Previous Section Index Home Page

That is a lesson to us all for the future that embarking on military action alongside another power requires confidence in our own Government that our allies have a satisfactory plan. Indeed, there are so many lessons to be learned, not only about the conduct of war and of occupations, but about the management of our relationship with the United States, that the case
24 Jan 2007 : Column 1440
for a high-level Privy Council inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq is overwhelming.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman has probably noticed that the leader of every mainland party is in the Chamber today except one, the Prime Minister. Does he agree that the Prime Minister should be in the House today, helping us with our inquiries on Iraq?

Mr. Hague: I think that the hon. Gentleman may have already gathered my answer to that from what I said earlier. Certainly, the Prime Minister should be here. It is unimaginable that an Attlee, a Callaghan, a Churchill or a Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war. But I have already said that and I want to make progress.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I will make a bit more progress.

Mr. Illsley: The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be working towards this in his speech, but I will ask him in any case whether he accepts that some of the decisions made in 2003—such as de-Ba’athification, the disbanding of the army and the disbanding of the police force—were made by the United States Administration under Paul Bremer, despite advice from the British Government and our representatives in Iraq.

Mr. Hague: Of course, without an inquiry we do not know what advice was given by the British Government at the time. That is one of the things that an inquiry should be establishing, and if that were the case Ministers would have much less to fear from an inquiry than they might otherwise.

As far as one can tell, Ministers agree with the case for an inquiry. On 31 October, the Secretary of State for Defence said on television that there would be such an inquiry, just after the Foreign Secretary had resisted announcing one in the House. We may differ as to when, but our case is that if an inquiry beginning with events in 2003 does not commence at least before the end of 2007, it will be found that many memories will have faded and many e-mails will have disappeared. If Ministers do not announce such an inquiry before the end of this parliamentary Session, we will ask the House to debate a specific motion requiring them to do so.

The most important issue of all, of course, is what to do next. The Iraqi people need—the whole region and the world need—a rapid improvement in the stability and security of their country. They, and the world, need their country to survive intact, for while it is all too easy to talk of partition in the armchairs of western capitals, the practical reality on the ground would mean bloodshed, disorder and foreign intervention possibly dwarfing anything that we have seen so far.

When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I visited Basra and Baghdad a few weeks ago, we came back with several things very clear in our minds. The first, not surprisingly, was that our
24 Jan 2007 : Column 1441
troops perform dangerous tasks with extraordinary skill, and with calm and courage, in the face of great adversity; but there is no doubt that their own security situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past two years. They are not able to operate in Basra with the freedom that they enjoyed in the aftermath of the invasion, and it is clear that there has been slowness in meeting some of their practical needs for equipment and protection as they operate in a theatre of war. Shelter against mortar attacks in their barracks for which hostile militias have the precise co-ordinates is lacking, as is the foam necessary to protect Hercules transport planes against catastrophic damage from small-arms fire. While we should recognise that supplying military operations is difficult, we should also see the Prime Minister’s constant and obviously meaningless assertion that the troops will always have everything they need in that light.

From what we could see, there is a limit to what British troops can achieve in the city of Basra once Operation Sinbad is completed, and its completion appears to be imminent. Provided that the Iraqi army is able to take over as necessary in the city of Basra, we therefore have no disagreement with the Government’s apparent intention of withdrawing several thousand troops later this year. But implicit in that announcement is that several thousand will remain, presumably to guard the air station at Basra and do what they can to protect the border with Iran. Perhaps when he winds up the debate, the Minister will be able to expand on what the role of the remaining troops will be at that point, whether all deficiencies in their equipment will have been addressed, and whether it is militarily feasible for a smaller force based around the Basra air station to protect itself against coming under siege from encroaching militia attacks.

Looking beyond Basra to the overall situation in Iraq, we reached the view—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence—that three things were essential to bring the situation under control: a more rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi army, an intensification of pressure on the Iraqi politicians to achieve the political agreements generally characterised as “reconciliation”, and the creation of an international contact group, including members of the UN Security Council and nearby states, to help buttress and support the Government of Iraq.

In other words, the situation needs more Iraqi leadership and greater international support and involvement. In our view those remain vital issues, and without any one of them being implemented to the necessary extent the future looks bleak. That is why we welcomed the report of the Iraq Study Group—the Baker-Hamilton report—which was broadly in line with our own assessment, although we did not agree with all its proposals. A fixed timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would create military inflexibility and give insurgents their own timetable for operations, something that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), must bear in mind. He must also bear in mind his comment in the House in November 2003:

I fear that his proposal for a total withdrawal by October would be a situation that the Iraqi Government would be “incapable of dealing with”, and would bring great bloodshed in its wake.

With that exception, the broad thrust of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations seemed to make sense, particularly its advocacy of a huge increase in the number of American troops embedded with or training Iraqi troops from 4,000 to 20,000, and the creation of an international support group of the kind that I have just described.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Was the right hon. Gentleman surprised to hear the Foreign Secretary say, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), that the regional security conference recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report would not achieve anything? Yesterday, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, announced the creation of a regional security conference along those lines. Surely the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary should be supporting that important diplomatic initiative, not undermining it.

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me to an important point. I was surprised by one or two things that the Foreign Secretary said, and they did relate to the Baker-Hamilton report.

The Prime Minister gave evidence to the Iraq Study Group, apparently emphasising the importance of a fresh attempt to engage with Syria and Iran. After he flew to America the moment the report was published on 6 December—considering Iraq, that day, to be so important that he had to go straight to the White house, in contrast to today, when he did not stay in the House—he said that the Baker-Hamilton report

The Foreign Secretary said today that she thought it was worthy of further study, but at the time she said that it was

She also said that British officials had contributed to it and that the thinking of the Iraq Study Group was

She said:

It would be interesting to know what conclusions the Government came to and how they were passed on to the United States Administration, for the fact is that Ministers welcomed not only the Baker-Hamilton report, but the different strategy announced by President Bush earlier this month—even though it differed markedly from the Baker-Hamilton approach.

24 Jan 2007 : Column 1443

As a firm advocate of the transatlantic alliance, I say to the Foreign Secretary that saying we approve of one thing when thinking in Washington is going one way in December, or we think it is, and then saying that we approve of something quite different when the thinking in Washington changes in January, does no favours for the transatlantic relationship because it gives the impression that we will say yes to anything the White House wants to do.

Mr. Jenkin: I fully concur with the sentiments my right hon. Friend has expressed about the inability of this Government to engage positively with our American ally, but where is the consistency in supporting Iranian engagement in the stabilisation of Afghanistan and in refusing to engage with Iran in the stabilisation of Iraq? Is there not an inconsistency in that position?

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend must bear in mind the Iranian attitude to efforts to engage with it. I will come to that in a moment. On that matter, I think that there will be a bit more agreement with the Government than on the things that I have just mentioned. If he will forgive me, I will come to Iran in a moment.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify for the record what his attitude is to President Bush's proposal to increase American troops—the “troops surge”?

Mr. Hague: That is the very point that I am coming to. We should be clear that there are many things to welcome in the President’s plan, including fresh attempts to speed up economic reconstruction, an unspecified increase in the training of the Iraqi army and great pressure on the Iraqi leaders to achieve the national reconciliation on which everything else depends. To try to achieve those things is right and is far superior to a policy of simply abandoning the Iraqi people to their fate, but it is also true that certain important things are missing from that strategy that were recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report, including the creation of an international support group, direct talks without pre-conditions with Syria, the provision of more resources to Afghanistan and direct talks with Moqtada al-Sadr. Very little attention has been given to the immense problem of 50,000 people a month fleeing Iraq, which can create a looming refugee and political crisis in neighbouring states such as Jordan. Those things are missing from that plan.

Are we not justified, given that previous attempts to flood Baghdad with larger numbers of troops have not achieved their objectives, to be somewhat sceptical about the deployment of 20,000 additional US troops, however much we may hope, as I am sure we all do, that they will succeed? That is our attitude to the President's announcement.

Is it not the case that British and US strategy in Iraq is not easily separated? The Secretary of State for Defence said on 11 January to the Select Committee on Defence:

24 Jan 2007 : Column 1444

yet the current plan, it seems, is for us to withdraw from Basra while the Iraqi and American forces go into Sadr city. The House is therefore entitled to know whether UK and US military plans are still being closely co-ordinated. Would not it be better to have a robust exchange of views with the US Administration and then implement an agreed strategy, rather than fail to have such an exchange and then implement different ones? An example is the all important training of larger Iraqi forces. As that is now an important part of the American plan, albeit on a scale perhaps not big enough, is there to be any British involvement or contribution to that, supporting that vital objective?

The Government appear to have had very little influence over some of the recent decisions in Washington. We would like to know from the Minister, when he winds up, what they are going to do to recover that influence and what they are going to do to keep alive some of the proposals in the Baker-Hamilton report that have not yet been adopted, but may become even more advisable in the months ahead.

That brings us naturally to the question of how to deal with Iran and Syria, often spoken of in the same breath but, of course, quite different countries in different strategic situations. I think that we are all in favour of engagement with Iran on the right terms, and the former Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, made strenuous efforts to engage with the Iranian Government. So far, those efforts have been rewarded with Iran's flagrant defiance of the UN Security Council and breach of the non-proliferation treaty, with every appearance that its Government are bent on a nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons programme.

It has surely been right for Britain, the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany to make a generous offer to Iran about assisting with the development of civil nuclear power. That offer, so far, has been spurned. On 23 December, the UN Security Council once again gave Iran a deadline to suspend all of its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Is it not now vital, while maintaining the “incremental and proportionate approach” called for by EU Foreign Ministers this week, to present an increasing number of usable sticks as well as to hold out the appealing carrot to Iran? Like the Government, we do not advocate military action against Iran, although like them we think that it would be unwise at this stage to rule anything out, but there are signs of division in Iranian politics about the best way for them to react, and now is surely the time to maximise the peaceful pressure on Iran to begin constructive dialogue.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the pressure on the Baha’i community in Iran. He will also know that, literally, lives are at stake on account of the hard-line approach that Iran has taken towards the Baha’is. Does he agree, therefore, that we are talking about a matter of life and death and that the best thing that the Foreign Office and the UK could do would be to provide a powerful rationale for Iran to take seriously
24 Jan 2007 : Column 1445
the rights of those ethnic minority groups, including the Baha’is, who face the death penalty over crimes they have not committed?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about human rights in Iran, and the Foreign Secretary made strong points about that in her speech. I think that we will all agree with him about that, but overriding the whole problem with Iran is the need to deal with its nuclear programme. That has to be absolutely top of the agenda, of course, but with human rights very strongly part of our agenda with Iran as well.

This week's agreement by EU Foreign Ministers, implementing the UN resolution and preventing Iranian nationals from studying proliferation-sensitive subjects in the EU, falls short of what is necessary. Surely there is a strong case for the EU to act with the United States in applying more extensive travel restrictions and, above all, financial restrictions, which could have a more serious effect on the Iranian Government's ability to do business.

It was rumoured in advance of Tuesday's meeting of EU Foreign Ministers that some financial measures would be agreed, yet none emerged from the meeting. We would like to know whether the Government failed to advocate such measures—financial sanctions against Iran—or whether they were rejected by other EU states. To fail to show strength now, along with a readiness to talk, when that strength might actually have an effect, would be a very serious failure of foreign policy. Unless Iranian plans are knocked off course, the consequences within a few years will be the spread of nuclear weapons programmes to other nations in the middle east. We would live with the consequences of it for generations to come.

Margaret Beckett: I hope that I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The Foreign Ministers meeting agreed that the criteria identified by the United Nations should indeed be assessed against the position of organisations and of individuals to see what further steps could be taken. Officials have been sent away to work on those steps, so a decision in principle was taken to move forward in exactly the way and for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman is identifying. Detailed work on that will continue and I hope that it will come back to the next Foreign Affairs Council in February.

Mr. Hague: We hope that that bears fruit, although I am referring to measures that go beyond the measures agreed at the UN Security Council. I am referring to the European Union, alongside the United States, taking measures that go beyond that. [Interruption.] I think that the Foreign Secretary is indicating some assent to that. She will have the strong support of the Opposition if the Government are able to secure those measures. Otherwise, the non-proliferation treaty, a fundamental pillar of a relatively peaceful world in recent decades, will lie broken and ruined. It is time for EU nations to do more.

Next Section Index Home Page