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25 Oct 2006 : Column 420WH—continued

The national reconciliation conference has been cancelled four times, incredibly, by the Iraqi Government. They have refused to ban militia in the security forces and refused to deal fairly with the Sunnis when sharing out the oil wealth. Why have they taken that stance? Because we have given them the blank cheque of unconditional support. If the UK Government are not prepared to consider the option of
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immediate withdrawal, then a firm and finite timetable for withdrawal would at least provide some leverage through which political progress on the ground could at last begin to flow, but it may already be too late for that.

Prime Minister al-Maliki’s grip on power is far from secure. As we read at the weekend, there is widespread discussion in political and intelligence circles in Baghdad about the creation of a five-man military commission—a junta, effectively—to replace the Government. There is talk about imposing martial law in Baghdad and dissolving Parliament. In the interests of British servicemen and women and their families, will the Minister give a categorical assurance that any move to military rule in Iraq would result in the immediate and unilateral evacuation of British troops, and that we will provide no support—tacit, express, direct or indirect—for such a move? Whatever happens in the next few months, there are no perfect or peaceful solutions for the people of Iraq in the short term. Iraq’s future can be decided only by Iraqis.

It is argued that withdrawal from Iraq would be a propaganda victory for the terrorists, but our intelligence and US intelligence suggests that the opposite is true, and that our continued presence in Iraq is the biggest recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda throughout the entire world. It is important to place on record that those of us who are calling for troop withdrawal certainly are not saying that we should abandon the Iraqi people. The war has had terrible consequences for them and we have responsibilities as a result. We should make a commitment to make reparations for the suffering that we have caused—not just the invasion and the occupation, but the 12 years of sanctions that devastated millions but did nothing to harm the political elite, and all those years that we in the UK and the US supported and armed Saddam while he committed his worst atrocities. What we now need for Iraq is a Marshall plan, over decades, to which we can contribute, along with some of the oil-rich countries of the Gulf. We have an obligation to the Iraqi people, but we cannot meet that obligation through a military strategy that cannot succeed.

I think that it is fair to say that some kind of watershed has been reached in discussions when the head of the armed forces and the leader writer of The Daily Telegraph both call for the withdrawal of British troops. The Government must now realise that their policy of the last three and a half years is no longer sustainable. Stubbornly sticking to a flawed strategy will simply cost more lives without bringing us any closer to achieving our goals. It is time for us to leave.

Of course, we have been here before—literally. I have a letter from a certain Colonel T. E. Lawrence to The Times in July 1920. In his letter he says of the Iraqis:

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He went on to argue for complete withdrawal from Iraq in 12 months. They did not listen to him then and we stayed for another 12 bloody years. Let us not make the same mistake again.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that we have until 10.30 am for Back-Bench speakers. If hon. Members are moderate with the length of their speeches, everyone should get in.

9.57 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): In February 2003, I was happy to march against the imminent war, because I thought that the case had not been made and that Hans Blix had been stopped prematurely. I was also convinced that the timetable had more to do with the presidential elections than the situation on the ground. But, like a lot of people, I refuse to be frozen in time.

Back then, I was the president of Unison and a member of the TUC general council. We took the strategic decision to help to build a trade union movement in Iraq, and we invested members’ money in doing that. We organised training sessions for shop stewards from Iraq in the UK, then in Jordan, and ultimately in Kurdistan. We gave solidarity and financial support, helped to build their organisations and brought trade union representatives to the United Kingdom. Indeed, representatives have visited the Durham miners gala and spoken at schools in my constituency to explain what is really happening.

Before Saddam, there was a good, strong union base in Iraq. When Saddam came to power, he did his best to wipe out trade unions. Now that he has gone, there are 250,000 active trade unionists in Iraq. I am not happy that we went to war, but I am happy that a trade union movement exists in Iraq, and that would not have happened without our intervention. Whether we like it or not, our intervention is seen as a positive by many working people in Iraq, but they are concerned about some of the things that are going on there, particularly with decree 8750, which the Government brought in last year. The decree says that the relevant Government committee

That is absolutely out of order, and the decree has been condemned by the International Labour Organisation, the British Government and the TUC. If we can prevent the Iraqi Government from insisting that it is implemented, that might give people faith in our Government and bring some honour to Ministers.

The people I have been dealing with are not the political elites, but real people—the people who were hurt most by the war and by Saddam Hussein, who spent 20 years trying to wipe them off the face off the earth. Some 180,000 people were killed in Kurdistan, and 4,500 villages were wiped off the face of the earth. The people I spoke to asked not whether it was right or wrong for us to go to war in 2003, but where we were in 1985 when we could have stopped such things happening. Historians will certainly reflect on that question.

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This year, I led a delegation to Kurdistan on behalf of Labour Friends of Iraq. The people there were clear that our intervention was positive and that we were giving them a chance to rebuild their country and their infrastructure and to develop an industrial base from which to grow. Although they ultimately want us out of their country, we were told by a group of 22 trade unionists from Baghdad and Basra that it was not safe for us to leave yet, and that was the view of most of the people we met, who included trade unionists, workers and representatives of local and regional government in Kurdistan. Yesterday, I checked with the international representative of some of those people in this country, and they still have that view.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend might well be right about many trade unionists in Iraq, but is he aware of the position of Basra oil workers, who are calling for a British and American withdrawal from Iraq?

Mr. Anderson: I am aware of that situation, but I am also aware that the TUC and most trade unions in this country have recognised the Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions, which is clear that it would not be helpful for us to withdraw unilaterally.

We should not be listening to armchair theorists, political opportunists or enemies of democracy, who would tell us to get out, because that would leave the Iraqi people and Iraqi workers in a vulnerable situation. We should listen to real people, such as Hangar Khan, the regional secretary of the Kurdistan Workers Union. Disgracefully, he was again refused admission into this country because of the visa situation. He was coming to speak at the TUC, but he was not allowed to. However, he sent us a message telling us that people in Iraq still need our support and the support of working people so that they can feel secure in their daily lives.

Mr. Weir: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Kurdistan, and the issue bothers me greatly in terms of the situation in Iraq. However, the Iraq study group appears to be suggesting that the Americans move towards a balkanisation of Iraq, with the possible involvement of Turkey. In those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman worry about the state of Kurdistan? Will the continuing situation with the Americans help the Kurds?

Mr. Anderson: I am very worried about the state that Kurdistan finds itself in. Although we met representatives from the whole country, the people I dealt with were mainly Kurds, and they would like their own country. As they said to me, however, they live in a tough neighbourhood and they realise the reality of the situation that they face. They are quite prepared to go along with the idea of developing a genuinely federal Iraq in which everyone’s voice is heard.

It is clear that the Iraqi military is not up to the job. It is under-skilled, under-equipped, badly motivated and severely infiltrated by the militia. If we pull out, things will only get worse in the short term. I am not saying that we should stop in Iraq for ever, and we should listen to the study groups, but we should listen much more to the real people on the ground.

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10.4 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing it.

I shall be brief because others want to speak, but we should just consider the Lancet report, which came out last week or the week before and which indicated that 650,000 people have died in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. The death rate is accelerating as a result of insurgencies and all the problems associated with the disruption of normal civilian life. There is no prospect of it falling while British and American forces remain there and, in the words of General Dannatt, become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This morning, Radio 4’s “Today” programme came from Basra, but the most interesting thing was that those working on the programme had to fly in by helicopter at night because it was not safe to fly during the day. Similarly, the British diplomats who have been assigned to work there have never been out of the security zone in the months that they have been there. Government officials in Baghdad have never been outside the green zone in the months, if not years, that they have been there, and the situation is getting worse.

The Prime Minister tells us that we will stay until the job is done, but how does he define “job done”? How long will that be? I believe that the military would like to pull out, and General Dannatt is probably saying what a lot of military people are thinking. Having hitched ourselves to a US bandwagon in 2003, however, the problem is that we are stuck with the policies that the US chooses to follow in Iraq.

Some people say that we are stuck in the time warp of 2003, but it is worth recalling what happened that year and before. Britain and the US substantially supported Saddam Hussein during the 1970s and 1980s. He bought large numbers of arms from British, American and other companies and made himself very powerful on the basis of that. The war between Iran and Iraq was devastating for both countries, and it probably suited political leaders in both countries to have a war with each other at that time. We then had Saddam Hussein’s bizarre invasion of Kuwait, the 1991 Gulf war and the years of sanctions, with all the problems that they created. As the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr said, those sanctions did little to damage the elite, but a great deal to damage the lives of ordinary people.

Bizarrely, George Bush then announced that the axis of evil included Iraq and that the country was the centre of terrorist activity, but there was no evidence whatever for that. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a brutal leader and a bad person, and it is absolutely true that Iraq was not a nice place, but it was not the centre of terrorist activity that George Bush claimed it was.

Then, there were the totally erroneous claims about weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of which troops were committed and a war took place. Iraq has now become a magnet for every kind of terrorist in the region and it will continue to be one as long as British and American forces remain there.

Weapons of mass destruction did not exist in Iraq. When the history books are written, they will show that January 2003 was one of the key turning points. They
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will ask what on earth Britain and the USA were doing in January 2003 preventing the weapons inspectors from returning to Iraq to prove finally whether there were weapons of mass destruction there. The die was cast with George Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, which I believe was taken in April 2002. We are apparently incapable of saying no to the United States on anything, so we had to go into that war.

Where do we go from here? Politically, there have been elections in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein is no longer president. As someone who never supported him or apologised in any way for his actions, I am glad that he is no longer the president and that there has been some change in that respect—nobody who opposed the war supported dictatorship. However, we have to ask what British and American forces are doing now, other than making the situation worse, costing us a great deal and politically damaging not only George Bush—I am not particularly bothered about that—but the Labour party and the political process in this country.

The 1 million-plus people who marched against the war in February 2003 probably represent about 10 per cent. of all those who voted Labour in the previous general election. That is a very large figure. Opinion polls then were against the war, and now they are stronger than ever against it. Every Member of the House knows that the war is unpopular with all sections of our community. The occupying forces also know full well that the presence of British and American troops in Iraq is unpopular.

We must, therefore, take some hard decisions. Are we going to stay there, spending more money and losing more lives, with more civilians dying, more insurgents coming in and more destruction going on, with the country probably being broken up into warring zones, or are we going to take the political decision that the policy has not been successful and that it is necessary to leave Iraq as soon as practicable? I think that the results of the US elections in a few weeks will force the American political and military establishment to that conclusion. I would have thought that we were capable of thinking this through ourselves, and deciding that it is indeed time to get out of Iraq.

The public do not support the present situation; the military in this country are unhappy about it. The war was illegal in the first place and our continued presence in Iraq will not bring about peace or justice. It will just bring about an ever-worsening situation. I honestly believe that it is time to leave Iraq.

10.11 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on obtaining the debate, and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of his remarks.

The title of the debate of course forces us to look forward rather than back. We could all discuss how we got into this position. I voted for the invasion in 2003, along with the majority of my colleagues, but I am at least on the record as saying in May 2004 that we had become part of the problem in Iraq, not part of the solution, and as having asked the Secretary of State for
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Defence in 2003 what on earth we thought we were doing disbanding the Iraqi army, which now looks to have been an utterly disastrous decision.

However, the objective of everyone taking part in the debate is the same: to achieve a satisfactory withdrawal of British forces as soon as practicable. That is the question that we have to address. My only concern is that much of the Government’s rhetoric of “until the job is done” implies that we shall be in Iraq for a very long time. Regrettably, in our current position we face a series of ugly choices, and we shall not be able to achieve the withdrawal in circumstances that we control.

The “until the job is done” approach is the wrong one now, and the nearest historical parallel would appear to be pre-partition India. The Labour Government faced a difficult decision, given the escalating violence between the various communities in India, and indeed they brought forward the date of partition to try to deal with it as quickly as possible, recognising that the situation over which they were presiding was rapidly going out of the control of the British authorities in India. That is a rather similar position to the one in which we find ourselves today.

I listened to the Secretary of State for Defence describing the operations that British troops are carrying out in Basra, and it sounded like a repeat of the record I heard in 2004. We were sweeping through Basra to try to create new security arrangements, block by block. We were attending to the training of the police. We were doing great work on the infrastructure and key services such as water and schools.

I went to Basra with the Select Committee on Defence in May 2004 and we were shown all those things happening. We were shown the Iraqi police undergoing riot training and the rest, but one had simply to scratch beneath the surface and talk not to the Iraqi police commander, who knew the rhetoric to use in addressing visiting foreign politicians, but to some of his subordinates in the more junior ranks to get a different perspective on what they thought they were about.

The request from those people was simply, “Give us the weapons that you have all got here and push off, then we will be able to deal with it. We need heavy machine guns and armour, then we will be able to do our job properly.” We have taught the senior policemen the rhetoric, but two and a half years later we have seen that the police, as we heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, are utterly infiltrated by the various warring factions.

We face an extremely ugly dilemma about how we get out. The fact is that the effect we are having in trying to train the police and build up the security infrastructure, which are thoroughly laudable, is being set against the other factors entailing the collapse of the security situation in front of us. I fear that throughout the past two and a half years at least, we have been losing the battle.

The factors that we have been trying to reinforce have been losing out, as is evidenced by the appalling number of casualties resulting from the collapse of security. Of course, it looks, therefore, as if a situation resembling that in Algeria or Lebanon will come about. The difficulty for our Government and the United
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States Government is the responsibility that we shall bear, and the attempt to set down the time lines and conditions for mitigating those circumstances as far as possible. We must find a way forward in which the firestorm of hate that is building up between the communities in Iraq burns itself out as rapidly as possible—not, I hope, with casualties at the appalling level of the conflict in Algeria or, in relative terms, the Lebanese civil war.

These are the rather ugly dilemmas that we face, and I hope that the Government can encourage the Government of the United States, in the debate that is now taking place there, to grasp the nettle of those decisions sooner rather than later. Delay in the past two and a half years has meant a worsening of the situation; the dilemmas have been made more difficult.

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