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Iraq and the Middle East

4.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Iraq and the Middle East being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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    "As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has told the House earlier today, we will be deploying additional troops in the near future to the UK area of operations in south-eastern Iraq. This deployment will give extra capabilities to our commanders in theatre and increase our capacity to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.

    "Urgent action is also being taken to build up Iraq's own security forces. Police numbers now stand at 37,000, and this figure is planned to rise to some 70,000. The training of the new Iraqi army has begun with a target of three divisions by mid-2004. An Iraqi civil defence corps of 14,000 is being trained and rapidly expanded to take over many guarding and patrolling duties, freeing up coalition forces for more demanding tasks.

    "On further evidence relating to Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons programmes, the Iraq Survey Group continues its work, albeit in a difficult security environment. This is a long-term task. The ISG will make a progress report at the appropriate time.

    "I do not in any way underestimate the scale of the security and other problems that we face. They are very serious. But we should not lose sight of the effective work of the Coalition Provisional Authority under Ambassador Bremer and coalition forces, and work by the Iraqis' own Governing Council and Ministers. This week, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our former Ambassador to the United Nations, will be going out to Baghdad as the Government's Special Representative. Last month, Sir Hilary Synnott, our former High Commissioner in Pakistan, took up his post in Basra as the regional co-ordinator for the CPA in southern Iraq. I know that the House will join me in sending them our best wishes.

    "The international staff in Iraq, including many Britons, are doing vital work in difficult circumstances. The delivery of essential services is gradually improving. Food distribution systems are restored. All 240 hospitals in Iraq are functioning. With the help of UNICEF, over 22 million doses of vaccine have been provided, enough for over 4 million children. By the end of June most schools in Iraq were open. We have launched an upgrade of school facilities. Some 70 million revised textbooks will be printed by the end of December, and universities have been operating as normal.

    "The water sector is obviously one of the top priorities. Projects are in hand in Baghdad and elsewhere to upgrade existing treatment plants and build new ones to serve 11.5 million people. But the network has been badly hit by organised sabotage, exacerbated by shortages of parts and chemicals.

    "Electricity and oil supplies have also been targeted by the terrorists. In response, an Iraqi force is being trained and armed to guard Iraq's oil and power facilities as well as its bridges and dams. Iraqis are helping coalition troops to secure the 19,000 kilometres of power lines and 7,000 kilometres of oil pipelines in Iraq.

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    "Our Department for International Development is moving quickly to allocate new funds for an emergency infrastructure programme in southern Iraq.

    "One of the immediate consequences of the bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad on 19th August has been a scaling back of the United Nations' presence in Iraq. We are in close touch with the United Nations about what further security measures can be put in place to help it restore its activity in Iraq.

    "Over as short a timescale as possible, our goal is to create the conditions in which the Iraqi people can take responsibility for the governance of their country. Two months after the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council, it is now heavily involved in the key economic and political decisions. On 3rd September the council appointed 25 interim Iraqi Ministers. From now on, Iraq's government ministries will be led by Iraqi politicians, responsible for implementing policy and managing their budgets. Along with the Governing Council and the CPA, these Ministers enjoy full rights to initiate policy. The overall effect of this change has been a significant transfer of responsibility from the CPA to the Iraqis, a process that should accelerate from now on.

    "On the international front, I have been working closely over recent weeks with Secretary Powell and my colleagues within the EU and elsewhere to strengthen the UN's mandate in Iraq. A draft resolution is being discussed at the Security Council. Let me set out its central elements.

    "The draft reaffirms the UN's support for the work of the Iraqi Governing Council. It calls on the Governing Council to submit a timetable and programme for the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections. The aim is for the UN to be heavily involved in preparing the electoral register and other electoral processes.

    "The draft proposes a UN-mandated multinational force under existing unified command arrangements. This should facilitate the provision of troops by other countries.

    "Finally, the text refers to next month's conference in Madrid, which will be attended by a number of potential donor countries and the international financial institutions, and calls upon UN member states to help the Iraqi people by providing resources for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

    "Discussions on the draft resolution will resume in New York later today. I will of course report the outcome to the House and make any public text available to the House.

    "Let me now turn to the MEPP. I very much regret the resignation of Abu Mazen over the weekend. We had confidence in him and we supported his efforts to deliver the Palestinians'

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    implementation of their road map commitments in a difficult climate of violence and uncertainty. It was of course Abu Mazen's appointment itself in April which triggered the publication of the road map, which in turn sets out the objective of a secure state of Israel and a viable Palestinian state and how to achieve this.

    "But his resignation should not send the peace process back to square one. The Palestinian leadership must unite around a clear commitment to road map implementation. It needs to take firm action to stop the terrorists planning and executing attacks, like the appalling 19th August bus bombing in Jerusalem, from territory under Palestinian Authority control.

    "The Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abu Ala, has now been nominated to take over from Abu Mazen. Abu Ala is a Palestinian leader with a long track record of efforts for peace. If his appointment is confirmed, we will judge him by his commitment to the peace process.

    "Similarly, we shall continue to encourage Israel to meet its obligations. Israel must create the climate within which moderate Palestinian leaders can prevail: by freezing settlement activity; by removing outposts, illegal even under Israeli law; by restoring Palestinian freedom of movement and so allowing economic activity to restart; by ending 'targeted assassinations'; and, lastly, by ensuring that the security fence does not encroach on Palestinian land.

    "The House will wish to know that I have today spoken to Nabil Shaath, Colin Powell and Silvan Shalom about these issues.

    "In turn, the responsibility of the international community is to do everything it can to hold both sides to their commitments under the road map and to isolate the terrorists, and we will continue to play our part. I welcome the fact that the EU is taking a lead here. On Saturday, EU Foreign Ministers unanimously agreed that the Union should freeze the assets of Hamas.

    "In respect of both the Middle East peace process and the situation in Iraq, Britain is seeking, in partnership with others, to bring its influence to bear on a region which has suffered unimaginable torment for decades. In recent months, thanks in part to our actions, the people of the area have reason to believe that a peaceful and prosperous future might be within their reach.

    "This prospect must be kept alive against those who would plunge the region into chaos. We are determined to work with the international community to establish peace and security across the Middle East. Despite the setbacks of recent days and weeks, this is the course we shall continue to pursue".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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4.57 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we are all very grateful, I am sure, to the noble Baroness for repeating this major Statement on events in the Middle East. There have been many events since we last met here, most of them very tragic and very bloody, including the murder of six more British soldiers and other Britons and, particularly tragically, the murder of Fiona Watson. We join with Ministers and the Government in sending our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families of these heroes.

Let me begin with the question of greater troop deployments, as set out in the written Statement of the Secretary of State for Defence. It refers to additional protection being provided by extra troops. What does that mean? Does it mean that such protection will involve expanding existing areas of operation and creating new ones, or does it mean merely replacing or reinforcing troops in existing areas? I gather that some of the troops will be going back for the second time. This is a very hard grind.

Is the Minister convinced that sending extra troops in the form of two more infantry battalions is the answer to the difficult and complex terrorist and security situation that has developed in Iraq? After all, more troops means more targets. Can the Minister assure the House that, in addition to soldiery, the Government are considering and planning for the provision of more policing experts, more electrical and water repair and installation engineers, more anti-terrorist intelligence experts and experts in low-intensity warfare of the kind in which this country is enormously expert thanks to our experience in Northern Ireland, of which I also had experience back in the 1970s?

Large areas of Iraq are peaceful—we must not exaggerate the appalling difficulties, serious though they are—and the security problem is relatively localised in certain danger areas. It is in these areas that the whole anti-terrorist effort should be concentrated using the right personnel and the right equipment. If there are to be more troops in addition to those provided by the existing coalition allies and our own contribution, where are they to come from? In attracting more troop contingents from other countries, how much depends on there being a bigger role for the United Nations?

Everyone, including the Americans, now seems to agree that there should be greater UN involvement in Iraq. How is that to be organised? Can military and political roles be split, as some have suggested, with the proposed UN-led force carrying out a peacekeeping role, when there is peace, and the main military efforts still being borne by the coalition forces? Does the draft UN resolution to which the Foreign Secretary refers go far enough to attract the contribution of more countries which have been hesitating, such as India, Pakistan and Turkey? Can the United Nations handle this big a role? Does it want to after the horrific murders at the UN building in Baghdad, or should it first have the fundamental reassessment, to quote the words of Kofi Annan, about which he has been

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speaking in recent days? These questions should be examined before one accepts that a vastly greater burden should be placed upon the UN.

We have to ask what France and Germany are playing at. They, too, have said that they want the UN to be completely in charge; however, they have also said that they do not want to participate in or validate any activity which would somehow suggest approval of the invasion which they were against from the start. Do they have the troops, anyway? I am told that the French military are completely committed elsewhere, while the Germans are heavily committed in Afghanistan.

We welcome the setting up of the governing council and the appointment of Ministers in a Cabinet as a step forward. But is not the real answer to the Najaf horror and the horrible hints of disintegration and civil war a much stronger Iraqi police force and a revived Iraqi military? I strongly welcome the suggestion that moves are being made in that direction, but surely the Iraqi army should never have been disbanded in the first place. That was a major United States mistake, and we welcome the efforts indicated in the Statement to repair that error now and bring into being at least the junior and middle ranks of the Iraqi army, if not the top ranks.

On the Israel/Palestine question, it is hard to find any room for optimism. The road map is clearly in tatters; everyone has been the loser after the horrific events of recent weeks. The truce was shattered by the suicide bomb atrocity of 19th August in Jerusalem. The targeting of civilians and children, with dead children lying in the road, has been met by the inevitable response of more targeting of Hamas leaders. That, in turn, has led the Hamas leaders to say that "every Jew is a target". So the miserable roundabout of violence and hatred spirals on.

Strong words are being said about peace, and we hope the process can be revived, but what other practical moves can we take? Can we be assured that the European Union has ceased completely to support the Hamas killers in any way? That is what the Statement says, and I hope it is so. It seems regrettable that the European Union was doing so until recently—that should have stopped long ago. Let us at least act on that front and be assured that that action is decisive.

Finally, let me turn to the weapons of mass destruction. Have programmes been discovered? Have more weapons been identified? There have been a number of stories during the past few weeks but nothing very definite. There was mention of the Iraq Survey Group report. When exactly will that be produced? I had heard it would be next week but there seem to be doubts about that.

I leave aside, for the moment, the matter that has occupied the media for the past few weeks—the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly. No doubt we will deal with that in future debates, but is it not now essential to reassert the important and basic reasons—which we on this side fully support—why we are in Iraq, why we are asking our brave troops to

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operate there under such tricky conditions and what our goals and objectives really are? It is important for such confident and clear statements to be remade, and very clearly. The sooner that is done, the better.

5.5 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I, too, thank the Government for the Statement. It is very difficult to comment on such a broad Statement about such a very dangerous region in such a serious situation. We on these Benches have argued throughout the last two years that one has to take the conflicts in the Middle East as connected, as the Americans and many Muslim countries always have. The connection between the invasion of Iraq, the problem of terrorism in the region and the Arab/Israeli conflict is one we must all grasp.

We bitterly regret the casualties and the atrocities of the last few weeks. We acknowledge the useful progress made by the Coalition Provisional Authority, although we regret that insufficient troops were provided, for ideological reasons within the Pentagon, and that there was, for similar ideological reasons—and here I follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—an unfortunately slow approach to reconstituting local forces for security. The unease on these Benches throughout this long process has partly been because of what we have seen as a mistaken analysis, particularly within the Pentagon but elsewhere within Washington as well. There has been a deliberate discrediting in Washington of regional experts on the Middle East in favour of an approach to the region which seemed to us fundamentally mistaken. That included the idea, which even Henry Kissinger stated on a number of occasions, that the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad, and the invasion of Iraq would thus lead to a successful peace between Israel and Palestine.

The Statement talks about the United Kingdom working in partnership with other states. What is the balance between the partners? Is it UK policy still, in effect, to follow the uncertain trumpet of American policy, or have we returned towards closer co-operation with other EU governments in persuading the United States to modify its position? As the Minister will know, we on these Benches have had some sympathy with the French and German position throughout this conflict. We should be working more closely with our European partners in trying to push the very confused debate in Washington in a more constructive direction.

How strong will the UN engagement be? Can we be assured that the details of the UN resolution will mean not simply a continuation of US command with a supplementary role for the UN but a real role for the UN, including the active engagement of Muslim countries? One of the things that depresses us most in following the debate within Washington is hearing that we are faced with a fourth world war between the West and the Muslim world. The article by Amity Shlaes in the Financial Times last week used exactly that phrase. I hope that Her Majesty's Government in no sense share that perspective.

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Paragraph 13 states that the international survey group will report at an appropriate time. That is a wonderfully vague phrase. Do the Government think an appropriate time will be in 2003 or possibly 2004 or 2005? I think we are entitled to a rather more definite date than that.

On the Middle East peace process, we have again been hampered by a deeply mistaken analysis in Washington. None of us should underestimate the seriousness of the situation. It looks as if the road map has collapsed; the cycle of violence on both sides may lead towards a more general conflict. In this regard, aspects of the Statement make me uneasy. References to the Palestinian leadership are made in the form of demands that they must unite, whereas, when it comes to Israel, we are to continue to encourage her to meet her obligations. Let us be clear. Neither side has been meeting its obligations. Targeted assassinations and the destruction of Palestinian farms, groves and houses breed further terrorism within the Palestinian world.

Reference is made to the freezing of settlements. Can we please be a little more honest and say that, unless there is a reduction in the number of settlements, there cannot be a viable Palestine, thus there cannot be a two-state solution? Can we be clear—as the Israeli press has argued in the past few days—that the future route of the fence or wall is vital? Unless the future route of the wall goes close to the 1967 boundaries, there will be no prospect of a viable Palestine, and thus no prospect of a viable two-state solution.

We would like Her Majesty's Government to insist that a two-state solution is the only acceptable outcome, and that such a solution can be built only on boundaries close to the 1967 boundaries, allowing for a viable Palestinian state to emerge. Perhaps it would be better now to move from the stage proposals of the road map to the final status negotiations to make that clear.

How many troops will be sent? A figure of 5,000 has been suggested. I think that the House is entitled to a little more clarity. Lastly, paragraph 19 refers to further funds being allowed. There is some concern, as the Minister will know, within the development community that the situation in Iraq will lead to an immense diversion of funds from development in other countries. Can the Minister give us some reassurance that the development budget will not be gradually sucked up in reconstructing Iraq?

5.12 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for their reception of the Statement. I will attempt to deal with the points that they have raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that a great deal had happened since we last met. Indeed it has. I am sure that we all mourn the British losses. I thank the noble Lord for joining Her Majesty's Government in expressing sympathy over those losses.

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The noble Lord asked about troop deployments and whether the area of operation would be expanded. As I understand it, it is hoped that the troops will be able to deepen their activities rather than expand the area in which they are operating. In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I understand that the figure is about 1,500 extra troops—the number encompassed in the announcement earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I say to both noble Lords, but particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that this is being undertaken on military advice from commanders in the field. We will continue to receive reports from them and will keep matters under constant review. More peace experts are going in, and there is more training for those who will be charged with protecting water, fuel and power. As I say, the military commanders will be feeding back information all the time to the Ministry of Defence, so that judgments can constantly be made about what is needed on the ground.

The noble Lord raised the question about getting more troops from other countries into Iraq. The UN resolution is under active negotiation now. There is a reference to continuing negotiation today. I understand that the P5 countries are meeting today to go into some detail on the matter. But how precisely the troops would be organised is under discussion. The noble Lord asked whether this will go far enough and whether it will attract countries such as India. These are the exact questions that have to be discussed in the course of the next few days. The Secretary-General has made it clear that he does not foresee a blue helmet force taking over security in Iraq now, but, on the other hand, there is a desire for greater participation by more UN countries.

The noble Lord questioned the number of police. I understand that there are currently 37,000 Iraqi police. As the Statement makes clear, it is hoped that there will be 70,000 in due course. As for the Iraqi army, we are hoping that three divisions will be trained—I understand that that amounts to some 40,000 Iraqi soldiers—by mid-2004.

The noble Lord made reference to what he termed the de-Ba'athification of the Iraqi army—a point discussed by your Lordships in the past. The fact that so many senior Iraqi officials in all walks of life, whether civilian or military, were members of the Ba'ath party was a function of the old regime. The noble Lord is right: in clearing out anyone who was a member of the Ba'ath party, a great deal of valuable expertise has been lost. I believe that we have now found a better balance on that issue.

I turn to the points raised on the Israel-Palestine question. The asset freezing was agreed last Saturday. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary particularly led the argument for that asset freezing in the EU. In the past there has been a desire for a split in the understanding of Hamas activity as being military on the one hand and humanitarian on the other. I am afraid that that understanding has become

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less and less clear in recent years; hence the desire to have the assets frozen altogether, as was agreed on Saturday.

We hope that the ISG report will be available soon. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that the Statement stresses that this will be an interim report. I cannot give the noble Lord a date—had I been able to do so it would have been in the Foreign Secretary's original Statement—but it is hoped to have it soon. It will be an interim report. Again, as the Statement makes clear, this will be a very lengthy process.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked how we justify our continued activity in Iraq. We are rebuilding Iraq for the Iraqis. They are part of that process. As regards the political process and the momentum that we have seen, the formation of the governing council on 13th July, and on 3rd September the appointment by the governing council of the interim Iraqi Ministers, are substantial steps forward. We should not lose sight of the fact that there has been some political progress and that there is now a 25-strong constitutional preparatory committee which will be making recommendations to the governing council later this month.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked me about UK policy being to follow the US. I am sure that the noble Lord will not be surprised to learn that I do not accept his premise. Anyone who knows the Prime Minister, special representive John Sawers or special representative Sir Jeremy Greenstock will know that all would be very robust indeed in saying what they had to say to the United States, or indeed to anyone else, about what we believe is important in Iraq. We want a real role of active engagement from Muslim countries. I myself have heard United States officials make exactly that point, particularly in relation to attracting countries that may be able to send Muslim troops.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was uncharacteristically wrong when he said that the Statement merely encouraged Israel while it said that Palestine had to do certain things. I ask him whether he will be kind enough to read again paragraph 31 of the Statement, which states:

    "Similarly we shall continue to encourage Israel to meet her obligations"—

quite rightly—but it goes on to say:

    "Israel must create the climate within which moderate Palestinian leaders can prevail".

It goes on to list six things which Israel "must" do. I hope that the noble Lord will give credit for the balance that I believe is in my right honourable friend's Statement on that point.

Lastly, on the funding considerations raised by the noble Lord, there is a great deal of Whitehall conversation between departments at the moment about funding. The Foreign Office needs to see more funds in relation to these points. There are funds, and there is discussion about how these are properly to be allocated over the course of the next few weeks and months.

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5.19 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and perhaps I may join in sending good wishes to my close friend and former colleague, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, in his extremely difficult task.

I want to make one point on the Arab-Israel situation. I know that there are varying views, most of them pessimistic, about the role of Yasser Arafat, but I must remind the House that it is the elected leader of the Palestinians who has appointed Abu Ala as their Prime Minister and I would caution against any continuing attempt to exclude Yasser Arafat. I ask the Minister to distance the Government from current talk about expelling Yasser Arafat from Palestine. I believe that that would have disastrous consequences and would certainly undermine and bring to a complete end any task that Abu Ala may be able to perform.

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