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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As one who agrees with the decision that has been taken and has every confidence in the ability of the Black Watch, may I press the Secretary of State on one point? If, when it returns at Christmas, there is a need for other troops to take its place, have contingency plans been made for that?
Mr. Hoon: As I sought to explain to the House in the course of my statement, the fact that the Black Watch will be going north and will in turn be replaced in position by the Scots Guards means that once it has been able to return home before Christmas we will be back to the steady state of forces that we currently have in MND(SE), so there will not be a significant change in the total numbers operating in the south.
Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab): Many colleagues would delay action for a couple of weeks beyond the US election. I do not want President Bush re-elected, but with every day that passes terrorists in Falluja are killing Iraqi people and taking UK hostages, and there will be more and more Bigleys. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is a military imperative to act we should do it now, not sacrifice UK and Iraqi lives just because we do not like George Bush?
I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent, at any rate: it is important that we act on the request made to us not only by our US ally but, crucially, by the sovereign Government of Iraq, who want an end to the lawlessness, violence, terrorism, killing and kidnapping. This deployment will play a part in that process.
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Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): I understand the pressures that have been brought to bear on the Secretary of State with regard to making this statement, but I wonder whether it was the wise thing to do. He emphasised that the decision was taken purely on the basis of operational considerations. Such decisions and movements are bound to take place from time to time when we have allies working on a joint operation, as has happened elsewhere. Can the Secretary of State tell us what policy issues are relevant, because it is those, not operational matters, with which this House should be concerned?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who always approaches military questions in the light of very considerable personal knowledge and experience. As he knows, such deployments are made clearly to reflect a policy background, which I stated to the Houseit is the importance of removing the terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and of allowing free democratic elections to take place on schedule in January, as has always been our policy.
Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab): As the Member for Dunfermline, which is the Black Watch's largest recruitment area, I had hoped, as had many of its families, that it would not be committed to an even more dangerous aspect of its current operations, especially as our US allies, despite having 121,000 more in their armed forces than we do, seem incapable or unwilling to deal with the situation. What commitment can the Secretary of State give to assure us that all the vital support and equipment will be provided and that those soldiers will return to their homes for Christmas?
Mr. Hoon: I have set out the reason for this deployment. I am absolutely confident that the Black Watch and all those, including our US allies, who will work so hard to ensure that the deployment is able to take place will do so successfully and satisfactorily.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses those views about the United States, which will be engaged in the deployment. I have explained to the House in some detail why this particular capability is necessary in order to allow wider operations against terrorists and kidnappers to take place.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Is it not the case that the US forces place considerably greater reliance on the use of offensive air power against urban terrorist targets than we do, and that time and again, most regrettably, so-called precision US air strikes have resulted in significant Iraqi civilian casualties, including women and children? Assuming that that pattern continues, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the risk that not only the Black Watch, but British forces generally, may, quite unjustifiably, be associated in the Iraqi public mind with having caused significant civilian casualties?
I do not accept the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, not least because the capability of modern precision-guided weapons is now such that they can be precisely targeted in a way that he does not give credit for. The question also concerns whether it is right to try to deal with terrorists. I assure him that Iraqi
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public opinion wants the threats to security in Iraq and to the Iraqi people dealt with just as badly as the United States or the United Kingdom does. If he reflects on what he said, I am sure that he will realise that the sorts of terrorists operating in places such as Falluja are killing far more Iraqis than they are killing coalition forces. That is why the Interim Government are so determined to see them dealt with.
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): In view of the tawdry and rather irresponsible comments to the effect that Black Watch families have not been properly briefed up to now, will the Secretary of State confirm that they have been properly briefed and that that will continue?
Mr. Hoon: The commanding officers have been at great pains to provide information to the families of those men currently deployed in Iraq. That is why I took such exception to the ignorant comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames).
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Of course we must see the job through in Iraq, but is it not unfair to ask regiments such as the Black Watch, or my local regiment, the Cheshires, to serve with such bravery and distinction in Iraq, and then face them with abolition on their return?
Mr. Hoon: It is not a question of abolition; the hon. Gentleman knows full well that it is a reorganisation. We will have the opportunity to debate that in a few minutes, but there has been a long process of reorganising infantry battalions throughout the history of the British Army. He knows that full well, so why does he come to the House making such foolish assertions?
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): In the light of my right hon. Friend's remarkable statement that only a third of US troops are combat-capable, would he agree with the US chiefs of staff when they warned Donald Rumsfeld that he was not sending enough US troops to Iraq in the first place? What assurances has he received from the US in return for this redeployment that, this time, it will listen to us as good and reliable allies when we advise it to minimise civilian casualties in Falluja, especially since, as a result of today's decision, we are much more likely to be held responsible for those casualties?
Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend and I worked closely together on Iraq and have discussed on many occasions the organisation of our armed forces. He knows full well that in any force there are front-line combat forces and support forces. That was my point, which is self-evident, as I am sure he would accept. Inevitably, a certain proportion of the US forces deployed in Iraq will be front-line combat forces, and a smaller proportion still will be armoured capable. That is why this particular deployment is necessary.
Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con):
May I take the Secretary of State back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)? He will understand the importance of morale
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to soldiers about to deploy on active service. Given that the Black Watch has already served with distinction during the war, and is now on a second and dangerous tour of duty, can he give it any reassurance whatever that its reward for that distinguished service will not be amalgamation or reorganisation?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman, who generally speaks knowledgeably on these matters from his personal experience, knows full well the history of the British Army and of the need to reorganise to deal with modern reality. We will debate that issue in the debate that follows. Consistent with the recommendation of the Scottish colonels, for example, what we are looking to preserve is the identity of single battalion regiments within a larger amalgamated structure. That is something that has happened in the past and can happen in the future.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I apologise for returning to a theme on which we have already touched, but in the past 24 hours I have received a great many messages from right across my constituency expressing concern about the proposed deployment. Apart from a theme of cynicism about timingwhich I do not share, but which I believe must be understood and responded towhich runs through virtually all those messages, the single major theme is a concern about the impact on civilian casualties of an assault on Falluja. I ask my right hon. Friend to acknowledge the profound concern of my constituents about the impact on civilian casualties and the enhanced risk, as it is perceived, to British troops as a result of association with any excessive casualties.
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