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Defence Secretary and Chief of the Defence Staff:
Press Conference at the Ministry of Defence, London - 21 March 2003


Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon
and Admiral Sir Michael Boyce
at the Press Conference
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Slides from the briefing

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Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon:
Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon. Having made a statement to Parliament this morning, I do want to give the maximum opportunity for Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to give you details of the military operations. We will then take questions. I do however want to begin by expressing my condolences following 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 are eight British dead. Clearly our urgent priority is the notification of next of kin. The circumstances of the accident are still being investigated, although it was not the result of enemy action. Our thoughts are 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 are set within 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 deal with the legal base for military action which the Attorney General has already set out to Parliament; the military tasks which flow from our overall objectives, and our immediate priorities following the start of conflict.

As we were considering the military tasks, our guiding principle has always been 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 systems. But the tasks also explicitly include removal of the Iraqi regime. We have identified 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 supporters. 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.

We made good progress overnight 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, the civilian infrastructure of Iraq remains intact.

Our Campaign Objectives are not simply about dismantling weapons of mass destruction or removing the Iraqi leadership. I 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 recently.

Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce:
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Well as the Secretary of State has told you, and as you have gathered yourselves, all our coalition forces have had a very busy 48 hours or so, and I would like to talk a little bit about some of the operations they have been engaged on. But before I do though, I would just like to echo the Secretary of State's words and also those of the Prime Minister earlier on today concerning those people that we so sadly lost last night, and as 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 in that helicopter crash. Whilst those of us in uniform really do understand that these tragedies are sad, we also understand that it is a feature of warfare, but it certainly never ever gets easier to hear such news. And the thoughts of all of us in the Armed Forces today are very much with the families and the friends of those who died from both sides of the Atlantic.

Well as you know, our coalition forces were engaged overnight last night in some attacks on regime positions and infrastructure and a lot of details, especially with regard to the attacks on regime targets in Baghdad, have already been made available to you, so I don't intend to go over those again. However, I can tell you that those operations included the firing of several tomahawk missiles from British submarines in the region, and these missiles were targeted at regime command and control centres in the Iraqi capital, and also that all their weapons hit their targets as planned.

Meanwhile our ground forces have been making encouraging advances in southern Iraq. Now one of the primary aims of the operations has been to secure the oil infrastructure in that part of the country before the Iraqis themselves can sabotage it. And I think it is worth re-emphasising this, although I know the Secretary of State has made mention of it. It is important to take over this oil infrastructure for three reasons. First of all, the enemy believes that sabotaging oil wells, that the thick black smoke such action might produce, can degrade our ability on the battlefield; and secondly, the environmental repercussions of such action, especially with regard to oil being poured into the Gulf, are enormously damaging; and finally, and this really goes to the heart of our military planning in this operation as a whole, we are trying to make sure that the economic infrastructure of Iraq is left as intact as possible to benefit the Iraqi people after the campaign. And all of our military approach has been very conscious of this need to restructure and rebuild the country after the fall of the regime, and from the military point we have been tailoring all our plans accordingly, and also by the way we are absolutely determined not to allow Saddam to do yet more damage to the lives of his people through some sort of scorched earth policy.

On to a bit more detail. Well last night our Royal Marines from 40 Commando and 42 Commando launched an amphibious and air delivered assault on the Al Faw peninsula in order to secure the vital oil infrastructure which is there. At the same time a United States Marine Corps battalion launched its own attacks on the port of Umm Qasr, and that port will be available to us as soon as our British minesweepers are able to clear the waterway up there to allow shipping to move in in safety. And by the way, just in the last few hours or so, we have seized some Iraqi vessels which were ready to lay mines in that locality. This port is a vital objective because once we have cleared the way into Umm Qasr it is going to become one of our main ways of getting humanitarian aid, hopefully within days, and with the help of our Royal Fleet Auxiliary, into Iraq.

While talking about ships, part of our co-ordination for this amphibious operation of course was to be supported by the Royal Navy, and indeed two of our Royal Navy frigates in the area provided naval gunfire support from their guns, and we also had guns from the Royal Artillery attached to 3 Commando Brigade working off Bubiyan Island which is just off the coast of Al Faw. Our Marines took their objectives, despite sporadic fighting, and which also included some stern resistance. There were some enemy casualties, including some enemy dead. I can tell you this afternoon that the men of 40 Commando are now taking the surrender of Iraqi troops in very significant numbers. Furthermore, just in the last hour or so, I can tell you that Umm Qasr has been overwhelmed by the US Marines and now is in coalition hands. So the operation has been a remarkable success in co-ordination terms, both as our ally, the United States, but also with our units from the Navy, the Marines, the Army, and indeed the GR7s, the Harrier aircraft which were providing air support during the operation itself.

But other things were going on last night as well. The United States 3rd Infantry Division has made cracking progress in its advance northward, and it has already penetrated more than 150 kilometres on its way to Baghdad. Also a United States regimental combat team, supported by a number of specialist British units, set out during the night to secure some of the southern oilfields down to the south and east of Basra. And our elements there, the British elements there, included Royal Engineers, Explosive Ordnance Clearance Units and nuclear, biological and chemical teams. Altogether in that particular mission they have done very well. They encountered some determined pockets of resistance along the way, but they have now reached the Euphrates River. As a result of that operation, all the key components of the southern oilfields are now safe, and I am also pleased to be able to tell you that the latest information I have had is that only 7 well heads have been fired, as opposed to some 30 or so that we suspected might have been on fire today, and of course that is only 7 out of the many hundreds that make up the oilfields.

Now part of the reason for the confusion over the number of burning wells is that the enemy regularly lights trenches full of oil and the attendant smoke means that it is extremely difficult to find out what is going on until we get close enough to analyse it properly. As for the oilwells which are burning, we have specialist civilian contractors on their way and will be in the area very shortly, in a day or two, to deal with the oilwell fires.

Coalition forces in the shape of another US regimental combat team have also been pushing forward towards the strategically important city of Basra, and this regimental combat team's right flank is covered by two battle groups of the United Kingdom's 7th Armoured Brigade. The two battle groups were the Black Watch and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. They have moved quickly and the leading elements of that formation are now on the outskirts of Basra itself. And along the way they have seen a lot of evidence of large-scale Iraqi capitulation, evidenced by abandoned positions and items of equipment.

Now all this activity that has been going on during the night has been prosecuted under air cover provided by the US Air Force and by the Royal Air Force, and indeed the Royal Air Force has been extremely active in providing combat air support, surveillance, reconnaissance, tanking, both day and night. For example, as I mentioned earlier, the attack on Al Faw was supported by the Tornado GR4 aircraft which attacked enemy artillery in the area with precision weapons, along with other military installations as far north as Al Kut. And RAF Harrier GR7s provided close air support to the ground operations throughout the night, and they all in turn are being supported by E-3Ds, Tristars, VC-10 tankers, Canberra reconnaissance aircraft and so on, they have all had a very busy time.

Altogether ladies and gentlemen, it is very early days, but I have to say that I find the coalition progress so far has been promising. I think that our people have performed admirably on land, on sea and in the air, and I am very encouraged by the start we have made.

Question:
Could I ask what your latest intelligence is on the communications, the ability of the centre, Saddam or the centre of the regime, to communicate with commanders throughout the rest of Iraq?

Mr Hoon:
Clearly there is some evidence of difficulties from the centre, communications particularly to the south have been disrupted. It is difficult at this stage of military operations to judge how successful the Iraqi co-ordination is. It may well be that the operations against us in the south are simply part of a pre-determined plan that is being carried out by the Iraqi commander in the southern area. We are still making judgments about the extent to which there remains a co-ordinated operation emanating from Baghdad.

Admiral Boyce:
There is ... evidence of central control, we are still analysing just how effective our bombing campaign has been.

Question:
Could I ask Sir Michael if you could tell us a little bit more about the number of prisoners that have been taken, and also about the balance between those who have surrendered and those who have stood and fought, whether you get an impression of how future battles may turn out?

Admiral Boyce:
Well as far as the Marines' prisoner-taking is concerned, I am told that there are several hundreds that we are talking about. These figures of course can change, these are the initial reports. I don't have a feel for how many Iraqi soldiers have capitulated, and certainly no feel for how many run away. As I have said, we have got evidence that a number have run away by finding abandoned sites and abandoned equipment, but really no feel yet for just how many people we are talking about.

Question:
This question I would like to direct to either or both of you, I don't know which one would find it easiest to answer. But Brian Burridge, the Commander of the forces out there in the Gulf, has just told Sky News that he believes the next 24 hours will be the most difficult. I would like your assessment on that. And when it comes to the decapitation strikes which were launched on the first night on Baghdad, have you any assessment on, if not Saddam Hussein, whether other senior members of the regime may well have been taken out or severely injured?

Mr Hoon:
Work is continuing to assess the results of the initial strike in Baghdad, not least a determined analysis as to whether or not the film that we all saw of Saddam Hussein was or was not Saddam Hussein. But I am not in a position at this stage to make that judgment. In a sense it will not affect the determination of coalition forces to continue to prosecute their campaign because it is necessary that the efforts that Mike has described continue to deliver success, and over those next 24 hours I think you will see a continuation of the efforts that have been so far made.

Admiral Boyce:
And really ... too, the further we penetrate into Iraq, the longer your lines of communication become, sustainability becomes more of a problem, so inevitably the ground campaign must become more difficult. And also the years we have spent in flying the No Fly Zones over Iraq has given us a pretty good appreciation of what is in those particular zones. As we start to move north of the southern Fly Zone, what was known as the southern Fly Zone, then clearly our intelligence is not so good so we are slightly more uncertain. We could find ourselves facing a tougher time.

Question:
How does the speed of the allies' advance square with the talk of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Is he simply not utilising them at this stage, or should we be cautious about being too optimistic about the progress so far?

Admiral Boyce:
I am absolutely certain that we should remain cautious in case he is about to use them. I think that he is probably hoping that we are not serious about this, that what he has seen go on so far is a bit of a token effort and we are not really serious about what we are going to do, and if I was in his shoes I would be wisely keeping my chemical weapons back because using them will prove what we all know, that he has got them.

Question:
Admiral Boyce mentioned several hundreds of prisoners already taken and we can presumably anticipate many more hundreds in the next few days. Could you say something first of all about what the plans are to deal with them, where are they going to be kept, are there sufficient logistics there to feed them and so on? And secondly if you could comment please on the Iraqi comment that they don't believe that any soldiers they take will be prisoners of war and they will treat them as war criminals?

Mr Hoon:
Well, I have set out in detail to the House in a written Ministerial statement last week deployment of extra forces specifically to deal with prisoners of war. We obviously have the experience of dealing with those prisoners in the last Gulf campaign and it will follow along very similar lines.

Admiral Boyce:
And they will be fed very well indeed and looked after properly, and indeed I think some of you may have heard Lt Colonel Collins addressing his troops a couple of days ago, stressing on them the importance of treating prisoners of war humanely, properly, with good manners, and I mean that with good manners, and also making sure that we look after their well-being, not just because we are required to do so by the Geneva Conventions, because actually that is the way that British soldiers behave.

Question:
My question is directed at either of you. Could you clarify for us the minimum use of force, how does that interface with the American notion that overwhelming force should be used, and indeed the shock and awe tactics which have been announced will at some stage be deployed, certainly is not a term that is based on minimum use of force. So is there a discrepancy here and could you help us clarify it.

Mr Hoon:
There is no discrepancy. What we are seeking to do is to achieve our campaign objectives with the minimum use of force, not least the minimum use of force directed at civilians. And we have consistently made clear, and this has been the case already in the strikes from the air against targets in Baghdad, that they are carefully targeted at the regime. And any Iraqi citizen in Baghdad will see that as important elements of the regime are taken out, whether they are Ministry buildings, whether they are the headquarters of his secret and security apparatus, they will be deliberately targeted at those elements, those buildings in Baghdad and elsewhere, that the civilian population will most closely associate with Saddam Hussein.

Question:
We were told the other day that there were no Republican Guard in the south by someone from DIS in a briefing here. There are reports of British and American troops coming up against Republican Guard units, is it possible to clarify that? Also there are reports of 16 Air Assault Brigade and US units securing the western oilfields, do you know anything about that?

Admiral Boyce:
Certainly on encountering Republican Guards is concerned, I haven't heard such reports, but that doesn't mean to say they haven't been encountered, but I haven't heard any such reports. Western oilfields, I am not sure what you mean by western oilfields, I am not sure that there are any in the west.

Question:
Air bases ...

Admiral Boyce:
Airfield? No, again I have got no comment to make about that.

Question:
Can I just clarify, I did actually mean oilfields, the oilfields west of Baghdad.

Admiral Boyce:
Again I have no news on that either.

Question:
Do you have any idea or any feeling for how well the various psyops operations that we have been told about are going, efforts to contact people in the regime, or senior officers, and whether there is any sign of fracturing at all within the regime?

Mr Hoon:
Certainly a determined effort has been made into demonstrating at the simplest level, by dropping of large quantities of leaflets that individual soldiers, individuals who are not associated with the regime should abandon any attempt to resist coalition forces, and certainly there is a steady trickle of such people. But as I have said on previous occasions and always believe, that unless and until people in Iraq actually believe that this regime is going to collapse, only then will they actually lay down their arms and abandon resistance, and that is not surprising given the level of terror and intimidation that they have suffered from over so many years, and we have had accounts very recently of commanding officers being threatened with execution unless they carry out the orders of the regime. And so until that threat is removed, then clearly we cannot expect large numbers of people to abandon their positions, but I have little doubt that the message is getting through and is getting through effectively.

Question:
Yesterday the Foreign Secretary confirmed that you have been negotiating with Turkey over the use of air space. Have you got any response from the Turkish government, and how important is it for the British forces to use Turkish air space? And is it true that the British and American forces have stopped using the Incirlik air base as far as the Operation Northern Comfort is concerned?

Mr Hoon:
I have just come from a meeting with the Foreign Secretary at which that was discussed. All I can say to you at this stage is that discussions with Turkey continue, Turkey is a NATO ally, we are good friends, we work together and I expect that we will continue to cooperate together.

Question:
Can you tell us what the latest information is regarding the situation in the far north? There were some reports of Turkish troops on the move, and of Kurdish fighters on the move in those northern areas, and of air strikes around Mosul. Can you tell us what the latest is there and are there any coalition operations aimed at the northern oilfields?

Mr Hoon:
I think that is following on in a sense from the question I just answered. We continue to be in close dialogue with Turkey about the disposition of their forces and about what is obviously a sensitive and delicate situation in the north, and we will continue to ensure that there is no action there that in any way destabilises that sensitive situation.

Question:
Reports from the field suggest that the troops went off earlier than they expected. Was this a premature kick-off, was it planned about this time, was it intelligence driven, can you help us with any clarification on this?

Mr Hoon:
I know it has disappointed a number of commentators in the newspapers that the plan was not quite what they had written, and I think that demonstrates its success.


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