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He went on to say:

Considered just in those narrow terms, what the Prime Minister said was entirely logical, but the premise from which he proceeded was utterly wrong. I am reminded of the remark that Harold Macmillan once made about Sir John Simon, when he said that the hon. Gentleman has such a logical frame of mind that starting from a false premise, he moves inexorably to the wrong conclusion. That is what the Prime Minister has done. He is no fool. He knows perfectly well that when any Government, including a British Government, are considering intervention through military means against a country that has not attacked them, no Government, including the present British Government, simply look at the human rights record of the Government concerned.

Of course, that is an important consideration. So, too, is the question whether we will win in a conventional conflict and the war will be over quickly. But one also looks at all the wider implications of invading a country and implementing a policy of regime change. I ignore for the moment the fact that regime change was never part of the justification for the war and, indeed, could not have been because it would have been against international law. Even if it had been, the British Government, as we well know, have been disinclined to intervene in other countries that have just as bad a human rights record. Otherwise we would have had British troops in Zimbabwe getting rid of Mr. Mugabe. No doubt the United States would have gone into Castro’s Cuba many years ago, and might have gone into North Korea more recently.

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In each and every case, the reason was not a judgment about the human rights record or a judgment as to whether a conventional war would be won. It was a wider and a very wise judgment as to the overall implications and consequences of such an invasion of a country that had not attacked us. Sometimes the arguments are valid. I pay credit to what the Government did in Sierra Leone. There was a case where there was a strong human rights argument, but where the consequences of our intervention clearly have been beneficial.

That could have been anticipated, and was anticipated, and the Government were right to act. I happen to think that they were right in Afghanistan, but the whole point about Iraq is that most of what has happened since the invasion was not only predictable, but was predicted. It is not the Prime Minister’s integrity or honesty that I question; it is the basic competence—incompetence, I should say—and the poor judgment that guided his actions over that period. That is why an inquiry is essential now.

So much for the past. Where do we go from here with regard to the British presence in Iraq? Even those of us who were against the war cannot say that because we were against it, British troops must come out at the first available opportunity. Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia made a very wise remark. He said that the coalition must realise that if they go in uninvited, they cannot just leave uninvited. We have contributed to the mess in Iraq. It has a more democratic Government than it has ever had. That Government want us to retain a presence in Iraq, and they are entitled to have that view taken into account.

What arguments should be used? There are three questions that we have to address. First, are we delivering the policy in Basra, in the south, that was the reason for British troops being there in the first place? Secondly, if we are not delivering that policy or only partially doing so, is there nevertheless some justification for a continuing presence on its merits in Iraq over a period of time? Thirdly, regardless of those arguments, what are the wider political implications in regard to both the United States and western interests generally if we continue in Iraq for some time?

Let me look at those three questions briefly. First, Basra is a lot better than Baghdad. The number of people being killed is far lower. The terrorism incidents have been much easier to control, but they are not in control. There is not a sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni, but we should not get too overjoyed about that. The main reason is that the Sunni have effectively been expelled from the region and have become a small minority in that locality, so the conflict there is now Shi’a-Shi’a.

However, the Government’s writ does not run in Basra, and in that sense the British Government’s presence there through their military forces has not delivered the kind of peace and stability that we hoped for over the past three or four years. I broadly accept the Government’s argument that it is sensible over the next few months to withdraw those of our troops who are involved in patrolling in Basra. Three of the four provinces have already been handed over. It makes sense to work towards a handing over of the fourth province in months, not years. That would allow a substantial deployment.

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That brings me to my second question, which is highly relevant to what the Foreign Secretary said earlier: should we continue with some military presence even after most of our troops have been withdrawn and Basra province has been handed over to the Iraqi Government? In my judgment, the answer is yes because there are activities where we can continue to make a useful contribution to the objectives of the Iraqi Government, which we share, with regard to some possibility of stability in that region.

What are those objectives? First, we have been heavily involved in training the 10th division of the Iraqi army, and that job is not yet complete, so a training function should continue even if we withdraw our troops from Basra province in relation to regular patrols. Secondly, when our troops move from Basra palace to Basra airport, the protection of the airport in ensuring that it can be used with free passage is an important contribution that British troops could continue to make in an effective and credible fashion. Thirdly, a major requirement will be to ensure the free movement of logistics from Kuwait to Baghdad and to central Iraq. Such convoy work is crucial. Indeed, we will do a huge disservice not only to the Iraqis but to our American allies if they have to redeploy some of their own scarce resources to cover that purely transport-related requirement from the southern part of the country to the north. That function can be carried out pretty effectively and with minimal casualties. Fourthly, there will be occasional operations where we could assist the Iraqi army where it does not have particular capabilities available to itself.

On the basis of that argument, we would perhaps reduce our troop numbers from 5,500 to 1,000 or 1,500, ensuring that those who remained would not be as visible to the Iraqi public—and therefore could not be used as targets as has been the case in the recent past—but would continue to be able to make a useful contribution to the ongoing battle to try to get some stability and security in the country.

My third question concerns the wider political implications. We cannot get away from the fact that if the United Kingdom simply pulled out every single last soldier in the next few months, that would gravely damage the United States. I make that remark not out of love of the United States, although I happen to approve of it as a country, but because we have no national or international interest in giving comfort to al-Qaeda and terrorist elements. Leaving the United States completely exposed in Iraq, with even its closest ally having completely abandoned it, not even carrying out those responsibilities that it can credibly and effectively carry out, would be an over-reaction to the problem and should therefore not be supported. I would not make that argument were there not a job that could be credibly done, but in training and the other areas that I mentioned it is justified on its merits as well as in terms of the political strategy that points in the same direction.

We often hear comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. In some ways, it is a false comparison: in fact, Iraq is worse than Vietnam. In Vietnam, there was already a war going on and the United States intervened to try to help one side—the Vietnamese Government. In this case, the coalition started the invasion and the war that would not otherwise have occurred. There are other
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highly relevant differences. In Vietnam, there was one group of insurgents—the Vietcong—and an alternative Government: the North Vietnamese Government who were ready and willing to take over control. Neither of those factors applies in the case of Iraq. Iraq does not have one insurgency—it has multiple insurgences throughout the country. Some involve Shi’a versus Shi’a’, some involve Kurds, some involve Sunni operatives, and some involve foreign jihadists such as al-Qaeda: all are battling with their own agenda and their own grasping for power. Moreover, no alternative Government are available to take over. As a result, we have a situation whereby 2 million Iraqis have fled Iraq since the end of the original war, and they are overwhelmingly Iraq’s middle class—the people who are essential if there is to be any economic reconstruction of the country. That makes the situation even more dire than it would otherwise have been.

What has happened is essentially this. Yes, it is true to say that under Saddam Hussein Iraq was a rogue state, but in the past four years—I take no pleasure in saying this—it has moved from being a rogue state and is now a failed state. A failed state can have even more serious implications for its neighbours and for the region as a whole because of the vacuum that is created—we all know what happens in vacuums when very nasty and vicious people are able to operate in ways that they would not otherwise have been able to. There are powerful reasons for ensuring that the United States is not humiliated. If Britain can continue to make some contribution to the wider international effort to achieve stability despite withdrawing its patrol forces and the bulk of its troops, that must be the right course of action.

We are not going to see an end in Iraq rather like the end in Vietnam. There will not be any US helicopter taking off from the American embassy in Baghdad on the last day of this conflict. Even if the Americans withdraw their combat forces, they are probably in for a long period of years with a very substantial presence. It will be a long haul for the Americans and probably for the United Kingdom and a number of other countries. The good news is that it will not end like Vietnam—but that is probably the bad news as well.

5.56 pm

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I should like to express my concerns about this issue. I have great regard for the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and, given his intellect and ability, for which I also have had a very high regard, I am somewhat amazed that he has again brought such a motion to this place. The issue of an inquiry is very important. When there was a vote on that here, I did not vote for it. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government cited propositions concerning national security and so on, and he took that advice, as did his colleagues, and voted in a particular way. Until then, during my time on the Government Benches I had only once previously voted against my Government. I took that very seriously.

In considering a motion such as this, it is important to determine whether it will really address and move forward the matter at hand, which is the number of lives that are being lost—not only among our armed forces and those of the Americans, but among Iraqis.
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Would such an inquiry deal with that? What would be its terms of reference and how would they be set? We have had four other inquiries. Every Member can pick holes in those inquiries because not one of us has been pleased by their outcomes. Would we get the result that we want in this case?

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a place for an inquiry but this is not the time for it?

Mr. Mahmood: I agree that there is a place for the inquiry that needs to consider the issues that must be dealt with.

As Members have said, we face the question of how we deal with what is happening in the current arena of operations. How can we expose our forces to the detailed scrutiny of an inquiry? There are, therefore, inadequacies in such a proposal and we need to consider that seriously.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said that there had been four inquiries but that no inquiry was genuinely examining the issue. One inquiry is examining the matter, and I happen to be chairing it. It is a parliamentary inquiry into tackling terrorism and it has been proceeding for some time. Hon. Members have mentioned Sir Jeremy Greenstock—he will attend the inquiry to give evidence about tackling what is going on.

The number of insurgents in Iraq who are taking action to inflame the situation further has been mentioned. We need somehow to defuse matters and allow the people of Iraq to return to some sort of normality. The actions that were taken, the way in which they were carried out, the consequences and the people who made the decisions need to be considered—once the Iraqi people have been brought back to normality and enjoy the safety and security that we all take for granted. We must tackle that through active policy.

We need to consider ways in which we can make a difference to the Iraqi people’s lives and start to control the insurgencies and the factions. If we do not deal with such issues, an inquiry would not assist the people who are currently most at risk.

Mr. Ellwood: I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We went into Iraq on 20 March 2003 and, four years later, the country is on the brink of civil war. Does he honestly claim that a review would not let us understand exactly what went wrong and led the country to its current condition?

Mr. Mahmood: We took action after a vote in this place. We went to war and we are now facing the consequences of that. We must deal with those consequences. We could scrutinise that action, as the Opposition suggest, but I want to tackle what is happening on the ground. How do we engage with people and try to overcome a situation in which innocent Iraqis are killed daily? People lose their lives while they wait in queues for food and for jobs. We need to address that.

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Are we engaging in policy making with people from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference? We need to get them back on board. Someone mentioned the Baker-Hamilton inquiry in the United States, which has considered discussions with Syria and Iran. That is fine—those two countries have a bearing on the matter. The populations of many Islamic countries have an effect on the melting pot. We need to control that melting pot and deal with the position whereby insurgents from the surrounding area come to Iraq. We must consider how to tackle that. Any inquiry should examine those important issues. Our inquiry is starting to do that and ascertain ways in which to deal with those problems. We are managing to do that on a cross-party basis.

Mr. Boris Johnson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an inquiry could urgently consider our catastrophic failure before and after the war to protect Iraqi cultural heritage from systematic looting, which is devastating Iraq? If the Iraqis are to have any hope of rebuilding their country, that looting must be stopped. What have we in mind to prevent that? The Department for Culture, Media and Sport pledged £5 million, which has vanished, to stop the systematic looting. Would it not help the Iraqis to rebuild their future if they had some idea of what had allowed things to go so catastrophically wrong from the beginning?

Mr. Mahmood: The only way we can help the Iraqis at the moment is by bringing stability to the current position— [Interruption.] I am happy to allow interventions.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): The coalition is incapable of bringing stability to Iraq. That is the crisis and we need to examine how we got here in order to find another way forward. The instability is getting increasingly worse.

Mr. Mahmood: I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention; I am trying to make it clear that our inquiry is examining exactly that point. Military action has not worked and we need to consider engaging the OIC countries in the region. They can have a positive influence on all the factors that are needed to make a difference. We need to get them engaged in the process. Perhaps that will mean those countries contributing positively through allowing their armed forces to support the training of Iraqi forces, as opposed to American and British forces being targets for the insurgents. We need to examine methods of changing the arena in which our soldiers and the other coalition soldiers operate. We need to engage far more with the surrounding Muslim countries and emphasise that they have a stake in the future of Iraq, that of Afghanistan and, to an extent, that of Palestine. All those matters should be examined so that we start to deal with the position in Iraq.

We need an inquiry that starts to formulate our foreign policy on engaging with those Muslim countries, move it forward and begin to deal with the situation. To me, that is most important. The Americans started the process through the Baker-Hamilton review. It was an important step forward for the Americans to take. We are doing similar work in Parliament, where our inquiry thankfully has cross-party support.

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Mr. MacNeil: If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Prime Minister was right to participate in the Baker-Hamilton inquiry, surely he would welcome the Prime Minister’s participation in any inquiry into the genesis of the war that the House or the Privy Council conducted.

Mr. Mahmood: I have invited the Prime Minister to our inquiry—[Hon. Members: “Will he come?”] I have been told that he will make himself available at some stage. I am waiting for him to respond formally. I have met him and invited him and made a formal request through his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Mr. MacNeil: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Prime Minister showed greater respect to—and willingness to attend—the Baker-Hamilton inquiry than to his inquiry?

Mr. Mahmood: No. I am saying that I made a request to the Prime Minister and that it is currently being considered positively. We are waiting for a concrete date. People such as Major General Tim Cross have attended the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Greenstock will attend it. People such as Baroness Williams from the upper House serve on it. We are seriously considering how to tackle the situation in Iraq in future. My objection to the motion is that it does not do that.

What are the terms of reference of the inquiry that the Opposition propose? Would it tackle what people want it to address? We all have matters that we would like an inquiry to consider. The Opposition have tabled a motion that states that they want a Privy Council inquiry. Who will sit down and determine the terms of reference? Will the whole of Parliament agree them? How will that be managed? The Opposition need to consider that serious issue if they want a positive inquiry.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I hear what my hon. Friend says about his inquiry. However, he mentioned the Baker-Hamilton inquiry. When does he think that the Prime Minister will tell Parliament exactly what he said to that inquiry?

Mr. Mahmood: That is a matter for him; I cannot speak for the Prime Minister. What I have done and will do is pursue him to come to my inquiry—that is the best I can do and I will continue to do it.

What we have to realise in this place is that whatever decisions have been taken and whatever has happened needs to be addressed. As hon. Members have said before, an inquiry will have to look at the whole build-up of arms in Iraq. We would have to go back to the Matrix Churchill affair and other issues that have come after it. We would need to see how Iraq was allowed to get itself into the position that it did, and we would need to examine the way in which all these things have happened. All those things will need to be in the terms of reference for an inquiry. I am sure that there will be a huge amount of debate and a huge inquiry in that respect.

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