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John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about my making the statement immediately on the House's return. I wanted to do that because, on matters of life and death, I think that the House is entitled to an early statement. That is why I came to the House today.
I also held back the announcement of the troop roulement, so that the House could be the first to know. That has its disadvantages and I ask the House to bear with me. When I refused to answer questions on the issue over a period of several months, we got the speculation that we see in the press. One weekend, they say that everyone is immediately coming out of Iraq; the next, they say that there will be no withdrawal. I hope that hon. Members understand that none of this is our doing. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words on that.
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The hon. Gentleman says that the situation in Iraq is getting worse, but that is not a true picture. The situation is getting better in terms of the development of democratic agreement and institutions. The Iraqis have achieved in 14 months what it has taken this country several centuries to do, namely, to reach a general agreement on the disposition of devolved powers versus central powers and the coming together of the ethnic groups. That has taken something like several hundred years in this country, so let us give them credit for that. Previous combatants have come together to forget all their previous difficulties and to try to reach a conclusion.
The Iraqis have also made great progressit is not getting worsein their own security, which is the second objective. Despite everything that the terrorists are doing, the Iraqi security forces are becoming better trained, are more capable and are getting better and greater numbers than ever before.
The Iraqis are making some social and economic advances. They are not as fast as I would likeI fully admit thatbecause of terrorist activity, but there is a little more electricity than there was, a little more opportunity than there was and something like 240 hospitals are now operating that previously were not. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of kids are being vaccinated and a large number of schools are being rehabilitated, so there is some advance.
Against that, as the position gets better, the terrorists will get worse. They are involving themselves more and more viciously and frenetically. They are murdering children, and ordinary working Muslim men and women in Iraq are being massacred in their hundredscumulatively, in their thousandsin an attempt to destroy all these things.
I think that we should paint a balanced picture, giving credit to the democrats and the vast majority in Iraq rather than concentrating on the evil successes of those who are trying to destroy things. Part of that involves making sure that we put enough resources into the intelligence-led operations that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I can tell him that the 12 arrests that took place on Friday were based on intelligence leads and that it was the British acting on their own who carried them out.
In terms of time scale, I say this: to give an immutable time scale to say that we will leave tomorrow or next month on a specific date is to send a postcard to the terrorists saying, "Hang on in until this date." We will not do what the Liberal party has asked us to doeither what has been asked by its leader, which is to cut and run immediately, or what has been asked by the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, which is a different thing. I have noticed the not so subtle difference between their and their leader's statements.
In fact, the hon. Gentleman's colleague has asked us to do what precisely what we are doing, which is to set out the terms on which there would be a handover. In all honesty, I have tried to do that today, and that is what we have done all along and will stick to. When the Iraqis have the capability and desire for us to go, we will go, but what we will not do is cut and run from the terrorists
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because things are getting tough or give the terrorists a date by which we will go, as that would be an invitation to them to hang on in until that date.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I was glad that the Secretary of State paid tribute to many people in the Iraqi police force, not only because we must build the police force as a strong body that is independent and free from corruption and infiltration if we are to achieve a decent civil society, but because the courage and dedication that many officers show just to go to work every day is quite extraordinary. I hope that all hon. Members agree with that. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the relationship between British troops and the local police force in any country in which they operate is often one of the most complicated and difficultthat is certainly true in Bosnia and Herzegovina and also in Kosovo. What measures is he putting in place to ensure that that relationship improves, that we have dealt with infiltration into the Iraqi police force, and that the special role that the British armed forces have often played in many parts of the world to build civil society is brought to the fore?
John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the police because we must be balanced and remember that it takes a lot of courage to put on a police uniform in Basra, Baghdad or anywhere in Iraq, yet thousands of people are doing just that. We are trying to give what help we can not only to train people in the police service, but to promote qualityhuman rights, objectivity and neutrality. I do not pretend that there is a magic wand that we can wave. However, we have about 100 specialist police officers there at present. We have trained some 14,000 Iraqi police and we hope that the number will be 25,000 by the end of next year.
I do not underestimate for a moment the amount of time or the difficulties with training that are in front of us. However, to answer my hon. Friend's implied questionand the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore)I do not envisage a change to the projected time scale in which we might think that conditions would come to fruition to enable us to hand over. I see no reason to change the view that I held earlier in the year that we could start such a process during the course of next year.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): We expect a lot of our troops and they never let us down, and now is not the time to call for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. However, how difficult is it for the Secretary of State to recruit and retain those troops at the moment? Will he give us current figures for recruitment and retention, not only in the Regular Army, but the Territorials? Is he worried, as I am, about overstretch in Iraq?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who now has an important position in holding the Government to account as Chairman of the Defence Committee, for his comments about the British forces. He is right that when they are asked to do something, they do it. They do not take part in controversy, debates or decisionsthey just go and do it.
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The right hon. Gentleman asked whether it is difficult to recruit. Yes, it is, and it has been for some time. We can speculate about the reasons for that and do what we can to try to discover and address those reasons, but one reason is certainly high employment and low unemployment, which has been the case for a while. The controversy surrounding training, Deepcut, bullying, Iraq and other issues probably does not help to convince the gatekeepersthe mums and dadsof the attraction of the armed forces. A range of issues might make it more difficult to recruit to a professional Army.
I have recently returned from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the middle east has visited Basra and elsewhere in Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I spend a lot of time with troops, so I can tell the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that morale is high. Troops are given a great welcome by many Iraqis and by people in Afghanistan who recognise the important job that they are doing, contrary to some of the impressions given by the media here. His first comments welcoming the role that the troops are playing are an antidote to some of the reasons why we might be finding recruitment difficult.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): In January, 8.5 million Iraqis bravely voted. That is about 60 per cent. of the peoplea similar number to those who vote in our electionsand they had to defy terrorist bombs and threats of beheading. Part of the success of that election was due to the security ring around polling stations, in which the coalition forces played an important role. What measures are planned to assist with the security of the vote on 15 October and for the hoped-for parliamentary elections planned for December?
John Reid: A great deal of thought has been given to that. Just as the terrorists have increased their activities in an attempt to disrupt and destroy those two steps in the democratic processthe referendum and then the electionsso, too, have we and, in particular, our allies and the Iraqi security forces made plans to try to ensure that Iraqis vote in peace. It is a symbol of the choice that is before us. However any hon. Member regarded the initial intervention in Iraq, the choice today is different. It is simply between the terrorists on the one side, who want to destroy democracy, and the United Nations, the multinational community and the Iraqi democrats on the other[Interruption.] I am being shouted at. I do not know what is being said, but I commend the remarks made this morning by President Talibani, who said:
"Similarly, those who attack mosques and churches, who murder schoolchildren and labourers, who behead foreigners and who kidnap humanitarian workers are not engaged in 'resistance'. Those sabotaging Iraq's first democracy bear no resemblance to the resistors of foreign occupation in wartime Europe. Rather, they are, in their ideology and record, contemporary representatives of the fascism that wreaked such havoc 60 years ago in Europe. They are supremacists and racists, as worthy of our contempt as those who practised apartheid in South Africa."
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