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What freedoms have been bestowed on the Iraqi people? We must ask that question of the Bush Administration and the British Government.

The answer was provided clearly on 19 September 2003, when Paul Bremer, head of the coalition provisional authority, issued orders that included: the full privatisation of public enterprises in Iraq; full ownership rights for foreign firms of Iraqi businesses; the full repatriation of foreign profits; the opening of Iraq’s banks to foreign control; and the elimination of all trade barriers. Those orders applied to all sectors of the economy. Only oil was exempt, because of its key role, first, as a source of revenue to pay for the war and, secondly, because of its geopolitical significance. I hope that the Minister will answer the question raised by several Labour Back Benchers about what is happening to Iraqi oil.

The labour market, on the other hand, bucked the trend of neo-liberal thinking. It was to be strictly controlled, with the right to organise unions restricted and strikes forbidden in key sectors of the economy. The dream of all neoconservatives, the highly regressive flat tax, was also imposed. Bremer’s diktats were arguably in violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions, in so far as an occupying power is instructed to protect the assets of an occupied nation, not sell them off, as has been pointed out. The interim Iraqi Government appointed by the US at the end of June 2004 was then declared sovereign but only had the power effectively to rubber-stamp Bremer's existing laws.

At the heart of those machinations was the assumption that individual freedoms are guaranteed by freedom of the market and of trade: the key features of the neo-liberal ideology, now subsumed into that of the neocons, which has shaped US strategy towards the rest of the world, whether in eastern Europe, Latin America or Iraq. The freedoms embodied in the artificially constructed state apparatus of Iraq reflect the interests of private property owners, multinational corporations and international finance capital writ large, not the interests of the ordinary people of Iraq.

I now believe that the post 9/11 decision to invade Iraq was a mistake of massive proportions. The miserable situation in Iraq will have policy repercussions for decades to come. Already, despite the emphatic vote in the US mid-term elections against Bush’s adventurous policies, we hear Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice beginning the process of demonisation and isolation of states such as Iran and Syria. There is real danger in that. Whatever our reservations and serious concerns about the conduct of those or any other nations, it would be even more tragic if the US—and more relevantly, the UK Government—had not at least learned rudimentary lessons from the
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Iraq debacle, in which we have managed to turn a secular state into a breeding ground for religious jihadist groups.

We must now relearn the lesson that emphasis must be given to diplomacy, negotiation and respect for self-determination. Put simply, we can never again engage in military intervention on such a flawed prospectus.

Many would argue that the core failure of the Government’s foreign policy has been their inability or reluctance to influence the Bush Administration in any significant way, despite the huge sacrifice, military, political and financial, that this country has made. The Prime Minister has characterised that foreign policy as a “doctrine of benign intervention". If the disaster of Iraq has not taught us that people do not consider being invaded by a military superpower as benign, I wonder what will.

Along with alternative voices in the United States—I am pleased that their volume is increasing—we need to recast our vision for a world that is multipolar and not unipolar. We need to work with the many voices in America that approach foreign policy in the spirit of the famous American historian Daniel Boorstin, who said:

If we can grasp that simple fact, perhaps we can cast a better world.

6.30 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): We have had a long and interesting debate, to which some 23 Back Benchers of all parties have contributed. I think it is genuinely a pity that it was only finally forced on the Government, to take place in Government time, as a result of parliamentary pressure from both sides. I hope and trust that the Minister will convey to the Cabinet the wish of Conservative Members, at least, for further debates on Iraq and the middle east in Government time over the next few months.

The situation in Iraq is, as was said recently by the Secretary of State for International Development, “grim”, and I think the same could be said of the mood in all parts of House as we dealt with not just the situation in Iraq but the Israel-Palestine situation, the confrontation with Iran and the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. The debate, however, has given us a chance to have an overview of British foreign policy, and to test the Secretary of State on it in a variety of ways.

Many Members on both sides of the House have referred frequently to our relations with the United States of America. Over the past two or three years there has been considerable angst about the fact that we are the junior partner, and the fact that the Prime Minister appears to have only limited influence over President Bush. I have to say, perhaps somewhat in the Prime Minister’s defence, that that is the reality of power politics. Anyone examining the relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt will realise that whatever the niceties and whatever the attempts by the British to spin it—and Churchill—at the end of the day we were a supplicant, as we have demonstrably been since the Suez crisis.

Ultimately, of course, how we influence the senior partner is a matter of judgment. I suspect many of us
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believe that the Prime Minister’s approach, which is on the whole just to agree and to try to influence American policy at the margins, has not been the correct one. There is a feeling across the House that there is a desire for, in the future—even if we are in a close relationship with our greatest allies—what is demonstrably an independent British foreign policy, and that at times there will be disagreements with that partner.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us exactly what the relations and arrangements are between the United States military and the United Kingdom military in Iraq in respect of the surge operations that are to take place in Baghdad. I understand that American military spokesmen now say they are still being worked out. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and others pointed out that any American operations in Baghdad would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the situation in the south, and might well delay the withdrawal of British troops.

As for the time scale, in some ways we are all guilty of imagining that if we involve ourselves in large-scale operations, somehow they will all be over within a few months with—thanks to technology—relatively few casualties. Most of the operations involving what we are seeing in Iraq have taken many years to conclude, and they often have no easy ending. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) said a few minutes ago, there is no purely military solution. As many Members have said, ultimately the solution must be political. The military can, of course, provide the framework and, often, the opportunity for that political solution to be able to come about.

The conflict in Iraq has had an impact on everything else in the middle east. It has encouraged both Syria and Iran, it has undoubtedly encouraged Islamic extremists and it has undermined the friendly Governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. We should not underestimate the importance of the role that those Governments have played and can play in future. Many of them feel that consultation with the American and British Governments frequently consists of being told 20 minutes beforehand of a decision that has an immediate impact on their policy.

I want to look at three crucial areas that have affected British foreign policy in the middle east. The first is, obviously, Iraq. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, we welcome the report of the Iraq Study Group, which had much to offer. My personal view was that the report was not a solution but a menu from which the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister could take elements. Whether they wanted to or not is another matter, but it had a lot to offer.

We were sceptical about the proposal by President Bush of a surge. “Surge” means reinforcements and putting more troops into Baghdad. General Petraeus, the American who is going to be in charge of that, may have made it work two years ago when he was commanding in Iraq. The problem now is that that surge is being seen as having to work in a very limited time scale, and for counter-insurgency operations that is not going to be an option.

Therefore, it is unlikely that that surge on its own will work. What will perhaps work is American troops being
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embedded with the Iraqi army and more and more security tasks being handed over to the Iraqi army. There is no firm guarantee that it will work, but that is about the best political-military option that we have.

Conservative Members, like other hon. Members, have been concerned that senior British officers have believed that our presence in southern Iraq has become part of the overall problem. That is not to say that they have been advocating immediate withdrawal, or indeed withdrawal according to some timeline. I made my position clear when I said that the arbitrary decision to produce a month out of a Liberal hat—October—for the withdrawal of our troops is completely ridiculous, but there is no doubt that some of our senior officers think that we are part of the problem.

Secondly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been touched on by many hon. Members. There is, I suspect, a feeling that the British Government have been unable to influence not so much the participants in that dispute, but the American Government to keep the peace process going. It seems to many of us that we only concentrate on the Israeli-Palestinian problem when there is a major crisis. When there is not a major crisis and major conflict stops, we tend to turn our attention somewhere else. I ask the Minister to explain where we have got to in terms of our influence over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. What are we trying to do to resolve the situation in Lebanon, which looks increasingly like the Weimar Republic of the middle east, with a weak Government being torn apart by armed militias?

Thirdly, Conservative Members are absolutely determined that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. We do not think that it should do so because of the nature of the Iranian Government and the kind of threats that they have made to their neighbours, not just Israel. There is no doubt that a raft of foreign policy tools must be used to contain Iran and to persuade it not to go down that track. Those tools largely involve the international community. There is no doubt that the Iranian Government, despite all their arrogance and swaggering, were absolutely surprised to be hauled up and publicly admonished by the United Nations. No Government can ever rule out the prospect of using military force of one kind or another. Individual countries are entitled to use such force under the United Nations charter and, ultimately, the UN itself can do so. Any attempt to deny that undermines our ability to influence Iran.

The Prime Minister gave a lecture in Plymouth on defence and security policy—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned. The Prime Minister explained again his policy of humanitarian interventionism and his belief that we were entering a long period of war on terror. He also said that he believed that we should be prepared to pay the cost—pay the cost literally in terms of investment in the armed forces, and also pay the cost in terms of the casualties that our armed forces might take. I did wonder whether the lecture was aimed less at the British public and armed forces and more at the Prime Minister in waiting. So many coded and uncoded messages have been aimed at the Chancellor over the
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past few months, that what is happening becomes more and more like a Shakespearean play.

Our armed forces are now fighting a two-front war. We should not forget that the level of intensity of operations in Afghanistan has, to borrow the words of General David Richards, not been seen since the Korean war. I suspect that the time line for the withdrawal of substantial numbers of British troops from Iraq will have less to do with the situation in Iraq than with the campaign responsibilities in Afghanistan.

When King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Members of both Houses just before Christmas, he pointed out that we were entering a brief period in which we could resolve the situation in the middle east—he said that it would last for the next four or five months. General David Richards has said the same in terms of Afghanistan. Therefore, I suspect that spring of this year will be a period in which there will be much greater conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, unless we resolve the situations in those countries.

British foreign policy in the middle east has been degraded by the speculation over the past few months about when the Prime Minister will leave office. We are now in a hiatus. Senior British officers and people in the Foreign Office and the middle east believe that the Prime Minister has lost his power, and they assume that the Chancellor will take over. That weakens British foreign policy. I also do not think that the Chancellor can resile from all the foreign policy decisions that have been made over the past 10 years. He likes to nudge and hint that somehow or other he was not involved—that somehow or other he had nothing to do with those decisions. He did, and he should not resile from his responsibilities. If and when he becomes Prime Minister, it will be interesting to discover what fundamental differences in policy he makes.

The United Kingdom still has considerable influence in the middle east. We still have many friends, and we have interests and commitments. We now need to show that we have a clear view of what those interests are, and that we are prepared to commit our armed forces to defend those interests and, where necessary, to intervene on the grounds of humanitarian interventionism.

However, we cannot fight wars on the cheap. A number of Members have said that although some extra money is coming in, the armed forces are strapped for equipment, strapped for cash and cannot carry on at the current level of operation. Terrorism will be contained and defeated only with a combination of diplomatic, economic and military power, in co-operation with allies. In the middle east in particular, that involves co-operation with our natural friends in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

This has been a good debate. It is a pity that it had to be demanded of the Government, and it is sad that the Prime Minister was unable to be here to listen to it and—far from opening it—perhaps wind it up and give us his views on the way ahead. We will expect to see him at the Dispatch Box in the near future.

6.45 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am grateful to the Members of this House, who, through their contributions to this afternoon’s long debate, have illustrated clearly the extent of the challenges that we face in our efforts to help bring
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long-term peace and stability to the middle east. I pay tribute to the professionalism and sacrifices of our brave armed forces deployed across the region. Their great contribution is vital to the best interests of this country, and to the values at the core of our society.

Members of this House have an extensive knowledge and experience of the region which reflects Britain’s deep and historic relationship with the middle east. That relationship, as we have heard this afternoon, weighs heavily on the shoulders of this country. History has taught us that it is in this country’s interest to help in whatever way we can to resolve the bitter conflicts that continue to divide the region and stem its long-term development.

Ms Katy Clark: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Howells: No.

It is a task fraught with difficulties, and rarely has it been any different. The middle east is not some easily definable, homogenous entity. As we have heard today and as I have discovered for myself during many visits to the middle east, it is a region of complex relationships. It is a region whose cities and towns face problems that we can recognise only too clearly. They include, of course, similar threats of terrorism, sectarianism and mutual suspicion of ethnic groups. Inevitably, the terror and sectarian murders are perpetrated by a minority of people—a tiny percentage of the overall population—who are prepared to use violence indiscriminately against their fellow citizens, and who seize upon grievances and use them ruthlessly to set people of different faiths and ethnic groups against each other.

That is illustrated most vividly and tragically in Iraq. This Government believe that, if we are to arrest a further slide into instability and bloodshed, we need a peace and reconciliation process that reaches across frontiers, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out at the start of this debate. At the heart of this process must be a co-ordinated effort to stop the violence. That means not only tackling head-on those who kill and maim, but challenging the basis of their ideas—their moral justification for the atrocities that they perpetrate. It means, as well, working with the Governments of the middle east, the Arab League and others to address the underlying issues—be they political, economic or social—fuelling the twisted ideology of terrorism.

In Iraq, we will continue to work with our coalition partners to help the Iraqi Government bring the violence under control, so that the fragile political process can begin to take firmer root and the economy can grow in a country that could be one of the most prosperous in the world. We will continue to urge all those who are party to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to work vigorously towards progress. That means, among many other things, that we will keep up the pressure on those two very different countries of Iran and Syria to follow a constructive path and play a constructive role in the region.

I assure the House that I would have no difficulty in discussing these crucial issues with the Syrian Government, but we are looking for clear reciprocal evidence that they are prepared to desist from arming and financing terrorist organisations in Lebanon and Palestine. I hope that that evidence will come, perhaps
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even through the back channels of which the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) spoke. I hope that it comes from Iran too, but I will not be holding my breath.

We will support moderate and democratic Governments, but not those intent on causing mischief in Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan. We have to build up partnerships with key strategic allies, promote political, economic and social reform, and support further development. Most importantly, we must seek to win the support and partnership of the vast majority of people across the middle east and those beyond who share our values of justice, tolerance and respect and utterly reject the extremists’ dogma.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I do not have time to do so.

It is all very well to call for talks with Iran and, through the E3 plus 3, we have talked endlessly with Iran, despite President Ahmadinejad’s unwillingness to do anything but urge his scientists and engineers to press ahead with enriching sufficient uranium to make an atomic bomb—because that is what is happening. I have no doubt, after several visits to Basra and Baghdad, that the Iranians are also providing explosives, detonators and training to the Shi’a militias who are trying to kill our troops and, sometimes, tragically succeeding. Let the House not forget that.

In Iraq, we have to continue to help to build the capacity of the Iraqi Government to deliver security and services so that they are able to assume full responsibility for running their own affairs. Transfer of sovereign power has been achieved. Transfer of responsibility of security is under way. Our fundamental objectives remain to assist and support improved security and promote national unity; to increase Iraqi capacity to maintain security so that the Iraqi Government are able to resume responsibility for security as early as possible; and to encourage the international community, including neighbouring countries, to play a constructive and supportive role.

As my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence have made clear, circumstances vary greatly from one part of Iraq to another. It should therefore be no surprise, and it is certainly not inconsistent, that our plans for achieving transition in Basra may appear different from those in Baghdad. Events that occur can certainly be different in their nature and impact. It was a wise Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who warned us that it is events that we have to look out for, because they can destroy even the best laid plans. I suggest strongly that the Liberal Democrats remember that only at great risk do they set deadlines like that described earlier today by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

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