Peter Hain: It is as important as ever to keep Saddam Hussein in his cage

'Our pilots do not fly over Iraq for the hell of it, but to stop Saddam from attacking his own people'
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The Independent Online

It is 10 years since Saddam Hussein sent his forces into Kuwait - 10 years of confrontation, 10 years of sanctions, 10 years of commitment by Britain and our allies to contain the threat posed by this aggressive and thoroughly unpleasant regime.

It is 10 years since Saddam Hussein sent his forces into Kuwait - 10 years of confrontation, 10 years of sanctions, 10 years of commitment by Britain and our allies to contain the threat posed by this aggressive and thoroughly unpleasant regime.

Not surprisingly, the anniversary of the invasion has provoked the question - has that 10 year commitment been worth it? The answer, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, is yes.

It is too easy for critics of our policy to point to the suffering of the Iraqi people and blame the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. It is too easy for those critics to question the continued action by British and Allied planes over the no-fly zone and accuse us of carrying out a bombing campaign against Iraq.

It is too easy for critics to conclude that we have achieved nothing. I would reject the criticism.

Ten years is a long time - long enough for critics to forget the victims of Saddam who need the protection of British airmen.

Our pilots do not fly day after day over Iraqi territory for the hell of it. They do not take action for the sake of it. They are there to stop Saddam Hussein using his aircraft against the Kurds and the Shia - his own people, whom he has attacked in the past.

Ten years is long enough for critics to forget the oppression of the Kurds and the Shia, which led us to establish those no-fly zones.

It is very easy to forget that for most of the last decade we patrolled the no-fly zones peacefully. But, once Saddam launched a systematic campaign to shoot down our aircraft, we had to respond. There have been about 850 direct threats against our aircrew in the past year and a half, including missile attacks and heavy anti- aircraft fire.

Our pilots take action only to defend themselves against this kind of attack.

I make no apology for defending our airmen against critics who ignore the reason why they defend themselves while working to defend innocent civilians on the ground below.

When I appeared on Newsnight the other evening, Jeremy Vine repeatedly accused Britain of conducting a bombing campaign against Iraq. The truth is that the last time UK aircraft dropped bombs in the no-fly zones was on 29 June, despite having been targeted and shot at since then.

Does anyone think that those British planes should allow themselves to be shot out of the sky? They are not taking part in an indiscriminate bombing campaign. The selection of targets is painstaking. Only military sites clearly connected with a threat to our aircraft are targeted, and even then only when we are wholly satisfied that the risks to civilians are minimal.

It makes me impatient on behalf of our pilots when critics take Iraqi claims of civilian casualties at face value. They should be treated with the utmost caution - the same caution that our pilots use.

Iraq deliberately locates air defence batteries next to civilian areas. It claims military casualties as civilian victims. It has been known to claim civilian deaths on days when we have not dropped any bombs and even on days when we have not been flying.

Britain has no wish to prolong the confrontation in the no-fly zones and I am certain our pilots have no wish to stay there, thousands of miles from their families, any longer than is necessary. If Iraq stopped shooting at our aircraft, there would be no further bombing. It is as simple as that.

It makes me impatient, too, when critics glibly blame the humanitarian suffering in Iraq on the UN sanctions, instead of putting the blame where it belongs - on Saddam Hussein. The sanctions are deliberately designed to allow Iraq to import food and medicine necessary for humanitarian needs.

Britain worked hard in the Security Council to secure the adoption of Resolution 1284 last year, which removes the ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq is allowed to export.

Iraq is now back among the top five oil exporters and the amount that will be available this year for humanitarian and food purposes is likely to be around $12bn (£8.2bn).There is no reason why anyone outside the Iraqi regime should be blamed for the condition of the Iraqi people.

As the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said recently, the government of Iraq is in a position to improve the health of the Iraqi people.

But it suits Saddam to let his people suffer, and to use that suffering to exploit credulous critics of our policy. It is not the fault of sanctions that half of the anti-cancer drugs delivered to Iraq remain undistributed. It is the result of Saddam's policy. It is a scandal that Iraqi doctors cannot get the drugs they need, despite all the efforts we have made to make those drugs available within the sanctions policy.

It is a scandal that the Iraqi government sets the current daily food ration at a paltry 1991 calories, while exporting food to other countries.

And it is a scandal that the regime uses revenue from illegal oil sales not to buy the food and medicine, which it claims it cannot afford, but to buy 10,000 bottles of whisky and 50 million cigarettes each month.

Saddam Hussein is playing politics with suffering. In northern Iraq, where Saddam's writ has not run, the same sanctions apply, but the situation is much better - health indicators have actually been improving. Infant mortality rates are now lower than before the sanctions were imposed.

If Saddam Hussein were to allow a new disarmament body into Iraq, he could quickly move towards suspension of sanctions if he cooperated with the weapons inspectors.

Credulous critics have no answer to the question - how else do you propose that the international community prevents Saddam building up the weapons of mass murder? How do they propose to stop him using these weapons again on his own people - the Kurds, the Shias - or his neighbours?

Saddam has ruled by intimidation and fear, ruthlessly repressing all opposition. He gassed thousands of his own Kurdish population to death. He started a war with Iran, which cost more than a million lives. Ten years after the Gulf war, Security Council Resolution 1284 is on the table and offers a path out of sanctions. It is up to Saddam Hussein to take that path.

The writer is minister of state at the Foreign Office