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Mr. Hoon: I have seen the report, and it is obviously important that a full investigation and thorough judicial process should proceed where appropriate. Since I understand that the Israeli authorities are pursuing the matter, it is best left to them for the moment.
If I may make progress in relation to Iraq, it is important that we assist the Iraqi people to build a better, democratic future for themselves. Clearly, there is much still to be done. We made a commitment to the Iraqi people, and we will see that through. As the Prime Minister has made clear, this is not a time to "cut and run".
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Following the question from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), will the Secretary of State again pay tribute to our armed forces, wherever they are operating, for their courage and professionalism and for the compassion they have shown to civilians and prisoners in particular, when that is appropriate? Will he also tell us whether he can commit himself to retaining the Black Watch?
I recognise that opinions on Iraq in the House and our country are divided. Nevertheless, the House and the country are united in the pride that they take in the courage and professionalism of all the men and women of our armed forces, the diplomats and civilians who have served in Iraq and all who continue to serve bravely and with distinction. The focus of our armed forces is now on helping and supporting the developing Iraqi security forces. There are more than 220,000 trained Iraqi security personnel. They are becoming more capable, but they need to develop command and leadership qualities as well as basic weapon-handling skills. That is particularly important as the 30 January elections draw nearer.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): As the Secretary of State is well aware, those elections are being fought under a proportional representation system. How did he reach the conclusion that that was the best method, and does he think it will promote cohesion, rather than a lack of cohesion, in the future assembly?
Mr. Hoon: I did not reach that conclusion. The election process was a matter for agreement by the Iraqi Government, and they agreed that PR was the most representative form of election for their country.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): Reports from Falluja claim that United States marines have killed and injured many innocent civilians. Dr. Ali Abbas, whose comments have been quoted, worked at a clinic where five people were killed when it was bombed. He later went from house to house with surviving workers, and found many more wounded people. Some died because the materials with which to treat them were not available. Other doctors at another hospital claim that when they wanted to evacuate seriously injured patients, the US would not let them.
When will we have a report on exactly what happened in Falluja? We are part of the coalition, and as an occupying force we must take responsibility for civilians. People wonder why we do not know exactly what has been going on.
Each day as I have received reports from Falluja and the wider theatre in Iraq, I have asked precisely the questions raised by my hon. Friend about the impact on civilians. Immediately before coming here, I was given a briefing that covered the position in Falluja. I must tell my hon. Friend that the briefings I have received consistently for many days suggest that there have been no significant civilian casualties there, not least because there is not a significant number of civilians there. All the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majoritybar a handful of individualsleft the city well before military action began. The large amount of aid that is available for the civilian population has not yet been distributed simply because there is currently no one in Falluja to give it to. Obviously it is important to establish where people are, and efforts are being made to do that. It appears that
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many people have stayed with relatives or friends in the outlying towns and villages away from Falluja, but there does not appear to have been a significant threat to the civilian population of that city.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): What provision has been made to ensure that the refugees who fled Falluja are registered to vote in January, given that it is unlikely that they will be able to return to their homes yet?
Mr. Hoon: Actually, there is every prospect of their being able to return to their homes. By and large, the situation in Falluja has been resolved. There are some pockets of resistance still, but I expect people to start returning in due course. We know that across Iraq there is a basis for an electoral register in the form of names identified by the regime for receipt of UN food assistance. That is being used as the core for an electoral register, and it is obviously important that it be added to where there is a deficiency. That will apply to Falluja just as it applies elsewhere.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend said before several interventions interrupted him, the elections will be held on 30 January. [Interruption.] I was referring to the number of interventions, not their substance. A member of the US military has announced that a greater US military presence is needed to secure peaceful elections. Is it part of the thinking of this country's military that an increase in the British military presence is needed in the run-up to the elections, and has my right hon. Friend had discussions with other countries about their contribution to keeping the peace during that important period?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. FriendI should of course have realised that his intervention would be not an interruption, but a helpful contribution to the debate. He is right: it is important that we ensure the right level of security for those elections to take place, and as I have told the House before, we keep troop numbers under constant review, as do our partners in the multinational force. But I should emphasise that the key issue is training Iraqi security forces, so that they are capable of taking on these responsibilities for themselves. The situation is improvingindeed, each week more people are available to take on such responsibilities. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that into account when he considers the security situation in Iraq.
That is a rather extravagant description of what has taken place. Had the civilian populationwho are no friends of the terrorists and fanatics who are
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using Falluja as a base for terrorist operationsnot departed, the hon. Gentleman would doubtless have raised the question of the threat to the civilian population. It is important that the civilians be able to return to Fallujait is increasingly likely that an Iraqi civilian administration will be responsible for the future governance of the cityand it is equally important that they are not then intimidated by such fanatics. I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the progress that has been made in Falluja, not least because it prevents terrorists from using it as a haven and as a base for their appalling operations.
Mr. Hoon: The year 2005 will mark a critical point for the Iraqi people, and the elections will represent a key step forward in the political process. The Iraqi people want elections, as has been demonstrated in every Iraqi opinion poll. Up to 87 per cent. of Iraqis questioned in a recent poll said that they would vote in the forthcoming elections.
We welcome the United Nations' role in helping Iraq to prepare for the elections. The United Kingdom will continue to support the independent electoral commission of Iraq and the UN itself. The Department for International Development is providing £10 million through the UN trust fund to assist the electoral commission, and a further £5 million for the political participation fund, which is used to assist in increasing awareness of the electoral process. We are also assisting with the provision of security.
The United Nations team in Baghdad is confident that preparations for the elections in January remain on schedule. Voter registration started at the beginning of this month and will run until 15 December. The registration of political parties also began on 1 November.
As I said, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the international conference on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh, looking to strengthen international support for the Iraqi Interim Government and their efforts to hold elections in January, and to increase regional co-operation in tackling the insurgency. I am pleased to say that the conference recognised the importance of keeping to the January election date, and it agreed that all political parties in Iraq must renounce violence as Iraq makes progress towards those elections.
As I have mentioned, security for the elections is vital. Terrorists and insurgents have been stepping up their attacks, but Prime Minister Allawi is determined that as many Iraqis as possible be able to cast their vote. That is why Iraq's security forces and the coalition cleared insurgents from Falluja. Prime Minister Allawi also wants the political and electoral process to be as inclusive as possible, and to make a huge effort to encourage Sunni and Shi'a leaders to participate.
Two weeks ago, when I visited British troops serving in Afghanistan, there was a real sense of optimism about the progress that had been made. The recent presidential elections were a huge achievement. We expected 6 million people to register to vote, but 11 million actually took part in an 80 per cent. turn-out. The foundations are now in place for the country to become peaceful, stable, democratic and free from terrorism.
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Great credit is due to the Afghan authorities, the United Nations and, of course, to the Afghan people themselves.
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