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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on political and diplomatic developments relating to Iraq.

Under a revised and accelerated timetable agreed on 15 November last year, and endorsed by the Security Council in resolution 1511, full authority will transfer from the occupying powers, the United States and the United Kingdom in just three weeks' time, by 30 June, to a sovereign interim Iraqi Government. That Government will be in office until 31 January next year, by which time national elections for a transitional Government and constituent Assembly are due to have been held. The transitional Government and Assembly will oversee, among other things, the drafting of a new constitution, with a view to its agreement and elections for a Government on the basis of the new constitution by the end of next year.

To facilitate that process, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, appointed Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi to nominate the interim Government. On 1 June, Ambassador Brahimi announced the appointment of Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawir as the new President; two deputy Presidents, Dr. Ibrahim al-Jafari and Dr. Rowsch Shaways; and a new Prime Minister, Dr. Iyad Alawi.

Dr. Alawi's Cabinet was also announced on 1 June in a joint press conference with Ambassador Brahimi. Twenty-two of its 31 members are newcomers—that is, not former members of the Iraqi Governing Council—and six are women. In an address to the nation last Friday, Dr Alawi identified his Government's priorities as the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty; security; economic revival; national unity; and preparations for elections.

Immediately following the announcements on 1 June, the Iraqi Governing Council dissolved itself and handed over its responsibilities to the new Government, including control of the 14 Ministries already under full Iraqi authority. The remaining 11 Ministries will be transferred by 30 June, at which point the coalition provisional authority will dissolve and the occupation will come to an end.

It is appropriate at this moment for me to record the British Government's appreciation of Ambassador Bremer, who heads the coalition provisional authority, and particularly of Ambassadors Greenstock and Richmond and all the staff in the British part of the coalition provisional authority for the contribution that they have made.

The announcement of the new interim Government was the fruit of many weeks of wide-ranging consultations conducted by Ambassador Brahimi and his team. The result is, I believe, a competent, professional and broad-based Government acceptable to the widest possible range of Iraqis and reflective of Iraq's diversity. The new Government have been welcomed by the United Nations, by the European Union, by many Governments in the region and by key figures in Iraq such as Ayatollah al-Sistani, the leading Shi'a cleric. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the outstanding work of
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Ambassador Brahimi and his staff; in congratulating all the members of Iraq's new Government on their appointment; and in offering the Government our full support.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Brahimi has made recommendations for the membership of a supreme commission, to be formed within days, to prepare a national conference to be held this July. The conference will include a diverse range of Iraqi voices in the political process, thus providing for the broadest possible representation. It is expected to elect an interim national council of about 100 members, whose role will be to promote constructive dialogue and national consensus; to advise the presidency and the Council of Ministers; to monitor the work of the Executive, including the implementation of laws; to have the power of veto over Executive orders; and to approve the national budget.

The United Nations will advise on the organisation of the national, regional and local elections, which are to be held no later than 31 January next year. We welcome the formation of an Iraqi independent electoral commission to prepare for those elections, with UN assistance. The commission's members have been recommended by the UN. I pay tribute to the work of Carina Perelli, head of the UN electoral assistance division, and her team for making all that possible.

As the House will be aware, the United States and the United Kingdom have proposed that there should be a new Security Council resolution to facilitate the transfer of sovereignty by 30 June. Drafts have been under discussion in New York and between capitals for some weeks. Those discussions with our Security Council partners have taken place in a constructive atmosphere, and I hope that the process may be brought to a conclusion very soon.

Key elements of the resolution affirm the full sovereignty of the interim Government and give the United Nations a lead role in support of the political process. The mandate of the multinational force is dealt with both within the text of the resolution and in an exchange of letters to the President of the Security Council from, on the one hand, the Prime Minister of Iraq and, on the other, the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell on behalf of the multinational force. The draft resolution provides that the mandate of the multinational force will expire in any event by 31 December 2005, but the Iraqi Government will have a clear right to review or to terminate it earlier if they so wish. The draft resolution and the letters lay down in some detail the nature of the relationship between the multinational force and Iraq's own security forces, and state the need to reach agreement on fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations. I am placing the text of both letters in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, addressed the Security Council last Thursday 3 June in New York. He asked that the international community endorse and support the Iraqi interim Government as quickly as possible, made clear his support for the resolution and made a number of points about the provisions of the resolution, which are now being dealt with. The Security Council has been holding further discussions about the resolution over the weekend and will resume those discussions later today in New York. A revised draft text is due to be circulated to Security
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Council members later today. If it is—and, in any event, as soon as it is—circulated, I shall lay it before the House and place a copy in the Library of the House of Lords.

The biggest challenge that the new Government of Iraq will face is to build security. There will be those who will continue to seek to disrupt the transition to successful democracy in Iraq and to force decisions by the bomb, not by the ballot box; but the Iraqi Government are firmly resolved to defeat the men of violence, and we are resolved to help them to do so. The multinational force, including British troops, continues to work with the Iraqis to stabilise the country and to assist the process of reconstruction and political transition. The force is helping Iraq's own security forces to build their capacity. The Iraqi police force now numbers some 89,000 men, the Iraqi civil defence corps 29,000, the border police 8,000, and the facilities protection service some 74,000.

I pay tribute to the courage and bravery of all those in Iraq who are working to build peace and democracy. The British troops of the multinational force, along with many British police and civilians, are giving them vital and courageous help. There will be some difficult times ahead, but the path to a free and democratic Iraq is now clear, and the British Government will remain committed to helping the Iraqi Government and people to achieve that historic goal.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it? I am sure that he will join me in paying a brief tribute to the late President Reagan, of whom it can truly be said that he left an indelible mark on history, and that he challenged the seemingly inevitable march of communism and won. We have lost a champion and a friend.

Recent events in Iraq have at last provided the basic elements of a working plan to deliver a representative and democratic Iraq, run by Iraqis, before the end of the year. This plan is long overdue and there is already a feeling of time lost, which has in turn led to increased tension and hostility on the ground. History will judge critically, as we have consistently from the Conservative Benches, the political incompetence of the Government and the instability that has flowed from their failure to plan adequately and early enough for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq and its return to democracy.

However, progress has been made over the last two   weeks. We welcome the appointment of Prime Minister designate Iyad Alawi, President designate Ghazi al-Yawir, and the rest of the interim Government. We also welcome the endorsement of the United Nations for those appointments, which is something that we have long called for. The interim Government in waiting have made a good start, but they must establish their credibility by being genuinely representative of the people of Iraq. They must secure and retain the backing of the mainstream Sunni and Shi'a communities, and of the Kurds in the north. They must not be seen as placemen of the coalition, and the coalition must never act in such a way as to suggest that they are. I also welcome the latest draft of the United Nations Security Council resolution. It certainly reflects our desire for a clear and comprehensive plan that includes the United Nations, and we wish it a fair wind.
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There remain, however, a number of crucial questions to which we seek full answers today. What is the distinction highlighted in the latest draft resolution between international law and what is called "international humanitarian law", and what implications could this have for the actions of our troops on the ground? Then there are the vital questions about the relationship between the interim Government and the multinational force after 30 June. The answers to some of these questions might be in the letters that the Foreign Secretary is placing in the Library of the House, but that is no reason for him not to answer them himself this afternoon, when he can be questioned further on the detail.

Apparently the interim Government can ask us to leave, but will they have a veto over what the multinational force can undertake operationally on the ground? If, for instance, the interim Government were to say that there could be no further deployments in Falluja or Najaf, would that be an end of the matter? Conversely, do they have a right to request that our forces should be deployed in particular places for particular purposes and in particular ways? What veto would our commanders have on such requests? Can we be assured that these vital outstanding issues will be settled and clear before the resolution is passed by the Security Council, so that there can be no arguments afterwards? I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree that absolute clarity on the chain of command is essential to the safety and security of our troops.

What chances are there of engaging further armed forces, with the backing of the United Nations, particularly from Arab or other Muslim nations, to help to provide security and training in Iraq? Where have we got to in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction? Given the accusations being made in America, and the recent resignation of the director of the CIA, George Tenet, would it not be wise, in the interests of public confidence, to put on hold the appointment of John Scarlett as head of MI6, at least until the Butler inquiry has reported?

Finally, on the question of further British troop deployments, given the damaging uncertainties caused by persistent Government briefings and counter-briefings over recent months, and given the suspicion that the Government, for party political reasons, are withholding announcements of bigger deployments outwith our area of control until after Thursday's elections, can the Foreign Secretary categorically assure the House that between 11 and 30 June no further deployments will be announced for outside Multinational Division (South East)? It would be unforgivable were the Government, for party political and electoral considerations, to play fast and loose with the interests of our armed forces.

Once again, I commend our armed forces for the remarkable work that they are doing with such courage, skill and dedication, on our behalf, in Iraq. We wish them well. On their behalf, however, we want answers to these questions, not in prime ministerial press conferences, lobby briefings or lengthy, rambling interviews by the Foreign Secretary on the "Today" programme, but here in the House of Commons, and we want those answers today.

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