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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Last week in a press conference with President Talibani, the Prime
 
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Minister seemed to accuse the Iranian Government of involvement with the insurgency in the Basra area. The Secretary of State has not mentioned anything about that. Can he tell us about the reports of the use of shape-charged weapons against British forces which appear of a quality and a calibre that can be produced only under the auspices of a Government? Will he give a further analysis of the situation in Basra? Will it be considered for an early turnover of responsibility to the local Iraqi forces, because the situation there is different from that in the rest of the country?

John Reid: On the second point, despite the difficulties that arose recently in Basra, in general terms the MND(SE) has had a better record of presiding over tranquillity and has experienced a lower number of incidents than many other parts of the country. We would want to study carefully whether the area might merit a handover earlier in the process rather than later.

I think that the hon. Gentleman was specifically asking whether the improvised explosive devices—the bombs—that have been used against our troops originate in Iran or have an Iranian connection. We cannot be sure of that at the moment but, as the Prime Minister confirmed last week, it is clear that new explosive devices have been used—incidentally, not just against British troops, but elsewhere in Iraq—and that the particular nature of those devices lead us to believe that they can be traced to either Hezbollah or elements associated with Hezbollah and Iran.

The new bomb technology is similar to devices used by Hezbollah, which, as hon. Members know, is supported and funded by Iran. We have welcomed Iran's public line of supporting the Iraqi elections and the efforts to support and build a constructive relationship with the new Iraqi Administration. We cannot tolerate a parallel policy of violence on anyone's part. Elements within or connected to the Iranian system—I put it no more strongly than that—seem to be encouraging violent opposition to multinational forces. That is a risky way for anyone to behave, so we hope that it does not continue.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): We must not forget the important role being carried out in the area by the Royal Navy. I pay tribute to the ship's company of HMS Campbeltown, who I visited on station recently. They are protecting important oil installations. One observation that I made during the visit was that if we are to help develop the economy of Iraq, it is important that we re-establish some of the other routes that existed for exporting oil from that country. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient engineering skill is being put in place by the oil industry in this difficult time to ensure that that happens?

John Reid: My hon. Friend is always a great defender of the senior service, and on this occasion he is absolutely right: maritime security is very important in the situation in which we find ourselves. I know that there are difficulties in acquiring sufficient skills and personnel in zones that are regarded as hazardous or threatening and in war zones. Part of our challenge is to make sure that despite all the terrorists' efforts the social and economic framework is sufficiently secure to attract engineers and others with the skills that my hon. Friend mentions.
 
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There is no doubt that what the vast majority of Iraqis want is self-determination for themselves, stability and security for their lives, and a better life. In that they are no different from any family in this country, and they are just as entitled to freedom and prosperity as families in this country.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share the analysis that it was precisely because of the success of last January's elections that the insurgents decided to make Iraq the meeting engagement of our war against terrorism? If he does share that assessment, does he agree that we have to lick them there?

John Reid: Yes, on both counts. There is no doubt in my mind that what is going on Iraq is not just a local tactical battle, important though it is to win that battle for the Iraqi people. It is probably, at the moment, the most important battlefield of a strategic nature between those who wish to impose a religious dictatorship not only on large sections of the middle east but further afield and those who believe that Arab peoples and Muslims are as entitled to democratic self-determination as anyone else. If the Iraqi people build, in an Arab Muslim state in the middle east, their own form of democracy and safeguard it, it will be a major strategic blow to the terrorists. If, on the other hand, the terrorists succeed in stopping that happening, it will be a major success for the terrorists. The terrorists understand the strategic nature of this battle. The hon. Gentleman understands the strategic nature of this battle. I just wish that every leading commentator and politician in western Europe understood the strategic nature of this battle.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State reaffirm that we will not be handing over responsibility unless or until we are satisfied that the Iraqi armed forces pass the litmus test for a democratic Government of being under the democratic control of a civilian Minister? We have a long way to go yet.

In that regard, will the Secretary of State use his good offices to reaffirm the United Kingdom's concern to ensure that the people at Camp Ashraf, Iranian refugees, continue to enjoy protected person status and do not become the Cossacks of this period? The great fear is that they will be treated in the same way as the Cossacks were treated in 1945. The people of Camp Ashraf must have the protection of both the United Kingdom and—I hope my right hon. Friend will emphasise to his friends when he meets them—the Iraqi Government. Discuss.

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend who, as usual, has set me an exam question in some detail. Thankfully on the Front Bench, one is allowed to cheat a bit by discussing things with one's fellow Ministers. Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that specific assurance. I can also refer to his general question about the democratic control of the security forces. That is very important. I discuss the matter from time to time with Mr. Al-Dulaimi, the Iraqi Defence Minister. We do
 
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what we can to ensure that we are training Iraqi security forces—the army—not only in martial arts but in human rights and the treatment of prisoners. We will continue to do that, and they are developing apace in that direction.

These things are not easy after decades under Saddam in which, let us remember, members of some of the parties that are agreeing and bringing in the Sunni had their women, children and innocent civilians gassed and burned from the inside out by mustard gas. The Shi'a have been killed, starved, had their water removed and been massacred in their thousands—in some ways in their hundreds of thousands—so to see people come together in the armed forces and apply a level of objectivity under democratic control is a major step forward.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I agree with the Secretary of State that any troop withdrawal will have to be events-led; it is plain that that is the case.

Having been out to Iraq in March, I fully commend what the Secretary of State says about the professionalism and dedication of the servicemen and women, but might I ask him one thing? We are led to believe that the Attorney-General is at this moment on his way to Iraq to look at the judicial authorities and the way in which things are working or not working. My plea is on behalf of my late constituent, Lance Corporal Tom Keys, who was one of six military policemen murdered at al-Majaar al-Kabir. I ask the Government to ensure that the perpetrators of that awful crime are brought to book fairly swiftly.

John Reid: In extending once again my condolences to the family of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, may I say that that has always been our earnest wish? I must make it plain to the House that matters of investigation and prosecution, whether of those attacking our troops or concerning allegations against our troops, are conducted separately to and independently of not only the chain of command, but the chain of command of Ministers here. So, we can take neither credit nor blame.

That is not a way of stepping back from responsibility—I expressed my earnest wish—but a way of being clear to the House that when and if charges are brought against our soldiers or against others for attacks on our soldiers, the process is conducted by an independent Army prosecution authority which, although part of the MOD, is accountable to the Attorney-General. Therefore, I cannot answer any specific points for the Attorney-General, but I wholeheartedly and earnestly support the hon. Gentleman's wish that there be a speedy bringing to book of those who murdered military policemen.


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