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5.54 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, and may I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on our concerns about the absence of an inquiry? I agree with him that the reasons for an inquiry were illustrated with great enthusiasm and in great detail by my hon.—and gallant—Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). If anyone reads the Hansard record of this debate, they will find that his contribution provides a fantastically good chronology of all the key issues—which, incidentally, were not covered by the Prime Minister in his statement in December, and which certainly were not touched upon in the Secretary of State’s opening remarks. My hon. Friend explained precisely why we need to go into detail and understand a little more about what has been happening in respect of our military and various Whitehall Departments in Iraq over the past five or six years.

This debate is a poor substitute for a full inquiry into the Iraq war—a war that has cost us £7 billion and almost 200 British lives. I agree with those Members who said that we were very pleased with the situation in Iraq now, but the big question is why has it taken us so long to get to this position where we can almost pause and take stock and say, “We are pleased with where Iraq has got to”? We could have been in this position much earlier if we had gone into Iraq with more of a plan than we had in March 2003. It is hard for me to say this, as I am one of the service personnel who has served in a number of operational environments and was part of the regiment that retreated from Basra palace to the airport, but in my view Britain has been humiliated by operations in Iraq. Not since Suez should we hang our
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heads in such shame, and scratch our heads and ask what went wrong. This is a political failure, not a military one, however. We cut our troop numbers too fast, we reconstructed too slowly and we eventually lost control completely.

As we have heard, we had responsibility for Basra and the surrounding regions in southern Iraq: Operation Telic and the Multi-National Division (South-East). Basra should have been an easy area for us to take control of and to start to develop once the initial level of security was maintained. The area was no friend of Saddam because of its isolation after the uprisings following Operation Desert Storm. There was euphoria when Saddam was toppled, but that was short-lived and security became very fragile until it eventually disappeared completely and was replaced by a vacuum. That is why I was astonished to hear the Secretary of State say in his opening remarks how pleased he was that we had extinguished al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was not there in the first place; for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Well done,” is completely wrong, because we allowed it to step in and take advantage of the absence of any security in the first place.

Of course, when there is no plan, individuals take it upon themselves to rule themselves. Looting began, petty crime increased, gangs formed and eventually the enemy, including al-Qaeda, was able to reorganise and move into Iraq as a whole. Eventually, these gangs formed into militias, mostly according to ethnic groupings, and that led to the formation of the great Mahdi army.

We should listen to some of the voices on such matters. General Sir Michael Jackson has been quoted many times in this House. He made it very clear that

All of us should pay tribute to that operation and the skill and brilliance of our troops. However, he then goes on to say that there was a fundamental

When I spoke to some Department for International Development civil servants, I was astonished to hear that in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a message went round from the then Secretary of State for International Development telling all directors not to do any planning whatever because they were not even sure whether the war was legal. This was at the same time as the Ministry of Defence was moving in up to 40,000 troops—many of whom were already in the theatre of operations in any case—so clearly there was not any thought about what to do once our military had moved into position.

The Ministry of Defence has recently produced a thick glossy document “UK Defence”, which goes through all aspects of our military campaigns. Page 70, which refers to Operation Telic five years on, states:

The former Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have both said that mistakes were made in British conduct in the aftermath of the initial fighting. That shows how important it is to have an inquiry. Five years on, we can see what our armed forces have been doing.
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Until recently, they were involved in intense fire fights, benign patrolling and low-key reconstruction projects, funded mostly by the United States, not the British.

There have been important successes. There has been a referendum on the new constitution and there have been subsequent elections. Most importantly, we have avoided civil war, which I was concerned about. I say that with caution, because, as I said earlier in an intervention, regional elections have been deliberately delayed by the central Iraqi Government because of worry about where they might lead if people vote for ethnic alliances, with polarisation of the electorate, perhaps leading to more instability and then conflict. That is a concern, and we must monitor the situation very carefully.

Those huge failures all point to Great Britain’s inability to conduct post-conflict operations, and Whitehall’s lack of organisational ability to deal with the cross-over between political and military situations. It was sad to hear the Defence Secretary paint such a rosy and positive picture of our retreat from Iraq. It is not positive, and there is huge frustration in the military that the job could have been done so much better had there been more support from Whitehall. The euphoria of 7th Armoured Brigade when it went into Basra back in March 2003 disappeared after the summer of 2007 with the withdrawal from Basra palace to the airport by my regiment, the 4th Battalion The Rifles. That has been discussed again and again in this debate.

Prime Minister al-Maliki said of the withdrawal from Basra palace to the airport that

Whose decision was it to make that retreat? It was probably a wise decision at the time because, by then, we had become part of the problem. If it was the right call, as the Government say, why was it necessary to have the huge operation—the Charge of the Knights—in March 2008, to which reference has been made repeatedly during the debate?

Basra is controlled not by Britain, but by the Iranian-backed militia. Without sufficient forces and political will, the UK was sidelined. Three thousand US marines took part in the operation, and Britain played catch-up. I am sorry that we have been almost misled in the House and that our role in that operation has been built up. We did not do ourselves justice. We were late in becoming involved in the battle, and it was the US—with, I believe, the 14th Iraqi Division—who supported the Iraqi 10th Division. Prime Minister al-Maliki referred to that in his statement. It was misleading for the House to be given the impression that things were going so well, and it is sad that the Defence Secretary has not provided a more accurate picture.

Given that we try so hard to sit at the world’s top table and given all our nuclear weapons, a place on the Security Council and a century of war-fighting experience, it is amazing that we could not even hold a medium-sized conurbation. Right now, we are huddled in Basra airport in an overwatch role. During my long time in the armed forces, I never heard what an overwatch role is. I am afraid that our prestige has been damaged, and we have been replaced not by Iraqi soldiers, but by US soldiers. They are now training the police, mentoring the border
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guards and teaming up with the Iraqi army. We cannot say that our job is complete when we are not handing over to the people we went to Iraq to help in the first place.

That prompts the question of what our objective is. Is it to deploy troops to southern Iraq and spend £7 billion only to hand over to the US forces? That cannot be right. How can the Prime Minister dare to say that our task in Iraq has been achieved? As I have said, how can we congratulate ourselves on removing al-Qaeda from Iraq when it was not there in the first place?

I have made the case for a full inquiry and I believe that that case has never been more convincing. Serious questions remain, in my view, about the interpretation of the intelligence that justified the invasion in the first place. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham talked about how plans were being considered before and during 2002 before troops went anywhere near Kuwait or the surrounding countries. In fact, I can tell him that General Franks, who was in charge of US Central Command at the time, received a call from President Bush, through Rumsfeld, in November 2001, just after the invasion of Afghanistan, to say, “Please can you look at your invasion plans for Iraq?” That was in November 2001. It was the first call I saw in which the invasion of that country was being considered.

The UK’s clear failure to manage the peace is very worrying, as is the absence of a UK plan for reconstruction and of coherent leadership from Whitehall. In 2003, following the invasion, we had no plan, no strategy and no idea. We did not know how to harness the euphoria after the fall of Saddam and to sow the seeds of governance. Without a plan, nothing really happens, and we went from being liberators to being occupiers. Where was the army of civil servants, linguists, engineers, planners, trainers and local governance experts? Where were the people who could come in behind the British military, start dealing with all those issues and start nation building?

We have heard about the importance of Umm Qasr, the deep water port. Why was not energy put into getting that port working? We are talking about it now, but it should have happened in the important first 100 days, when hostilities had ceased. Likewise, the bridge that is now being planned over the Shatt al-Arab waterway should have been built straight away. Those high-profile events would have shown the locals that we meant business and wanted to help them, and we would have been seen not as occupiers but as liberators.

We did not harness local talents. The fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan was the wealth of experience and talent in the country in the first place, which was completely ignored. It goes back to the most fundamental schoolboy error of the war, made by either Jerry Bremer or Bush, which was the dissolution of the Iraqi army on 23 May 2003 and, just a week before, the outlawing of membership of the Ba’ath party. That immediately alienated 40,000 teachers and as many nurses and doctors who had no choice but to participate in the party, because it was the only way in which they could move forward. Why did not Britain oppose that decision? Why did Britain not question the logic of getting rid of the basic army and having to start all over again?

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There are many lessons to be learned from Iraq that could prevent the mistakes from being repeated in Afghanistan. Our failure to take advantage of the fragile umbrella of security, to win over hearts and minds and to push forward development has resulted in Afghanistan in a second surge taking place in Helmand province, involving 20,000 troops in an area for which we are supposed to have responsibility.

There are many lessons to be learned about the entire process of what has been called the “awakening”, involving the funding of militias in Anbar province. That has not really been done in modern warfare and modern development and the jury is out about whether it works. Yet again, there are lessons to be learned. The same sort of initiatives are being considered by General Petraeus for Afghanistan, but all those opportunities are being lost because we have not learned from the discussion resulting from a proper inquiry.

We do not have proper stabilisation capability—such a thing is absent from the British mindset. We need to take a thorough look at the relationship between the MOD and DFID. At present, DFID spending, over all operations, is just 1 per cent. of military spending. That is completely wrong if we are to win over hearts and minds in the crucial 100-day period to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) referred. As I think he said, DFID does not do danger, but it does some things very well indeed, such as tackling poverty. There has been a revolution in military warfare—from a cold war to a counter-insurgency stance—but we have not seen the same revolution in reconstruction and development. Britain is behind in that area, which is why I propose that we move a slice of money from DFID’s £5.6 billion budget to the MOD and create a new stabilisation force of brigade capability that is able to start doing important reconstruction tasks in that initial two or three-month period. When things have been seen to move forward, the force could hand over to contractors, non-governmental organisations and the DFIDs and USAIDs of this world. Until that happens, there will be vacuums in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We regularly pay tribute to the commitment and professionalism of our armed forces and the sacrifice they make for our country, but in the long history of our military engagements Iraq was far from our finest hour. That was no fault of our armed forces; blame is firmly on the shoulders of Whitehall, which failed to plan for peace. Consequently, the UK’s reputation as a reliable and competent country, willing to step forward when others are unable or unwilling to do so, has suffered. An inquiry into the war in Iraq will show that the fault was not in the way our military fought the war, but the incompetence of the Government in managing the peace. For that reason, the Government continue to find excuses to delay that important review of what went wrong. It is no wonder that we are repeating many of the same mistakes in Afghanistan. It is shameful that the Government do not take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge the shortfall in Britain’s post-conflict capability.

6.12 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Whatever our discussions about how affairs in Iraq have progressed, it is important—as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has said—that the message is sent
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that we give our heartfelt thanks to the Army and the families for all their sacrifices serving our country and for trying their best to serve the people of Iraq. I was struck by the hon. Gentleman’s speech and by those of the hon. Members for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in terms of their frank and direct analysis of the unfortunate debacle that has been Iraq.

It is important for us to look forward, however, at how the strategic interests of the UK and our strategic relationship with Iraq can progress in the interests of all. It is certainly a pleasure for me to speak after so many Members who have real expertise on the ground in Iraq. My particular interest is that there is a large Kurdish community in my constituency and recently, unfortunately, Christian refugees from Iraq have come to Croydon.

Our current departure from Iraq is not the first time we have left the region with many issues unresolved and with difficult choices facing the Government as to how such issues can be pursued in the interests of all. We all know that there is continuing unhappiness about the promises made by our Government, and indeed by the League of Nations, to Assyrians and Kurds, as a result of the settlements after the first world war.

Perhaps we can take some confidence from the fact that our country’s involvement in both the first Iraqi conflict in the 1990s, and the more recent Iraqi conflict, has left Kurdish areas with a strong sense of autonomy. It was perhaps the sensible and wise decision of John Major and our allies to impose a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas that has allowed that area relative prosperity and autonomy. I have, over the years, enjoyed meeting members of the Kurdish Parliament who have visited the UK. It will be interesting to hear what expectations the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), has for the continuing relative autonomy of that area when we and the Americans have left.

I know that the Minister is concerned about the issue of Christian minorities in Iraq, and that he met a number of representatives from Christian communities just before Lord Alton held a meeting in the House of Lords on the subject. I attended Lord Alton’s meeting. It is interesting, historically, that Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken in northern Iraq. Disturbingly, 150,000 Christian refugees find themselves outside Iraq after the many murders and pogroms that took place last autumn. In the context of the strategic progression of our relationship with Iraq, I would be interested to hear what possible solutions the Minister sees to that continuing problem.

It is not fashionable to express concern about the persecution of Christian minorities, but this is a real, serious concern, and I know that the Government take it seriously. It strikes me that there are three options to pursue, all of which may be difficult for the Government to face. The first is to take the approach that was taken towards the Ugandan Asians—that is, to take the view that we should be far more liberal in allowing Christian refugees to leave the middle east and come to the United Kingdom. Another approach is to be realistic and take the view that the Kurdistan regional government has a role in protecting any Christians who might choose to return. In reality, probably half the Christian population of northern Iraq has now left the country.
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There are also those Christian communities that left northern Iraq in the 1980s. The situation depends on our ability to influence the Iraqi Government, either by ourselves or through the Americans, to give proper reassurance that land that was taken from those groups in the 1980s will be returned.

There are a number of other minorities. One group in particular, in northern Iraq, also needs consideration—the Mandaeans, 80 per cent. of whom have already left Iraq. Clearly, consideration needs to be given to them. Another minority that has suffered greatly in Iraq for a number of decades is the Faili Kurds, who come from south and central Iraq. They were forced by Saddam Hussein to march in front of the front line during the conflict with Iran, even though they were enemies of the state. They were slaughtered by Iranian fire—it is a very sad story. Perhaps, as we depart from Iraq, we can find a solution that allows their return to Kurdistan.

Important issues have been raised in this debate, and I know that the Minister will find it hard to answer the many questions that have been posed. It would be interesting to know what the Government think will happen when our American allies also leave. What is the risk of civil war? What can we do in the short and medium term to influence the American Government to influence the Government in Baghdad to deal with the concerns raised in the debate by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence? The shadow Secretary of State expressed his concern that the upcoming local elections could be abused and freedom could be restricted by direction from central Government.

We have an interest in continuing stability in northern Iraq and in Kurdistan. I know that it is not appropriate ever to give consideration to the creation of Kurdistan, even though that was an undertaking given by UK Governments at the beginning of the 20th century. It would be interesting to hear the Government’s approach to continuing Turkish incursions into northern Iraq after the withdrawal of our troops and those of our allies from Iraq.

Compared with all those concerns, business issues do not seem so important, but trade and prosperity ensure that peace can be more easily maintained in an area that will continue to suffer great instability. It is important to note that because of the relative autonomy of Kurdistan or Kurdish Iraq, despite all the recent troubles in Mosul and Kirkuk, there is greater prosperity there. Because the Kurds have had to live under many different regimes, countries and empires over the years, they are very good as a trading nation. I hope that the Government will continue to support the interests there.

As the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, Iraq could and should be one of the richest countries in the world. It is, after all, the very cradle of modern civilisation. Let us hope that despite the debacles, the Government’s good efforts to tackle the difficult issues that remain will deal effectively with the concerns raised by many hon. Members in the debate today.

6.22 pm

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