Malcolm Chisholm, MP for Edinburgh Leith, pressed him to condemn the US attack on Baghdad 'which quite clearly had nothing to do with the defence of the no-fly zone'.

Mr Clark replied: 'We said enough was enough of that sort of raid and the whole issue ought to be referred back to the UN. That was our position on Monday and it's our position now.' He was satisfied the action so far had been covered by the UN mandate.

Two senior Conservatives, David Howell, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, backed the action but cautioned on future strategy. Mr Howell wanted other pressures on Iraq, including more help for Kurds, Shi'ites and political opposition, while Sir Nicholas said: 'There are limits to the extent to which we are right to either bomb Baghdad or take retaliatory action which puts at risk civilian lives.'

Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said if he was asked by the UN on a specific mandate for a specific purpose to send troops to Kuwait he would be willing to consider it.

A protest vote called by Labour opponents of military action was defeated by 156 votes to 21.

Bosnia rapes report, page 10

Saddam's milk, page 12