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Hoon rattles nuclear sabre

21 March 2002

Britain is ready to use its nuclear arsenal against any rogue state which deploys chemical or biological weapons on UK troops, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, warned yesterday.

Mr Hoon raised further the tensions surrounding the imminent deployment of 1,700 British marines in Afghanistan with his controversial comments, aimed at Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Echoing President Bush's recent approach, he suggested that they were four "countries of concern" which may not be deterred from unleashing weapons of mass destruction by the threat of a nuclear strike.

Mr Hoon warned the defence committee in the House of Commons that these countries should be "absolutely confident" that Britain would fire nuclear weapons on them if they deployed their own chemical or biological weapons. His comments exacerbated fears about prospective allied military action against Iraq.

It is thought that, in 1991, Saddam Hussein was warned that the US would launch nuclear missiles at Baghdad if he used biological weapons to attack Israel.

Mr Hoon's remarks came as Tony Blair refused to take part in yesterday's Commons debate on the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, called by the Conservatives.

Tory back-benchers were infuriated, calling his decision to stay away from the first such parliamentary debate since 1983 the worst of all his snubs. Mr Hoon was setting out the terms which Britain was prepared to use its 400 nuclear warheads.

His stark language and his willingness to identify the four "states of concern" were warmly welcomed in the US - where a leaked Pentagon report outlined its readiness to use nuclear weapons against seven rogue states, including those Mr Hoon identified. Comments are certain to bring a backlash from Labour back-benchers, already nervous about an expansion of the war against terror to include Iraq.

Mr Hoon announced on Monday he was sending 1,700 marines, made up mostly of 45 Commando, based in Arbroath, to help the US military face the 10,000 remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. He warned MPs that they should be prepared for casualties.

Mr Hoon told the defence committee yesterday that Britain's nuclear deterrent was only effective on countries who appreciate the UK's willingness to launch an attack. The risk, he said, was that the four rogue countries identified by the Foreign Office may make a "gesture" by using a chemical or biological weapon against the UK and US troops being gathered in the Gulf and near Afghanistan.

"I would be much less confident about states of concern" he said. "In those kinds of states, the wishes and needs and interests of citizens are clearly much less regarded. We cannot rule out the possibility that they would be willing to sacrifice their own people to make such a gesture."

"They [the rogue states] can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons," he said.

"What I can not be absolutely confident about is whether or not that would be sufficient to deter them from using a weapon of mass destruction."

The Ministry of Defence said last night that Mr Hoon was simply restating long-standing policy.

But it is understood both the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence are keen to combat any idea that they have gone soft since the end of the Cold War.

Several US analysts believe that 11 September because of the idea that the West is now a soft target, and far less likely to retaliate.

Naming countries - the US list also included Russia, China and Yemen - is one of several measures intended to make clear to Saddam Hussein that he faces obliteration if he uses his stockpiled chemical weapons against UK troops.

Mr Hoon stressed there are no states, to the government's knowledge, with both the intention and the ability to launch an attack against the UK.

Of the four rogue states, he said, Iraq is a particular concern. "Saddam Hussein has demonstrated his willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people," he said.

North Korea appeared closest to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles - although they pose no threat to the UK.

"Nonetheless, their threat is a threat to the stability of the world because they are clearly very determined to sell their equipment to anyone who has the cash to buy it," he said.

In the Commons the emergency debate, was called by the Tories because Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, felt he had been snubbed after not being alerted to the imminent deployment of troops.

Mr Hoon's words may be part of a softening up process to prepare the ground for Britain to accept the US plans for a missile defence system to protect against a ballistic missile attack.

Many Labour MPs remain deeply opposed to the scheme, fearing it could trigger a new arms race.

The system would almost certainly involve the use of the early warning station at Fylingdales and the intelligence gathering base at Menwith Hill - both in North Yorkshire - which would require government permission.

A joint Ministry of Defence-Foreign Office paper to the committee said it was a "serious cause for concern" that there were states developing a ballistic missile capability at the same time as they were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Fraser Nelson, in Westminster
Published in The Scotsman © The Scotsman

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