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15. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of UK armed forces to the development of democratic and sustainable political structures in Iraq. 
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I am sure the whole House will wish to express our condolences to the family of Signaller Paul Didsbury of 21 Signals Regiment, who tragically died on duty in Iraq on 29 June.
British forces are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government as part of the multinational effort to help the Iraqi people achieve stability, democracy and prosperity. Our role is to support the Iraqi Government through providing security. This protects the development of democratic government and institutions and physical reconstruction.
Ann Clwyd: As a frequent visitor to Iraq, I pay tribute to the humanitarian effort of the British military, including the Royal Regiment of Wales, in which some of my constituents serve, in rebuilding schools and hospitals and constructing water supplies. The Iraqi people give the same message every time I go there, which is to ask us to stay the course.
John Reid: I give double thanks to my hon. Friend for that. First, I congratulate her on, and thank her for, her personal commitment and contribution to Iraq over many years. Secondly, by remarking on the role that our servicemen and women have played in the reconstruction of Iraqas they have, in many detailsalongside building up the Iraqi security forces and alongside counter-terrorism, she pays the type of compliment that is constantly paid to our troops in Iraq itself, where they receive great gratitude. It is a pity, and in some ways a tragedy, as they remarked to me when I visited them, that they do not receive the same gratitude and praise in some of our media at home.
Mrs. Hodgson: Will my right hon. Friend provide more information on how UK forces are improving the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to defend human rights, which is vital to Iraqis democratising their country after decades of fascism, and allowing grass-roots organisations, such as women's groups and trade unions, to play their full role?
My hon. Friend is right. Our forces are contributing to that in two ways. First, they are contributing towards the training of Iraqi security forces. They also make it plain that, like any other democratic sovereign nation, the Iraqis must take responsibility for the conduct of their security forces. That is why when anything goes wrong, or allegations are made about the misuse of such power, we raise that idea constantly. Secondly, by helping to provide 170,000 trained Iraqi security forces, which for the first time is a greater number than the multinational forces in
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Iraq, they provide the security framework within which the democratic institutions of Iraq can function. That is happening slowly but steadily. There have been improvements in both security and politics in Iraq. It is not because the Iraqis themselves are not succeeding that furious and frantic terrorist attacks and the murder of innocent civilians have taken place. They have occurred precisely because the Iraqis, with our support, are succeeding in taking democratic control of their own country.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the brave work of the Special Air Service? Can he tell the House what the Ministry of Defence is doing to stop the haemorrhaging of those excellent soldiers to private security companies?
John Reid: First, I join the hon. Gentleman in offering plaudits to the SAS and, indeed, all the special forces. Far from our special forces contracting, those who give them associated support and the special forces themselves are in the process of expanding. I may have more to say about that at a future date.
Services in that region are described as "rudimentary" or "completely lacking". That is our area of control, so why have British forces not done enough or focused on the problem to win over hearts and minds?
John Reid: If my hon. Friend wishes to give me details of those allegations, I will look at them. However, our forces have a worldwide reputation for handling very difficult situations, particularly in areas such as Multi-National Division (South-East) in such a way as to win over hearts and minds. All my experience shows me that, notwithstanding the difficulties of operating in a theatre of strategic importance to international terroriststhat is why they do not want it to succeedour troops are doing a marvellous job there.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): May, I, too pay tribute to Paul Didsbury? May I also pay tribute to our troops in Iraq for their enormous contribution, which I have seen, to reconstruction in south-east Iraq? However, is not security the key to reconstruction, and have not our forces played a central role in providing the security without which reconstruction would not have been possible? Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many of the newly trained Iraqi battalions would be capable today of operating independently and taking over responsibility for security and reconstruction in Iraq?
First, I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman, a great supporter of our forces, for his sincere and well-meant plaudits. Secondly, approximately 170,000 Iraqi security forcesabout 5,000 to 10,000 more
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than was the case last time we had Defence questionsare now sufficiently trained gradually to take the lead in counter-terrorism. That will not be done overnight, but it is important that the House distinguishes between two propositions. First, as was made plain by Secretary Rumsfeld recentlyI have discussed this matter with himit may be a considerable time before terrorism is defeated in Iraq. Secondly, it may be a much shorter time before the Iraqis themselves can take the lead in combating that terrorism. The time scale that Mr. Rumsfeld envisaged is not necessarily the time scale during which our troops would have to be in Iraq, and I look forward in the next year to the Iraqis beginning to take over the lead role in counter-terrorism in some of the 18 provinces of Iraq.
Mr. Ancram: We often speakrightlyabout staying there until the job is done. Could the Secretary of State define more precisely on what basis the judgment will be made as to when the job is done? Is he talking about the job in the whole of Iraq or just in our area of MND (South-East)? If it is the latter, does that mean that once the job in our area is done, whatever is happening elsewhere in Iraq, our troops can come home?
John Reid: The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks an important question. May I explain the context? There are 18 provinces in Iraq. Despite the fact that we hear constantly about widespread terrorism, more than half those terrorist attacks are taking place in four provinces. There are another two provinces in which some attacks take place. By and large, about 12 of the provinces are relatively free of terrorist attacks. As the Iraqi forces become trained to take the lead, it is possible, over a period of time, to hand the lead role to Iraqi forces in certain areas of the country and gradually, we hope, over the whole country. For a period in all these areas they will require some support and back-up from the Multi-National Division. If that day comes in our area, we have not decided on and do not have any plans for operating outside MND (South-East), but it is impossible to make those decisions before we get to that stage.
The other pointat the risk of going on too long, Mr. Speakeris that we hope that that security development will be simultaneous with the development of political democratic control through the constitution, then the referendum, a new election and a fully democratic Government by the end of this year.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram):
Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the recent tragic loss of life resulting from the loss of a US helicopter last week. I am sure the House joins me in extending our sympathies to the servicemen's loved ones.
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Overall, the security situation in Afghanistan is stable. The United Kingdom and our international partners in both the coalition and the NATO-led international security assistance force continue to support the Government of Afghanistan in building a safe and prosperous country.
David Taylor: The loss of the Chinook helicopter last Tuesday was a major tragedy and evidence of a deteriorating situation made worse by a dangerous mix of foreign insurgents, tribal warlords and weak Afghan institutions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the US-led war on terror is in danger of being derailed by these events? Have the military strategic planners at Northolt made emergency proposals to send thousands of British troops to Afghanistan in order to head off a bloodbath in the run-up to the elections planned for later this year?
Mr. Ingram: I do not wholly accept my hon. Friend's analysis. I do not believe the situation is deteriorating. Incidents can occur because contact has been made with people who are being pursued because they are intent on making the situation worse. We should recognise the bravery of the US troops on the front line and other troops in Afghanistan who are taking the situation on. I also do not believe that the war on terror, as it is described, is in danger of being derailed by these events. The presidential elections were highly successful; we must ensure that the general election is equally successful. NATO is currently planning to strengthen the presence there to ensure that that happens. We have no plans to send thousands of our own personnel, although we are considering what the future position should be as of next year. The headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps is going there, which will be an important element in strengthening capabilities in Afghanistan. What taskforce goes about that is subject to considerable planning, and we will make an announcement to the House once that is mature.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is there not a growing conundrum for British forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in that non-governmental organisations and international agencies look to them for their security and safety, yet simultaneously are concerned about being identified with British forces lest they be seen as part of the occupying forces generally? How do the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence propose to reconcile what will become an increasingly difficult conundrum in both Afghanistan and Iraq?
There is no easy answer to that. It does not matter where peacemaking/peacekeeping is taking place. The moment the non-governmental organisations are closely engaged with enhancing the stabilisation of any country, in terms of reconstruction or whatever else, there must be a measure of guarantee for them, but they do take risks. Tragically, lives have been lost among NGOs and civilians, and we pay tribute to them. They are brave people. There is no simple solution. Overall we must ensure as best we can that the environment within which
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they work is stable and that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Afghan national army has primacy and there is a civil power to build the normal trappings of a state so that those who commit wrongdoings are brought to justice, as well as tackled militarily, if need be, to create an overall stable environment. I pay tribute to all those who seek to create the new conditions for which the Afghan people so earnestly wish. They do a tremendous job and I think that they will do more in the years ahead.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of the British provincial reconstruction team at Mazar-e-Sharif and also the work of the other PRTs throughout Afghanistan, which are working hard to bring not only security but development to areas outside Kabul? Will he give a commitment to the work of the British PRT? Are there any plans to extend other PRTs throughout Afghanistan to bring the stability that is needed, particularly in the south?
Mr. Ingram: I share the compliments that have been paid by my hon. Friend to the PRTs. I visited the PRTs, and I think he did so as well, in Mazar-e-Sharif. I understand that those deployed by the Americans, the Germans and others have also been successful. It is a successful model. As we move from the north to the westthat development is now making good progressand progressively into the south, we must consider the benefits that can be gained from the establishment of a PRT. That is being examined. Valuable lessons have been learned. I pay tribute to all the hard work that is taking place.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): There are currently around 8,500 service personnel deployed in Iraq and about 1,000 deployed in Afghanistan. We keep the deployment of our armed forces to both Iraq and Afghanistan under constant review.
Mr. Leigh: If we are to continue to keep large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give on their state of readiness in the light of the National Audit Office report, published a fortnight agothis was a central part of the report and it is not a selective quotationthat almost 40 per cent. of all our armed forces suffer from severe and even "critical weakness" in their readiness? Is this not a vital matter that the right hon. Gentleman has to address? There is no point in committing these troops if there is not sufficient back-up to ensure their state of readiness.
Our forces in Iraq are at a high state of readiness. As for our other forces, in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and the other areas to which I have referred, I think that that stage and level of deployability of our forces in action is recognised, and that it is not possible to keep every member of our forces at the highest state of readiness. There will be a percentage
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who are at less than the highest state of readiness. I do not believe that the NAO said that 40 per cent. of our forces were at a serious and "critical" level. It stated:
We should take a balanced view because the report was based on the NAO's self-critical analysis of the state of readiness, to which we have had regard to help us to plan and overcome any deficiencies.
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