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Daniel Kawczynski: My right hon. Friend will recall that the Iranians seized some of our service personnel in the Shatt al-Arab. Does he share my concern that the
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Iranian Government have so far still refused to return our military and radar equipment that they seized in the Shatt al-Arab?

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend is right. He refers to yet another difficulty that has arisen in recent months with the Iranian Government. That is why we advocate that as well as being open to dialogue with Iran, we must increase the pressure on Iran to engage in constructive dialogue with the rest of the world.

Mr. Salmond : The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mr. Zebari, was quoted on the wires yesterday as welcoming the Iranian-Syrian initiative for a regional conference of Foreign Ministers and as saying that invitations will immediately be sent to Iraq’s other neighbouring countries, including Egypt. Does the right hon. Gentleman not see anything to welcome in what seems to be a constructive initiative?

Mr. Hague: Of course I welcome the Iraqi Government working with their neighbours. One of the advantages of setting up the international support group—or the international contact group as we described it before the Baker-Hamilton report was published—is that if a better dialogue develops with Syria and Iran they could be added to such a group. However, although we should be in favour of strong relations between Iraq and its neighbours, we must not lose sight of the immense difficulties that there will be for the world if the Iranian nuclear programme goes unchecked.

The case of Syria is parallel but different. There has clearly, and rightly, been a recent effort by the Government to explore constructive engagement with Syria, but such efforts are unlikely to work without the full support of the United States, and it is not clear that that has been forthcoming. Syria has much to gain from settling its differences with Israel and with the west in general, and the world has much to gain from Syria playing a more constructive part in the international community. There are rumours of useful back-channel diplomacy between Israel and Syria—would it not be a mistake of historic magnitude if the United States were to prevent or dissuade Israel from following up those talks as constructively as possible? I hope that the Minister can explain in his winding-up speech what the up-to-date position is with regard to contacts with Syria and what support is being received from the United States on this issue.

On wider middle east issues, there will be much agreement in all parts of the House on what we wish to happen. The legitimate Government of Lebanon deserve support against the attempts to overthrow them. Hezbollah’s manoeuvres helped to distract attention from the total failure to enforce United Nations resolutions requiring the disarmament of militias in south Lebanon, and it has emerged stronger from the war of last August, as was widely predicted.

We also all want the limited signs of hope in the middle east peace process to turn into more substantial progress once again. The Prime Minister toured the region before Christmas, but little has been said about what was discovered or whether anything was achieved. There are tiny signs of hope—the international community has maintained its support for President
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Abbas and maintained pressure on Hamas to foreswear violence and recognise Israel. A ceasefire has been implemented in Gaza. The Israelis have transferred £100 million of taxes to the office of the Palestinian President. We support the Government’s involvement in the continuing operations to deliver assistance to the Palestinian people, and we would welcome an assessment from them of the impact that that has made and of plans to extend it.

Nevertheless, formidable obstacles remain to be overcome before there can be any real progress on resuming the road map towards peace. Taking in the entire region, with all its conflicts or threats of them, the situation across the middle east represents one of the most alarming combinations of international events since the second world war. There is deep anxiety among some of the Gulf states that Shi’a-Sunni conflict could spread beyond Iraq, and that nuclear weapons could spread beyond Iran, and there is some desperation to see progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Whatever happens in the coming months, the politics of the middle east are likely to be a central preoccupation in the framing of British foreign and defence policy for years, or decades, to come. In the light of that, is it not time to stand back and take a wider strategic view? British influence in the middle east is patchy, and our efforts to maintain it have been patchy, too. A few days before Christmas, the Prime Minister visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time, and rightly agreed to regular security talks between our countries. It is important that that is not an isolated initiative. Should there not be, across parties and pursued over the long term, a major drive by the United Kingdom to elevate our economic, cultural, parliamentary and diplomatic links with many of the countries of the Gulf—and, indeed, with countries in north Africa?

We are not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and it is vital that we deepen our friendships with many Muslim nations. Their enthusiasm to reciprocate is undoubted. The best hope for long-term stability is for there to be a deepening of contact between the middle east and the wider west. Fewer mistakes would have been made in Iraq if an understanding of local society had been present in Washington—and possibly London. It must be right to make the addressing of this issue a major theme of British foreign policy, and it must be right to do so now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

1.56 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree very much with the concluding remarks of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We are facing a fundamental crisis. As King Abdullah of Jordan told Members of both Houses in November, we are facing three concentric threats at the same time. However, although he referred to three—Iraq, Lebanon and the Israel-Palestine dispute—we now
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have the situation in Somalia, too, which is also potentially explosive and could have knock-on consequences in the entire region and the whole of Africa.

Our country should do far more internationally. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will be able to say that the Foreign Office has looked at the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation that extra money should be given to the BBC World Service Arabic television service that is due to open in the autumn of this year. Although it will cost £19 million, it will be able to operate for only 12 hours a day; but the Committee has pointed out that for a mere additional £6 million it would be able to broadcast 24 hours a day to the Arabic and middle eastern regions. That channel is a vital tool for communicating to that region good news and stories that give a balanced perspective. At present, the region relies on the very well funded al-Jazeera, which is subsidised by the Government of Qatar. It is able to broadcast in that region, and there are also some other channels, but the BBC World Service Arabic television service is vital to get diversity and pluralism, and a wider debate than is currently available. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that request.

Let me turn to the situation in Iraq. As someone who voted for the invasion in 2003, and who spent many years supporting the Iraqi people’s struggle for democracy and pluralism, and who has many Kurdish friends—some still in Iraq, some outside it, and some in our country—I have to say that things have not turned out the way that I had expected. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Members to laugh, but the fact is that my Kurdish friends told me—and they were right—that they were campaigning, as I was with them for 25 years, against the crimes of Saddam. We were prepared to fight and campaign very hard for pluralism and democracy. What we all underestimated was that, because of the nature of the Saddamite regime, there was a complete removal of any sense of respect for other groups in that society.

What we face today is not just the consequence of the failings of the current Iraqi politicians or the crass mistakes of the coalition provisional authority—Paul Bremer and the Administration in 2003 and 2004—but is also the consequence of Ba’athism and its apologists. Many of those who are so critical today of the situation in Iraq—including people who were members of the 1980s Governments who supported Saddam when he invaded Iran—must also bear responsibility for the current situation.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am confused by what the hon. Gentleman just said. When the Prime Minister used to speak on this subject in the House he made it explicit that Saddam Hussein could stay in power, and that he was happy to sanction that, if Saddam complied with the United Nations resolution. So removing Saddam Hussein was not the reason why Britain went to war, and we should not be using it retrospectively to make a case for a failed Government policy.

Mike Gapes: Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I am not the Prime Minister. I am explaining my reason for voting as I did, which was my belief in supporting
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the Iraqi democrats, the Iraqi left and the Iraqi Kurds and Shi’as, who had suffered under the oppression of Saddam. That was my view then and it remains my view now. Those of us who took that position then faced a choice. There was an historic opportunity to rid the Iraqis of the person who had been their oppressor for all those years. Had we taken the opposite view, could our consciences have been clear of the feeling that we had betrayed our friends? Many of us had that dilemma, which I shall discuss.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): This debate is all about learning lessons. We have had the memoirs of Paul Bremer of the coalition provisional authority, but unfortunately the British Government have blocked publication of the memoirs of our man in Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Would it not be helpful if the Government lifted that block and we heard what Sir Jeremy had to say?

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend tempts me into an area that would take a long time to deal with. I refer him to the evidence session before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a few weeks ago, at which Sir Jeremy Greenstock gave us his views. If my hon. Friend reads the transcript, he will get some more information.

The essence of the issue is whether we take the view espoused by those who hold the neo-conservative view in the United States—such as Robert Kagan and the American Enterprise Institute—or an “ethical realist” view, to use a current phrase, of how countries should behave in an international context. The establishment in the last few weeks of the Iraq study group provided an opportunity. At last, there was perhaps the chance to move away from the malign influence of the legacy of Donald Rumsfeld and past events, and toward a more realistic view of, and approach to, engaging with Iraq’s neighbours. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary referred to some of the recommendations in that group’s report.

Such a view is, as I understood it, very close to the position of the British Government, of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, and of the broad body of international opinion. President Bush implied that he would go down that route. He appointed Robert Gates, who had been a member of the Iraqi study group, as the successor to Rumsfeld. However, although the US Administration have made cursory mention of the group, the essence of their position today is rejection of all the essential details of the group’s most important recommendations.

That presents us all with a fundamental dilemma. Will a surge of 22,000 additional troops, as President Bush seems seriously to believe, shift the balance significantly, or will the Americans have to come up with a new strategy in six to eight months’ time? It is extremely doubtful that the current American strategy will work—and if it does not, we will have wasted several months in which alternative approaches could have been taken. Of course, those might not work either; the Iranian and Syrian regimes are not benign and democratic. Nevertheless, we should listen to the warning from King Abdullah and consider an alternative approach. Preventing Iraq’s neighbours
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from intervening by building a regional containment and security structure could be the way forward.

However, it is clear that whichever approach is followed, the Bush Administration have already rejected their millennialist, neo-con vision of forcibly democratising the region. It is clear from recent remarks made by Condoleezza Rice in Egypt and by others that they are returning to the old-style approach, in which they say, “We decide which Arab regime is friendly to us and then we support it, regardless of its internal human rights record or lack of democratic values.” That is a sign that the neo-con view of the world has been defeated. The question is: is there an alternative view of how we build stability and security in the world? The British Government should be doing far more with their European Union partners, and with the United States and others, to build an alternative world view of how to proceed. That will not be easy, because we are not dealing with a stable region or a stable international context.

My most serious fear is that we are on the verge of a Shi’a-Sunni conflict. Such a conflict exists in Iraq and potentially in Lebanon, and also in the context of a wider struggle. Saudi Arabia, although Sunni-controlled, has a significant Shi’a population, and there are other countries in which that potential division exists. We should consider what will happen if Saudi Arabia, which has just sacked its ambassador in Washington and replaced him with a hard-liner, decides to intervene to support the Sunnis in Iraq; if Iran strengthens its grip and influence on the Shi’a groups in Iraq; or if the Turks decide to go in. Indeed, Turkey’s opposition leader said last week in a public debate that Turkey should intervene militarily to prevent a referendum in Kirkuk. If those things happen, the conflict in Iraq will have been regionalised, which could be extremely dangerous.

Our Government have to stay in Iraq for as long as necessary to help with the stabilisation process. Those who call for a timetabled or instant withdrawal are taking a huge risk, given the possible consequences. The American Administration’s current strategy is dangerous and probably unworkable, and it will not help us in dealing with the situation. However, there are some reasons for optimism in the region. We now know that the Israelis and Syrians have been secretly discussing possible agreements for two years, and that there is a revitalisation of the American effort at least to get involved in the middle east peace process. However, that must be followed through not just rhetorically, but in practice. We also know that there is a desire on the part of many countries in the region to prevent this slide toward disaster.

This is a very dangerous period, which does not call for party political point scoring or people trying to rewrite or re-fight the battles of four or five years ago. This is a very serious matter, and what we are doing today is too important to be diminished by party political posturing.

2.9 pm

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) is right to say that a lot has happened in four or five years, but the position we are in and the choices available to us are
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inevitably conditioned by the circumstances in which we went into Iraq. They simply cannot be disregarded in an effort to persuade everyone that we must proceed from here without regard to what has happened before.

This is an important debate, far too long delayed, for the House, the public and—perhaps most importantly—for our armed forces. I mean the Foreign Secretary no disrespect when I say that the Prime Minister should have opened the debate on a substantive motion in which he invited the House to pass judgment on the policies of his Government. It is wrong to say that previous Prime Ministers have avoided foreign affairs debates. In September 1990, Margaret Thatcher led the foreign affairs debate following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and, towards the end of that period, in February, John Major, who by then was Prime Minister, led two debates held because of the issues raised by the military action that was taking place and the consequences of it for British interests.

With almost chilling regularity, every Wednesday we now find ourselves having to acknowledge fatalities in Iraq. I do not know how the Prime Minister feels, or the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but it is the bleakest moment of the week for me. But that is nothing to the blight on the lives of the families and friends of those who have been killed. They are brave men and women who do their duty in Iraq, and I yield to no one in my admiration for them for their professionalism and their courage. Today they deserved to hear all the party leaders. The Prime Minister owed that to them.

The origins of our involvement in Iraq are well known. I remain of the belief that I had on 18 March 2003 when I went into the No Lobby to vote against the Government’s proposals. That was not a party political issue in the sense that only one party did that. Conservative and Labour Members joined us as did, in particular, Robin Cook, whose wisdom has been much missed on this issue since his untimely death.

I am fortified in my view that it was an illegal war based on a flawed prospectus by the increasing number of converts to scepticism. Indeed, few candidates for Labour’s deputy leadership seem willing to defend the decision in public. It was a question of judgment for all of us, but our judgment has been vindicated by events since then. What has happened since November 2003? As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out, there were no weapons of mass destruction. There was inadequate preparation for the aftermath of military action and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was among those who made that point with great force at the time and deserves credit for doing so.

We have seen insensitivity and the mismanagement of coalition activities. We have seen the humiliation and obscenity of Abu Ghraib, the destruction of Falluja, the endemic corruption and, more recently, the macabre execution of Saddam Hussein. Along with that go the woeful failures in reconstruction, so that public services such as electricity, water and sewerage are worse now than they were under Saddam Hussein.
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We may all be able to agree, no matter how we voted on 18 March 2003, that the United Kingdom will never do anything similar again.

I also feel vindicated by the leaked documents that we have seen and the memoirs that have been published. Whatever was said in public—and a variety of things were said in public—we now know that the principal objective of the United States was regime change. That was always their objective. Why else would the British ambassador, after a lunch with Condoleezza Rice, have reported back to London that he told her that we would not resile from regime change? Of course, that policy was fundamentally and irreparably illegal, under article 2.4 of the charter of the United Nations.

Events moved on. Once the decision was taken, those of us who had opposed the war had to decide what attitude to take. We took the view that we had to support our troops. We argued that the United Nations should lead in the post-invasion period and we supported the continuing presence of the coalition, fortified as it was in implementation of the UN resolution 1546. But in May 2006, we began to argue for a change in strategy. In particular, we argued for regional engagement and for dialogue with Iran and Syria. By the end of 2006, the Iraq Study Group produced a report that closely resembled the conclusions towards which we had been moving.

Michael Gove: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred repeatedly to the liberation of Iraq as illegal. Like me, he will have noted that as a result of that liberation millions of Iraqis took part for the first time in free, multi-party elections to help to create a democratic coalition Government. Does he consider that the Iraqi men and women who voted in those elections were party to a crime and does he regret for a moment opposing a war that resulted in their liberation?

Sir Menzies Campbell: Of course I do not. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the rules do not matter, that the ends always justify the means and that the charter of the United Nations is to be observed when it is in our interests but disregarded when it is not, he contemplates a world of such chaos as none of us can properly contemplate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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