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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Tony Blair Speaks to House of Commons

Aired March 24, 2003 - 10:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Prime Minister Tony Blair is now speaking to the
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: ... on the 20th and 21st of March and report also on the conflict in Iraq.

This meeting was the fourth of the special summits on economic reform in the European Union, but, of course, the summit was dominated by Iraq.

I should like to place on record what I know will be the heartfelt gratitude of the entire House for the valor of British service men and women. I send the deepest sympathy of the government and, again, I hope of the whole House to the families of those who have died. They gave their lives for our safety. They had the courage to take the ultimate risk in the service of their country and of those who value freedom everywhere in the world. We owe them an immense debt.

I would like also to extend my condolences and those of our nation to the families of the American personnel who have sadly been lost in recent days.

Mr. Speaker, we're now just four days into this conflict. It is worth restating our central objectives. They are to remove Saddam Hussein from power and ensure Iraq has disarmed of all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

But in achieving these objectives, we have also embraced other considerations. We want to do this campaign in a way that minimizes the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people brutalized by Saddam, to safeguard the wealth of the country for the future prosperity of the people and to make this a war not of conquest, but of Liberation.

For this reason, we did not, as some expected, mount a heavy bombing campaign first, followed by a land campaign. Instead, land forces were immediately in action securing oil installations, gaining strategic assets and retaining them, not destroying them. The air campaign has been precisely targeted.

Of course, there will have been civilian casualties, but we have done all we humanly can to keep them to a minimum. Water and electricity supplies are being spared. The targets are the infrastructure command and control of Saddam's regime, not of the civilian population. And we are making massive efforts to clear lines of supply for humanitarian aid, though the presence of mines is hindering us.

By contrast, the nature of Saddam's regime is all too plainly expressed in its actions. The oil well was mined and deep-mined (ph), that. Had we not struck quickly, Iraq's future wealth would even now be burning away. Prisoners are being paraded in defiance of all international conventions. Those who dare speak criticism of the regime are being executed.

Now, let me give the House some detail, if I may, of the military campaign. In the south, our aim was to secure the key oil installations on the Al Faw Peninsula, to take the Port of Umm Qasr, the only Iraqi port to the outside world, and to render Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, in effective as a basis for military operations by Saddam against coalition troops.

In the west in the desert, our aim is to prevent Saddam from using it as a base for hostile external aggression. In the north, our objective is to protect people in the Kurdish autonomous zone to secure the northern oil fields and to ensure the north cannot provide a base for Saddam's resistance.

Then, of course, the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus brining the end of the regime closer.

BLAIR: I hope the House will understand that there is a limit to how much I can say about the detail of our operations, especially those involving special forces.

But with that caveat, at present British and U.S. troops have taken the Al-Faw (ph) Peninsula. That is now secure. The southern oil installations are under coalition control.

The port of Umm Qasr, despite continuing pockets of resistance, is under allied control, but the waterway, essential for humanitarian aid, may be blocked by mines and will take some days to sweep.

Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base. But in Basra there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops, and so we are proceeding with caution. Basra International Airport has been made secure.

The western desert is largely secure. In the north, there have been air attacks on regime targets in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit. We've been in constant contact with the Turkish government and the Kurdish authorities to urge calm.

Meanwhile, coalition forces, led by the American 5th Corps, are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad near Kabala (ph). It is a little way from there that they will encounter the Medina (ph) Division of the Republican Guard, who are defending the route to Baghdad. This will plainly be a crucial moment.

Coalition forces are also advancing on Al-Qut (ph) in the east of Iraq. The two main bridges over the Euphrates south of Baghdad have been taken intact. This is of critical significance.

The air campaign has attacked Iraqi military installations, the centers of Saddam's regime and command and control centers. A total of over 5,000 sorties has taken place.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. Still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating.

But there are those closest to Saddam that are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite that are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan. At the European Council, Mr. Speaker, there were of course deep divisions over the coalition action. That is well known. But it is not that all of European opinion is one way. On the contrary, there was both understanding and support for the British position from many nations represented at the council and near unanimous endorsement from the 10 accession countries who joined our council on Friday afternoon.

BLAIR: In any event, whatever disagreements about the conflict itself, Europe came together to set out clearly its wishes and responsibilities in post-conflict Iraq. The council agreed, the need to be active in the humanitarian field and to ensure that the oil revenues are held for the Iraqi people by the United Nations and that the oil-for-food program continues.

The council further agreed that the U.N. Security Council should give the U.N. a strong mandate for post-conflict Iraq and make sure that the new administration is one that is representative, careful of the human rights of the Iraqi people and allows the people to live at peace inside Iraq and with their neighbors.

In addition, the council stressed the vital importance of the Middle East peace process and the publication of the road map drawn up by the U.S., EU, Russia and the U.N., and now endorsed by us all. I reported on the talks we had both the U.S. administration and the Palestinian Authority. We welcomed the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister. I also welcomed the U.S. intention to publish the road map for peace as soon as the prime minister and his government are in place.

Mr. Speaker, I know it seems somewhat incongruous (ph) and out of place, but I should say one word on the conventional subject matter of the summit. Though overshadowed by Iraq, the summit on economic reform regained some momentum. In the last few months, energy liberalization, a single European-wide patent and a single Europe sky policy have all been agreed, and employed (ph) a task force due to report on ways to cut unemployment without generating new regulation was also agreed. This marks progress (inaudible) much remains to be done.

To return to the conflict, there are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents; and we grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war. And it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war that people see the pain and the blood in vivid and shocking terms. But it is worth recalling the nature of what is not always apparent, what we do not see: an Iraqi nation degraded and brutalized by decades of barbarous rule; a country that is potentially rich, but whose people go hungry and whose children die needlessly from malnutrition and disease; and a regime to whom repression, torture, the abusive human rights and the possession of weapons of mass destruction define their very nature. That is why we must achieve our objectives.

Saddam will go.

BLAIR: This regime will be replaced. The Iraqi people will be helped to a better future. The weapons of mass destruction for which a peaceful Iraq has no use will be eliminated.

That we will encounter more difficulties and anxious moments in the days ahead is certain. But no less certain, indeed more so, is coalition victory.

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