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21 Feb 2007 : Column 262

Throughout all the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed, one hope remains. Talk to anyone in Iraq of whatever denomination, whether they are Iraqi or part of the multinational force, whether civilian or military, and they all say the same thing: the majority of Iraqis do not want it to be like this. They voted despite the violence, they know its purpose and its effect and they hate both. There can be legitimate debate about what was right and what was wrong in respect of the original decision to remove Saddam. There can be no debate about the rights and wrongs of what is happening in Iraq today. The desire for democracy is good; the attempt to destroy it through terrorism is evil. Unfortunately, that is not the question. The question is not should we, but can we defeat this evil, and do we have a plan to succeed?

Since the outset, our plan, agreed by Iraq and the United Nations, has been to build up Iraqi capability in order to let Iraqis take control of their own destiny, and that as they would step up, we would increasingly step back. For three years, therefore, we have been working to create, train and equip Iraqi security forces capable of taking on the security of the country themselves.

In normal circumstances, the progress would be considered remarkable. There are now 10 divisions of the new Iraqi army and more than 130,000 soldiers, able in significant parts of the country to provide order. There are 135,000 personnel in the Iraqi police service. There, the progress has been more constrained, and frequently hampered by corruption and sectarianism, but none the less, again, in normal circumstances, it would be considered a remarkable effort. The plan of General Petraeus, then an army commander in Iraq and now head of the coalition forces there, which was conceived in 2004, has in its essential respects been put in place.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Iraqi forces have often proved valiant, but the various forces against them have also redoubled their efforts. In particular, in and around Baghdad, where 80 to 90 per cent. of the violence is centred, they have engaged in a systematic attempt to bring the city to chaos. It is the capital of Iraq. Its strategic importance is fundamental. There has been an orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of its functioning. It does not much matter if elsewhere in Iraq, not least in Basra, change is happening. If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that, and we understand it.

So last year, in concert with our allies and the Iraqi Government, a new plan was formulated, and promulgated by President Bush in January this year. The purpose is unchanged. Indeed, there can be only one purpose in Iraq—to support the Government and people of the country to attain the necessary capability to run their own affairs as a sovereign independent state. However, the means of achieving the purpose were adjusted to meet the changing nature of the threat. The Baker-Hamilton report, to which I pay tribute, also informed the strategy.

There are three elements to this plan. First, there is the Baghdad security initiative, drawn up by Prime Minister Maliki and currently under way. It aims, as the operation in Basra has done, to take the city district
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by district, drive out the extremists, put the legitimate Iraqi forces in charge and then make it fit for development with a special fund in place able to deliver rapid improvement. This began last Tuesday. It is far too early to tell its results, although early indications are more promising than what was tried unsuccessfully some months back. In particular, there is no doubt of its welcome among ordinary people in Baghdad.

The second part of the plan is a massive effort to gear up the capability of the Iraqi forces, to plug any gaps in command, logistics, training and equipment. Thirdly, there is a new and far more focused effort on reconciliation, reconstruction and development. There are now talks between Iraqi officials and both Sunni and Shi’a elements that have been engaged in fighting. It is again too early to draw conclusions, but this is being given a wholly different priority within the Iraqi Government and by the multinational force.

In addition, there have been changes made by Prime Minister Maliki, to whose leadership I again pay tribute, to the way in which economic development and reconstruction moneys are administered within the Iraqi Government, with the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, given specific responsibility. That will allow the disbursement of funds to be made and will allow, in Baghdad and elsewhere, development and reconstruction to follow closely on the heels of improved security.

The objective of all this is to show the terrorists that they cannot win, to show those who can be reconciled that they have a place in the new Iraq, and to show the Iraqi people that, however long it takes, the legitimate Iraqi Government whom they elected, and whom the international community support, will prevail.

The aim of the additional US forces announced by President Bush is precisely to demonstrate that determination. If the plan succeeds, then of course the requirement for the multinational force reduces, including in Baghdad. It is important to show—particularly to show the Iraqi people—that we do not desire our forces to remain for any longer than they are needed, but, while they are needed, that we will be at their side. In this context, what is happening in Basra is of huge importance. Over the past months, we have been conducting an operation in Basra, with the 10th division of the Iraqi army, to reach the stage where Basra can be secured by the Iraqis themselves.

The situation in Basra is very different from that in Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency and no al-Qaeda base. There is little Shi’a on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the multinational force. It has never presented anything like the challenge in Baghdad. That said, British soldiers are under regular, and often intense fire from extremist groups, notably elements of Jaish-al-Mahdi. I would like, as I have often done in this House, to pay my profound respect to the British armed forces. Whatever views people have about Iraq, our forces are dedicated, professional, committed and brave beyond belief. This country can be immensely proud of them, and we send again our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen and to the injured and their families.

As a result of the operation in Basra, which is now complete, the Iraqi forces now have the primary role for
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security in most parts of the city. It is a still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place, but many extremists have been arrested or have left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis after the operations have been conducted show a much greater sense of security. Reconstruction is now happening in schools and health centres; in fact, there are about 300 projects altogether.

A few days ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, organised the Basra development forum. He announced a $200 million programme of development and infrastructure in public services. In addition, the international community, with Britain in the lead, has developed projects to increase power supply, put in place proper sewerage systems and increased the supply of drinking water to thousands of homes. The plan to develop Basra port will be published later this year. The problems remain formidable, not least in providing work where for decades 50 per cent. or more of the city’s inhabitants have been unemployed. In an extraordinary development, the Marsh Arabs, driven from one of the world’s foremost ecological sites by Saddam, have been able to resettle there.

What all this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis. I have discussed this with Prime Minister Maliki, and our proposals have his full support and, indeed, represent his wishes.

Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra over the coming months we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. I should say that none of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100—itself down from more than 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict—to roughly 5,500. However, with the exception of forces which will remain at Basra palace, the British forces will be located at Basra airbase and be in a support role. They will transfer the Shaibah logistics base, the old state building and the Shatt al-Arab hotel to full Iraqi control.

The British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and support to Iraqi forces; securing the Iraq-Iran border; securing supply routes; and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and to be there in support of the Iraqi army when called upon. Over time, and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the Iraqi security forces, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer.

We hope that Maysan province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months, and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly, our role will be support and training and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly.

Throughout the whole of that part of the south-east, the UK depends on the steadfastness of our coalition partners: Denmark, Australia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. I pay tribute to them. I welcome the continuing Australian role at Tallil in Dhi Qar province. We are keeping in close touch with our allies as the transition proceeds.

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The speed at which that happens depends partly on what we do and what the Iraqi authorities do, but also on the attitude of those whom we are, together, fighting. Their claim to be fighting for the liberation of their country is a palpable lie. They know perfectly well that if they stop the terror, agree to let the UN democratic process work and allow the natural talent and wealth of the country to emerge, Iraq would prosper and we could leave. It is precisely their intent to eliminate such a possibility.

In truth, this is part of a wider struggle that is taking place across the region. The middle east faces an epochal struggle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. The same elements of extremism that try to submerge Iraq—or, for that matter, Afghanistan—stand in the way of a different and better future throughout the region.

None of that absolves us from our responsibility. Indeed, for too long we believed that, provided that regimes were on our side, what they did to their own people was their business. We must never forget that Saddam inflicted 1 million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war and butchered hundreds of thousands of his citizens, including by chemical weapons attack, wiping out whole villages.

We need to recognise that the spread of greater freedom, democracy and justice to the region is the best guarantee of our future security as well as the region’s prosperity. That is why peace between Israel and Palestine does not inhabit a different policy domain; it is a crucial part of the whole piece. I shall meet President Abbas later today and also talk to Prime Minister Olmert. In the past 24 hours, I have had detailed discussions with President Bush and Secretary Rice. I shall emphasise again today the importance of basing the proposed national unity Government on the principles of the Quartet. I will also stress our total determination to use the new opportunity to create the chance for peace.

I have always been a supporter of the state of Israel and I shall always remain so. However, for the sake of Israel as well as for all we want to achieve in the middle east, we need a proper, well-functioning, independent and viable state of Palestine.

We should support all those throughout the region who tread the path of progress, from the Government of Lebanon, whose Prime Minister courageously holds firm to democracy, to those countries—there are many now—that are taking the first, fledgling steps to a different and more democratic governance.

As for Iran and Syria, they should not be treated as if they were the same. There is evidence recently that Syria has realised the threat that al-Qaeda poses and is acting against it. However, its intentions towards Iraq remain ambiguous and towards Lebanon, hostile. The statements emanating from Iran are contradictory, but as the words yesterday of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency show, its nuclear weapons ambitions appear to continue. Both countries, though very different, have a clear choice: work with the international community or defy it. They can support peace in Palestine, democracy in Lebanon and the elected Government of Iraq, in which case they will find us willing to respond, or they can undermine every chance of progress, uniting with the worst and most
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violent elements, in which case they will become increasingly isolated politically and economically.

No one should doubt that, whatever the debates about tactics, the strategy must be clear: to bring about enduring change in the middle east as an indispensable part of our own enduring security. The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential—essential for Iraq but also for us in our country. Self-evidently, the challenge is enormous. It is the purpose of our enemies to make it so, but our purpose in the face of their threat should be to stand up to them to make it clear that, however arduous the challenge, the values that they represent will not win and those that we represent will.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. We welcome and support his announcement that 1,600 of our troops will return from Iraq by the end of this year. That news will be welcome in this House, in the country and especially to the families of those serving in Iraq over the coming months. We owe a huge debt to the professionalism, courage and dedication shown by our armed forces serving in Iraq, as elsewhere, and we should never forget those who lost their lives, whose families grieve for them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I visited Iraq in November. It was clear from our conversations with military commanders in Basra, who briefed us on Operation Sinbad, that there was a limit to what British troops could continue to achieve once that operation was completed, so it is right that they should now start to be withdrawn. But does the Prime Minister accept that that news is inevitably tempered by questions and concerns about the dire situation that persists in Iraq today, about its implications for Iraq’s neighbours and the rest of the region and, above all, about the safety and security of our troops who will remain?

In his statement today, the Prime Minister spoke about “wretched and inexcusable bloodshed”, and an “orgy of terrorism” in Baghdad. Will the Prime Minister pledge to continue to give candid assessments about the security situation in Iraq, particularly about the situation facing our forces in Basra? Anyone who has been there can see how it has deteriorated dramatically over the last three years. British troops who are there, often on their second or third tour, know that that is the case. The air station in Basra, to which many of our personnel will be withdrawn, comes under regular rocket attack, so what steps will be taken to ensure that our smaller forces based around Basra air station are able to protect themselves from encroaching militias? Will the Prime Minister confirm once again that all requests for equipment and protection will be granted?

Looking beyond Basra to the wider situation in Iraq, we, too, want to see Iraq become a stable democracy at peace with itself and at ease with its neighbours, but we are very far from that goal today. Does the Prime Minister agree that three things are essential to bring the situation under control? First, he spoke about the rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the
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Iraqi army. Can he tell us what he believes the major gaps still are and how quickly they can be filled? Secondly, we need a more determined effort, as he said, to push Iraq’s own political leaders towards an internal political settlement between Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd. Does he agree that that must mean the disarming of all militias? Thirdly, is not what is required the creation of an international contact group, including members of the Security Council and nearby states, to buttress and support the Government of Iraq? Can the Prime Minister tell the House what is being done to implement those steps?

All those were, of course, recommendations contained in the Baker-Hamilton report, which the Prime Minister set great store by at the time. But despite his claim in today’s statement that the Baker-Hamilton report informed the US strategy, those steps were not all included in the different plans announced by the US Administration last month, which the Prime Minister also supported. Will he continue specifically to press for an international contact group to be set up as Baker-Hamilton suggested?

The Prime Minister spoke of the effort to bring peace to the middle east. Again, we wholeheartedly support that. Tomorrow, like the Prime Minister, I will meet President Abbas and next week I will visit Israel and meet the Israeli Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister said that he is a strong supporter of the state of Israel; so am I.

I note that the Prime Minister said that Syria should be treated differently from Iran, which is a change from his rhetoric about “arcs of extremism”, but can he tell us how he plans to engage with Syria, and specifically, what were the results of his envoy’s visit to Damascus?

On Iran, the Prime Minister did not specifically mention that today marks the expiry of the UN Security Council deadline for the country to suspend nuclear enrichment. Will the Prime Minister call for EU countries to join the United States in implementing additional financial sanctions to maximise the peaceful pressure that we want to see on the Iranian regime, so that it turns away from its dangerous course?

The Prime Minister spoke—impressively, as he always does—about the importance of spreading democracy and freedom in the middle east. He is right. There is a global terror threat; it is linked with a perverted ideology that we need to confront both at home and abroad. There are times, I agree, when it may require, as a last resort, military force to deal with it, but surely he would agree with me that we must also learn the broader lessons of the six years since 9/11; that the strategy must go beyond military force, that we need the soft power of diplomacy to accompany the hard power of military action, that we need broad-based alliances right across the region, that democracy takes time and that we should always act with moral authority. As a moral purpose always must be accompanied by moral means, surely we must recognise that, in the last six years, issues like Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition have done huge damage to our moral authority.

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On the question of learning lessons, can I ask the Prime Minister this? Many of us in the House supported the intervention in Iraq, but there have been many, many bad mistakes. Is it not essential that we learn the lessons of those mistakes? [Interruption.] I know that the Prime Minister has up to now said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hear noises from the Liberal Benches and they are out of order. Bearing in mind that the leader of the Liberal party will be able to put questions to the Prime Minister, those noises are quite out of order. The Leader of the official Opposition is speaking and I will not allow Liberal Democrat Members to intervene in that way.

Mr. Cameron: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I know that the Prime Minister has, up to now, said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by Privy Councillors into the conduct of the war and into the decisions that were made, but will he today accept at least the principle of the need for such an inquiry? Will he do that today?

The Prime Minister: First, it is very important that we do everything we can to protect our troops, who will still face a difficult task—there is no doubt about that at all—in Basra. They will continue, incidentally, with the full combat capability that they have. What they are essentially doing is withdrawing from parts of Basra and doing the patrolling there, but the ability to get after the extremist elements, including the ones that are attacking us, remains undiminished. They will continue to do so. Of course we will ensure that they have the equipment and protection that we can give them.

As for the Baker-Hamilton report, let me just explain that it is correct that, because of issues to do with Iran and Syria—I shall come back to them in a moment—it was very much taken as if the Administration’s plan published in January was a rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report, but the elements in it are the only elements that anyone looking into the issue could emphasise. They are building up the Iraqi army, building up the Iraqi governance capability and making sure that those in the region help and support in that process. Both the Baker-Hamilton report and the Administration’s proposals are geared to dealing with gaps in the Iraqi army, which are essentially to do with command and control logistics, training and equipping. General Petraeus is in the process of ensuring that those gaps are dealt with.

In respect of the Iraqi Government themselves, it is a lot to do with the actual capability of disbursing the money. For example, there is a lot of money in the Iraqi oil account that could be used for reconstruction. The fact that Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is now in charge of that will make a big difference. That is important.

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