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2.18 pm

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, following my visit to Baghdad and Basra yesterday, I should like to make a Statement about the future of British troops in Iraq—the timetables, our legal agreements and our force numbers.

Let me begin by asking the whole House to join me in paying tribute to the heroism of all our Armed Forces for their service and sacrifice in Iraq, and of course in Afghanistan, and in peacekeeping missions around the globe. Let me pay particular tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of their country—both military and civilian personnel. We salute their courage and will honour their achievements.

Today we remember in particular Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier, from 1st Battalion The Rifles, killed in Afghanistan yesterday. At a time of Christmas their families are uppermost in our thoughts.

On 22 July this year, I set out to the House the key remaining tasks for the UK’s mission in Iraq and I can report progress on all these tasks. Taken together these tasks reflect our underlying priorities—security for the region, democracy for Iraq, reconstruction to help the Iraqi people, security against terrorists, strengthening democracy in place of dictatorship, and reconstruction to give Iraq’s people a stake in the future.

First, on security, our aim has been to entrench security improvements by putting Iraqis in charge of their own defence and policing, and our most recent contribution has been to help with training thousands of new Iraqi forces and police men and women. In total, the UK has helped to train more than 20,000 troops and more than 22,000 police. In total, across Iraq, 500,000 troops and police have been trained by the Americans, the UK and other forces. In addition, we have mentored three brigades of 14 Division, with 9,000 troops to become combat ready—the very troops who have repeatedly mounted successful independent operations, making Basra now safer for its citizens. As a result, in the past year, violence and criminality in the Basra region have fallen dramatically. Yesterday, I met the commander of 14 Division and Iraqi security forces and their embedded British training teams working with them in Basra. I can tell the House that our commanders judge that training is making good progress and is now nearing completion.

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The second task is to strengthen Iraq's emerging democracy. At the heart of embedding democracy is the most immediate task of ensuring successful local, provincial elections. Provincial elections are now scheduled for 31 January 2009. The conditions are in place nationwide for a high turnout under a UN-supervised process, with security led by Iraq's own security forces.

The third task is reconstruction, giving the Iraqi people an economic stake in the future. This has meant restoring economic activity and building basic services in the Basra area. Recent proposals for new investment in the Basra area now amount to $9 billion, and, with assistance from Mr Michael Wareing, the Department for International Development has helped to arrange 18 investment missions. Following our London and Kuwait investment conferences, the new Basra Investment Commission, which we have helped to establish, is hosting a major investment conference today in Istanbul.

In addition, the Basra Development Commission has launched a youth employment scheme which is already working with nearly 100 employers to give work experience and training to, potentially, thousands of young Iraqi people, and we have helped to rebuild the economic infrastructure. Since 2003, the UK has spent £100 million on giving more than 1 million people improved access to clean water and power. Basra airport, which is central to future economic development, is now under effective Iraqi civilian control, delivering on the commitment I outlined to the House in July. This includes air traffic control and management of the airport terminal, which is now under the control of the Iraqi authorities. We expect to complete formal handover arrangements at the turn of the year. Since criminal gangs were driven out of the port of Umm Qasr by the operation Charge of the Knights this spring, there are now plans for major port expansion. New investor proposals and contracts, including from British companies, offer the potential to make Basra once again the major trading hub in the region.

On 1 January 2009, with the expiry of UN Resolution 1790, Iraq will regain its full sovereignty. Yesterday, in Baghdad, I told Prime Minister Maliki, and he agreed, that British Forces in Iraq should have the time to finish the missions I have just set out. In the past three weeks, including our meetings and our talks yesterday, we have made substantial progress with the Government of Iraq in defining, first, the tasks which need to be completed; secondly, the authorisations needed to complete those tasks; and thirdly, a way to provide a firm legal basis for our forces. At all times we have worked closely with President Bush and the Americans, and our other coalition partners.

On 16 December, the Iraqi Council of Ministers agreed to submit to the Council of Representatives a short draft law to give the presence of UK forces a legal basis. This law is now going through the Iraqi Council of Representatives. It had its First Reading yesterday and is scheduled to have its Second Reading on 20 December. We expect this process will be complete before UN Resolution 1790 expires. In the event that the process is not complete, the Iraqis have told us that CPA Order 17, which confers protection on coalition troops, will remain in place.

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So, our troops will have the legal base that they need for the future. Once we have finally completed our four tasks, including the training for the headquarters and specialists of 14 Division—with the precise timing of its completion decided by commanders on the ground—the fundamental change of mission, which I described in this House last summer, will take place at the latest by 31 May 2009. At that point we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just over 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July. The majority of these remaining troops will be dedicated to naval training.

Yesterday, Mr Maliki and I agreed that Britain’s future role will focus on continuing protection of Iraq's oil platforms in the northern Gulf against attack, together with long-term training of the Iraqi navy—work that I saw for myself at Umm Qasr—as well as support for training the officers of the Iraqi armed forces. In other words, there will be the realisation of the normal defence relationship, similar to that with other key partners in the region, which, as I agreed with Mr Maliki in July, was our joint objective for 2009.

This relationship will of course be just one strand of a broader enduring relationship with democratic Iraq, which I discussed yesterday with Prime Minister Maliki. Our future relationship will be one of partnership. We agreed to continue the shift of focus to economic, commercial, cultural and educational relations. The UK will maintain a large embassy, headed by a senior ambassador in Baghdad. We will still maintain small missions in both Basra and Erbil.

The embassy in Baghdad will expand its commercial office and the Department for International Development will expand its programme of economic advice in Baghdad. We have discussed with Prime Minister Maliki a plan for British companies to provide expertise to the Iraqi oil ministry and how Britain can help Iraq's plans to give 10,000 Iraqi students overseas scholarships.

In the past five and a half years, Iraq has faced great challenges and has endured dark days, but it has also made very significant progress. We can be proud of the way our forces carried out their mission in the most difficult times and we can be proud of what they have accomplished. In my discussions with Prime Minister Maliki, with the two vice presidents, with Basra Governor Wa'ili and with the army leadership, I was assured of Iraqis’ continuing gratitude for Britain’s role in freeing Iraq from tyranny. And so the UK’s new relationship with the new Iraq is one justly earned by the efforts and sacrifice of our forces, and our contributions to peace and reconstruction.

Iraq has many challenges to confront in the days to come. No road it takes will be easy. But, today, levels of violence across the whole of Iraq are at their lowest since 2003. Economic growth in 2008 should be almost 10 per cent. Yesterday, in Basra, I was told that for just 35 seats in the provincial assembly more than 1,270 candidates, with 53 different party labels, were standing for election. As Iraq approaches its second free provincial elections, democracy is growing. In supporting and protecting the progress we have made, the British campaign has endured great hardship and sacrifice.

Yesterday, I stood with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the head of the Iraqi army in Basra and our forces outside our headquarters in Basra in front of

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the memorial wall naming and commemorating every single one of the 178 British service men and women who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of our country. It was a fitting and moving tribute to men and women we must never forget. Because remembrance is vital, the Defence Secretary and I have decided, after consultation, that we shall bring that memorial wall now standing in Basra home to a fitting resting place of its own in our own country and we will do so when at the end of July the last of our combat troops leaves Basra. It is a memorial now for ever to be in Britain. I commend this Statement to the House.”

2.30 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I, too, pay tribute to Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles who was killed yesterday. I believe that I can speak for the whole House when I say that today’s announcement on troop withdrawal from Iraq is most welcome. It will be greeted with huge relief by the families of those still serving. The men and women of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have served this country superbly. Throughout, they have displayed true courage and professionalism in performing the tasks assigned to them. We must remember those who have fallen in Iraq, and those who have been wounded; their families and friends are in our thoughts. We must pay tribute, too, to the Iraqi interpreters who have worked so bravely with our forces.

As the noble Baroness has made clear, the UN mandate expires on 31 December. I am encouraged to hear that swift progress is being made in the Iraqi Council of Representatives to put in place a law that will provide a legal basis for the continued presence of UK forces. It is vital that the legal position of our troops is secure and settled by 31 December. It is also vital that UK forces have exactly the same legal protection as the Americans under their status of forces agreement.

As we consider today’s Statement on troop withdrawal, we must also consider three issues: first, the achievement of the past six years; secondly, the handing over; and, thirdly, and perhaps most important, what lessons can be learnt. The past six years have not been without significant achievement. In recent months there has been a dramatic, if imperfect, improvement in security. It is welcome progress that the Maliki Government can now take the lead in upholding security. Importantly, democracy has been given a chance to take firm root in Iraqi soil, which bodes well for the long-term future of the country and the wider region. But the noble Baroness must accept that daily conditions in terms of basic services and economic opportunities for ordinary Iraqis remain dire. It is deeply troubling that human rights abuses are being perpetuated, be they against Christians and other minorities, against women, or against blameless civilians across the country.

That leads on to the second issue: who exactly are we handing over to in Iraq, and what are the prospects for the future? The Iraqi army has increased in size and stature, and that is to be welcomed, but is it not

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also the case that 4,000 US troops will be needed to support them? Can the noble Baroness give the House her opinion of the ability of the Iraqi security forces and the police to maintain security in the medium term? It is in all our interests that Iraq should remain a united, sovereign country. What is the Government’s assessment of the current role of Iran in southern Iraq? I believe that it is vital for Iraq to be able to enjoy normal relations with its neighbours. Are the Government taking steps to encourage all Arab countries to send ambassadors to Iraq?

In terms of the economy, Iraq has established a large fiscal surplus. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that British firms can benefit from that? The Prime Minister mentioned the provision of help for Iraq’s oil industry. Does the noble Baroness accept that Iraq’s huge natural resources, including oil reserves which may be second only to those of Saudi Arabia, give it the potential to be a leading force for development and prosperity in the Middle East? Does she agree that the goal must be to see Iraq re-established as a stable and key nation in the region, and that we must use all our diplomatic resources and skills to see that position restored so that the Iraqi people and nation can regain respect after the harrowing years of destruction?

The third issue is the matter of lessons to be learnt for elsewhere, in particular Afghanistan. Does the noble Baroness agree that Iraq has taught us some difficult lessons on the need for such missions to be carefully planned, not just in terms of the war—fighting—but in the post-conflict phase? Does she further agree that they must have clear and specific objectives and that they must be properly resourced at the outset? Does she accept that the mission in Iraq showed grave deficiencies in all these respects and that it is essential that we do not perpetuate these mistakes in the continuing mission in Afghanistan? Is it not the case that in Iraq it was when key sections of the population decided to lend support to the Iraqi Government, and not just the insurgency, that the real breakthrough was made? Is that not a most significant lesson and one of equal importance for Afghanistan?

My right honourable friend in another place, Mr Cameron, has urged the Prime Minister to announce a full-scale independent inquiry, for which we on these Benches have been calling for so long. With that, we can draw the maximum benefit from all these lessons. I am sure the noble Baroness agrees that it is vital that we do not repeat past mistakes. Such an inquiry would not simply re-examine the decision to go to war, important though that is, but would examine the mistakes that were made in its planning and conduct. I do not see why such an inquiry need wait until all our troops have been withdrawn. To suggest otherwise might mean that we have to wait many years before holding an inquiry, which would not benefit our soldiers in Afghanistan now. It should examine the origins and conduct of the war in their entirety, and should be able to question Ministers, including all members of the War Cabinet. Will the noble Baroness add her support to the call to set up such an inquiry so that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made?

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I know I am not alone when I suggest that this is just one of the very great debts we owe to our Armed Forces.

2.37 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, first, I welcome the Statement made earlier by the Prime Minister in another place and repeated by the Lord President. I also commend and thank the Prime Minister for again visiting troops in Iraq, which I know is greatly appreciated by the Armed Forces. In an article in today’s Guardian, Sir Jock Stirrup argues that our Armed Forces should leave Iraq with their heads held high. I do not think there is any doubt at all that they will and that they have every right to do so, and we on these Benches salute the courage and professionalism of our armed services. We remember all those who have died, including Lieutenant Aaron Lewis and the other recent casualty, as we remember the many hundreds more who have been injured and will carry disability with them for the rest of their lives.

However, in commending the Army, one has to say some very harsh things about the political decisions that put it into those circumstances. In so doing, I look at people I have known for most of my political life and who have grown up with me politically. They are people I know to be honest and decent, but when faced with probably the greatest decisions of their political lives, I fear that they made disastrous choices. I joined the million-strong march against the war, with its very powerful slogan, “Not in my name”, and I still count it as something that I am most proud of in my life. My party, under its then leader Charles Kennedy, had to endure cries from both Benches of “Charlie Chamberlain” as we warned against the war.

There is a need for an inquiry into the conduct of the Government and for an inquiry into the conduct of the Official Opposition, who failed so lamentably to ask the right questions and joined in the general scramble to war. I hope we get the inquiry in 2009 because this war, for all the flowery language in the Statement, leaves Iraq’s future desperately uncertain. In this country, as we saw in the most recent trial, the claims by the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, that there was no link between Iraq and domestic terrorism is being proved wrong daily. I also believe—and will to the end of my days—that the so-called “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad, an undefended city, was a war crime as much as Guernica was a war crime. So let us have that inquiry.

If we are going to switch our forces to Afghanistan, I echo the demand by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that we make proper preparations for that commitment. There is a need for guarantees from the Government of Afghanistan about corruption and there will have to be some frank talking about burden sharing if we are to sustain public support in this country for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

I have three questions. When does the new naval commitment start and what kind of deployment does it involve permanently in the north Gulf? When on earth does the expansion of commercial, cultural and educational ties start and what kind of security guarantees can we give to the people who will work in this

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expanded British embassy? Finally, I received today a Christmas card asking me to remember the five British hostages held in Iraq. Did the Prime Minister have talks about their future while he was there?

Sir Anthony Nutting called his memoirs of the Suez debacle No End of a Lesson, and, unless mistakes are to be repeated, we need to learn the lessons of the Iraq war. I believe that the inquiry—as happened under the Conservatives after the Falkland Islands war—should be implemented while memories are fresh and while people can give valid evidence. Mr Blair said he was prepared to wait for the judgment of history. I fear that that judgment will be harsh—and rightly so.

2.43 pm

The Lord President of the Council: My Lords, I thank noble Lords opposite for welcoming the Statement. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, I am sure that it will be greeted with relief by the service men and women who do us proud, and of course by their families. We do indeed owe a great debt to our Armed Forces. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for saying that our troops will be, and should be, leaving Iraq with their heads held high. I am sure that they will do so. I also pay tribute to the interpreters and the many other civilian men and women who have worked with our troops in Iraq. They did a fine job.

I shall deal first with the inquiry and the lessons to be learnt. Yes, of course there are many lessons to be learnt about what happened in Iraq, about the things that we did not do as well as we should have done and about the things that we did wrongly. But also such an inquiry should look at the things that we did correctly. We have done good things in Iraq and that should not be forgotten. I agree that one of the lessons we must learn is that in such situations there must be a comprehensive solution and that all the arms of government—DfID, the Foreign Office and the multilateral agencies—must work together. That is an important lesson that we must now have learnt and that we must implement in Afghanistan to ensure that the outcome there is one that we all want.

I have been asked whether there is going to be an inquiry and when it will be. It is clear that there will be an inquiry; there is agreement across the House that there should and must be an inquiry, and that we must learn from our mistakes. But today is not the proper time to consider what the inquiry should look at and when it should take place. The fact is that it should and must take place when the last of our troops have left Iraq. What should be included in the inquiry is for another day.

The noble Baroness asked who we were handing the situation over to in Iraq. We are handing over to Iraqi service men and women and Iraqi police. We believe that they have the ability to maintain stability in that country. Of course the United States will be there, but it will be in the Basra region maintaining a base for the supply routes with Kuwait, which will be important for its withdrawal. It also needs a presence there to ensure that it is aware of what is going on, for its own security.

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The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the difficult decision to go to war—a decision that was painful for everyone involved—but we must not forget that Saddam was an evil tyrant. Too often we forget that. He mentioned Guernica and war crimes. That is a simile too far.

Are British companies benefiting from the new Iraqi prosperity? Yes, they certainly are, especially in Basra. Since April 2008, DfID has facilitated 18 visits to Iraq by 14 potential investors. That has led to proposals worth up to $9 billion. So our business men and women are getting in there, and I pay special tribute, as did the Statement, to Michael Wareing and his efforts on behalf of British business there. I understand that British trade and investment have a presence in Baghdad and that my noble friend Lord Mandelson will be visiting Iraq in the new year.

The naval commitment is already in force. We are training colleagues working in the Iraqi naval services. Initiatives in education, health and investment are already taking place. The noble Baroness said that UK troops must enjoy the same legal protections as US troops. The UK legal agreement with the Iraqi Parliament is not the same as the US agreement because our tasks are very different from those of the US. Our agreement is for a transition to a normal relationship while completing specific tasks. Both the service chiefs and the Prime Minister agree that our agreement provides the necessary legal protections for our troops.

The noble Baroness asked about the Government’s assessment of Iran’s activities in southern Iraq. We encourage all Iraq’s neighbours to respect fully its sovereignty, to support the development of democracy in Iraq and to reject violence and criminality—and we certainly call upon Iran to do so in the whole of Iraq. She also asked about the diplomatic relations of Arab countries with Iraq. We are doing everything possible to ensure that all Arab countries take up proper diplomatic relations with Iraq.

I am grateful for the comments of noble Lords opposite and I look forward to further questions. I, too, received a Christmas card from the supporters and families of the hostages; I was glad to be reminded of them. I cannot comment on any discussions that are taking place but this is a useful opportunity to remind ourselves that these people are being held.

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