Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 320)



  Q300  Chairman: We have a number of months before we get there. Under the proposal, the occupation will end at the end of this month and sovereignty will pass to an Iraqi group. To what extent will that alter the situation of ordinary Iraqis, in your judgment?

  Mr Hughes: I think that a lot of ordinary Iraqis do see the Coalition—the US forces, the British forces and the multinational force—as an army of occupation, and they want them out. That is the bottom line. They want them out as soon as possible. The arguments over sovereignty that we saw a couple of weeks ago—is it going to be full sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and when?—Colin Powell saying that it will only be partial sovereignty . . .

  Q301  Chairman: Have we moved on from there?

  Mr Hughes: Yes, we have, but I do not think that helps the people of Iraq understand what is going on and I do not think that it will help the credibility of the new administration about to be set up.

  Q302  Chairman: Surely the US has now made its own moves in terms of the Security Council resolution? France, Germany and Russia have, in the judgment of many of us, improved that. The US should properly be on the defensive in terms of the next months. Is it your view from those to whom you spoke that there will be a sea change? That things will move more positively, now there is a timetable established and a UN cover?

  Mr Hughes: I was there in April and events have moved on enormously quickly since then, but I think that it will help, yes. There will always be those people who, as I have said, do not trust the UN and feel that it is a stooge of the United States but, for a lot of ordinary Iraqis, it will help that there is international legitimacy—I did not mean to sound too negative earlier—that international approval has been given to this new administration. In particular, I think that it will help that there are people like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It is people like him who have the most credibility and support in the country, rather than the people who are the politicians—particularly exiled politicians who may not have been in the country for 30 years and who are now trying to garner support. Ayatollah al-Sistani has a lot of respect among ordinary Iraqis and so, if he gives the new administration some sort of legitimacy, I think that is a big help.

  Q303  Chairman: I have a question about de-Ba'athification or the role of the Ba'ath party. The impression we had until recently was that there was a deep division between the current groups, in that the Kurds and the Sunni were keen on having movement to accept those former members of the Ba'ath party who were not guilty of human rights abuses, and it was the Sunni who were blocking those movements.

  Mr Hughes: Do you mean the Shia?

  Q304  Chairman: I am sorry, yes, the Shia blocking the movements. Now it is a Shia prime minister who is saying that he wishes to embrace the right-minded, former Ba'athists. How helpful will that be?

  Mr Hughes: At the time we were saying it was a reversal of the de-Ba'athification policy, and that was hotly contested by the Coalition spokesman we were in conversation with; but I think the change—we will call it a change—to the de-Baathification policy was absolutely vital. First for the armed forces, because the Coalition was presented with an enormous security problem which they just could not deal with without the help of Iraqis who had served in the armed forces. So I think that was what was driving it a lot. I did not pick up on the Shia-Sunni split over de-Ba'athification. What I did pick up on were the exiles and the people who had stayed within Iraq—that was where I saw the division, and particularly with Mr Chalabi, who was very, very anti the whole change to that policy.

  Q305  Mr Illsley: You have mentioned the CPA being unpopular and that the UN may also be. We have always assumed that, come 30 June and the handover, the security problems will, unfortunately, continue and probably continue until the elections in January. Is that your view? Is there any sort of hint that, perhaps with the formation of the transitional or interim government these last couple of weeks, the appointment of cabinet members and a prime minister, and the handover to Iraqis now, that will alleviate the situation at all? Or is there still this feeling that it is an American-dominated situation and the attacks will carry on?

  Mr Hughes: The good thing about what is going on in Iraq is that you can see an end game. There is light at the end of the tunnel. In some areas of the world I do not think that you can see that, but I think that you can in Iraq. As I said at the beginning, there are these different conflicts, different difficulties that the Coalition faces. If you take them out of the equation one by one, you will probably always be left with this sort of resistance movement. I think that will be a long-running problem, even after the elections.

  Q306  Mr Illsley: Regardless of who is in charge there?

  Mr Hughes: Yes. If you take the Muqtada al-Sadr element out of the equation—which they appear to be working on, or at least close to being able to do—that will help things a lot in the southern and central parts of Iraq. The Fallujah question is gradually working itself out. But I think that there is always going to be this—not always, but for a long time...

  Q307  Mr Illsley: What about the prisoners' treatment? You must have been there when that was played out. How badly did Iraqis react to this?

  Mr Hughes: It was a disaster for the Coalition, I think—on all sorts of levels. First, the Iraqis have enormous shame that their fellow countrymen were being treated in this way. It is perhaps hard for us to understand that. Perhaps there is a cultural barrier to our understanding that element. However, that was incredibly important: that they saw fellow Iraqis being humiliated in that way. It was also immensely damaging because of where it took place. Abu Ghraib is a prison with this terrifically awful reputation, notorious under Saddam for executions, beatings and torture, and here are pictures of American soldiers beating and humiliating people. Obviously it was not to the same degree, and I think we should remember that, but it was enormously damaging.

  Q308  Mr Illsley: The images should have been of our closing that place down as opposed to carrying on the abuses.

  Mr Hughes: Yes.

  Q309  Mr Illsley: There must be some light at the end of the tunnel. I have seen a photograph this weekend in one of the national newspapers—it might have been the Sunday Times—of some men sitting outside a café in Baghdad overlooking the Tigris. The article referred to 37 elections which had already taken place in local government in that area of Baghdad. When you look at the national news and the continual reports of car bomb attacks, and so on, and then look at this type of photograph of apparent normality, you have to ask where you pitch it in between. Where is the reality of the situation now? Is there some normality around?

  Mr Hughes: Very much so. It is difficult for us, reporting that situation—because people getting on with their daily lives probably will not get on to the 10 o'clock news. It is important that we try to reflect that people do get on with their daily lives but, when I was there, there was so much violence going on that it was very difficult to find the time to do all the rest of it. On the occasions that I did get out into the city, however, you did see people go to work, taking their kids to school, sitting in shops gossiping, drinking tea. We went to the old souk, and people were haggling, buying and selling and, as far as I could tell, business was booming. All around them, however, the city is a mess. There is rubble everywhere. The traffic is absolutely chaotic.

  Q310  Mr Illsley: Is reconstruction happening or is it being hindered by the violence?

  Mr Hughes: Yes, it is definitely being hindered by the violence. When we were there, we saw that the Russians pulled all of their people out; Siemens pulled a number of people out, and those who stayed were essentially confined to barracks, so to speak. They were staying in their compounds, were doing paper work, but were not reconstructing. This comes back to the point I made to Mr Chairman. It is these sorts of things—the power supply, the water supply, sewage—that really get up people's noses. What I was going to say about the state of the city was that there is rubbish and rubble everywhere, and buildings teetering over—bombed buildings. There are no traffic lights that work. All this makes an enormous difference. I have never seen anything like the traffic. It was extraordinary—absolute gridlock. All these things make an enormous difference to people's quality of life. Those are the sorts of things that the Coalition do not seem to have grasped. They are so busy dealing with the security situation, I suppose, that it is very difficult for them to take on projects like that.

  Q311  Mr Olner: Just following that up, I think that the media have a role—the al-Jazeeras of this world and the BBC—to be able to level the blame about the fact that the reconstruction is not going forward because of the attacks that are being made on the people who are trying to do it.

  Mr Hughes: Yes.

  Q312  Mr Olner: I understand what you are saying about it. It is a good story, people living normal lives, and so on; but the downside of it is that the people, who are perpetuating this violence and stopping real help and assistance getting to the people of Iraq, seem to get away scot-free.

  Mr Hughes: You are absolutely right, but I think for ordinary Iraqis, it is very difficult for them to make that connection between the lack of a regular power supply and the violence which is going on. All they see is their food in their fridge or freezer going up to 40-degree heat and they view the Coalition as being responsible for security, which frankly it is, and when then there are lapses in security, they blame the Coalition. People have said to me, "You have come here to our country and the least you could do is make sure that we are safe and you are not doing that". That is why we saw after the bombings in Basra, for example, remember in April when they bombed the police stations and the police academy, big demonstrations after that directed against the British because they had failed to prevent those bombings. Now, we all know it is very difficult to prevent those sort of bombings, almost impossible perhaps, but nonetheless people get really angry.

  Q313  Mr Olner: But the point I am getting at is whether there is press in Iraq which will turn around and say, "There will probably be reconstruction and the fact is that there are many ex-Saddamists who have their own agenda and they are the ones destroying our country, not the Coalition"?

  Mr Hughes: Well, there is not that much press outside of the Coalition, as far as I know, though I have to admit I am not an expert on the Iraqi media, but outside of the Coalition-run and funded TV stations, newspapers and radio stations and then the ones run by political parties, I do not think there is that much in the middle which would be classed as neutral or even-handed, so it is difficult for indigenous press to get that message across.

  Q314  Mr Olner: The biggest problem, having listened to you, Mr Hughes, was the fact that you thought the UN had not got a role to play.

  Mr Hughes: No, no. Sorry, but if I gave that impression, I did not mean to.

  Q315  Mr Olner: Some of us think that the UN is key to getting more aid, so it is not just America and the United Kingdom which are going there, but we are doing it globally. I actually think that the biggest set-back to Iraq was when they drove out of Baghdad the United Nations compound.

  Mr Hughes: I am sorry, I did not mean to give the impression that I thought it had no role to play. I think the UN is probably the only body which could have sorted out the political impasse which they had reached and come up with this sort of technocrat government. I mean, who else could have done it? I did not mean to give that impression that I felt they had no role to play at all. I believe that they have an enormous role to play and I do think it will help. What I was trying to get across was that not every Iraqi respects the UN and feels that they are an organisation above influence, but I do think that there is support for the UN, yes.

  Q316  Mr Pope: I was in Iraq for a short visit in December and one of the impressions that I came away with was about the difference between the British sector based in Basra and Baghdad. Obviously they are very different places, but there did seem to be a different style to the British compared to our American partners. What I would like to know, in the aftermath of the photographs which were published, particularly The Mirror photographs which were later shown to be fakes, but presumably which were widely circulated in Basra . . .

  Mr Hughes: Yes.

  Q317  Mr Pope: . . . is whether that really utterly and disastrously altered people's perceptions of the British or was there some sense afterwards that the pictures were fake and that the British were this bad?

  Mr Hughes: Well, if I am absolutely honest, I am not sure I can answer your question because I could not get to Basra. We were stuck in Baghdad partly because of the security situation and partly because of the amount of work which two of us had to deal with, so I am afraid I cannot give you an on-the-ground report from Basra.

  Q318  Chairman: Nevertheless, to have an eye-witness account from someone who has been there more recently than the Committee has been extremely valuable, so thank you, Mr Hughes.

  Mr Hughes: Well, I am happy to have been of service. Can I just say one more thing, which is that my colleague, Barnaby Mason, who is the diplomatic correspondent of the World Service has just retired and he wrote a final From Our Own Correspondent about being a diplomatic correspondent and his last paragraph in that was absolutely fantastic because it summed up the whole thing about the transfer of sovereignty. If you do not mind, may I read it to you?

  Q319  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Hughes: I could not do justice to Barnaby's delivery, but he says, "American and British politicians and the media now talk of transferring sovereignty to an interim Iraqi Government at the end of June. Pedants object that they cannot do that because they do not possess the sovereignty in the first place. All right then, they are going to hand over power. Are they? Really? Perhaps the transfer of limited administrative authority would be more accurate, but that does not have the right ring to it. It certainly does not like sound like a clear end to the occupation". I just felt that was worth bringing to your attention. If you want to read the whole thing, it is on the website.

  Q320  Chairman: Not today.

  Mr Hughes: Maybe when you get back from Russia.

  Chairman: Many thanks.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 29 July 2004