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The most important development is that the improvements that we have seen have been increasingly Iraqi-led. Security responsibility for 10 of 18 provinces has now transferred to Iraqi control, including all four provinces in Britain’s area of operations. Iraqi security forces are now taking the lead in maintaining security and confronting all those who perpetrate violence, including acting decisively against Shi’a militia in Basra, Sadr City and Amarah; and they have been supported by local people from across Iraqi communities—Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd. Britain has already helped to train more than 20,000 Iraqi army troops, but I want to pay credit to Prime Minister Maliki, his Government and the Iraqi security forces, who have shown bravery and leadership in tackling the terrorists and militias threatening the stability of their country.

The improved security situation has provided a platform for further, essential progress on reconciliation. We have seen not only increased co-operation between Sunni communities and the Iraqi Government in areas such as Anbar and Mosul, and the return of the Tawafuq Sunni party to the Government, but the passage of key legislation that is helping to embed democracy, including the accountability and justice law, the provincial powers law, and now the 2008 budget. The next stage will be provincial elections, reinforcing the political progress made at the national level. Our message to the leaders of all Iraq’s communities, and to parties right across the country, is that they must continue to make these right long-term decisions to achieve a sustainable peace.

It is also important, as we move forward, that we see Iraq’s neighbours playing a constructive and responsible role in Iraq’s future. In particular, Syria should clamp down on the movement of foreign fighters. Iran must stop the provision of arms and training to those who attack a democratically elected Government in Iraq or the coalition forces in Iraq, and the Iraqi people.

We will also continue to focus on helping the Iraqi Government to rebuild their economy and ensuring that the Iraqi people all have a stake in the future. British-led projects in southern Iraq have now helped to deliver enough electricity to supply 800,000 people and water supplies for over 1 million people, with this year another 120,000 people due to get power and 250,000 to gain access to direct supplies of water. Our funding has helped the UN and World Bank to repair and re-equip 1,000 health centres and more than 5,000 schools, and to train nearly 150,000 teachers. With British training and equipment, including upgrades to air traffic control systems, lighting and firefighting, Iraqi personnel are regularly handling more than 20 civil flights a week at Basra airport. British mentoring and support has helped Basra provincial council to gain access to $400 million in central Government funds—money that, in line with the council’s increasing ability to take the lead itself, it is now able to spend further to improve infrastructure and to provide the essential public services of power, water, health and education.

Last week, the Basra development commission agreed an outline economic strategy for Basra that sets out plans to encourage private sector and foreign investment. Britain is supporting the new Basra investment promotion agency, which I visited at the weekend, and supporting the Basra development fund to provide loans to small and start-up businesses, which will be key drivers of economic growth and job creation. I am grateful for
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the work of Mr. Michael Wareing, a leading British businessman, who co-chairs the Basra development commission.

Nine months ago, I set out the key elements of our strategy for handing over security in Basra to the Iraqis and set out the stages for completing the tasks that we have set ourselves. We completed the initial phase on target, handing over Basra to provincial Iraqi control in December. This allowed us to reduce troop numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 in September to 4,500. After the Iraqi Government launched Operation Charge of the Knights to enforce the rule of law in Basra against the militias, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary explained to the House in April, the military advice was that we should pause the further planned reduction so that British troops, together with US forces, could support the Iraqis in this crucial operation.

Since then, we have responded to changing needs and embedded more than 800 UK personnel within the Iraqi command structure—at divisional, brigade and battalion level. The focus of the 4,100 forces still in southern Iraq is now on completing the task of training and mentoring the 14th division of the Iraqi army in Basra, and it is right that, as we do so, we continue for the next few months to provide support at those levels. Other remaining military tasks—agreed with the Government of Iraq and in close consultation with our US allies—include finalising the preparation of Basra airport for civilian control, and continuing to develop the capacity of the Iraqi navy and marines so that they can protect oil platforms, territorial waters and the port, which are all critical to Iraq’s economic future.

It is now right to complete the tasks we have set ourselves. We expect the Basra development commission to publish its detailed economic development plan in the autumn. We hope that local government elections will take place by the end of 2008. Subject to security conditions on the ground, our military commanders believe that the Iraqis will be able to take over development of Basra airport by the end of this year. They also expect the first stage of the general training and mentoring of the combat troops of the 14th division in Basra to be complete around the turn of the year. As the focus shifts from training combat troops, we will move forward to the specific task of mentoring headquarters and specialist staffs, and our military commanders expect the 14th division in Basra to be fully trained during the first months of next year.

As we complete these tasks, and as progress continues in these different areas, we will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq. Of course, future decisions will, as always, be based on the advice of our military commanders on the ground, but I can tell the House today that, just as last year we moved from combat to overwatch, we expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009, as we make the transition to a long-term bilateral relationship with Iraq, similar to the normal relationships that our military forces have with other important countries in the region. The Defence Secretary and our military commanders will now work with the Iraqi Government to formulate agreement on the details of such a partnership, including its necessary legal basis, and he will report to the House in the autumn.

I believe it is right that having successfully trained and mentored large numbers of the Iraqi forces, and
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having successfully worked with the Iraqis on a new economic development strategy, we should complete the key tasks that we have agreed with the Iraqi Government: training the 14th division of the Iraqi army in Basra; preparing Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control; pushing forward economic development; providing the necessary support for provincial elections; honouring our obligations to the Iraqi people; and at the same time—and at all times—ensuring the safety of our armed forces, whose professionalism and dedication have brought us to this stage and whose service to our country I once again commend to the House.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement.

Is not the absolutely clear message that should go out from across this House that the British armed forces who have served in Iraq and are still serving there are doing, and have done, an incredible job in difficult circumstances? When sitting in the back of one of those transport planes in Basra, you meet people who have been to Iraq three times, four times, five times and sometimes even more. They have given great service and the whole country can be incredibly proud of them. I join the Prime Minister in praising the Iraqi army and Prime Minister Maliki for imposing the rule of law, and for doing the important job of taking on the militias. The Prime Minister was quite right to mention that.

On the question of troop numbers, clearly everyone wants to see our forces withdrawn from Iraq as soon as it is practical to do so, but does the Prime Minister agree that, looking back over the past year, we can see two important lessons to learn? The first is that we should not make premature announcements about troop withdrawals that cannot then be delivered. Instead, we should set the conditions that need to be met to achieve our objectives, and the troop withdrawals can take place when they have been made. The Prime Minister said last October that

Yet currently—for good reason—there are more than 4,000 servicemen and women stationed in Iraq. Can the Prime Minister clarify the figures for Operation Telic as a whole? When servicemen and women serving at sea are included, the figure is more than 6,000. Can the Prime Minister confirm that a combination of written answers and the Ministry of Defence website suggests that the figure has actually increased since October, when the Prime Minister promised that 1,000 troops would come home by Christmas?

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Mr. Cameron: He says it is not true; it would help if he gave us simple, consistent, practical figures.

That brings me to the second lesson, which is the need for the Government to be as clear and transparent as possible on troop numbers. Is it not the case that over the past few days we have been in danger of hearing two quite contradictory things? On the one hand, the Prime Minister has said that he is against any artificial timetables for withdrawing the troops; on the other hand, Downing
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street sources have been reported as saying that he supports a 16-month timetable for withdrawal. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are discussing not abstract numbers and abstract announcements, but people with families and responsibilities who are already coping with the consequence of overstretch and who deserve the very best treatment—not spinning over numbers and announcements?

Can the Prime Minister clear up one wider issue on Iraq? The UN mandate for our presence there expires in December, and the Iraqi Government are not seeking a fresh UN mandate. In his statement, the Prime Minister mentioned seeking a fresh legal basis for our troops. Can he tell us a little more about that? Is it being negotiated in parallel with the United States? When will the negotiations begin? Is he absolutely happy that they will be concluded before the UN mandate runs out, and that there will not be a gap between the two legal bases? It is important to straighten that out.

As for economic development, the Prime Minister spoke of accelerating economic reconstruction. Can he tell us when he expects there to be basic amenities such as reliable electricity and clean running water for the whole of Basra city? While there are clearly improvements in security there, which are very welcome, can he confirm that the provincial reconstruction team is still based with British forces at the air base? Can he also tell us what prospect there is of a move to Basra proper, and in what circumstances it could take place?

The Prime Minister mentioned the hostages in Iraq. The whole House will wish to call for their release, and the Government know that they have our support in doing all that they can to make progress on that vital issue.

On the last occasion when we discussed this, the Prime Minister agreed with our view that there should be an inquiry to enable us to learn the lessons of our involvement in Iraq. Does he agree that the argument for delaying the start of that inquiry is becoming weaker and weaker, and that he really should tell us when he will get on with it?

Let me turn to the influence of Iran on Iraq. Can the Prime Minister give us the current assessment of Iranian involvement, and its impact on security and stability? On the issue of sanctions against Iran, he said in November that Britain would

Last month he said that action would

Will he confirm that, as we speak, there are still no sanctions on oil and gas? Is he absolutely confident that if there is no positive response to the latest diplomatic offer within two weeks, sanctions will be imposed?

I should be grateful if the Prime Minister addressed one final issue relating to statements such as this. I have asked him this before. It is essential that the British people are kept up to date at regular intervals. Will the Prime Minister consider again our call for, at least, full quarterly reports on progress in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we can be given clear statements, on the record, on troop numbers and progress on the ground? Is that not the only way of ensuring that everyone, especially those serving on our behalf and their families, knows exactly where they stand?

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The Prime Minister: I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking our armed forces for their professionalism and dedication. I think it true to say that no Ministers have come to the House more frequently to make statements about the developing situation in Iraq than have I, the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, on occasion. I also believe that we have kept the House fully informed of what is happening, by means of written answers and other statements. I am pleased that the Defence Committee has published a report today, to which I shall return in a minute.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want to press ahead with the economic development of Basra, which includes the provision of electricity and water. As I have said, 800,000 people have electricity and 1 million have water, but more money has been pledged both by us and by the other organisations involved. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we will need a legal basis for continuing our presence in Iraq after December this year, and that is precisely what will be discussed in the negotiations in which the Defence Secretary and our commanders will engage with the Iraqi Government. Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect, when I met Prime Minister Maliki at the weekend I discussed exactly that issue, and how the talks would move forward.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the figures relating to troop numbers. We completed the first stage of the reduction in numbers from 5,500 and 4,500, but it was right to pause when the advice on the ground was that Prime Minister Maliki and Operation Charge of the Knights were intent on excluding all the militias from Basra. We wanted to give, as did the American forces, the support that we could to what was a successful operation—and now recognised to be successful—to exclude the militias from the area of Basra. It was right to learn the lessons of Charge of the Knights, which were to take into account the pressing need for further training of the Iraqi army. So nearly 1,000 troops a day are now working with the Iraqi army, embedded with it and doing a great job—I met them at the weekend—advising, mentoring and preparing it for taking over greater responsibilities in the future. We have now agreed a new set of tasks that the British Army will work with the Iraqi army to complete.

We made the right decisions to come down from 5,500 to 4,500. I said at the time—the right hon. Gentleman did not give the full quotation—that we would take the decisions that were necessary

It was right to pause the reduction in numbers. If any evidence is needed to that effect, let us look at today’s all-party Select Committee on Defence report, which says, as a result of those two changes that were made—those on the Opposition Front Bench should recognise that—that

The report continues:

the military transition teams, which we brought in after Charge of the Knights—

The decisions that we made on the advice of the military commanders on the ground were the right decisions. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to make political capital out of them, because it was right not only that we reduced the numbers at the time we did but that we paused so that we could support Operation Charge of the Knights. It was right that we changed our tactics so that we were in a position to embed our troops in support of training the Iraqi forces.

It is also right—this relates to the final questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked—that we work to a long-term bilateral relationship with the Iraqi Government. The discussions were about how we can give bilateral support to the Iraqi forces over a period of time. We will complete the work at Basra airport soon, and we hope to hold local government elections in the near future. The economic development plan will be published with the support of the British Government and funds that we are providing, and the work of training the forces will be completed in due course. It is right, therefore, to move to what is a change of mission, and that is a new bilateral relationship with the Iraqi Government, which I hope all parties in the House will support.

Finally, I have already said that this is not the right time for us to consider an inquiry. The troops are there; we have 4,100 troops on the ground. The whole focus of the Ministry of Defence is on completing the work that we have started. That is the right position for the Government to be in.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would also like to thank the Prime Minister for his statement and to salute the valour, the skill and the perseverance of the troops, and the courage of their families. Let us also not forget the courage of the families of the British hostages who are still held in Iraq.

I welcome, of course, the proposal to bring our troops out of Iraq. Their continued presence there contributes increasingly little to Iraq. Since withdrawing to the Basra air base, we have effectively become impotent, defending ourselves and little else. I am sure that the Prime Minister would agree that the major indirect effect of our deployment is to stretch our overall military capability and so constrain the success of our efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan. I regret that there is still no real clarity in detail on when we will finally leave. That continues the odd nod and wink strategy that has guided our approach to Iraq for some time. Such uncertainty about timing is unfair on our troops, unfair on their families and, of course, unfair on the Iraqis. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard, but there is too much in the way of private conversation in the Chamber, which is very unfair.

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