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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that his argument is absurd? If we do not have an inquiry now, we will never
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have one while any conflict is going on because there will never be a good time to do so, as others have pointed out. Perhaps he could take a lesson from across the Atlantic. Not only has the United States held inquiries, but both of its Houses have debated and voted for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the troops remain there only through the presidential veto. Cannot we learn a lesson from that side of the Atlantic too?

David Miliband: Some 60 debates on the Iraq issue have taken place in this House. It is proper and right that any hon. Member, or group of hon. Members, can table a motion arguing for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq now and Parliament would have the right to vote on that issue.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary argued that the conflict in Basra is a good argument against an inquiry. I am sure that he has read the recent interview given by Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to the Government, who makes it clear that the Government in no way planned for or understood the possibility of a sectarian conflict or internal civil war being likely to break out in Iraq if a war took place. Is that not precisely why we need to have an inquiry? Today’s events in Basra demonstrate the inadequacy of the Government’s preparation for one of the worst conflicts for which this or any British Government have been responsible in the past 100 years.

David Miliband: The events demonstrate a wide range of issues, not least the role of the Iraqi security forces and police in disbanding and attacking some of the Iraqi militia—the Shi’a militia—in the south of Iraq. I shall argue and explain in my speech why the situation in Basra precisely does not call for the sort of inquiry that has been mentioned. Our rationale was simple and it was set out clearly in the debate in the House on 31 October, to which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred. This is what was said at the time:

that point was made earlier—

Those powerful words encapsulate the heart of our case. What is peculiar is that they were not uttered by a Government Minister. Instead, they are the words of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in that debate, who provided a catalogue of reasons against an immediate inquiry.

Let us go through those reasons carefully. Eighteen months on, the Baker commission has reported but every other count set out not by me, but by the right hon. Gentleman in October 2006 applies now. The right hon. Gentleman argued against an inquiry in October 2006 because

That was his argument, not mine. [ Interruption. ] It is his argument and mine. The same is the case today.
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About 4,000 British troops are providing vital functions to monitor, mentor and train Iraqi security forces, to provide key support to those forces, to support border security on the Iran-Iraq border and to provide a quick reaction force at high readiness.

The right hon. Gentleman also argued against an inquiry because:

So they are today; it is his argument and mine. One has only to switch on the TV to see it. I shall come back to this later and explain current developments but there are clearly clashes between the Iraqi security force and militia groups, never mind important developments on the political front. The Iraqi Government are deliberating on a new election law and a hydrocarbons law, as well as revenue-sharing laws that will benefit all Iraqis. The myriad Iraqi political parties that have emerged since 2003 are working through the implications of their 4 December commitments to constitutional reform. [ Interruption. ] Some hon. Members say that that is not relevant, but it is relevant because it is the exact reason given against an immediate inquiry by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks in 2006. In fact, he concluded by saying that an inquiry would be “premature” because of those grounds. If that argument was good enough for him then, it should be good enough for him now.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The events in Basra today, where the Iraqi army is trying to address the militias and, to a degree, the police force, which is wholly infested by the militias, are a direct consequence of the failure of British policy. That policy was made evident to the Select Committee on Defence in 2004 when we were shown the Iraqi police being trained by the British. That has a direct read-across to what our troops are doing in Afghanistan, where the lessons from Iraq are directly applicable to the failure to establish a police force that is not corrupt. What is happening in Basra today will happen in Afghanistan tomorrow if we do not learn the lessons.

David Miliband: As I shall show in the course of my remarks, the Ministry of Defence has published two studies of the lessons to be learned and has conducted numerous internal studies, too, which are informing the work that is going on.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): For the record I want to say that my party, of course, called for an inquiry at a time considerably before the Conservatives did. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the position? Is he saying that there will be no inquiry while British forces remain in theatre? If that is the case, we still have troops in the Falklands, in Cyprus and in Bosnia. Is not the reality that the Baker commission in the US led to the appointment of General Petraeus and a change in policy by the US military that, to its credit, is starting to see some good effects? Could not that happen to our forces, too?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Falklands—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks called it a model inquiry—but we should
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remember that the Falklands inquiry was established at the end of the Falklands conflict. I do not think that the point made by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) in respect of the Falklands is—

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Rather than taking the easy tack and looking at the inconsistency of the Conservative position, will the Foreign Secretary look at the substance of the case for an inquiry? Rather than talking about the operations, which we all know about, will he say why those operations would hinder an inquiry?

David Miliband: I shall address that directly. Essentially, we think that the priority of Government and our armed services should be the situation in Iraq, not the servicing of an inquiry.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): What the House hopes to hear is why an argument that might have been premature 18 months ago has not matured now. We want to know, for example, whether the then Prime Minister put decisions in writing in the way in which Winston Churchill instructed his Secretary of State to do in 1941. Meetings were to be minuted and decisions confirmed in writing. Those are the kinds of things that will get lost as we get further away from the time when the war started, year by year. The House, the country and our troops deserve better than that.

David Miliband: There have been four arguments made for an inquiry and I want to go through them one by one, but the very case that the hon. Member makes—that he wants to know whether decisions were given in writing or orally—shows that this has nothing to do with the learning of lessons that are appropriate for the lives and welfare of our troops on the ground today.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The one group of people whose views on this issue have not been mentioned in the first hour of this debate is the Iraqi people. The motion talks about “all matters relevant thereto”, which would presumably include the internal workings of the present democratic Government in Iraq. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Iraqi Government have been pressing him for an early inquiry?

David Miliband: That is a good point and one that we had not thought of circulating in the briefing. We have not been pressed by the Iraqi Government, who have more important things on their mind.

The judgment about the right time hinges on four points, and I shall address each in turn. The first is precedent. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks mentioned the situation in July 1916, when Prime Minister Asquith set up an inquiry not into the origins and conduct of the ongoing first world war, but into the time-limited, finished and ill-fated Dardanelle expedition of 1915 and, for the sake of accuracy, into the Anglo-Indian campaign in Mesopotamia in spring 1916. That point was brought out in the debate on 31 October 2006 by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who at the time was not my hon. Friend. He showed that the
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Dardanelle example did not actually speak to the case that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to prosecute. In fact, the campaign was over before the inquiry was set up—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): A case could just be made by the Foreign Secretary about the Dardanelles, but he glided carefully over the example of the campaign in Mesopotamia—which we otherwise know as Iraq. That inquiry was set up specifically to learn military operational lessons in an ongoing campaign, which had brought disaster to the British at Qut al Amara. It was going on at the time, and lessons were learned. That example proves our case.

David Miliband: It is a good thing that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not mention the Mesopotamia campaign in the prosecution of his case. In fact, it was the Dardanelles campaign that he mentioned.

The right hon. Gentleman did mention the famous Norway debate in 1940, but it is known as the Norway debate, not the Norway inquiry, for a very simple reason—it was a debate about Norway, not an inquiry into the Norway campaign. There was no inquiry into the Korean war, Suez, the first Gulf war or the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. The Franks inquiry was set up after the end of the Falklands conflict. The right hon. Gentleman said in his speech that we should model—not my word, his—any inquiry on the Franks inquiry. In fact, the Franks inquiry was set up only after all the troops had come home from the Falklands. I do not therefore believe that the case has been made.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): The whole of the Foreign Secretary’s argument seems to rest on what will be perceived outside this Chamber as the absurd premise that a group of 4,000 people with an overwatch role will somehow have their morale undermined if we commence an investigation to clear up the huge number of concerns that remain about the war. Is that really what his argument rests on? If not, will he finally get round to telling us what his argument is?

David Miliband: I have never mentioned the word “morale”. I do not think that the morale argument is a very strong one and the hon. Gentleman will not hear it from me.

The second argument is that following Basra’s transition to provincial Iraqi control in December, our military role in Iraq is now so limited—the right hon. Gentleman used the rather dismissive word “diminished”— that an inquiry could safely be held without prejudice to the position of our servicemen and women in Iraq. That argument does not accord with the reality of our ongoing commitments in southern Iraq.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: No; I am just going to make this point, then I shall let hon. Members come in.

British forces still have an important role to play in monitoring, mentoring and training the Iraqi security
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force in southern Iraq. Our forces support the Iraqi security force in active operations such as countering smuggling on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and at the Iranian border, including by supporting, training and developing the Iraqi department of border enforcement.

When necessary, and at the request of Iraqi authorities, we provide Iraqi-led operations with advanced capabilities that the Iraqi security forces do not possess. That was what we did in January when the ISF were faced with a series of pre-planned attacks in both Basra and An Nasiriyah by a fundamentalist sect during the Ashura festival.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: I shall give way at the end of this section of my speech.

UK forces were in close contact with the Iraqi security forces, and provided fast air support and aerial surveillance capabilities in support of ISF operations. Those capabilities were crucial in enabling the Iraqi security forces to deal with the situation as effectively as they did.

We also retain the capacity to deploy ground forces in support of the Iraqi security forces, at Iraqi request and in line with the terms of the memorandum that was signed in December. The dangers and difficulties of that role are shown by the continued efforts of small numbers of extremists to target our forces. It is not tenable to make the second argument: that our armed forces are no longer devoting significant attention to the future of Iraq, and so have time on their hands for all the demands of an inquiry.

Mr. MacNeil rose—

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has been trying to get in; I am happy to let him.

Mr. MacNeil: The Foreign Secretary says that Iraq is an ongoing situation. Is he saying, therefore, that the President of the United States was wrong when he said, “Mission accomplished”?

David Miliband: I think it is evident that the mission has not been accomplished. I associate myself entirely with something that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, said earlier—I do not know whether he was quoting what I said last week. It seems clear that the war itself went better than most people expected, but that the building of the peace afterwards has gone much worse than people expected. That is the basic truth, and we might as well all accept it. The mission has not yet been accomplished.

Mr. Jenkin: On the previous point, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) completely demolished the Foreign Secretary’s argument.

Will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Prime Minister promised a reduction in the number of troops in Iraq to 2,500 by next summer? It is now becoming evident that that is not going to be delivered, and 4,000 looks like the minimum. Is that not a further argument for an inquiry? Some of the mistakes that the Government made soon after the invasion seem to be being repeated.

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David Miliband: The Prime Minister’s promises were made on the basis of military advice. He promised a downward trend in troop numbers, which remains the case. All further decisions will also be based on military advice, and I think I would discount the numbers that the hon. Gentleman is chucking around.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary’s argument is predicated, in truth, almost entirely on the fact that it would be militarily deleterious for an inquiry to be held now. Will he tell us which senior commanders of the British armed forces, present or past, have told him or said that such an inquiry would be harmful?

David Miliband: The same question was asked in a previous debate, and the answer was, “None.” That is not the basis of the case. I am asking people to make a judgment of the four reasons that have been given. The first is the precedent, and the second is the so-called diminished role that we are playing.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: I do not understand the Foreign Secretary’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). He has described clearly the role being carried out by the 4,000 people still in Basra. He said that it is not their morale that he is worried about. What is the argument that an inquiry into the origins of and planning for the war will disrupt the continuing role in Basra? It sounds as though the Foreign Secretary is just saying, “They wouldn’t have the time.” The people involved in Basra at the moment, however, are highly unlikely to be required for the sort of inquiry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has been arguing for.

David Miliband: The argument is straightforward: that the focus, attention and priority of armed services and diplomats should be on the job at hand, not on the service of an inquiry.

The third argument for an inquiry has to do with the lessons learned for the benefits of future policy. It is that an early inquiry can help us learn lessons that will contribute to the future success of efforts in Iraq. However, our military, diplomatic and development strategies have consistently been adjusted and updated in the light of events on the ground in Iraq and the lessons that have been learned.

As I said earlier, in 2003 the Ministry of Defence published two studies about the operations in Iraq. Since then, it has conducted a series of internal reviews and studies concerning various stages of the operation. They apply across the complex range of issues raised by the Iraq conflict—from military kit to counter-insurgency strategy, from the relationship of security to economic and political change. More broadly, we have long recognised the importance of learning systemic lessons about the conduct of post-stabilisation operations— a point that was made earlier in relation to Afghanistan.

The final argument is that, if an inquiry is not held soon, memories will fade, records will be lost and the passage of time will render it impossible to conduct an effective and detailed examination. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said last week:

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