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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Prior to our withdrawal to the airport, can the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that there were no discussions with Shi’a militias that, as a quid pro quo for our withdrawal, there would be no attacks on British troops?

Mr. Hutton: There were discussions with local militia; of course there were, and we conducted those discussions openly and with the full consent and agreement of the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners. In counter-insurgency operations, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to accept—I hope that he would—there are times when we need to talk. That is inevitable if there is to be a sustainable long-term solution. I reject absolutely any suggestion that there was a covert agreement that unfairly favoured British security forces. That is not the case at all.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Could the Secretary of State explain why, if the British forces remained in overwatch once they withdrew to the airport, things had to be restored by US forces when the situation went bad?

Mr. Hutton: That is not a full and complete description of what happened later in 2008, and I want to come to Operation Charge of the Knights in a few moments. I do not accept the fundamental premise of the hon. Gentleman’s comments because it rests on the assumption that British security forces took no role in that operation and, as he knows, that is not the case.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not accept that when we made the accommodation and went back to the airport, we did not hand Basra over to the Iraqi Government or the Iraqi army? We handed it over to the Jaish al-Mahdi militia.

Mr. Hutton: I do not accept that as a description either. I would be perfectly prepared to accept as fact the strength and activity of local militia groups in Basra. They were extremely active, and targeted their fire not only at us, but at Iraqi security forces. The point of the agreement, however, was to transfer security authority to the Iraqis. That is what we did, and we had to face, as the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) recognised, a continuing level of insurgency in Basra. We addressed that together with our coalition and Iraqi partners.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Mr. Davey rose—

Patrick Mercer rose—

Mr. Hutton: I have given way to all of the hon. Gentlemen who are seeking to intervene. I hate to say it to the House, but I still have quite a long speech ahead of me. Given that all these issues can be fully aired and addressed in the debate, I would prefer to make a little progress with my speech.

Our withdrawal set the conditions for the Iraqi soldiers that we had trained to secure public support as the first step towards winning back their city from the militias. In March last year, Iraqi security forces surged into Basra, as several hon. Members mentioned, to tackle
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militia violence and influence. By devising and implementing their own solution, the Iraqi security forces had proved themselves capable of solving an Iraqi problem. During these operations, and contrary to a lot of highly inaccurate reporting, the UK met the Iraqis’ requests to provide close air support for ground operations. We provided aviation assets, artillery, logistics and medical expertise to support the operation of coalition and Iraqi forces. The US also played an important role, which I am happy and pleased to acknowledge, and allowed their personnel embedded with the Iraqi reinforcements that they were partnering in the north of the country to be redeployed to support their engagement in Basra. The end result of Operation Charge of the Knights represented a huge step forward: a secure and stable Basra. I hope that that is not in dispute. The success of that operation and the sustainment of the security gains it achieved are a vindication, not a contradiction, of the long-term strategy that we have pursued with our Iraqi partners.

General Odierno, the current US commander in Iraq, said after a recent visit that our efforts there offered a model for successful transition across Iraq, and said that Basra is the way forward. That success will provide the foundation for our enduring bilateral defence relationship with Iraq in the years to come. Looking to the future, negotiations to ensure a firm legal basis for our military presence in Iraq in 2009 were concluded successfully at the end of 2008 and the new legal basis took effect from 1 January.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am quite concerned, and would like to ask my right hon. Friend whether I have got this right. I listened to the debate about Operation Charge of the Knights, and I believed that the Chief of the Defence Staff made it quite clear to us that our forces’ involvement in that episode was to help

I would appreciate it if my right hon. Friend would go back over that episode, and state whether I have interpreted Sir Jock Stirrup’s words correctly.

Mr. Hutton: I am not entirely sure that I know the context within which the Chief of the Defence staff made those remarks, or the quote that my hon. Friend is relying on. I have presented a full and fair account of the operations that led up to Operation Charge of the Knights, and an account of the operation itself. It was an Iraqi-led security mission designed to deal with the security challenge posed by local militia groups in the city, and it was supported strongly by US embedded units and British forces in Basra. The purpose of the withdrawal into the contingency operating base in 2006 was as I have described.

Ms Taylor: I am hearing in the House today that British troops “eventually” got involved. As I understand it—and this was not just quoted in formal Ministry of Defence material I have read, but in an article in The Guardian on 18 December—it is clearly stated that the Iraqis drew up the plan with British prompting and help. I am sure that I have got this right, but I want it on the record. The focus of the plans was to contain the situation on the ground while the Iraqis grew their own forces to ensure that they could deliver whatever was required.

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Mr. Hutton: That I certainly can confirm. British forces were strongly in support of this operation and were keen to encourage the operation to begin. It is completely untrue to suggest, if anyone is doing so, that British military forces were reluctant to be involved in Operation Charge of the Knights or somehow did not support it.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, no. We are all looking forward to hearing his speech, but we will hear it more quickly if I can get on with my remarks.

Looking to the future, we have successfully reached an agreement with the Iraqi Government on the status of our forces, and I have arranged for copies of the new relevant texts to be placed in the Library. Many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed their wish for a public inquiry into the Iraqi war. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reiterated our long-standing position that this is a matter we shall consider once our troops have come home from Iraq. That has not happened yet. We still have significant numbers of UK combat forces deployed in Iraq, and it is right that at this moment, our full focus remains on completing the tasks we have agreed with the Government of Iraq. We remain on track to complete those tasks by the end of May. I am delighted to report to the House that, as many hon. Members will know, Basra international airport was transferred to Iraqi civilian control on 1 January and is now a fully operational civilian airport. That is the culmination of an enormous amount of work by the RAF’s 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, and represents the completion of one of our key remaining tasks in Iraq. Meanwhile, the 14th division of the Iraqi army in Basra continues to make excellent progress, as do the Iraqi navy and marines, whom UK forces in particular are heavily involved in training at Umm Qasr.

Mr. Davey: During the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign policy, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that it was not the case that every single British troop would have to come home before an inquiry could be held. The Prime Minister said in his statement on 18 December that by 31 July this year, there would be fewer than 400 British troops remaining in Iraq. If that is the case, will that be the trigger for an inquiry? In the Secretary of State’s estimation, how few troops must remain before an inquiry can be called?

Mr. Hutton: I shall not argue with any of the figures that the hon. Gentleman has used. My point is that we have 4,000 combat troops in Iraq, and they will be there for several months. There is no prospect of an inquiry starting while deployment continues at that level. As I have said, I am not here to make an announcement on the timing of the inquiry. Such an announcement will be made in due course, once the Prime Minister and ministerial colleagues have come to a decision about the right time for such an inquiry.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: No.

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From the end of May onwards, as I have said, there will be a significant reduction in UK force levels as we move to a more normal defence relationship as part of a broad-based and enduring partnership with a democratic Iraq, in which I hope economic, commercial, cultural and educational relationships will come increasingly to the fore. UK military personnel who remain in Iraq after 31 July will do so at the request of the Government of Iraq, to deliver and support specific long-term training initiatives agreed between ourselves and the Government of Iraq. On the basis of our discussions with the Iraqi Government to date, I anticipate that those future activities will involve no more than about 400 UK personnel.

As we develop our bilateral defence relationship, our aim is to focus on key strategic areas for Iraq, in which UK personnel can bring particular expertise to bear and make a real difference. In particular, consistent with a recommendation by the Select Committee on Defence, we have offered to continue to provide maritime support and naval training. That will build on the impressive work done to date by the UK-led coalition naval training team, which has helped to develop a new Iraqi navy from the broken force inherited from the previous regime.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Government have chosen as the title of the debate Britain’s “future strategic relationship” with Iraq. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in fact we will not have a strategic relationship with Iraq? A strategic relationship would normally imply an ongoing defence commitment or something comparable. There will be some support for naval training, but otherwise we hope that our relationship will be rather like those that we have with other countries in the region, such as Jordan and Egypt. Surely the use of the term “strategic relationship” simply does not describe what will exist after next June.

Mr. Hutton: No, I do not accept that. I am only on page six of my speech, and I want to come to the other aspects of our relationship, including economic and political aspects. Together with the measures to be taken as part of our security relationship with the state of Iraq—I have not described all of them, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know—those matters will genuinely constitute a long-term strategic relationship with a very important partner nation in the middle east that has a regionally significant contribution to make across a wide range of subject areas. I therefore do not accept that what he has said is true.

I could go into other aspects of our military and security relationship if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like me to, but it would not be true to say that the extent of our military engagement after July will be confined to continuing training with the Iraqi navy. We envisage an ongoing role in working with the Ministry of Defence to improve its capabilities and effectiveness. That is the Iraqi Ministry of Defence—the capabilities of my Ministry are fine and do not need any improvement. Another aspect of our relationship will be helping the Iraqi army to develop an officer corps, and working with non-commissioned ranks to improve the training and effectiveness of those very important people.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, correct that I have not yet heard the rest of his speech, but I have reread the statement that the Prime Minister gave to the House on similar themes on 18 December. He said that our relationship with Iraq would be

We do not have strategic relationships with other countries in the region; we have friendly, normal relations. I suggest again to the Secretary of State that a strategic relationship implies an ongoing, substantial commitment, such as the United States will certainly have to the overall defence of Iraq. As I understand, it is no part of the British Government’s policy that we should give long-term commitments similar to those being offered by the United States.

Mr. Hutton: I have great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, so I shall not make the point that we are dancing on pinheads in trying to define what we mean by “strategic”. I do not wish to respond to his point in that way. Clearly, we will not have the kind of ongoing military relationship that the United States will have with Iraq. That is perfectly true. However, considering the other issues that I shall come to, I do not believe that it would be wrong to describe our future relationship with Iraq as being of a strategic nature. It will be, and perhaps we can explore that in more detail during the contributions of other Members.

Sir Menzies Campbell: It seems to me that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) put his finger on a very important point. The reason why we may be indulging in semantics is that we are seeking a firm definition of what the relationship might be. The nature of it will determine what obligations this country might have towards Iraq. In the light of current public opinion on our commitment to Iraq, those obligations are clearly of the most significant public interest. The Secretary of State says that our relationship with Iraq will not be like that of the United States, but is he willing to be more definitive about its nature?

Mr. Hutton: Well, I may have the chance to do that if I make a little more progress. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is another distinguished Member, and I suggest to him that we have forged a unique and distinctive relationship with Iraq, through some years that have been very difficult given the nature and strength of the insurgency of al-Qaeda, Sunni, Shi’a or whatever origin. I would therefore apply the word “strategic” to the relationship, which was forged in extremely difficult circumstances when the state of Iraq was under siege from terrorist violence.

The actions and interventions of the coalition forces ensured that we could get to this point, and that we could have such a debate about the future of the state. I suspect that many Members had written that off as impossible maybe only 12 or 18 months or two years ago. There is always a temptation in the House to rewrite history, and we all fall victim to it from time to time. We are very keen historians. However, I do not believe that it is fair or accurate to describe as a failure our relationship or the intervention and its consequences,
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as some have tried to do. If we have the courage to take the opportunity, we can build a strategic relationship and put behind us the disagreements that have bedevilled the debate about Iraq and the region. I am definitely on the side of those who say that we should do that.

The Government of Iraq have indicated that they would like to continue to receive other military training and education from the UK. I briefly described some aspects of that to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). We intend shortly to begin more detailed discussion to establish the precise scope of that future activity, but it will be broadly in the areas that I referred to a moment ago.

I turn to the developments in Iraqi democracy and politics, and I shall also come to Iraq’s economy and economic prospects. The Iraqi people have embraced democracy with enormous, and maybe not surprising, enthusiasm. The parliamentary elections in December 2005 saw a turnout of more than 80 per cent., and 2009, too, will be a year of elections, not tyranny, with both provincial and national elections scheduled. Provincial elections planned for later this month will provide Iraqis with the opportunity to hold local politicians to account, and give those who boycotted earlier elections and those who have now renounced violence an opportunity to participate in the political process. In Basra alone, an astonishing 1,272 candidates, including more than 300 women, have registered to compete for only 35 seats on the local provincial council—not like elections in my constituency.

Religious and ethnic minorities will be guaranteed representation on key councils across the country. Nationally, political debate is increasingly lively, with political parties beginning to move away from simple sectarian groupings and form alliances around specific issues. We should all welcome those developments.

Inevitably, there have been problems, but, encouragingly, they have been resolved through political dialogue—not through violence—such as the compromises to ensure the return of the Sunni bloc to Government last summer, and the hard-fought, but ultimately successful negotiations on the terms of the provincial elections law.

The Council of Representatives is maturing as a voice for the Iraqi people. Initially beset by problems of sectarian groupings and absenteeism, there is now an increasing understanding of its role and responsibilities. Significant challenges remain, but, as an institution, it witnesses more political debate and questioning than was evident under any so-called “parliament” in the days of the former regime.

We will continue to support Iraq’s political and economic development, including through our engagement with international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union. I very strongly welcome the commitments that the EU made in November.

That leads me to economic regeneration and development. Iraq enjoys major oil and gas resources and a skilled and educated work force, which once placed it at the economic heart of the middle east. However, after decades of neglect, Iraq’s private sector is in desperate need of renewal to capitalise on the country’s huge potential and to bring jobs and prosperity to local people.

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As the Defence Committee again observed,

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