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House of Commons

Monday 12 December 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—


1. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [36094]

2. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): If he will make a statement on operations in Iraq. [36095]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): Despite the best efforts of terrorists to destabilise Iraq, the Iraqi people continue to build their democracy and their own security forces. Fifteen million Iraqis have registered to vote in their elections on this coming Thursday. The Iraqi security forces now participate in 80 per cent. of operations and will lead the operations on Thursday. We wish them well.

Mr. Mackay: As Christmas approaches, will the Secretary of State convey to our troops in Iraq the heartfelt thanks of every Member and that our thoughts will be with them at what will inevitably be a difficult time?

Would the Secretary of State care to comment on President Bush's recent remark that, sadly, the reconstruction process is going much slower than we wished because of the security difficulties? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that those security difficulties are lessened in Basra and the areas for which we have responsibility?

John Reid: I join the right hon. Gentleman as, I am sure, does the whole House in sending our thanks and gratitude, especially at this time of year, to servicemen and women who are away from their families. I was able to do that in person about nine days ago when I visited our troops in Iraq.

It is true that developing democracy, security, and the economy and civil society in Iraq is slower than we would wish for this simple reason: the Iraqi democrats, with our support, are building democracy, security and the economy, but the terrorists are trying to destroy it. They will not win. On democracy, despite the threats of
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the terrorists, 8.5 million people came out to vote in January; more than 10 million came out to vote in the referendum in October and 15 million have registered for the vote this Thursday. Nor will the terrorists win when it comes to building the security forces. When I first came to the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State I think I said that we had trained and capable security forces in Iraq to the number of 160,000. I can tell the House today that the number is more than 214,000, and 80 per cent. of all operations involve Iraqi security forces. Though the terrorists may do their worst, the entrenchment of democracy, security and stability in Iraq will continue and we will continue to help the Iraqi people to do that for as long as is necessary.

Patrick Mercer: The Secretary of State will know as well as the rest of us that recently several brave young men have been killed by roadside bombs, the responsibility for which has been laid fairly and squarely at the feet of Iran by our ambassador to Baghdad and also by our commander in Basra. When asked about Iran's behaviour the Secretary of State said:

Have we anything more to offer our young men who face death and danger on a daily basis than empty rhetoric?

John Reid: I will ignore the hon. Gentleman's churlish comment. I can assure him that I and the Chiefs of Staff, and everyone engaged in the armed forces, are doing everything possible to make sure that at tactical and equipment level we bring in whatever protection we can before, if possible, any advances in terrorist capability. I am afraid that the substantial rhetoric that he would require for us to outline that at the Dispatch Box would do nothing but give assistance to the terrorists who are trying to kill our troops. Given the hon. Gentleman's position, I would have thought that he understood that.

On Iran, we have never said that the matter could be linked to the Iranian Government but the use of some of those explosives and improvised explosive devices can be traced to Hezbollah and Iranian elements. Of course, that is only part of the reason why the international community is so worried about the conduct and statements of Iran and Iranian politicians.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had the time to read the Oxford Research Group report released yesterday? Although I realise that he will not want to anticipate the outcome of the elections, does he agree that it is of concern that many Sunnis see the foreign forces in their land as partisan towards Shi'as and Kurds?

John Reid: I am glad that the Sunnis have been registering in higher numbers than ever for the elections coming this Thursday, which will be a major step forward, and I hope that that is part of a continuing process in ensuring that the new democratic Iraq represents all elements of Iraqi society, not just the Shi'a, the Kurds and others, but the Sunnis. As for the presence of multinational forces there, with great respect to anyone—academic or otherwise—in this country, I prefer to rely on the expressions of intent and
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the explanations of the democratically elected Iraqi politicians, who have made it absolutely plain that our forces are there at their request to do a job that they cannot do at the moment, which is to safeguard their fledgling democracy, but that, as soon as the Iraqi security forces are capable of defending their own democracy, they will ask us to hand over, and I can tell the House that we will be delighted to hand over. So we would be well advised on these occasions to listen to the views of the Iraqi democratically elected politicians, as we would expect them to listen not to minorities or fringe groups in this country, but to the democratic will of the House of Commons.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that, over the weekend, a peace conference on Iraq was organised in London by the Stop the War coalition and other groups, that many of the speakers at that conference were from Iraq, from parties that are contesting the elections in Iraq and, indeed, in some cases, are already represented in the National Assembly in Iraq, and that they all made the point that the security situation gets ever worse the longer that British and American forces remain in occupation of Iraq and that the best way forward was to name a date for the end of the occupation, so that the Iraq people themselves can take over the country, rather than continuing with an occupying force that seems to have brought a awful lot of terror into the country?

John Reid: Of course, there are other voices in Iraq—the ones who get elected—and the overwhelming majority of them welcome our presence there. President Talabani, President Barzani, Prime Minister Jafaari, Minister of the Interior Jabr, whom I met eight days ago, Defence Minister Delami—the Government of Iraq—have expressed their desire for us to stay there until they get the stability and security to defend their own democracy.

Alternatively, we could look, of course, at the opinion poll that the BBC commissioned and issued this morning that shows that between 64 and 69 per cent. of Iraqis believe that they have a more positive future, with only 11 per cent. thinking that the future will get worse. I dare say that that is a higher percentage of people who are optimistic about the future in Iraq than would be recorded in this country. However, the point is that if we look at the practice on the ground, 8.5 million people came out and voted, despite the threat from bombs and bullets, and 10.5 million came out and voted in the referendum, despite the threat of being murdered or massacred. The turnout was 64 per cent.—bigger than the turnout here in a general election—and 15 million people are registered, despite all the threats, to vote next Thursday. That is the voice of the people of Iraq that we should listen to.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have full access to all suspects taken into custody by UK forces in Iraq? Does the UK condone coalition allies who do not allow the Red Cross access to all prisoners?

John Reid: To the best of my knowledge, the International Committee of the Red Cross has such access.
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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What opportunities are there for members of the Home Service Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment to serve in Iraq, bearing in mind that they are highly trained, very capable soldiers? Surely there is capacity perhaps to get some companies from that battalion to operate in Iraq, to the benefit of not only those dedicated soldiers, but United Kingdom operations.

John Reid: My hon. Friend will know that, uniquely among British troops, the Home Service Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, by institution, is confined to the geographical area of one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—because of the troubles there over decades. However, he is right to point to the fact that individuals from the Home Service Battalion have volunteered, been trained and served with distinction in Iraq.

Andrew Mackinlay: What about companies?

John Reid: Such things cannot happen with formations of the Home Service Battalion, but individuals have served, as many people from other regiments have done, on attachment with the basic regiments that are serving in Iraq.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On Iraq, the Foreign Secretary said this morning:

What mistakes were these, and which were the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Defence and his Ministers?

John Reid: In retrospect, I think that the process of de-Ba'athification probably went too far, too rapidly. That is now being reversed to some extent, for example with the willingness of the army in Iraq to take back former serving members of the Ba'ath party up to the rank of major. I would like to have seen a quicker response on an invitation to the Sunnis—despite their    boycott—to participate in the constitutional commission. With the value of hindsight, which is, of course, the only exact science known to man and woman, we would have taken in more troops as a multinational invasion force to overcome an entrenched enemy. I am sure that there are several other matters to which we could point with hindsight. However, I stress that in terms of the generality of opportunity, freedom, democracy and security in Iraq, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the correct position was followed, that a threat has been removed from the world, and that a burden was taken off the backs of the Iraqi people when the dictator Saddam Hussein was removed.

Dr. Fox: I am quite clear that the intervention has been of net benefit to the people of Iraq, yet we heard reports this morning that British troops might be withdrawn as early as the first part of next year. Is that correct? What discussions have taken place about a timetable, and on what criteria, and by whom, will it be decided that a handover is appropriate?
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John Reid: I have made the position plain to the House several times, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman was not in his present office then, so I have no problem in reiterating it. There is no immutable timetable. The handover to the Iraqi security forces will be set primarily not by timetable, but by conditions. Those conditions are the ability of the Iraqi security forces to lead operations with our support at first, which would allow us to remove to barracks, and then to lead on their own, which would allow us to leave the country. That would be a process, not an event, but since July, I have said that that process could well begin in parts of Iraq, including our area, in the course of next year. Therefore, what was said in the past 48 hours here and what was said last week by the President of the United States was completely in accord with the conditions that I set down for victory: the handover to the Iraqi security forces themselves.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): While we recognise that there are arguments about coalition troops leaving Iraq and that the coalition has undoubtedly made serious mistakes in the past two years, would it not be useful if those who organised the sort of conferences mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also condemned in the strongest possible way the terrorism that occurs day in and day out against innocent Iraqis, which in no way could be described as acts of liberation or anything of the kind? If there is a responsibility on us to recognise mistakes that have been made during the occupation, surely the critics have a responsibility to condemn along the lines that I have urged.

John Reid: Well, not for the first time on these matters, I agree with every word that my hon. Friend says. When we analyse tactical mistakes that have been made, it would be helpful to consider the strategic nature of what has happened.

Personally, I have never had a principled problem with removing fascists from power, and it surprises me that some people on the Labour Benches appear to have developed one. As for the people of Iraq, I have never claimed, and nor would I, that everything is perfect by any means. However, I am absolutely sure that the acts of the terrorists—the murder and massacre of pilgrims, ordinary working Muslims and children both inside and outside Iraq, for instance in Amman in Jordan recently when 29 of the people killed were Palestinians—should be utterly condemned by every single Member of the House. I am amazed that they are not repeatedly condemned in the way in which I would expect.

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