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The Prime Minister: Let me say first where I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I agree about the tribute that we both paid not only to those who have given their lives but to those who serve our country every day in the most difficult circumstances in Iraq.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, too, about the slow pace of political reconciliation in Iraq. It was precisely for that reason that I wanted to impress on Prime Minister Maliki the need for progress in bringing all the parties together and on the de-Ba’athification law, the distribution of oil revenues and setting up local elections, so that provincial elections, where councils are more representative, can take place. It is precisely for those reasons that I and others have to press Prime Minister Maliki and all the other sectarian groupings so that they can come together to form a Government who can work. We will work hard for political reconciliation.

The right hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a permanent group is covered by a United Nations resolution at the moment. What is likely to happen over the next few months is that there will be a second UN resolution, and of course what happens after that can be part of the discussions with our allies about a UN resolution.

On troop movements and reconfigurations, let me explain to the House that overwatch is in two phases. The first stage gives us a re-intervention capacity and the capacity to operate supply lines and to look at the border issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. It also gives us the capacity to train and mentor Iraqi forces. That is the position in three of the four provinces and we are likely to be in that position within two months in Basra province, which means that we shall be in a position to support Iraqi troops and also to re-intervene.

The next stage of overwatch can be entered only when we are satisfied that the security situation on the ground has improved. That is why we put so much emphasis on getting 30,000 security and police forces into Iraq, and it will be only when we decide, with military advice on the ground, that it is possible to move to the next stage that the main role of our troops will be training and support.

Of course, issues related to the Iraq-Iran border will be taken care of in that part of our work and we will also have to look carefully at whether there is a re-intervention capability in the spring, but the main work of our troops is what we have been aiming to achieve for years—to train Iraqi forces so that they can do the job for themselves. As far as the numbers are concerned— [ Interruption. ]—I am coming to exactly that point: 5,500 troops at the beginning of September, 4,500 immediately after provisional Iraqi control is declared, then down to 4,000 and then 2,500. That was not the announcement I made in Iraq last week. The announcement I made in Iraq last week was about what would happen in the next few weeks. This is the long-term strategy for overwatch— [ Interruption ]which means that the number of troops falls from 5,500 to 2,500. An additional 500 troops will be outside Iraq—it would not be helpful to say where for security reasons—in the region, supporting the efforts of our troops in Iraq.

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I make no apology for visiting our troops in Iraq. I would have been criticised if I had come to the House without visiting our troops in Iraq. I make no apology for spending time talking to the Iraqi Government, the Prime Minister, the Vice-President, the Economic Ministers and the military commanders on the ground. If we are to have responsible politics in this country— [ Interruption ]Ministers who hold responsibility for the safety and security of our armed forces must visit them, listen to what they say, draw on their advice and then make the decision, which is what I am announcing today.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The Prime Minister began with a tribute to those who have died and been injured. Let me, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with that tribute. Let me, too, as he did, salute the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces—something that is too often taken for granted. The truth is, though, that they were given an impossible task in Iraq. Who now in the Government takes the blame for what the Chief of the Defence Staff called the “false and inflated expectations” of what they could achieve in Iraq?

Obviously, we welcome the Government’s change of heart in relation to interpreters and other civilians, but we are entitled to ask why it has taken so long and precisely how generous the terms will be. What is the Government’s estimate of the number of people who will be entitled to take advantage of that change of policy?

The Prime Minister has mentioned the target of 2,500 by next spring, but that is well below the figure that is thought appropriate for force protection. That has certainly been said by Ministers in recent times. In addition, from what the Prime Minister says, at 2,500, he does not anticipate any intervention taking place. If that is so, the question that immediately arises is what purpose will those troops serve.

The harsh truth is that Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been a catastrophe. We have paid dearly in lives, resources and reputation. Is it not time to acknowledge that the presence of British troops in Iraq no longer serves any realistic military or political purpose. Is it not time, too, to acknowledge that, after four and a half years, Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to the people of Iraq and that our obligation now is to our young men and women in our armed forces? Is it not time to acknowledge that the deployment in Iraq, where little more can be done, is prejudicial to our efforts in Afghanistan, where success is still possible? Is it not time now to set a framework and a programme for the complete withdrawal of all our forces from Iraq?

The Prime Minister: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about our obligations to our armed forces—I am pleased that he said that both at the beginning and the end of his remarks—but we also have obligations to the international community, and I would have thought that the Liberal party, with its Gladstonian inheritance, would recognise the obligations that we have internationally, particularly in relation to UN resolutions that have been passed, calling on us to support the democracy of the Iraqi people.

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On the specific questions about interpreters, let me give the House the information. There are probably 200 who would immediately qualify as past staff members. There are 250 who are staff members at the moment. There may be others who will join that list once they have done a year’s service. We will discharge our obligations that they will either gain help to go to a country of their choice or be able, in agreed circumstances, to come to the United Kingdom. We will provide the support that is necessary for that to happen.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument about force protection, I am acting—as are the Government—on military advice when I give the figures that I have given to the House today. If we are to move to the second stage of overwatch, which is primarily a role in respect of which we are giving training and support to the Iraqi security forces to operate in Basra with the police and armed forces themselves, then the figure that we have decided in consultation with our allies, and after taking military advice, is the figure of 2,500 that I am able to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That figure will be reached in spring next year, subject to military advice; then we will look again at the situation. But I want to dispel any suggestion that he makes that that number is insufficient for the force protection that we are talking about. The decisions that we make are made on military advice.

Sometimes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises us for having too few forces; he then criticises us for having too many. The correct position is this: we owe obligations under the United Nations to the Iraqi community. We will discharge our obligations. The Iraqis will take responsibility for their own security, and we will support them in doing so. Despite our disagreements about the decision to go to war, I hope that he will support us in the support that we give to the Iraqi people.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): As one of the 139 Labour MPs who both spoke and voted against the invasion of Iraq, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind, when faced with carping criticism from the Tory party, that it was enthusiastically and overwhelmingly in favour of the invasion and never raised any quibbles at the time?

I also ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that everybody in this country welcomes the reductions that he announced last week and the further proposed reductions, and would welcome the announcement as soon as possible of the total withdrawal of British troops—wherever, however, and in whatever circumstances he decides to announce it.

The Prime Minister: We will discharge our obligations to the Iraqi people; I have to say to my right hon. Friend that that means that there will be no artificial timetable now for the final withdrawal of troops from Iraq. We will discharge our obligations during the two phases, but we will continue to review the numbers necessary to do so. I say to other parties in the House that if they have questions about the security situation at Basra airport, I shall be happy to offer them a briefing, on Privy Council terms, with our armed forces about both the numbers required and the jobs that will be done over the next few months.

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I have to say to my right hon. Friend that there will be no artificial timetable. We shall continue to report to the House on what is necessary to discharge our obligations.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Prime Minister will forgive me, but I do not think that we heard an answer to the question, posed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, about whether 270 of the troops whose withdrawal the Prime Minister announced last week had already returned home. Is that true?

The Prime Minister: I said that the figure on 1 September was 5,500 troops. It is now falling, after provincial Iraqi control, to 4,500. It then falls to 4,000, and then it will fall to 2,500. The idea that we are not reducing the numbers is completely— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want hon. Members to allow the Prime Minister to speak.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that we were militarily engaged in Bosnia for 15 years, in Northern Ireland for 38 years and that we are still involved in Kosovo after eight years? Does he agree that after four difficult years in Iraq, we now have measurable and quantifiable success—not failure, as some people are trying to talk up?

The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for what he did as Minister for the armed forces. We appreciate his work in meeting and discharging his responsibilities to our forces. I have nothing but praise for our armed forces, because the work that they have had to do is not simply in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Ireland and the Falkland Islands. The work that has been done by our armed forces, at every stage, has been magnificent. It shows a professionalism, a commitment to duty and great courage. We are very proud of them.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Prime Minister seeks to equate himself with Mr. Gladstone— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Is the— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Is the Prime Minister aware that it was said of Mr. Gladstone that he could convince most people of most things and himself of almost anything? As the Prime Minister was the second most powerful member of Tony Blair’s Government and one of the few people who could have stopped this country going to war, and as the result of not doing so there are more than 100,000 Iraqis dead and more than 2 million have fled their country, will he now accept his share of personal responsibility for what has been the greatest error in British foreign policy in recent times?

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The Prime Minister: What I would say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that we are building a democracy in Iraq, free of Saddam Hussein. We are engaged now in political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. The situation I saw on the ground in Basra was one of a reduction in violence that makes it possible for provincial elections to be held and for economic reconstruction to yield results. I would hope that even if he disagreed with us on the decision to go to war, he would agree with us now that we must combine the political reconciliation we are pushing for, the economic reconstruction that we are financing and the security measures that I have announced to make it possible for the Iraqi democracy to play its full part in the region and the world.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Unlike some, I have never tried to hide the fact that I supported the measures that led to the destruction of the Saddam tyranny, and I am not in the process of apologising. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that it was never the intention that British troops in Iraq should stay indefinitely and therefore that there will be much welcome for a continued policy of the troops leaving Iraq at the most appropriate time?

The Prime Minister: The numbers that I have announced today make it clear that there were 45,000 UK troops at the time that Saddam Hussein fell and there will be 2,500 troops, subject to military advice, in the spring. That is a very substantial reduction in the numbers, but it is possible only because the Iraqis are now able to take responsibility for security themselves. I cannot emphasise enough that 30,000 people in the Iraqi security forces are being trained up in the police and the armed forces in the region. It is because there are 30,000 Iraqi security forces personnel in the southern parts of Iraq that it is possible for us to reduce our troop numbers. But I will not give my hon. Friend an artificial timetable that suggests that we can leave Iraq overnight. We will review the situation and discharge our responsibilities to the Iraqi people

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, may I add my condolences to those previously expressed in the Chamber?

The latest invitee into the Prime Minister’s big tent—one Alan Greenspan—recently said that he thought that the Iraq war was all about oil. When the Prime Minister discusses economics with Mr. Greenspan, will he discuss his opinion of the reason for the war in Iraq? Can the Prime Minister give a reasonable and reliable figure for the likely number of ex-Ministry of Defence Iraqi employees who might come to Britain to seek asylum in due course? Finally, the Prime Minister has frantically been trying to row away from the Blair project and the Blair war—frantically rowing away from the Blair mother ship, as it were. Will he really make a difference, and show why he is so different, by apologising to the British people for this debacle?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning and for his condolences in relation to those who have died in Iraq. I know that the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh are in Iraq at the moment. I think that I told the House the
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numbers of interpreters and other staff who would qualify under the scheme we have announced today. There are 200 who have already completed their work and 250 or so in situ. There are others who may qualify once they complete their work with us over a period of a year or more. Those are the kind of figures involved. They will either be people who will go to another country, with support from us, or, in agreed circumstances, come to the United Kingdom. Those are the figures that we are able to give at the moment. As far as the war itself is concerned, let us not forget the evil that Saddam Hussein did. Let us not forget also that we are building a democracy in Iraq. I can disagree with Dr. Greenspan as well. Our contribution must be to sustain a democracy in Iraq.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): May I say to my right hon. Friend that I am absolutely sure that his innovative proposals for civilian staff in Iraq will be much welcomed, not only in the House but by the military, who recognise the vital importance of having good links with local staff, in this intervention and perhaps in others? I have a constituent who was involved in international protection for an international statesman who was visiting Iraq, and his life was saved by two local Iraqi security men. Are they the kind of staff whom my right hon. Friend envisages might be given access to the United Kingdom, as my constituent has requested?

The Prime Minister: The persons I am talking about are mainly interpreters and translators who have worked for the British forces in Iraq—our direct employees, some of whom have finished their work but are vulnerable to attack, and some of whom are still working with us but do not meet the year’s qualification, although they may do so at a later date. Those are the men and women who would qualify for the proposals that we are putting forward today.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Does the Prime Minister not accept that it is becoming almost impossible to see how the cause of democracy and development in Iraq can be served by the continuing presence of British troops? It is almost impossible to see how a rapidly reducing number can play any worthwhile part in overwatch, given the disorder in southern Iraq, and it is quite inconceivable that the Prime Minister will ever come to the House to suggest re-intervention, with a surge of troops or whatever, at any stage after today’s statement. If the statement is intended as political cover for removing the troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, will he give an undertaking that the only consideration will be the safety and reputation of British forces, not domestic political pressures, either here or in the United States?

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