Previous Section Index Home Page

so he effectively said that the Iraqi police were murderers. Then he said: “The fact that they”—the British Army—

I have asked several questions about that, but let me take a short cut and get to the most recent one. The current Defence Secretary said that it was too difficult


them and that

So much for a nest of vipers—those people were actually the police.

I want to turn to Operation Charge of the Knights, because it has been claimed, including by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who spoke before me, that it was a case of UK cowardice— [ Interruption ]—or rather incompetence. I think that that is a false allegation.

Mr. Holloway: I categorically did not refer to British cowardice in Operation Charge of the Knights—on the contrary, the absolute reverse—on the part of our military transition teams. All I said was that Britain’s involvement, in terms of our command chain, was late. That is all I said.

Harry Cohen: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but that is an implication.

Let me read what Sir Jock Stirrup, the head of our defence forces, said in a speech on 1 December:

14 Jan 2009 : Column 292

including the myth that we

He continued:

Presumably that includes the ones where people were dressed in Arab headdresses or dressed as Muslim clerics. He went on:

That was Sir Jock’s point, but I want to make the point that our whole role has been an interference in the electoral process. There is an electoral dispute, a political one, between al-Maliki’s forces and al-Sadr’s forces, and we have increasingly been on the side of al-Maliki. We have been interfering, and Operation Charge of the Knights was part of that process to try to deliver the election and to defeat al-Sadr. That is not our role. Our British troops should not be dying as a result of interference in the Iraqi political process. I think that that is atrocious. Another point relates to the special forces. Our troops that are going to remain in Iraq will be special forces, again taking action and interfering, I suspect, in the election.

There has also been massive embezzlement. On “Panorama” in June, Jane Corbin’s programme “Daylight Robbery” talked about the $23 billion intended for the reconstruction of Iraq, which was embezzled, overpaid or which simply vanished in the form of $10,000 bundles. My last major quote comes from “Shock Therapy” by Naomi Klein, which really illustrates the robbery involved. She says:

14 Jan 2009 : Column 293

She went on to say:

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Member knows that quotes should be much briefer, but I hope that he will now draw his remarks to a conclusion.

Harry Cohen: I shall do that; the point is made. The oil robbery is another part of it, with UK-US companies having a monopoly, conferring massively advantageous deals to export profits from Iraq for years to come.

I will conclude. There is exhaustion at the killing in Iraq; that is why it has slowed down, but the occupation continues. I think that many of the mercenaries will stay, US forces will certainly stay and even some of our special forces will stay, although most will move on to the next war in Afghanistan or possibly Iran. The opposition in Iraq will, however, continue. People will want their country and their own resources back. It has not been a victory in the sense of getting a decent job done. It has been a defeat and a failure—a country devastated and a people made much poorer, the infrastructure destroyed and resources stolen. Our opponents everywhere have been strengthened by that failure. Iran certainly has. The risk to us has been increased enormously. We need to get out totally.

I come to my final point. Yesterday saw the final press conference of President Bush, who said that

What a swine!

5.41 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I rise briefly and with some trepidation because all this afternoon’s speakers, at least until recently, have been extremely well informed, extremely balanced and extremely intelligent in their approach to what is, after all, a hugely controversial episode in our history and the history of the middle east. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) had some sensible things to say although, sadly, he wrapped them around with some things that were demonstrably incorrect. I particularly regretted the way he allowed his dislike of what happened in Iraq somehow to be transferred to our troops.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 294

The first thing I would say, speaking partly as chairman of the all-party group for the Army, is that no matter what we think of what happened in Iraq—I was one who did not support the invasion in the first place—all in the House should be absolutely resolute in saluting our armed services. They do a job that we would not do under any circumstances; and they do it in circumstances that we cannot even imagine. They are among the most professional in the world. I do not believe that what they do should be called “grandstanding”, to use the hon. Gentleman’s expression; the fact of the matter is that our troops are simply superb. It is right to pay tribute to their efforts in the most horrendous circumstances over the last five years.

Before I forget, I should say that on 23 February this year we will see the return from Iraq of the 7th Armoured Brigade. They will come to the House of Commons under the aegis of the all-party group for the Army, and I hope very much that they will march in to the north door of Westminster Hall, as they did last time round, and that all hon. Members will be there to welcome them back from their duties in Iraq. I hope to continue that movement with other armed services in the future.

In that context, let me pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett in my own constituency who—week in, week out, and often two or three times a week—turn out in their hundreds along the High street to pay tribute to the coffins that are flown back through RAF Lyneham in my constituency. What a superb job the people of Wootton Bassett do. I wish that more people across this nation and across the world paid that sort of tribute to the services that our armed forces give to all of us.

I was not supportive of the original invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was serving as junior shadow Defence Minister under my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who spoke so well a few moments ago. He knows that we differed on that issue and that I moved on—partly as a result of that difference of opinion—to become the shadow Minister with responsibility for rural affairs.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Speaking as someone who voted against the Iraq war, I am familiar with the Conservative Members who did so, and there were not many of them. Is my hon. Friend saying that he voted against the war?

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is, of course, a matter for the record. I did not say that I voted against the war, but it was clever of him to pick it up. It was a three-line Whip, and the Whips persuaded me that unless I was going to resign from the Front Bench, it would not be possible for me to vote against the war. A number of my colleagues who were strongly opposed to it resigned their posts, but I accepted the Queen’s shilling and continued on the Front Bench. However, I did abstain and wrote, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex will confirm, an extremely strongly worded internal memo within the Conservative party seeking to persuade it not to support the Government. My record on that is fairly clear.

However, that is ancient history. I mentioned it to make the point that despite that fundamental opposition to the war, I am one of those who would agree with
14 Jan 2009 : Column 295
most hon. Members who have spoken in saying that getting rid of the vile dictator Saddam Hussein is of course greatly to the benefit both of the people of Iraq and of the people of the world. There is no question about it: the Iraq that we have today is vastly better than the Iraq we had 10 years ago. I am still not convinced that what we did was justifiable under international law, but the end result is much better than the situation we had then. I hope that people will not think that that is a case of winning both sides of the argument. I do not think we had the justification to go in, but none the less my suspicion is that the end result is better than the end result we would have had had we not gone in, if that is not too Irish.

The debate is not about why we went into Iraq; it is about the future strategic relationship with Iraq. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) asked an interesting question of the Secretary of State—namely, are we talking about our military connection with Iraq in the future? If that is the case, it is fairly obvious that we do not have one, with the exception of 300 or 400 advisers, naval and military personnel and so on. I suspect that the purpose of the debate is to consider where we see Iraq coming into our strategy with regard to the rest of the world, and I shall return to that matter.

There are three pitfalls into which we should not allow ourselves to fall, although a number of hon. Members did fall into them. The first pitfall, which the Secretary of State fell into to a degree, is to stand up and say, “Didn’t we do a fine job in Iraq? Job done. Now we must leave.” One of the finest speeches that I have heard, certainly in this debate and for quite a long time in the Chamber, was by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who exploded that easy conclusion. His chronology of the conflict in Iraq over the past five years exploded the notion that what we did was right, that it was a brilliant campaign for five years, and that we can now pat ourselves on the back and say, “Job well done. Now we can leave Iraq. Thank goodness for that.” That notion is entirely wrong. It is not a job well done. An awful lot of fundamental mistakes have been made, and some of the things that we are leaving behind in Iraq are significantly worse than they would have been had we handled events differently. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and hope that if people read nothing else from this debate, they read his speech, which is worthy of a wider audience. It summed up the problems going forward in Iraq.

Mr. Bacon: I share my hon. Friend’s admiration for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said he thought that things were undoubtedly better in Iraq as a result of the military intervention. Does he think that they are better for women, or worse? Does he think that they are better for Christians, or worse?

Mr. Gray: I know that my hon. Friend has had important engagements elsewhere and has unfortunately not had the opportunity to be in the Chamber for the whole debate. I am glad that I have given him the chance to intervene on me twice even though he has not been here.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 296

The situation of women and Christians has been extensively covered in the debate. My answer to my hon. Friend is yes, the lot of women and Christians in Iraq is vastly better than it was for dozens of years under that vile dictator Saddam Hussein. If my hon. Friend is implying that the lot of women and Christians is worse today, I challenge him to support his allegation. It is simply not true. Of course the lot of women and Christians, and that of most Iraqis, is vastly better under the present regime than it was under Saddam Hussein.

The second pitfall into which we should avoid falling, and one or two hon. Members moved gently in this direction, is to say that all these things are fog of war—that why we went into Iraq in the first place is ancient history; and that some of the things mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham just happen, that we should not spend too much time on them and that we must move on. I do not believe that that is correct.

I believe that the five or six years of the run-up to the conflict in Iraq and the conflict itself are an enormously significant part of our civilisation and history. I think it important for us to analyse what we did and especially what we did not do, partly because we risk doing something similar in Afghanistan and elsewhere—possibly in Pakistan. Who knows? We should analyse extremely carefully what we did not do, paying particular attention to the lack of a reconstruction plan when we went into Iraq in 2003, and we should do so in public. There should be a full public inquiry as soon as possible.

The Government seem to be hiding behind the notion that it is not possible to hold an inquiry while the troops are still in Iraq. They did not adopt that stance in relation to the hugely expensive and detailed inquiry into Bloody Sunday: although our troops were still very much deployed in Northern Ireland, they decided to proceed with it. We are now committed to removing our troops from Iraq by the summer, and I hope that the Government will move extremely speedily to ensure that a detailed analysis takes place—before the House rises for the summer recess, at the very least—of exactly what happened in Iraq, and how we have handled the situation since then.

As for the third pitfall, we should avoid the temptation to breathe a sigh of relief, something I have detected in some of the Government’s public pronouncements in particular. People have been saying, in a vague way, “Whew! Thank goodness that is all over. Now we can move forward. We may have to deal with Afghanistan, of course, but Iraq is under control. We are worried about Gaza and the Palestinians, but, although we had an awful time in Iraq, that is now dealt with. It’s over and finished.” That strikes me as a fundamental mistake. There are still huge elements of terrorism in Iraq: at this moment, terrorist networks of all kinds are developing and growing there. The country remains one of the conduits through which a large part of the drugs trade enters the west, and where there are drugs there is an enormous amount of money and criminal activity.

The notion that Iraq represents a job done and we can now take it easy is extremely foolish. It is some 80 or 100 years since Churchill concluded that the Mesopotamian question was unanswerable, and it is as unanswerable today as it was then. If we ignore the place—if we turn our back on it and say, “That’s that; let’s move on to
14 Jan 2009 : Column 297
something else”—we shall be asking for trouble, and Iraq could become the kind of place that it was before and under Saddam.

Iraq is enormously important to us strategically. On one side is Iran, with Afghanistan beyond it; Pakistan and India are currently looking at each other across their nuclear buttons; there is currently Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza; and Iraq stands in the middle of all that. We hope that it is beginning to look like a reasonably stable, reasonably sensible nation, for we desperately need a stable Iraqi regime in the middle of the huge inferno which may erupt across the middle east, but we can achieve that only if from now on we provide in spades the diplomatic, political, economic and commercial support that we have been discussing.

We must support Iraq in ways we support almost no other nation in the world for many years to come. Only if we do that can we hope to allow the professional classes to run their country again. After all, Iraq has always been a very professional nation, containing a group of competent, professional, intelligent people who have not been allowed to do their jobs for many years. If we provide the commercial, diplomatic and political support that they need, Iraq will stand some chance of becoming a stable, sensible, liberal democracy in the middle of a troubled region.

I believe that at this moment, as we withdraw militarily from Iraq, we have an opportunity to hand the place over to the Iraqis in a sensible, democratic and supportive way. It is a superb opportunity, and we must not let it slip through our grasp.

Next Section Index Home Page