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Press Conference at the Ministry of Defence, London - 21 March 2003

Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon. I would just like to set the strategic context for the military operations that are underway in Iraq. I will then hand over to Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to speak about the details of the military operation. We will then take questions together.

I will start with the helicopter accident which occurred in the early hours of this morning. As I told the House of Commons earlier, a United States CH-46 helicopter carrying British and United States personnel crashed in Kuwait, close to the border with Iraq. I can now confirm that there were 8 British dead. Clearly our urgent priority is the notification of the next of kin at the earliest opportunity. The circumstances of the accident are being investigated, and I cannot comment further, other than to reiterate that this was not the result of enemy action. Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who were killed.
As the Prime Minister made clear in his address to the nation last night, and as media reports of overnight activity in theatre have confirmed, British forces from all three Services are now engaged in substantial military operations inside and outside Iraq. These operations can be best understood in the context of the Military Campaign Objectives which the Government published yesterday.

I would like briefly to take you through those objectives, and to explain the logic that lies behind them. To quote the objectives themselves, "The prime objective remains to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and their associated programmes and means of delivery, including prohibited ballistic missiles, as set out in relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs)." The objectives then go out to set out the legal base for military action which the Attorney has already set out to Parliament; the military tasks which flow from our overall objectives and our immediate priorities in the wake of hostilities.

When we were considering the military tasks, our guiding principle was the minimum use of force. The tasks we have identified include action to deny Saddam Hussein use of his weapons of mass destruction and action to overcome the resistance of the Iraqi security. But the tasks also explicitly include removal of the Iraqi regime. I make no apology for this. We identify the Iraqi regime as the obstacle to Iraq's compliance with its international obligations, and it is right therefore, and consistent with the minimum use of force, that operations are aimed directly the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime. That is why UK forces took part in missile strikes last night on Baghdad. These strikes are carefully targeted, and are designed to destabilise the command and control of the regime. They are not aimed at Iraqi civilians.

Our focus on the minimum use of force makes sense militarily, as well as being consistent with our obligations under international law. In particular, for this campaign, we not only have an eye to overcoming resistance to our forces, but also to the very real need to enable the rapid reconstruction of Iraq in the wake of hostilities. But we have made good progress over night in securing the Al Faw peninsula. The Royal Marines have confirmed that the oil infrastructure on the peninsula has not been destroyed. Any attempt by Saddam Hussein to release oil into the Gulf to create an environmental disaster has been thwarted. This is not just a matter of protecting the oil fields from sabotage, but more widely make sure that to the greatest extent possible, civilian infrastructure remains intact.

Our Campaign Objectives are not just about dismantling weapons of mass destruction or removing the Iraqi leadership. They look forward to a future Iraq, as a nation at peace with itself and at peace with the International Community. The Government is committed to rebuilding Iraq.

Admiral Boyce will now brief you on some of the detail of the military operations of the past days.

 

Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. As the Secretary of State has told you, Coalition forces have been engaged in activity across Iraq in the last 48 hours. I should like to give you some more detail of those operations.

However, before I start I would like to echo the Secretary of State's words, and those of the Prime Minister earlier today, concerning the personnel so sadly lost overnight. As the head of the British armed forces, I would like to extend my deep condolences to the families of both the British and American personnel who were killed. Whilst those of us in uniform understand that these tragedies are a sad result of warfare, it never gets any easier to hear such news. The thoughts of the British armed forces today are very much with the families and friends of those who died from both sides of the Atlantic.

As you know, Coalition forces were engaged overnight last night in attacks on regime positions and infrastructure. Many details, especially with regard to attacks on regime targets in Baghdad, have already been made available to you, and I do not intend to go over those details again. However, I can tell you that those operations included the firing of several tomahawk missiles from British submarines in the region. These missiles were targeted at regime command and control centres in the Iraqi capital and all these weapons hit their targets as planned.

Meanwhile, ground forces have been making very encouraging advances in southern Iraq. One of the primary aims of these operations has been to secure the oil infrastructure in that part of the country before regime forces can sabotage it. It is vital that we achieve this for three reasons:

First, the enemy believes that the sabotaging of oil wells, with the thick smoke such action produces, might degrade our ability on the battlefield. Second, the environmental repercussions of such action, especially with regard to oil being poured in the Persian Gulf itself, are enormously damaging. Finally, and this goes to the heart of the military planning in this operation as a whole, we are trying to ensure that the economic infrastructure of Iraq is left as intact as possible in order to benefit the Iraqi people after the campaign.

Our military approach has been conscious of the need to restructure and rebuild the country after the fall of Saddam's regime, therefore from a military point of view we have tailored our plans accordingly. We are determined not to allow Saddam to do yet more damage to the lives of his people through a 'scorched earth policy'. Last night royal marines of 40 and 42 Commando launched amphibious and air delivered assaults on the Al Faw peninsular in order to secure the vital oil infrastructure it contains. At the same time, a US Marine Corps battalion launched its own attacks on the port of Umm Qasr. The port will be available to us as soon as British minesweepers are able to clear the area to allow shipping in safely.

By the way, we have already seized Iraqi vessels which were ready to lay mines in the locality. This is a vital objective because once we have cleared the way into Umm Qasr it will become one of the main routes for delivering humanitarian aid, hopefully within days, with the help of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

These operations were well-supported by naval gunfire from two Royal Navy ships in the area, and from the guns of the Royal Artillery on Bubiyan island, just off the coast. British Marines took their objectives, despite sporadic fighting, including some stern resistance that resulted in enemy casualties. I can tell you this afternoon that the men of 40 Commando are now taking the surrender of Iraqi troops in significant numbers. British forces took the peninsular earlier today, and I can now tell you that Umm Qasr is in Coalition hands.

Meanwhile, the United States 3rd Infantry Division has made cracking progress in its advance northwards. It has already penetrated more than 140kms in to Iraq. A US Regimental Combat Team, supported by a number of specialist British units, set out during the night to secure some of the southern oil fields. Elements included the Royal Engineers, explosive ordnance clearance units and nuclear/biological/chemical teams. Together they have done very well, encountering determined pockets of resistance along the way, and have now reached the Euphrates river.

The key components of the southern oil fields are now safe, and I am pleased to be able to tell you that the latest information I have is that only seven well heads have been fired, as opposed to the 30 we suspected earlier today, of the hundreds that make up the fields. We expect specialist civilian contractors to be in these areas to deal with the oil fires within a day or two. Part of the reason for this confusion over burning wells is that the enemy regularly lights trenches full of oil, and the attendant smoke means that it is only when we get close that we can finally identify what is burning.

Coalition forces in the shape of another regimental combat team also pushed forward towards the strategically important city of Basra. This unit's right flank was covered by two battlegroups of the UK 7th Armoured Brigade, made up of the Black Watch and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. They have moved quickly, and leading elements are now on the outskirts of Basra itself.

Along the way we have seen evidence of large-scale Iraqi capitulation, evidenced by many abandoned positions and items of equipment. All of these actions have been prosecuted under air cover provided by the US Air Force, and the RAF. The RAF has been extremely active in providing combat air support, surveillance, reconnaissance, tanking both day and night.

The attack on the Al Faw area was supported by Tornado GR4 aircraft which attacked enemy artillery in the Basra area with precision weapons, along with other military installations as far north as Al Kut.

Meanwhile E-3Ds, Tri-stars, VC10s and Canberras have all been equally busy. RAF Harrier GR7s provided close air support to the ground operations throughout the night.

It is early days, but Coalition progess has been very promising. Our people have performed admirably on land, sea and in the air, and I am greatly encouraged by the start we have made.


Source: UK MoD

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