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 withprobably vainlyfor 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 thereand it was my third visit to Basrathe
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 Basraand 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
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
Sir George Young: Can I bring in Edward
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 democracyand
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 terrorismwhen 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
communityand after all we are there with a UN mandate now
and have been for three yearsto 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 weand I say by we Parliament,
maybe you, the British peoplebeen 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 Helmundand 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 wellis
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 streetssince for many,
many years, as you know, 90% of the heroin in the UK comes from
Afghanistanbut 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
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 realitythat is my pointthat 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
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 thisand Britain has not been doing all
of it, there have been many other countries involved as wellin
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
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
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
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.