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4.47 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Many people welcome today’s debate in Government time, but it is unfortunate that it is on an Adjournment motion, and that there is no substantive motion to be discussed. That disappoints many of us but, as has been said, it is even more disappointing that the Prime Minister decided to absent himself from today’s proceedings. That same Prime Minister said on 25 October that he would debate Iraq any time, anywhere—yet today he found other things to do, rather than come to the Chamber to explain what policy, if any, the Government are following. That is disappointing, but if we consider the history of the build-up to the war, we should not be all that surprised.

As I said, on 25 October the Prime Minister said that he would debate the subject “at any time”, so we hoped that he would make the effort to come to the Chamber today. Earlier this week, his spokesman said that the Prime Minister never comes to Adjournment debates, and that is probably why the Government tabled an Adjournment motion. That is not very clever, and it is rather transparent.

I should like to speak about the background to the conflict. In September 2002 we were treated to the dossier, and I remember saying at the time that it was probably the least persuasive document in recent political history. It was full of suppositions and ifs and buts, it did not inform the debate, and it utterly failed to provide any justification for military action, let alone
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imminent military action. On reflection, perhaps the dossier did not have to do that, as we have learned that the Prime Minister and the President had met at the President’s ranch and decided on military action, come what may, within a few days of that debate.

In a parliamentary response to me on 15 January 2003, the Prime Minister said:

So he clung on to the WMD theory at that stage. On 25 February 2003, in response to the rhetorical question:

the Prime Minister replied:

Six months before, he had agreed with President Bush that war was indeed inevitable. At the time that statement was made, 120,000 American troops were massed on the Iraqi border, ready to go in.

These events catalogue how the Government have treated Parliament with disdain, and obfuscation—if not, I am sad to say, with deceit. Here we are, more than three years down the road, and apart from toppling Saddam nothing much has been achieved. On 13 January this year, President Bush acknowledged that Iraq was more unstable now than when Saddam was in power. He said in a CBS programme that without question, decisions had been made and things had been done which should not have been. He went on to say:

Although that is a gross understatement, it is a welcome acknowledgement by the President that things are going from bad to worse. Perhaps he has been chastened by the fact that 3,020 US army personnel have lost their lives in the conflict. Although General Franks said that he did not do body counts, the number of Iraqi civilians who have died is massive. Whether one accepts the UN figure, the Iraqi Government figure, the figure in The Lancet or any other figure, it is patently obvious that tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed, and are being killed as we debate the matter today.

I quote:

Those are the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and for Wales in the New Statesman on 22 January, a few days ago. They are harsh words from one who was always taken to be a loyalist. They are harsh words about the foreign policy being adopted by Britain—which is, of course, introduced by Bush and slavishly followed by the British Government.

As a result, bloodshed and carnage go on day after day, with more than 130 civilians killed on Monday this week. Indeed, the number of killings has escalated steadily over the past six months, with no end in sight.
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Let us not forget the deaths of more than 130 British servicemen and women. Theirs was an unenviable task and an extremely dangerous one, and we all pay tribute to their bravery and professionalism.

In March 2005 I visited Basra and Baghdad, and I came away with the firm impression that the only realistic exit strategy would have to be events-led—that is to say, as the Iraqi army, police and security forces were trained up sufficiently, and as they could take on greater responsibility. That is a difficult proposition, as young men and women who volunteer for the new security forces are in real danger of assassination as soon as it is known what they do. I now believe, and have done for some time, that we will not witness any such events, and that the presence of the British armed forces in Iraq has come to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) sent out a press release stating that I said that the British Army was a problem. I did not—I would never say such a thing. She has already insulted me, but if she were here, I could discuss the matter openly with her. The British Army is not the problem, but it is perceived as part of the problem, not the solution, because it remains in Iraq in such circumstances. I have nothing but the highest regard for the Army, but soldiers’ role now is to stay alive—they have little scope for peacekeeping. The position is plainly untenable.

As President Bush’s surge takes effect, even greater danger is likely to befall British troops. As retired US General Keane said on “Newsnight” on 9 January, there will be consequences for the British troops in southern Iraq, which will call into question the rumoured British policy of drawing down troops. That is the problem: the Prime Minister is prepared to engage with the US and give evidence to congressional committees, but we do not know whether an exit strategy exists.

Many people believe that the presence of the brave men and women of the British armed forces now serves no useful purpose. We hope that the troops are brought home as soon as possible. Of course, it must be done in an orderly and secure way—I recognise that the withdrawal exercise will be dangerous. However, there is currently a high human cost for no appreciable return. It is clear that there will be no military solution and that a diplomatic and political solution is the only way forward.

Even the incoming US field commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, is reported today as saying that the position in Iraq is dire and that he could not guarantee success, even with President Bush’s surge of 21,500 troops.

Enough is enough. It is time to call a halt and bring the troops home. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), recently said of British foreign policy that the Prime Minister’s good intentions had turned to dust. The longer the forces remain in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for Britain seriously to put itself forward as an honest broker in the middle east and the more likely it is that terrorism will strike Britain.

The Prime Minister and the Government did not listen to the millions on the streets who were against the war. Will they listen to the clamour in favour of the
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coherent exit strategy that is now needed? I call on the Prime Minister to show some leadership in the matter and explain the Government’s exit strategy to Parliament and the people of Britain. It is long overdue: we require an immediate strategy to disengage. That is the only coherent way forward.

4.57 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The debate is crucial. It is about the role of Parliament and the political institutions of this country but, bizarrely, the Prime Minister is not here. There is a motion for the Adjournment of the House and apparently no opportunity for the Government to set out a statement of their case for the war in Iraq and their policies on the middle east. The only way in which the House can express dissent from the Government’s policies is by calling a procedural vote on the Adjournment later. I understand that that will happen and that several hon. Members will vote to express their dissent from policies that we are asked to agree.

The war in Iraq has cost the lives of at least 500,000 people since 2003. The Saddam Hussein regime cost the lives of many tens of thousands of Iraqis before that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was right to highlight the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. A small number of us, including my right hon. Friend, opposed it from the 1980s onwards, when the House was busy turning a blind eye to arms sales, oil deals and all the other support that was given to that regime because it suited the west to support Iraq in the war against Iran.

However, I differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley about where we go from here. It cannot be said that the position in Iraq is better now than in the latter days of Saddam Hussein. As I said, more than 500,000 have already been killed. According to a BBC website, 1.7 million Iraqis have been forced immediately into exile and all the neighbouring countries are threatening to close their borders.

Harry Cohen: I want to correct my hon. Friend. I saw the BBC website, and it said that 2 million Iraqis had fled the country. The figure of 1.7 million related to internally displaced people. The United Nations says that another million could be displaced before the end of this year.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend is right; I stand corrected. This means that almost 4 million Iraqis have either become internally displaced or fled the country. The lucky ones have managed to get out of the region and into western Europe. In Jordan, Syria and all the neighbouring countries, there are Iraqis living a desperate existence, yet they too were lucky enough to get out.

John McDonnell: Is it not therefore an absolute disgrace that this Government are still deporting Iraqi asylum seekers from this country?

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend has made a good point. My constituency has often welcomed asylum seekers from conflicts all around the world. The Iraqi asylum seekers there include those who came during
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the Saddam regime and those who have come since. Interestingly, those who fled persecution under the Saddam regime did not, for the most part, support the war, and they certainly do not support the continued presence of British and American forces in Iraq. They recognise that the continued presence of those forces is creating further problems, rather than presenting a solution to them.

News was leaked out last week of a proposed new oil law that the Iraqi Parliament is to be invited to approve in a few weeks’ time. This is a mysterious piece of legislation, and I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on the matter when he responds to the debate. Apparently, the drafters of the new law were not in Iraq but in Washington, and they were assisted by people in London. The proposed law bears an uncanny resemblance to the British-imposed oil law in Iran in 1952, after the shah was imposed on the people of that country. BP and other oil companies made massive amounts of money from that arrangement in the succeeding years. There is deep suspicion that the oil law that is now being proposed for Iraq is the reward for the invasion, and that it will involve the privatisation of oil production and the sale to certain oil companies of cheap oil that ought to be for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Ms Butler: The proposed oil law is indeed a bit suspicious. Does my hon. Friend also share my concern as to whether the big conglomerates such as BP and Shell will invest in the necessary infrastructure and in fair wages for normal Iraqi citizens?

Jeremy Corbyn: That is a legitimate concern, and I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on the future of this oil law. I also hope that he will recognise that the Iraqi people ought to be able to maintain public ownership not only of the oil but of oil production and oil sales, which is the crucial part of the arrangement.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of a meeting of Iraqi trade leaders that took place in Jordan in December, at which senior trade unionists discussed this proposal? They took the view that this oil law would not be in the interests of the Iraqi people. They also believed that that would be the view of the Iraqi people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be inappropriate for 15 or 20-year oil contracts to be signed while the country is still under occupation?

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree with my friend; it would be illegal to do that, because Britain and the United States are, in law, occupying forces. They do not therefore have the legal authority to make fundamental changes to what is happening in that country. Those are the terms of the Hague convention, and that ought to be understood.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Jeremy Corbyn: I have been more generous in giving way than the Minister was, and I have less time, but I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Wareing: Has my hon. Friend seen the draft law, in which 75 per cent. of the profits will go to companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon? This was the real reason for the war, not weapons of mass destruction or regime change.

Jeremy Corbyn: That has become clear, and I am pleased that my hon. Friends have made those points, as, clearly, the debate is limited in time.

Last night, President Bush gave the State of the Union address. He was not the gung-ho President Bush of 2002, whose axis of evil speech promised war all over the world. He was a President desperately trying to find some way forward. He was offered a way out by the Iraq Study Group, which he seemed to reject, and has now gone for the bizarre option of putting in more troops to try to control the situation.

President Bush will be for ever remembered as the President who got bogged down in the war in Iraq, just as President Johnson is remembered as the President who was bogged down in the war in Vietnam. He knows what the opinion polls in the United Sates are telling him; the Prime Minister knows what opinion polls in this country are saying. There is worldwide condemnation of the war, the strategy behind it and the crazy thinking that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) pointed out, leads inexorably to yet more wars.

Is the United States now planning seriously for a war against Iran and the conflagration that that will cause all over the region? Members of the House have a duty to try to tell our own Government about public opinion in this country. We must also give them a message that, yes, there is enormous opposition to the war in Iraq, but if they tried to get involved in a war against Iran, the opposition would be even greater, not because we support the Iranian regime, but because we do not want Iranian people killed.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that for those of us who are just old enough to remember the Vietnamese war, the constant talk of one more push, one more offensive and one more surge is oh so reminiscent of that doomed foreign adventure, and it will end, as the Vietnamese war ended, with the US having to scuttle?

Jeremy Corbyn: I am slightly older than my hon. Friend, and that longevity has possibly given me even greater wisdom. I remember the Vietnam war well, and was very much involved in opposition to it. I remember General Westmoreland’s point, which has been made by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), that all that was needed was one more push. What a crazy suggestion that was, and it ended up with the US being defeated and forced to withdraw.

This debate is timely and important. We ought to have an opportunity to vote on the policy that the British people want towards Iraq and the middle east. I want to conclude on the situation in Palestine, which also relates to the middle east.

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During the Christmas-new year recess, I visited Palestine for a week, of my own volition and at my own cost. I did not go to many meetings or meet many organisations; I met one or two people. I spent most of the time just trying to travel about, from Jerusalem to Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Abu Dis and some other places. I reflected on what it must be like for young Palestinians brought up surrounded by armed occupation and checkpoints, regular incursions and bombings, shootings and killings, whose houses are now surrounded by a massive concrete wall, with watchtowers looming down photographing their every move. That is the life and the atmosphere in which young Palestinians are growing up.

Bethlehem, a beautiful town if ever there was one, with a wonderful history and setting, is now ruined, wrecked and surrounded by walls and watchtowers as the population become prisoners. Jericho is cut off from the rest of the west bank. The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho used to be a beautiful journey through those wonderful hills where one saw Bedouin tribes people tending their goats and sheep. It is now a superhighway with spur roads going off it joining settlements.

The message from Israel is: settlements go on, the conflict goes on, the occupation goes on. Meanwhile, 70 per cent. of the Palestinian people are without jobs and hope: desperation is the order of the day. If we are serious about peace and justice for the Palestinians, we will exert real pressure—for instance, by lifting the EU-Israel trade agreement—to make Israel start to respect the lives, wishes and hopes of the ordinary people of Palestine. Because it is a cause that is dear to the hearts of people all over the region, as well as to many other people, there are peace and human rights groups in Israel that also recognise that. The current strategy is not a road to peace; it is a road to occupation and, in the long run, to disaster. Peace comes through justice and understanding the causes of conflict; it does not come—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

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