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Mr. Hoon: Recent times have seen a significant increase in the infantry forces available to the Army—progress that I greatly welcome. Many young people seeing the success of our armed forces in a series of different operations want to be involved. As I told the House yesterday in Defence questions, we need constantly to review our position. There are no plans along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but as I promised the House, a White Paper will be published in due course, in which we shall set out our short-term future direction for equipment and other aspects of the organisation of our armed forces.

I announced yesterday that we are taking steps to identify and reduce notice to move for some additional headquarters personnel in certain units. That will allow further deployments as rapidly as possible in response to the accelerating programme of work.

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The Government have set out their vision for Iraq and the Iraqi people. In the document published on 16 March, we looked to a future in which Iraq would become a stable, united and law-abiding state, welcomed back into the international community and providing effective and representative government for its own people. Our commitment to that goal remains constant and we will maintain the necessary military forces in Iraq for so long as is required to achieve it.

2.23 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): May I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women who are risking their lives to bring peace and stability to the Iraqi people, and pass on the condolences of all on the Liberal Democrat Benches to the families of those who have died recently in the conflict? The current military situation in Iraq should come as a surprise to no one. No one expected the war to be easy, but the warnings about the potential difficulties of the post-conflict phase, and the tremendous difficulty of winning the peace were sounded loud and clear before the fighting began—even from within the US and British Governments. UK forces are performing their work in Iraq with tremendous skill, but they face a difficult and complex campaign. Parliament and this country were split over the decision to go to war when we did, but now that British forces are in the country, we support them and hope that they will succeed in their mission to bring peace and stability to Iraq. No reasonable person would oppose the plans for improving security in that country.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman do us the favour of explaining exactly the Liberal Democrat position on the war in Iraq? I recall standing alongside his leader on 15 February in Hyde Park to oppose the bombing and invasion of Iraq. Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that British troops should stay for ever more in Iraq and that he supports the Iraq war, or is the Liberal Democrat position to bring the troops home? I think that we deserve to know.

Mr. Keetch: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we, like most reasonable people, support the Geneva convention. Britain and America are occupying forces. We invaded Iraq and have the responsibility to stay there to resolve the situation. If the hon. Gentleman will give me the time, I shall move on to explain the Liberal Democrat position—it is different from the Government's—on how that should be achieved.

No reasonable person should now be calling for the troops to be withdrawn. Our reservations at the time about the difficulties of winning the peace and the lack of international consensus about the terrible costs of war led us, along with brave people from both sides, to vote against the Government. However, those decisions were taken, and now that the main conflict is over, securing stability and democracy in Iraq is in the interests of the whole international community. There are difficult and dangerous problems in Iraq and we should be trying to make the best of resolving them. An unstable Iraq is a danger to the region and a danger to the world. Iraq may not have been a hotbed of terrorist activity before, but it is in serious danger of becoming one now and that must be dealt with.

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I welcome the review of troop movements conducted by the Ministry of Defence, but lament the lack of planning, or hopelessly over-optimistic planning, for the post-conflict phase. The UK has maintained approximately the same number of troops in Iraq since the end of major combat operations. We were told then that commanders on the ground believed that the situation did not merit more troops. Now, despite the arrival of Italian, Polish and Spanish troops, it is clear that it must have changed. Can the Secretary of State explain what is different now from the end of July? Is Iraq substantially more dangerous now, or has there been a change in the political imperative?

Current UN figures place the number of attacks on coalition forces at an average of more than 10 a day. Will the Secretary of State comment on the rate of attacks on our forces? Is it an increase on previous months? Are British forces in greater danger now than they were a few weeks ago? The Secretary of State's written statement yesterday made it clear that the new deployment represents an interim reinforcement, so what are his estimates of the total number of troops in fact required? Will existing offers of troops from other countries meet that requirement; and will the Secretary of State confirm that if more troops arrive from other places, we may expect Britain and America to reduce their contribution?

At the same time we await the Government's defence White Paper. We believe that the Government must think hard about the long-term requirements for infantry numbers in the light of recent events.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Will the hon. Gentleman once again clarify Liberal Democrat policy? Did the Liberal Democrats oppose the war, but now believe that we did not send enough troops in at the beginning?

Mr. Keetch: I do not even understand the question. Clearly, we opposed the war. There is no doubt about that; we voted against it. However, the House voted for the war and we accept that. We supported the troops in what they were doing; we wished for a swift and successful outcome; and we still wish for that. The number of troops on the ground should be determined by the force commanders. As the Secretary of State said earlier, at the end of July the force commander on the ground accepted that the number of troops was then correct. Clearly, more troops are now required and I am trying to ascertain whether the situation has become worse or whether the political imperative has changed. That is what the debate is about.

In that regard, does the Secretary of State agree that if more troops were sent under a UN mandate, backed by a new resolution, they would stand a better chance of producing real stability in Iraq? That would be better than simply sending more coalition forces. Advocates of UN control make the case that a UN force would be better at restoring security than an American-led one. Surely that is the case. A framework for political transition under the UN authority is the key to providing hope for the Iraqis and stemming the support of terrorist groups. Ultimate security in Iraq depends on the emergence of a legitimate Iraqi Government with

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their own security forces, supported if necessary by international military and police. We believe that the UN can best create such legitimacy.

Mr. Jenkin: Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that the UN is not a military organisation, and that it is not good at commanding multinational military operations? That is what we found in the Balkans. It was not until the Americans took a lead, with NATO, that we were able to get a grip on the situation there. Is not that the model that we should be pursuing, and not an ephemeral and idealised UN solution that is really only a vehicle for French resistance to American policy?

Mr. Keetch: If one is looking for a model, the first Gulf war is a very adequate one. The UN authorised the Americans to control that force. Clearly, a force of the size involved now needs America to remain in the lead, but that must happen with UN authority, and other UN nations must also be prepared to take part. We believe that such a force—helping to keep the peace, develop the new political leadership of Iraq and bring about the reconciliation of the country—would best be led by the UN.

Before his tragic death in Baghdad, the late and respected Sergio de Mello said that total security could never be provided by outsiders. The coalition could never provide enough guns to coerce all the people of Iraq all the time. So the sooner that there are Iraqi forces answerable to an Iraqi Government, the better. We believe that that can be brought about most quickly by a multinational UN-led operation in Iraq.

I hope that the Government will impress on the US that it would be an error to disband the Iraqi army. If it is domestic security that is required, no one would be better placed to provide it than some of those former soldiers. It is difficult to see what obstacles lay in the face of reconstructing and retraining that army. If there are any, will the Secretary of State say what they are?

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Is my hon. Friend aware that a precedent exists for using Iraqi forces? Personnel from the Basra naval academy have been retrained as guards for the world food store outside the city.

Mr. Keetch: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has seen the situation in Basra at first hand. If it is possible to use the Iraqi navy for such purposes, it should also be possible to use the Iraqi army.

In that connection, will the Secretary of State say what plans exist to involve the governing council in security matters, policing and so on? Is there a coherent timetable for handing back power to the Iraqi people?

The UK Government should be using whatever special influence they have with the US to put the UN in the driving seat in Iraq. That may mean sharing reconstruction contracts among other countries, but if that is the price to be paid for international help, it should be paid.

That may be an extreme view, but a French politician told me only a few weeks ago that he would not ask French troops to put their lives on the line to protect American business men securing American contracts from an American-controlled Iraqi Government. Only

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the UN can provide the Iraq council with legitimacy, get the constitutional conference moving, and make Iraqis feel that they have a say in their future.US and British forces will have an obligation to remain in Iraq until that time comes, but ultimately the UN should take over.

We are debating the military situation today, but we should not forget the humanitarian situation—the supply of power and water, and the provision of food. It is clear that aid agencies cannot operate without security, and the reports that NGOs are leaving the country on account of the worsening security situation are deeply worrying. What impact is the current instability having on the welfare of the Iraqi people and the supply of assistance? Will the Secretary of State confirm what discussions he or his colleagues at the Department for International Development have had with the NGOs? Are the Government working towards achieving the security that the NGOs require to carry out their work?

I turn now to the issue of weapons of mass destruction. What is the current assessment? Are British troops—or indeed Iraqis—considered to be at any risk from the yet undiscovered weapons of mass destruction? Has any more evidence been found?

I conclude with some thoughts about today's Conservative-inspired debate. I find it rather surprising that members of the Conservative party—who supported the decision to go to war and, indeed, were the only people who were more vociferous in their support for the US than the Government—should now complain so bitterly about its aftermath. When the Leader of the Opposition led his party through the Lobbies with the Government on 18 March, he did so with full knowledge of the difficulties that might arise afterwards.

People on all sides of the argument understood that going to war without the full support of the international community could cause difficulties when the war was over. I assume that members of the Tory party did not support the war on conditional terms—that they did not back the Government only on the understanding that everything went well. They supported the decision to attack Iraq at the time, and they have to live with the consequences.

The House should imagine for a moment what would have happened if the US had attacked Iraq but the British Government had decided not to contribute. The Tory party would have attacked the Government for failing in their duty. Indeed, the Tory leadership fully supported a pre-emptive strike a long way in advance of the votes in this House on 18 March 2003.

When did the Tory party start supporting the attack? On 2 September 2002, the Leader of the Opposition said that the party supported a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. He stressed that military action was about standing up for British interests and he criticised the Prime Minister for allowing the case for military intervention. He backed the prospect of a pre-emptive US and allied attack on Iraq. That was weeks before the publication of the so-called dodgy dossier, and more than six months before the votes in Parliament on 18 March. It was two months before the weapons inspectors returned, and before most of our forces were in the Gulf.

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The Conservatives backed pre-emptive action to the hilt, and they did so in spite of the warnings from so many people—including members of the Conservative party—that such action might cause problems.

In connection with today's debate, we should remember that, before the debate in March, the dossier and the deployment of troops, the Tories backed George Bush's war. This House, and this country, should never forget that.

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