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Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): In his statement, while telling us about progress that had been made, the Secretary of State clearly acknowledged that his ultimate aims of democracy and security in Iraq were still to be reached, and he talked about the battle of Iraq and the number of Iraqi civilians who are still dying. In the light of that, will he suggest to his colleagues in the Home Office that it would be premature for them to start the enforced return of failed asylum seekers to Iraq?

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John Reid: I am sure that the Home Secretary heard my hon. Friend's comment.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned obstacles to the exit strategy. Does he agree that if Iran's alleged activities continue, that will create a new obstacle to the exit strategy, regardless of whether the current obstacles have been removed when that judgment is made?

John Reid: I think I made the precise point that terrorist activity and, by implication, those assisting such activity do nothing to hasten the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq—indeed, they delay withdrawal, because one of the four criteria by which we judge the conditions in which we would hand over power and the lead in security to the Iraqis is the level of the threat from terrorists. Therefore, by definition, anything that increases the level of that threat diminishes the propensity to withdraw.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Once again, my right hon. Friend has set out a balanced statement of the successes and the challenges that remain. Yesterday, Lord Boyce, a former defence chief, said how demoralising it is for our troops to hear only the bad news in the media. Is there anything my right hon. Friend can do to highlight more of the successes, so that the "Today" programme could at least take them on board?

John Reid: Far be it from me to launch an undeserved and prejudiced attack on the "Today" programme, whose staff I have always found to be objective observers of events in Iraq. We should note the comments made yesterday by the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, who in my last interview was used as an example to me of how everything was completely black in terms of overstretch and so on. I think that he put the record straight.

The truth is that people in this country are mature enough to know that we are in the course of a very deep and desperate struggle against terrorism internationally and that Iraq is one of the theatres in which that struggle is at its bloodiest. That is precisely because of the point made by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne): it is not a local but a big strategic issue. I believe, the Government believe, and I hope that the House believes that those who happen to be Arabs or Muslims have no less right than people in this country to democratic self-determination of their future. As they grasp that right to self-determination, to build democratic institutions in their own shape, as well as the security forces to protect them, and to achieve greater prosperity for their people, we should stand beside them. There will be difficulties, perhaps even greater than those we face now if the terrorists have their way, but we will see our way through those difficulties and stand by the Iraqi people. I have no doubt that, ultimately, the Iraqi people will grasp self-determination and defeat the terrorists.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State accept from me the Democratic Unionist party's expression of support and admiration for the United Kingdom forces in Iraq? They have
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shown tremendous dignity, dedication and fortitude in the midst of great danger and they have set a great example to us all. I join in expressing extreme and humble gratitude to those members of our security forces who have made the supreme sacrifice in Iraq since last we met in this House. I also offer my condolences to their families, who must be heartbroken at this time.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that those who stand in public life in Iraq deserve our support? They face tremendous danger, as do those who join the security forces in Iraq every time they put on their uniform and go out. The House must realise that terrorism is a reality: the people of Northern Ireland have experienced it for 30 years. It is great to be an armchair critic when one is far away from world events, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, now more than ever, we must ensure that our security forces receive the wholehearted support of this House and the people of the United Kingdom in our efforts to build a democratic Iraq? Finally, may I say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We have heard sufficient for the Secretary of State to digest.

John Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I am not misreading the House, but I thought that every statement that has been made today has been made with an awareness of the resonance that these statements can carry outside the House. I think that there has been a mature and sensitive contribution from every Member who has spoken today, including even those who may have had difficulties with, or deep opposition to, the original intervention in Iraq. I think that there is a coming together of the House that says that we should see this through but at the same time ensure that we are not there any longer than is necessary. That is exactly where I and the Government are.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I fully concur with the comments that the Secretary of State made about the military. I wish that the whole of the House was fully in agreement in that respect. Perhaps that day will come.

I question the Secretary of State on the political commitment that we have. The blueprint at present is for a constitution to try to unite one entire country out of three quite separate groupings. My concern is that in the north we have the Kurds, with the Shi'ites and the Sunnis being separate entities. The Kurds are already operating on their own, and they have their own Prime Minister. Violence is increasing and my worry is that we will end up with Iraq moving towards civil war or, alternatively, British forces and others will be in Iraq for an awfully long time unless more autonomy is given, not only geographically but politically, to the three distinct grouping to which I have referred.

John Reid: Despite all the predictions, the self-discipline shown by the majority of the groups has been huge. It is not an easy thing for people to come together to define a new constitution when, as has been said, there are long memories of difficulties, death, dangers and opposition to one another. It has been put to me that there is always the chance that the Iraqi people will vote down the constitution. I am asked, given that situation, "What do they do?" What they do is what any
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democracy does; they go back and discuss the matter again. I hope that it will not take as long as it took us, having voted down Scottish devolution, to get round to bringing it in again. If my memory serves me correctly, that took 21 years.

Let us remember that despite all the difficulties the Iraqis have got where they are, with 155 out of 157 articles of the constitution having been agreed almost unanimously and with debate on two of them. That is a major step forward. I have every confidence in the Iraqi people being able to debate these matters and to take the decision on their own democratically. That is what we are trying to help them build.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State that terrorist activity should not hasten our departure from Iraq. I agree also on the need to support our troops, who have been plunged into a Herculean task. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he thinks it satisfactory that militias are lined up as the private armies of members of the Government of Iraq? Does he think that it was merely an aberration that on 19 September our soldiers were handed over to private militias? Does he believe that the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, is helping to maintain morale at home when he says that British troops are responsible for destabilising security in the province?

John Reid: It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I think that the governor was wrong when he asked me whether the capture or the handover of two British soldiers to what appears to us to be militiamen was an aberration. By definition, as it is the first time that it has happened, it was an aberration. That does not make me complacent in the least.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me—I think he is—whether there are elements within the Iraqi police force who may have joined with a view to usurping the authority and arms of the police service to the benefit of one particular grouping in the community, I think that there are. They are not the majority. They are not the majority even in Basra. It is necessary for the leadership of the Iraqis to show strong leadership as well as it is necessary for us to take action to defend our troops, which is why we arrested 12 further people on Friday of last week. We will continue to do what is necessary, within the legal framework in which we operate, to defend our troops and to train the Iraqi police service in human rights and objectivity as well as in the martial skills.

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