I recognize that the military action to disarm Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction has aroused strong feelings in the region. So I am grateful for this opportunity to explain why we are reluctantly undertaking this action and our goals for the future.
We had hoped that military action could be avoided. There has been no rush to conflict. Indeed, the international community has waited 12 years for Saddam to rid himself voluntarily of his weapons of mass destruction as he promised in 1991.
The United Nations demanded Saddam disarm because of his record of reckless aggression against neighbouring countries and because, uniquely in modern times, he has used such weapons against both his own people and his neighbors.
After more than a decade of Saddam's deceit and delay, the U.N. gave him a "final opportunity" to disarm peacefully through Security Council Resolution 1441 in November. Once again he refused.
The choice the international community then faced was to disarm Saddam by force and oust his regime or to back down and to leave Saddam hugely strengthened to attack or intimidate his neighbours and to pass on these weapons to extremist terrorist groups. I believe that history will judge that we made the right choice.
Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people but with Saddam, his sons, and his barbarous regime which has brought misery and terror to their country. I recognise that the Iraqi people have been the biggest victims of Saddam's rule. This is not a war of conquest but of liberation.
So we are doing all that is humanly possible to minimise civilian casualties and finish this campaign quickly. Military conflict, sadly, always leads to the loss of civilian lives. Mistakes will be made. But the missile attacks on Baghdad witnessed on TV have shown the effort taken to target Saddam's regime and apparatus of power and oppression.
We are also working hard to bring immediate humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people. The United Kingdom has so far pledged £120 million in assistance in addition to the £100 million we have given since 1991. We will also mobilise the international community to provide emergency humanitarian relief.
But our commitment does not end there. We are committed to working with the U.N. and the whole international community to help the people of Iraq repair the damage and destruction brought to Iraq by a quarter of a century of Saddam's tyranny and corruption.
Iraq is a country with a rich history and culture and massive potential. Before Saddam's shadow fell on Iraq, its economy was vibrant and people prosperous. But Saddam's aggression, repression and misrule has reduced the country to one in which 60 percent of its population are dependent on food aid.
Saddam could have had sanctions lifted at any time by meeting his disarmament obligations. Instead he has deliberately exploited sanctions to cause maximum misery to the Iraqi people.
Iraq's people deserve better than this. And it has the rich natural resources to deliver a better future for them. President Bush, Prime Minister Aznar and I have pledged Iraq's oil will be placed in a U.N. trust fund to benefit the people of Iraq and renew a once great nation. We will work towards lifting U.N. sanctions as soon as Iraq meets its obligations.
I want all Iraqis -- Arab, Assyrian, Kurd, Turkoman, Sunni, Shiite, Christian and all other groups -- to share in the fruits of this new, prosperous Iraq, united within its current borders. An Iraq free from tyranny, fear and repression, where thousands each year are no longer forced from their homes or imprisoned, tortured or executed. A country where women are not raped in front of their loved ones and where people can speak their mind without fear of having their tongues cut out.
It is this terror and poverty which has led to four million Iraqis fleeing their country. I know, having spoken to many Iraqi exiles, of their wish to return home. I share their dream of seeing an Iraq truly at peace with itself, with its neighbors, and the international community.
British military forces will withdraw from Iraq as soon as practicable. We hope to see the early establishment of a transitional civilian administration. We will work with the international community to build the widest possible support for the reconstruction of Iraq and the move to representative government.
Iraq, of course, is not our only concern in the region. I share the widespread desire for real progress on the Middle East Peace Process. President Bush and I have committed ourselves to a fair, lasting and negotiated settlement by 2005 to provide a viable state for the Palestinian people and security for Israel. We will strive to see this through and help deliver the prize of peace.
It was a hard and difficult decision to take action against Saddam. We had hoped it would not be necessary. But I genuinely believe the course we have taken will not only make the Middle East and the wider world a safer place but, by removing Saddam, will also be a blessing for all the Iraqi people.