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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): The House will be relieved that the Secretary of State has finally moved to end the unnecessary and unacceptable confusion of the past few days and announced the Government's decision on this important matter. As I made plain in my response to his statement on Monday, Conservative Members fully support the coalition as it seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to Iraq and preserve Iraq's territorial integrity. We agree that we should do what we can to contribute to that strategic objective.
In the light of what the Secretary of State has told the House today, and having heard that the deployment has the support of the chiefs of staff following reconnaissance reports that the proposed mission is both feasible and fully within the capabilities of the Black Watch battle group, Conservative Members support the deployment on the basis that it is a necessary operational military contribution to the coalition's efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq ahead of the January elections.
I will, if I may Mr. Speaker, press the Secretary of State, in the light of this decision, on a number of the points that I made to him on Monday. First, will he clarify his rather complicated assurances on the rules of engagement? Will he again confirm that the rules of engagement are indeed robust enough to cope with the change of area, mission and task?
Secondly, will he assure the House that troops about to face the enemy will not have their essential confidence undermined by the possibility of a commanding officer's legal judgments being subsequently overruled, as has recently been the case?
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Thirdly, bearing it in mind that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq, will the Secretary of State confirm that there is likely to be a surge requirement for extra troops to Iraq ahead of the Iraqi elections in January? If so, where will those troops come from?
Fourthly, does the Secretary of State anticipate deploying the over-the-horizon assets that he holds in Cyprus? Is he satisfied as to the arrangements both for command and control and for air cover? Fifthly, will he say whether troops currently serving in Iraq will have their tour extended? Finally, are there any additional plans for further redeployment of British troops outside MND(SE)?
The House and the nation can be supremely confident that the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment, which bears the distinction of Baghdad 1917 as one of its battle honours, will carry out its task with all the fortitude, discipline and courage that we would expect from one of the finest regiments in the British Army. To them and to all the supporting arms who go with them in the battle group, we wish God speed.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has finally and rather belatedly made the Conservative party's position on the deployment clear. It was not obvious from his comments on Monday, and no one could have detected from the Conservative leader's observations yesterday whether the Conservative leader actually supports the deployment, so we have made some progress.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman prepared his questions before he heard my statement. I have already repeated the point about rules of engagement, which he has come very close to suggesting should be publishedhe denied such requests when he was Minister for the Armed Forcesand I am delighted to repeat again that our armed forces will have robust rules of engagement. The rules of engagement have been sufficient to protect them in their operations in MND(SE), and that will continue to be the case as far as this deployment is concerned. Every hon. Member knows that British forces, wherever they serve in the world, are subject to the law of this country. That remains the case, it will always be the case and British forces want nothing else.
The hon. Gentleman's other questions largely concerned other matters not related to this particular deployment, and I shall certainly deal with them, perhaps in the debate that follows or on a future occasion. On apologies, he might like to reflect on the fact that his observations about the Black Watch were poorly received by the commanding officers of that distinguished regimentvery poorly received.
They have gone out of their way to keep their people and families thoroughly informed about this deployment. I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to make that
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apology instead of making cheap political points at the expense of hard-working serving soldiers and their families.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make this statement and for an advance sight of it. Of course, all of us in this House wish the Black Watch well.
Liberal Democrat Members did not support the war in Iraq, but we accept that we have a responsibility to the people of Iraq. However, we also have a responsibility to our troops serving there in terms of their protection, welfare and morale. For that reason, we believe that British troops should remain in the British sector under British command, so we do not support this redeployment. I hope that the Government have the confidence to put this issue before the House.
Of course, there will be times when our forces will temporarily serve outside MND(SE), including the Royal Air Force, liaison units and special forces, but the protection of the men and women in MND(SE) must be the highest possible priority.
Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said that the security situation in Iraq could get worse in the short term due to Ramadan, any US attack on Falluja, and the run-up to the January elections. So is now a good time to move 850 battle-trained members of the Black Watch, with its Warrior armoured vehicles, some 350 miles away from supporting the remaining British troops in the south?
Will the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards be in MND(SE) before the Black Watch moves? If the US attacks Falluja, will it be able to call on the Black Watch for support? What is the future of the Black Watch when it returns home? Will it be disbanded, as has been suggested and as has been campaigned against by my hon. Friends?
Finally, if the only elections that these troops are being sent to support are the Iraqi elections in January, which troops will replace the Black Watch when it goes home before Christmas, as the Prime Minister promised yesterday?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman thanked me for making the statement available to him in advance. I am sorry that he did not study it a little more carefully, because several of the answers to his questions would have been apparent to him had he done so.
Is the leader of the Liberal Democrats seriously suggesting, as he appears to be, that every time British forces in a theatre of operation are redeployed there needs to be a debate and a vote on it? Is he seriously suggesting that, across the wide range of deployments that British forces make, that kind of political opportunism would serve them well? We know full well from the Liberal Democrats that their policy
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would mean that Saddam Hussein was still in power in Baghdad today. Given the current situation in Iraq, are the Liberal Democrats seriously saying to the families of people like Ken Bigley that they would not take action against terrorists and take the necessary action to see democratic elections taking place in Iraq? Do they or do they not want free and democratic elections in Iraq? If not, they should say so, because their policies lead directly to that conclusion.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the deployment of British forces that he announced will be fully supported by the Iraqi Government, who wish to have robust action against the terrorists and those who murdered Ken Bigley and are currently taking other hostages in Iraq? Is it not about time that the Liberal Democrats ceased to be the Saddam Hussein preservation society?
Mr. Hoon: With the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government, all the operations that I have described to the House and, indeed, this deployment and this operation, will have to be with the consent of that sovereign Government of Iraq. It is the Iraqi Prime Minister and his Government who want to see the terrorists dealt with and an end to the attacks on innocent Iraqis.
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