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Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it. On behalf of my colleagues, I join him in sending condolences to the families of those who have so bravely but tragically lost their lives. I also join him in paying tribute to our armed forces serving in Iraq. In the face of severe dangers, their courage, commitment, professionalism and loyalty are a matter of great pride and an example to us all.

For all the Secretary of State's brave words, however, the situation in Iraq today is grim. There are now about 500 insurgent attacks each week, fuelled by growing outside interference, not least in MND(SE). The price is indeed being paid for the crass decision to disband the Iraqi security forces after the war—a decision that gave the insurgents their opening.

Today, the Secretary of State has again reiterated that we should stay in Iraq, in his words, until our job is done. I agree, but the critical question is how he defines the job and who makes that crucial assessment. According to the Secretary of State it is the Iraqi Government. Of course, they have an absolute right to ask us to go if they wish us to do so, but surely their right
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to ask us to stay cannot be open-ended. Ultimately, is not it for us and no one else to decide on the deployment of our armed forces and when they should begin to draw down?

I have noted what the Secretary of State said about troop rotations. I listened with surprise at the pride with which he mentioned the names of some of those regiments—ironic in light of the fact that at the same time he is trying to abolish so many of those same regiments. The 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers is to be deployed for the third time. I might ask him has its rifle company, which was stranded in Jordan for lack of air transport, been recovered? He has confirmed that a date has been set for the withdrawal of 12 Mechanised Brigade, but for how long will there be an overlap between the reserve battalion coming in and the brigade before that withdrawal takes place?

The House also noted what the Secretary of State had to say about the developing capability of the Iraqi security forces. I must press him a little on that. He tells us that 190,000 personnel have been trained so far and that the number of capable units is increasing steadily. However, is not it the case that, as the top United States commander in Iraq, General Casey, told the Senate last week, only one Iraqi army battalion seems fully capable of fighting independently and is not that two fewer than was the case only two months ago?

In MND(SE), with the apparent serious level of infiltration of the security forces by Iranian-backed insurgents, something on which the right hon. Gentleman has had little to say so far today—I hope he will say more—how confident is he that those forces will be able to take over in the short to medium term? Indeed, what estimate has he made of such infiltration? Does he now accept, for instance, that many of the latest roadside bombs are of Iranian design and manufacture? I understand that, as a result of the increased attrition from roadside bombing, our forces in MND(SE) are relying heavily on the use of helicopters. Are there enough helicopters to meet those new requirements and how many of them are having to be commercially contracted?

Finally, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to say whether there is any truth in the rumour that coalition representatives are seeking to open channels of communication with at least some of the insurgents?

The whole House and the nation are proud of our armed forces. I, too, pay tribute to Brigadier John Lorimer, commander of 12 Mechanised Brigade and his troops for their remarkable action in rescuing the two captured soldiers two weeks ago. Our forces throughout have carried out their tasks with all the fortitude and courage we would expect from our British Army, and our thoughts are with them all in the task that lies ahead.

John Reid: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his words of support and his plaudits for our forces. They are well deserved and his views are reflected on both sides of the House.       The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked how the job being done would be measured and by whom. I hope that in the four criteria that I outlined in my statement I have set out the how part of that—in other words, the criteria by which we shall judge the job being done. The
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capacity of the Iraqi security forces to take the lead themselves will be judged first, on their numbers and capability; secondly, the level of capacity of the provincial government to deal with the new security situation; thirdly, the level of support that it is necessary for us to give them; and, fourthly, the level of the terrorist threat.

As to the when, will that be an event? No, it will be a process. Will that process achieve the necessary conditions in every part of the country at the same time? No, so geographically, and in time lines, it will be a continuing process. Who will decide that? Obviously, at the end of the day every sovereign nation, including ourselves, has the right, if it so wishes, to make any decision that it wishes. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, or any other hon. Member, would not want us to take a decision that dishonoured a pledge that we made to the Iraqi people and to their democratically elected representatives. Of course, the decision will be made in consultation with the Iraqis. At the end of the day, the truth is that we do not want to be there any longer than necessary. Quite frankly, the Iraqi politicians, who are democratically elected and accountable to their people, do not want us there any longer than we are needed and necessary either. That is precisely what Prime Minister Jafaari and I said at the press conference some two weeks ago. However, if we read what he and President Talibani said this morning, it is obvious that the minority of terrorists who are attempting to claim that we are not there with the support of Iraqi people are being absolutely misleading. We are there, with the support of the Iraqi people, for as long as it is necessary to secure their own developing democracy.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about air transport, and he has written to me on that point. I can tell him that we have done everything that we can to overcome those difficulties, and they have been overcome. Without going into details, the problem is very often not the aircraft, but having suitable aircraft with defensive suites. The safety of our troops travelling in and out of Iraq is paramount, and we have now managed to overcome the difficulties. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the transitional period during which it is envisaged that the company from the reserve theatre in Cyprus might be deployed in Iraq. That is of the order of six weeks in operational terms.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the police in Basra and infiltration. In any theatre of combat in the world where competing factions have been at war with each other there is always a problem of split loyalties when rehabilitating and restructuring the police force afterwards. The question is not whether those split loyalties exist, but whether we can diminish them by human rights training and training the police to be as objective as possible. Wherever we look in the world, we find that policing is very often the last nut to be cracked. Incidentally, that applies in our own country, as well as in Bosnia or anywhere else. However, although there are certain elements in the police service in Iraq about whom we ought to be worried, I would not want him to believe that that is the majority or anything like it. Let us remember that every time Iraqi policemen put on their uniforms in the morning, they go out to face the threat of death. Many of them have died leading operations. Even in Basra, there were police around the
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Jameat police station trying to ensure that the 250 to 300 militant demonstrators did not approach it. So it is not the case that all the police, even in Basra, were antagonistic towards us.

We keep the issue of helicopters under review.

On the question of whether we reach out to Sunni politicians, I have to say that we reach out to everyone in Iraq. We will combat the terrorists, force with force, for as long as they deploy it. However, for any Sunni politician who wants to get involved in the process, we encourage the Shi'a to reach out their hands and arms to the Sunnis to be inclusive, and we encourage the Sunni politicians to engage in politics, not terrorism. That is the position that we take, and I think that it is the right one.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The whole House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for making his comprehensive statement this afternoon, immediately on our return. I join him and the shadow Secretary of State in offering condolences to the families and loved ones of those in the British armed forces who have given their lives on active service.

I also pay tribute to the continued bravery, dedication and professionalism of those in the armed forces who serve in Iraq, highlighted graphically by the appalling attacks on British forces in Basra and the events that followed. Does not that terrible episode, among many others, illustrate that the situation in Iraq is getting worse, rather than better? Should there not now be serious concerns about the relationship with the Iraqi security forces in Basra, given their apparent infiltration by the militias? Specifically, what resources are being channelled into improving intelligence gathering and force protection for our armed forces?

The Secretary of State highlighted the setting up the joint committee to transfer security responsibility, which is an important development. What steps are now required to confirm the principles and criteria set out in his statement? Have the events in Basra altered the time scale for the transfer of security responsibility to Iraqi forces in MND(SE) and what is his assessment of when that may now occur? Although we may all agree that we must not cut and run, just how long a haul does he now believe will be necessary before our troops will have finished their job?

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