Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)


4 JULY 2006

  Q420  Mike Gapes: You say 18 months. Have you had any discussions within government about the exact circumstances which would allow us to have a total withdrawal?

  Mr Blair: Really what we have discussed in government is how, as progressively the Iraqi forces are more capable of taking over individual provinces, we can withdraw. When people talk about total withdrawal you can get into debates about this. If one is talking about substantial troop reductions, we will only remain there as long as the Iraqi Government wishes us to be there. I think they are keen to get control of their own security situation.

  Q421  Mike Gapes: It has been suggested that actually the foreign forces in some parts of Iraq have become the focus for the insurrection and for the opposition and that therefore our very presence is preventing the Iraqis themselves coming to a solution. Do you agree with that?

  Mr Blair: I agree that their presence is used by certain of the groups but it is a very interesting thing, Mike, when I was in Baghdad a short time ago and I was actually asked by one of the leading Sunni people, "When are you and the Americans and the troops from the other countries going to withdraw?" and I said, "When do you want us to go?" the moment I put the question back to him it very quickly became, "Not actually yet, thank you." The one thing I make a plea with—probably vainly—for the way the media report this is not to disenfranchise the people the Iraqis have elected. They have got a coalition government effectively of all the main groups so it is about as representative a government as you could possibly have and they are the people who know the balance between us being a support and us being a provocation. The one thing that is very, very important in this is to listen to what they actually say. What the Iraqis say, and the Sunni who is the Defence Secretary said this in an article he wrote a short time ago, is, "Yes, we want you to leave as soon as possible but that possibility is not now." I think they are the best judges of this.

  Q422  Mike Gapes: I have heard the same arguments, Prime Minister, both from Iraqis visiting this country and also when I have been in Iraq. I have been in Iraq three times. I was in Basra in January and I have to say each time I go there—and it was my third visit to Basra—the situation is worse in security terms than the first time that I went. Has there not come a point where we need to reassess fundamentally what we are doing in Basra in the south? Has the situation deteriorated because of our role there or is there anything specifically we could be doing differently, given that it is a Shia on Shia struggle in the south rather than a Shia/Sunni conflict.

  Mr Blair: What you have got is the extremists on both sides, Sunni extremists in the centre and the north and down in the south Shia extremists, and both of them have got the same aim; to prevent the democratic government having its run. Down in Basra they may use the presence of British forces as the excuse but that is not really their aim. Their aim is to get political and security control of Basra so that they can run Basra rather than have the democratic government run it. Again, in Basra—and I have discussed this with the new Prime Minister, and I discussed it incidentally with Vice President Mahdi when he was here a short time ago. If they say to us, "We are better off without you," we would go but that is not what they are saying. They are saying we need to build our own force capability here, but for the moment we need you in support otherwise these extremists who want to have a sectarian future for Iraq will succeed. It is a very tough situation there but, as I say, the important thing is always to say who are the people who are the authentic voice of Iraqis? And I think the best thing to do, and why should we not say this as democratic politicians, is the people they elect will give you the best opinion as to what Iraqis really want.

  Q423  Sir George Young: Prime Minister, can I just remind you of what you said last time we asked you about Iraq, which was in November. You said "there is not a great deal of good news at the moment" but you went on to talk about a "basic optimism for the future". Are we not back where we were last November, not a lot of good news at the moment but basic optimism about the future?

  Mr Blair: Well, in that sense I think there is because of the democratic process. It is a perfectly simple thing. You have got a democratic process which despite all the odds has worked where you have got the Sunnis voting, the Kurds voting, the Shias voting. They have voted to come into a government together and they represent the majority of Iraqis. You have got a small minority who want to disrupt the process and either return to Saddam-type policies or to end up with a sectarian Iraq.

  Sir George Young: Can I bring in Edward Leigh there.

  Q424  Mr Leigh: It is significant that you talk about politicians' conversations but let us talk about ordinary Iraqis. Do you think that as far as ordinary people are concerned, who are not very interested in politics, the first thing they want from any government is personal security so that they can get on with their own lives?

  Mr Blair: Of course, absolutely.

  Q425  Mr Leigh: Of course. I have only been to Baghdad once, years ago before the invasion. I walked around and there was no question of any threat to me personally or anything else. Nobody in this room would dare walk around Baghdad now. Do you accept the evidence of the Iraqi body count of a respected Oxford research institute that 38,000 ordinary Iraqis have died since your invasion?

  Mr Blair: Hang on a minute, Edward, you might have been able to walk around in Baghdad because you were a Westerner there. If you were someone who disagreed with Saddam's regime you ended up in a mass grave.

  Q426  Mr Leigh: Come on.

  Mr Blair: I am sorry, you come on. 300,000 people are in mass graves there.

  Q427  Mr Leigh: Prime Minister, you are not surely suggesting to this Committee that the ordinary life of Iraqis has in any conceivable way been improved in terms of their personal security? These are not politicians, not the people you talk to. Do you accept that tens of thousands of Iraqis are now dead as a result of this invasion?

  Mr Blair: Well, hang on a minute, they are not dead as a result of the invasion or the removal of Saddam. They are dead as the result of the activities of a criminal minority who want to stop the majority getting the democracy they want. As for these politicians that you talk about in this way as though they do not represent anybody, they stood for election. If the Iraqi people wanted to get Saddam back they could have voted for the Saddam Party. They did not and they did not for a very simple reason; that like the rest of us they prefer freedom. There is no reason whatever why they should not have it except for the activities of this criminal minority. Our job should be when these people are killing the innocent and butchering them with this appalling terrorism and atrocities, to stand with the democrats against the terrorists. You are talking about it as if it is our fault that these people are dying.

  Q428  Mr Leigh: I am sorry but the invasion has taken place, there was a great deal of debate and there was ample warning given to you from many sources that the invasion would exacerbate sectarian tensions. We are where we are. You have a country that is on the brink of civil war. Every time you come to the Liaison Committee you say it is getting better. You heard what Mike Gapes said about his experience in Basra. I was talking to a constituent recently who was sick with worry about her soldier son in Basra, saying that our troops were not wanted there. When was the last time you talked to a private soldier without their officers listening in? When was the last time you talked to ordinary Iraqis?

  Mr Blair: Excuse me, Edward, I talk to soldiers certainly a lot of the time and the soldiers themselves who are out there have a very clear view of the validity of what they are doing. It is true I do not get to talk to many ordinary Iraqis, but I will tell you what I did do just last Wednesday; I met eight Iraqi members of parliament from different parts of Iraq. That is what I mean by disenfranchising these people. They are elected. Should we not listen to them? They are not saying, "We wish you had never got rid of Saddam. We were better off with Saddam." What they are saying is, "Help us to sort this security situation." My view of this is because I think it is part of the total global picture that when these people want to disrupt the desire of the majority to get a democracy—and they do desire it because that is what they voted for, they participated in this election despite being harried and hounded and subjected to acts of terrorism—when they elect their government, why on earth should we not be standing alongside them trying to help them get the democracy they want, instead of saying to them, "I am sorry, you have got a choice. You can either have a brutal dictator who used to murder you if you disagreed with him or, alternatively, you can have sectarians who will murder you if you disagree with them." Why should they not have the same rights as everybody else? Why should not our job as the international community—and after all we are there with a UN mandate now and have been for three years—to be behind them? I really regret it when people say these things as if the troops out there are not doing a valuable job. The people who can determine whether they are doing a valuable job or not are not just ourselves but the Iraqi politicians who are elected out there. They want them to stay and to help them.

  Sir George Young: Prime Minister, can we move on to Afghanistan, an equally if not more worrying situation, and Malcolm Bruce.

  Q429  Malcolm Bruce: Prime Minister, I am sure you, as the whole Committee have, will have sympathy with the families of the five British soldiers who have been killed in Helmund province in the last three weeks. We have currently 3,300 troops, rising to a peak of somewhat less than 5,700. Is that enough troops do the job in that particularly dangerous province?

  Mr Blair: First of all, I would both repeat the condolences I gave at an earlier stage for the soldiers killed and also the soldiers just recently killed a couple of days ago who were very, very brave people doing an extraordinary and important job out there. Insofar as the issue to do with the levels of troops or their equipment, obviously any requests that are made by the military we would respond to positively.

  Q430  Malcolm Bruce: Well, at the moment we have had five casualties in three weeks. This is at least a three-year mission. There were reported at the weekend eight enemy contacts a day. Have we—and I say by we Parliament, maybe you, the British people—been misled about the scale and risks of the mission to which are troops are committed?

  Mr Blair: I have looked very carefully at the statement which John Reid made to the House of Commons on 26 January and also the full statement that he made when he was in Kabul in April. There has never been any doubt that when you moved down into the south, the Helmund province, it was going to be a lot more dangerous. It is going to be a lot more dangerous. It is an enormous tribute to our troops that they are doing this work there, but we should support them in the work that they are doing. The work they are doing is absolutely vital because if the Taliban get a foothold back in Afghanistan then the very reasons following 11 September why we had to go into Afghanistan will reappear, with all the consequences for our own security and the security of the wider world.

  Q431  Malcolm Bruce: I do not dissent from that. I do not think there is disagreement about that wider objective. I think the concern nevertheless is that our troops have been put into a situation where they may be overexposed and also there is some degree of inconsistency or incompatibility with security and assisting development. Can I just ask you this question, Prime Minister: we have a situation where in Helmund province poppy cultivation has gone up to 45,000 hectares with a value of over $200 million expected this year, and part of our troops' mission is effectively to deprive the farmers who are growing their poppies of their livelihoods. How is that going to win the hearts and minds of the people and how is that going to secure the province and indeed not expose our own soldiers to even greater risks?

  Mr Blair: The whole purpose of the mission down in Helmund—and we are in Afghanistan so are the troops of many, many other countries and down in the south we operate with thousands of troops from other countries as well—is to support the reconstruction in Afghanistan and precisely to make sure that in the Helmund province, where many of the problems have arisen, that we are able to establish proper government there and give a livelihood to the local population that does not involve them producing heroin.

  Q432  Malcolm Bruce: That is the problem, Prime Minister. It is estimated that 55,000 households, 380,000 people, one-third of the entire population of the province are dependent on the poppy crop, which yields about 12 times in value what wheat does. If our troops are engaged in effectively taking that livelihood away is not the consequence of that likely to be disaffection, recruitment into the Taliban and a greater threat to the safety of our own troops?

  Mr Blair: What do you suggest the alternative is? To let the province carry on growing large amounts of the poppy crop with all that means not just for us and the heroin that comes on to our streets—since for many, many years, as you know, 90% of the heroin in the UK comes from Afghanistan—but also for Afghanistan itself being turned into a narco-economy? The purpose of what we are doing down there, frankly, there is a lot of nonsense being talked about the mission being uncertain or people not knowing what the mission is. As John explained when he came to the House on 26 January, the mission is to assist the Afghan Government in the process of reconstruction, which includes making sure that instead of being dependent on the drug trade, their economy can grow and prosper properly and normally. As he said then and as we know now, in order to do that we will have to defend ourselves when attacked and take pre-emptive action if necessary. That is precisely why we said at the time this is a more dangerous mission, as have been the other missions which have been round in Afghanistan where you are directly taking on people who are trying to prevent that reconstruction taking place.

  Q433  Malcolm Bruce: Can I finally say to you, Prime Minister, in Thailand where they had a drug problem, they did in fact have a phased programme over several years of paying people the equivalent amount. If you take their livelihoods away from people and cannot find an alternative, is the reality—that is my point—that you are not getting the support of the people because you are making them poorer when you are supposed to be helping them get out of poverty?

  Mr Blair: The whole point about the programme is that we are not simply taking their livelihoods away and saying that is it. Britain itself alone is putting in over the next few years somewhere in the region of $250 million into programmes of alternative livelihood. This is being done in conjunction with the Afghan Government. The reason why the Afghan Government are so insistent that they work particularly on Helmund province is for exactly the reason that you have given. That is where the Taliban want to get a foothold back in and it is obviously what al-Qaeda want as well. Of course, these people use narcotics and the drug trade in order to do that. My point again is the most important thing for us as an international community is to stand with the Afghan Government and help them make sure that the Taliban cannot come back in. Afghanistan has made real progress in the past few years, if you take the girls able to go back to school, the people who have returned to Afghanistan, even the growth of the economy. There are changes that are happening but again you have got the same global movement trying to prevent these countries becoming stable countries, becoming democracies, which their people want, and the reason for that is very simple; that if they become those kinds of stable democracies, the Taliban are gone and so are al-Qaeda with them.

  Q434  Chairman: Can we just follow on that. The other day there were two incidents on the same day, one in which our troops were surrounded on three sides. They escaped without loss but the dangerous lesson that was learned, if reports are correct, by the Taliban was that the reason the helicopters could not help them in that battle was because the helicopters were already engaged in another battle. If we are that limited in resources, the Taliban will soon work out tactics to attack us.

  Mr Blair: Thank you for raising that because it allows me to make one thing absolutely clear. I was reading all sorts of reports in the newspapers that the generals had demanded this and demanded that of me last week, and so on. I have not actually received any request yet, but of course whenever you do a mission like this you are constantly, and so are they the commanders on the ground, quite rightly, assessing what more do we need in terms of personnel, equipment or resource. Anything they need and ask for in order to protect our troops I will make sure that they get. Our obligation to them is to give them what they need to do the job and if they come to us and say, which they have not so far but they may well do, "This is what we require in addition because now we are actually there we can see this problem and that problem emerging," of course we will respond to it positively. The important thing to realise though is we always knew this mission was going to be difficult. We said that right from the outset and it is going to be difficult precisely because of its importance in turning the country round. What is happening is that first of all in the north and then in the west of the country and then in the south, we have been going bit by bit through this—and Britain has not been doing all of it, there have been many other countries involved as well—in trying to make sure that we support the local Afghan government in making sure that they can deal with these problems of reconstruction and the problems that they have with the Taliban trying to get a foothold back.

  Sir George Young: Can we pursue the theme that Malcolm mentioned at the end, the war on the opium trade, and bring in Phyllis Starkey and the relationships with Iran.

  Q435  Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, much of the drugs from Afghanistan transit through Iran and there is very productive co-operation at the moment between the UK and the Iranian authorities on trying to control that trade. When I was in Iran just a few weeks ago they pointed out the large numbers of Iranian border guards who have paid with their lives in trying to combat this trade for the benefit of people in this country and the rest of Europe. Have you taken into account the damage that might be caused to that co-operation and therefore our ability to reduce opium flows to the UK, if the nuclear issues leads to a confrontation with Iran?

  Mr Blair: We would prefer good relations with Iran, in part for the reasons you give and also because of our concerns about Iranian influence in the south of Iraq for example. But I do not think our desire for that good relationship can displace what is, I think, a legitimate concern about Iranian nuclear ambitions. They have an offer on the table now from the United States, which is what they have always wanted. They have always wanted the US to be part of the negotiation. We can have a proper negotiation with the Iranians, but they should come into line with their international obligations on the suspension of enrichment.

  Sir George Young: Can I bring Andrew in on that specific point.

  Q436  Andrew Miller: Prime Minister, you told us in February of the increased transatlantic co-operation on Iran. With hindsight, is it not a shame that there was such a delay in getting an understanding between the US and Europe to create a concerted position? Would it not have been much more helpful if we had engaged with Iran about the nuclear issue a lot earlier?

  Mr Blair: We tried to do this, Andrew. E3, that is Britain, France and Germany, have been working on this very closely, with America effectively giving its backing. My very strong view was that we had to take that further and actually say that America was prepared to join these negotiations. So far we have not had a lot of comeback from Iraq of a very helpful nature.

  Q437  Andrew Miller: That I understand but domestically in Iran the President is building a nationalistic fervour around this, pointing out, as Phyllis has, that on the one hand the West wants our co-operation on the drugs issue, and on the other does not want us to have our own domestic nuclear power policy. Have we not got ourselves into a position where it is going to be extremely difficult for Iranian authorities to come to an agreement without it being perceived domestically as them backing down?

  Mr Blair: Well, we have tried to give them every— for them the Americans joining this negotiation is a huge thing, so if they wanted to use that in order to say by suspending enrichment we have now brought the Americans to the negotiation, they could do it. It is not impossible for them to do that. I know there is a meeting that is to take place, it may even be tomorrow with Mr Larijani and the Europeans. I hope they take this opportunity because I agree with Phyllis it is important that we co-operate with them, but this is part of a bigger issue, I am afraid.

  Q438  Andrew Miller: But another interpretation of course could be that they have just been spinning us along whilst they perfect the enrichment technology?

  Mr Blair: That is what some people think. I am prepared to go into every outer limit in order to give them the chance to disprove that.

  Q439  Sir George Young: So how long have they got before they reply to this new package that you mentioned a moment ago?

  Mr Blair: We have not set a deadline on it. There is not a great deal of detail that needs to be discussed, in a sense. It is a question of whether they are prepared to enter into a framework that allows them to develop civil nuclear power because that is fair enough for them to do that, but the safeguards that the international community seek to prevent that becoming a nuclear weapons programme have got to be adhered to. I think they know what the situation is fairly clearly. My worry is that they will make the mistake of thinking they can divide the international community where actually I do not think in the end that will happen.

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