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25 Oct 2006 : Column 427WH—continued

10.17 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): I am delighted by the unanimity of the feeling being expressed about the chaos in Iraq. I have tried to think of a comparable conflict, but I cannot think of any in which the threats have come from so many quarters, police have been fighting police and soldiers have fought other security forces, and there have been similar tribal and religious divisions, as well as the division between the three main communities.

The chaos is enormously complex, but it is chaos created by us—not just as an international force, but as a Parliament. If we look through the terrible decisions taken by Parliament over the years, this is the worst. Some such decisions were taken by Governments—for example, over Suez and the Boer war—but the decision on Iraq was taken by us, in this House, uniquely.

It was a decision within which 139 Labour MPs courageously voted against the three-line Whip, to their great credit. Fifty other Labour MPs who opposed the war, and had also signed early-day motions and various other proposals, were persuaded—bullied, I am afraid—bamboozled or deluded into believing that to vote with the Government would be a good thing. Many of them bitterly regret the fact that the Labour Whips persuaded them, and if those 50 had joined the 139 we should not have joined Bush’s war in Iraq. The issue was clear at the time; there was no question about it. The 16 Conservatives who voted against their party’s wishes also deserve credit, as do other hon. Members who voted against the war.

I think that the only difference between me and the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on this matter is that I prefer to believe that the way the Prime Minister presented the issue to us was a delusion, rather than a deception. Delusion it was, however, and a terrible mistake. We should in no way be complacent about attitudes to such things. I recall fondly an answer that I received from Mr. William Waldegrave to a parliamentary question that I tabled five months before the first Iraq war, asking the Conservative Government to beef up the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programme. It was a dismissive reply that put me in my place. I was told that I should realise that Saddam Hussein had signed the international non-proliferation treaty, so the Government had full confidence that Iraq would abide
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by its international obligations and not work on the development of nuclear weapons. We had a shared deception at the time.

I make this brief contribution because I share the view of other hon. Members that, having created the mess, we have an obligation to sort it out. I have seen the recent developments, the most telling of which was perhaps an incident where a convoy containing military personnel took a wrong turning down a side road. No one had any idea that there was someone coming or that anything was planned. The convoy reached a dead end and turned round, and was then spontaneously attacked on the short return journey up the street. The attack resulted in deaths.

That incident shows that the main purpose in life of the troops in their stockades is to defend themselves. If they go out on patrol, they become targets. As has been rightly said by military people and others, their presence exacerbates the dangers. What do we do in that situation? There is no clear answer or simple decision that we can take. We need to debate the matter, and the most useful thing we can do is set a timetable.

John Barrett: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the other reasons why we must move to the next stage is the reconstruction of Iraq? One subject that has not been touched on today is its water and electricity supply, and health and education services. They cannot be reconstructed until this phase ends.

Paul Flynn: That is true. Whichever way one looks at the situation in Iraq—as far as the provision of electricity and water is concerned, and the way that all the misery there is going—in so many ways things are worse than they were under Saddam Hussein. We all wanted him to go, but let us consider even the rate of deaths. The Lancet report suggests 600,000 deaths, and we know about the 119 British deaths. Did those people die in vain? We do not want to ask that question, but what on earth can we say that their courage and the sacrifice of their lives were about? The same applies in respect of 2,500 Americans.

Every other indication—for example, the way that the middle classes moved out to Syria and Jordan—shows the same thing: the country is in a dreadful state and we must take responsibility for it. What a shame that we cannot do so as a Parliament. We do not have the confidence to have our own inquiry into our reasons for going to war. We will be told that we have had four inquiries, two of which were done by Committees that were cheerleaders for the war anyway. The other two examined very small aspects of the conflict, so we have not had a full inquiry.

Can we really trust world leaders who were complicit in the war, and who originated it, to take decisions that need to be taken, free of any pressure to justify their actions? We need changes before those decisions can be taken. As has been said, once again our brave soldier lions are suffering because of the decisions of the ministerial donkeys.

10.23 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing the debate and on the way in
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which he advanced his cause. Unfortunately, he is always a very eloquent speaker—I wish that were not the case.

I agree in substantial measure with many of the things that have been said today. I want all British troops to be home as soon as possible. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) asked when is “possible” and whether we should use the language of when the “job is done”. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked, what does such language mean? We must judge when the tipping point is at which it is possible for us to withdraw without creating further problems for the people of Iraq and for our own troops in the process of withdrawal.

That is a difficult point to judge. It is difficult to judge in the Balkans, where we have been trying to ensure that before we withdraw all our remaining troops, many of whom are feeling desultory doing their current work in Bosnia, the security services in that country will be able to deliver security in a non-partisan way for everyone. We face this process every time we are involved in activity beyond our borders.

The first key to the tipping point is a sense of profound responsibility for the people of Iraq. We went to Iraq, but at what point do we feel that our withdrawal aids their greater security and their opportunity of enhanced public services—health, education, water supply, electricity and the rest? I merely point out to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who mentioned water and electricity supplies, that if British and American troops were not protecting them, people would not have any access to water or electricity.

We can also judge the tipping point by assessing at what point the indigenous security forces can cope. It seems to me, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr advanced, that now is not that time. They do not have the ability to deal either with corruption within their own forces or, in a non-partisan way, with all the peoples of that country. Consequently, it would be difficult for anyone with a logical mind to argue that the time has yet come.

Mr. Blunt rose—

Chris Bryant: I would give way to the hon. Gentleman, but there are very few minutes left and it is important that we hear from the Front-Bench spokespeople at decent length.

A material point was raised by several hon. Members: at what point does our continuing stay either exacerbate violence or prevent local security forces from taking full responsibility? This is still the question that we face in the Balkans: does our continuing presence in Bosnia mean that local security forces never fully take responsibility for the work in which they need to engage? That is the most difficult point to judge.

Other things that are important to remember have not been mentioned today. We are in Iraq under a new United Nations mandate. It is important that in any further considerations of what British troops should do and what our British responsibilities should be, we
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must co-operate with our allies. That does not just mean the Americans; it means others in the United Nations who have provided a substantial mandate for us to remain in Iraq.

Iraq now has a democratic Government, who, for all their problems and difficulties, have been in existence for just 156 days and have made it clear that they want us to remain. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr said that the shortest period of time that Iraqi politicians are arguing for our continued stay is one year beyond this December, so it seems difficult to argue for an immediate withdrawal on the basis of democracy in Iraq. Indeed, few Iraqi politicians are calling for any form of immediate withdrawal. That is why we must seriously consider whether that is a proper course of action for us.

The question of the integrity of Iraq is far more difficult than the hon. Gentleman would suggest. He seemed quite relaxed about whether partition took place in Iraq. The interference of other countries if there were partition would not lead to greater security in the region, greater benefits for any of the individual countries—

Mr. Weir rose—

Chris Bryant: I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have only two more minutes so I shall not give way.

The hon. Member for Reigate referred to the partition of India as the relevant analogy. In a sense, he gave away the game on this. Many would argue that partition was not the right process at that point, and bringing it forward in the way that we did was inappropriate. Sir Stafford Cripps made many mistakes.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr also referred to the question of the process in Parliament. I agree that we should have a substantive debate in Parliament. I am critical of the fact that the vast majority of our debates on every issue under the sun happen on the Adjournment of the House, without any proper resolution. However, there is an Opposition day next Tuesday. If the Opposition believe that this is the single most important substantive issue that we should be debating, they could bring it forward then, and there would be a vote.

Mistakes have been made—that may seem to be the understatement of the year—one of the most profound of which was our enforcing the collapse of the Ba’athist security forces in Iraq. I understand that it was an area where we lost the argument with our other international allies, which is profoundly to be regretted. I also believe that, as I said at the time, George Bush’s axis-of-evil speech and the way in which he linked the three countries together was a profound mistake—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was not here for the whole of this debate, but I am glad that he has now joined us.

Immediate withdrawal, regardless of the views of the United Nations, regardless of the views of the democratic Government of Iraq, regardless of the almost certain civil war and partition that would ensue, and regardless of the harm to the reputation of our armed forces, would be the height of irresponsibility.
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Of course, we must ensure that our British judgment is followed through, but a responsible decision must involve all our allies. We want our troops home as soon as possible, but that must be when the job is done.

10.31 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) who made an eloquent and knowledgeable speech, as has been recognised. There have been other excellent contributions and I am pleased to respond to this excellent debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

It is a sad day when the mighty forces of Welsh nationalism instigate a debate on a subject as important as Iraq before the Government do so. It has been two and a half years since we had a debate in the House and it is important that the Minister, following this debate, tells the Prime Minister that we need a substantive debate in the House. During those two and a half years, tens of thousands of people have died and the country is on the edge of civil war, yet the Government have not come forward with a debate.

I shall set out the Liberal Democrats’ belief that the UK needs a new strategy and its own Baker-style inquiry. If the US can have an inquiry, why cannot we have one? One would have thought from listening to the Leader of the Opposition at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions that the Conservatives had opposed the war all along and questioned the Government closely every step of the way. They did not, and it was good to have an admission from the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that he is now questioning the Government on their thinking on Iraq.

The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq. We believed that it was illegal, in defiance of the United Nations, and based on a flawed prospectus and a fabricated threat. It should never have happened. Forty thousand civilians—some say hundreds of thousands—and almost 3,000 coalition troops are dead. There has been increasing violence and hardship with an increased terrorist threat and huge resentment throughout the middle east and the rest of the world about the west and its involvement in Iraq.

We adopted a constructive approach. Now that we have invaded Iraq, we have a moral and strategic obligation to stabilise and reconstruct it. That may not be Plaid Cymru’s position, but it is important to accept that moral obligation now that we have invaded the country. We support the troops in their actions and as we approach Remembrance Sunday it is important to remember the sacrifices that they and their families have made in Iraq. The commitment is huge.

Why do we need a new strategy? The country is on the edge of civil war and sectarian violence has intensified. If it is allowed to become a failed state, the effects could be devastating. Iran, whose nuclear issue is next door, Palestine, Lebanon and Islamic extremism are all problems that are interconnected with Iraq and we should not ignore them. A new strategy is imperative and this may be the last chance. What should that strategy include? It should deal with the concerns of ordinary people on the ground, personal safety, security, jobs and essential services. If it fails or is rejected, it will be impossible to justify the continuing presence of troops in Iraq.

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There seems to be confusion among Government ranks. The Foreign Secretary said that we could be out within a year, but the Secretary of State for Defence said no. The Foreign Secretary said that Iraq could be partitioned into three, but then changed her mind and said that the war might be judged to have been a disaster. The Prime Minister said that we should hold our nerve. The Minister should clear up that confusion this morning. Imagine what that confusion among Ministers must be doing to the troops on the ground.

I mentioned the James Baker inquiry by the former US Secretary of State. The US is reviewing its policy in Iraq. Why is this country not to have a review? Are we again waiting for the United States to take the lead? We should take charge of our own policy.

General Sir Richard Dannatt gave us a clear wake-up call with evidence from the Army. He said that we should get out soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems. Apparently, the Prime Minister agrees. He said that he agrees, but is he following that advice? I have not heard whether that is the case.

On the new strategy, Sir Richard presented a last and fleeting chance for a change, but the US and the UK still seem to be in denial. To continue without change is not an option. A Baker-style inquiry is required in this country, but we must internationalise the situation with the United Nations taking a central role and we must accept that the military are only one part of the solution. There must be a much broader strategy.

What is the solution? We must engage more constructively with Iraq’s neighbours who can be usefully used to talk to insurgent groups, to maintain security of the border and to provide economic stability. We must professionalise the security forces, which is a huge challenge. The United Nations must be involved in a UN-led disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy. We must have an end to systematic and indefinite detentions by the US and Iraq because they are having a huge effect on Iraqi opinion on the ground. The reconstruction must be legitimised. In various opinion polls, the Iraqis say that the UN must take the lead role. We need a phased transfer and withdrawal of our troops.

This is the last chance for a change in strategy. If it is rejected or fails, it will be impossible to justify our continued presence. We need a UK-style Baker inquiry in this country and we must internationalise the effort. The military are only part of the strategy; we must seize the opportunity for change for the benefit of our troops and Iraq.

10.39 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Before turning to my main remarks, it is worth saying, given that this debate is about troop withdrawal from Iraq, that we should think about the sacrifice and courage of our troops in Iraq and other theatres around the world. They are the people on the front line and I know that everyone in the House wishes them and their families well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing this debate. He was absolutely right to say at the beginning that it is not acceptable that we are having the debate in
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this Chamber. The Government should find time for a debate in the House, particularly because of the debate in the United States where there is a lot of movement and discussion, especially with the Iraq study group. One key date on the timetable will be 7 November when the US has its mid-term elections. If we do not have a substantive debate in Parliament prior to Prorogation, the danger is that by the time we return, the US mid-term elections will have taken place and we may have already seen a change in US policy without the House having had the opportunity to debate the matter or question Ministers properly.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): From the Government’s point of view, will not they need the outcome of the debate in the US and that change in policy before they know what their policy is to be?

Mr. Harper: Whether that is true or not, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on something. Beyond doubt, the perception of many people in this country is that the Prime Minister just waits to be told what to do. It is a damaging perception, and it is important that the work taking place in Washington is mirrored by a careful reassessment in Whitehall, which we should then be able to debate fully in the House. Ministers should explain what work they are doing, and give Members the opportunity to question them, so that we can fully debate it.

My commitment is that even if the Government do not find time to debate the matter in the next two weeks, the Conservative party as the official Opposition will ensure that during the Queen’s Speech debate, we debate international affairs, giving us the opportunity to debate this matter among others. It is important that Parliament has a chance to debate it. The Government should make time in their time for the House to do so.

The Minister will want to have as much time as possible to answer the questions that he has been asked. First, however, several Members have alluded to our job in Iraq. There has been some confusion about it, even this week. General Sir Richard Dannatt said that the Government’s aim of creating a liberal democracy was “na├»ve” and would not be achieved. He said:

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