Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)


Rt Hon Adam Ingram MP, Lieutenant General Nick Houghton CBE and Dr Roger Hutton

  Q1  Chairman: Minister and gentlemen, welcome to the Defence Committee and the evidence we are taking on Iraq. There are a number of questions that we would like to ask you. We would be most grateful for short questions and for short answers. Towards the end of the meeting we will wish to go into private session to ask you things that we feel should be dealt with only in private session. So we will conduct the meeting in two parts—first public, second private—and we will not go back into public session at the end. Minister, if I may, I would like to ask you, first, if you would introduce your colleagues and then I will start asking the questions.

  Mr Ingram: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. On my left is General Nick Houghton, who is Chief of Joint Operations, and on my right is Dr Roger Hutton, who is Director of Joint Commitments. I will do my best to give you short answers, but it depends on how detailed the questions are.

  Q2  Chairman: Indeed. Yesterday we heard that the Muthana Province was going to be handed over to Iraqi control. When is that going to happen?

  Mr Ingram: That is happening now, so to speak, in the sense that that is a process which is now under way. The specific date of the handover I do not have off the top of my head; I do not know whether the General has or not.

  Lt General Houghton: The process involved allows for 45 days for the formal handover to take place with a ceremony at the end attendant on that, but we do not know when within that 45 days the firm date is going to be yet.

  Q3  Chairman: Thank you. There are four provinces in which the British are particularly concerned and Muthana Province is the first. Do you have any suggestions as to which the next province is likely to be?

  Mr Ingram: The plan would be Maysan, but what we have said consistently, as indeed with Muthana, is that it is all about the conditions that apply, the capability, obviously, of the Iraqi security forces, the determination of the Iraqi Government itself and the conditions on the ground. So all of these matters have to be considered as to when it is then appropriate to do so. So it is about the capacity and the confidence of the Iraqi security forces to do what they are now seeking to do in al-Amarah and, from our point of view, our confidence in their capacity and capability to do that as well. So that will be a progressive process. As we have said, this is one event as part of a sequence of events, all part of the greater process.

  Q4  Chairman: When we were in Iraq we visited the 10th Division and, clearly, your confidence in the ability of the 10th Division of the Iraqi Army to carry out its function is increasing. Would the handing over of control of Muthana to the Iraqi Army imply that you are confident that they will be able to do the patrolling work that the British have been able to do until now?

  Mr Ingram: Maybe that is better addressed from a military perspective, but the answer to that would be yes. However, there is still the obligation on us to continue to ensure that we are working with them in terms of the monitoring of it and, also, in terms of support if required if it suddenly turns poisonous in a way which we have not expected or predicted. We have to be able to make sure that we do not have a reverse, so there would be a joint approach in all of that, but we will put the delivery by the Iraqi security forces on the ground. It is not just, of course, the Army, it is also the police as well; this is a more rounded approach than just an Army response.

  Lt General Houghton: I absolutely endorse your point about the increased confidence we have in the 10th Division of the Iraqi Army. As the Minister has said, the conditions which are attendant on provincial transfer relate to a number of different fields: local governance, local security, the competence of Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police and, also, the position of coalition forces to re-engage if there was a sudden deterioration in the security situation. The Iraqi Army themselves will not be on the front edge of providing the security in al-Amarah; that will be a police task with the Iraqi Army in support of the police, but we have every confidence in the competence of the Iraqi Army to do the task that is expected of it. Hence, the conditions have been met in Muthana.

  Q5  Chairman: The Italian Government has suggested that it intends to withdraw troops from Iraq over the coming months, and today we heard that the Japanese are intending to withdraw their troops. What will be the consequences of those withdrawals?

  Mr Ingram: The consequences of those withdrawals will be part of what has been envisaged and planned. This is part of the process of change which is under way. Probably the best judgment would be that the Japanese have completed their task and they have made the decision that they have completed their reconstruction task, which is the prime purpose they are there. Of course, they will retain a strategic presence anyway in Iraq; they are not pulling out everything; they have said they will commit strategic airlift to the Americans in the North, and that is helpful, so it is not a complete withdrawal by the Japanese. The Italians are due to be out by 21 December (I think that is the date they have given), so there is time to plan all of that process. That then means what we will have to do with our other coalition partners is look to see what is then required to be done on the ground when they are no longer there. So we have time to plan all of that. I think it is a bit early to be 100% specific but, again, the CJO may want to comment on some of the evolving thoughts on that.

  Lt General Houghton: There is absolutely no surprise at all about the Japanese withdrawal; it is more, actually, the conclusion of their redevelopment and reconstruction mission, and this was part of the planning and is naturally nested with the transfer of provincial control in Muthana. From the Italian perspective, clearly there is both a political dynamic behind that (on which I cannot comment) but, also, we would anticipate that within the drawdown period of the Italians that Dhi Qar would also meet the necessary conditions for transfer. Therefore, from a military perspective, we would be left purely with a requirement to provide what we are terming "Operation Overwatch" which just is, as it were, an enduring insurance policy against something unforeseen going badly wrong there. The actual withdrawal of the Italian forces themselves should not present us with a security problem.

  Q6  Robert Key: Chairman, we should not forget that the Royal Navy is also involved here. Given the porous nature of the Iraqi border and the work that the Royal Navy is doing very crucially, can you give us some idea of the assessment made by the Royal Navy of the competence of the Iraqi Navy and exactly how they are encouraging the Iraqis to take over that part of the security scene?

  Mr Ingram: Again, the CJO is perhaps best placed to answer that.

  Lt General Houghton: I think the most important thing about the Iraqi Navy will be in its competence to defend the strategic oil export infrastructure in the northern Arabian Gulf in the area of operations that we call CTF58. Up until a couple of months ago the UK commanded this particular operation, and a subset of that command working with a training element of the Royal Navy ashore, is to bring the indigenous Iraqi Navy up to a level of competence where they can secure that infrastructure. I think that it makes sense, although there have been significant advancements in the competence and quality of the Iraqi Navy, not to take risk over that particular security task. So although we have increasing confidence in the Iraqi Navy, in terms of their overall equipment and competences to perform what is a vital task in terms of protection of that key infrastructure, I think it will be some time before we hand over to the Iraqis the sole responsibility for that.

  Q7  Chairman: How would you describe the consent of the Iraqi population, in the area of operations in which the British are particularly interested, to our continued presence in the area?

  Mr Ingram: How do you measure that? You can do opinion polls, you can do assessment, you can measure, I suppose, in terms of public reaction on the street. I think it is very difficult to get the best assessment and the best feel for that unless you are there on a constant basis, which of course our troops would be. There is ebb and flow in all of this, and there is no question at all it is a difficult environment at the moment. I am conscious of the fact that the first time I visited Iraq I was on the streets with our soldiers who wore soft hats and no body armour. I do not think that could happen now. So, if that is the indication of a change of threat level, unquestionably that is a very key measure. The people of Iraq are no different from any other country: they want security, they do not want troops on the street; they do not want people being blown up, they want jobs, they want employment and they want a future for their children—all of which we are seeking to deliver. It is difficult to deliver that, either through the agency of the Iraqi Government or through what we are seeking to do through the developing PRTs or any other reconstruction efforts, because of the nature of the security environment. That is why we have to get that security environment stabilised and why we then, at the same time, have to try and grow all that necessary infrastructure and social environment and political environment, but it is difficult. I do not know if it is a percentage you are looking for—I do not think that is the basis of the question—but it is a difficult environment we are in at present, and we have to ensure that we succeed against that. That is how we will win this. This is, as we keep saying, about hearts and minds, and you do not win hearts and minds by military presence; you win it by all the other key ingredients. The hearts and minds are won by what we can do to ensure security, but the continuation of troops on the street is an indication that you are not winning in the other areas.

  Q8  Chairman: They also want sovereignty over their own land and they want their own local elections. We were told that there might be a delay to the provincial elections which were expected to be held roughly this summer. Do you expect the provincial elections to take place this summer or do you expect them to be delayed?

  Mr Ingram: My understanding is that there was not a drop-dead timescale in all of that. As I understand it, the elections are scheduled for later in the year in Basra. There was not a specific time set for all of that, but clearly the security environment is important to be able to deliver in all of this. Let us remember what has been achieved in elections. We have gone through that; that was delivered on the back of the Iraqi security forces providing a secure environment for those elections to take place, and is a case of trying to achieve that type of more stable environment so these elections can then occur. When you say you were told there was a delay, who said there was a delay? Who has given an indication there was a delay?

  Q9  Chairman: The military people we spoke to in the British forces said that there might be a delay.

  Lt General Houghton: It has been a hot topic, as it were—the timing of the provincial elections. There was a time when, for security reasons, it was felt it would be a good idea to have allied two different electoral events; one the provincial elections and, secondly, the referendum on the constitution. Since that time it has been thought better that the election on the constitution should slip off further into the future, as that was a matter of still strong internal political debate. Therefore, the provincial elections, it is deemed, will be held sometime during this year. It is probably felt better to hold them in the autumn rather than rush to hold them too quickly, but this is a wholly political decision to be made by the new Iraqi Government.

  Q10  Mr Havard: The questions come from the fact that what we were told was that there had previously been a general acceptance that there was consent from the Iraqi people; it was now more tolerance, that there had been a shift in relation to perceptions of the Iraqi people's attitude and, also, their expectation. The whole point about the timing of elections was that there were various watersheds in their expectations about how quickly they could gain control of their own processes as opposed to deliberately, somehow, avoiding giving them control and, therefore, stimulating discontent. That is, essentially, where the questions come from. I do not think there are right or wrong answers to any of these things, I know there just are not, but that is why we asked the question.

  Mr Ingram: This is a process, and if you do it too soon and it does not succeed then you have a problem. So there is a political judgment to be made in all of this. That is why we are saying there were general expectations rather than a firm timescale. So when you say "delay" it was not a case of that was the date on which it was set, and that is why I was answering in the way in which I was. I can see where the word "delay" comes in, but if it is delay it is delay for a purpose—to get the right conditions. We have to ensure total buy-in to all of this, and you will know from your own visits that there are issues that have to be addressed with the Governor in Basra; it is only recently that he has re-engaged in communications with us. So these are all the key ingredients that have to be worked at to get to that environment where we can then move forward. That is why later in the year is the more likely timescale for those local elections. Important though they are, they should be done in the right conditions. If we get the right ingredients then it is another indication of community buy-in to all of this, but there is not a simple equation or a simple set of answers for this.

  Q11  Mr Crausby: I have an overall question on the state of emergency in Basra and its effect on our forces. What is the significance of the Iraqi Prime Minister's declaration of a state of emergency in Basra in May, what impact has this had on relations between the multinational forces and local government and how would you characterise the current security situation in both the Basra Province and MND South-East as a whole?

  Mr Ingram: It is an undesirable step when you have to declare a state of emergency, but there is an important element to this because it does show that the new Prime Minister and his government are now focusing Iraq-wide and, indeed, on the important city of Basra and the surrounding provinces. One of the issues is that it has been too Baghdad-centric. Now there is a greater engagement and a greater focus on looking at where all the attendant problems are, where there are some really big issues in the north, but that of itself means that we should not ignore what is happening elsewhere. So I think it is very significant that Prime Minister Maliki has turned his attention to all of this. That is a very positive engagement and one that unquestionably shows a greater roundness to what is happening in Iraq from Baghdad. In terms of the immediate impact and how that has evolved, I think it is better that the CJO addresses that and gives you a clear indication of the various aspects of that, and the way it is impacting upon our personnel.

  Lt General Houghton: I think, in respect of the security situation in Basra, there is no doubt that it has got worse of late due to the protracted period of time it took to form the government—upwards of five months. That allowed a period of time when, if you like, politics that should have been conducted more appropriately actually were conducted through violent means on the streets—some of this through rival militia gangs. What we have in the south of the country, quite different to elsewhere in the north, particularly in the Baghdad region, is we do not there have an active Sunni insurgency; we do not there have active signs of the Jihadist terrorist movements such as AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and Ansar al-Sunna and those sorts of organisations. So the nature of the security dimension is different and it is one in which, as it were, there has been inter-faction rivalry, much of it then reflecting in non-judicial killing between rival Shia factions struggling for political and economic power. In relative terms, vis-a"-vis elsewhere in Iraq, the security situation there is still relatively low or modest. There is always a statement given that four Iraqi provinces attract over 85% of the incidents, and Basra is not one of those, but there nevertheless is a worrying amount of violence and murder carried out between rival Shia factions. It is in this context of an upturn in the level of local violence between Shia factions, in the aftermath of the period, as it were, of political instability whilst the government was being formed that the Prime Minister has now stepped forward and wishes to establish his own mark and his own political involvement and identification with the improvement of the security situation down there. The most immediate thing that it has actually seen, as well as that of political involvement, is an increased use of the Iraqi Army on the streets of Basra because Prime Minister al-Maliki himself recognises the requirement that the security situation down there must carry an Iraqi face and actually reinforces our own plans because the transition, ultimately, of security responsibility to the Iraqis is a wholly good thing

  Mr Ingram: If I can supplement that briefly, in terms of the way in which the Iraqi security forces did respond at the tragic loss of the Lynx helicopter and our five personnel, we do know how very quickly (this was all said, of course, in the media) the Iraqi security forces took ownership of that issue. More recently there was the major suicide bombing in Basra where they took total ownership. That shows: one, a willingness to engage and, two, a capability to actually deliver and, I would guess, community buy-in as well, because if there was not community buy-in to it there would have been hostility towards the security forces. So those are very good, solid indicators of change of a substantial nature which is beginning to take place.

  Dr Hutton: If I may just add, the basic problem in Basra is, as General Houghton and the Minister have indicated, one of poor governance, and the only way you are going to fix that in the medium term is to have a stake in Baghdad, in putting that right, and that is the real significance of Prime Minister Maliki's intervention. This is Baghdad saying: "We want to put governance in Basra right". That is its real significance.

  Q12  Chairman: Provided he maintains attention on it

  Mr Ingram: That could be a throwaway remark as if somehow or other he is not maintaining attention—

  Q13  Chairman: He is.

  Mr Ingram: That is the point.

  Q14  Linda Gilroy: Minister, we met a range of senior politicians in Baghdad when we were seeking those reassurances, which I think we got, but we were also told in Baghdad that the Iranian influence in Basra was endemic. How would you characterise the extent of the Iranian influence in the region, and to what extent do you think Iran is supporting the IED and other attacks against UK and coalition forces?

  Mr Ingram: There is no question at all that there is an indication of Iranian presence. Now, whether that is Iranian Government-inspired or directed is a moot point—not provable at this point. The Iranian presence is there and it is clear in terms of transfer technology in terms of some of the devices that we are having to deal with. The question is: it is there and it has to be factored into what we are doing, and we also have to make it very clear, as we do, to the Iranian Government that this is not something that they should be so engaging in, remembering this: that what we are doing there is supported by UN mandate and resolution. So we do make our views very clearly known through the FCO to the Iranian Government, and the presence of an Iranian influence is unquestionably there. Just how extensive that is is something that has to be tested over time. It is very easy for some to say: "It is total; it would not happen without them", remembering that in any political environment, and Iraq is a very good example where you have a lot of competing factions, some who owe allegiance to Iran for the support they gave them at the time of Saddam and others who take a different point of view, people will say things because there is a lot of assessment from their history, from their perspective of what they are trying to achieve in terms of the political objectives. There is nothing unique about Iraq in that sense. You could say the same applied in Northern Ireland, where people were saying there was a whole lot of influence coming into play. It depends who you talk to amongst particular politicians how they will come to their conclusion about the influence of external forces.

  Q15  Linda Gilroy: In relation to IEDs, however, have you got an assessment on what the Iranian involvement maybe?

  Mr Ingram: This is, perhaps, something we are going to discuss in private session. We do know about the technology; we know where that technology has been developed and we do know it is extant in Iraq, so the technological capabilities are there. It is not something which has grown organically, it has been transferred in and it has come from people who have been trained in that technology. So it is quite clear that that is happening. There is nothing unusual about this. That is part of the global terrorism network—the transfer of knowledge base—and they will transfer it to anyone who is taking on, in this case, the coalition forces in Iraq, and they will seek to do it elsewhere where they can have a threat against us.

  Chairman: We may well come back to that.

  Q16  John Smith: Following on from that, Mr Chairman, when the Committee was in Iraq, particular and deep concern was expressed about the porous nature of the border between Iran and Iraq, which may not be influencing the Shia rivalry or the smuggling of arms explosives and technology. What is being done to try to improve that border security, and what more needs to be done?

  Lt General Houghton: I think the first thing we have got to do is keep our feet on the ground about the scale of the problem. I, off the top of my head, forget how many hundred kilometres this border is long; much of it is marshland and waterway and, historically, the locals astride that border have not recognised it and it is impossible to police it in any way that one might consider an absolute guarantee of control of all border movement. That is quite impossible. Nevertheless, there are a whole range of different techniques, physical and technical, that you can bring to bear to improve one's monitoring, surveillance and physical presence on the border. The primary one is through the Department of Border Enforcement, which is an Iraqi institution, which the coalition has trained and has built a whole string of border forts which they man and patrol from. There are a number of technical devices that we use to give technical surveillance over the border, most of these are aerial surveillance, and then there are a number of what we would call border "surge" operations to both act as a mentoring force to the Department of Border Enforcement, to their forts, as it were, but also to provide, on an opportunity basis and on a surge basis, physical presence to interdict likely smuggling routes along the border. So quite a lot is being done and quite a lot of this is being done with a view to handing it over to the Iraqis, but I would put it in the context of a task which will never generate 100% security of a controlled border.

  Q17  John Smith: We know from a previous report of this Committee that it is recognised that there are a significant number of small arms in the Iraqi community in our area of influence. Have we any idea what proportion of those come from Iran, and is that significant?

  Lt General Houghton: My view is that we could not conceivably police such a statistic. This is a nation that has always held arms domestically as of right, and quite where they have come from there is no such statistic, I am pretty certain, in existence.

  Mr Ingram: Nor ever likely to be. It is impossible to assess that.

  Q18  John Smith: On the relative security situation, it has been argued that 80% of the attacks in Iraq are against coalition forces but 80% of the casualties are suffered by civilians. Do you recognise that figure and do you recognise that figure in the MND South-East area?

  Mr Ingram: What is the source of the figure?

  Q19  John Smith: It is military, but do you recognise it?

  Mr Ingram: Which military? Is it something you have been given when you were there?

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