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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he has been instrumental in making sure that some of these documents come to public attention. It is when we take together the mixture of freedom of information items that have come out into the public domainas well as freedom of information decisions that have been overturned by the Justice Secretary in respect of Cabinet minutesand all the memoirs and other statements
that have been written by so many people, that we see that it is important to look at these matters in the round, and for an inquiry to be able to consider them together.
Mr. Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Dardenelles. Given the comments made by very senior members of the military, does he believe there is a case for an admiral or a general to serve on the inquiry?
Mr. Hague: Yes, I think there probably is a good case for that. Provided that they are respected for independent judgment, their being able to bring military expertise would be a very valuable asset. That is all for consideration, however, and what we should be deciding today is that such an inquiry should be established.
I repeat today that if no inquiry is established by the time of the next general election, one of the first acts of a new Government will be to establish one. Additionally, I wish to make it clear to the Foreign Secretary that if an inquiry is established that is merely a review, or that has inadequate scope and powers to carry out the necessary tasks, and it is still continuing its work beyond the next general election, an incoming Conservative Government will reserve the right to widen its scope and increase its powers as may be necessary. Ministers may delay in an effort to reduce the force and relevance of what they know must come, but in the end we will learn the necessary lessons, and we will learn from what went wrong in the functioning of the machinery of government itself.
There is an utter determination in most quarters of this House that we will get to the heart of these matters and that the processes and functioning of governmentand maybe of Parliamentwill be improved as a result. It can only be to the discredit of current Ministers that they have no wish to see such learning and improvement commence, even though they have now run out of reasons for that not to commence. The House of Commons would be doing them a favour if it pushed them today into the right, necessary and complete course of action, and it would be doing what is right for this country as well.
notes the Resolutions of this House of 31 October 2006, 11 June 2007 and 25 March 2008 on an Iraq inquiry; recognises the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq who have a continuing role which this House should be careful not to undermine; further recognises that a time will come when an inquiry is appropriate, but declines to make a proposal for a further inquiry at this time, whilst important operations are underway in Iraq to support the people and government of Iraq.
I have recently had the privilege of meeting some of our troops and their commanders in Basra. Their dedication to duty, their commitment and comradeship and, above all, their immense bravery should be an inspiration to us all, and is a credit to the country. Whatever the divisions of this debate, nothing shouldor will, I am suredivide us from saluting them together for the way in which they have carried out their tasks in Iraq.
This Government amendment makes the same point as the Government amendment that the House supported at this time last year. The reason is simple: the situation in Iraq has changed, in the main for the better, since the debate last yearI will set that outbut the number of British troops, and their role and position, has not changed. Until it does, the case for caution against declaring mission accomplished and turning our attention to an inquiry remains strong.
In important respects the work of our troops carries dangers, especiallyI say this although it is paradoxicalas the date for the completion of their work comes closer. One civilian was killed at the Basra airbase in a rocket attack earlier this month, so the sole focus of Government activity at this timeacross the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Developmentis to secure the most smooth and effective conclusion to the bulk of British military engagement in Iraq, and the most smooth and effective increase in British economic, political, educational and cultural engagement in Iraq.
The Government amendment says clearly and unambiguously that there should be an inquiry. The reason is simple: there are important lessons that could be learned. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out last year and has repeated in his speech, Iraq has involved British troops for a longer period than world war two. Every country is unique, and the Iraq experience of post-conflict reconstruction is important. We all know that building the peace in Iraq has been much more difficult than winning the war. The debates about de-Baathification and the disbandment of the Iraqi army have been well aired and it is right that they are looked over again.
The time to focus on an official inquiry is when the troops come home to safety, not when they are still exposed to danger in Iraq. Precedent supports this, and so does common sense. For the avoidance of doubt, I was asked on 10 December if that meant every troop coming home, and I gave a very clear answer: we are talking about combat troops, not every troop, and I will set out the timetable again in a moment.
Mr. Ellwood: The Foreign Secretary seems to be living in a parallel world in terms of what is actually happening with our troops at Basra airport. They are not going out on patrols, and they are not involved in operations in Basra. They are bunkered up at the airport itself. They are doing some work with the Iraqi army, but in fact they are busy handing over not to the Iraqis, but to the Americans. Will he spell out exactly what he is trying to justify by saying in his amendment that we are involved in operations when we are not?
David Miliband: I am afraid that that is just not correct, and I am happy to go through why it is not correct. One obvious reason is that they are providing not simply training, but mentoring for Iraqi troops which by definition involves more than going outside
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Foreign Secretary said a moment ago that the precedent is for the inquiry to be established after all the troopsor the vast bulk of themhave been withdrawn, rather than, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested, the initial steps being taken before they are withdrawn. Would the Foreign Secretary care to tell us of one occasion on which that precedent occurred?
David Miliband: No, the hon. Gentleman has not killed that one off, with respect. British troops will remain in Iraq after 31 July if all goes according to plan, but they will not be combat troops. In the case of the Falklands, the enemy had surrendered, so by definition the troops were no longer in danger in the Falklands when the inquiry was set up in July 1982.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I am sure that the whole House shares the Foreign Secretarys admiration for those who have served and are serving in Iraq. He very much admires their courage, so why are the Government not showing the same courage and saying We have nothing to hide, we are not hiding behind anything and we agree to this inquiry? Why are they not being as courageous as our soldiers have been?
I do not think that any Foreign Secretary should come to this place claiming that he is being as brave as the people who are serving in our armed forces around the worldI certainly do not make that claim, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman reduces the argument to that point. The Government
have taken a very consistent position since the debate last year and we will take it again in the debate this year. The right time for an inquiry is when our combat troops have come home, and I am happy to detail why the situation in Iraq requires that.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Foreign Secretary said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that an inquiry would be announced after 31 July. He will, of course, be conscious of the fact that that will be about a week after this House rises for the summer recess. Will he therefore give an assurance today that a statement will be made to the House before it rises for the summer recess confirming that the inquiry is to go ahead? If he is not prepared to give that assurance, will he explain why not, given that we know that 31 July is the decisive date?
David Miliband: The former Foreign Secretary should know better; the idea that we decided on a troop withdrawal plan and chose 31 July as the date for its conclusion because Parliament will not be sitting at that time is, frankly, risible. [Interruption.] We will do this after British combat troops have been withdrawn, and that is the right thing to do. [Interruption.] That has been the position that we have set out over the past year, and I believe that it is the right position to hold. It has nothing to do with the Labour party conference; it is a simple position that the Government have articulated again and again and again.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Foreign Secretary will know that I made no reference to the Labour party conference. I simply said that he had confirmed that the combat troops would be back by 31 July, so there would no longer be an obstacle to announcing a statement. He must know that an inquiry of this importance ought to be announced to the House of Commons. There cannot possibly be any objection to announcing on, shall we say, 20 July10 days or so before 31 July, when the House is still sittingthat the inquiry is to be established and what the terms of reference will be. He must appreciate that if he declines to give that assurance, it would appear either that he is going to make that statement when the House is not even sittingthat would be a disgraceor that he is looking for an excuse to leave it until the autumn, thereby delaying the time by which the inquiry would ultimately report. He must realise the suspicion and deal with it now if he is to command the respect of the House.
David Miliband: I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts it in that way. We have been completely clear, in last years debate and in this years debate, about the Governments position on this point. Our position is that once combat troops come home is the right time to establish an inquiry. We will establish that inquiry with the full respect for Parliament and all of its Members, for precedent and for the need for the inquiry to look into both the conduct of the war and the conduct of the peace-building afterwardsthat is precisely the sort of comprehensive look that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, who speaks for the Opposition
The UK has a strategic national interest in a strong, stable, non-hostile Iraq, confident in its territorial integrity and acting in accordance with international law. As the first majority Shia democracy in the Arab world, it can help to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide in the middle east. As one of the traditional places of Shia authority in the world, with a track record of a humane tradition, a revived Najaf can offer an alternative to the radical Shiism expounded by some in Iran. It is important, therefore, to recognise the progress that has been made in Iraq since our debate last year. The change from the savage conflict of three years ago is remarkable, and the progress is to be welcomed. It brings withdrawal closer and, for the purposes of this debate, it brings an inquiry closer, because, at every stage the key for us has not been dates; it has been what our troops are doing in Iraq.
Thanks to the brave work and dedication of our troops and their coalition partners, as well as the improved capacity and commitment of the Iraqi security forces, the number of security incidents across the country is down to its lowest level since 2003. The provincial elections held on 31 January passed without major incident and included the Sunni parties and Sunni voters. Although key pieces of legislation are still outstanding, in the past year the Iraqi Parliament has agreed new laws on investment, de-Baathification, detainees and the powers of provincial government.
Although that progress is significant, anyone who has spent any time in Iraq will say that in some parts of the country the security situation is still fragile and reversible. The threat from extremist groupsthat seems to be dismissed by the Conservative partyas well as from militias and terrorists, remains. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks are still a danger to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Attacks this month in Mosul, at a Baghdad police academy and at a market in Babil remind us of the enduring dangers posed by terrorism in Iraq.
Although progress has been made in politics, compromise is painfully slow and, as in the rest of the world, the global economic downturn is having an impact in Iraq. So, after the loss of many thousands of lives, including 179 British defence personnel, and the spending of billions of dollars, Iraq needs careful and deliberate international support as it moves to be fully in command of its own affairs.
That is why some 4,100 British troops are deployed in southern Iraqthat is more or less the same number as were there this time last year. As agreed with the Government of Iraq, they still have a number of tasks to complete. Their work to mentor and train the 14th division of the Iraqi army is ongoing. The Royal Navy continues to patrol the Gulf area and to contribute to the defence of Iraqi territorial waters and oil platforms, and the Royal Air Force provides vital support, both to
UK troops and as part of the coalition air effort. Each of those tasks is vital in order to ensure that Iraq continues the progress of recent years.
We are now, however, approaching a key moment in the timetable for the draw-down of British troops. In July last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out how UK troops would move carefully and deliberately, guided by the situation on the ground, from a lead role to an overwatch role. Next week, on 31 March, the first step will be taken, with the absorption of Multi-National Division (South-East) within Multi-National Division (South). This is not the replacement of British commanders by Americans, but a new coalition force structure reflecting the changes going on in Iraq and with a larger geographical responsibility. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House,
the fundamental change of mission ... will take place by 31 May 2009 at the latest. At that point, we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July.[ Official Report, 18 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1234.]
The Government of Iraq have indicated that they want the UK to continue to provide military training and education. We are offering to provide support to officer training through the NATO training mission in Iraq, and to supplement that with attendance at staff and other training. We are also discussing with the Iraqi authorities how we can best meet their ongoing requirements for maritime support and naval training. Our plan, which has been agreed by the Government of Iraq, is to withdraw combat troops by the end of July. As we draw down our military engagement, we will step up our effort to support and rebuild the Iraqi economy and to help Iraqis ensure that their critical infrastructure works. Of course, our diplomatic relationship will remain essential, and we will maintain both a substantive embassy in Baghdad, and missions in Basra and Irbil.
David Miliband: I shall give way after I have finished this paragraph. The planning for the safe withdrawal of most of our troops, and the development of a plan for the role and position of the remainder, is being undertaken with great care in the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign Office is orchestrating, week by week, the realignment of Britains relationship with Iraq as military forces are reduced. The Department for International Development is continuing to work to help the Government of Iraq to deliver services to their people and to be in a position to take advantage of the strong interest of international investors. I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), so I shall now do so.
Mr. Holloway: Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there are lessons to be learned from Iraq and that there are mistakes that we are repeating? Is it not a shame that even the MOD has binned its internal critique of the conduct of our operations in Iraq?
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