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14 Jan 2009 : Column 248

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. He has raised some important questions, and it might be helpful if I briefly seek to answer them while I am here. In relation to the agreement, we have obviously acted in accordance with the clear advice that we received from the Chief of the Defence Staff and the service chiefs that the agreement was acceptable. There are differences between the UK and US agreements, which largely concern the different roles and missions of the UK and US forces. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Royal Navy, let me reassure him that, while Royal Navy personnel are serving on board Royal Navy vessels and ships in the Gulf, those vessels and ships come under the definition of being a UK facility or base, and the personnel on them are not subject to any extent to Iraqi criminal jurisdiction.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful for that clarification. I imagine that the House and the Select Committee will want to consider that important issue in greater detail, and any further clarification that the Government can give us will be welcome.

I have mentioned the importance of the Royal Navy, because we tend to concentrate on what the Army has done in Iraq. All the senior American officers whom I recently met in the Gulf—and at the Pentagon last week—hold the Royal Navy in very high regard. In fact, Vice-Admiral Gortney, the commander of the US fifth fleet and the combined maritime forces, told me just a couple of weeks ago that the United Kingdom’s minesweeping capability is the best in the world and that it is vital in ensuring that the mission in the Gulf succeeds. When comparing the British maritime presence in the Gulf with the American presence in the region, the proportion of UK involvement is a lot higher than our contribution to the ground forces in Iraq ever was. Furthermore, the deputy commander of the combined maritime forces in the region is British. Consequently, the Royal Navy has a great deal of influence over maritime operations, and we should be very proud of its achievements and its international status.

No one can be in any doubt that fairly grave mistakes were made in the early days of the war, including the failure to plan for an extended occupation, the extent of the de-Ba’athification, the disbanding of the Iraq military, and the ultimate empowering and arming of sectarian groups. We have an obligation to learn from any mistakes made in the run-up to the Iraq war, the war itself and the post-war period, which can be accomplished only by holding an inquiry. In the US, several inquiries have been conducted, including the Baker-Hamilton study, and these have helped to improve US policy. Since the present Prime Minister took over from Tony Blair, the Government have announced at least 50 separate reviews of different areas of policy. Why is it possible to conduct reviews of those areas but not of the conduct of the Iraq war?

We know that all but around 400 British troops will be home by July, and that the ones left in Iraq will have a fundamentally different mission. Surely the Government could have announced a timetable for the creation of the full-scale Privy Council inquiry that the Conservatives have called for. That they have not done so does not reflect well on their moral authority in those areas. It is
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almost six years since the war began, and it is vital that the process is started now before memories begin to fade, if we are to learn the appropriate lessons.

I have talked about the strategic relationship between Britain and Iraq. However, as with all things in the middle east, it is important that we see such a relationship in regional terms. Let me offer just one example of how a matter, which, at first glance, appears to be an internal Iraqi matter, can have regional implications. The upcoming provincial elections in a few weeks’ time will be of the utmost importance. Not only will they be important in measuring progress inside Iraq’s democratic institutions, but they will also have an impact on the broader region, especially where there is a Kurdish population.

In particular, it will be worth watching the election results in Ninawa province, where, in January 2005, the Kurds won a huge proportion of the vote—about 65 per cent.—because the majority Sunni Arab population boycotted the elections. If the Sunnis come out and vote in force this time and the Kurds lose power, there could be implications around the Iraqi Kurdish region. The worst-case scenario is that any unrest within the Kurdish population in Iraq will spill over into the Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran or Syria, which is, of course, the last thing that the region needs.

The success of the forthcoming elections will be measured by three factors, namely the level of violence or non-violence during the election process, voter turnout and the willingness of all concerned to accept the results. In any system, it is often not the first set of elections that are problematic but the subsequent ones, in which there might be a change in power. The House must say with one voice that we must take every opportunity to impress on the Iraqi Government the need to make a reality of the religious tolerance that is written into the Iraqi constitution.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. When I visited Iraq last year, members of the Government made it clear that they were deliberately delaying local elections because of concerns that polarisation might take place once the elections had been conducted and that a flare-up in ethnic tensions might result. It is therefore surprising that we have decided to leave Iraq so soon, when such a monumental event is about to take place.

Dr. Fox: As I think that I have made clear, it is a matter for the Iraqi Government, as they increasingly take control of their economic, military and political processes, to determine whether we should become involved at any particular place or time. They clearly feel that they have the internal security apparatus to deal with the undoubted problems that will exist as a result of the tensions inherent in their political system when the elections take place at the end of the month. All that we can hope is that they have made the correct judgment, and time will tell whether that is the case.

There will also be a regional impact in respect of Iraq’s own increasing military capability. The Iraqi army is now at 203,000 personnel and has a current growth ceiling of some 300,000. The Iraqi military is currently purchasing hundreds of American M1A1 main battle tanks and a number of C-130s, and there is the possibility of procuring American F-16 fighter jets. Obviously, those purchases make some of the neighbours nervous.

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It seemed early on that the procurement process in Iraq itself was quite chaotic—the Ministry of Defence is not alone—and that the hardware was being bought without due thought to training and support. I think that that is now being ironed out and that most observers feel that under American advice, some of those processes are being smoothed out. Perhaps it is just a lesson to those in Iraq that they do not want to run before they can walk, and that they should listen to the advice offered without regarding it as interference from outside. That advice is well meaning, because, having made so many sacrifices, the US and the UK want Iraq to succeed and do not want to interfere in how it does things.

A strong Iraq is in all our interests, and a large and capable Iraqi army can contribute in many ways to a regional balance, especially towards Iran. Conversely, we must understand the impact that a large Iraqi military has on its neighbours such as Kuwait, which has shown mixed feelings towards the al-Maliki Government. If we simply look at a snapshot of Iraq’s regional relations, we can see the difficult road that lies ahead for Baghdad. Although Prime Minister Al-Sabah recently visited Iraq, Kuwait is naturally cautious about Baghdad’s motives, and there are still concerns over unpaid debts.

Iraq and Iran have poor relations, although Iran was the first country in the region, if not the world, to set up an embassy in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. The issue remains of Tehran attempting to maximise its influence with Shi’a members of the Iraqi Government and Shi’a-dominated regions, which our forces have seen with deadly consequences in the south, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has mentioned.

Iraqi-Syrian relations are only a little better. Iraq accuses Syria of not doing enough to stop the flow of militants, while there is also concern about the large number of senior-ranking Ba’athists who fled Iraq in 2003 and who are currently resident in Syria. These tensions need to be defused over time, but perhaps the most urgent need is for an improved relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Government have yet to send an ambassador to Baghdad. That is unfortunate, as it leaves the Iranian influence unbalanced. It would be to the benefit of all if the Saudis, as a regional leader, were to have a stronger diplomatic presence in Iraq.

Iraq and Jordan enjoy good relations. King Abdullah was the first Arab Head of State to visit Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and Jordan receives cheap oil from Iraq. The main concern is the status of Iraqi refugees, but that issue is capable of resolution. Iraq’s relationship with Turkey is a pivotal one. Turkey has been a very constructive and helpful partner in the development of the new Iraq, for which the international community should give it greater credit.

There is, however, one problem about the forthcoming elections, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has alluded. There will be a temptation for the Iraqi Government to play the “Arab-identity card” in those elections, which might attract Sunni voters and diminish the support that al-Qaeda still seems to have in parts of the north. However, it would be extremely unfortunate if Sunni-Shi’a tensions were to be replaced by Arab-Kurd tensions. Any destabilisation
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of the Kurds is likely to have a negative effect on Iraq’s neighbours, particularly Turkey, which would be destabilising for the region and strategically bad for all of us.

Finally, whatever mistakes were made in the early part of the war in Iraq, the decision to surge American forces was brave and effective. As we look to Afghanistan, we need to understand why the surge in Iraq worked. More forces enabled a change in the strategic approach, where forces moved off their forward operating bases to give security to the population where they lived. There was also an Iraqi surge with a huge increase in security forces to hold areas once they had been cleared of insurgency and militias. There were consequently no safe havens for insurgents, who were relentlessly pursued throughout Iraq. Support was given for the tribal uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the political mission to separate the “reconcilables” from the “irreconcilables” under General Petraeus was absolutely key. The Iraqi Government showed that they had the will and the ability to deal with the Shi’ite militias—possibly the single most important event since 2003—and their more open and honest engagement with the media has greatly helped, too.

All those things have helped to contribute to a more stable and secure Iraq. A stable, secure and prosperous unified state is in all our interests. Nothing, however, can be taken for granted. Progress has been made, but the situation remains fragile and therefore reversible, which requires all the help that we can give.

2.36 pm

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for a fine speech, which reminded us how a democratic and prosperous Iraq can become a source of stability and good sense in a region cursed by instability and the lack of sustainable democracy. I also thank the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) for his fine speech, highlighting a number of issues that I, too, hope to deal with briefly.

As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, Iraq has a long way to go to attain stability and prosperity. He mentioned the problem of the forthcoming elections, especially those that will eventually happen in Kirkuk. For a long time, that whole region has been particularly cursed by attempts at ethnic cleansing by resettlement under the Saddam regime and all manner of evils. There is also the wider problem of reconstructing proper and peaceful relationships that should obtain between Sunni, Shi’a, Kurds and Christians. We have heard very little today about the Christian community in Iraq, which has suffered greatly in recent years. It is good to know that the subject is now being openly debated in the Iraqi media. I think that we should welcome that, but none the less keep a very close eye on the issue, as we should be very concerned about it. As I say, the disputed lands around Kirkuk remain a particular problem. I welcome the huge amount of diplomatic energy going into the task of resolving the issues of ethnicity, property, language and, most importantly, the administrative demarcation in that area.

I would like to deal briefly with the developing economy of Iraq, as I believe that many of the problems faced in the great cities of Iraq—Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk
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and Irbil—are a consequence of the chronic high levels of unemployment. As I have heard many times and as we should remind ourselves, it is often said in the middle east that the Egyptians write the books, the Lebanese publish them and the Iraqis read them. That is a coded way of saying that the Iraqi people are among the most talented in the middle east, and we should never forget that. The Iraqi diaspora has been a consequence of a series of dreadful Governments and dictators; it has resulted in Iraqi doctors, surgeons, scientists, engineers, architects and a whole host of professionals moving all around the world—living proof that Saddam’s regime resulted not only in the murder and torture of tens of thousands of his own citizens, but in the stunting and destruction of the huge potential of the country’s talented people, whether they be Shi’a, Sunni, Kurd, Christian or people of no religion.

You do not have to be a scientist, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to realise that the most obvious and probably the easiest way to kick-start the economy is to help the Iraqis to reconstruct their oil and gas industries. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Woodspring about the size of those reserves, and in a little while I will talk briefly about the nature of them. I saw on a number of visits to the south, the centre and the north of Iraq how its oil and gas industries were run down and pillaged by a combination of Saddam Hussein’s corrupt regime and collaborators such as President Chirac’s France, which grew fat on busting the sanctions imposed by the UN and from the disastrous and even more corrupt oil-for-food programme.

People tend to forget that the duplicitous and lying statements of the Chirac regime in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq were designed to protect the disgraceful but enormously profitable relationship that he had built up with Saddam Hussein over the previous 20 years. Most disgraceful were the brazen sanctions-busting scams that France was part of, making itself and Saddam richer, and allowing Saddam to fund his appalling brutal regime.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) is regarded as a queen of Kurdistan; I have heard her described as that myself. She knows full well what those sanctions did—not the sanctions themselves, but the way in which regimes such as Chirac’s, corrupt as they were, colluded with Saddam to destroy, for example, much of the Iraqi agricultural economy. I was in Irbil quite recently and saw and heard for myself how people will not go back to working on the land because they are used to getting their boxes of food every week. That continues to this day, and a huge part of one of the most fertile places on the face of the earth lies fallow as a consequence. Yet I heard opponents of the war at the time say, “No, no. Sanctions are the proper way forward”, when sanctions were being busted, when people were making fortunes out of them and when, most important of all, the Iraqi people were being destroyed by them.

We should learn from that. It is very important. People have called for inquiries, and we have had inquiries and will have an inquiry in the future. The most important thing that we should learn from that is why we have dual standards and hear people say, “It was quite wrong to remove Saddam Hussein, but we should be thinking about removing Robert Mugabe or intervening militarily in Darfur or the Congo.” It is interesting. I am not quite
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sure what gives rise to it. I suspect that it is something to do with anti-Americanism. There seems to be a rabid belief that anything that is led by the Americans must therefore be wrong. It amazes me how often I hear that stuff.

The barmiest of the criticisms are the ones that say that we invaded Iraq for its oil. If we wanted to get Iraqi oil, we could have done exactly as the French, Germans and so many others did. We could have done deals with Saddam Hussein that would have got us that oil and got it cheap, but we did not. We faced up to what was a very, very difficult decision. I watched carefully at that time how the Security Council was manipulated by France, Russia and China. They did not want to upset their cosy relationship with Saddam Hussein; they were making too much money out of it.

The French wanted to build nuclear reactors, and indeed did build two. Someone properly said—I am not sure who; it might have been the hon. Member for Woodspring—that the war did not start with that invasion of Iraq, but much earlier. We should never forgot that, because it is very important. I know that the nationalists, who have left their seats, have a penchant for supporting dictators. They say, “Who supported Saddam Hussein in the early days?”, as if that is an excuse for not doing something about him when he is murdering his own citizens. I am not sure that we have really learned those lessons, and we need to. Tens of thousands of Kurds, Shi’ites and other enemies of Saddam were raped, murdered and tortured by a regime that had been courted and armed by France and, I have to say, by Governments in this country in the past because Iraq was seen as a strategic counterbalance to Iran and Shi’ite nationalism. Those are very dangerous games to play.

I was glad to hear the Front-Bench spokesmen on both sides of the House say that the way forward is to help the Iraqis to reconstruct their industry so that the area is one of prosperity and stability. That is what we have to do. Both opening statements were tremendous in the way in which they spoke of some of the schemes that are up and running. We did not talk about the work that the British Army did in and around Basra. The great date plantations and the reconstruction of Basra’s water supply system were tremendous achievements, set up and built under very difficult circumstances.

I know from personal experience how difficult things are in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is easy to say that we can send our aid agencies there to work, but they can only do that if they are secure—if our young people are not murdered when they try to reconstruct water supply systems, agricultural canals and so on. I was glad that there were no facile statements about that.

It is a bit rich when people come out and say, “Saddam Hussein was only one of a number of dictators. Why pick on him?” I was brought up to believe that wherever there were dictators, we should try to drag them down and help wherever we can to liberate people who are suppressed by tyrants. I hope that as a country we will consider how we might be able to do that better. I will tell you how we will not do it: on our own.

I notice that in Hillary Clinton’s appearance before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations yesterday she said:

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with other countries,

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