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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. At this time, our thoughts are with our troops serving in Iraq and their families. On behalf of these Benches, I also send my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives.
The course of events in Iraq that has made this Statement to Parliament necessary is serious and dangerous. Our troops are doing a fantastic job there, and I congratulate Brigadier John Lorimer on placing the safety and wellbeing of his troops above all else. As the Minister said earlier today, the two SAS soldiers were freed without a shot being fired.
We are often told by the Secretary of State and the Minister that we should stay in Iraq "until the job is done". The critical question is how they define "the job". If the situation is improving, and we really are gaining the upper hand over the insurgents and successfully training indigenous Iraqi security forces, it should be possible to begin to set out a timetable; not for a final exitthat would be unwisebut for the beginning of the drawing down of our commitment in that part of Iraq for which Her Majesty's Government have accepted responsibility. Meanwhile, the risk of civil war there remains. Will the Minister give assurances that contingency plans are in place to prevent British troops getting caught up in the middle of a civil war?
The US military has increased its forces to 152,000that is 14,000 above the normal levelto provide extra security for the referendum on 15 October. What have we been able to door are we too overstretched to provide extra troops? I understand that the Royal Highland Fusiliers are to be deployed for the third time. Are they up to strength? Has their rifle company, which was stranded in Jordan for lack of air transport, been recovered? Will the Minister
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clarify the position of other UK forces that have completed their tours of duty but were also stranded there for lack of air transport home, and of those troops waiting to be deployed to Iraq stranded in England? Is this not a graphic illustration of the degree of overstretch in which our Armed Forces are now operating as a result of government cutbacks?
Will the Minister also give the House a report on whether our forces have been provided with a sufficient number of helicopters to meet the new security arrangements for moving our troops in the light of increased attrition from roadside bombing? There is real evidence to substantiate the Prime Minister's assertion that explosive devices that have recently killed or maimed British troops have originated from Iran. What action has been taken to address this dangerous development?
Finally, there are reports that the Attorney-General is due to go to Iraq. I understand he will be visiting some of our troops there. I hope that he will return with a greater sense of reality as to what life is like for them. Can the Minister tell the House what is the objective of the Attorney-General's visit?
Following the important debate on 14 July on the Armed Forces chain of command, a subject with repercussions for the morale and operational effectiveness of our troops in Iraq, the Attorney-General wrote to all noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords who spoke in the debate. I responded to him on 20 July with some detailed questions and sent a reminder letter on 9 September. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Attorney-General has put him in a position to respond to the points I raised? If not, I would be very obliged if he could speak to the Attorney-General.
Lord Garden: My Lords, I too am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place and for sending me an advance copy. The sympathy also of these Benches goes to the families of the British servicemen who have been killed and to the families of the many American servicemen who have died since we last discussed Iraq, in the summer. Nor would we wish to forget the increasingly large number of Iraqis killed and maimed in the continuing violence. We are now seeing 40 fatalities a day.
We all agree that this is a key week for the Iraqi people as they are asked to vote on the draft constitution. I am pleased that a consistent definition of what "voter" will be in this referendum has been decided, as it looked as though that was going to cause yet more trouble. But on the Minister's assertion that the political process is on track, can he assure us that he has a contingency plan in the event that the constitution is rejected, which must be one possible outcome?
There remains the question of what the United Kingdom forces can achieve. The Minister listed his three objectives. From these Benches, we have on numerous occasions drawn attention to the need for a
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proper strategy which couples the security process to economic and political development. Yet the continuing cry in this Statement, as in previous ones, is that the Government's strategy is to stay there for as long as the Iraqis want. Last week, I listened to President Talabani at Chatham House, and he said that he thought he would need us for one or two years. Vice-President Cheney seems to have a longer timescale in mindhe tends to talk in decades. Can the Minister say whether President Talabani confirmed his assessment of one to two years in his talks last week with the Prime Minister?
If we lack a coherent strategy for the way forward, then our troops really will be in difficulty. Can the Minister tell us the relative priority in the tasking at the moment? How many of our 8,000 troops are tasked primarily with training security forces? How many are on border patrol? How many are on security duties with patrolling as their primary activity? How many are on infrastructure projects?
Then, there is the issue of the operational tempo, about which we have all worried in the past. Can the Minister give us some idea of how the continuing strain of Iraq is affecting retention in the regular forces and in the reserves. The Chief of the Defence Staff was quoted in a newspaper interview this month as worrying about the effect of Iraq on recruiting. Does the Minister share that worry? Will deployments to Afghanistan be adjusted if the Iraq situation deteriorates?
Are we doing everything possible to support our troops on these difficult tours? When repeating the Statement the Minister did not mention NATO. In the past we have heard that NATO was helping us in all of this. How is that going?
The Statement dealt in some detail with the complex rotation plot for our troops, and we understand that there will be resulting small fluctuations in numbers. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said, there are reports of a shortage of air transport aircraft to return those who are due to come back to the UK. It is intensely demoralising to be expecting to return and then to be left in a transit area for days because of aircraft unavailability or unserviceability. We cannot, of course, risk our troops in an aircraft where the defensive aids are not working, but has the MoD thought through alternatives such as organising land convoys to Kuwait and using civil aircraft from there?
The progressive increase in the level of violence on all sides suggests that we do not have our strategy right. The UK forces will do their best, but there is a danger of escalation without end. After the freezing out of the United Kingdom from US planning during the Coalition Provisional Authority period, can the Minister assure your Lordships that the US is now listening to the United Kingdom's advice? Can he offer some prospect that the different counter-insurgency doctrines of the various forces currently in Iraq will be harmonised to make for a more coherent approach?
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Finally, will the Minister ensure that the long-term viability of the British Armed Forces remains one of his key concerns in planning future operational tasks and the funding of the equipment programme?
Lord Drayson: My Lords, I thank noble Lords opposite for their constructive criticism of our activities in Iraq. I know they share our desire to see Iraq develop into a stable democratic anchor within the Middle East. The issue is how best to achieve that.
I turn to the specific questions, and start with the last one from the noble Lord, Lord Garden. My reply is: absolutely. In everything I do, my focus is to ensure the long-term viability of our Armed Forces.
How do we define the job? It is clear that our task is to move forward to an environment where the political control of Iraq is under the Iraqi people; to move forward to the point where the Iraqi security forces can take responsibility for their own security in order to protect and serve the democratic government; and to move forward to the point where the improved economic and social development of Iraq is absolutely clear so that the benefits of democracy are clear to the Iraqi people. Those are objectives for which there is no rigid time-line. It is not helpful, as I think was said recently by President Talabani, to set out a rigid time-line. That plays into the hands of the people we are fighting. We have set out clear conditions under which we will be able to withdraw and that is as far as we can go.
The roulement into Iraq which will take place shortly will slightly decrease the number of forces to about 8,000 after the reserve force has returned. We believe that that is the appropriate level, taking into account the recent handover of a number of camps to Iraqi control, including, for example, Camp Chindit.
The noble Lord mentioned the Royal Highland Fusiliers, who have been stranded in Jordan, and the general point about troop transport. We recognise the vital importance to morale and not least to our operational capability of being able to move our troops. The Tristar aircraft which we use are old and it is very important to replace them as soon as possible. We have had operational difficulty, as the noble Lord mentions, with defences on the aircraft. Of course, we will take no risk with our personnel in those transfers. However, I am pleased to report to the House that the issues relating to those aircraft have now been resolved and that there are no stranded forces as a result. We are working hard on this issue and I am spending a lot of time on it.
Noble Lords mentioned the issue of helicopters, which are absolutely essential to our ability to function fully in Iraq and in other theatres such as Afghanistan. We have enough helicopters, but they carry a significant burdena matter to which we are giving significant attention. In early September we increased the number of helicopters available in theatre in Iraq.
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The noble Lord mentioned particular devices, possible Iranian involvement and the action we have taken. We have seen such devices before, and this experience indicates their source. They are similar to devices that have come from Hezbollah. That concerns us, but further work needs to be done in this area. As I said, we have come up against such devices before.
On the Attorney-General's visit to Iraq, noble Lords will understand that, for security reasons, we do not comment on the movements of senior personnel, but I take on board the points made by the noble Lord in his letter. I will follow them up and write to him. On contingency plans for rejection, it is clear that if the Iraqi people so decide in a referendum on a no vote, we move forward within the period under the transitional law. It will then be up to the assembly to advance future consideration of a constitution.
I am not able to discuss the detail of operations. In the Statement, we described the roulement of forces and the forces that will be going to Iraq in an exposition, but it is not appropriate for me to get into the detail of what is the relative balance of those forces or types of operation. It is true, as the noble Lord mentioned, and as the Chief of the Defence Staff commented, that Iraq is having an effect on recruitment. However, we are working hard on that; we need suitable action in place; we are not complacent about it. We recognise an issue in that area and are working on it.
Going further on the question of air transport, the noble Lord asked whether the Ministry of Defence has alternatives when we have problems with our Tristar aircraft. Yes, of course we have alternatives. The problem in this case was that our alternatives involved the use of chartered aircraft. We could not obtain democratic clearance in the timescale we needed for those chartered aircraft to pass through the required countries. Therefore, we judged it better to focus on fixing the technical problem relating to the aircraft concerned.
We have a coherent approach. We have clear contingency plans for the situation that we face in Iraq. As I said earlier, we believe that, whereas the situation in Iraq is challenging, our forces are on top of it. We focus on long-term viability in our planning of operations; the recent roulement that we announced today reflects that.
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