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The Prime Minister:
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the British forces are serving no purpose, that is not the view of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government want our support, and not only with respect to the supply routes that we manage at the moment and the re-intervention capability that we have. They want our support to train and mentor the Iraqi troops. We had a responsibility, which we are discharging, to train up 15,000 Iraqi armed forces, and we are helping with the training of Iraqi police. I met
many of the people who have come from the United Kingdom simply to train those forces when I was in Basra last week.
I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is no purpose served by our presence. What our presence is designed to do is to make it possible for the Iraqis to take over security of their own country. I say this to him: look at the reduction in violence in Basra; look at the attempts that we can now make on economic reconstruction to give people a stake in the peace; look at the progress that has been made over these last few months. If that progress can continue, the Iraqis will not only be in a position to have their security forces in place to take over from ours, but will build, through local provincial elections, a local democracy that is capable of making decisions, based not on violence, but on people coming together to decide what is the common good. I am far from agreeing with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our forces serve no purpose; our forces are doing an important joban important job that will end up, I accept, as simply one of training and mentoring the forces of Iraq.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister accept that well over 500,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the invasion started, and that more than 2 million Iraqis have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries, or into internal exile in Iraq? What support is being given to them? What support is being offered to Syria and Jordan, so that they can look after those people? If the Prime Minister is proposing that employees of the British armed forces be allowed to enter this country as a place of safety, is he also prepared to say that those Iraqis who have sought asylum in this country will not now be deported to Iraq?
The Prime Minister: First of all, I do not accept my hon. Friends figures. Secondly, the position of those who have served our armed forces, and put themselves at huge risk to do so while in the employment of our armed forces, is one that we ought to safeguard. Under the measures that I announced today, they will be able to apply for help outside Britain and will be able, in certain circumstances, either to go to another country with support from us, or to come to Britain. I accept that there are large numbers of Iraqis now outside Iraq, but one of the reasons why they are outside Iraq is that they need the security of a safe Iraq to come back to, and it is precisely for those reasons that we are building up the security forces of the Iraqis.
I think that it is often misunderstood that over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Iraqi security forcesboth the armed forces and policecapable of managing their own security, and when the transfer of three provinces took place, it worked in a way that has been relatively calm. We believe that when we move to overwatch in Basra, there is a very good chance that we will have calmness as well, but we will work towards that, aiding the Iraqi security forces.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD):
Can the Prime Minister confirm his response to the questionwhich he will well recallthat I repeatedly asked of his predecessor in office, in those long months
in the build-up to the war, and which he never answered? I asked whether there could or would be circumstances in which the Americans would go in without the benefit of the backing of a second United Nations resolution and the British would not. Is not the sad fact of the matter, as we all now know, that there were never circumstances in which an American intervention would not be accompanied by British back-up? As the principal bankroller of that Government policy over those years, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that underlies all the difficulties that he is talking about this afternoon, and that it is our very presence in Iraq that is now the problem? Is it not an impossible wish, following a weekend in which he has been talking a lot about vision, for there to be a vision for a political settlement in Iraq because of the very circumstances to which our presence has contributed?
The Prime Minister: I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. We tried very hard for a second UN resolution. We worked very hard to achieve it, and unfortunately did not. Intervention in Iraq is now covered by a UN resolution. He should accept that the UN resolution is about our presence supporting the security, democracy and prosperity of the Iraqi people and, in my view, there will be a further UN resolution in the next few months. Instead of arguing about the causes, perhaps we could come together to support the democracy of the Iraqi people and to ensure that they have the security to run their own affairs and the economic reconstruction necessary for a stake in their future. I believe that that should be common ground among all of us in the House.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I believe that the men and women of the British armed forces, their families and the British people will welcome my right hon. Friends statement today. Is it not a fact that we are able to withdraw troops from Basra because of the success and professionalism of the British armed forces? Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be celebrating this announcement, rather than seeking to engage in party political posturing from the comfort of these Benches while the men and women of our armed forces are putting their lives on the line?
The Prime Minister: I agree with my right hon. Friend and I thank him for the work that he did as defence Minister and as veterans Minister. Over time, people will come to realise that the draw-down of British troops in Iraq is possible because the security situation has improved, and it is only because we have those 30,000 security forces being trained up that it is possible to make this announcement today. Over the past month, we have proved that, as a result of the transfer from Basra palace to Basra airport, the security situation in Basra has improved, and I hope that there will be a general acknowledgement that, as the security potential of the Iraqi forces improves, it will be possible for the numbers of our troops to fall.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Prime Minister is taking and listening carefully to military advice, will he assure the House that, as our troops returnwhether temporarily or permanentlythey are properly welcomed, properly recognised and properly housed?
The Prime Minister: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is where we must make progress over the next few years. We have set aside £5 billion over the next 10 years for accommodation for our forces. That money will upgrade the existing single-person accommodation and help young families with someone serving in the forces to buy their own homes. The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the housing situation, and much more needs to be done. That is why we have set aside in the public spending review £5 billion over the next 10 years, and I assure him that the welfare of our troops is our first consideration.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I appreciate the Prime Ministers caution in carefully describing the circumstances under which we will support those who worked for us in Iraq and also the interpreters. However, may I urge him to be generous and positive in the interpretation of those rules so that we do not end up with people feeling that they have been let down by this country?
The Prime Minister: There will be a statement later this week about the details of the scheme. If my hon. Friend has any particular points that she would like to raise, she would be very welcome to talk to Ministers about them. We have to deal with the people for whom we have a direct responsibilityinterpreters and translators, people working in the employment of the British armed forces. That is what the scheme is essentially about, but if my hon. Friend has any particular representations to make, we will be happy to listen to them.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I agree with the Prime Minister that valuable work remains to be done for British troops in Iraq, but will he clarify his answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader the Opposition about what reserves will be available to the commander of overwatch troops in the later phases of this operation? Secondly, will he compare and contrast his own slippery manoeuvrings of the last weekend with the courage, steadiness and resolution of British troops on the ground in Iraq?
The Prime Minister: Like the hon. Gentleman, I praise the resolution, determination and courage of our British troops in Iraq. We will talk to our allies in detail about the next stage of overwatch. We have forces outside the border of Iraq as well, but the principal intention of moving to the next stage is to enable us to be the trainers and mentors of the Iraqi security forces who are taking responsibility for problems themselves.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South) (Lab): Speaking as one of those who did not support the intervention in Iraq, I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister on the responsibility of his statement today. While we are talking about responsibility, does he agree that in respect of our obligations to the Iraqis and the international community, the people who would be let down most if we cut and run prematurely from Iraq would be those very British forces whose courage and professionalism has brought about the achievements that my right hon. Friend described, of which we can be so proud?
The Prime Minister:
I met British forces in Basra who are proud of what they have achieved and I am proud of them. I am proud of what they have achieved
in defending people in Basra itself, proud of what they have achieved in all the other provinces and also proud that they are training up the Iraqi security forces to do the work themselves. Although my hon. Friend disagreed with me about the origins of the war, I am glad that he has come to the view that it is necessary, in supporting both our troops and the Iraqi people, to take decisions in the measured way that we are doing by setting out the different stages through which we will draw down our forces.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I very much welcome the Prime Ministers announcement about the extra 140 Mastiff vehicles, which will be exceptionally welcome to our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Will he confirm that the cost will be borne by the Treasury and will not come out of the Army budget? In addition, will he ensure that any necessary medium-protected patrol vehiclesthey are greatly needed, particularly in Iraqwill be provided and that modern doctrine will be overturned so that those vehicles that are procured will be designed to ensure maximum protection for our troops? I am talking about V-shaped hull vehicles.
The Prime Minister: As the Defence Secretary has pointed out to me, we are looking into those smaller vehicles to which the hon. Lady has drawn our attention, as there are important issues about security and safety. As for her more general question, the £120 million that we are spending is covered by the defence settlement. Where there are urgent requirements, we are prepared to meet them and we have spent several hundred millions in the last few months and years in meeting those requirements of our troops.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My constituents will very much welcome my right hon. Friends announcement of troop reductions, but does he agree that that is not only the right policy for this country, but demonstrates that the policy of political reconciliation, economic development and the Iraqi people taking responsibility for their own security is now working?
The Prime Minister: I hope that there will be general recognition in the whole House that, whatever the disagreements on Iraq and whatever the views on the slowness with which economic reconstruction has taken place, there is a unique opportunity now, as the security situation improves in the Basra province, for the work of economic reconstruction to give people a new means by which they can have a stake in the future.
What I would like to see over these next few monthsI think we will see it, if we can bring the parties togetheris the security situation improving as, at the same time, we invest in Iraq and in the Basra province, I hope with British businesses involved, as well as businesses from other countries, so that we can end the very high unemployment in that area and make people see that prosperity can go side by side with peace.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Was the Prime Ministers statement in Iraq that 1,000 British troops were to be withdrawn agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence and provided by information from him?
The Prime Minister: These are all agreed figures: 5,500 to 4,500 to 4,000 to 2,500. I really do not understand. If we are reducing the number of troops to 2,500, that is a reduction, and that is the reduction that I am announcing today.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I do not think that the Prime Minister has answered the point about the border between Iran and Iraq. What assurances can he give about our capacity and that of the coalition forces to impede the bringing in of weapons and destructive explosives, which hit both Iraqis and coalition forces, bearing it in mind that his own Secretary of State for Defence said that so much that has been hurled against British troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan has its provenancethat is the word he usedin Iran? We are too nice to Iran, franklytoo diplomatically nice. I want to hear a more robust response.
The Prime Minister: Let me remind my hon. Friend that in my statement I made it absolutely clear that we call on the Iranians to stop people coming across the border, to stop weapons coming across the border and to stop the support of terrorists who are coming across the border. As for the policing of the border, there has been some success as a result of the work of the coalition troops, and we will continue to see the coalition troops police that border.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I put again to the Prime Minister the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind): why did the Prime Minister not support Robin Cook from the start, when he opposed the atrociously foolish policy of invading and occupying Iraq, from which the Prime Minister is now struggling to extricate us, almost certainly leaving chaos behind?
The Prime Minister: We now have a democracy in Iraq, which we did not have before. We have the people of Iraq voting for a new constitution and in elections for representatives. I think that the task aheadI hope the hon. Gentleman agrees with it, despite our disagreements on the waris to support that democracy, to enable it to take over its own security, to build political reconciliation in that country and to have an economy that gives people a stake in its future. If that were the case, it would make a huge and significant difference to what happens in the rest of the middle east and the Arab states.
Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): As we withdraw our troops from IraqI look forward to the complete withdrawal of all our troopscan we invest more in rebuilding Iraq and attracting back the many hundreds of thousands of professionals who have become part of the Iraqi diaspora, namely, the engineers, the teachers and others who are desperately needed to rebuild that benighted country?
The Prime Minister:
It was precisely those matters that I was discussing last week with the Economic Ministers in Iraqhow, through encouraging new investment in the infrastructure and then through getting business development, particularly in the Basra area, which is potentially very rich, we can attract
people back to Iraq and give Iraqi people a stake in the future. I say to my hon. Friend that the next stage, where we will be under test because we have to show that it will work, is to get the economic reconstruction process moving forward and show that we can bring prosperity to that area of the world.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): When the Defence Committee visited Basra in July, we found that 90 per cent. of attacks were on our forces. Is not the logical position that we should withdraw our troops, as our withdrawal from Basra palace has led to significantly fewer attacks in the area? We are therefore part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Prime Minister: I have to say that it was before our troops withdrew from Basra palace that the security situation in that area became a great deal calmer. Because we are training up the Iraqi security forces, they are in a position to police and provide security to that area. Far from moving quickly out of Iraq helping the Iraqi security forces, our presence to train and mentor them is an important element in bringing about a calm, or calmer, security situation. On the basis of that calmer security situation, we can build a better future for the Iraqi people.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the conditions-based approach, about which the Prime Minister has told us, on draw-down of troops, which will hopefully mean many more coming back to communities such as Plymouth. Does he associate himself with the calls made over the summer by General Dannatt and others not only for the Government, families and fellow service people to welcome our armed forces back, but for businesses and communities to do more to mark and recognise their service than they do at present?
The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does in her constituency on exactly that. I want us to recognise the contribution made by our armed forces more than we have done, and to support the families of our armed forces when they are abroad, in combat and in the firing line. I also hope to be able to announce new measures to help those who have been injured fighting for our country with compensation schemes that are more generous than they have been in the past.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): The Prime Minister mentioned in his statement that the stability of the Iraq that our troops will leave behind depends very much on the behaviour of Iraqs neighbours. Will he update the House on what recent connections, or at least correspondence, there have been with Syria? Will he also comment on the story in the papers that he has entered some agreement with the American President about treatment of Iran if it continues to threaten global stability?
The Prime Minister: There is no truth in that statement attributed to me in the papers at the weekend. As far as Syria is concerned, we continue to press it to play a far more positive role, to end support for terrorists in Lebanon, and to play a constructive role in the middle east peace process. Those matters are common ground on both sides of the House.
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