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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 June 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read. Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Iraqi Government concerning security in Iraq. [5694]

4. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): When he last met representatives of the Iraqi Government to discuss the proposed new constitution. [5698]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With the European Union presidency, I visited Iraq on 9 June and discussed security and constitutional matters, as well as other topics, with President Talabani, Prime Minister Jaafari and other leaders. Security and stability are plainly key to progress in Iraq. Iraqi forces are increasingly taking a lead in this effort.

I stressed to all whom I saw the need for an inclusive constitutional drafting process that included fair representation from the Sunni community and kept to the timeline. I therefore welcome the agreement reached on 17 June to add 15 Sunni members to the constitutional committee and to appoint 10 Sunni advisory experts. Tomorrow, I shall attend an international conference on Iraq that is being held in Brussels.

Ian Lucas: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that detailed reply. The whole House is concerned about the reported continuing high levels of violence in Iraq. What reassurance can he give me that the situation is navigable? Is real progress being made and what role are British troops playing in that progress?
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Mr. Straw: Violence is at an unacceptable level and is higher than was anticipated. Tragically, most of the casualties of the violence today are other Iraqis, who have become the principal targets of the violence. That said, I was impressed when I visited Baghdad two weeks ago by the progress that had been made on the readiness and numbers of the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis have a clear choice about whether they bring together the components of a properly functioning democratic and secure state. I believe that they are doing that, although there will be many difficulties on the way.

Ms Barlow: When my right hon. Friend met representatives of the committee that is drawing up the new constitution, did he believe that it was a fair and accurate representation of the demographics of the country? Does he believe that it is on course to complete the constitution before 15 August?

Mr. Straw: The original composition of the body to draw up the constitution plainly did not represent accurately all the three communities in Iraq, above all because most of the Sunni community decided not to take part in the elections. However, following the decision reached just four days ago to add 15 Sunni members to the constitutional committee, it is now as broadly representative of the Sunni as it is of the Kurds and the Shi'a. There are three deadlines: 15 August, 15 October and 15 December. I am fairly convinced that those timelines will be met, although it will be a close-run thing in each case.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The whole House will be aware that the level of violence in Iraq has climbed hideously over the past few weeks and months. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence is preparing plans to withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq, which seems to sit uneasily with the comment made by the Minister for Europe during the debate on the Queen's Speech that we would leave only when the job was done. Will the Foreign Secretary define how he sees the situation arising when the job will indeed be done?

Mr. Straw: What my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said sits very well with what the hon. Gentleman and the House also took from his remarks. Under Security Council resolution 1546, a review is taking place of the mandate, which will expire on 31 December unless it is renewed. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are significantly improving their capability and increasing in number—that just happens to be true—and they are involved in serious security operations to a far greater extent than they were this time last year. They have suffered many more casualties than the coalition, proportionately, but none the less I was assured by our British senior commanders when I was in Baghdad that the morale and capability of many of the Iraqi forces, although not all, was high. There are already 168,000 people involved in the Iraqi security forces, so as that number rises, it is rational and sensible for the numbers involved in the coalition to reduce provided, first, that we are sure that it is safe for those numbers to reduce and, secondly, that that is the wish of the Iraqi people and Government.
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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): What is the Foreign Secretary's assessment of whether the constitutional arrangements are likely to be acceptable to the Kurdish minority come 15 December, and what is his assessment of the effect on the security situation if they are not?

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman may know, within the transitional administrative law there is a complicated lock mechanism that provides that the results of a referendum are not valid if, I think, two thirds of the voters in three of the provinces have voted against the referendum proposition. That provision was designed as a safeguard for the Kurds. As it has turned out, it is a safeguard also for the Sunni community. All sections of the community—the majority Shi'a, the Kurds and the Sunni—understand that if they are to maintain their aim of keeping Iraq together, albeit within some sort of federal structure, the constitutional arrangements have to be acceptable to all three communities. Although it will be difficult getting there, I believe that that will be achieved.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Yesterday, I met representatives of the Iraqi Islamic party and also Sunni Muslims who have returned from this country to Iraq, who are anxious to play a part in the political process. One matter that they raised concerns us all, and that is the lack of a Human Rights Minister in the Cabinet of the new Government of Iraq. Five months have passed and still a Human Rights Minister has not been appointed. I believe that such an appointment is essential. I ask my right hon. Friend to lend his voice to this plea.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point. I raised the matter with Prime Minister Jaafari when I saw him and he explained that it was a nomination due to come from one particular section of the community and that he was waiting for it. I will continue to make representations on the matter on behalf of the House, including my right hon. Friend.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Foreign Secretary stated in his opening answer that security was obviously important to the future of Iraq. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that prosperity is also important if we are to go forward? What contacts and what interchange has he had with European colleagues on the release of European funds for essential works such as water supply and electricity?

Mr. Straw: I have had many discussions with my European colleagues, and ensuring a satisfactory flow of funds will be one of the issues before the EU-US international conference on Iraq, which I shall be attending tomorrow. The thing that is holding Iraq back is not an inadequacy of external funds or of investment projects, or the inadequacy of the innate abilities of the population, but terrorism. That is why improving security is fundamental to the achievement of the other goals that we and, above all, the Iraqi people have—prosperity and good governance.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is it not important that those, particularly outside this place,
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who refer to the high number of casualties should bear in mind that casualties are being caused in large numbers, as already pointed out, by the terrorist suicide bombers, the enemies of Iraq? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the impression should not be given that somehow British or American continued intervention in Iraq is open-ended—I have listened to what he has said—and that there is a strong case for looking at the situation whereby British and American troops leave the country, obviously in the best circumstances?

Mr. Straw: On my hon. Friend's first point, it is true that there would be no casualties if there were no terrorism. There are virtually no casualties and no incidents in 10 of the 18 provinces of Iraq because the situation there is broadly under control. There is a high level of consent for the presence of the security forces, whether they are coalition or indigenous. On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I confirm that the coalition's commitment is not open-ended. That is not desired by this Parliament or by the US Congress, for example, nor, above all, is it desired by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people want to reach the position where they can run their own affairs as quickly as possible. The only issue is ensuring that they can do that in a safe and sensible way.

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