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4.15 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). I am pleased to say that he was as excellent as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee as he is now, and he is of course much missed. We have heard some excellent contributions today. Both Front-Bench teams presented to the House a commonality of sentiment and a drive to persuade us that although we have achieved much so far, there is much more to achieve, and that we can do that and support it whenever the Iraqis should request it. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Both engaged the attention of the House and both were compassionate. They drove the idea that much has been achieved, and that there is much more to do.

For me, this is one of the most important debates that the House will enjoy—I hope that “enjoy” is the correct word to use. We are talking about Britain’s future relationship with Iraq. Iraq could choose not to have a future strategic relationship with Britain, but we are all fairly clear, if not very clear, that it does wish to have such a relationship. In speaking about that relationship, I wish to concentrate on the central role that the British armed forces have played in Iraq over the past five years.

Before I begin that part of my speech, however, I hope that the House will tolerate my saying that, in 2003, I was very enthusiastic that we would deploy effectively in Iraq with the US and all other friends. I was confident and enthusiastic that we would get rid of a tyrant, that we would end up unshackling the Iraqis, that they would be pleased and purposeful and that they would soon see their way to establishing an institutional civil life that would be peaceful and secure. I believed that all that was possible. I am really sad to have to stand here today and say that, in large part, the Iraqis have suffered an awful time over the past five years. That is not just because of the sectarian hatred, the suicide bombers and the constant insurgency; it is because
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we have watched Iraqi against Iraqi, shockingly perpetrating the most appalling loss of life among children and the elderly, with their indiscriminate action against innocent people.

The assessment that I made was wrong. I am totally miserable that it should have been so wrong, but I am pleased that we are now beginning to see real signs of stability: a sovereign Government; the rule of law; the freedom of the press; and people feeling that they can be involved in their country and wanting to take up the responsibilities of being involved. The birth of Iraq’s democratic state has been a journey, and it has seemed at times to be a very long one. It has been a journey of hope, then of tragedy, involving a savage disregard for human life, and now of hope again. This afternoon, I want to celebrate the deployment of the British armed forces in Iraq, and to look forward to their withdrawal. I am absolutely of the belief that the Iraqis, the British armed forces and the coalition have faced significant challenges, but they have also delivered significant achievements.

I have over a period watched and read the words of the Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup, and those of General Sir Mike Jackson, while I have read the clear and careful analysis expressed in Defence Select Committee reports, particularly the June 2008 report on “UK operations in Iraq and the Gulf”. That, along with all the other statements made by people in serious commanding roles within the armed forces, has persuaded us that, in their different ways, the armed forces have defined a significant change in Iraq—a change for the good. I acknowledge, as the chiefs have said, that now is probably the time for the armed forces to leave Iraq in the competent hands of the Iraqis.

From all that I have read, I believe that General Sir Mike Jackson has put forward the most convincing argument that the UK military’s role is complete. He has made it clear on a number of occasions that there are still problems and conflicts but that they are non-military, so it is time that non-military Iraqi involvement became a fundamental part of the resolution. In exposition of current conflicts, he points to the fact that there are invariably conflicts between groups and between different parts of the Muslim world; in all honesty, I, too, believe implicitly that conflicts are inevitable. Frankly, the only way to resolve inter-group conflicts is through political institutions.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Ms Taylor: Before I give way, let me finish clarifying what General Sir Mike Jackson said, as he issued the statement that the military’s and the soldier’s job was done and it was time for civil and political action to take over.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for quoting General Jackson who was, of course, responsible for the British Army at the time of the invasion. He went on, however, to be very critical of the Government, saying that there was no proper reconstruction plan. That is a matter of huge concern on this side of the House and it explains why we want to see an inquiry, as it was precisely the absence of a plan that left our forces exposed. We are congratulating ourselves in today’s debate on how wonderful Iraq is, but we should have been able to have such a debate perhaps two, three or four years earlier.

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Ms Taylor: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know that I am bound to say that if we could all read a crystal ball, we might all have understood what the insurgency and the suicide bombings were actually going to throw at us. We might have made a much clearer assessment of al-Qaeda’s involvement; we might have done—

Mr. Ellwood: Al-Qaeda was not there.

Ms Taylor: No. The hon. Gentleman implies from a sedentary position that such an assessment had been made. Let me say to him quite frankly that I do not believe that that was the case. There was a debate in this House about the position there. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should agree to disagree for the moment.

Mr. Ellwood: I appreciate that I am testing the hon. Lady’s patience, but this is a fundamental point. She says that al-Qaeda became a problem, but it was the absence of a plan that allowed al-Qaeda to take advantage of the security vacuum that was then created. If we had had a plan, which would have involved the Department for International Development—DFID is the problem here because of the lack of Whitehall co-ordination between the two Departments—we could have gone into the country, taking advantage of the fragile umbrella of security that we had created, to build reconstruction and development. If we had done that, al-Qaeda would not have been allowed to step in. It was not in the country before March 2003.

Ms Taylor: The hon. Gentleman and I will have to agree to disagree on that.

I want to take the House one stage further and reference the statements made by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. He has made many calculations about the competence of Iraq’s army and police force to deliver a secure Iraq in which all civil society can survive. Again, some of his words are quite clear. Although he thanks the British troops for the role that they have played, he goes on to say that their continued stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control. That gives me a tremendous amount of confidence. This is a man who for years has watched, worked with and relied on the support of the coalition team, in particular the British armed forces in Basra. What he then says takes us to the point of acknowledging what our future strategic relationship could be about. He qualifies his statement that Iraq may need UK forces because of their experience in training and their technical knowledge by saying that as a fighting force, their job is done. I hope that that will be part of how the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps DFID, will see the way the British armed forces can continue to have a positive relationship, on Iraqi terms, with the Iraqi Government.

I am not saying that all is achieved; I am simply making the argument that our British Army has faced significant challenges and has made significant advances. I am confident that we are seeing for the first time a trusted system of law and order developing. Yes, the development is cautious, but it is happening. Without the British deployment, it would not exist. To argue otherwise is nonsense. We want a competent police force in Iraq, but we know that the Iraqi Prime Minister is more than prepared to bring British forces, including police forces, back into Iraq to support any future
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development or need. All that suggests that we are seeing the institutional development in all parts of Iraq that is capable of developing a stable and peaceful country.

I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that women are clearly valued and seen as part of the whole system. Many hon. Members would expect me to make that statement, and they would certainly expect my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley to do so. It is easy for us to acknowledge the strategic value of the armed forces, the police and the rule of law. All those elements are crucial; they are part of an institutional delivery. However, the absolute fact is that too often too many people give women a specific role that is outside civil society. Frankly, it is a wrong that undermines an effective force.

The United Nations once made the statement that when we persuaded the mother in the family, we persuaded the family. That family is part of the community, and that community delivers. It is crucial that we celebrate the Iraqis’ vision to allow women to be a 25 per cent. part of local government at this stage. We must congratulate them on that. There is a future relationship to be built there. I will not repeat it. My right hon. Friend has made clear statements about how she is developing a relationship with Iraqi women, and many in the House would support the development of that relationship.

The Select Committee report makes other observations about where the British armed forces and DFID have been seen to deliver effective and valued training and mentoring. It mentions the MiTTs, the military transition teams, which have worked alongside Iraqis in training and mentoring. A very effective relationship has developed, based on both trust and competence, which I believe will continue in the future. The report also mentions the value of the provincial reconstruction team. Working with the provincial government, it has assessed and prioritised existing Iraqi funds with the aim of implementing good policy and achieving good governance, and I hope and believe that that too will continue.

Many Members have referred to Iraq’s economy and the serious concerns that people rightly have about it. We know that unemployment rates as high as 90 per cent. have been recorded in Basra, but we also know that the economic development team’s main aim has been to achieve lower unemployment, and to meet overriding priorities that will enable the economy to develop. It is crucial for the provincial reconstruction team to be seen to have a future and a strategic role.

I believe that mistakes have been made over the past five years and that there have been serious misunderstandings. I, and perhaps others, did not anticipate the level of insurgency. I was mortified to observe the lack of control in prisons: Iraqi prisoners, at the time and subsequently, have made serious allegations of abuse, and many of us witnessed much of that abuse on television. A significant number of people have been killed, including many of our own armed forces, and many more have been left wounded. At times, there has been considerable political and military friction within the coalition, which, although it was ultimately resolved, was seriously distracting.

Having said all that, however, I believe that the achievement in Iraq over the last five years has been considerable. I do not mean just the provision of water and electricity, and I do not mean just the way we have
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worked to achieve an effective police force—which we will continue to support—and an effective army. We have achieved considerable change, and people feel that they know the benefits of freedom.

Soldiers from my constituency return and tell me that some of the best moments for them have been experienced on the football field. Instead of playing with a rolled-up piece of rag, children were playing with the footballs that had been produced, and goalposts had been erected. According to the soldiers, the children were small and many looked as though they needed a good meal, but they were tenacious on the football field and invariably won their games.

Sometimes we gain more through the way in which we involve ourselves and form relationships, and the British armed forces have delivered and developed relationships in a very valuable way. The friendship and respect that have developed between the two countries in so many different ways will be invaluable to future strategic relationships. Let me leave the final words to Sir Mike Jackson who, although he has made serious criticisms about the way we deploy, has also been very complimentary. In December 2008, in a statement to us all, he said that conflict between groups was a political phenomenon that could only be solved politically. The soldiers’ job was done. They had created the conditions for political solutions. Iraqi civil society was now in the hands of Iraqis. Hopefully, a British Government will always continue to support them.

4.35 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): While listening to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I am afraid that I reflected that there were voices—informed people—who warned about the vacuum that existed immediately after the invasion. I myself prepared a paper for the shadow Cabinet at the time saying that all the ingredients for an insurgency war were in place. I had meetings with the Secretary of State at the time about it, and I remain grieved that nothing was done. When I complained on the Floor of the House that we were withdrawing our troops too quickly and that they were overstretched, I was accused of nitpicking. I did not need a crystal ball; many experienced military and other figures warned about the consequences of the vacuum that we had left, and I wish to address that in my comments.

I remain convinced, as I was in 2003, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was the correct course of action. As history will record, the new Iraq that is at last emerging from the turmoil of the past six years demonstrates that the decision we took alongside the United States—and which was supported by almost 40 other nations—was the right one. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen have performed in Iraq with exemplary courage, skill and determination, and I salute them and honour those who have fallen and those who still suffer from their injuries.

The failures in strategic planning for the aftermath of the war meant, however, that the struggle in Iraq has been much more prolonged and bloody than it needed to be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) pointed out. British politicians and officials cannot escape their share of the blame for this. The failure in post-conflict planning, coupled with the fact that the Department for International Development
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is simply not engineered to cope with post-conflict reconstruction, meant that we wasted the vital first 100 days of hope after the invasion—that is the limited window that exists in a post-conflict situation. We should have been able to prove to the Iraqi people that the removal of Saddam Hussein would lead to improvements in their lives, but, tragically, we and the Americans missed that window. The lack in our case—in Regional Command (South)—of a single campaign plan and a single integrated command across the British military and civilian effort was fatal in that respect. That is of even greater relevance to our current difficulties in Afghanistan, and it is the need to learn the lessons from these mistakes, and to learn them quickly, that makes the case for a full public inquiry into Iraq so compelling.

Unfortunately, when we consider the future strategic relationship between the United Kingdom and Iraq, we are left to ponder what might have been. The excellent mentoring role played by our armed forces in the south of Iraq, which Defence Committee members witnessed when we visited this year, last year and in previous years, could have created a platform for a sustainable and productive mil-mil—military on military—relationship between the British and Iraqi armies, and could have led to the kind of strategic relationship that our country has developed with, for instance, Oman.

Thanks to its oilfields, southern Iraq is likely to develop into one of the richest areas in the region, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) pointed out. The UK has expended a great deal of blood and treasure in trying to ensure that sustainable and prosperous future for the south of Iraq, and yet at the very moment that one might actually call victory, the Government seem determined to snatch defeat from its jaws by withdrawing precipitately and leaving the long-term benefits of a strategic relationship entirely to the Americans. Our withdrawal would be understandable if our mission were truly accomplished, as the Government claim—after all, Iraq is for the Iraqis and we have no strategic interest in maintaining security with our own troops in Basra indefinitely—but the awkward fact for the Government is that the moment the Union flag is lowered over the Basra air base, the stars and stripes will be hoisted in its place. Far from our mission being over, the Americans will have to fill the gaps left by our departure.

The manner of our withdrawal is symptomatic of the Government’s dual failure in Iraq: it is both a tactical and a strategic defeat. The failure was caused not by any lack of skill or courage on the part of our armed forces, but by a collapse of political courage on the part of the Government, and the inability of Ministers ever to come to terms with the size of the job that they had asked our soldiers to undertake.

Patrick Mercer: Does my hon. Friend agree that the filling of British commitments by United States forces probably dates back to that best-kept secret of the Iraq campaign, the so-called Najaf gap of 2006, when the previous Prime Minister promised to fill the gap left by the withdrawing Spanish garrison, but never fulfilled that promise?

Mr. Jenkin: I do not know what discussions took place between the British and American Governments about that. I have no doubt that the promise was made,
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and I have no doubt that it was broken with the understanding of the Americans because it coincided with the commencement of our operations in Helmand province. My hon. Friend is right to point out another example of how we always promised more than we could deliver. At the heart of those failures was the fact that Ministers, and perhaps civil servants, never truly understood the nature of military tasking and the consequent burden that the armed forces would have to bear to follow through our commitments.

From Operation Telic 2 onwards, the number of British troops in multinational zone south was never sufficient for the task in hand. By May 2004, a year after the invasion, there were just 8,600 British troops in Iraq, compared with 18,000 a year before and 46,000 at the time of the invasion in March 2003. Even at those reduced levels in 2004-05, before the deployment to Helmand, our armed forces were still operating beyond the defence planning assumption set out in the 1998 strategic defence review. At the heart of the problem was the fact that the Government insisted that the budget for the armed forces was sufficient, although it was planned as a peacetime budget and we were fighting a considerable war.

Our armed forces, as the Government had configured them in the 1998 strategic defence review, were not large enough for the task that the Government required of them in Iraq, and the situation deteriorated when we deployed in Helmand in 2006. As the need for more troops in the politically “good” war in Afghanistan grew ever more urgent, the so-called “bad” war in Iraq became ever more embarrassing for the Government, and the number of troops in Operation Telic dwindled further to 7,200 in May 2006 and to just 5,500 in May 2007, shortly before the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, left office. That was one year before Operation Charge of the Knights.

It might have been assumed that the steady reduction in the number of the British forces occurred because the situation in Iraq was improving, but everyone in the House knows that 2006 and 2007 were the bloodiest years of the war. In the 21 months from the beginning of 2006 to the withdrawal from Basra palace in September 2007, British forces suffered 64 combat deaths, just under half of the 136 combat deaths sustained during the six years since operations began in 2003. Faced with an intensifying insurgency campaign in southern Iraq, the Government simply failed to provide the men and equipment necessary to have a chance of defeating the militants. Indeed, in late 2007, the Prime Minister came to the House and announced that there would be a further troop reduction in the following spring to below the 5,000 level that the Select Committee on Defence had been briefed was the bare minimum.

Let us take a step back for a moment. Originally, Mr. Blair, when Prime Minister, was determined to hang on in Iraq to preserve our strategic relationship with the Americans, but I shall argue that our failure to provide the necessary military capacity has ended in materially damaging the very relationship that he most wanted to maintain.

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