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I am glad to hear that. It is very true and reflects what both Front-Bench spokesmen said. We have to do this work in partnership with other countries. We have to recognise who can help us. Most importantly of all, we have to recognise that the people who are going to change Iraq most fundamentally are going to be Iraqis themselves.

Meg Munn: I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. How important does he see the development of democracy in Iraq so that it becomes a genuine and stable democracy, not just in terms of the Iraqi people, which is of course enormously important, but in terms of the region as a whole?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made that clear, as did the hon. Member for Woodspring. Without democracy in Iraq, I cannot see how the middle east can possibly look forward to any stability and any sustainable prosperity. Democracy is enormously important. What I found most dismaying—it did not matter where I went in that region—was that as often as not 50 per cent. of the population were not contributing to the economy in any obvious way. Of course, the women were supporting their men at home, but they were not being liberated—their aspirations were not being allowed to be seized and turned into reality. They do not have a democracy that allows it to happen. Democracy is an incredibly important element. I believe that if we help to argue the case for democracy in the region in whatever way we can, it will happen.

I have no doubt that the nations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—and all the other nations in the region—want democracy. People want democracy, but they will have to design their own democracy: it cannot be imposed, as is obvious from what has happened over the last four or five years. They will work out their own models for democracy, but they need to do so very quickly, because they need to be able to tap the potential of all their people. That is how we will bring about peace and prosperity.

Harry Cohen: If a future Iranian Government, with the support of the Iranian people, wanted to renationalise their oil industry and resources, would they be allowed to do so?

Dr. Howells: I am pretty certain that the British Government have no say in what Tehran does. I only wish that we did, because we might be able to stop Tehran murdering people because they happen to be homosexuals.

Harry Cohen: What about the Iraqi Government?

Dr. Howells: The Iraqi Government will decide for themselves what they want to do with their oil industry, and quite properly so. If they need the expertise which, in my view, they do need in order to start tapping great oilfields such as the north and south Rumaylah fields, which are some of the most benign oil-bearing structures
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in the world, and if they are to repair the appalling damage done by the racketeers of Saddam Hussein and Jacques Chirac to those structures in order to rip easy money out of them, they will need the BPs of this world. They will need Esso. They will need companies that know how to do those things. The fact that the oilfields happen to be owned by a state Government does not mean that the necessary expertise is in place, and it is doctrinaire madness to say that the expertise of those companies should not be brought in. That is not the way to rebuild the oil and gas industries in Iraq; and they need to be rebuilt, because that is how we will get people back to work in cities such as Basra.

It is clear to me that the people of Basra themselves understand that, after the sacrifice of many lives—the lives of British soldiers, American soldiers and, most, important, Iraqi soldiers—they now have within their grasp the opportunity to express themselves as entrepreneurs, as they have done in the past. Basra was always regarded as one of the places to which people wanted to go in the Gulf, and it will become that again. All the small businesses that are springing up in Basra will grow and sustain the economy of Basra and its great surrounding region. I am confident that Basra will again become the great entrepôt of the whole region, not just Iraq, and that the communication spine that runs through Iraq up to Irbil and the cities of the Kurdish-administered area will become the gateway to that part of the middle east. That, I believe, will bring prosperity and peace to the region—and God knows, it needs them.

2.53 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) has made a powerful speech, and he will be surprised to learn that I agreed with quite a bit of it. I particularly agreed with his point about the talents of the Iraqi people.

My constituency contains a number of Iraqis who came to this country fleeing both the tyranny of Saddam and the chaos of Iraq since the Kurdish-run forces invaded. One Iraqi asylum seeker came to my surgery one Saturday morning during the foot and mouth problems that we experienced some time ago, before the Iraqi war. He greeted me with the words “Mr. Davey, I do not seek your help; I want to help you.” Of course, as a Liberal Democrat I thought that he wanted to deliver leaflets, but no; he wanted to help with foot and mouth disease, because he was a trained vet. Iraq had had foot and mouth disease as well, and he said that he had diagnosed and treated it and carried out vaccinations.

Although it was a Saturday morning, I immediately rang the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd will remember, was on a 24/7 footing. I managed to contact one of the people responsible for recruiting vets to help with the problem. I said, “I have a vet here who has seen foot and mouth and wants to help.” The official asked, “Is he a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons?” I said, “Probably not.” When I asked what was the key issue, the official said, “We have to make sure that his English is good.” My constituent had
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seemed to communicate very well with me. I told the official that I did not think sheep or cows spoke English, and that MAFF was taking a rather silly approach.

I have told that story to illustrate the fact that we sometimes do not use people’s talents—whether they are from Iraq or from other countries—because of our shameless bureaucracy. We should bear in mind the need to maximise the talents of people from around the world.

I parted company with the hon. Gentleman on what I considered to be his inaccurate analysis of the way in which we should deal with dictators. I share his view that we should wish to see the demise of all dictators, and to promote and enhance democratic forces throughout the world, but I do not agree that we should act against international law in doing so. I believe that if we take measures to get rid of dictators and promote democracy, we should do so within what I concede is the imperfect framework of international law. That is one of the many reasons for the Liberal Democrats’ concern about the invasion of Iraq.

As we move forward in the 21st century, we must develop international law. I think that the notion of the responsibility to protect that was signed up to by the United Nations in 2005 represents an important advance in international law, and that we should work hard on that so that we can take the necessary measures. However, I do not think that in 2003 we were right to anticipate legal developments and go against international law. Our action put us outside the law, which is why so many people opposed it and why it was ultimately so wrong.

Dr. Fox: Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question. Are the people of Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Davey: Of course I think that they are better off. However, although I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said and will make one or two points about it shortly, it is clear from the opinion polls that I have seen—conducted by American academic institutions that study opinion in Iraq—that there is no homogenous view that everything is rosier, and that the coalition troops are welcome in Iraq. Far from it: according to the latest analysis of opinion by the Brookings Institution, nearly three quarters of Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition troops. I think that the hon. Gentleman should be a little more cautious in his own analysis.

Unusually—because I respect the way in which the hon. Gentleman approaches this issue—I did not think that much of what he said carried any force. I think that he underestimated the costs of the Iraq war, not in terms of finance or lives but in terms of the historic failure that it was and the historic legacy that it will leave: the damage that it has done to this country’s reputation and the moral leadership of America—which is so important in the world—and indeed to the cohesion of the world, in such difficult times as those that we are experiencing now.

When the hon. Gentleman talked of whether it had been right to go to war in Iraq, he failed to remind the House of the reasons that we were given for the war. In debates such as this, it is essential that we do not try to rewrite history. Too many victors in the past have had the privilege of rewriting history, but we must not do that in an open democracy. I pay tribute to the Secretary
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of State, for at least he did not try to do it. We were told by Tony Blair that if Saddam Hussein was to give up his weapons of mass destruction, he could stay. This was absolutely not about regime change. Let us remember that before we get on our high horse and become too self-righteous about the way in which we voted in the debate on the issue.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman has made a major point. Does he agree that members of the Christian community, people whose relatives have been killed recently in outrages in Mosul and those living in Jordan or Syria after being chased out of Iraq in recent months would not necessarily see the invasion as a success in any event?

Mr. Davey: I entirely agree. I am not sure that the Christians who have received such appalling treatment, the 4.7 million refugees and the families who have seen loved ones killed are all that happy about the invasion. They may have wished to see the back of Saddam, but they probably did not want to see it at the cost of the huge loss of human lives and the misery that has been caused.

I want to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats agree with what the Secretary of State said about the role and expertise of the British armed forces. We completely agree that the British armed forces have done a fantastic job; whether or not we agree with the Iraq war, we can put aside such disagreements in acknowledging how fantastic and world-leading our troops have been in the way they have gone about their security tasks and helped to rebuild Iraq.

We part company with the Secretary of State’s on some of his analysis, however. On the future of Iraq, as well as its current state and what happened in the past, I want to urge a note of caution that comes not from my own analysis but from reading some of the analysis done by General Petraeus, and in particular the update on Iraq that he gave to Congress and the President in October last year. There are many risks ahead of us that the Secretary of State did not bring out. I understand why, but it is very important that in looking ahead we are not complacent. Although the Liberal Democrats strongly support the decision on the withdrawal of the troops and wish it had come sooner, there were always going to be risks when the troops were being withdrawn and directly afterwards.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the naval troops should be withdrawn?

Mr. Davey: If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the slightly fewer than 400 troops who will remain after 31 July to help to train the Iraqi army, the answer is no, I do not think they should be withdrawn. As he well knows, they are training for an essential purpose in respect of the waterways, which are very important for international shipping. It is my understanding that they will be there with the full agreement of the Iraqi Government for that very purpose.

Mr. Arbuthnot: That is indeed correct, but what then is the difference between them and the Army troops who have been there training the Iraqi army with the consent of the Iraqi Defence Ministry?

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Mr. Davey: I think we need to be a bit careful about how we interpret why certain people have been there. I did not agree with a lot of what the Secretary of State said about the pull-out of troops from Basra to Basra airport. That is of relevance to the point made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). I think his Conservative colleagues agree that that was a UK political decision, and that it was not, perhaps, supported by the generals or the Iraqi Government. Indeed, colleagues of mine who have gone to Iraq and talked to Prime Minister al-Maliki and others get the impression that the Iraqis were never terribly keen on how we behaved at that point. Many people feel that either we should have been all-in and doing the job properly or we should have withdrawn many months ago. That is a consistent position, but I think the UK approach to our troops being there over the past 12 to 24 months has been completely wrong and the worst of all possible worlds.

In respect of the withdrawal, it is quite possible that the security situation will significantly worsen; the ethnic rivalry might escalate. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) rightly warned us about the possibility of Arab-Kurd tensions, as well as of Sunni-Shi’a tensions and, indeed, intra-Shi’a clashes breaking out again. It is also not absolutely clear that the extremists—be they al-Qaeda, some of the Sunni militias or others—will not revive, and that Iran or other states will not try to foment trouble. Tensions are bound to occur when all the displaced families return, too; millions of refugees will come back, and that is bound to cause tensions and, potentially, violence. As I have said, these are the concerns of General Petraeus; they are not simply made up by those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

That is why I would like to ask the Secretary of State the following questions—he did not allow me to intervene on this matter, although he was generous in allowing interventions—and I hope that his ministerial colleague will respond to them at the end of the debate. What assessment have the Government made of the dangers of unrest when the troops are withdrawn? What is the Government’s assessment of the strengths of the militias? From looking at recent history, it is not clear to me that it is the success of either the coalition forces or the Iraqi security forces that has led to the downturn in the violence. It may well be down to strategic political decisions by the militias—particularly the Mahdi army, but also others—not to take to the streets at this moment. I know there is no certainty on this and it is a difficult question to answer, but this is clearly a critical decision for the months ahead, and I hope Ministers can give some indication of the Government’s thinking on it.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): In the context of the uncertain security situation as our troops come home, may I ask Members to remember the families and friends of the five British hostages who have been held in Iraq since May 2007, who do not know when their loved ones are coming home? At this time, the Government must make it a top priority to use every available opportunity and make every possible effort to secure their release.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know that she has been working tirelessly on behalf of the relatives of her constituents who are in Iraq. I hope that Ministers can give her some reassurance later in the debate.

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There are other uncertainties ahead, as well as those on security. There is uncertainty about the fragile state of Iraqi democracy. One hopes that this month’s provincial elections will go well, but what will happen next December with the more important parliamentary elections? Will any Iraqi Government be able to meet either the needs or the expectations of the population? Yes, any such Government will have the oil wealth, which is obviously a great benefit to them, and they will have the strong educational standards of the people of Iraq, but will they be able to recover from the situation they will be taking over? Will the provincial and regional powers all work with the central Government, especially on matters such as oil and ore revenues?

I list these problems for the Secretary of State, not to challenge the case for withdrawal—quite the reverse, in fact—but because the majority of them were entirely predictable before the invasion of 2003. These risks—these storm clouds, as General Petraeus characterised them to Congress—would have been apparent to anyone deciding to intervene in Iraq both from the history of Iraq and from the nature of the appalling regime of Saddam Hussein. The uncertainties and problems we now face were totally predictable, therefore. I concede that the Government and the US forces have tried to minimise these risks. They have put in place a number of measures that we Liberal Democrats argued for, such as the training of security forces and economic development, but although good efforts have been made to minimise the risks, the risks are still there—they are inherent. Although we fervently hope that they can be dealt with and there will be successful outcomes, we must be realistic.

That is crucial in terms of the first months of President-elect Obama’s strategies. I think he will face real pressures within America. I think there are people in the Pentagon who may well want the withdrawal to be rather more phased—indeed, to be conditional on what is happening on the ground. There are certainly some noises coming from the Pentagon to the effect that its assessment is much narrower than the wider political assessment that Obama’s team is making. One can understand that generals are reluctant to cede hard-won territory, especially when in their judgment the Iraqi army may not be ready, but they will have to do so if we are to allow—require, almost—the Iraqi authorities to take responsibility. There are huge dilemmas and risks in that transition, and we need to face up to that in our debates. Liberal Democrats believe that President-elect Obama is right to see that there are more risks in staying on and not withdrawing, but he will need—and deserve—Britain’s support when the going gets tough in Iraq over the coming months. He is right to want to bring the US troops home faster than others in America want, and when the difficulties arise I hope that Members in all parts of this House will give the new President support. The erstwhile coalition’s prime role now should be non-military support, and again I agree with the hon. Member for Woodspring. When a large contingent of our troops has left, we will still have responsibilities and we will still need to support democratic forces in Iraq and the rebuilding of its society and economy.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that President-elect Obama need not worry
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about the support of this House, because for the past six years our policy has been “the American President, right or wrong”?

Mr. Davey: In one way, I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s assessment is right. There are some hon. Members whose support for the Iraq war comes from the neo-conservative ideology that led us into it but who may disagree with his timetable. When Liberal Democrat Members, and some of the nationalist parties, argued for a timetable for withdrawal, we were criticised by the Government and Conservative Members but, unsurprisingly, they have had to come round to our view.

Mr. MacNeil: Something else that we share with Barack Obama is our outright opposition to the Iraq war from the outset, which Labour and Conservative Members did not share.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that intervention. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of that.

We hope that Iraq will have the rosy future that the Secretary of State outlined, but we must be slightly less Panglossian about what is happening in Iraq today. To be fair, the Secretary of State admitted that many people are still dying. Hundreds died last year in bombings carried out not just by terrorists and al-Qaeda but by resistance forces in Iraq. The Americans refer to an irreducible minimum of casualties, and of awaiting a political accommodation, which we hope will happen. We hope that Iraq’s security forces will perform ever more effectively, but the truth is that the security situation is still extremely fragile, and many polls suggest that in four of the main provinces many people believe that the security situation is worse than it was before 2003.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd mentioned the economy and concern about the high level of unemployment. He is absolutely right; it is a huge drain on Iraq’s society and economy. In many ways, this is a bad time for the Iraqi economy to have to get its act together, because of the world downturn. As the price of oil is now much lower, the previous boost no longer exists. We must consider how to support Iraq’s economy.

I take issue with the Secretary of State on the basic utilities in Iraq. Before the war, people in Baghdad enjoyed electricity for 16 or 24 hours a day but, according to the Brookings Institution, they now have it for only 14 hours a day. There is a huge amount of work to do just to get back to pre-war levels of electricity in Baghdad. I am happy to admit that the supply in the rest of the country is now better than before the invasion, but in Baghdad there are still huge problems.

The same applies to other things. There is still a shortage of food in various parts of Iraq, 40 per cent. of the population does not have good access to clean water, and 30 per cent. does not have access to good health services. Before the war, there were more than 34,000 doctors, but 20,000 have left and 2,000 have been murdered. The health service in Iraq today is in an abysmal state. Let us be clear that although withdrawal is right, we will leave a country that is worse off in many ways than when we entered it, and that is before discussing refugees and so on.

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