HC Deb 15 December 2003 vol 415 cc1302-5
3. Mr.David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the security situation in southern Iraq. [143770]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I hold regular discussions on a range of issues related to operations in Iraq with military commanders and Government officials from the United Kingdom and, indeed, other countries. The protection of Iraqi and international military and security forces and, indeed, civilians is of paramount importance. Although in recent weeks there has been a decline in the number of security incidents in Iraq, following a peak of incidents in November, the security situation remains challenging. The vast majority of attacks occur in a certain area to the north and west of Baghdad. We obviously hope that particular events there over the weekend will lead to a reduction in the number of those attacks.

A crucial component of our efforts in Iraq is the training of Iraqi security forces. That has been given added impetus by the acceleration of the political timetable agreed by the Iraqi governing council on 15 November. To accelerate the rate of training, there is a requirement for an additional infantry battalion and a contingent of Royal Military Police. The House will recall that I have previously announced the earmarking of a ready battalion for deployment on surge operations for that reason. I have decided that that battalion, the 1st Battalion the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and two platoons of Royal Military Police, drawn from 101 and 156 provost companies, should deploy in January for six months.

Mr. Heath

We must all hope that the arrest of Saddam Hussein improves the security situation and does not make matters worse. May I return the Secretary of State to the National Audit Office report on equipment, because he rather glossed over it on Thursday? Yes, our troops are doing a superb job and a massive logistics exercise took place to equip our troops, but the fact remains that essential kit to keep our troops safe was not, and perhaps is not, available to them when they need it. Can he assure me that troops stationed in Iraq have all the kit that they need to be safe and that he is learning lessons and bringing forward plans to improve the situation?

Mr. Hoon

That is precisely what I have told the House. It is precisely what I told the Defence Committee. It is precisely what the Government reported to the House last Thursday, when we published our own lessons learned paper and it is precisely what the NAO report also says.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend referred in his initial answer to the political timetable. I appreciate that, in such a fast-moving situation, it is difficult to predict a week in advance, let alone six months in advance, but if we are to see a transition to democracy as quickly as possible in Iraq, which we all desire, a great deal of preparation will have to be done in advance of any election in compiling the equivalent of electoral registers and so on. Has my right hon. Friend given any specific consideration to the kind of protection that can be afforded to observers and those people who will be the agents of democracy who will go out now and in the six months ahead to make all the preparation necessary for a smooth—and I hope peaceful—transition to democracy?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. He is right that the reason why we judge it necessary to continue our security presence is to ensure that the transition can be as smooth as possible. I made it clear that we do not want British or other coalition forces to remain in Iraq for a day longer than necessary but, equally, we will not abandon the Iraqi people. We have obligations to ensure that they can take responsibility for their affairs, and the sooner they are able to do that safely and securely, the better.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the fourth infantry division on its brilliant coup in the capture of Saddam Hussein? Will he confirm to the House Saddam Hussein's exact status? As Saddam Hussein has been categorised as a prisoner of war, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that, under the terms of the Geneva convention, he can be properly interrogated?

Mr. Hoon

I certainly add my congratulations on what was a brilliant coalition effort by both military and intelligence forces on the ground in Iraq. As far as Saddam Hussein's present status is concerned, he is held under terms that are consistent with the Geneva conventions and international law.

Mr. Soames

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further on the NAO report? He gave robust and confident assurances on the Floor of the House and to the Defence Committee on the adequacy of combat supplies, which turned out in some cases not to be correct. In the light of the NAO report, which praises the brilliant triumph of British forces in Iraq, yet highlights several wholly unacceptable and grievous failings in the supply of vital equipment—including the supply of insufficient quantities of body armour—does he think that he might inadvertently have misled the House on those matters? If so, should he not reflect on his position?

Mr. Hoon

No, and no, and I have just given the answer to a previous question about the NAO report. Everything that I said was absolutely consistent with its conclusions. I am disappointed that right hon. and hon. Members have simply dealt with the detail rather than the overwhelming success.[Interruption.] Well, I think this is an important point. The NAO reports to the House and it reported a balanced conclusion. I made it clear to the House and the Select Committee that there were difficulties. However, it is important to look at the report's conclusions, not least on the logistic point. One of its key conclusions is: The logistic effort for the Operation was huge and key to success. I have never pretended to the House or the Select Committee that there were not particular difficulties, but dwelling on those difficulties and making out that they were somehow a cause of failure is utterly wrong. There are certain hon. Members in the House who frankly should know better.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab)

Given the outstanding success of the capture of Saddam Hussein at the weekend, will my right hon. Friend tell me whether that will make the security situation in southern Iraq better or worse?

Mr. Hoon

All that I can say is what I said earlier. Obviously we hope that those who have supported Saddam so far will end their support and recognise that we are all engaged in a determined effort to rebuild Iraq. The scenes of celebration by Iraqi people once they had learned the news of Saddam Hussein's capture is testament to that, but we must recognise that there will still be elements— not only those in Iraq but others who enter the country—who will continue the campaign against coalition forces. They have to be defeated.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

Is the Secretary of State saying to the House that it is a matter of detail that although part of the Government's premise for sending British forces into the war was that this country was at threat from nuclear, chemical or biological attack, troops were sent into theatre without protection from that?

Mr. Hoon

That is precisely the kind of detail that I was complaining about a few moments ago. If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to find the answer to his questions before raising them in such a spurious way, he would know that British forces were properly protected and that every British soldier had a chemical protection suit available to him. If the hon. Gentleman checked his facts rather than issuing press releases, it might be better for him and, indeed, the party that he tries to represent.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Whatever happens now, is not the capture of such a notorious mass murderer, Saddam, a victory for humanity? Is it not the case that had he been captured by some Iraqis rather than the Americans, his life might well have been ended immediately, which is what happened to Mussolini in 1945?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that the Iraqis would also have respected the principles of international law.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

Perhaps I can ask a general question. As the Secretary of State has just announced that he is sending another battalion—the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—and two platoons of police to train Iraqi security forces, does he accept that it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army when the coalition forces took power in Iraq, as evidenced not only by this additional deployment of troops, but by the fact that the troops already there have to deal with demonstrations by those very soldiers about their pensions and the administration of them?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that. Not disbanding the army might have produced a very short-term benefit, but the reality is that no one had confidence in the army, especially in relation to the extent to which it was still loyal to Saddam Hussein. Beginning again, with accelerated retraining—the purpose of deploying the additional forces—will give us a set of security forces across Iraq in which everyone has confidence. When the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, I am sure he will agree with that.