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5. Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [17614]

9. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [17618]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): We are in Iraq under a United Nations mandate to help Iraq build democratic institutions, its own security forces and economic and social infrastructures. The terrorists are trying to destroy all three. Despite terrorist attacks, steady progress is being made in all three areas. The success of the weekend's referendum is the latest example of this progress.

Mrs. Villiers: Over the past few weeks the Government have given conflicting signals about whether any of the weapons being used by Iraqi insurgents originated in Iran. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen evidence that any weapons being used by Iraqi insurgents were designed or manufactured in Iran? If so, what protest is he making to the Iranian Government about the involvement of their country in Iraq?

John Reid: I am not sure that I accept the hon. Lady's premise that there have been conflicting signals. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all said the same thing, and I am glad that the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, publicly declared last night that she accepted what we were saying. The Prime Minister confirmed last week that new explosive devices have been used not only against British troops, but elsewhere in Iraq. The nature of those devices leads us either to Iranian elements or to Hezbollah. At this time, however, we cannot be certain of the precise destination to which that would take us. We continue to investigate the matter, but in the meantime we have made plain our views to the Iranian Government. We have presented evidence to the Iranians that, in our judgment, clearly links the improvised explosive devices that have been used against British and other troops, mainly in the south of Iraq, to Lebanese Hezbollah and to Iran. We hope that the publicly declared position of the Iranian Government will be followed through, because we all know that there cannot be a parallel track in this matter. Everyone should be absolutely committed to assisting the democratic process in Iraq. I hope that will be the outcome of the discussion.
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Mr. Jenkin: A few moments ago the Secretary of State said that 200,000 members of the Iraqi armed forces were now trained. Will he comment on the remarks of General George Casey, the commander general of the multinational force in Iraq, when he gave evidence at the end of last month to the Senate armed services committee? He told the committee that only one in a hundred of the battalions is capable of operating independently. That represents two fewer than in June. Why is that? Is it also related to the fact that Iranian-backed Shi'a insurgents have infiltrated much of the Iraqi security services? How are we to make progress, as we all want to do, if we seem to be going backwards?

John Reid: Yes, I can explain General Casey's comments, which have been taken slightly out of context. General Casey said, and General Myers as well, I think, that a very limited number—one or three has been mentioned on various occasions—of Iraqi battalions are capable of acting fully independently and autonomously. I have said that we now have 200,000-plus members of the Iraqi security forces—police as well as army—who are trained and capable of taking part in counter-terrorist operations. Those very brave people are putting their lives at risk. Indeed, Iraqi forces are playing a part or a lead part in the majority of operations. That is not to say that in command and control, and in intelligence in other ways, they are at the height of being able to act completely independently and autonomously. Our objective is to increase the number of forces who can do that.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State comment on the fact that on Saturday the Iranian ambassador made a very clear statement that his Government played no part whatsoever in the explosions in southern Iraq or in attacks on British forces? If the Defence Secretary has evidence, will he publish it? Does he agree that Condoleezza Rice and others who made statements over the weekend, which were, to some degree, of aggression towards Iran, would do better to keep quiet? Will he use this opportunity to say that there are no plans whatsoever to mount an attack on Iran?

John Reid: The House's primary concern should be how to protect our soldiers. They are British citizens—British servicemen and women—and if we think that there is any evidence that they have been murdered or mutilated by devices that originate in sources that may be connected to Iranian elements, it is not an option for us to raise this issue but an obligation of Government, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): In view of the withdrawal from service of the Scorpion and Sabre vehicle variants, what is the position of the remaining CVR(T)—combat vehicle reconnaissance (tracked)—fleet concerning maintenance, upgrading and, in particular, replacement by other vehicles in future to fulfil the security role in Iraq and elsewhere?

John Reid: As the hon. Lady may know, discussions are taking place to investigate the future nature of our armoured vehicles under a project called FRES—future
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rapid effects system. Those discussions still have some way to go, not least because in Europe, while there is a demand for around 10,000 such armoured vehicles, there are already 33 different projects to choose from; whether that is an advantage or a disadvantage is an open question. The biggest requirement of the Army on the horizon is future armoured vehicle procurement.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Ministry of Defence has chosen to court-martial Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, who, like many others, questioned the legality of the Iraq war. He is a decorated officer based at RAF Kinloss in my constituency. Today's editorial in the Labour party-supporting Daily Record says:

Is that correct?

John Reid: One of the principles in this country is that politicians should not get involved in legal cases, and I will not.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that our armed forces— the young men and women of all three services—in Iraq have done a truly remarkable job? I hope that they know how much they are appreciated and admired in this House. Does he also agree that one of the limiting factors in their success on the ground is the problem of the lack of real-time intelligence? Will he assure the House in whatever way he can that there are in Iraq sufficient Arabic speakers and members of the intelligence agencies relevant to these operations to enable the work to be properly done?

John Reid: I believe that there are sufficient. However, as the hon. Gentleman has held a similar position to mine, he will expect me to say that I would always like more, because the difficulties of making informed choices are in many cases dependent not only on human intelligence but on a real understanding of what is going on in civil and social society. That is why I stress that although there are international terrorists there, and although this is part of the global combating of international terrorism, the specific characteristics of Iraqi society must be paramount in our consideration, including reaching out to those who may be drifting into violence but may also be open to involvement in the political process. I think that that degree of sophistication is necessary. As the hon. Gentleman implies, it depends on an understanding of information in real time. Some of that is human intelligence and some may be technical. We continue to explore the need for more advanced technical assistance and real-time intelligence.

Royal Naval Equipment

6. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): What progress has been made in securing repatriation of the Royal Navy's equipment seized by Iranian forces in the Shatt-al-Arab. [17615]
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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): We continue to press the Iranian Government for the return of the Royal Navy boats and equipment seized by Iranian forces in the Shatt-al-Arab in June 2004.

Daniel Kawczynski: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer but I find it unacceptable that the Iranian Government have purloined our equipment. Is he prepared to work with the Foreign Secretary to put pressure on Iran via the United Nations on the matter? As he knows, our soldiers strayed across the Shatt-al-Arab and did not enter Iranian territory. They were coerced on to the Iranian side of the Shatt-al-Arab. The Iranian Government have committed an illegal act.

John Reid: I can do no better than agree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because we have objective evidence for what he says. The global positioning system data downloaded from the boats' navigational equipment—and shared by both sides—support the British servicemen's account that they were intercepted in the middle of the waterway and taken to the Iranian side. We continue to make every conceivable overture and protest through the Foreign Secretary. However, I am prepared to bring the hon. Gentleman's comments to the Foreign Secretary's attention because I am sure that they represent the House's view.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Although I accept my right hon. Friend's explanation, the Iranians take a different view of the definition of the boundary between Iraq and Iran in the area that we are considering. That is partly because of a moving sandbank, which the Iranians choose to use as a definition instead of a point on land. Would not it make sense if, in the longer term, we tried to encourage the parties to negotiate a long-standing treaty to help prevent such problems from recurring? The matter is serious and has implications for some oil-related issues.

John Reid: Without prejudice and without conceding anything on the question of our boats, which, apart from anything else, are valued at approximately £130,000, but also involve a principle, it would be beneficial for all parties if we could get agreement. Given my hon. Friend's minute knowledge of the sandbanks and the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, courtesy of many visits through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, perhaps he could assist in that process.

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