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That was General David Petraeus, who was present at the meeting, speaking in an interview on Monday
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morning with John Simpson on the BBC. The view was taken that the Iraqis could deal with these challenges in relation to how their army was equipped and the reinforcements that could be provided, and that they should deal with those challenges, because that underpinned the decision to move to provincial Iraqi control in the first place. As I spelled out, the nature of the challenges that faced us in Basra could be dealt with in the longer term only by the Iraqis.

Day by day, the Iraqi army is better equipped, but of course there are still challenges. There is the challenge in the Ministry of Defence of ensuring that the Iraqi army can spend the resources available through its budget—that is improving day by day. When it is short of capability, we provide that as part of overwatch, which is exactly what we did.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that in Iraq, and especially in Basra, what our troops do is as part of a division of the multinational corps. The commander of that corps was in Basra, and decisions about the use of our troops are made through the proper chain of command—not by politicians, but by military commanders.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Is it not ludicrous to suggest that developments in and around Basra are somehow being determined by either the Iraqi Government forces or, indeed, British forces? Do not recent events show that any changes that take place are in the gift of the militias? Does that not in itself make the case for accelerating the withdrawal of our forces, rather than further delaying bringing them home?

Des Browne: The activity of our forces over the past week has been in support of the Iraqi security forces in a continuing operation. The operation made steady progress over the weekend, although it is acknowledged that there was significant resistance to it at the start. That has shown exactly the relevance of our forces and, frankly, the folly of bringing our forces home before conditions and circumstances allow.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I echo his words of condolence and his tribute to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Has something fundamental changed since the Prime Minister’s announcement in October on the intended reduction in the number of troops? Since that time, British troops have pulled out of Basra city, handed over the province and largely restricted themselves to the air base. The picture that has generally been painted is of an improving situation.

Against that background, does the Secretary of State appreciate that the British public will be rather surprised to discover that the Government have changed their mind over the troop withdrawals? Will he explain when the decision was made and confirm whether the military advice had anything to do with the minimum number of troops needed to protect the forces, which we have raised on several occasions?

The statement refers again to the concept of overwatch, which people will previously have understood to involve
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training, surveillance, logistic support and availability on stand-by. However, the Secretary of State told us today about fast jet missions and the deployment of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that still overwatch in the sense that is generally understood?

Will the Secretary of State confirm what commitments have been given to the Iraqi Government about what they can expect from British troops and over what time scale? Although I welcome his confirmation that the direction of travel is towards troop withdrawals, how long can the MOD continue to break its defence planning assumptions by operating on two fronts? What impact will this have on the promise of more troops and helicopters for the work in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: The plan and the direction of travel remain the same. As I made clear in my statement, it emerged that the rate of progress in that direction would not be sustained in the way that was planned in October, before the events in question took place. However, reducing the number of our forces is still our plan; we still intend to do that, subject to conditions on the ground and our assessment of the ability of the Iraqi security forces to sustain and develop security in the city of Basra. The nature of the challenge that they face there is such that it would not be possible for British troops to deal with it and sustain the position in the long term.

The problem is a combination of politics and economics; it is a combination of militia and criminal gangs, who are of the same ethnic and religious background. That can be dealt with in a sustainable way only by the Iraqis themselves. They have a plan—it is widely accepted to be the right plan—to deal with it, and it will take a sustained period to achieve that.

I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about specific stages in the plan. What I am saying is that because of the actions of the Iraqi Government and the reaction of the militia in the city of Basra over the past week, and because of what is going on, it is prudent for us to mark time at this stage—not to abandon the plan, but to mark time and review the situation.

We will review the situation while sustaining the troops, for whom we know we have a use and a need at the moment, because we have deployed them in support of the Iraqi operation over the past week in different ways, as I explained to the House and to the hon. Gentleman. The use of those troops to support the Iraqi forces in such circumstances was always part of overwatch; I have always said that it would be potentially part of overwatch.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s understanding was that such a use of force would not be part of overwatch, but the hon. Member for Woodspring, who speaks for the Conservatives, consistently asks me to spell out the exact circumstances in which we would deploy, in the context of overwatch. Nobody in the House could have been in any doubt about what was involved in overwatch.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether maintaining current troop levels in Iraq will have any impact on the prospect of reinforcing the boots on the ground in Afghanistan, if that proves necessary in an emergency?

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Des Browne: We keep our troop levels under review in both operational theatres—in Afghanistan and in Iraq—and I have not found myself unable to do anything that we needed to do in Afghanistan because of Iraq, or vice versa. I do not expect to be in that situation.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the Defence Committee has never understood the figure of 2,500? Does he agree that it is a mistake to raise hopes of withdrawal and then to abandon those hopes, because that makes the position seems worse than it is? My view is that the Iraqi operation last week was not bad news, because it showed the Iraqis taking back responsibility for a key part of Iraq. However, as has been asked, what does that do to the defence planning assumptions? Does he still intend to complete his review of those planning assumptions this spring?

Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security, particularly at the highest level, in their Government. They are also turning their attention to security in Basra and the south of the country. In particular, the Government are showing the whole country and the people of Basra that they are prepared to take on Shi’a militia; they are not seen to be picking and choosing the elements that they will engage with, but are showing that they are even-handed. Those are all very positive signs. It is a difficult and complex task that they have taken on, and it will take time. It will be some time before we can assess the success and sustainability of anything that they achieve.

The Government have endeavoured to spell out in detail to the country and to the House our plans that make troop numbers assessable, but we have always made it perfectly clear that those plans are subject to conditions and to military advice. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands, probably better than many hon. Members but certainly as well as any hon. Member, that those conditions and the military advice can change, and that is what has happened.

I accept the advice that the right hon. Gentleman gives for the future in relation to specific numbers, and I will take it on board. Defence planning assumptions continue to be under review, and when that review is concluded I will report to the House.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): As the Secretary of State said, our forces in Iraq continue to play a vital role in support of the democratically elected Iraqi Government, but does he have any view on or assessment of the role of the Iranians in interfering in Basra and the region to assist the insurgents and the militias who oppose the central Iraqi Government?

Des Browne: It is well known that Iranian elements have been interfering substantially in southern Iraq in a number of ways. To be frank, it is not surprising that there is a connection between those who live in that part of Iraq and Iranians, because historically people moved freely around that part of the world, and during the time of Saddam Hussein there were strong relationships between elements that are now involved in Iraqi politics and Iranians. All of that is perfectly
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understandable. No one can move either of the two countries, and they will need to find some way of supporting and working with each other, but support by certain elements of militia and other insurgents by the provision of training, money or military equipment is unacceptable. We have exposed that on every occasion that we have been able to, not just to the Iranians and the Iraqi Government, but to other Governments in the region. It is not supported by anybody who wants to see stability in the region, and it should stop.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): May I press the Secretary of State again regarding overwatch? Surveillance, fast jets, helicopters, food and water, ammunition, medical care, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are evidence not of overwatch but of active participation, which, if allowed to get out of control, could easily result in our being engaged in a civil war.

Des Browne: In the context of overwatch, it has always been planned that it may be necessary for our troops in southern Iraq to go to the support of the Iraqi security forces. There is no intention of allowing that support to get out of control, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests. All of that is done in the context of the multinational corps, carefully and after due consideration, and we allow our troops to become engaged in that fashion only after proper consideration of whether it is appropriate for them, they have the equipment and force protection to be able to do it, the action is in support of the Iraqi forces, and it will result in a positive outcome, which all the interventions have done.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): But how seriously unstable is the position in Basra? Has the fighting among the Shi’as come completely out of the blue? My right hon. Friend will be conscious of the fact that it is less than a month since he said in a written answer that the Government were planning for a reduction of our forces to 2,500 in the spring. He said that he will tell us—no doubt after the recess—the new timetable. Can he assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq?

Des Browne: I assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Is the Secretary of State for Defence aware of the weight of criticism by military strategists, particularly in the United States, of the dangerous position in which our troops have been placed near to Basra for mainly political reasons?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am well aware of that criticism, but I am also well aware of the sustained and consistent support of the most highly qualified and experienced American generals currently serving in Iraq, who have supported every single step that we have taken right along the line. General David Petraeus, who is rightly credited with having significant military experience and who has undertaken a long
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period of service in Iraq, so he knows the country well, supports every single thing that we have done, and he said that not only in Congress but in this city.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): Having encouraged the Iraqi Government to take direct responsibility for security in Basra, it is only right to do everything possible to support them in that new role. Are there not two imperatives in this situation: first, to do everything possible to support, and above all nothing to undermine, the chances for nascent Iraqi democracy; and, secondly, to do everything possible to support, and nothing to undermine, the position of our American allies? Is that not the only possible, honourable and right policy to adopt?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is entirely correct to say that we should remain on the same page as those who are in the coalition with us, particularly the United States of America. In the course of this week, the corps commander has been in Basra at the heart of the decision-making process with Prime Minister Maliki and some of our senior officers. We keep close to our American allies, who know, understand and support everything that we are doing. We all do that to support the democratic Government of Iraq, so that they can build their security forces and, more importantly, build strength in their political system and governance to allow them to sustain the level of security that the people of Basra want. The people of Basra overwhelmingly support their Prime Minister in what he is doing there.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Secretary of State has said that even-handedness by the Iraqi Government is vital. Will he therefore explain why the six-day war in Basra was waged against only one Shi’ite militia, the Mahdi army, and not against Fadhila, an armed militia which controls oil production, or the Badr organisation, which is actually an ally of the Nouri al-Maliki Government? Is not the real reason that Moqtada al-Sadr is the biggest political threat to Nouri al-Maliki in advance of the elections? Would it not be entirely wrong to ask a single British serviceman or woman to risk their life in supporting one side in a bloody civil war between warring political factions?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has a surprising ability, from a comparatively long way away from Basra, to explain exactly what is happening there. The information that is coming out of the city suggests that the Iraqi security forces are taking on a complex mixture of criminal elements and gangs, including the Jaish al-Mahdi. The JAM has attracted attention, because Moqtada al-Sadr speaks for it and is part of the political process in Iraq through those from his organisation who were elected—he is a significant player in that process. To suggest that the Iraqi security forces have been taking on only one element of the militia and criminal gang elements in Basra is to misrepresent what they have been doing.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that unless we are
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careful, we will get drawn into a quagmire that is not of our making? [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak.

Mr. Hamilton: At the end of the day, talk of withdrawing 2,500 troops by the spring was wrong. The next time that we discuss a reduction, we should discuss withdrawal, which is what it should have been in the first place.

Des Browne: I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s views on these matters, and he and the House are well aware of my view on when we will withdraw our troops from Iraq. As far as the first part of his question is concerned, we have no intention of being drawn into any quagmire and we will not be drawn into one.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the statement about the possible withdrawal of numbers of troops from Iraq was made, extremely unwisely and rashly, by the Prime Minister when he was in Iraq? Some of us believe that to have been a cynical pre-election stunt. Will the Secretary of State define for the House the overwatch obligations and commitments to which he refers but which he never enumerates?

Des Browne: I have spelt out the detail of overwatch in the body of the statement that I gave to the House on what we have been doing, in practical terms, in support of the Iraqi security forces in the past week. Beyond that work, of which there are many practical examples, we are also training the Iraqi security forces and working on the border to train the Iraqi border police.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): When our troops took on the role of overwatch, it was always likely that criminal and militant elements would seek to test the resilience of the Iraqi forces. I for one am heartened by the fact that they are sufficiently confident and competent to undertake this exercise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest disincentive against those elements continuing their activity will be the sure knowledge that British troops will stay there, bolstering competence, until they are defeated?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Iraqi security forces’ ability to conduct and sustain an operation of that nature depends at present on support from the coalition. As the part of the coalition with the primary responsibility in that part of Iraq, we need to continue to support them.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): How long does the Secretary of State think it will be acceptable for him to keep coming to the House to express condolences for the deaths of men serving their country in Iraq, and then going on to describe an unexpected and violent turn of events over which the British appear to have little or no influence or control?

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