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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for quoting extensively from our Select Committee report and commend him for demonstrating the political will to see the operation in Iraq through, despite his understandable desire to draw down troops earlier than proved to be possible. However, the problem of overstretch does not go away, as the leader of the
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Liberal Democrats pointed out, and there is a question about whether either the commitments or the defence planning assumptions are wrong. Given that the defence planning assumptions have been exceeded in more years than they have not since they were drawn up in 1998, is not it time to revisit them? I doubt that Iraq will be the last place in which we are required to intervene, even if operations in Afghanistan continue.

The Prime Minister: I appreciate everything in the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. We were right to make the decisions that we have made. As his report shows, the training that the Ministry of Defence is undertaking of the Iraqi forces is yielding results—we can see the improvement every week in the Basra area. The improvement is also due to the change of tactics in the west of Iraq.

Of course, at all times we would like to do more with the defence budget, but it will be some 11 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. We have made major commitments of resources and capital in recent years and the defence budget rises every year. To be absolutely accurate, and to correct something that I said at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the UK is the second highest spending nation on defence, behind only the United States of America. That shows that we have continued to make commitments on defence, and we will continue to do that in future. We will of course continue to examine the capital budget and the planning assumptions, but the hon. Gentleman cannot take away from us the fact that the defence budget has continued to rise, or the fact that we have fulfilled the urgent operational requirements of the ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How difficult is it for the Iraqi Government to recruit police officers, given that they are regularly targeted, and is corruption, which was endemic, still a problem in the police force? How many people are training police officers in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important both to have an open and transparent policing operation in Iraq and that there is no corruption. Anything that leads to corruption is detrimental to the future of Iraq. However, he is wrong about applications to join the police force in Iraq: I am told that there is a waiting list to join. With others, we have trained 20,000 policemen and women, and we will continue to perform that vital training function. Just as we want a properly trained army, we want a properly trained police force that can conduct its duties.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Barack Obama has said that he will bring the last American soldier home by 16 months after he takes office. If the Prime Minister had made such a commitment, British soldiers would be coming home this summer, not in the spring of 2009 and 2010. In the light of his refusal to hold a proper inquiry into the Government’s Iraq policy, will he explain here and now why, in contrast to the young Senator Obama, he got it so badly wrong about the necessity of the war in the first place, the difficulties of the occupation and, most important, the huge human cost in service and civilian casualties of the worst foreign policy error of any Government in more than 50 years?

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The Prime Minister: Yes, I do acknowledge the sacrifice of the British men and women serving in Iraq, and the determination, resolution and commitment they have shown, but the important achievement from that is that Iraq is now a democracy. People voted for an elected Government, children are at school, people are enjoying health care and businesses are starting. That is an achievement. The hon. Gentleman asked about our proposals for the longer term: we want a bilateral defence relationship with Iraq through which we can support that country in the future, and that is exactly what we will be negotiating over the next few months.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I ask my right hon. Friend to compliment the contribution of the Territorial Army and reservists in Iraq, especially the personnel of the Medical Corps. Will he outline how we would have managed without their deployment in Iraq, and does he not agree that they have been a tremendous force for good?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in the TA and works very effectively at the local level to support the TA and the cadets who are trained in her area. Many of the 100,000 men and women who have served in Iraq have been TA members. When I have been in Iraq and when I met TA members at a reception for the 100th anniversary of the TA that we held last week, I have been able to thank them for their service—for giving up their ordinary jobs, and for giving their time and expertise to the work of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thank them for what they have done. On the 100th anniversary of the TA, which started in the first world war, it is important to acknowledge the contribution of its members, which has continued throughout that century and is no less great now in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Like the Chairman of the Defence Committee, I think it right to maintain our current high levels of troop deployment in Iraq, but it was absolutely wrong of the Prime Minister 10 months ago, when he was contemplating calling a general election and the Conservative party was holding its conference, to make the premature announcement that the troop number would be reduced to 2,500 by this spring. That was done for reasons of naked electoral and political advantage. Will the Prime Minister now apologise both to the armed forces and their families for misleading them—I understand that I am allowed to say that—and to the British people?

The Prime Minister: No. It was right to reduce our armed forces numbers as we changed the task that they performed from combat to overwatch. We reduced the numbers by 1,000 at the time, from 5,500 to 4,500. It was also right to change our tactics, as military commanders advised us about what was happening on the ground in Basra. I have always said, and I repeat again today, that the decisions we make will be made on the advice of military commanders on the ground and by reviewing the situation on the ground. It is right, too, that we continue to embed our troops with the Iraqi forces in order to complete the training function. Notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, I hope that he supports the action we are now taking.

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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) on the role of the TA. The national mobilisation base in my constituency has worked hard to support that role, and we are very grateful for its efforts. With Iran’s current position up for review, does the Prime Minister agree that as well as talking about the sanctions we will impose if it takes the wrong direction, it should be made clear that if Iran is willing to support the Shi’a-led Iraqi Government’s efforts to achieve peace, that will be an important step towards normalising its relationship with the rest of the world?

The Prime Minister: I hope that Iran will be able to show that it does have a continuing and settled interest in a stable Iraq. I also hope that any attempt to support militias coming across the border to cause damage in Basra or elsewhere will be seen by the international community and by the Iranian Government as totally unacceptable. We continue to try to negotiate with Iran a successful way through the problem that has been created by Iran’s breach of the non-proliferation treaty and defiance of the international community by attempting to gain nuclear weapons. I repeat that Iran has a choice: it can co-operate and gain access to civil nuclear power, or it can face isolation outside the international community.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I do not think we can escape the fact that our involvement in Iraq over the past five years has come at an appalling political, economic and military cost to the United Kingdom. As the need for Operation Charge of the Knights made clear, there are still many lessons to be learned. When the Prime Minister went to Iraq in October, he did not predict that the Iraqis would have to go in and retake the streets from the militias after we had abandoned them. Will the Prime Minister commission an inquiry to be held at a time when he can be confident of still being Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: The purpose of Operation Charge of the Knights was to get the militias out of Basra and the surrounding area. The operation was, of course, led by Prime Minister Maliki, but supported by UK and US forces. As a result of it, militias have been cleaned out of the area, but we must remain vigilant about the potential for militias either to come into Iraq from other countries, or to be involved in Basra itself. That is why we must strengthen the Iraqi forces. [Interruption.] I have already answered the inquiry question. As the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces are in Iraq at present, and as they are doing vital jobs on behalf of our national security, I believe that now is not the right time to have an inquiry. Let us also remember that four Committees of this House or separate investigations have looked at Iraq over the past few years, and this morning we had new evidence on Iraq from the Defence Committee.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister tell us what discussions he had while visiting Iraq about the probability of permanent British or American bases being established in Iraq and of there being a permanent military presence there?

The Prime Minister: We have no plans for that. What we want is a bilateral relationship with Iraq, whereby we can serve the needs of the country as the Iraqi
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Government see them, by agreement with the Iraqi Government. As my hon. Friend can clearly see, we are carrying out and discharging responsibilities that are of great benefit to the Iraqi nation. The training of Iraqi forces, support for the navy, and support in other areas that are important for the development of the Iraqi economy are carried out by our armed forces. We will continue to work with Iraq to help to build democracy, ensure security and ensure that Iraqis have a stake in their economic future.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Is it not the case that one of the most disturbing human rights trends in Iraq has been the extent to which the rights of women have deteriorated in parts of the country? The Prime Minister said in his statement that we must honour our obligations to the people of Iraq. What steps will the British Government take to ensure that we honour our obligations to the women of Iraq, given the deterioration in their rights since our invasion?

The Prime Minister: The accounts I have from Iraq, whether from Basra or from Baghdad, are that women are enjoying their freedom in Iraq. That is part of the Iraqi constitution. I will, of course, look into everything the right hon. Gentleman says and get back to him on the issue, but support for the rights of women is, of course, at the centre of the Iraqi constitution.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have an opportunity to speak to forces members about using the resources that are available in Iraq, including those of our Territorial Army people, so that we bring in not only the professionalism of the British Army, but the skills from people’s civilian jobs, to make sure that they are recycling and using and reusing every bit of the resources that they so desperately need in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that people from her area are supporting the effort in Iraq. The work that has been done by our provincial reconstruction team and the Army in support of health, education and economic projects and getting the port in Iraq working shows the blend of skills that the TA and others in the Army have to offer the people of Iraq. I think it is true to say that the Army has played a very important role not only in the training of the Iraqi forces and in combat, but in the economic and social reconstruction of the country.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): What action is the Prime Minister taking to persuade Senator Obama that he is wrong to want an early withdrawal from Iraq and to want a substantial strengthening of the position in Afghanistan—which is the opposite of the Prime Minister’s policy—given that the Senator might be President before the end of the year?

The Prime Minister: I had the chance to talk to Senator Obama about these issues when I met him in America, and I agree with him about Afghanistan: we must do more there, which is why we increased our numbers in that country to help the coalition effort. That is also why I have said all along that there should
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be proper burden sharing in the coalition, so that other countries are in a position to contribute to the effort in Afghanistan as well.

I accept that Afghanistan requires long-term action, not only at military level, but in training the police, in making sure that there is economic reconstruction and in giving people in Afghanistan a stake in the future. All of that is part of the strategy being pursued by America and it is what Senator Obama has said we need to do. We need to concentrate on how we can make sure that the future of Afghanistan is one where there is more peace, where we have dealt with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and where there is economic and social reconstruction of the country.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): The Prime Minister referred to the millions of Iraqis who remain refugees. Did he have any discussions on the question of returning asylum seekers to Iraq? Does he accept that many of those who fled Iraq fear that it would still not be possible to guarantee their safety in many areas of Iraq if they were to be returned now?

The Prime Minister: I think it is true to say that many of the refugees who left Iraq are now returning; the Defence Secretary has told me that 600 doctors recently returned to Iraq. There are an estimated 2 million refugees, many of whom are in Jordan and surrounding areas, and, of course, it is important for the future of Iraq that those people who have skills to offer to build its economy and society can return as soon as possible.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I am a member of the Territorial Army that the Prime Minister is so keen to praise and someone who is proud to have been on operational service three times in the past eight years of this Government, and, as such, he has made my blood boil today. Everybody knows that last October’s announcement of troop withdrawal numbers was a cynical, political manipulation. Will he show just an ounce of the courage being shown by our brave servicemen and women and apologise to the House today?

The Prime Minister: Every decision that we have announced has been based on the best military advice that we can have. It was right to reduce the numbers from 5,500 to 4,500. The reason why we did that was because we were moving—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman agreed with this policy—from direct combat to overwatch. It was also right to listen to the advice of military commanders when the situation changed on the ground in Basra—I have always said that—and to take the right decision, which was to support the training of Iraqi forces after the operation. I think that he actually supports the decisions that we made.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Prime Minister quoted at length the report from the Defence Committee, but could he also take a look at another recent publication—the annual report and accounts of the Ministry of Defence? They show the worrying condition of our armed forces; fewer than half of our military units are able to deploy in an emergency, and that is the lowest proportion ever recorded by the MOD. When will the Prime Minister examine overstretch in our armed forces and do something about it?

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The Prime Minister: What the hon. Gentleman is saying reflects the fact that large numbers of our troops are on operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other parts; they have been in parts of Europe, as well as in the Falkland Islands and in Ireland. He might also acknowledge, as the White Paper acknowledged last Thursday, when we showed what we can do to help our armed forces and acknowledge the service that they give, that we have increased their pay; that there are more resources for our military personnel; that we have increased the hospital and health provision that is available; and that we have made sure that accommodation is properly invested in for the first time. All those things are happening because we recognise the contribution that our armed forces make and we are trying to do our best by them.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the Prime Minister on the positive statement that he has been able to make and on the work that the Defence Secretary has done in this area. May I ask the Prime Minister specifically about one of the key tasks to which he referred? Why has there been a delay in providing for local elections, and could he update the House on what is going to happen?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I hope that the whole House will want to acknowledge the work that the Defence Secretary has done, both in visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in supporting our troops. The provincial elections require a law to be passed by Iraqi Members of Parliament. I understand that that is probably being discussed today, as we are discussing Iraq in this House, by Members of the Iraqi Assembly. They have to make the decision to pass the law—as they must make the decision on the hydrocarbons law. I hope that they will do that, and that will lead to the provincial elections taking place.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What measures have been taken to improve the security around the foreign visits of the Prime Minister’s team, given the loss by one of the team of a BlackBerry in Shanghai earlier this year?

The Prime Minister: I want to acknowledge the great work that the security forces do in protecting all those who visit Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas. I think that the whole House will want to acknowledge the work of our security services.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Any escalation in the tension between Iran and Israel will have implications for our troops in Iraq. Given the recent indications that the Israelis are considering a unilateral military strike, can the Prime Minister confirm, once and for all, what the British Government’s position would be if such a strike were to occur?

The Prime Minister: I have already outlined the priority that we attach to the negotiations that are taking place between the E3 plus 3 group and Iran. It is important to recognise that the diplomatic effort that is being made is to get Iran to the table to discuss the proposals that we have made. We are prepared to increase the sanctions that we place on Iran if it is not able to reach an agreement with us. That is the chosen method of the
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whole international community, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the international coalition that includes China and Russia, as well as the European Union and America, is one that has held together through three resolutions. I believe that if Iran gives a negative answer to the proposals that have been made, we will impose further sanctions on Iran, and I hope that the whole House would support that.

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