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House of Commons

Monday 14 November 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


2. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [27265]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I first wish to congratulate the Iraqi people on the turnout of 64 per cent. in the referendum on 15 October, despite the terrorist threat. The successful security arrangements for the referendum were largely in the hands of the Iraqi army and police. We are continuing to build the capability of the Iraqi security forces so that they are increasingly able to take responsibility for delivering law and order themselves. Today, I will meet Vice-President Adel Abdul Mahdi to discuss those issues.

Daniel Kawczynski: We heard radio reports over the weekend that our troops might come out of Iraq as soon as next year, but what specific benchmarks will the Secretary of State establish to ascertain whether Iraqi security forces can take over from our troops at the appropriate time?

John Reid: We have made it plain that we will hand over to the Iraqi security forces when they are capable of defending the democracy that they are building against the terrorists. In order to make that assessment, a committee has been established under the Prime Minister of Iraq, and it has set out several criteria on which the assessments will be made. Those criteria include the current threat level, the situation posture of multinational forces and the capacity of local government to oversee the transition from multinational forces to Iraqi forces. It is my view—and I have expressed it before—that that process of handover will occur in different parts of Iraq at different times, and it could begin by the end of next year. That is why I was able to confirm the general framework of President Talabani's remarks.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): I welcome the way in which my right hon. Friend has responded to President Talabani's initiative, but it clearly pointed to a withdrawal by the end of next year
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and my right hon. Friend has just said that it will begin by the end of next year. When the Iraqi security forces are in possession of heavy weapons—mortars, artillery, tanks and so on—is my right hon. Friend concerned that such material might fall into the hands of political militias that are active in the area?

John Reid: I am afraid that my hon. Friend is wrong. President Talabani referred to an agreement by the end of next year on the withdrawal of forces. He talked of starting the process by the end of next year, so his words are consistent with what I have said previously. He also went out of his way to say—and I want the House to know exactly what we are saying—that that is not a commitment, but it is his estimate of when conditions for handover to the Iraqi forces might or could prevail. That is exactly what the Chief of the General Staff said yesterday and what I have said. In short, we are not saying that there will be an immediate withdrawal, which would—in President Talabani's words—be a catastrophe. We are not saying that there is an immutable timetable, nor are we saying that all our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2006. It is important that the House understands what I am saying, which is that, as we build up the Iraqi forces, the process of handover could start in some parts of Iraq—including in our area—by the end of 2006.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): If the British area of responsibility is deemed safe and ready for handover before that of the Americans, can the Secretary of State confirm that British troops will return before the Americans do?

John Reid: The process of handover will be determined by conditions on the ground and if they are different in one area from another area, the handover will take place at a different pace. That is completely consistent with what we have said before. We have moved from a position in which we had very few trained and capable Iraqi troops to having more than 211,000 Iraqi security force members who are trained and capable. About half of them are army and they have started to participate in operations, but they are not yet capable of autonomously leading operations. In other words, they are reliant on the multinational forces, including ourselves, for first aid back-up, logistics, leadership, intelligence and other things. We believe that, in the course of next year, they will be able to begin to deal autonomously with such issues. As they do so, we will first withdraw to barracks and then we will withdraw from Iraq itself. That may happen at different rates in different parts of the country and will correspond to circumstances on the ground.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Government are aware of serious human rights abuses by the Iraqi police service, including two deaths in custody in the al-Jamiyat prison in Basra. What are the implications of those incidents and the reluctance of the Iraqi authorities to investigate them on the potential timetable for handover?

John Reid: Whenever we suspect breaches of human rights, we make the most vigorous protests. We want to ensure that the police in Iraq will be effective and capable
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not only operationally, but also in terms of their objectivity and neutrality. That is not easy to do in any combat situation. In some ways, the last security force to become unbiased and objective is policing, as the police are the nearest form of power with use of arms or authority to local communities, but we continue to do what we can to train the Iraqi police in an objective fashion. Indeed, we are upping our efforts in that direction, precisely for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The Secretary of State confirmed on the radio this morning and again in the Chamber that the criteria for withdrawal of our troops from Iraq will be the capability of Iraqi security forces to maintain public order and progress in containing and suppressing insurgency. In the context of the second of those criteria, will he answer two factual questions? Is it true that, over the last year, the weekly number of terrorist incidents in Iraq tripled? In relation to violent contacts between our troops and the insurgents in the last 12 months, has the proportion initiated by the insurgents rather than by our own military action gone up or down?

John Reid: The answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's second question would, I think, be up. In answer to the first question, I cannot give him exact details off the top of my head at the Dispatch Box, but I will write to him. If he is asking whether we continue to face a problem of insurgency as well as violence imported by Zarqawi and al-Qaeda elements in their international struggle, yes we continue, as part of the global war on terrorism, to face imported violence and indigenous violence from elements of the former regime—the fascist regime whose authority has in part been destroyed, although there are still elements of it both inside and outside the country. There are also a number of Sunnis who do not fall into either category, but who are disempowered and alienated and may feel that they have lost power, influence and a better standard of living. We need to reach out to those elements to engage them in the political process. That will not be achieved by military means alone, but by the building of a democratic society and I was gratified by the number of Sunnis who turned out for the referendum. I hope that the number in this election is far greater than in January, when they boycotted it.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Following the Iraqi President's welcome statement yesterday and the Secretary of State's comments today, can he give the House more detail about the latest assessment made by the joint committee on transferring security responsibility? He identified 35 battalions that can lead missions with international support. What are the barriers to their being able to work without support and how close are they to achieving that objective? After last week's Security Council resolution, does he accept that one of the key steps in creating an exit strategy for the coalition will be the internationalisation of support for Iraq, especially from countries in the region?

John Reid: First, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the latest estimate of how the Iraqi forces meet the criteria; the Interim Government have established those
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criteria but they have not yet made an assessment. That will probably lie with the incoming Government. Secondly, what are the deficiencies of battalions trained and capable of operations but not of autonomously leading them? The answer is logistics, intelligence, leadership and, in some cases, mobility in terms of medical services and back-up.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about internationalising efforts to assist the Iraqis. This is truly an international effort. We are in Iraq under the framework of the United Nations and people should never forget that, whatever the differences of a few years ago. Resolution 1546, superseded last week by the unanimous decision of the UN Security Council in resolution 1637, is the framework under which we are now all operating in assisting the efforts of the Iraqis themselves, and resisting the efforts of the terrorists to destroy Iraqi democracy, economy and the build-up of their own security forces.

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