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Given President Bush’s obvious doubts about the need for a broader middle east peace process, in what ways are the Americans supporting the Prime Minister’s solo efforts in the region? When President Bush says that there will be a new statement on Iraq policy before Christmas, I—like the shadow Foreign Secretary—urge that we have a similar statement in the UK and a debate as early as possible. It is surely the case now that Britain has to have its own strategy for dealing with Iraq that will lead to a phased withdrawal of British armed forces sooner rather than later.

Des Browne: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will, of course, be here tomorrow to answer questions at the Dispatch Box. It will be interesting to see just how many questions relate to this pressing issue. The complexity of the Iraq Study Group report will no doubt emerge in the questions that I will be asked. The report makes more than 79 recommendations.

Many of the recommendations relating to the area in which we have particular security responsibility are entirely in line with the strategic approach that we have adopted for some years. The report recommends to the US Administration that there ought to be a change of policy, and the hon. Gentleman suggests that that means that it is recommending the same thing to the British Government. I have gone to some lengths, both here in the House and outside it, to set out our strategy and policy in Iraq. The hon. Gentleman thinks that policy changes need to be made because of the ISG report: I should be grateful if, in the questions that he puts to me as I stand at the Dispatch Box, he would outline what he thinks that they should be.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a debate on this matter. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will make an announcement about that on Thursday.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I also welcome today’s opportunity to discuss this report, and add my voice to the call for a full debate in this House in the near future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to say that the situation in Iraq is difficult, but does he agree that it would be ridiculous of the British Government to change their policy just because a US study group has made certain recommendations? The US Government have not even given their response to those recommendations yet. In any case, surely it is this Government—and this Parliament—who should determine the policy of the British people in respect of Iraq. It should not be determined by people in any other country, however eminent they are.

Des Browne: We continue to study the report, which is complex and substantial. It is a welcome piece of work, because it adds to the debate and to our consideration of these matters at an important period. We had discussions with the study group before the report was published, and found that its members’ thinking was broadly in line with our own. Clearly, we need to read and digest the report’s formal recommendations, and we are doing so. However, as I said earlier, it is not obvious to me, in so far as they relate to the area for which we have specific responsibility, that those recommendations demand a change in strategy or policy on our part.

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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with Secretary of State James Baker, who said that his report’s conclusions could not be cherry-picked?

Des Browne: It is not for me to agree or disagree with assertions made by the author of the report. However, the report was not written by policy makers: it was written by people who make policy recommendations to the policy makers. The group must hold consultations and discussions with the US Administration and their advisers to determine what policy changes, if any, there need to be as a result of the ISG’s fresh look at the situation in Iraq.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that public support for the policy on Iraq is draining away simply because the elected Government there—and there is no question but that they are elected—seem totally impotent to stop the daily mass slaughter of totally innocent people? It is clear that the occupation troops in Baghdad cannot prevent that slaughter either, so does he agree that, in those circumstances, the loss of public support is hardly surprising?

Des Browne: If my hon. Friend is correct in what he says about the perception of what is happening in Iraq, the loss of public support is not surprising. An earlier question referred to the visit to the UK of a prominent Iraqi politician. That visit has given people here an opportunity to gauge the views of people in that country and to see whether the assessment given by my hon. Friend is correct. However, I remind him that the Iraqi Government have been in power for a few months only, in circumstances that are as difficult and demanding for a new Government as anyone could imagine. It is therefore very unfair to judge them against standards that we impose from many hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

There is compelling evidence in Iraq that, through central and local government, the country can run its own affairs. In 14 out of the 18 provinces, where 60 per cent. of the people live, there is relative stability and comparatively little violence. The murder rates in some of those areas are lower than those in many European countries.

We have to recognise that there is appalling violence in Baghdad and other parts of the country and that it has to be addressed, but rather than blaming the people who have to deal with that in a very difficult political situation, sometimes some people in this country should put the blame where it lies: on the internal insurgency and on the interference from other countries to stir up that insurgency.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Baghdad may not be the whole of Iraq, but 25 per cent. of the population live there. In the other four provinces, 40 per cent. of the population are in the area of the highest insurgency. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is something improper and insensitive about the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm to give evidence to an all-party congressional body appointed to make recommendations on the future of Iraq and his unwillingness to appoint any similar all-party group to advise the British Government or to seek any advice from outwith his own ranks on what is a disaster for British foreign policy?

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Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I respect his forensic analysis. I do not think that the two points that he makes are connected in the way that he says they are. He is correct to point out that 40 per cent. of the people of Iraq live in the areas of the worst violence. However, he also has to recognise that there is another part to that equation: 60 per cent. of the people of Iraq do not live in those areas. They enjoy substantially the freedoms that we have won for them and are released from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. That is a very important positive.

So far as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s position is concerned, he stands at the Dispatch Box every week, and sometimes more frequently than that, and is able to be questioned by hon. Members. The fact that another Administration appointed a committee to advise them in relation to their policy does not necessarily mean that we have to do exactly the same, particularly when there is no evidence that our strategic approach or our policy in relation to Iraq—particularly the part that we have responsibility for—is failing.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): Did I understand my right hon. Friend correctly? Does he regard the Iraq Study Group as having absolutely no recommendations that could apply to the areas of British responsibility in Iraq? If the President of the United States accepts those recommendations in total, does that mean that the British Government will oppose that change in the strategy in Iraq? Is it not infinitely easier for a leading Iraqi politician to travel half way across the world to speak to British politicians than it is for him or her to travel in their own country to speak to their own constituents?

Des Browne: I do not necessarily accept my hon. Friend’s last point, because I know of a number of Iraqi politicians who travel extensively—some of them, I accept, bravely—in their own country, consulting and discussing matters with their constituents so that they can properly represent them in the Parliament or house of representatives that they sit in. The meat of her contribution suggested that I was saying that there was nothing in the Iraq Study Group report for the British. That is entirely the opposite of what I was saying. I welcomed the report. Clearly, to the extent that it is consistent with the policy and the strategy that we already have, I welcome it even more. It makes some welcome recommendations and sets in the context of the broader middle east, in particular, the importance of the resolution of the challenges that we face in Iraq. When the US Administration get to the end of their process of considering the recommendations, I do not envisage being in a position where I think that their position has to be disowned or condemned. We will do this together, because we are both members of the same coalition, and we will also do it with the Iraqi Government.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): In view of what the Secretary of State said about the contribution of the Iraqi 10th Division to Operation Sinbad, what does he think about the proposal to transfer control of the Iraqi police to the Ministry of Defence?

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Des Browne: I greatly respect the right hon. Gentleman’s views on these matters because I know that he has studied them, not only in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee but otherwise—and I have to say to him that that is superficially attractive because it appears to be a practical solution. However, transferring the police to the control of the Ministry of Defence, against the background of the repression that there has been in Iraq, might, in the long term, be the wrong thing to do. I would have to consider long and hard whether doing such a thing would serve the long-term interests of the Iraqi people’s democratic future.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): In his response to the urgent question, the Secretary of State mentioned the region. Has he considered the impact that there would be on neighbouring friendly states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates if there were an untimely withdrawal from southern Iraq before the four provinces and the cities had been handed over to a democratically elected Iraqi Government?

Des Browne: We keep in close touch with the Governments of all those countries, who are consistently a moderating influence on policy in the middle east. As my hon. Friend points out, they face their own challenges and have fears about the possible disintegration of Iraq and the effect that that would have on their security. Because we keep in touch with those Governments, we will ensure that when the broader middle east strategic approach to the resolution of Iraqi issues is determined, we will take their views into account.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does the Minister accept that as there is no British equivalent of the Iraq Study Group, that the—[Hon. Members: “Prompt!”] Does he accept that his use of the word “premature” in reply to earlier questions, suggesting that it would be premature to consider this before the American Government have made their decision, rather reinforces the idea that it is not just the Prime Minister who looks like a glove puppet of President Bush, but the entire Cabinet?

Des Browne: It might have been better for the hon. Gentleman if he had continued to forget the question that he was about to ask —[ Interruption. ] My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reminds me that the Iraq Study Group was commissioned in the first place by two independent non-governmental organisations, or think-tanks. If the House now thinks that that is the way in which policy ought to be developed in this country, one must wonder to whom accountability would be handed. I got lost in the hon. Gentleman’s question to some degree, as he did himself—but instinctively, I do not agree with him.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State explain quite simply to an increasingly sceptical public why he is opposed to the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry that could take wide-ranging evidence on the policies relating to Iraq, the aftermath of the invasion and what we are going to do about getting the troops out?

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Des Browne: The view that I took when that request was made initially was reinforced by the decision of the House not to hold such an inquiry. I share the view of the House of Commons that there should not be such an inquiry. In my view, the House was persuaded that a retrospective inquiry would undermine our troops who are deployed at present—those in south-east Iraq, especially, and also those in other parts of Iraq, who are doing very good work. It would be entirely inappropriate to give instructions that there should be such an inquiry at this stage. There might be a time for inquiries, and we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that those of us who opposed the war from the outset on the grounds that it was illegal, unnecessary, dangerous and contrary to our national interests find it deplorable that the Prime Minister has not yet come to the House to answer the searing indictment of his policies that is contained in the report of the Iraq Study Group? Will the Secretary of State tell his right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that they are responsible for having got us into this mess, and that it is their business to account to the House for that?

Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes himself clear. I do not agree with him, but I am sure that his consistent observations on the issue have been heard by the very people by whom he wishes them to be heard. In my view there is no searing indictment of our policy on Iraq, and certainly not in the ISG report, which does not come into that category.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that I do not need any so-called parliamentary experts to tell me over and over again what my position is? I did not support the war at the beginning, and I do not support it now—and I do not need any high and mighty politicians to tell me that. Get the troops out as quickly as you can.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend has, on this issue, the merit of consistency—and not all people who comment on it can claim that. I have said on more than one occasion—I repeat it now at the Dispatch Box—that it is not my intention to keep one British serviceman in Iraq any longer than is necessary. However, we have a commitment not only to the Government of Iraq but to the people of Iraq. We will not keep our troops in Iraq any longer than is absolutely necessary, and we would not keep them there one moment longer if we believed that they were no longer making a positive contribution to a democratic Iraq, in which people have the opportunity to enjoy economic prospects, in a way that was denied to them by the tyranny of the regime that previously ran the country.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): A principal conclusion of the Iraq Study Group is that

What is the British Government’s view of that recommendation?

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Des Browne: The British Government’s view of that recommendation, at present, is that we should look at and consider it, together with a number of the other recommendations. I should just say to the hon. Gentleman that when we assess the performance of the Iraqi Government, we have to take into account the circumstances in which they currently operate, other countries’ interference in Iraq’s internal affairs—interference that is particularly designed to destabilise that Government—and the challenges that that Government face. We should also take into account the fact that in many aspects, the Iraqi Government are working well. There are Ministries that are working well; an example is the Ministry of Water Resources, which has made a massive contribution to improving the conditions for the people in Iraq. The recommendation is much more complex than would appear from a simple reading of two or three lines of it, but it is one that we will take into account.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned that other countries were stirring up the insurgency. I do not know which countries he had in mind, but at a meeting this morning, Mr. al-Hakim said, if I understood him correctly, that the Iranian Government were helping the Iraqi Government in chasing the terrorists. He also said that the terrorists had better equipment than the Iraqi army, implying that something ought to be done to equip that army better. Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on those views?

Des Browne: I shall see Abdul Aziz al-Hakim later today, and no doubt I shall have the opportunity to explore those issues with him. I shall do that, rather than comment on an edited version of what he may have said, although I accept that my hon. Friend reports him accurately. I do not agree with his view that Iran is making a positive contribution in Iraq. I believe that Iran poses a strategic threat to the whole region, that it is interfering in the internal affairs of a number of countries in the region, including Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and that it is doing so in a way that is destructive and dangerous. That is a view, I have to say, that is shared by many of the moderate countries of the region.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Given the Minister’s extremely robust response to his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), and given that Iran has threatened to wipe another country from the face of the earth, will the Government rule out any deal with Iran that, in return for Iran helping to stop the violence in Iraq, would involve some sort of acceptance of the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme?

Des Browne: One of the observations or conclusions of the Iraq Study Group with which I agree is that those two issues are quite separate, and should not be traded, as the hon. Gentleman accepted—indeed, he suggested that that should be ruled out. Hon. Members will accept, however, that whatever our view of Iran, it will not go away. Iran and Iraq will be neighbours for ever, as they are locked together by geography and history, and that must be accommodated. At the end of the day, the ability of a sovereign Iraqi Government to
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reach an agreement with Iran will mean that Iran will not interfere and can play a positive role in the future of Iraq. That will ensure that Iran does what it needs to do in the region, and that is what we will focus on.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend should be commended on his measured approach to this complex and difficult issue. He stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the motive for those perpetuating violence, but does he not agree that those very groups have been implacably opposed to a two-state solution to that conflict, and that those perpetuators of violence remain opposed to a solution of that difficulty?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for her support. I knew that there was a “but” coming, but it is not too difficult to deal with, as I agree with her analysis that the two-state solution is the way forward. It is only by accepting such a solution that we will achieve productive and progressive talks. That view is shared by both the United Kingdom and the US Government.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I return to the role of the Prime Minister? The situation in Iraq is deteriorating, violence is increasing, the ISG is at odds with the Iraqi Government, and our own generals appear to contradict certain aspects of Government policy on Iraq. Given that the last time the House had a full proper debate on the future of Iraq was in 2004—although the Prime Minister appears willing to talk to everyone else—will the Minister explain precisely why his right hon. Friend seems unwilling to come to the Chamber and lead such a debate? It was the Prime Minister who led us to war, so why is he hiding?

Des Browne: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister cannot be accused of hiding, as he has been willing to answer questions at the Dispatch Box on a range of policies more often than any of his predecessors. The issue on which the hon. Gentleman seeks a debate was recently debated in the context of the Queen’s Speech. In his preamble, he suggested why it may not be convenient to hold a debate at the drop of a hat every time something happens. Sometimes, mature reflection on developments rather than reacting to those developments leads to better debate. The hon. Gentleman said that the ISG was at odds with the Iraqi Government, but I do not think that that is the case. I entirely respect the observations of the Iraqi President, which were understandable, but the process of discussing recommendations and policy has not yet been gone through.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on the activities of the military forces in Iraq and the plans that affect their future, but will he briefly explain what the Government intend to do to support the Iraqi Government in the execution of their civic duty and those democratic initiatives that will require substantial support if they are to be maintained?

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