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“And in recent months, conditions in Basra have shown a marked improvement. Incidents of indirect fire against British troops in the Basra air station have fallen from 200 a month at their peak last summer to an average of fewer than five a month since April this year. As the All-Party House of Commons Defence Committee says in its report today, the security situation in Basra has been ‘transformed’. And, as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker confirmed to me at the weekend,

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thanks to operations by Iraqi and coalition security forces that are strongly welcomed by ordinary Iraqis, violent incidents right across Iraq are at their lowest level since 2004. Sunni groups have now joined the Iraqi and American forces in driving al-Qaeda from areas where it had been able to terrorise the population, and Iraqi troops, with British and American support, have had success against the illegal Shia militias, giving the Government of Iraq more control of the country.

“Of course this progress, often fragile, cannot be taken for granted. Millions of Iraqis are still refugees, either inside Iraq or in other countries. And the two car bombs detonated at the gates of an Iraqi army recruitment centre on 15 July remind us that there are groups still determined to inflict violence.

“But the most important development is that the improvements we have seen have been increasingly Iraqi-led. Security responsibility for 10 of 18 provinces has now transferred to Iraqi control, including all four provinces in Britain’s area of operations. The Iraqi security forces are now taking the lead in maintaining security and confronting all those who perpetrate violence, including acting decisively against Shia militia in Basra, Sadr City and Al Amara. And they have been supported by local people from across Iraq’s communities, Sunni, Shia and Kurd.

“Britain has already helped train more than 20,000 Iraqi army troops. But I want to pay credit to Prime Minister Maliki, his Government and the Iraqi security forces who have shown bravery and leadership in tackling the terrorists and militias threatening the stability of their country.

“The improved security situation has provided a platform for further essential progress on reconciliation. And we have seen not only increased co-operation between Sunni communities and the Iraqi Government in areas like Anbar and Mosul and the return of the Tawafuq such as Sunni party to the Government, but the passage of key legislation that is helping to embed democracy, including the accountability and justice law, the provincial powers law and the 2008 budget.

“The next stage will be provincial elections, reinforcing the political progress being made at the national level. And our message to the leaders of all Iraq’s communities and parties right across the country is that they must continue to make the right long-term decisions to achieve a sustainable peace.

“It is also important that, as we move forward, we see Iraq’s neighbours playing a constructive and responsible role in Iraq’s future. In particular, Syria should clamp down on the movement of foreign fighters and Iran must stop the provision of arms and training to those who attack the democratically elected Government of Iraq, the coalition forces in Iraq at that Government’s request, and the Iraqi people.

“We will also continue to focus on helping the Iraqi Government rebuild their economy and ensuring the Iraqi people have a stake in their future. British-led projects in southern Iraq have already helped to deliver enough electricity to supply 800,000 people and water supply for more than 1 million people,

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with this year another 120,000 people due to get power and 250,000 gain access to direct supplies of water. Our funding has helped the UN and World Bank repair and re-equip 1,000 healthcare centres and more than 5,000 schools, and train nearly 150,000 teachers. With British training and equipment, including upgrades to air traffic control systems, lighting and firefighting capability, Iraqi personnel are now regularly handling more than 20 civil flights a week at Basra international airport. And British mentoring and support has helped the Basra provincial council gain access to $400 million in central government funds for 2008—money that, in line with the council’s increasing ability to take the lead itself, it is now spending to further improve infrastructure and provide public services such as power, water, health and education.

“Last week, the Basra Development Commission agreed an outline economic strategy for Basra that sets out plans to encourage private sector and foreign investment. Britain is supporting the new Basra Investment Promotion Agency, which I met at the weekend, and the Basra Development Fund, which will provide loans to small and start-up businesses—key drivers of economic growth and job creation. I am grateful for the work of Michael Wareing, a leading British businessman, who co-chairs the Basra Development Commission.

“Nine months ago, I set out the key elements of our strategy for handing over security in Basra to the Iraqis and set out the stages for completing the tasks we have set ourselves. We completed the initial phase on target, handing over Basra to provincial Iraqi control in December. This allowed us to reduce troop numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 in September to 4,500.

“After the Iraqi Government launched Operation Charge of the Knights to enforce the rule of law in Basra, as my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary explained to the House in April, the military advice was that we should pause the further planned reduction so that British troops, together with US forces, could support the Iraqis in this crucial operation. Since then, we have responded to changing needs and embedded more than 800 UK personnel within the Iraqi command structure, at divisional, brigade and battalion level. The focus of the 4,100 UK forces still in southern Iraq is now on completing the task of training and mentoring the 14th Division of the Iraqi army in Basra. It is right that as we do so, we continue for the next few months to provide support at these levels.

“Other remaining military tasks, agreed with the Government of Iraq, and in close consultation with our US allies, include finalising the preparation of Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control and continuing to develop the capacity of the Iraqi navy and marines so they can protect Iraq's oil platforms, territorial waters and Umm Qasr port—all critical to Iraq's economic future. It is now right to complete the tasks we have set ourselves.

“We expect the Basra Development Commission to publish its detailed economic development plan

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in the autumn. We hope that local government elections will take place by the end of 2008. Subject to security conditions on the ground, our military commanders believe that the Iraqis will be able to take over development of Basra airport by the end of this year. They also expect the first stage of the general training and mentoring of the combat troops of the 14th Division in Basra to be complete around the turn of the year.

“As the focus shifts from training combat troops, we will then move forward to the specific task of mentoring headquarter and specialist staffs. Our military commanders expect the 14th Division in Basra to be fully trained during the first months of next year.

“As we complete these tasks, and as progress continues across these different areas, we will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq. Of course, future decisions will be based, as I have always said, on the advice of our military commanders on the ground. But I can tell the House today that just as last year we moved from combat to overwatch, we would expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009 as we make the transition to a long-term bilateral partnership with Iraq, similar to the normal relationships which our military forces have with other important countries in the region.

“The Defence Secretary and our military commanders will now work with the Iraqi Government to formulate agreement on the details of such a partnership, including the necessary legal basis, and he will report to the House in the autumn.

“I believe it is right that having successfully trained and mentored large numbers of the Iraqi forces, and having successfully worked with the Iraqis on a new economic development strategy, we complete the key tasks we have agreed with the Iraqi Government: training the 14th Division of the Iraqi army in Basra; preparing Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control; pushing forward economic development; providing the necessary support for provincial elections; honouring our obligations to the Iraqi people; and, at all times, ensuring the safety of our Armed Forces, whose professionalism and dedication have brought us to this stage and whose service to our country I once again commend to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

1.14 pm

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating this important Statement. A military commitment to containing—indeed, sustaining—Iraq has scored national affairs for nearly a generation. Week after week, Parliament hears the litany of brave young men and women who have laid down their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot fully express our gratitude to them or our admiration for the skill and fortitude of our troops in their varied and often changing missions in this troubled region. So many of the aspirations and enmities causing the multi-layered and overlapping tensions in this region are centuries old. I wonder whether we are any nearer a solution now. In fact, are we any nearer to knowing what the solution is?

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It is clear that Iraq must be restored to being a great nation, a pivot of regional affairs—a nation that with security and stability could and should be one of the richest in the world. But while we welcome the Prime Minister’s assessment that President Bush’s troop surge has been a success, there is still far to go.

As the Prime Minister says, Iraqi army and security forces are now performing better and the Statement promises further progress in Basra, but what prospect have we that in Basra a woman may walk without a veil and go without fear? What hope is there of accelerating economic reconstruction, including even faster progress than reported to the provision of basic amenities such as reliable electricity and clean water?

While there are improvements in security in Basra city, can the noble Baroness confirm that the provisional reconstruction team is still based at the airbase? What prospect is there of a move to Basra proper, and have the circumstances for a move been clearly defined?

I welcome the fact that this time the Prime Minister has not made the error of grandstanding in Iraq on reducing troop numbers—a soundbite never properly fulfilled, to the detriment of his own political reputation and force morale. What is the policy on troop reductions? Everyone wants to see our forces out of Iraq as soon as it is practicable to do so; but is not the right approach, which we have advocated and the Government now seem to be adopting, to lay out conditions which have to be met, to achieve the objectives we set ourselves and, only then, withdraw the troops? Does the noble Baroness accept that there should be no more artificial timetables, as the Prime Minister said only on 19 July? Will she assure the House that no private undertakings have been given to either US presidential candidate? We have been there before, my Lords. Good personal relations with a US president are one thing, British national interests sometimes another.

What is our reaction to the call from the Iraqi Government that all US combat forces, and so, presumably, all UK troops, should be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2010?

What is to be done about the 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq in recent years? What discussions have taken place about their future? Does the noble Baroness agree that the long-term stability and prosperity of Iraq depend upon their eventual resettlement? Will she assure the House that there will be fair, honourable and dignified treatment for those brave Iraqis who helped our forces as interpreters and in so many other ways? Some noble Lords may have seen reports of the squalid and demeaning conditions in which some of these families are living. Can the noble Baroness tell us how many families have been transferred here? Will she assure the House that they will not be placed in accommodation in the UK that no one else will accept? Such action would shame our country.

A second certainty of the resolution of the crisis is that Iran is a proud and ancient nation, one of the anvils of world civilisation, whose particular religious identity has normally been a core of its sense of what it is. It is, and will be, a regional superpower. It must be treated with subtlety and respect. If it feels threatened, it will claim the right to defend itself and, of course, security runs two ways. That said, Iran has a duty to behave with responsibility. Its outrageous threats to

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the very existence of Israel were rightly condemned by the Prime Minister as abhorrent. Its sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas in encircling Israel is equally threatening to Israel. That is no route to justice for the Palestinian people. What engagement, if any, is there with the revolutionary Hamas regime in Gaza, and can the noble Baroness confirm that Hezbollah now has an effective military, political and constitutional block on the Government of the Lebanon and any action by them? What is being done there? After all, France has the EU presidency; it has a historic link with Lebanon. What is President Sarkozy doing to help the matter?

What did the Prime Minister mean when he said that Iran would not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons? It is, of course, a nightmare prospect, and something that we must all strive to avoid, but what are the Government’s plans? Will there be sanctions? If so, what, where, when, and enforced by whom? What are the implications for the security of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, within range of Iranian reprisal? How can Russia and China be brought, as they must, into the resolution of these issues? Does it need a fresh start? When will we know whether Mr Blair’s mission served whatever credible or useful purpose it may once have had?

It would be tempting to ask about Afghanistan, for the issues are linked and the impact on the desperate overstretch of our troops enormous, but I shall ask only this. We are hearing new voices from Washington talking of potentially pursuing al-Qaeda into Pakistan, whether the Pakistan Government agree or not. What is the UK Government’s view on that?

As we leave Westminster for pleasant places, families up and down the land keep a watch on photographs of loved ones far away, doing dangerous duty for our country. Across the Middle East, millions yearn for a peace that is so elusive and for leadership ready to take the risks that will break the mould of poverty, hatred and the gun. In the weeks ahead, we should not forget any of them. The prize for success would be immense, but the costs of lack of care and clarity in our objectives are incalculable. As our nation, with its long experience, already knows, none would be spared the pain. Whatever options are charted out in the months ahead, populist disengagement, politically, diplomatically, or even militarily, is not now among them.

1.22 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, we, too, are grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in the other place. We join in the tributes paid to members of our Armed Forces and civilian personnel serving with them in Iraq and send our condolences to all the relatives of those whose lives were lost in that theatre.

We welcome the good news on the reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure—the education and health facilities, water, electricity and so on—although we cannot help reminding the noble Baroness that we would not have had to do that if we had not embarked on the misguided and foolish invasion of Iraq some years ago. It is as a result of allied activities, which have destroyed so much of Iraq’s infrastructure, that these operations are necessary now.

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We also think it disappointing that no further timetable is given in the Statement for withdrawal or even an estimate of when our training role will end. What is the number of troops at Basra airport? Will they be brought back to the United Kingdom or serve elsewhere in Iraq when we hand over at the end of the year? The remaining handovers, which are scheduled to happen by the end of the year, will surely result in a predictable number of reductions of troops in Iraq. The noble Baroness could have given us some indication of what those numbers would be. It is very unsettling for the troops serving in the theatre not to have any idea of how long they will remain there and when their tour of duty end.

The Statement contains references to the foreign militants crossing the border from Syria. Do we have any knowledge of who is organising and funding them? In our discussions with the Syrian Government, have we made any progress towards halting the operations and getting at the sources of their training and funding? Similarly, with Iran, what representations have we made to Tehran and what response have we had on the army and the training of terrorists? The reduction in the number of attacks on British personnel in Basra is an indication of some success in persuading both Syria and Iran not to engage in these operations, but is it not also a product of better political relations between the Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq? We do not hear anything these days about the Mahdi Army. Does that mean that it has been incorporated in the political process? I certainly hope so.

The Statement refers to al-Qaeda and gradually overcoming its forces. Is that meant to be a generic label or does it imply that there is some unification of the command structures among the militants still operating in southern Iraq?

The Statement says nothing about Afghanistan, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. As we progressively reduce the number of our troops in Iraq, is it the intention to support the operations in Afghanistan or will we repatriate the troops liberated from those operations to the United Kingdom?

1.26 pm

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for their remarks. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, began in a rather philosophical frame of mind, which is important as we consider what is changing, particularly in Basra and with the role of the British forces there.

There is no doubt that the improvements are real. Noble Lords will have the benefit of reading the Select Committee report from the other place, with the information that it has put in the public domain. We are very pleased with the progress—although, as noble Lords would expect, we are cautious about making sure that it is not as fragile as it has been in the past and that it will enable Baswari people to be able to live normal lives in exactly the way that noble Lords have described.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team will remain where it currently is until the time is right for it to move. I shall say nothing more about that, for the obvious operational reasons that noble Lords would

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expect. Both noble Lords asked about troop reductions; we have been clear that any proposals to reduce troops would have to be on the basis of intelligence at the time and what was being told to us by the military command at what was thought to be the most appropriate moment. It is important, with my right honourable friend bringing the Statement to another place and me bringing it to your Lordships’ House, that we keep this House up to date with the current thinking and that noble Lords are able to see the progress that is made. But we will not put artificial timetables on it; any timetables that are put will always have the conditionality that circumstances must allow for them.

We look forward to the bilateral relationship that I mentioned in the Statement between the Iraqi Government and ourselves. We, of course, agree that the long-term future of Iraq will be appropriately secured when people are able to return home and continue the lives that they had before. I, too, saw the reports about interpreters; as noble Lords know from a number of questions after previous Statements, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, we believe that we should treat these important people appropriately. I absolutely accept the relevance and importance of their role. It is my understanding that that is being done. I do not have numbers for how many are here; if I am able to get them I shall ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and others are aware of them.

For obvious reasons, I shall not discuss the role of the French President or the voices in the USA on any of these issues, particularly on Afghanistan, and noble Lords would not expect me to after this particular Statement. None the less, the Government are mindful of what is being said and we will make sure that we keep in touch with what voices are raised in any country on these important issues. This is not about populism; it is about making sure that we achieve the objectives that we have set ourselves in Basra. I hope that noble Lords will accept from the Statement that we have made important movement in the right direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, focused in his opening remarks on reconstruction and I agree with him that it is important. It is an emphasis that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development have rightly placed on the work that we are doing. It is important to ensure that there is economic investment, that we support the role of small businesses and the growth of enterprise and, as we indicated, that we provide support and training for teachers, support for the health service and so forth.

I do not agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about our being there. It is certainly true that we no longer have Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is also true that many of the opportunities in health and education and even the supply of basic necessities for people were available to only part of the population. We are involved in making sure that the whole population in Iraq is able to enjoy the basic amenities of life and continuing and developing economic opportunities. As I said, we will consider troop reductions as appropriate. Those troops who are based in Basra know how long they are there in terms of their tour of duty. We continue to keep the situation under review and work closely with the commanders in the ways that I mentioned.

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Both noble Lords referred to the situation with Iran. We know about the relationship between Iran and Iraq. Iran has a legitimate interest in the future of Iraq. There have been strong cultural, religious and economic ties. We welcome and encourage what we would regard as a healthy and constructive relationship. But Iranian actions run counter to the professed desire for a stable, prosperous Iraq. There are serious concerns about continued Iranian support for illegal Shia militia groups in Iraq. We know that elements of the Iranian state are providing material, training and funding against the Iraqi security forces. Of course, that undermines the elected Government of Iraq and causes further violence. We and the Iraqi Government have made it clear to Iran that it needs to cut ties and links with those groups and improve security on the border with Iraq to prevent the transfer of weaponry. Coalition forces continue to work to counter threats caused by illegal armed groups and to prevent the malign external support for them.

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