» Wednesday, October 20, 2004


In answer to questions about the kidnap of Margaret Hassan in Iraq, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that we would not be giving a running commentary on what was going on behind the scenes to secure her release other than to say that there was a lot of activity taking place in Baghdad, as you would expect.

Asked if the recce team had reported back on its mission yet, the PMOS said that we had no intention of providing a running commentary on the process by which a decision on British troops would be made. He pointed to General John McColl’s interview on the Today Programme this morning during which he had made a number of important points. Firstly, the proposal remained a proposal at this stage; no decision had been taken yet. Secondly, the proposal was a military response to a military problem. Thirdly, it was designed to deal with a spike in insurgent activity during the Ramadan period. Fourthly, the communications about it had taken place entirely within the military chain of command. Fifthly, what was envisaged was something that would last a matter of weeks, not months. Asked if MPs would be consulted if it was a military matter, the PMOS said that Parliament was being kept informed, as you would expect. That said, it was important to understand the operational dimension to this issue which was being dealt with in a proper way before Ministers considered it. Put to him that if the deployment of British troops was designed to deal with a spike in insurgent activity during Ramadan then reports that a decision would be delayed were wide of the mark, the PMOS said that the process would take as long as it takes. The decision would be made in the proper way and through the proper channels and would therefore take the proper amount of time.

Asked to explain the purpose of the deployment of British troops, the PMOS said that it wasn’t for him to comment on the plan being proposed. There were obvious reasons why we were unable to discuss operational plans in public. That said, we were clear that we were dealing with a situation on the ground in which two points should be made. Firstly, that the period of Ramadan could see a spike in insurgent activity. Secondly, that we were continuing to do all we could to move towards stabilisation through a combination of political and military means, as indeed we had done successfully in Najaf, Samarrah, Al Amarrah, Karbala and Sadr City. Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with General McColl’s view that it would not be sensible to turn the request down, the PMOS pointed out that General McColl had underlined that he was making his comments from the military perspective in theatre. In addition, as he had made clear, there were other considerations which needed to be taken into account in London. In our view that was a statement filled with common sense. Asked to clarify what these ‘other considerations’ were, the PMOS said that as the General himself had pointed out, it was necessary to consider the implications for the Black Watch for example. He repeated that he was unable to go into any great detail because these were operationally sensitive matters. Asked if the ‘other considerations’ were political, the PMOS said that they were military in nature, not political.

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that the British public might perceive the deployment of British troops as akin to the episode described in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, the PMOS said the Prime Minister believed that the British public were more likely to take notice of the opinion of a distinguished soldier with long service, who had very recent experience of the situation on the ground in Iraq and was in an authoritative position to give a considered, rational, non-hyperbolic view of the reality in Baghdad. Perhaps that was an example we should all follow.

Asked again when a decision would be made in the light of the Defence Secretary’s assertion earlier this week that the Chief-of-the-Defence Staff would make a final recommendation by the middle of the week, the PMOS said that the proper procedures were being followed. The results of the recce would be considered by the military commanders on the ground , followed by military personnel in the UK. A final proposal would then be put forward. Asked to refute today’s Guardian report suggesting that any decision would be delayed until after the US elections, the PMOS said that he had absolutely no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about timetables. He would simply reiterate the point that the issue was being considered in the appropriate way and that other matters would not interfere in that process. Asked how that was fair to the families of the soldiers currently in theatre who had been advised of their possible redeployment on the one hand but had read in the papers today that there might be a delay, the PMOS said that we did not in any way under-estimate the pressures on the families of those serving in Iraq. That said, we were sure they would want to see the issue properly considered. The way to do that was to follow the appropriate procedures, as we were doing. Asked how the Prime Minister would respond to demands for a vote in the House before any decision as taken, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would simply refer back to past practice.

Put to him by the Express that the Defence Secretary’s claims earlier this week that the deployment would allow the US to advance into Falluja and that the final recommendation was expected from the Chief-of-the-Defence Staff by the end of this week had both already ‘bitten the dust’ – which would not exactly convince the British public that the Government had a good grasp of the issues, the PMOS said that it would appear to suit the point of view of some papers to ignore the sensible and rational way in which General John McColl had set out the decision-making process today. We believed that the public would take note of what he had said. Asked if he was implying that a British General in Iraq was now announcing the Government’s policies because the Defence Secretary had not been able to do so properly on Monday, the PMOS said that he was implying nothing of the sort, as the Express correspondent was fully aware. He would be grateful if words were not put in his mouth. Asked repeatedly if the Defence Secretary had been wrong to say that the Chief-of-the-Defence Staff would make a recommendation by the middle of this week, the PMOS repeated that he was not going to get drawn into a discussion about timetables. There was a process underway which we would wait to be completed. We were not going to pre-judge or pre-empt anything just for the sake of the Lobby. Put to him that the Defence Secretary had been the one to mention a timetable in the first place, the PMOS said that Mr Hoon had set out the timetable in terms of how the process would be carried out. As General McColl, had noted this morning, the recce had only just taken place. Journalists should perhaps calm down, exercise a little patience and wait for the process to be completed.

Asked to set out the context in which discussions about the issue between the Prime Minister and President Bush had taken place prior to a formal request being made, the PMOS said that he had answered this question yesterday. As the Prime Minister had stated clearly in an on-the-record remark yesterday afternoon, he had not discussed the matter with the President. General McColl had also underlined in his interview this morning that the request had been discussed entirely “within the military chain of command”. Put to him that there was a big distinction between the words ‘discussion’ and ‘request’, the PMOS said that he really did not want to waste time having a discussion about semantics. As we had said from the outset, the issue was being considered through the military chain of command. That position had not changed. Asked who would make the final decision, the PMOS said that a proposal would be put forward to Ministers and the Prime Minister who would obviously consider it carefully. Asked if the whole Cabinet, and Lord Goldsmith in particular, would be consulted, the PMOS said that these were processological issues. Once a proposal was put forward, it would be considered in the appropriate way.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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