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I know that some commentators have concluded that the television footage that we saw on Saturday is evidence that southern Iraq is rising up against the British presence and that we should withdraw all troops immediately. I do not share that assessment, but,
more importantly, nor do the commanders on the ground, including Major-General John Cooper in Basra.
To put that in its proper context, the disturbances on the ground involved a crowd of 200 to 300 people. Although magnified by the media images we saw, the incident was an isolated incident in a city of around 1.5 million people. Crucially, it was brought under control by the Iraqi security forces themselves in a few hours. Since then, the city has remained calm. That is testament to the commitment and bravery of the Iraqi personnel and to the work that we and other members of the coalition have been doing to train the Iraqis to prepare them for taking on responsibility for the security of their country, where more than 12 million Iraqis showed courage in voting for a new Government.
The House will be aware that relations with the Basra provincial council have been difficult over the past eight months or so. Yesterday, the governor of Basra announced a return to full co-operation and dialogue between the council and British forces. Indeed, members of the council expressed their profound regret for the incident and extended their condolences to the families. That reinforces our belief that the majority of the people of Basra want to work with us to develop governance and security in the region.
That is not to say we should be complacentfar from it. The crowd on Saturday appears to have included elements that were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and were prepared to use them against British forces. Major-General Cooper has confirmed that he is content with the numbers and capability of the troops at his disposal but I assure the House that we keep force levels under constant review.
I am also aware that some have called for the Government to set out our exit strategy from Iraq. That strategy has been set out before the House many times, most recently on 13 March by my predecessor, now the Home Secretary. However, let me be clear. We are still committed to remaining in Iraq for as long as we are needed and the Iraqi Government want us to stay, and until the job is done. That job is to assist the Iraqi Government and their security forces to build their capabilitiesmilitary and civilianso that they can take on full responsibility for the security of their country. Achieving that objective is the exit strategynothing more, nothing less.
Multinational forces continue to train and mentor the Iraqis to develop operating effectiveness. Currently, there are more than 250,000 Iraqis in their security forces, including 115,000 in the Iraqi army.
I express again my deepest condolences for and sympathy to the families of those killed on Saturday and to the colleagues they leave behind in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force, especially those who continue to serve with such bravery to help the people of Iraq build a secure and stable future for themselves.
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I echo the condolences that the Secretary of State expressed and
extend Conservative Members sympathy to the families and friends of those who were killed.
This tragedy has seen our most senior servicemen so far and our first servicewoman killed in action in Iraq. It is worth remembering that they are not there as an army of occupation but represent hope for the majority of the Iraqi people, who want to live in a democratic system, with a fair rule of law and under a constitution that they designed. In paying tribute to those who were killed, we should remember that they were there fulfilling a noble purpose.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job but I am sorry that such a sombre occasion brings him to the House. I should like to ask him about four broad matters. Many of those who have been in Iraq recently say that the Armys footprint in Basra is so reduced that we seem more like visitors in the city than in control of it. The Secretary of State said that Major-General Cooper is happy with the number of troops at his disposal. Is he happy that sufficient reinforcements are available to deploy quickly to deal with the unexpected? Will the Secretary of State assure us that there will be no further troop withdrawals until he has satisfied himself on the point?
There was speculation over the weekend that the helicopter may have been brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade or similar device. Like the Secretary of State, I do not see any point in speculating further on that. Will he, however, look into the operational capability of the Lynx helicopter, especially its speed and its ability to operate in hot weather, as those factors could contribute to its vulnerability? Will he also look into the early procurement of more Lynxes to ensure that we minimise the risk to our servicemen and women not only in Iraq but in the read-across to Afghanistan?
The House will be pleased that the Secretary of State talked about the restoration of co-operation with the local authorities. Given that our servicemen are putting themselves at risk for the people of Iraq, however, most people in the United Kingdom would be horrified by the idea that they were not getting the full co-operation of those authorities. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to ask the new Foreign Secretary to raise with the Iraqi Government the role of the governor of Basra, because maintaining security and safety on the ground is one of the ways of maximising the protection of those in the air?
The Secretary of State mentioned a number of weapons that are available to insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. Does he have any information on the origins of those weapons? His predecessornow the Home Secretarytold the House that there was evidence that weapons were coming in from Hezbollah. I want to know whether there is further evidence of any weapons coming directly from Iran, either from the Government there or via Hezbollah, because that also has a major read-across to what is happening in Afghanistan.
Mistakes have been made in Iraq that have made our involvement there more difficult and probably longer than needed. However, I completely agree with the Secretary of State that early withdrawal is not a solution for the people of Iraq or for stability in the region. The Government have a duty to maximise the success of the mission in Iraq, and to minimise the risk to our servicemen and women. I hope that the
Secretary of State will take advantage of his new position to look into the issues that I have raised today, and to ensure that he is confident that he is fulfilling both those tasks.
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expressions of condolence. I also thank him for his manifest support for our objectives in southern Iraq and for his often-articulated appreciation of the dedication and courage of our armed forces. He has raised a number of issues, and I shall endeavour, within the state of my current knowledge, to respond to them. Incidentally, I also thank him for welcoming me to my new position. We shall have the opportunity to share the challenges that we face together at some time in the future, and I look forward to working with him.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the sufficiency of troops. He can be reassured that my first task on Saturday morning, as the tragic circumstances in Basra started to unfold on my television screenas they did on others across the countrywas to make inquiries about the sufficiency of our troops. Having spoken directly to those who command our troops in southern Iraq, and to the service chiefs, I have confirmed that none of them believes that our armed forces are insufficient for the operations with which we have tasked them in southern Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about support, should it be necessary. I commented on that issue in the media over the weekend, and I can reassure him that there are dedicated reserves available for Iraq, should they need to be deployed. The deployment of troops to Iraq, or to any other theatre, will depend on the advice of those who know best, namely those who lead our armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the capabilities of our equipment, and in particular of the Lynx helicopter. As I said in my statement, a board of inquiry will ensue, and it will be informed by the investigation that is now taking place. I am not in a position to pre-judge that inquiry, and I would not seek to do so to any extent at the Dispatch Box. I will say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that we will respond to the recommendations of the board of inquiry in the same way that we have sought to respond to the recommendations of any such board in the past. I can also give him an assurance that we will implement the recommendations of any such board of inquiry. However, it would be speculation at this stage to suggest that anything relating to the capability of the equipment made a contribution to the circumstances of the incident. The hon. Gentleman asked about our relationships with the provincial authorities, and I am clearly able to say that they are improving. They were improving in any event, never mind the incident that took place on Saturday. It is of some reassurance to me that, despite the incident on Saturday, the meetings that were planned to progress those relationships took place in any event and had the outcome that I have described to the House.
The hon. Gentleman asked, in particular, whether my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will raise with the Iraqi Government the issue of the provincial governor in Basra. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the former Foreign Secretary raised this very issue on more than one occasion with the provisional
Government in Iraq, and I have absolutely no doubt that my right hon. Friend the current Foreign Secretary will do exactly the same thing should she have the opportunity to do so.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the provenance of the weaponry that may have been in the hands of the crowd. We are still in the early stage of the review of the circumstances and, as I understand it, the troops who were present have not been fully debriefed, so I am not in a position to speculate on that issue. However, when my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence discovered the provenance of improvised explosive devices, he told the House and the public of the United Kingdom of their provenance. I would intend to do the same if such information became available to me.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I echo most sincerely the words of condolence to the families of those who have lost their lives. This is certainly the news that all families of personnel on active service must dread.
I entirely accept that it is unhelpful at this stage to speculate on the cause of the helicopter coming down. However, can the Secretary of State assure us that he will return to the House, when it has proved possible to find more information, so that we can have a greater discussion when we know the picture of what happened and the implications for our operations in southern Iraq? Can he tell us also whether it has been possible to secure the accident site satisfactorily in order to carry out the investigations necessary?
Helicopter operations are intrinsically hazardous, and I suppose that such an incident could have occurred at any point in the past. Given that helicopters will play a vital part in our operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan, could the Secretary of State acquaint himself with the problem of the shortage of transport helicopters and trained personnel? Is he aware that the Minister responsible for defence procurement, acknowledged the 15 per cent. shortfall and said in answer to a question in another place that it might take 18 months for decisions to be made? Given the fact that the likely attrition rate of helicopters cannot be ignored, will the Secretary of State take steps to accelerate consideration of that issue?
The Secretary of State referred to an exit strategy and he restated the objective. He said that the job is to assist the Iraqi Government and their security forces to build their capabilities so that they can take on responsibility for the security of their own country. I think that everyone shares and understands that objective. He said that achieving that objective is the strategy. With respect, a strategy needs to be rather more detailed and comprehensive than simply the desire to achieve the objective. If we do come back to discuss these matters again when a little more is known about them, will he undertake to bring a more detailed strategy so that Parliament can probe the progress that is being made, so that the British public can have an understanding of the progress that we think that we are making and so that the Iraqis understand it too?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and congratulate him on his appointment. It is regrettable
that his first duty in the House should be in such tragic circumstances but, when he has had a chance to assimilate more information about the issue, will he return to have a broader debate about the progress that we are making in Iraq?
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, but more importantly I thank him for his expression of condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones and the friends of those who have been killed.
The hon. Gentleman asks specifically whether the results of the investigation into the cause of the incident will become known. A full board of inquiry is in progress. At this stage, an investigation is taking place by a highly qualified team of expert investigators, and the results will inform the board of inquiry. As I understand it, the process is that its results will be made public, to the extent that they can be without undermining the security of our personnel in theatre. He has my assurance that the board of inquiry will proceed in a way that is no different from any other in such circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that thanks to the support of the Iraqi army and police force, which put themselves on the front line between those in the crowd who were intent on harming our forces and, indeed, did harm them, the accident site was secured. The information I have is that although it was a very difficult and complex site, the necessary investigations were able to take place. I am unable to inform the House whether investigation of the site has concluded, but in any event all that information will be brought together and inform the board of inquirys determinations.
The hon. Gentleman raises a question on the sufficiency of equipment, in particular helicopters. I assure him that we keep the amount of equipment and the nature of equipment under review, and we will respond to requests from theatre. In the context of this statement and the circumstances that have brought me to the House, it is far too early to say what the implications of the incident are for equipment or indeed the operating procedures of that equipment. It would be pointless to speculate at this stage.
On the exit strategy, having succeeded the former Secretary of State for Defence, I come to the House at least with the assurance that nobody can suggest there is a lack of clarity about the communication of the Governments position, which he explained and repeated on a number of occasions. The response of the Iraqi forces, particularly the army and the police, on Saturday, in very difficult circumstances, is an indication not only of the direction of travel towards that exit, but of the progress that we have made, some of which would have been unthinkable only a matter of months ago.
Accepting, as my right hon. Friend said, that more information is coming in on the confrontation that took place after the helicopter came down, is it none
the less the case that two Iraqi youths were shot? If so, should we be concerned about the effect those deaths might have on the attitude of the local population to the British forces?
On the specific point, I cannot confirm that a child or children were killed or wounded, and it would be unhelpful to speculate on such matters. Those who were at or about the scene in the immediate aftermath of the crash saw a large proportion of relatively young children in the crowd. However, I am not able to confirm at this stage that a child or children were killed or wounded.
The right hon. Gentleman was rather cynical about the coverage by broadcasters of the uprising that may or may not be taking place. I join him in that cynicism, but I draw his attention to one matter of concern. I hope that he will be able to comment on it, but if not, he will certainly be able to focus on it in the coming days. It is not the number of people on the streets, with which I am sure we can deal, that is the major concern, but the widespread use of anti-air missiles. Will he confirm that there have been previous attacks on helicopters using such weapons?
I had not sought to raise the issue of cynicism in my remarks about the media coverage. The point that I wished to make was probably better expressed by General Cooper in his interviews on Saturday evening and late at night. He said to the BBC reporter interviewing him that the film being repeated in relation to the story was now some hours old. Basra city had been calm for some time, and as it turned out, it was calm overnight, calm yesterday and calm overnight again. My point was that those who are interested in these matters and who will pay attention to what I say at the Dispatch Box ought to knowthis is no criticism of the media authoritiesthat the repetition of historical footage, even if only hours old, can give an impression of repeated and continuing disorder on the streets, when the fact is, as I understand it from our people on the ground, that everything was brought under control within about four hours.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm what he already knows. As I understand it, helicopters have been brought down in Iraq, although not in our area of operation, in the way that he describes. It would be inappropriate and unhelpful to speculate at this stage of the inquiry into the incident as to how this particular helicopter came to crash.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I echo the condolences offered by the Secretary of State to those who lost loved ones over the weekend. Is he aware that
109 British personnel, more than 2,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since war was declared more than three years ago? Can he set out a timetable by which he expects British and American troops to withdraw from Iraq, as their continued presence seems increasingly to be part of the problem rather than the solution?
Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend puts into the public domain a figure that is burned into my mind, and that figure will be with me for all the time that I do this job and for the rest of my life. He does not need to remind me of that figure or of the tragic consequences of these circumstances. If he seeks to persuade me, in my new-found responsibilities, that early withdrawal from Iraq is an objective for which I ought to argue, he has not found an ally. As those whom we charge with the responsibility for doing this difficult job told us from southern Iraq this morning, in an interview through their representatives, they have a job to do and it needs to be seen through. In my view, we have a commitment to remain in Iraq as long as we are needed and the Iraqi Government want us there, and until the job is done. In my new-found responsibilities, I will do everything to support and help those whom we have asked to do the job at the front line.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Three of those missing came from royal naval air station Yeovilton in my constituency. The words of shock and loss expressed by the Secretary of State will be shared by those associated with the squadron, which I had the privilege of visiting only a few months ago, and by the entire Yeovilton community. He was kind enough to say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that he would report further to the House once he had the results of the board of inquiry. Will he also take testimony from those who know best the hazards of this sort of flyingthe air crew who engage in it day in and day out, week in and week out, on behalf of this countryand make sure that their views are fed into any future action that he takes?
Mr. Browne: I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentlemans constituents based at RNAS Yeovilton for the work that they do. I fully understand the tremendous sadness that there will be at the loss of colleagues. However, what we expect of our armed forces, and what we have got over the past 24 hours, is a renewed commitment to continue to do the jobs with which they are tasked, even in these difficult circumstances. Although there is sadness, I have experienced over the past 24 hours a degree of dedication and courage that is a manifestation of why our armed forces are the envy of the world.
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