Previous Section Index Home Page

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1233


11.31 am

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): With permission, Mr. Speaker, following my visit to Baghdad and Basra yesterday, I shall make a statement about the future of British troops in Iraq, the timetables, our legal agreements and our force numbers.

Let me begin by asking the whole House to join me in paying tribute to the heroism of all our armed forces and to their service and sacrifice in Iraq and, of course, in Afghanistan and in peacemaking missions around the globe. Let me pay particular tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of our country—military and civilian personnel. We salute their courage and will honour their achievements. Today we remember in particular Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, 29 Commando Royal Artillery, killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles killed in Afghanistan yesterday. At the time of Christmas their families are uppermost in our thoughts.

On 22 July, I set out to the House the key remaining tasks for the UK’s mission in Iraq, and I can today report progress on all these tasks. Taken together, the tasks that we set ourselves reflect our underlying priorities: security for the region, democracy in Iraq, and reconstruction to help the Iraqi people—security against terrorists, strengthening democracy in place of dictatorship, and reconstruction to give Iraq’s people a stake in the future.

First, on security, our aim has been to entrench security improvements by putting Iraqis in charge of their own defence and policing for the future. Our most recent contribution has been to help with training thousands of new Iraqi forces and policemen and women. In total, the UK has helped to train more than 20,000 troops and more than 22,000 police. In total across Iraq, 500,000 troops and police have been trained by the Americans, the UK and other forces. In addition, we have already mentored three brigades of 14th Division, with 9,000 troops, to become combat-ready—the very troops that have repeatedly mounted successful independent operations making Basra now safer for its citizens. As a result, in the past year violence and criminality in the Basra region have fallen dramatically. Yesterday, I met the commander of the Iraqi 14th Division and Iraqi security forces and their embedded British training teams working with them in Basra. I can tell the House that our commanders judge that training is making good progress and is now nearing completion.

Our second task is to strengthen Iraqis’ emerging democracy. At the heart of embedding democracy is the most immediate task of ensuring successful local provincial elections. Provincial elections are now scheduled for 31 January 2009. Conditions are in place nationwide for a high turnout under a UN-supervised process, with security led by Iraqis’ own security forces.

Thirdly, there is reconstruction and our aim to give the Iraqi people an economic stake in the future. That has meant restoring economic activity and building basic services in the Basra area.

Recent proposals for new investment in the Basra area now amount to $9 billion-worth of projects. With assistance from Mr. Michael Wareing, whom I thank, the Department for International Development has helped
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1234
arrange 18 investment missions in the past few months. Following our London and Kuwait investment conferences, the new Basra investment commission, which we helped establish, is holding a major investment conference today in Istanbul. In addition, the Basra development commission has launched a youth employment scheme, which already works with nearly 100 employers to give work experience and training to potentially thousands of young Iraqi people.

We have helped rebuild the economic infrastructure. Since 2003, we have spent £100 million on giving more than 1 million people improved access to clean water and power. Basra airport, which is central to future economic development, is now under effective Iraqi civilian control, delivering on the commitment that I outlined to the House in July. That includes air traffic control and management of the airport terminal—now under the control of the Iraqi authorities—and we expect to complete formal handover arrangements at the turn of the year.

Since criminal gangs were driven out of the port of Umm Qasr by the Operation Charge of the Knights Brigade, there are now plans for major port expansion. New investor proposals and contracts, including from British companies, offer the potential to make Basra once again the major trading hub in the region.

On 1 January 2009, with the expiry of United Nations resolution 1790, Iraq will regain its full sovereignty. Yesterday in Baghdad, I told Prime Minister Maliki, and he agreed, that British forces in Iraq should have time to finish the missions that I have just outlined. In the past three weeks, concluding with our talks yesterday, we have made substantial progress with the Government of Iraq. We have defined: first, the tasks that need to completed; secondly, the authorisations needed to complete them; and thirdly, a way to provide a firm legal basis for our forces. At all times, we have worked closely with President Bush and the Americans, and our other coalition partners.

On 16 December, the Iraqi Council of Ministers agreed to submit to the Council of Representatives a short draft law to give the presence of UK forces a legal basis after 1 January. The law is now going through the Iraqi Council of Representatives; it had its first reading yesterday and is scheduled to have its second reading on 20 December. We expect the process to be complete before UN resolution 1790 expires. In the event of the process not being complete, the Iraqis have told us that Coalition Provisional Authority order 17, which confers protection on coalition troops, will remain in place. Our troops will therefore have the legal basis that they need for the future.

Once we have completed our four tasks, including training for the headquarters and specialists of 14th Division—with the precise timing of its completion decided by commanders on the ground—the fundamental change of mission that I described in the House last summer will take place by 31 May 2009 at the latest. At that point, we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July. The majority of the remaining troops will be dedicated to naval training.

Yesterday, Mr. Maliki and I agreed that Britain’s future role will focus on continuing protection against attack of Iraqi oil platforms in the northern Gulf, together with long-term training of the Iraqi navy—work
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1235
that I saw for myself at the port—and support for training the officers of the Iraqi armed forces. In other words, that is the realisation of a normal defence relationship, similar to those we have with our other key partners in the region, which I agreed with Mr. Maliki in July was our joint objective for 2009.

Of course, that relationship will be one strand of a broader, enduring relationship with democratic Iraq, which I also discussed yesterday with the Prime Minister. Our future relationship will be one of partnership. We agreed to continue the shift of focus to economic, commercial, cultural and educational relationships. We will maintain a large embassy headed by a senior ambassador in Baghdad and maintain small missions in Basra and Erbil. The embassy in Baghdad will expand its commercial office and the Department for International Development will expand its programme of economic advice in Baghdad. We have discussed a plan with Prime Minister Maliki for British companies to provide expertise to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, and Britain can help Iraq’s plans to give 10,000 Iraqi students scholarships overseas.

In the past five and a half years, Iraq has faced great challenges and endured dark days, but it has also made significant progress. We can be proud of the way in which our forces carried out their mission in the most difficult times, and we can be proud of what they have accomplished. In my discussions with Prime Minister Maliki, the two vice-presidents, the Basra governor and the army leadership, I was assured of Iraq’s continuing gratitude for Britain’s role in freeing Iraq from tyranny. The UK’s new relationship with the new Iraq is one that has been justly earned by the efforts and sacrifices of our forces, and by our contributions to Iraq’s peace and reconstruction.

Iraq has many challenges to confront in the days to come. No road that it takes will be easy, but today’s levels of violence across the whole of Iraq are at their lowest for five years, economic growth this year is almost 10 per cent., and yesterday, in Basra, I was told that for just 35 seats being contested in the provincial assembly elections in January, there are more than 1,270 candidates, with 53 different party labels, standing for election. So, as Iraq approaches its second free provincial elections, democracy is clearly growing.

In supporting and protecting the progress that we have made, the British campaign has endured great hardship and sacrifice. Yesterday, I stood with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the head of the Iraqi army in Basra and members of our own forces outside our headquarters in Basra, in front of the memorial wall naming and commemorating every single one of the 178 British servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of our country. It was a fitting and moving tribute to men and women whom we must never forget. Because remembrance is vitally important, the Defence Secretary and I have decided, after consultation, that we shall bring that memorial wall now standing in Basra home to a fitting resting place of its own in our own country. We will do so when, at the end of July, the last of our combat troops leave Basra. It is a memorial now for ever to be in Britain. I commend this statement to the House.

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1236

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I particularly welcome what the Prime Minister has just said about the wall in Basra? I think that that is absolutely right. I join him in paying tribute to the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday, and to Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was also killed. Our thoughts should be with their families and friends, particularly at this time of Christmas.

Everyone, and not least the families of those still serving in Iraq, will welcome today’s announcement on troop withdrawal. As I have seen for myself in Iraq and elsewhere, our forces always carry out the tasks that are assigned to them with professionalism and courage, and they are a credit to this country. We should also recognise that, as well as the Army, the Navy and the RAF have both served superbly in Iraq. Today of all days, we must remember the fallen in Iraq and the many who have been wounded. Since March 2003, 178 have lost their lives. Their friends and families are in our thoughts and prayers at this time. I should also like to pay tribute to the local Iraqi interpreters, some of whom took unbelievable risks on our behalf. They deserve not only our thanks but our sanctuary.

On the legal basis for our troops, of which the Prime Minister gave a full explanation, will he confirm that, in the first half of next year, they will have exactly the same legal protection as the Americans, under their status of forces agreement, particularly if they need to defend themselves using force? Can he also tell us what the terms of the legal agreement will be between May and July next year—that is, after the end of the mission but before a number of our troops have returned?

Three key issues arise from the statement: first, the achievements of the last six years; secondly, the handover next year; and thirdly, the lessons that we must learn for elsewhere, especially Afghanistan. First, on the last six years, does the Prime Minister agree that, like all of us who supported the action in Iraq, he needs to strike a realistic tone about what has, and has not, been achieved? Security has undoubtedly improved over the past few months. The Maliki Government can now take the lead in upholding order and, crucially, as the Prime Minister said, the people of Iraq have at least seen a potential democratic way forward. Does he accept, however, that the economic conditions and the state of basic services mean that the daily reality for many Iraqi citizens remains dire? Given that women are being attacked in Basra for not wearing the hijab, and that many Christians are still being persecuted, does he agree that serious human rights abuses remain?

That brings me to the second issue—the handover. Clearly, Iraqi forces will still have help from US forces. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of the ability of the Iraqi security forces and the police to maintain security in the medium term? It is clearly in all our interests that Iraq remains a united sovereign country, so can the Prime Minister provide an assessment of the current role of Iran in southern Iraq? Does the Prime Minister agree that, as part of being a sovereign united country, it is essential that Iraq enjoys normal relations with all its neighbours? Can he tell us what steps he is taking to encourage all Arab countries to send ambassadors and fully staffed embassies to Baghdad?

In terms of the economy, Iraq has a large fiscal surplus. Can the Prime Minister tell us more about the steps he is taking to ensure that British firms benefit
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1237
from that and from reconstruction projects? Can he confirm specifically that, until recently, there was no permanent representative of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in our embassy and can he tell us whether that has been put right?

The third issue is the lessons for elsewhere, and particularly for Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister agree that Iraq has taught us some tough lessons in the need for such missions to be carefully planned not just in the war fighting, but in the post-conflict phase? Does he agree that they must have clear and specific objectives and must be properly resourced from the outset? Does he accept that the mission in Iraq was deficient in all those respects and that it is essential that we do not perpetuate those mistakes in the continuing mission in Afghanistan? Does he agree that, crucially, an important lesson is that any increases in armed forces will succeed only if they are accompanied by genuine political progress? Is it not the case that in Iraq it was only when key sections of the population decided to lend support to the Government and not the insurgency that the real breakthrough was made? Does he agree that that will be equally important in Afghanistan?

With the need to learn all these lessons in mind, will the Prime Minister tell us why he has not today announced a full-scale independent inquiry? Should we not be clear about the purpose of such an inquiry, which is not simply to rework exhaustively the decision to go to war, important though that is, but to examine the mistakes made in its conduct and planning? Does the Prime Minister accept that if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are more likely to make them again in the future? Surely we do not have to wait until all the troops have been withdrawn, as inquiries have been held before when our troops have been deployed. After all, with 400 British troops remaining in Iraq into the future, if we follow the Prime Minister’s logic, there will be no inquiry for many, many years.

What we surely need is a robust, independent inquiry with powers and membership comparable to the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war. Should it not examine the origins and conduct of the war in their entirety and be able to question Ministers, including all the members of the War Cabinet? Will the Prime Minister give a commitment today to set up such an inquiry so that we can learn from the mistakes that were made? Does he not agree with me that that is just one of the many things that we owe to our brave armed forces?

The Prime Minister: We are in total agreement about the contribution that our forces have made, about the help that we have been given by Iraqi citizens and about the need for economic development and political advances in democracy always to complement what is done militarily. Where I part company with the right hon. Gentleman is that I do not believe that Iraq is an exact parallel to Afghanistan— [Interruption.] Well, Afghanistan was a country held by the Taliban, but it was virtually ungovernable and had very little economic development. Iraq is confronted by a number of problems, including divisions within the country between different groupings as it deals with the legacy of Saddam Hussein. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it also has the presence of Iran as a threat on its border. I believe that we have to look at some of the things we have done in Iraq as quite different from what we are doing in Afghanistan.

18 Dec 2008 : Column 1238

As to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about what will happen over the next few months, I am satisfied that the overwatch we have carried out over the last period of time, in which Iraqis themselves have been involved in combat and we have been training them, sometimes while embedded among them, for future purposes, means that as we leave, the Iraqi forces are strong enough both to maintain order in the Basra area and to have policing services that, although not ideal, are sufficient for the task.

Of course, there are very difficult days ahead for Iraq. It still has a great deal of work to do, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on rebuilding its economy, but I believe that we have made a very significant contribution to that. Iraq still has a lot of work to do in improving its democracy, and the local government elections will be important to it. Of course, there is still far more to do to train its navy. That is one of the reasons why, as I saw yesterday, a great deal of British work will now involve helping the navy to do what it has to do to be a strong navy in the area.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the agreement between our forces and the Iraqi Government. The agreement provides the conditions under which, following the expiry of the UN resolutions, our forces can be protected while in the country. I will place in the Library the document that is going to the Iraqi provisional assembly, the Council of Representatives. It contains means by which, if there are disputes on these matters, they can be resolved, and it maintains that if a case came up, any person concerned would remain in British detention, not Iraqi detention, during the period of the investigation. It is similar but not entirely similar to the United States’ agreement. We should remember that the United States’ presence will be longer. It is engaged more than we are in combat operations, and the discussions with the Iraqi authorities were different from the very special discussions that we had with the Iraqi authorities.

May I add one point about the economic situation? We have a large number of people helping the Iraqis to develop their economy. Michael Wareing has done a huge amount of work and is holding the investment conference today. I have met the Basra development commission on a number of occasions. The Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary have been deeply involved in helping it.

I was asked about the involvement of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. There will be a UK Trade & Investment presence, which is a joint Foreign Office-Business Department operation, and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will visit Basra and the area at the start of the year. I was also asked about embassies. The United Arab Emirates recently set up an embassy in Baghdad, and we are encouraging other countries to do so.

Equipment is an issue that often comes up in relation to lessons that we must learn. I can say today that the Secretary of State for Defence is announcing that the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract worth more than £150 million to buy more than 100 new tracked all-terrain vehicles, which will be known as Warthog and will provide improved protection for our forces, while retaining the all-terrain capability of Viking vehicles, which have proved invaluable over the past two years in
18 Dec 2008 : Column 1239
the terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever money has been required for new equipment, armour or helicopters, we have been prepared to provide it.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s last point about an inquiry, I should say to him that the Franks inquiry dealt only with the causes leading up to the Falklands war, not the war itself. I presume that what he is proposing is different, not the same as the Franks inquiry, but I have always said that this is a matter that we will consider once our troops have come home. We are not in that position at present, so it is not right to open the question now. That is the course of action that the Foreign Secretary, I and others have stated to the House on many occasions.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the unnamed soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles and Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan. Their deaths are reminders of the sacrifice and bravery of all British servicemen and servicewomen who have lost their lives over the past year.

Let me be clear: I passionately believe that it was a mistake to invade Iraq, but I am second to none in my admiration for the professionalism, dedication and courage of British servicemen and servicewomen. That is why I share their relief and the relief of their long-suffering families that they will finally be coming home soon. We should all be proud of them. But are the Government not ashamed of what they have asked them to do, and are the Conservatives not ashamed that they cheered the Government on? Listening to the Prime Minister’s extraordinarily rosy account of Iraq, one would have been forgiven for thinking that nothing had ever gone wrong.

Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that he and the Conservatives sent our brave servicemen and servicewomen into an illegal war? When will the Prime Minister apologise for what he did, signing the cheques for George Bush’s invasion? Is not the true scandal today, as we look back at that fateful decision to send our troops into battle in Iraq, the single worst foreign policy decision in the past 50 years, that not one of the men and women on the Government Benches and on the Conservative Benches will apologise for what they did? Is it not time for the Government and the Conservatives to hold up their hands and say sorry to the British people for Iraq?

I am proud to be speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches today and leading the only party that was steadfast in its opposition to this illegal war. Does the Prime Minister remember that when my party voted—every single Liberal Democrat MP voted to stop the war—his party and the Conservatives booed and jeered? President-elect Obama called the Iraq invasion a “dumb war”. Obama was right; they were wrong.

Next Section Index Home Page