Iraq and Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)


28 OCTOBER 2008

  Q20 Sir John Stanley: I accept your points about what the constitution says, but how adequate a protection is that in real terms? All the evidence so far suggests that, no matter what is written in the constitution, on the ground women in many parts of Iraq are facing a pretty torrid time.

  David Miliband: I do not know whether it is right to say "all the evidence". The picture is more balanced than that. When I talked to Des Browne after his visits to Basra or to John after his visit, or when I talk to our own locally employed staff—men and women whom I met in Baghdad—yes, they can point to parts of the country where basic rights are under threat, but equally they can point to parts of the country where those rights are being enforced. The important thing is that we continue to make very clear, not only through the work of John Hutton and myself but through Ann Clwyd's work as the Prime Minister's representative on human rights in Iraq, that that remains a vital part of the conclusion of foreign engagement in Iraq on the military side. The other thing to say, because I am sure that we will come to this in relation to Afghanistan, is that there are huge differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. That will be a recurring theme in this discussion. We are talking about a rich country and a poor country; a country with defined borders and a country without them; a country with a history of a centralised and effective state and a country without. It is, however, striking that in both contexts the process of building a national army presents one set of challenges, and the process of building a decent police force that is free of corruption and is able to ensure that citizens' rights are protected is a very different story. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the police side is more challenging than the army side, although the Iraqi police force is further ahead than the Afghan one.

  Chairman: We will come to Afghanistan later.

  Q21 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I would like to ask our witnesses about the number and status of prisoners in Iraq, specifically the number of detainees—people in detention who have not been charged with or convicted of a crime. How many detainees are there in Iraq, and how many of them were detained by British forces and handed over to the Iraqi Government or to other coalition forces?

  John Hutton: I will ask the general to come to that, but as far as UK detainees are concerned, as I said earlier, there are only two. In the context of US detainees, I think that there are more than 20,000. I could not comment on the number of those who may at some point have been detained by UK security forces, but as I said, we only have two detainees. We are not fulfilling a role that involves detaining any more Iraqis on the UK base, but—

  Q22 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I need to know the number of detainees originally detained by British forces. That is a figure that we must have.

  John Hutton: As I said, at the moment, there are only two, but as for the total number that have been detained historically, I do not have it. I do not know whether—

  Lieutenant General Wall: We will have to go through our records and offer you some evidence in writing, if we may, on both those issues: first, as the Secretary of State said, those whom we have detained in our own internment facility in the south and subsequently released in accordance with the formal procedures that we have been running; and, secondly, those whom we may have passed into American or Iraqi custody.

  Q23 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I am rather surprised that you do not have that number, given the damage done to the coalition effort by past ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees, but the Chairman and I look forward to receiving the numbers. Let me ask an allied question—

  Lieutenant General Wall: Can I come back on that point? We only pass detainees to those people about whom we have absolute assurances on handling and contact. We are in regular contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross and others about how that is done, and we have very clear-cut memorandums of understanding with other parties. I can reassure you that that is being properly conducted.

  Q24 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: That touches my second question. Are we certain that those assurances are valid, and do you accept that we have a responsibility under human rights legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998, for the subsequent treatment of detainees? In other words, when we capture somebody in Iraq and hand them over, whether to American forces or the Iraqi Government, we retain a responsibility. We must not just receive an assurance, but we must follow that through to ensure that they are not subject to inhuman and degrading treatment.

  John Hutton: Yes.

  Q25 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: You accept that that is our responsibility. Are you sure that, on the ground, people who have been detained by British forces are not subsequently ill treated?

  John Hutton: We are. With your indulgence, Chairman, I will have to set out more detail on this matter for the Committee in writing. I am happy to do that. We expect the highest standards to be followed and we always look for clear agreements from the Iraqi security authorities that the proper procedures will be followed. That is important.

  Q26 Chairman: I want to be clear about what has just been said. Several hundred people were detained in 2003-04, and many will have been passed on to the Americans or the Iraqis or released. In recent months and years, there has been a considerable rundown of the numbers of people who are held. Secretary of State, are you saying that there are currently only two?

  John Hutton: Yes, that is true. I think that the general would like to add more detail.

  Lieutenant General Wall: You are right, Mr Gapes, that at one point we had several hundred people in our detainee internment facility in Basra. Through a regular review process, those for whom there was not a strong case for retaining as detainees were released. The majority were set free rather than handed over to other authorities. At one point, we got down to zero. The two people that the Secretary of State has mentioned were then detained. For our own legal reasons, we are keen to pursue the prosecution of those two people.[1]

  Chairman: That is helpful. It would be helpful if you could send us a note with more information.

  Q27 Mr Jenkin: I have two brief points. We were told on a visit that it was very circumspect to have what they called the healing hand of an American serviceman on the shoulder of the detainee at the point of arrest, because that meant that we would not have primary responsibility for the detainee; the Americans would, which was much more convenient than having the responsibility ourselves. Is one of the reasons for the numbers going down that the Americans have been making the arrests and not us?

  Lieutenant General Wall: No, the reason they have gone down is that recent operations in Basra have been conducted primarily by Iraqi forces. It is they who have been detaining people, where appropriate.

  John Hutton: In fact, the number of US detainees has been falling, not rising.

  Q28 Mr Jenkin: Another aspect that we learned about on our visits is that we feel legally obliged to keep our detainees in substantially better conditions than we house our own armed forces. In particular, we are obliged to keep detainees in hardened accommodation, whereas many of our soldiers living in Basra are in unhardened accommodation. How do you feel about that anomaly, Foreign Secretary?

  David Miliband: I would like the general to set out the full facts first, and I will then tell you my view. The situation is more complicated than you have just described.

  Lieutenant General Wall: Because of the requirement to satisfy international standards for the holding of detainees, you are absolutely right that some of the accommodation for some of the time has been better than that enjoyed by some of our soldiers living in ad hoc locations out in the desert and so on. That is unavoidable.

  Mr Jenkin: In the Contingency Operating Base too.

  Lieutenant General Wall: In Basra air station, that is not the case at the moment. All of our people are living in hardened accommodation.

  David Miliband: You asked me a direct question. It is important to put it on the record that that relates to some of our people, some of the time. It is important that people do not get the impression that there is a policy of putting our people at greater risk than those we are required to look after. There is a commitment that our troops, diplomats and aid workers from the Department for International Development will have the highest possible standards of security. You referred to comfort or living standards, but the example you gave related to their security—the hardness of their accommodation. In relation both the security of their accommodation and their living conditions, we obviously want the highest possible standards for our own people.

  Q29 Sir Menzies Campbell: Would the information available to you reveal whether any of those who were detained by British forces ultimately found themselves in Guantanamo Bay?

  Lieutenant General Wall: We have conducted a study recently and I can confirm that that is not the case, but we shall include that in the evidence we provide.

  Q30 Chairman: Can I ask you about the prospects for the forthcoming elections in Iraq? How confident are you, given the great difficulty that there was in agreeing an election law and the internal divisions within the Iraqi Government and Parliament, that the timetable and system will stick and that the elections will be free and fair?

  David Miliband: I spoke to our ambassador in Iraq today and our conversation included this issue. For the sake of clarity, the provincial elections are scheduled for January and the national elections for September/October next year. I think it is very significant that the Sunni groups have rejoined the national Government. That has set the stage for quite a bit of the legislative change that has gone through over the past few months. I think that the political manoeuvring that is going on around Iraq in advance of the provincial elections is very encouraging, because political manoeuvring is precisely what politicians should do, at least some of the time. The preparations that they are making for the elections in Iraq speak to the commitment of an increasing range of groups to the electoral process there. Certainly in Basra, the range of Shi'a groups who are trying to make sure that they are properly positioned for the elections in January is significant. The various Sunni factions are also preparing for the provincial elections. There is a high degree of confidence that the provincial elections will be a good advertisement for the improvements in Iraq. The national elections, obviously, are significantly further ahead, but the improvements in the security position—and again this may be a parallel that will come back to you later in the discussion—all point towards successful elections next year.

  Q31 Chairman: Can I take this a step further? The national reconciliation has been pretty sporadic, has it not? There have been some successes but there are also clearly some very difficult unresolved issues, including Kirkuk and attitudes to de-Ba'athification. How confident are you that the reintegration of the so-called Sons of Iraq, who were mentioned earlier, or former Ba'athists, will be successful?

  David Miliband: There are quite a lot of issues bundled there. Did you mention the Sons of Iraq? They are now being paid by the Iraqi Government and there are significant plans for incorporating a large number of them into the Iraqi Army—there cannot be a commitment to all of them, but it will be a significant number; the figure of 10,000 is in my head from the briefing. That is welcome and significant. In respect of a range of other groups and the electoral process, it is important to remember that the previous provincial elections were boycotted by a significant number of groups, with a turnout of less than 1% from those communities. I think we have come a long way from that position over the past five years.

  Q32 Chairman: What about de-Ba'athification—the new law?

  David Miliband: We all know that the decisions taken in 2003 were some of the most controversial decisions taken in the immediate aftermath of the war. The fact that the new laws have gone through is a symptom of the fact that a spirit of political compromise has been established at national level. However, as I was saying to Sir John Stanley about constitutional rights, it is one thing to write them, and another thing to put them into practice. The fairest thing to say about the de-Ba'athification law is that it is good that it is law, but now it has got to be put into practice. It is something where the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

  Chairman: We will move on to some economics-related questions.

  Q33  Mr Purchase: Before we move to that topic, let me say that although the Foreign Secretary suggested in response to questions from Sir John Stanley that we are not looking at the past, I would say that we have to learn some very serious lessons from the past about how all the episodes in Iraq have been conducted militarily and civil society-wise. At the heart of all of this is the struggle for resources, or economics. I wonder whether either the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary want to give their assessment of the battle for resources, how it is going, and what the prospects are for some equitable distribution in Iraq and for the Iraqis to control the process for themselves.

  David Miliband: There are significant prospects, not just in Basra where we have the most effort but all around the country. In part, that is a function of oil production, which is now up to 2.5 million barrels a day—more or less the same as pre-2003 levels. It is a source of massive income for Iraq. The fact that in Iraq we are talking about the distribution of tens of billions of dollars shows the scale of the economy that is in prospect. However, it is not only in oil that Iraq has a significant economic base: its people are very well educated and it has a significant economic history. One of the areas where we have to try to make a contribution is Iraq's trading operations with its neighbours. It is striking that one of the blockages to the efforts of the Basra Development Commission, which is keen to take forward its work, is the blockage on Iraq-Kuwait trade. Part of the work that we have been doing in the Foreign Office is with the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis and, significantly, the Turks, who have significant aspirations for investment in the Basra area, to try to open up Iraq-Kuwait trade. Some of the early signs of progress are quite significant. There is a wealth-creating base, but we need to make sure that it has the capacity for export as well as domestic consumption.

  John Hutton: I would add two things to that, Ken. The future of Basra international airport will be very important. The airport will be a key facilitator for some of the wider economic development that we around this table, in this room, would want to see in southern Iraq. The work of the Basra Development Commission and the Basra Investment Promotion Agency will be very important, and we will be looking to provide the maximum possible support in those areas. I would like more British companies to get interested in Iraq and the opportunities for development there. As the Foreign Secretary said, the potential is enormous. I think particularly of the Basra area. As our military mission changes, and it is changing, we have to focus on this new aspect of our relationship with Iraq, but, as the Defence Secretary, I would say that the essential precondition for our now being able to have this conversation about economic development and opportunities—they are huge—was making significant progress on the security front. Without that progress, it would be very hard to talk to British companies, for example, about the opportunities for investment in and around Basra. The recent agreement that Shell made with the Iraqi Government on gas flow is a harbinger, I hope, of similar deals, particularly around the energy sector. We should be and we are resolved to focus on this in the months and years ahead. We should try to maximise the opportunities for British companies to do good business in Iraq, for the mutual benefit of themselves and, not least important, Iraqi citizens.

  Q34 Mr Purchase: I am pleased to hear you say "good business", because that is the key to future peaceful development in Iraq. In the meantime, of course, there are some serious delays in the work on the hydrocarbon law. It is understood that major companies are awaiting development of that law before they make investment decisions. I hope that there will be interesting times for British businesses and that they will be able to conduct their business fairly, but what assessment do you make of the lack of progress on the hydrocarbon law?

  David Miliband: The hydrocarbon law has just been referred again to the Council of Representatives, but before we get too excited about that, we have to remember that it was first referred to the council about 18 months ago and has been stuck in limbo since then. I completely share your frustration about this. The truth is that there is an argument going on about the division of the spoils, but the spoils are so large as to make it worth all sides getting on with the division and with making a living. I think that the lack of trust that has existed between the different parts of the governing coalition is a contribution to that. All I can say to you is that we press very hard at every opportunity for all sides to recognise the opportunity as well as the responsibility that exists to get a hydrocarbons law through. It was right that the provincial powers law had to go through first, but there remains an overwhelming case for the passage of the hydrocarbons law. Kirkuk was mentioned earlier and that is a very important part of this. The work of UN Representative di Mistura is critical to getting the Kirkuk question settled. It is not for us to settle it; it is for Iraqis to settle it, but it does require, in the end, a compromise. The danger at the moment is that the best will be the enemy of the good for each of the different factions. In fact, even with the oil price where it is today rather than where it was four months ago, it is well worth their doing the deal and getting the compromise, because the resources are very substantial.

  Q35 Mr Borrow: Is it the view of the Government that, given the scale of the resources available to the Iraqi Government, the role of the UK in terms of its bilateral relationships is not to build some of the infrastructure or provide resources to build the infrastructure that is needed, but to expect the Iraqi Government to use their own resources for that infrastructure, and that our role is very much one of providing advice and expertise to assist them in doing that, rather than providing direct aid to a country that should have the potential to provide aid to other countries, rather than expecting it from the UK and other western countries?

  David Miliband: Yes, that is the right perspective. It is not a poverty-stricken country; it is a middle-income country that is able to generate some resources.

  Q36 Mr Keetch: Gentlemen, may I ask about some of the regional issues that we face, starting with Iran? Back in April, General Petraeus said that basically Iran was fighting a "proxy war" against the Iraqi state and coalition forces—that it was arming the Jaish al-Mahdi and other special groups. By August, General Lloyd Austin, the US No. 2, said that the JAM was "relatively inactive". Indeed, a congressional report said that it was believed that the Iranian influence was "fading". Do you share the view that the Iranian influence on the ground in Iraq is fading?

  John Hutton: I shall ask General Wall to comment on that specifically, but let me offer one or two observations. We have to watch that space very carefully indeed. That is partly a security issue, around the border in particular, and it is about how we can make sure we do not see reinfiltration of the JAM and the special groups back into Basra and the surrounding area. Operations have been conducted to try to intercept that. We have to be very vigilant on that. On the political space, as I am sure the Foreign Secretary would confirm, we have always made clear to Iran what we think about its involvement in these areas. We do not like it, and we have been very specific about that. It is totally unacceptable for foreign countries to support armed militias that stand outside the political process and are dedicated to undermining the political progress that is being made, and we have been very clear about that. Specifically in relation to current issues relating to the JAM and special groups, perhaps General Wall will say something.

  Lieutenant General Wall: It is absolutely right to say that these rogue elements of Jaish al-Mahdi, special groups or whatever we want to call them now, are much less in evidence on a day-to-day basis in Basra than they were a year ago, almost to the point where the main causes of instability in Basra—those are very limited at the moment; they are almost absent altogether—have much more to do with criminal activity and a little bit of internecine score settling. However, I do not think that these rogue elements, who were very active against us, as you will recall, last summer with indirect fire and over the early part of the winter with improvised explosive devices and so on, have gone dormant for good. There is a sense that they may well have regrouped to an extent and may well be receiving specialist training, probably sponsored by the Iranians, and that they therefore could re-engage, should they have the motivation to do so, while we remain operating in and around Basra alongside Iraqi security forces, so there is still a latent threat there, I assess.

  Q37 Mr Keetch: So although we could say that there is no threat currently, it certainly has not gone away. Are we as convinced as we ever were that there is a direct Iranian link to that potential threat?

  Lieutenant General Wall: We would be very rash to assume that it had gone away for good, and it is a reasonable assumption that there is Iranian orchestration.

  Q38 Mr Keetch: May I quickly ask about the threat on the sea? We are all familiar with what happened to the Royal Navy a little while ago in its dealings with some of the maritime special groups. Has the threat level on the seas and waterways declined in the same way, or been withdrawn, as it has perhaps on land?

  John Hutton: It has, as far as I know.

  Lieutenant General Wall: We have to be extremely cautious in that respect, and we have resumed the patrolling that was going on at the time that the RN15 incident happened. Our sense is that the risks are not as evident as they were then, but we should not assume that that sort of capability could not be recreated, not so much by the Iraqi navy as by the republican guard.

  David Miliband: May I come in on the political side? All Iraq's neighbours have long-standing and deep economic, cultural and sometimes family ties with Iraq, and those are legitimate. What is not legitimate is the support of armed groups that are trying to undermine the elected Iraqi Government. What is happening is that Iraq's neighbours are slowly coming to terms with the growing strength of the Iraqi Government. We see that in the meetings of Iraq's neighbours. If we compare last year's meetings with this year's, Iraq is more self-confident, and its neighbours are having to adapt their positions a little to Iraq's growing assets and strengths. That is not to say that Iraq is in a position to define all the relationships that it has with others, but it is now a more equal relationship than it was two or three years ago—and possibly even a year ago. In that sense, the growth of Iraqi capacity and the development of Iraqi wealth and politics is able to make the weather; and that is a very good thing.

  Q39 Richard Younger-Ross: May I touch on the potential for internal conflict? The Foreign Secretary mentioned the oil wealth in Kirkuk. The Kurds will always argue that they were in Kirkuk and were pushed out by Saddam. The Iraqi Government will argue that it is a mixed area at the moment. The Kurds have put their forces into Kirkuk, and the Iraqi army had to move in to persuade the Kurds to withdraw. What threat is there of internal conflict in that case; and, if so, what is being done to avert it?

  David Miliband: Do you mean armed conflict?

  Richard Younger-Ross: Yes.

  David Miliband: I think that the different parts of Iraq and the different communities there know better than anyone the costs of conflict, so there are big incentives to avoid it. However, it remains the case that in various ways, Iraq is a deeply violent society, and it would be wrong to pretend that it is the sort of terrain that any of us would recognise from home. However, I believe that the forces of division are significantly more contained than they were a year or two ago, that the commitment of the political representatives of the various communities is greater than it was a year or two ago, and that the benefits of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq are significant—and, equally important, more visibly significant to the different communities. At this stage, I do not see any community seeing its future as opting out of the Iraq state.

  John Hutton: There is an obvious security situation as well. It was crystallised recently with the attacks on the Christian community. The Iraqi Government responded very strongly in an Iraqi-led security operation backed up by US forces. There are other issues. You mentioned Kirkuk, but I would put Mosul on to the table as well. Ongoing concerns there are being addressed. Mosul is part of Iraq where there is a continuing al-Qaeda presence. We have to be conscious of all those things.

1   Note by witness: Details of the number of individuals held in the UK Divisional Internment Facility have been published monthly on the MOD website since January 2007. There are currently two individuals in that facility. The facility has never, in fact, been empty since it was opened. The two detainees currently in the UK facility in Iraq have been in UK custody since December 2003. Back

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