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International Affairs

12.23 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): The House last debated foreign affairs in the Queen's Speech debate almost 30 months ago, in June 2001. I had just taken over as Foreign Secretary and thought that my new job might be rather quieter than my job in the Home Office. However, it was not, and the world is less certain and more dangerous today than it has been for decades. Since our last Queen's Speech debate, we have seen the appalling attacks of 11 September; Britain has had to join in military action in Afghanistan and Iraq; and there has been the ever more violent intifada in the middle east. People's awareness of global insecurity is probably greater than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s.

Last week I saw for myself in Istanbul the carnage and destruction wrought by the terrorist attacks on the British consulate-general and the HSBC bank building on 20 November. Ten consulate-general staff, British and Turkish, and 23 other innocent people lost their lives. I know that the thoughts of all of us in the House are with the families and friends of all the victims. Let me pay tribute to all those, both diplomats sent from the United Kingdom and UK local staff, who work in often dangerous circumstances at our missions abroad.

Here in the UK, we have had to live for more than 30 years with terrorism. We know all too well from that experience how everyday life could and can be tainted by the fear of terrorist attack. However, over those decades we have refused to bow to the terrorists and let that fear take over. We have to show the same resolve and determination now with the global threat—and fact—of terrorism that we all face. That means, not least, that we must show understanding and support for our allies, such as Turkey, who are facing terrorist threats. We need to balance carefully the advice that we provide for the public. Where we have intelligence of a specific threat, we will advise the public against travel to certain countries or regions abroad, but as far as possible, we will avoid blanket advice against travel. We must not do the terrorists' work for them. Life has to go on.

The attacks in Istanbul showed yet again how terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam have perverted a peaceful religion and, in doing so, claimed

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many innocent Muslim victims. Muslim religious leaders around the world have condemned the attacks. Even extremists have been shocked by terrorism into changing their views. Only last Sunday, a leading militant cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nasir al Fahd, publicly retracted fatwas that he had previously issued in support of terrorists, in shock at the attacks in Muhaya earlier this month. Killing innocent people, he said, was not jihad; suicide bombers were not martyrs.

Terrorism is an international threat, and it requires a concerted international response. However, it is not the only threat to our security today. Combating weapons proliferation is also a priority of our foreign policy. Like terrorism, it requires concerted international engagement. As the House will be aware, I visited Tehran last month with my French and German colleagues, with the aim of bringing home to Iran the seriousness and urgency of international concerns about its nuclear programme. As a result of that visit, Iran said that it would co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it undertook to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing. Those are welcome promises. The key, of course, will be Iran's willingness to keep them.

I know that the House will also welcome the adoption by consensus on 25 November of the IAEA resolution, based on a French-German-UK draft, in respect of Iran. That was the result of the intensive diplomatic consultations that followed our visit. We and our partners look forward to continued co-operation with Iran. Already our approach, based on international unity and constructive but critical engagement, has brought us further forward than many had imagined possible.

International action backed by strong institutions, such as the United Nations and the IAEA, is essential to combating proliferation. The Government are committed to strengthening the multilateral system and to making it more effective. That also means that we need to be prepared to follow through resolutions with action, as we did in the case of Iraq, which had defied UN Security Council mandatory resolutions for more than a decade.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): That action in Iraq took place without the support of many European Union countries. I welcomed the fact that the Government decided to proceed with the United States in defiance of those European countries. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that on the current draft of the European constitution it would be almost impossible for the UK to take similar action in future?

Mr. Straw: The Iraq issue showed that Europe was split down the middle. It is important that we do not get the idea that it was Europe versus the US with the UK tagging along. At least as many countries in Europe supported the position—among the 25—as opposed it. On the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, I do not accept his interpretation of the draft text, but I make it clear that we do not accept the idea of qualified majority voting for foreign policy decisions—except in a

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specific way that is in the current draft text, which was published at the end of July—and we will resist it.

Defeating terrorism and tackling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are vital to protecting our security, but we also need to pursue longer-term goals that will create a more stable world and tackle state breakdown and the conditions in which violence and extremism can thrive. The world today is too interlinked and interdependent for us to be indifferent to insecurity in any region, however remote it may appear to be.

The events of 11 September 2001 brought the violence and chaos of what was then seen as a distant country about which we knew very little—Afghanistan—to New York, to Pennsylvania and to the heart of the American Government in Washington. Part of our response to the threat from Afghanistan was military action against the Taliban regime and the terrorists whom it harboured. But building lasting security there has meant following that up with equal efforts to help Afghanistan to move towards stability and democracy. Our efforts are paying off. Four million Afghan children are back at school, including girls and young women who were denied an education under the Taliban; the economy grew by an estimated 30 per cent. in 2002–03; and more than 2.5 million refugees have returned. Next month, the Afghans will decide for themselves a new constitution, to be followed by elections next year.

I returned last night from a two-day trip to Iraq. In Baghdad, I met Ambassador Bremer and General Sanchez, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and many of the staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and President Talabani and his leading colleagues in the governing council. In Basra, I met General Lamb, the British General Officer Commanding, many of his staff and that of CPA South, Italian military personnel and Danish police advisers, and Judge Wael Abdul Latif, Governor of Basra.

I am proud of what the coalition has been able to achieve so far in Iraq, and I expressed my gratitude for the American contributions to Ambassador Bremer and General Sanchez. They will, I know, not mind my expressing my especial pride in and gratitude for the extraordinary work of British military and civilian staff across Iraq. To a man and a woman, these are people of calibre and commitment who are, as I saw, dedicated to making a better Iraq for the Iraqis. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express my thanks to their families and loved ones, who have experienced months of separation and inevitable anxiety.

Despite the terrorist attacks, Iraq is making good progress. With the welcome acceleration of the political process announced earlier this month, an elected Iraqi Transitional Government should be in place by July 2004. By the end of 2005, Iraq should have a new constitution approved by its people, and national elections. Only last week, Iraq took another important step towards a normal relationship with the international community after decades as a pariah state under Saddam, when the UN oil-for-food programme was formally wound up and its responsibilities handed over to the Iraqi governing council and the Kurdish regional government.

It is easy to forget that only nine months ago, the stifling tentacles of Saddam's regime extended into every corner of life in Iraq, and his murderous habits are

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chillingly recorded in the more than 250 mass graves now discovered, containing just some of the 300,000 poor souls killed or missing under Saddam. Today, the Iraqi people can read, say, buy, and watch what they want. Public sector pay has been massively improved: the real income of police officers has tripled, the Governor of Basra told me. The Iraqis have a new currency in their pockets and goods in the markets to buy with it.

More than 14,000 reconstruction projects have been launched. Almost all 240 hospitals and more than 1,200 clinics are open, as are almost all schools. More than 200 newspapers have appeared. Satellite dishes, which were illegal under Saddam's regime, are now freely available and widely used, as I saw in my helicopter trips over Baghdad and Basra. Electricity production, which was something of a story in the immediate aftermath of the major military conflict in March and April, has surpassed pre-conflict levels. Building a free, prosperous, democratic and stable Iraq should make a powerful contribution to lasting security across the middle east, as was well recognised in my discussions with the leading members of the governing council.

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