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Margaret Beckett: First, my hon. Friend asks me for the figures from the beginning of the year. From memory, the Iraqi Government estimate that 12,500 people or thereabouts were killed during the year ending 31 December 2006. He knows that there are other widely and wildly varying estimates, but the figure that the Iraqi Government have given is based on returns to the Ministry of the Interior. Secondly, the most recent month for which I have figures is December-January, and the figure is about 1,900. There has been an increase in the past couple of months.

With regard to Operation Sinbad, I know of no evidence whatever to suggest that it is making matters worse or that it is likely to do so. What matters much more than my opinion about it is the opinion of the people of Basra. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to share this information with the House. In December 2006 polling in Basra showed that 92 per cent. of people felt more secure in their own neighbourhoods, and 50 per cent. felt that the police service was effective at protecting their neighbourhoods, which is up from 39 per cent. when Operation Sinbad began. Perhaps more importantly, 75 per cent. believe that the police service will be better this year. The figure for those who believe that the police service is capable and professional is 67 per cent. Again, that is a substantial improvement.

That is only one survey, and I do not intend to suggest to the House that it is conclusive. We should not overestimate the significance of one survey. However, it is a piece of evidence that comes not from my assumptions, still less from the assumptions of my hon. Friend— [Interruption]—but from the opinions of the people of Basra, whom I would have thought the House might treat with more respect.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Foreign Secretary mentioned reconstruction and the importance of helping the Iraqi Government with that. What assistance is being given to the Iraqi Government to find the millions—some say billions—of pounds that former President Saddam squirreled away in foreign bank accounts?

Margaret Beckett: Investigations along those lines are continuing and no doubt will take some time. Although it would, of course, be desirable to find and return any moneys that were stolen from the Iraqi people, the Iraqi Government have substantial revenues and have received substantial sums from both the United Kingdom and the United States to help with reconstruction, so they are not waiting for the return of that money in order to make progress.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I will give way to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), then I must make progress.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She mentioned the build-up of American troops. Is she aware of the comments today of the ingoing commander, Lieutenant General Petraeus, who said he could guarantee no success, even with the extra so-called surge?

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Margaret Beckett: I am not aware of the general’s precise words, but I am not the slightest bit surprised at his sentiments. Given the propensity of both politicians and journalists to ask people to give absolute guarantees of something for which nobody could possibly give a guarantee, I think he was very wise in his use of phraseology.

It might be helpful to the House if I took a few of the remaining interventions and then got on with my speech.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has painted a positive picture of what is happening in Iraq. Of course there have been positive movements, but does she agree that about 100 people being killed every day is, to many people, a testament that the country is at civil war? Can she also say how many of the 18 provinces have been handed over to Iraqi control?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not agree that there is civil war. What is much more to the point is that the Government of Iraq do not accept that. Of course there is terrible sectarian violence, which is extremely damaging. There is some slight evidence to suggest that it is beginning to be more widely accepted among the people of Iraq how damaging that is. It is within the memory of all Members of the House that it was the declared aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq to provoke sectarian violence in order to try to create civil war. However, it has not yet done so, although I accept that the situation is extremely dangerous. The Government of Iraq resist the notion that there is a state of civil war.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): On the matter of Iraqi civilian deaths since the finish of the war, I know that the Government do not like the figure of 665,000 cited by The Lancet, but the House of Commons Library paper just published quotes the Iraqi Minister of Health as giving in Geneva the figure 150,000. What does the Foreign Secretary make of that?

Margaret Beckett: What I make of it is that an awful lot of people have hugely varying assessments and it is extremely hard to know what the reliable figure is. My hon. Friend quotes the figure given in The Lancet, which I recall saying at the time was an enormous extrapolation from the sample that had been collected. It is clear that there is great disparity between the various figures that have been given, and there is a natural tendency for people to give the figure in which they have the greatest interest.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that the American Government and the Iraqi Government were standing together, and that the American commitment of extra troops had been welcomed in Iraq. Is it not also the case that the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council, Egypt and Jordan have also welcomed the extra commitment of troops by the United States?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is right. She may be aware that in an interview with al-Arabiya some little time ago, the Prime Minister of Iraq made it clear that from his point of view, the proposals for the
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Baghdad security plan are the strategy of the Iraqi Government, as well as of the American Government.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend any estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths or of the deaths of Iranians and Kuwaitis when Saddam Hussein was in power?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is, as so often, entirely right. I find it astonishing that people so readily dismiss all the terrible suffering caused in various ways in different countries by Saddam Hussein, to the ludicrous degree that some even suggest that there is an equivalence between his behaviour and his record and that of democratic politicians, which is farcical.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I fear that I must get on.

The House has shown great interest in the implications of the new Baghdad security plan for our involvement in southern Iraq. The Defence Secretary and I discussed that at some length and in some detail on 11 January at a joint session of the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I do not intend to repeat everything that was said then.

However, one point bears repetition. We have always said that our approach in Iraq and the level of our commitment there must be governed by conditions on the ground. At this point, I recall that I did not answer the question about provinces. Three have already been handed over to Iraqi control—Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Najaf.

We have not set arbitrary timelines. Like our coalition and Iraqi partners, we have tailored our approach to tackle most effectively the challenges in our area of operation. As we have explained repeatedly, the challenges in southern Iraq differ significantly from those in Baghdad and its neighbouring provinces, which have heavily mixed populations and, tragically, suffer from intense sectarian violence. In the overwhelmingly Shi’a south of Iraq, the challenge is to improve the quality of governance and the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and to reduce crime and the role of the militias.

Our troops and diplomats operate in a dangerous and difficult environment. The House has been consistent in its praise for their professionalism and courage. I pay tribute to them again. Their combined military and civilian efforts have led to positive change in Basra in recent months. The murder rate is down. The number of kidnappings has fallen. Significantly more police stations in Basra province have reached the standard required for transition to Iraqi control.

We have made important progress in unlocking investment in the region’s future by the Iraqi authorities. Our provincial reconstruction team has helped the Basra provincial council gain approval for more than 300 new projects funded by the Iraqi Government.

President Bush reaffirmed in his 10 January statement that he expected lead responsibility for security in all 18 provinces of Iraq to be handed back to the Iraqi authorities by November. We support that
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aim. As the House knows, decisions on the transfer of individual provinces are made jointly, with the Iraqi Prime Minister having the final say. As I said, three provinces have already been transferred. Two—Dhi Qar and Muthanna—are in our area of responsibility. The third, Najaf, is in the US sector and was transferred last month.

In the light of the progress that I have already described, we remain confident that, at some point this spring, we will be able to recommend that Basra province, too, is ready for the process of transition. The Prime Minister told the House on 10 January that, as Operation Sinbad draws to a close, an assessment of progress in Basra will be made, following which he will make a statement.

The transfer of authority is an important step. It marks a new stage in the development of a stable, independent and democratic Iraq. It does not, of course, mark the end of the international community’s support for the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people.

The role of some of Iraq’s neighbours is deeply worrying. Iran continues to supply weapons, training and funding to extremists operating in the south of Iraq and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranians should be in no doubt that, in the long-term, they have as much, if not more, to lose as anyone else from encouraging instability in Iraq. In this respect, as in others, the Iranian regime has a clear strategic choice to make. On the one hand, it can provide its young and talented population with all the benefits that they would get from a new partnership with the rest of the international community. To do that, the Iranian Government must meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency board, backed by the United Nations Security Council, for their nuclear programme; play a constructive role in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and throughout the region; and end their support for terrorism.

The alternative is for the Iranian regime to lead the country and its people into increasing political, economic and cultural isolation. Iran has consistently tried to portray itself as the victim of a vindictive policy led solely by the US and the UK. It has repeatedly hoped to exploit perceived differences between members of the Security Council. However, it has badly and repeatedly misjudged the situation. At the end of last year, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1737. It is plain even to the Government of Iran that the entire international community calls on them to meet their obligations.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): When the Iraq Study Group report was first published, the Government broadly welcomed it. A key recommendation was that a conference or meeting should take place in Baghdad and that Iran and Syria should be directly engaged in it. That is indispensable if the Iraqi Government are to survive as coalition troops are withdrawn. Why have the Government gone back on their support for that recommendation? The report states that

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It is not impossible to continue disagreeing with Iran about its nuclear programme while engaging with it on the future of Iraq. Why are the Government not leading that?

Margaret Beckett: First, we broadly welcome the analysis—the proposals in the Iraq Study Group’s report are interesting and worthy of further consideration. That does not mean—and I do not believe that those on the Iraq Study Group took it to mean—that everything that was said should be agreed and supported. The hon. Gentleman knows that we continue to maintain links with Iran and that we have recently increased those with Syria. We are doing everything we can to encourage those countries to take a more positive approach and engage more positively with Iraq. Some small steps in the right direction have been taken. Syria has opened an embassy in Baghdad, which we welcome.

Continued consideration will be given to the way forward, but I say in all honesty to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether the sort of conference in Baghdad that he suggests would be of as much help as the Iraq Study Group thought.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I hope that the Foreign Secretary will forgive me if I take her back to an important point. She set a time line for handing over provinces in the Basra region—I believe that she mentioned November. I appreciate that the Prime Minister does not want to set an arbitrary date and I do not ask for that. However, discussions must have taken place about that in Government—surely the right hon. Lady could share the Government’s thinking on the matter. Is she saying that, assuming things go well, British troops may be home by November?

Margaret Beckett: I have not set a timeline. The hon. Gentleman invites me to share something with hon. Members that we have shared repeatedly, but appears to go in one ear and out the other. We have told the House time and again that we never have set and never will set a specific date, deadline or timeline, because it would be dangerously irresponsible. We will make a judgment on the conditions.

However, it is fair and legitimate for people to have some idea of the ongoing judgment of the Government and the Iraqi Government about the conditions. It is our current view, and that of the Iraqi Government, that, if things continue as they are, we may be in a position to hand over to the Iraqi Government responsibility for all the provinces in November—in the spring, we hope, for Basra. However, we have repeatedly said that it will depend on the conditions and circumstances at the time.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does the Foreign Secretary agree with what the Prime Minister wrote in the current edition of Foreign Affairs? He said that the reason for the invasion of Iraq was not regime change but what he called “values change”. If she does agree, will she explain how it is possible to change people’s values through military force? To which other countries does that doctrine apply?

Margaret Beckett: The Prime Minister, as ever, made a sensible point that it is important to try to encourage
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the development of the sort of values that inspire most people in most countries in the world: wanting a peaceful and better life for their children. Sadly, in the case of Iraq, military intervention was necessary to create the circumstances in which the politics of that country could be released to afford an opportunity for a democratic Government of unity to form. We hope that, in time, they will encourage the same sort of values and experiences in Iraq as we have here.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to see early-day motion 625, which, curiously, states that this country does not see Iran as the enemy? No one in the House would want to go to war with Iran, but is it not a bit difficult to see it as a potential friend or ally while it continues to host holocaust-denial conferences, refuses to recognise—and calls for the annihilation of—Israel, oppresses its own people and still intends to pursue its nuclear ambitions?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. No one wishes to be an enemy of Iran, but it is difficult to be as much of a friend to the country as we would like while it continues to pursue the policies that he has identified. I also view with some bewilderment the notion—which I understand is current in some circles—that it is a thoroughly bad thing for the Government of the United Kingdom to maintain their nuclear arms, while it is perfectly all right for the Government of Iran to have them.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I welcome the dialogue that the Foreign Secretary described between the UK, Iran and Syria, particularly in regard to the work that the E3 have been doing. Will she confirm, however, that it is still the Government’s position that a strike by Israel or the US against Iran would be inconceivable, and that any military action would be unjustified?

Margaret Beckett: I have been quite consistent and clear in saying that nobody is contemplating such action, and I sincerely hope that we never reach a time when anybody does. There is, however, something that people tend to leave out of the equation. I often wonder how many people have actually looked at the offer that the international community made to the Government of Iran, which would give them everything that they could conceivably want to develop a programme of modern civil nuclear power—which is what they say is their objective. That has an effect on these areas.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State commit herself to the long-standing policy of building relationships with Iran and Syria? It will be difficult, and there are real threats, but will she continue to make it a priority, despite what other allies think, in recognition of those countries’ significance in the region?

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