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Why should the families of our troops or the troops themselves believe the proposed withdrawal plan, given the confusion that the Prime Minister createdconfusion that has not been explained todaywhen announcing a timetable for withdrawal last October that was never implemented in full? I am told that part of the reason for that is concern about sensitivities in
the White Housethat the Americans do not want to see us withdraw from Iraq. Does he agree that it is in Americas interest to release us from our obligations in Iraq, precisely so that we can do the job that we need to do in Afghanistan?
Can the Prime Minister also provide us with an update on the total costs and projected costs of our commitment in Iraq? At a time of increased economic woes here at home, the cost of our misguided engagement in Iraq is of considerable public interest. As we draw our troops down from Iraq, will the Prime Minister assure the House that we will step up our presence in Afghanistan? When will he start deploying more resources to that vital conflict? When will he start moving the vital equipment needed, such as armoured vehicles, out of Iraq to the front line in Helmand?
Finally, it is impossible to discuss Iraq without mentioning Iran. Our troops safety in Iraq and Afghanistan is intimately bound up with Irans influence. The Prime Minister has just come back from Israel, where he rightly condemned Irans threats to that country. However, will he learn the lesson of our disastrous tacit support for Israels incursion into Lebanon two years ago and make it clear to the House today, and to Israel and the country at large, that he will not support, even tacitly, any unilateral Israeli military strike in Iran? Two years ago, the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said that an attack on Iran would be completely nuts. Does the Prime Minister agree?
The Prime Minister: Let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on a number of important facts. First, we have announced new numbers and extra support for Afghanistan. Secondly, the figures for the cost of our involvement in Iraq are published regularly. As I understand it, £3.6 billion in urgent operational requirements has been allocated over these last few years.
The larger the military training commitment we can maintain, the greater will be UK influence in Iraq, and in the region as a whole, as Iraq recovers its position as a wealthy and powerful Middle East nation.
The importance of our training effort is not simply that Iraqi troops are better able to deal with their own security, which I hope he would support, and to take responsibility themselves, but that people can see that this is long-term influence in Iraq, which is to the benefit not just of Iraq and the region but of our relationship with Iraq for the future. I hope that he will reconsider his view on this matter. The training function that is being carried out by our forces in Iraq is welcomed by the Iraqi forces and is vital in making them able to conduct their own operations and, therefore, enabling us to release the things that we are doing, allowing them to get on with their work.
As for Iran, let me make it absolutely clearI will answer in more detail on Iranthat we have supported three United Nations resolutions on sanctions, and we have also taken action in the European Union. We will not hesitate to take further action on sanctions, including on oil and gas. We took action in the past few weeks on
Bank Melli, and we are determined to show the Iranians that they have a choice. Their choice is that they can work with us, gain access to civil nuclear power and play their part as a responsible member of the international community or they can face isolation from the whole of the international community, as a result of their failure to honour what they promised to do under the non-proliferation treaty and withdraw from their programme on nuclear weapons.
That is a clear choice, and that is what the discussions of the E3 plus 3 group are all about. That is what was being discussed at the weekend. We await an answer from Iran. The important fact is that Iran faces that choice. I do not rule out any options in relation to Iran, but the path ahead, which I support, is one of negotiations backed up by sanctions. The more sanctions that we have to impose in response to Irans attitude, the more we will have to do, and I believe that we will have the whole of the international community behind us.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the end the most sensible way of combating the malign influence of Iran is by ensuring that the Iraqi people, particularly in the south, have confidence in the future, which means continuing the efforts to invest in public services and the economy? He has already told the House what the British Government are doing in that context, but will he outline what steps are being taken by our European partners to ensure that economic burden sharing takes place?
The Prime Minister: The important point to recognise is that Iraq is a potentially wealthy country. It has produced more oil in recent months, having reopened oil production that was closed after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and it is in a position to develop its oil reserves even more. Part of our Basra development strategy is to ensure that Iraqs oil resources are developed to the full, and we want other countries to be involved in the process.
My hon. Friend asks about the European Union. We have called a Basra investment conference and we have worked with people from all EU countries to make that happen. We are behind the Basra development commission, which is trying to get new investors into Iraq. I am sure that the combined work of the World Bank and the UN to provide help for hospitals, schools and infrastructure such as water and electricity, together with our push to get new investment into Iraq, will be crucial for the future. We are prepared to continue working with the EU on all those matters.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I welcome the statement with no reservation whatever. Does the Prime Minister agree that the transformation that the Defence Committee saw when we visited Basra this month provides some reassurance to our armed forces that the great sacrifices they make on our behalf are not made in vain and lead eventually to some improvement in the world?
As for the figures that the Prime Minister was kind enough to mention in relation to the Defence Committee report, I agree that it was right to maintain the numbers of our armed forces in Iraq at about 4,500 during the spring. What was wrong, if I may put it gently to him, was announcing, in response to the Leader of the
Opposition, the figure of 2,500 in the autumn. Let us put that behind us, however, and say that the most important thing now is to continue to build and train the Iraqi forces in precisely the long-term relationship that the Prime Minister described in his statement.
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he has visited Iraq in the past few weeks and was able to walk on the streets of Basra and see for himself the change in security in the town itself, as well as in the region more widely. I believe that the Defence Committee report will be regarded as an extremely important document. It shows that the training function agreed with the Iraqi authorities is working, and it shows the value of continuing that training function so that we can properly complete the task.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that all the figures announced to the House were based on the best advice of our military commanders at the time. It is true to say that we could have reduced our troops further had it not been for the operation carried out by Prime Minister Malikiwhich turned out to be the right way of getting the militias out of Basrawhile at the same time, by embedding our forces with the Iraqi forces, completing the training processes in a better, more efficient and more expeditious way than before. As the Defence Committees report shows, embedding our training groups in the Iraqi forces has been the right thing to do and has been very successful. We look forward to the day when, as a result of all the advice and mentoring that we have been able to give them, the Iraqis can take over full responsibility for the security of all areas of Iraq.
The negotiations on the long-term bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United Kingdom, which the right hon. Gentleman also asked about, will continue over the summer and autumn months. I hope that when the House returns we will be able to report on their success. It is important to understand that the Iraqis want to receive support in a number of areas where we are giving specialist advice. The relationship will not be too dissimilar to one we have with other countries in the region, and it will be to the benefit of the UK, representing, as I have said, a further fundamental change of mission. I think that it is right for the Iraqis to have control over their own countrys security, and it is also an acknowledgement, as the right hon. Gentleman said at the outset, of the great sacrifice made by British troops and of their professionalism and dedication. That is what has brought us to the point where we have been able to report progress today.
Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): The Prime Minister will know that I have visited Iraq three times in the past 12 months, most recently with the Select Committee only a few weeks ago, so I can attest to the changes taking place there. In consolidating those changes, my right hon. Friend refers to the bilateral arrangements to be struck with the Iraqis in parallel with those of the United States. We currently operate a detention and internment facility, whose legality is bound up with a UN resolution. The ending of that resolution is clearly important for the continuation of the facility and the protection of our forces who operate it. I have visited it on several occasions over the past few years, so I can say that it is a very well run facility, validated by the Red Cross. However, it is also important as we continue to help the Iraqis with their reconciliation
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the House more generally, that he is yet to put a question? Time is limited and there is a lot of business to get through today. I am sure that the Prime Minister wants to respond to as many questions as possible, so it helps if they can be brief and to the point. That will enable many more Members to be satisfied; otherwise, I am afraid that many Members will be unhappy.
The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Iraq, for informing me of what he saw while he was there, and for his advice. He is absolutely right that the International Committee of the Red Cross has inspected the detention facilities and found them to be very good. He is also right that part of a UN resolution covers our presence in Iraq. That will be one of the issues to be discussed during negotiation on the bilateral relationship that we will have with Iraq in the future.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): As one who has supported our Iraq operations from the beginning, I am enormously pleased that the Prime Minister has been able to make this statement today. I believe that our troops should remain there until they are no longer required; there should be no artificial timetables.
We all know that the real pressure on our troop numbers comes from the pressure to deploy into Afghanistan. Is not the reality that that pressure draws more on us because our allies in Europe, such as the French and the Germans, still refuse point blank to do what they voted for, which is to get into places like Helmand and provide some proper support for the Afghan Government? Is the Prime Minister minded to urge President Sarkozy to stop travelling around Europe telling everyone to raise a defunct treaty, and instead attempt to bully them into putting some troops on the ground to support us?
The Prime Minister: A few months ago, the French announced that they would put an extra 800 troops into Afghanistan. They will put them in eastern Afghanistan, which is a dangerous region, as well as the region where we are working, Helmand. That will enable American marines to come down into Helmand, so the reconfiguration that follows will be to the benefit of British troops. We have increased the number of troops available in Afghanistan and we are meeting our responsibilities in respect of equipment and staffing. We will continue to do what is right in both Iraq and Afghanistan to make sure that there is proper protection for British forces, who are doing a sterling job in both countries.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Three weeks ago, I visited Basra and Iraq for the sixth time with the Select Committee, and I can confirm that the security situation has been transformed. We met the training teams with the 14th division of the Iraqi army in Basra and the navy training teams down at Umm Qasr, and I have to say that they are doing a fantastic, first-rate job. I urge my right hon. Friend to resist those asking to have those troops withdrawn prematurely merely for the sake of the numbers, as that would be a great mistake not just for the troops, but for the future of Iraq.
The Prime Minister: That is exactly what I am saying. The training function that we have agreed to carry out will be completed. Simultaneously, we are working on the economic development front in Iraq and a plan will be published in the next few months. We are working to transfer control of the airport to civilian use, which should happen by the end of the year. We hopethere is a vote in the Iraqi Parliament todaythat provincial local elections will be announced later in the year. We are intent on completing the job that we started. The job that we have been doing over the past year, intensified in recent months, has involved embedding our troops with the Iraqi forces, and we believe that we will complete that job to our satisfaction and theirs.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): As one of those who did not approve of our invasion of Iraq, I nevertheless welcome the Prime Ministers statement today and the progress that is at last being made there. However, will he comment specifically on the stories that al-Qaeda members who are currently in Iraq are moving back to the Pakistan border with Afghanistan? That will create serious problems unless the Government of Pakistan genuinely try to crack down on them. If they do not, those terrorists will increasingly cause problems for our troops in Helmand province.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman refers to the comments that General Petraeus made. There has been a great deal of success in some of the provinces in Iraq in forcing out those people who were associated with al-Qaeda. It is also true that there is a new worry about the Pakistan border and the infiltration of al-Qaeda into Afghanistan. We take that threat very seriously indeed, and it has led us to have conversations with the Pakistani Government about what they are doing to ensure law and order in the regions. I accept that, as al-Qaeda is forced out of Iraq, other problems will arise, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that we are making changes in Afghanistan to deal with a new function of the militias that are fighting us: instead of direct combat, they are fighting in a guerrilla form, which results in casualties. We must change our tactics so that we are properly prepared to tackle them.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Capacity building in the Iraqi navy is critical, but is any work going on in the investment conference to tackle the design and layout of the oil platforms? They are a little antiquated, to say the least, and their design makes them vulnerable.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to all the armed forces training teams, who do not simply train the Iraqi army but undertake important work in naval exercises and in protecting the safety and security of the oil platforms. We are working with the Iraqis to help them to develop an oil industry, which should be one of the most successful in the world. Iraq has major oil reserves and it needs support for their development. The Basra development commission is intent on helping to develop not only the oil industry, but related industries around the port. I believe that British businesses, too, will see an opportunity to work with the commission on that.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Did the right hon. Gentleman, when speaking to British servicemen, remind them that much of the fighting that has taken place was due to the Governments disastrous decision to disestablish the Iraqi army and police service? Did he remind them that, when they go to Afghanistan, they will be in much greater danger because of the Governments failure to give them proper equipment, and the Governments decision to deploy into Helmand province without getting proper assurances from other NATO allies about reinforcements?
The Prime Minister: First, let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are training the Iraqi army and working with it so that it can build up its strength. We have already trained 20,000 members of the Iraqi armed forces, and the work in hand for the next few months is to train several thousand more. That is an important way to show that the Iraqi army will be suitable, able and equipped to carry out its tasks.
As for Afghanistan, the right hon. and learned Gentleman, like me, recognises the difficulties that all countries face there. We are dealing with an insurgency and problems that have arisen from a change of tactic by the Taliban, but I believe that our armed forces are tackling that with great effectiveness and success. As for equipment, we have been able to meet the urgent operational requirements of the Army and the other forces. We have put aside, as a matter of policy, money to meet all the urgent operational requirements, which have run into substantial figures in the past few years. When the Army, the Navy or the Air Force make requests for us to meet those urgent operational requirements, we do our best to fulfil them.
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Last year, the Prime Minister told the House that we planned to move to the second stage of overwatch, which would focus on training and mentoring. That plan appears to be in place. May I therefore urge him to take no notice of those who would have us lose our nerve now? Will he ensure that any second stage of overwatch is properly resourced, so that Britain continues to have a substantial influence for good in the region in the late stages of the campaign?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is also a member of the Select Committee. Again, I pay tribute to members of the Committee for their non-partisan work in going to Iraq, examining the facts, reporting on them and, I believe, giving a full and fair account of how the training function that we agreed several months ago works to the benefit of the Iraqi army in the short term, and makes for greater and better relationships between us and the Iraqi people for many years ahead. The Select Committee is right to say that we should work to finish the job of training. That is exactly what we intend to do: to finish the task that we started.
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