Rifkind urged to formulate clear strategy on Iraq

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MALCOLM RIFKIND, the Secretary of State for Defence, was warned from all parts of the Commons yesterday of the need to develop a clear, long-term strategy towards Iraq.

Though the military strikes of Sunday and yesterday received the support of all MPs bar a minority of Labour backbenchers, the mood of the Commons as Mr Rifkind made a statement on the latest action was distinctly less gung-ho than during the Gulf war.

David Howell, Conservative chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said that while he realised that a strong response to Saddam Hussein's provocations was right, 'something more is needed here in the way of a longer-term strategy'.

He called on ministers to urge the allies and the UN Security Council to 'develop a sustained set of pressures', not only military but also political, diplomatic and economic. This would give encouragement to Saddam Hussein's enemies, he said.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats also stressed the need for a 'coherent, long-term strategy'. David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said that it was necessary to retain as wide a consensus as possible.

'There is very real concern that the provocations of Saddam Hussein and the legitimate responses could get completely out of hand and that Saddam Hussein's brinkmanship could lead to a resumption of full-scale war. There is a feeling that we are drifting to another bout of major hostilities . . .'

Calling for the issue to be taken back to the UN Security Council, Mr Clark went on: 'This legitimate action must not be portrayed as a personality struggle between the American president and the Iraqi one.'

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, emphasised the need for the United Kingdom and the United States to be seen as instruments of the United Nations. 'This matter should now be discussed by the Security Council so that we may have not only the legal justification but the moral authority for what we are doing.'

Mr Rifkind agreed that it was 'desirable to continue to have a proper, long-term strategy'. But that must never enable the need to protect the no-fly zone to be forgotten. The remedy to ensure the strikes did not continue lay with the regime in Baghdad.

Mr Rifkind told MPs that one of the Tornado GR1s that took part in yesterday's attack at Al Najaf was unable to clearly identify the target and had not released its 1,000lb (453.59kg) bombs in order to avoid the possibility of causing civilian casualties or damage to other buildings.

But he was accused by Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, of showing 'no sign of regret' for the killing of two receptionists at a hotel in Baghdad on Sunday. Mr Benn maintained that such action was in breach of international conventions on bombing civilians. 'It would amount in effect to a crime by those who conducted it.'

Mr Benn said that the minister was taking Britain's armed forces deeper and deeper into what could become a full-blown war without any authority from the House of Commons.

'If we lose control of the Government and the Government does everything the American government wants, we might as well pack up and go home,' he added later, as Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow, failed to persuade the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to grant an emergency debate.

The most critical Conservative was Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, who claimed the coalition action would build up Saddam Hussein with his people, fire up the case for fundamentalism, and 'spatchcock' the Middle East peace process.