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8.06 pm

Lord Owen: My Lords, in the debate on 12 July I expressed my anger at the mess that we have allowed ourselves to get into in Afghanistan and Iraq and my belief that there was going to have to be a serious inquiry about the circumstances that allowed this to develop. I still believe that—and I must say that I was appalled at the House of Commons only a few weeks ago being unable to rally enough support for such an inquiry. But time is short and I wish to be positive and to consider some of the diplomatic issues that face us.

First, we must be frank about the difficulty that we face in bringing Iran into a positive and constructive mood about Iraq. If Iran can see that it is in its interests that we have a federal unitary state in Iraq—and I believe that it is in Iranian interests—Iran can be a decisive influence in bringing this about. But we have to face the fact that we will not get Iran in a constructive role while it sees itself under military threat because of its nuclear programme; nor will it respond to the United States while the United States continues with the sanctions imposed after the occupation of the Teheran embassy all those many years ago under President Carter.

During the Reagan years an ill-fated attempt was made—ill-fated especially because it was linked to the contras—to reopen a serious dialogue between the United States and Iran. It could be said that we cannot influence that American issue and that that is really for the Baker commission, and that may be so; but in one area we will have to rethink our own policy—with regard to the dialogue developing around Iran’s nuclear pretensions. I, for one, believe it is clear that Iran is after at least an option on being able to build a nuclear weapon. It would be extremely damaging to the region if Iran developed such a weapon, and we would be highly likely to see more proliferation to at least Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly Syria.

We have had the experience of the success of skilful diplomacy with President Gaddafi and Libya which started, against all predictions, after the shock of the Reagan attack on Gaddafi because of the Libyan involvement in terrorist activity in La Belle discothèque in Berlin and later with Lockerbie. It is a fine example of serious diplomatic engagement in which the British and American Governments worked closely together. One of the deals that was done was that Gaddafi was given an assurance that if he was co-operative, the idea of regime change would be erased and he would be able to continue in power. That was realpolitik of a fine and an intelligent order.

I believe there is a direct parallel between how we dealt with the Libyan issue and how we deal with the Syrian question. In my judgment, we are not going to get Syria seriously engaged while it thinks that, as soon as it does this, we will simply try and remove the Ba’athists and the young President Assad from power. We have to grapple with that issue.

Regarding the use of sanctions as an incentive to Iran, I am not sure what will happen, but I believe the British Government will have to pull back a little from the rhetoric of the past year or two about sanctions against Iran. We will have to recognise that

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if we are to going to resolve the nuclear problem, that will be further down the track, and that the immediate priority is to have a more constructive attitude from Iran to getting stability in Iraq. If that means we have to adopt a different tone from the Americans on this question, so be it.

As for Syria, many Israelis in the past have been ready to put a negotiation over Golan in advance of a negotiation over Gaza or the West Bank. That was Barak’s view for quite a while. I hear all these pleas for an engagement in the West Bank at the moment, but I think the fragility of relations that exists in Israel itself makes it extremely unlikely that we will get much rapid progress on this issue. We ought to look at the one area where substantial progress could be made; that is, over Syria, Golan and Lebanon.

We saw, in July and August, how badly it is possible for both the British and the Americans to handle the issue of Lebanon. Those few weeks, in my view, saw the most disgraceful diplomacy. What was so tragic was that it came after the communiqué that was issued by the G8 at St Petersburg, which could hardly have been better. If the eight countries had all acted to put a force into Lebanon immediately, as was envisaged in that communiqué, it would have been a remarkable success for the G8. The problem was that both Prime Minister Blair and President Bush thought that the Israeli armed forces could, in that space of time, deal with Hezbollah. Not even many of the Israeli military believed that was possible.

We have to learn from that mistake. One way now would be to put Syria top of the negotiating table. We must try and improve the quality of the activity of the UN force currently in Lebanon, which is not dealing with Hezbollah anywhere near strongly enough, and at least raise the profile of the Arab/Israeli dispute and hope to make progress there, while doing everything in our power to get back into a dialogue with President Abbas and have a Government that speaks for the Palestinians and can negotiate with Israel.

I have said enough. This is a very difficult diplomatic area. I urge one thing: that the Prime Minister drops his constant personalised diplomacy and allows the experts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in the Ministry of Defence and in the intelligence services to create strong and coherent policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Israel. It is high time that No. 10 quietened down a little. It has made some disastrous mistakes. If the Prime Minister will not resign, he should at least now step back and let these areas be dealt with by the professionals. In that way, Britain might be able to recover its influence and prestige in all these complex issues.

8.15 pm

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, it is extraordinarily exciting to be playing cricket with the great, the good and the gallant, particularly when I have a feeling that my role in general is as the bad and the ugly, and that I may probably be defined as being part of the “axis

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of evil”. I have already disclosed in the past my involvement in the Middle East, over now since 1974, usually in places where the Foreign Office felt it was not acceptable for a gentleman to go, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and all the more difficult parts of the world. But I enjoyed it. I learnt an enormous amount, and I would prefer to tell noble Lords some of the stories I was told.

“Chinese Whispers” is nothing compared with the whispering in the Arab world. Of course, it is not democratic. There is no word for “democracy” in Arabic or Farsi. In a way it is a form of theocracy, in that a leader is anointed by God, takes control and is accountable under God. I am accountable to no one, but I need to go back into the past to try to persuade your Lordships that “plus ça change”.

I shall begin, like the noble Lord, Lord Browne, with 1906. It was a great year, the year my grandfather first got into the House of Commons, an impressive year. It was also the year the parliamentary Labour Party was created from the representative body—I would not like to say that ever since it has not been representative. It is 100 years old this year. At that time, knowing how good we are at reacting to natural disasters, your Lordships will recall that there was a great earthquake in Ecuador, measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale and killing 1,500 people. There was also a big eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed a large chunk of Naples, but only 500 people were killed. Then there was the San Francisco disaster. That was the big one, an earthquake that measured about 8.8, with 3,000 people killed. In the same year there was a major tsunami in Hong Kong that killed 10,000. Two years ago, another tsunami, measuring nine-something on the Richter scale, killed 212,000. From time to time since 1906 there have been other natural disasters. Then we had a form of terrorism. Terrorism, as your Lordships know, means, “government or rule by fear”. It is an “ism”; I do not know how you would define it otherwise. In these periods we had the Baader-Meinhof, the Brigate Rosse, and the problems in Northern Ireland, where 3,500 people were killed. Then we had al-Qaeda. The latest American information shows that it has been responsible for the deaths of 3,457 or so, internationally.

When you put all that lot together—I am now going to talk about life and death—suddenly strange things go through your mind. The United States lost 472,000 people in two world wars. We lost 1.5 million in two world wars. How many people have been killed as a result of our aggression in Iraq? More than all of that put together? I know not. Certainly, the United States has no full understanding of what deaths and destruction have been caused. Some 210,000 people were made homeless in the San Francisco earthquake disaster, but how many people have been made homeless and had their lives ruined because of one strange action? It was not the right action to take. I defended and will always defend the right of a Prime Minister to decide to go to war, and I believe this House wholly supported our troops and the Government, but now the days of reckoning are

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coming. What on earth can we do now? How can we get out of this extraordinary mess that we have got ourselves into?

The military mess may get even worse. Going back before 1906, your Lordships will remember that General Roberts walked from Kabul to Kandahar to relieve our forces there with 2,700 troops, but he had more than 7,000 levies of Indian soldiers. That was a great march and a great success. Thereafter, we had the problem of Isandlwana, Mafeking and so on, but in each case we had a small number of troops with large levies. As Kipling said, we had the Gatling gun and they had not; we also had the Maxim gun. In those days, with a relatively small number of troops, we could maintain or re-establish law and order, but not today, because we are not working with the most sophisticated weaponry around, but we are fighting with people who will fight. Roberts had 35,000 Afghanis arrayed against him, and there were maybe 100,000 troops. As these battles go on so the numbers rise, because young men want to go and fight. I was doing my naval training on HMS “Theseus” prior to Suez, and I really wanted to go. Every young person who joins the Army wants to go. If you have not been there and got back, you are not happy. We have Armed Forces who want to do the best they can in the world, but not necessarily peace-keeping of this sort. It is a dangerous time.

I am head of the appeal committee for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. I have a point to make on behalf of the 52 former ambassadors and high commissioners who wrote a letter on 27 April 2004 to the Prime Minister, warning what was going to happen. There were 28 ambassadors who had held 41 posts in the Arab world. They knew what they were talking about. In this capacity, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that he might be kind enough, if I were to write him a letter, to look to those people. If you want some wise men, ask if we can have a meeting with them.

I leave noble Lords on the happy thought that I have used before. What is wrong with the Arab world and the Middle East? Three things: hashish, baksheesh and malish. Of course, a fourth one is the British, because they invented the other three.

8.22 pm

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the words unusually missing from this gracious Speech are “poverty reduction” and “international development”. However, I realise that much humanitarian work is hidden behind foreign policy and anti-terrorism, especially in conflict countries. What has happened to poverty reduction in Iraq? Is DfID still using that terminology, or is it impossible under these dangerous conditions to target the poorest and the victims of injustice?

One group that I commend tonight, both in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, is the Christian community, which is declining in number across the whole region. I hesitate to single out Christians, who often enjoy social and economic advantages which may be resented, not least because of their connections abroad. Nevertheless, for whatever

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reason, the churches in Iraq have unfairly become the focus of much discrimination, and even hatred, since 2003, and many Christian families are now reduced to acute material and spiritual poverty. The plight of the Assyrian Christians and other minorities has already been discussed. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey has also represented them, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, made a strong case for them in July last year.

The Assyrians, or Nestorians, are the descendants of the people of Babylon and Nineveh. They were one of the earliest Christian sects. By the 9th century they had become a worldwide church extending as far as China and south India. For 12 centuries they lived mainly in harmony with Muslim Arabs in what we now call Kurdistan, but when missionaries arrived in northern Iraq, the Assyrians began to be persecuted. Hundreds of thousands were victims during the terrible Armenian massacre. Britain defended them against the Turks after 1917, when Assyrian soldiers became trusted allies up to and after Iraq’s independence in 1932. But at that time, thousands more, seen as collaborating with us, were killed by the Iraqi army. Historically, therefore, we are in their debt.

It is hard to estimate the total number of Assyrians now, since so many have fled from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the US, Australia and this country. Incidentally, the Home Office tried to send some of them back to Iraq on the absurd grounds that they were quite safe in the north. There are at least 600,000 to 700,000 left, and they and other related minorities such as the Chaldeans, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Catholics, Copts, Armenians and others, deserve much more attention and, above all, better protection from the Iraqi Government. That, of course, also means our Government. Thousands were oppressed and displaced along with the Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation policy, and the Commission for Resolution of Real Property Disputes is genuinely trying to help them to recover their homes and property, taken up to April 2003.

Under Iraq’s new human rights legislation, Christians in theory qualify for protection, but they are obviously not getting it from the police, the army or the occupying forces. They have no militia to protect them, like the larger Shia and Sunni factions. Many Christian communities have been directly targeted. In the past three years, 30 churches and schools have been bombed in Baghdad and northern Iraq, and small businesses are constantly attacked.

Some of those attacks have been in so-called retaliation for the Danish cartoons or the Pope’s ill-judged lecture on Islam, for selling liquor, as they have done for centuries, or, in the case of women, for not wearing the veil. But in communities already fragmented by near civil war, the problem runs much deeper than that. Christian families live in daily fear of death threats. Last month an abducted priest from the Syriac Orthodox Church, Father Boulos Iskander, was found in Mosul, beheaded and dismembered soon after his family had already paid a ransom of $40,000. His kidnappers used the excuse of the Pope’s remarks the previous month. Several young

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women have been killed after threats about the veil. A 14 year-old Christian Assyrian boy called Ayad Tariq in Baquba was also beheaded last month, according to the Assyrian news agency.

Not surprisingly, many Christians have left Iraq, among the hundreds of thousands of refugees. Asylum seekers arriving in OECD countries doubled during the first six months of this year, and more than 8,000 Iraqis applied to EU countries during that period—a higher figure than from any other region. The UN estimates that a further 425,000 Iraqis are displaced inside the country. Among them are urban professionals, doctors, teachers and technicians, many of them Christians. As one noble Lord has said, those who are most useful to Iraq in its present situation have been directly targeted by extremists.

One Christian refugee who personifies the brave and almost hopeless struggle of minorities is Dr Donny George, the former director of the National Museum in Baghdad, who helped to recover the treasures that were looted after the US invasion. Having come under increasing pressure from Shiites and Islamists, he resigned in August as president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. He even had to close the museum and seal it in concrete to save it. Like other archaeologists, Dr George has left the country and has moved with his family to Damascus.

Money to pay the salaries of the special police force that valiantly defends Iraq’s famous archaeological sites is running out. Again, we see a vicious minority of extremists determined to destroy their own culture, coupled with the apparent inability of the coalition and the Government to help. What can our Government do now to break this deadlock?

Are the minorities receiving their fair share of the billions of dollars pledged in Madrid? My noble friend Lord St John raised this question. During last year’s debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, told my noble friend Lady Northover:

Two noble Lords who visited Iraq have told us that this is not happening. Dr Kim Howells said:

What does this “protection” mean in practice? What has happened to the resettlement programme in the Nineveh plain? Do the Kurdish Regional Government respect the constitution when they register householders to prevent terrorist infiltration or are they favouring the Kurds in this process? This issue came up in the Australian Federal Parliament on 29 May, when Chris Bowen MP asked his Government to support a protected administrative region for the Assyrians. I do not go as far as my noble friend in suggesting that the Assyrians should have regional autonomy, as their own democratic

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movement proposes. I think that that is difficult to contemplate at a time when, as we have heard, Kurdish independence may again be on the cards as a result of a failed Iraqi state. There is a lot of historic suspicion on the Assyrian websites, but there is a lot of sense in supporting a protected homeland or some kind of administrative region for the Assyrians.

The persecution of Christians by Muslims is neither new nor unique. It is mainly a story of exile that is being told in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine and all over the Middle East. I accept that it is in part an unforeseen consequence of our own mistaken policies but that does not excuse us, and so long as we have influence in Iraq we have the opportunity of ending it.

I will end by urging the Government to return to their position in 2002—it was advocated again tonight by several noble Lords—when a large number of states, including Iran, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out, united in a coalition against terrorism. I will briefly quote from the late Robin Cook's resignation speech in March 2003. He said:

8.33 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, referred to this debate being marked by the contributions of the good, the great and the gallant. I certainly agree with him that this has been a most impressive debate, in which an extraordinary range of knowledge and experience has been shared with the House by all noble Lords who have taken part. It is one of those occasions in which this House demonstrates what sort of debate it is able to have because of the sort of people who are part of it. That reflects very well on the House.

I will concentrate very briefly on a part of the world and on a country that I do not think has been mentioned by any noble Lord so far; I refer to the question of Britain’s relations with Argentina. I will give an account of the visit that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I paid to that country under the auspices of the IPU at the end of September in our capacity as officers of the British-Argentine All-Party Parliamentary Group. We were joined on the visit by a third officer, a Conservative Member from the other place, Mark Pritchard. We went with entirely open minds and we made it clear that we were willing to engage in discussion on anything that our Argentine hosts wished to raise with us. We were thoroughly briefed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before we went. While we were in Buenos Aires, we had the good fortune to stay at the residence of the British Ambassador, Dr John Hughes, which meant that we received daily briefings and were kept up to date with what was appearing in the media about our visit.

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The tenor of our briefing before we left was that on a wide range of issues the relationship between Britain and Argentina is excellent. The FCO was at pains to point out that Argentina’s membership of the UN Security Council, which has now just come to an end, was entirely constructive, particularly in areas such as combating drug trafficking, anti-terrorism and arms control. The trade and cultural relationships between our two countries are all positive and, of course, spread widely into sport—although supporters of the English football team and now, amazingly, the national rugby team would prefer that the Argentine national sides were not quite as successful as they are. The sporting links none the less go back a long way and are very warm. Our welcome also was warm and genuine, and we were able to engage with Argentine parliamentarians on a wide range of issues, including our experience in combating football hooliganism, transport planning and homeland security.

However, there was of course one issue where the scale of disagreement between our countries is profound—the islands in the south Atlantic, which we call the Falklands. We were warned in advance that there had been little constructive dialogue on this subject at government level for the past decade or so. Disagreements over fishing policy, direct flights to the islands, hydrocarbon and minerals extraction, and, above all other matters, sovereignty continue. We made it clear to our Argentine hosts that we could not discuss sovereignty and stressed that, if any progress is to be made on this issue, the interests of the islanders need to be taken into account.

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