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21 Feb 2007 : Column 275

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I look forward, as we all do, to the day when the last British soldier leaves Iraq, and I heard what my right hon. Friend said in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, but will he acknowledge that, given the range of hostile elements in Iraq, there is a limit to the extent to which he can reduce the number of troops in any area without beginning to increase the risk to them? Will he assure the House that in reaching decisions in future about reducing force numbers, the safety of the troops that remain deployed will be paramount?

The Prime Minister: Of course it will remain paramount. Of course, troops will still be subject to attack at Basra air base, although they are going to have the capacity to respond to that, and they will do so vigorously—indeed they have been taking combat action against some of those extremist elements with great success over the past few weeks—but the biggest problem that our troops have is that they are very much at risk when they are on patrol in Basra, so the fact that they are going out of the main districts in Basra will, hopefully, reduce the risk to them at least there. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing out the fact that we will continue to have a real challenge there and it is a challenge that our forces will continue to have to meet.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): We all hope that today's statement from the Prime Minister marks the beginning of the end in terms of the active engagement of our armed forces. None the less, I am sure that he would want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that, for the rest of us, in this country and the world generally, it is far from the beginning of the end. The quagmire that we are almost inevitably leaving behind in Iraq, given what will now take place, will have ramifications. While he is right, or he takes the view that he is right, that no apologies should be offered, surely he should none the less take this opportunity to say that, for our country and for the Americans, it was a horrendous error at least, given what took place, never to give effect to a proper body count of the innocent Iraqi men, women and children who were lost as a result of the conflict that has taken place. That is a terrible reflection on our values as perceived in that country and the Arabic world generally—one which we will live with for a long time. When the Prime Minister did have his discussion with—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but I must stop the right hon. Gentleman.

The Prime Minister: First, I simply do not accept, as I have said before, that innocent people in Iraq are dying as a result of our actions. They are not. They are dying as a result of the actions of terrorists and sectarians. I do not agree that our troops, as they withdraw from that part of Basra, are leaving a quagmire behind. They are not. The right hon. Gentleman should read carefully the accounts of the operation that has been conducted by British troops and pay attention. I do not think that we should completely disfranchise the elected Iraqi politicians in this situation. Those politicians have been elected. They are part of the Government and they do not
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believe that their country would have been better off if Saddam were still in charge. Nor do they believe that what is happening in their country today is leaving it a quagmire. They believe that they have the same right to democratic freedom as we have. I do not see why we should not support them in that.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister has referred several times to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group recommendations and he is right that the British Government have been engaged with Syria and Iran. Is not the essence of those recommendations that the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, should change its approach and perhaps do what it has done with North Korea? Perhaps that would be the best way of getting a solution in the region.

The Prime Minister: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. Of course there is a lot of wisdom in the view that it is important, even if you believe that people are hostile to you, to engage with them. It is precisely for that reason—I played some part in the discussions that led up to this—that the Americans agreed that, if there were a suspension of enrichment, which after all is the United Nations demand, they would participate in talks with the Iranians, for the first time in 27 years. They did make that offer. Indeed, they have made continual offers. It is hard to believe that the reason why the Iranians are doing what they are doing is that they do not know where the Americans or the rest of us stand on these issues. I think that they do. The Iranians, in my experience, are past masters at having all sorts of discussions with people and seeing different people—people go in and out of Tehran the whole time, back channels are opened here and there and everyone thinks that perhaps they are really going to make progress this time—and then it all never comes to anything. They have to realise that the international community is going to be firm as well as prepared to engage with them in order to get any results from them.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Today's news is extremely good. Does the Prime Minister accept that he deserves genuine credit for having kept his nerve and not withdrawn the troops prematurely, despite the strong pressures on him? We have got to the point today where we are making some real progress. On Iran, while of course diplomacy must be tried, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is correct that we need to go for tougher sanctions, particularly if we can get them through the Security Council, would it not be utterly irresponsible not to recognise that there is a real possibility that the last thing the Iranians want or would accept is a strong, united and successful democratic Iraq on their borders, and the last thing that they will ever agree to do, whatever the pressures on them, is to give up their enrichment and their nuclear weapons programmes? Do we not seriously have to confront that unfortunate, hideous possibility and plan accordingly?

The Prime Minister: I think that what the hon. Gentleman is saying is right in this sense. No one wants to resolve the issue with Iran in anything other than a diplomatic way, and no one is looking for
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confrontation with Iran, but we are faced with two unfortunate facts, as he rightly says. One is, as we can see from today, that they intend to carry on their enrichment process, which cannot be about civil nuclear power. The second is that all over the region, but obviously in Iraq, they are trying to do their utmost to undermine proper, elected Government. I think that it is possible to exert the right pressure, but he is right: we will have a far better chance of resolving this peacefully, as everyone wants, if the international community remains united and strong.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I for one will not use my right hon. Friend as an excuse for how I voted at the time. As he may know, I am quite capable of making up my own mind, as I did over Kosovo. Would it not be right to recognise that the large majority of British people, four years after the defeat and ending of Saddam’s tyranny, want to see a continuing reduction of British troops in that country, more or less along the lines that he has indicated—in fact, more so? We cannot stay there indefinitely. Whatever the United States decides to do, the policy that he has outlined today is indeed the right one.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I know that he would only vote according to his conscience on any of these issues. It is important to recognise the fundamental difference between Basra and Baghdad. The situation in Baghdad is simply not the same. The best guide for our own actions is the Iraqi Government. They are keen on the proposal to ensure that the Baghdad security plan is still in place and implemented. They are equally keen that the British draw down in Basra. That is because they recognise that, whereas in the one place they are fully capable of taking that control, in the other, they are not. That is a sensible way to approach that matter. I pay tribute to the allies that we have had in the south, who have done magnificent work there. This is always put in terms of British and American troops, but well over 20 other countries have been involved.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Is it correct that before the last Iraqi elections the Prime Minister sent officials from his office to assist the Iraqi party of his choice—the party of the then Iraqi Prime Minister? I am pretty confident that that is correct. It would be completely unacceptable if a foreign Government were to offer such assistance to a political party in our country, so why did the Prime Minister think that it was acceptable for the United Kingdom Government to do that in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: It is always important that we do everything we can to assist stability in that country. I will not go into the details of any help that we provided to that particular Prime Minister or any other Iraqi politician. If the hon. Gentleman were dealing with this matter in the way that I am, I think that he would do everything he could to make sure that we get the necessary stability in Iraq, and sometimes it is important to work through certain politicians to do that.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister realise that many people outside the
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House will find it very strange that in his statement he made no reference to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died in the past four years, or to the effect of depleted uranium usage, and the cancer rates in Iraq, or to the remaining cluster bombs? Does he not also think that the current attitude towards Iran and the threats being made towards it are leading us into another disaster like that which we are apparently about to come out of in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: I made specific mention, as I always do, of the terrible carnage; I think that I called it the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed. The only point I would make is one that I have made to other Members: that carnage is being caused by terrorists and extremists. It is important that we try to fight that in that country.

In respect of Iran, the issue is very simple. We will not get ourselves into the ludicrous position where a large part of western opinion is asking, “Why are we seeking this confrontation with Iran?” We are not seeking any confrontation with Iran. We are simply pointing out that, under its international obligations, it should not be developing a nuclear weapons programme and that it should stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine and elsewhere. I would have thought that, even from a progressive political point of view, we should be saying to Iran that both of those activities are wrong.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Prime Minister accept that announcing a timetable for withdrawal from any conflict while it is still going on sends an invitation to insurgents to redouble their efforts? Does he accept that that is not what he has done today, but that it was spun in the media last night that that was what he was going to do? Will he take this opportunity to distance himself from last night’s media reports that he was setting a timetable for withdrawal, which would have put our soldiers at risk?

The Prime Minister: First, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that my experience over the past few years is that I am singularly incapable of spinning the media one way or another on issues— [Interruption]—particularly on this issue, on which it is incredibly difficult to get any balanced coverage at all. However, what he says is absolutely right. The reason why we are able to draw down is because the conditions have been met. It would be absolutely disastrous—we are not doing this in any shape or form—to say that future draw-downs are unconditional. Everything is conditions-based—based on progress and the capability of the Iraqi forces.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the Prime Minister that the Israel-Palestinian question is fundamental, but does he agree that there is currently a vacuum in the Palestinian territories? I saw with my own eyes during the summer the increasing squalor and poverty there, and in a breakfast meeting this morning with the Israeli Finance Minister it was acknowledged that an economic development initiative for the whole area is essential—an initiative that tackles the land ownership question and also allows greater freedom of movement,
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thereby stimulating more inward investment and increasing the chances of both peace and prosperity in that area.

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend: that is exactly what is necessary. The question is how to achieve that. We need a political framework within which a negotiated solution can take place. I think that it should be possible to get a solution to the situation in the middle east even though people say, “It’s been going on for decades so how on earth can you be optimistic about that in any shape or form, particularly given the suffering of people on the Palestinian side, and not to mention the lack of security in parts of Israel, too?” The reason why I think that that is possible is because everyone is now agreed that we want a two-state solution. The territorial issue has to be solved, which can done, and there are issues to do with right of return and Jerusalem, which are difficult but not incapable of resolution, but the rest of it is just to decide for peace. If there were peace, the Palestinian territory would, of course, attract massive investment. That is what is so tragic about the current situation. As we have learned from the example in Northern Ireland, where there is peace we get economic development. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, but what is needed is for everybody—all the key parties—to agree to the basic principles of the framework that I hope we will be able to set out in the near future.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Prime Minister states that he wants to keep the troops in Iraq while the Iraqi people want them there. When, therefore, will the Prime Minister organise a democratic referendum by secret ballot of the Iraqi people to find out what they want?

The Prime Minister: They had an election: 12 million of them voted—the turnout was 70 per cent.—and they elected a Government, who are a unity Government. That is what they said they wanted. We would do well to take account of the elected Government of Iraq rather than, with the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman.

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Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the professionalism of our forces in Basra, which has enabled them to come back. I also agree that the real issue in Iraq is to resolve the situation in Baghdad. In order to do that, would he look towards the Organisation of the Islamic Conference—apart from Syria—having a greater engagement?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I think that if the OIC can play a greater role, that would be sensible. Certainly it is important that all the countries in the area do what they can to assist; that is because they have a profound self-interest in doing so, quite apart from any other reason.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On the broader issue of the landscape of moral purpose and of values, how does the Prime Minister reconcile his entirely laudable aims in regard to poverty and democracy with the deeper problem of theocratic fundamentalism that drives so many of the policies in the region?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that poverty per se is the reason for that theocratic fundamentalism; I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, I do think that improved economic development plays a part. That is particularly the case in the African context where there are very worrying developments with this same type of extremism getting a foothold in conflicts. In general terms, the more prosperous and democratic people are, the less inclined they are to be drawn to any form of fundamentalism, political or theocratic.

Let me say what I think is the interesting thing about Iraq and Afghanistan. Where the people were given the chance to vote, they voted not to have fundamentalism. They voted for a broad-based non-sectarian Government. The key question is whether the extremists—some of whom are attached to theocratic fundamentalist movements—can push them into sectarianism, even though their first desire was not to go towards that at all. We need to deal with both of the issues referred to, but I believe that the more economic development there is in the region, the better it will be.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Points of Order

1.38 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister has just made a statement regarding Iraq and he claimed that al-Qaeda entered Iraq in 2002. That is incorrect; al-Qaeda entered Iraq in 2003. Will the Prime Minister be given the opportunity to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Chair. I said earlier that I am not responsible for the words of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed how many Members were still rising to be called at the end of the Prime Minister’s statement. Does that not indicate to you the desire of this House to have a full debate in Government time on the issue of Iraq and the middle east?

Mr. Speaker: I will not be drawn into that matter. The hon. Gentleman knows that a Select Committee said that statements should normally run for one hour. I ran the statement that we have just had for well over an hour, thereby giving more Back Benchers an opportunity to speak than would have been the case under the recommendation of the Select Committee.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Tonight there will be a very happy event in this House. The record of Baroness Thatcher as one of the four giants of 20th-century politics will be marked by the erection of a statue. However, the decision to have the statue erected is in conflict with a long tradition of the House. Although most Members would agree that that tradition should be disregarded
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in this instance, I would like to know why the decision was taken not by the House, but in an almost semi-secretive way? In fact, Members have not been informed of tonight’s event.

Mr. Speaker: It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention that there was a great big box on the plinth. I entered the House in 1979—the same year that Baroness Thatcher became Prime Minister. Even then, older Members were saying to me, “That place will be kept for the Prime Minister, because she is the first woman Prime Minister.” I doubt whether the House will want to be detained by my telling Members about the arrangements, but I agreed that we should not have to wait until 10 years after the demise of a previous Prime Minister before unveiling such a statue. It is right and fitting that we have a celebration—we did it for Sir Edward Heath—and that we allow the Member concerned to be there to enjoy the unveiling. I will be there this evening in the Members’ Lobby, and the hon. Gentleman is entitled to be there, as well. I am looking forward to this evening—and to getting to the ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will no doubt already be aware that a large part of the Prime Minister’s statement was briefed to several newspapers last night. Do you not deprecate that, and what steps can we and you take to ensure that statements of this importance are made in this House first?

Mr. Speaker: I keep insisting that statements be made in the House as soon as possible, and that is what I will continue to do. Unfortunately, I cannot prevent Ministers—and shadow Ministers, for that matter—and other hon. Members from going to television studios. I wish that they would not do it, but there we are.

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