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31 Oct 2006 : Column 177

Dr. Palmer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the seriousness of the issue deserves more than the partisan opportunism that we are seeing among those on the Opposition Benches who voted for the war?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely correct.

Elsewhere, we have seen a spiral of retaliatory sectarian killings. Here, too, existing ethnic tensions have been carefully exploited by those who have no interest in Iraq becoming a fully functioning state and every interest in dragging it back into chaos and lawlessness. It is this violence that has held up and disrupted the supply of essential services to Iraqis; it is this violence that has meant that the political framework is taking longer to develop; and it is this violence that is holding millions of ordinary Iraqis back from a better future for themselves and their families. That is why Prime Minister Maliki has made tackling the violence his Government’s highest priority. We are in Iraq at the express request of that Government and with the full support of the United Nations, and so our responsibility is to support the sovereign Government of Iraq in their objectives.

The Iraqi Government and the coalition forces are currently engaged in a critical attempt to make Baghdad more secure. In Basra, British troops are in the middle of a similarly vital mission to take on the violent extremists and lay the foundations of long-term security. The challenge faced by the Iraqi people in those two cities, as elsewhere in the country, is not purely military. Much of the current violence has political roots and it will be through determined political efforts—led by Iraqis—that it will ultimately be addressed. There can be no substitute for strong political leadership in Iraq. We have strongly supported Prime Minister Maliki’s commitment to national reconciliation and have worked hard to bring all Iraq’s political and clerical leaders fully and wholeheartedly behind it, because that offers the best chance of building a consensus among Iraq’s divided communities, all of whom are suffering from the current levels of violence, and of isolating those who are trying to drive the Iraqi people further from one another.

At the same time, we are urging Iraq’s political leaders to move ahead without delay in taking crucial decisions on the country’s future. We are offering strong support for their work to reach agreement by the end of the year on a new law setting out the future of the oil and gas sector, which is central to Iraq’s economic regeneration. We are actively encouraging the Iraqi Parliament to pass new legislation—again, by the end of the year—setting out how the militias can be disbanded and reintegrated into society. We are pushing the Iraqi Parliament for a decision on reforms to the process of de-Ba’athification, as well as on how the agreement to review the new constitution will be implemented. Those are all difficult as well as complex issues—otherwise, they would have been solved long ago—but if we get them right, we can create a new, more positive political dynamic in the country.

Prime Minister Maliki wants to make rapid progress towards the Iraqi Government and security forces assuming responsibility for the country’s security.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): While praising our troops’ contribution both in the war and today, will the Foreign Secretary please return to and address the motion?

Margaret Beckett: I am explaining why the motion is so profoundly misconceived. The future of Iraq and its people is at stake, and that is what really matters. If the signal sent from the House casts doubt on our support for what is happening in Iraq, for the actions of our coalition forces, and for those who are not in our forces but who are engaged in trying to support the people of Iraq, ultimately, that will be utterly to their disadvantage.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I must continue my speech.

The Government share the Prime Minister’s determination—as, I have no doubt, does every Member of the House—to see responsibility pass to Iraqi police and security forces. That is fundamental to the coalition’s strategy for progressively scaling down military support to the Iraqi Government. British soldiers are doing an astounding job in the most difficult of circumstances, as they do whenever and wherever they are called on; so, too, are a large number of British civilians—civil servants, policemen and women, aid workers and many more, many of whom I met in Basra not long ago. I am sure that all Members, whatever their view of the motion, would recognise the bravery and sacrifice of those people. That contribution is essential in support of the future in Iraq.

The new Iraqi army is getting more capable and more confident. It is increasingly non-sectarian. Two of the 10 divisions of that new army have already been transferred to the direct control of the Iraqi Government, and more will follow in the coming months. Therefore, in spite of the violence, we are seeing major strides towards equipping the Iraqi Government with the tools that they need to protect their people without relying on indefinite help from the international community. Two entire provinces—

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that it has been made clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Secretary is not giving way at the moment.

Margaret Beckett: Two entire provinces, al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar, have already been handed over to Iraqi control, and more will soon follow. In our area of responsibility in the south, we hope that Maysan province will also have been handed over by the end of the year. A central aim of our current efforts in Basra is to get that province to the point where it, too, is ready to be handed over to Iraqi lead security control. We hope that that can be accomplished at some point next spring. We share the hope recently expressed by the commander of the multinational force in Iraq that all 18 provinces can be handed over to Iraqi control by the end of 2007.

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Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will give way, as the hon. Gentleman has risen on many occasions, but this must be the last time that I do so.

Mr. Tyrie: This debate is not about the conduct of policy in Iraq now, but about whether we should hold a Select Committee inquiry into the way in which the war has been and will be conducted in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) made the valid point that the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee was thwarted by the Government, which the Foreign Secretary refuted. I would like to quote what the report says—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of the House and knows that interventions must be brief.

Margaret Beckett: On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, the inquiry was followed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Butler reports, which considered the issues in depth. I would say to him, and to those Opposition Members who have been muttering and grumbling, that what I am talking about—the present position in Iraq—is exactly the point. That position is difficult; we do not dispute that at all. It is also extremely delicate. We are at what could be a turning point in Iraq, and this is not the time to do what the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr did in moving the motion, and rehash all the debates and arguments that have been held over and over again, not only in the House, but in a succession of inquiries.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq was in the House last week, he made the point that any decisions on the future of Iraq, including on the deployment of US and British troops, should be made according to the needs of Iraq, and not of the political agendas of either the US or the UK? Does she agree with that, and does she think that the Opposition parties’ motion is helpful or unhelpful in that regard? [Interruption.]

Margaret Beckett: I utterly agree, and I simply tell Opposition Members that they do not have much cause to complain, as I have given way only once to a Labour Member. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the motion is not helpful to the people or the Government of Iraq, but it is not intended to be.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Margaret Beckett: No.

We expect the Iraqi Government to request an extension of the UN mandate under which we are currently operating until 2007, and if they ask for ongoing support, we will provide it. I take very seriously, and hold strongly, the view that at this critical juncture, when Iraq’s future hangs so clearly in the balance, it would be plainly and simply wrong to heed
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those who argue for us just to wash our hands of responsibility and walk away.

We have been working hard in recent months with the Iraqi Government and our international partners to develop an international compact for Iraq, modelled on the Afghan compact, so that the international community can provide further involvement and support for the people of Iraq, and we are keen to use that opportunity to encourage its neighbours to engage fully in the country’s stabilisation and reconstruction. An important step forward on that initiative was taken at the UN-hosted meeting that I attended in New York on 18 September, and a further preparatory meeting is taking place in Kuwait today, so critical decisions about the future of Iraq are being taken today even as we debate the issue in the House.

We would, of course, like two of Iraq’s neighbours—Iran and Syria—to play a similarly positive role in promoting stability and development, although the Iraqi Government themselves are convinced that at present those two countries are doing precisely the opposite. We will continue to pressure them to take a different approach, but it would be naive to imagine that that is a straightforward task. I have set out the objectives and strategy that we, our allies and the Iraqis are currently pursuing, and I can see no credible alternative.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will give way, for the final time. [Interruption.] It is only the third time that I have given way to a Labour Member.

Mr. Mahmood: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I think that the real issue today is the huge number of Iraqi lives that have been lost—

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Why?

Mr. Mahmood: Those lives have been taken as a result of action by the insurgents. Our troops are there to make sure that action does not take place. Every day, a huge number of people in Iraq lose their lives, and what Opposition Members have done today is encourage that process. What we need to do—

Hon. Members: Withdraw!

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may wish to rethink his words and rephrase what he just said.

Mr. Mahmood: I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. What I meant to say was that actions taken here are watched throughout the world and that there are people who will capitalise on these actions and further put at risk the lives of our service people in action— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that interventions must be brief.

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Margaret Beckett: I have said, and we have repeatedly said, that neither our forces nor our civilian support staff will stay in Iraq a day longer than they are needed. For now, however, we are needed, so we stay.

Susan Kramer rose—

Margaret Beckett: I have repeatedly told the hon. Lady that I am not giving way to her.

Some have argued that we should abandon the idea of preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity and accept the break-up of the country. I do not believe that it would be in anyone’s interest—not the Iraqi people’s, not the region’s, not our own—to try to partition Iraq’s communities. There are no neat divisions in Iraq. Its great cities host a medley of communities. Splitting Iraq’s people apart and forcing people to move from their homes would risk bloodshed on a scale far worse even than we see today, but engaging in that argument at all seems to me to miss the crucial point.

Our task in the House and in the country is not to speculate on or to predict what decisions a future Iraqi Government might or might not take. It is to unite now in support of the national Government of Iraq, who were elected by the Iraqi people to govern that country. I believe that those who tabled this motion and those who are considering supporting it have fallen into the same trap of ignoring the imperative of the present difficult situation in Iraq.

I have no doubt that there will come a time when we will want to look at the lessons learned from our full experience in Iraq, just as we have from every other major conflict in the past, but now, I repeat, is not that time. The challenges Iraq faces are, as I have set out today, acute. They will require our undivided attention and focus. Our responsibility to the people of Iraq demands nothing less.

I recognise that Conservative Members have proposed an amendment that suggests a Falklands-type inquiry in the next Session of Parliament. As I have explained, I believe that that is also unwise. Whatever anyone’s view of the decisions that were made in 2003 and subsequently, it would be the wrong decision today to divert the time and energy of all those working hard to secure a better future for Iraq. I have to say that I deplore the apparent complete disinterest in the future of Iraq that some Opposition Members have displayed— [Interruption.] It would be a waste to divert our energies to a further inquiry.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Margaret Beckett: I hope that all Members will think very carefully indeed before casting their votes tonight. It is all very well to say, as some Opposition Members have said, that it is all right to vote for the motion because they do not really support it. I fear that the parliamentary nuances will be lost on the Government of Iraq, let alone the wider international community. Furthermore, Conservative Members should reflect on with whom they will be going into the Lobby if they support the motion. Many of those who support the
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motion have always opposed this action. Before hon. Members decide how to vote tonight, I ask them to weigh very carefully indeed what signals will be sent out.

5.4 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): There is a strong case, which is felt throughout the House, for a lengthier and wider-ranging debate than the one that is possible today. We shall ensure that in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, far longer consideration is given to international affairs, including the future of Iraq. Whatever our analysis of the past, as the Foreign Secretary said, the decisions in the coming months on the future of Iraq are immensely important. On that—and much else—the Foreign Secretary and I fully agree.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) would not expect me to agree with everything that he said, and I did not. However, the call for a major inquiry at the appropriate time into an operation so vast, expensive and chequered with successes and failures as the war in Iraq and its aftermath has obvious merits. The Foreign Secretary made a mistake in her inability to tell the House today that such an inquiry would take place at some stage. To argue against a Franks-style inquiry on the ground that someone thought that the Franks committee was inadequate is not a logical reason for opposing a future inquiry. It is also illogical to suggest that an inquiry would be calamitous on the ground that four have taken place already, and to say, in any debate in the House of Commons, that we should be careful about whom we join in the Lobby. Surely hon. Members should cast their votes on the merits of the case.

Whatever our views of the origins of the war—I have supported the Government’s objectives throughout—none of us can credibly argue that there will be no important lessons to learn for the Government and all future Governments. Ministers should not hesitate to acknowledge that freely this evening.

The Conservative amendment makes it clear that we differ from the proposers of the motion on two important points. First, we believe that the membership of any committee of inquiry should be modelled on the Franks committee, which met after the Falklands war. It should consist of Privy Councillors but be able to draw on expertise and independence that may not be available in the House. A committee of seven Members of Parliament would necessarily be a partisan committee and the credibility of its findings would be correspondingly reduced. There would be a useful role in any inquiry for leading public servants who are not politicians. The motion would be stronger if it allowed for that.

Mr. Bailey: The right hon. Gentleman says that there will be lessons to learn, and he could be right. However, does he agree that it would much better to hold an inquiry to learn such lessons after British troops had done the job in Iraq and withdrawn, and when the process of restoring a democratic Government to Iraq was complete, rather than undermining the morale of British troops in the next Session?

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