HC Deb 08 September 2003 vol 410 cc36-54 4.19 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Iraq and the middle east.

Let me begin with Iraq. When I last updated the House, on 15 July, we had witnessed the formation of the Iraqi governing council and successful military operations against elements of the old regime. In late July, there were the deaths of Saddam Hussein's two sons. The reaction to that in Iraq, including the Sunni towns north of Baghdad, spoke for itself. The political process was advancing too. On 14 August the Security Council adopted resolution 1500, which welcomed the establishment of the governing council and created the United Nations assistance mission for Iraq.

As the House is well aware, however, those positive developments have since been overshadowed by a series of atrocities. There was the bombing of the Jordanian embassy on 7 August, which claimed the lives of 17 people. That was followed on 19 August by the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which caused the deaths of UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others. Then on 29 August there was the assassination of Ayatollah Hakim in Najaf in a car bombing that killed more than 100 other worshippers.

Altogether, nine Britons have lost their lives in Iraq since the House rose on 17 July. In the south of Iraq, three separate attacks on 14, 23 and 27 August caused the deaths of five British soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, the Royal Military Police and the Lowland Regiment of the Territorial Army. Last Thursday Ian Rimell, a British mines clearance expert, was murdered in northern Iraq. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that our deepest condolences go to the families of the British victims and to the loved ones of all those killed by terrorists in Iraq, whether they be soldiers, international civil servants, Iraqi political leaders or Iraqi civilians going about their daily lives. I pay particular tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was an outstanding international diplomat.

I know that the House will also wish to join me in offering our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Fiona Watson, who died in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Many colleagues in the House will recall that Fiona was a highly regarded officer of the House, who worked as a senior researcher in the international affairs and defence section of the Library between 1992 and 1997. Her subsequent work for the UN secretariat was recognised as being of the highest quality. She will be greatly missed both by former colleagues here and by her fellow officials at the UN.

Investigations are under way to bring the perpetrators of those and other acts of terrorism to justice. The attacks appear to come both from supporters of the Saddam regime and from terrorist groups from elsewhere in the region. What is clear is that those groups decided to target the UN and people like Ayatollah Hakim who were working so constructively and courageously for a new Iraq precisely because they could see the progress that the UN, the coalition provisional authority and the Iraqi Governing Council were making. They wished literally to blow the process apart.

The threat from terrorists is now not just to the coalition forces, but to the Iraqi people and their future. That is now increasingly recognised by the international community. Whatever view was held about the military action itself, there is a determination throughout the civilised world that we must all ensure that the terrorists fail in their objective. For our part, we will not be deterred from our overall goal: to hand sovereignty to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible in conditions allowing them to build a secure and prosperous country. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Foreign Secretary, but we really cannot have electronic devices going off in the chamber. May I urge Members either to leave them outside or switch them off?

Mr. Straw

I was talking about sovereignty. Sovereignty can only be fully exercised in a climate of security. That is why the continued presence of coalition troops is vital if Iraq is to manage the transition to representative government, and to build a society based on tolerance, human rights and the rule of law.

At present there are 140,000 United States troops and more than 10,000 British troops in the country. Another 15,000 troops have been provided by 25 other nations, including 5,500 from five existing European Union member states and 2,300 from five accession countries.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence told the House earlier today, we will be deploying additional troops in the near future to the UK area of operations in south-eastern Iraq. This deployment will give extra capabilities to our commanders in theatre and increase our capacity to help to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.

Urgent action is also being taken to build up Iraq's own security forces. Police numbers now stand at 37,000, and it is planned that that figure will rise to some 70,000. The training of the new Iraqi Army has begun with a target of three divisions by the middle of next year. An Iraqi civil defence corps of 14,000 is being trained and rapidly expanded to take over many guarding and patrolling duties, freeing up coalition forces for more demanding tasks.

On the question of further evidence relating to Saddam's illegal weapons programme, the Iraq survey group continues its work, albeit in a difficult security environment. It is a long-term task, and the survey group will make a progress report at an appropriate time.

I do not, in any way, underestimate the scale of the security and other problems that we face. They are very serious, but we should not lose sight of the effective work of the coalition provisional authority under ambassador Bremer and coalition forces and that of Iraq's governing council and Ministers. This week, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our former ambassador to the UN, will be going out to Baghdad as the British Government's special representative. Last month, Sir Hilary Synnott, our former high commissioner in Pakistan, took up his post in Basra as the regional co-ordinator for the CPA in southern Iraq. I know that the House will join me in sending them our good wishes.

The international staff in Iraq—including many Britons—are doing vital work in difficult circumstances. The delivery of essential services is gradually improving, food distribution systems have been restored and all 240 hospitals in Iraq are functioning. With the help of UNICEF, more than 22 million doses of vaccines have been provided—enough for 4.2 million children.

By the end of June, most schools in Iraq were open. We have launched an upgrade of school facilities, and 70 million revised textbooks will have been printed by the end of December. Universities have been operating as normal.

The water sector is obviously one of our top priorities. Projects are in hand in Baghdad and elsewhere to upgrade treatment plants and to build new ones to serve 11.5 million people The network has, however, been badly hit by organised sabotage, exacerbated by shortages of parts and chemicals.

Electricity and oil supplies have also been targeted by the terrorists. In response, an Iraqi force is being trained and armed to guard Iraq's oil and power facilities as well as its bridges and dams. Iraqis are helping coalition troops to secure the 19,000 km of power lines and the 7,000 km of oil pipelines in Iraq.

Our Department for International Development is moving quickly to allocate new funds for emergency infrastructure programmes in southern Iraq.

One of the immediate consequences of the bombing of the UN building on 19 August has been the scaling down of the UN presence in Iraq. We are in close touch with the UN about the implementation of further security measures to help it to restore its activity.

Over as short a time scale as possible, our overall goal is to create the conditions in which the Iraqi people can take responsibility for the governance of their country. Two months after its formation, the Iraqi governing council is heavily involved in key economic and political decisions. On 3 September, it appointed 25 interim Ministers. From now on, Iraq's government ministries will be led by Iraqi politicians, who will be responsible for implementing policy and for managing their budgets. Along with the governing council and the CPA, the Ministers enjoy full rights to initiate policy. The overall effect of those important changes has been a significant transfer of responsibility from the CPA to the Iraqis, a process that should accelerate from now on.

On the international front, I have been working closely over recent weeks with Secretary Powell and my colleagues within the EU and elsewhere to strengthen the UN mandate in Iraq. A draft text of a resolution is being discussed at the Security Council. Let me set out its central elements. The draft reaffirms the UN's support for the work of the governing council. It calls on the governing council to submit a timetable and programme for the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections. The United Nations will itself be heavily involved in preparing the electoral register and other electoral processes.

The draft also proposes a United Nations-mandated multinational force under existing unified command arrangements. That should help to facilitate the provision of troops by other countries so far not involved in Iraq.

Finally, the text refers to next month's conference in Madrid, which will be attended by a number of potential donor countries and the international financial institutions, and calls upon UN member states to help the Iraqi people by providing resources for rehabilitation and reconstruction. Discussions on the draft resolution will resume in New York later today. I will of course report any outcome to the House and make available to it any published text.

Let me now turn to the situation in Israel and the occupied territories. I very much regret, as I am sure does the whole House, the resignation of the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, over the weekend. We had confidence in him and we supported his efforts to deliver the Palestinians' implementation of their road map commitments in a difficult climate of violence and uncertainty. It was Abu Mazen's appointment in April that triggered the publication of the road map, which set out the aim of a secure state of Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state and how we achieve that.

But Abu Mazen's resignation must not be allowed to send the peace process back to square one. The Palestinian leadership must unite around a clear commitment to road map implementation. It needs to take firm action to stop the terrorists planning and executing attacks—such as the appalling 19 August bus bombing in Jerusalem—from territory under Palestinian Authority control.

The speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Abu Ala—has now been nominated to take over from Abu Mazen. Abu Ala is a Palestinian leader with a long track record of efforts for peace. If his appointment is confirmed, we will judge him by his commitment to the peace process.

Similarly, we shall continue to encourage Israel to meet its obligations. Israel must create a climate within which moderate Palestinian leaders can prevail: by freezing settlement activity; by removing outposts, which are illegal even under Israeli law; by restoring Palestinian freedom of movement, so allowing economic activity to restart; by ending so-called targeted assassinations; and by ensuring that the security fence does not encroach on Palestinian land.

The House will wish to know that this morning I spoke to Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister, to Secretary of State Colin Powell and, shortly before making this statement, to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

The responsibility of the international community is to do everything that we can to hold both sides to their commitments under the road map and to isolate the terrorists, and we shall continue to play our part. I welcome the fact the European Union is taking a lead in that respect. At the meeting that I attended on Saturday, European Union Foreign Ministers unanimously agreed that the Union should freeze the assets of Hamas.

In respect of both the middle east peace process and the situation in Iraq, Britain is seeking, in partnership with others, to bring its influence to bear on a region that has suffered unimaginable torment for decades. In recent months, thanks in part to our actions, the people of the area have had reason to believe that a peaceful and prosperous future might be within reach. That prospect must be kept alive against those who would plunge the region into chaos. We are determined to work with the international community to establish peace and security across the whole region. Despite the setbacks of recent days and weeks, that is the course that we shall continue to pursue.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his lengthy and detailed statement and for advance sight of it.

I, too, deeply regret the resignation of Abu Mazen, which is an enormous blow to the middle east peace process. I fear that he has been let down by all sides. Abu Ala has shown in the past that he is prepared to work for peace in direct dialogue with the Israelis. If his appointment is confirmed, I hope that he will be given a fair chance to deliver on the principles of the road map, sufficient power by the Palestinian Authority to deal with the problems of terrorism, and a stronger adherence to the road map by the Government of Israel to enable him to show tangible benefits for the Palestinian people.

The news from Iraq is more grim than it was when I was in Baghdad at the end of July. I, too, pay tribute to the members of our armed forces who recently lost their lives. They died in the service of their country and the people of Iraq, whose lives they were trying to make better. Our thoughts are with their families and the families of Fiona Watson and Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Despite criticism of what we are doing in Iraq, I have nothing but praise for the performance of our troops in and around Basra and our team working with the CPA in Baghdad. Peacemaking and nation building are never easy, and they are all doing a remarkable job. I, too, wish Sir Jeremy Greenstock and Sir Hilary Synnott well in the challenging posts that they have undertaken.

On weapons of mass destruction, does the Foreign Secretary still agree with the Prime Minister that concrete evidence of such programmes and their product will be found? In May, the Prime Minister said that such information existed and would be published in due course. To restore public trust, would it not be a good idea to publish it now?

The latest draft United Nations resolution is welcome. There must be a single chain of command and control, which, given the circumstances on the ground, should logically be America-led. Will the Foreign Secretary tell his French colleague to stop posturing and start helping people to get on with what urgently needs to be done?

In Afghanistan and Bosnia, the UN has a significant role to play on the political and humanitarian front in co-ordination with NATO and American forces, but without controlling them. Why should it not do the same in Iraq?

I note what the Foreign Secretary said about Iraq's own security forces. The police numbers are encouraging, but is it not the case that the numbers in Baghdad, where some of the greatest difficulties arise, are still woefully low?

The greatest threat to security now is targeted terrorism, designed, as recent targets clearly demonstrate, to destabilise and undermine the reconstruction of Iraq. Oil, water, political leaders and international institutions are classic terrorist targets, and I fear that they will not be the last.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that such terrorism must be pursued and ruthlessly eliminated with the help of the Iraqi people as a whole? Does he share my concern that the Iraqi people are, as I learned in Basra and Baghdad, increasingly resentful at the lack of urgency in restoring basic amenities such as water, electricity and sewers? They cannot understand why that is taking so long. They are incredulous that countries that put men on the moon 30 years ago cannot get the lights working in Iraq in four months. Such frustrations will only make Iraqi people less co-operative in fighting terrorism and, as recently seen in Basra, a source of instability.

This is certainly not the fault of our armed services. Indeed, as senior British military sources in Iraq told me, additional troops will achieve little if civilian reconstruction remains stagnant.

It is now clear that there has been a culpable failure of planning for post-war Iraq, for which the Government cannot this time escape blame. Ministers assured us that all this was in hand, so what went wrong? What plans were made to ensure the swift rehabilitation of basic amenities and utilities once the war was over? What plans were Drawn up for the speedy signing of contracts? How many reconstruction contracts are in place and how many are in preparation? What on earth has the Department for International Development been doing, and is it not about time that the Foreign Secretary took a grip?

The coalition urgently needs to show that it has a clearly defined strategy and that Iraq will be restored as soon as possible to the Iraqis. I therefore welcome the appointment of Iraqi Ministers by the governing council, but that, too, will be an empty gesture if major reconstruction work does not start soon.

What we did in the war was right. What we must not do now is squander the peace for lack of political direction. Yesterday, President Bush demonstrated a clear determination to make reconstruction work. This Government should get their act together and do the same—and this time announce it by a direct oral statement in Parliament and never again, as last week, by leaked memo. After the events of the last few weeks, that should be a totally discredited practice.

Mr. Straw

On the middle east, I note what the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has to say. As I came into the Chamber there was no information confirming the appointment of Abu Ala as Prime Minister. I have indicated to the House that we will do all that we can to support the process and to encourage all sides to stick to their obligations under the road map, because the simple fact is that it remains the only viable path to peace for millions of Israelis and Palestinians.

The situation on the ground in Iraq is more serious than when the right hon. Gentleman was there on 27 July and there is one reason for that. He asked me whether I would tell my good friend Dominique de Villepin to "stop posturing". I was reminded of the parable of the beam and the mote at that point. On that specific piece of advice on diplomacy, I do not wish to take his advice because I had constructive conversations with Dominique de Villepin at the weekend and we are looking forward with all other EU foreign Ministers to a constructive outcome to the discussions to provide an enhanced and strengthened role for the UN in Iraq.

I understand the difficulties of the official Opposition, who fully backed the military action that we took. However, it was not a shortage of planning that led to the atrocity against the UN on 19 August, or the even worse atrocity on 29 August against over 100 worshippers in Najaf; it was terrorists. If the right hon. Gentleman fails to understand that difference, it is not surprising that his analysis is so poor.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence put to the Conservative defence spokesman: if we are now being told that the planning has been totally inadequate—a point on which his right hon. Friend was totally silent when he visited Iraq on 27 July; I checked on Conservatives.com just to see—and that this is a total shambles, is that also a criticism of President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who have the greatest responsibility for Iraq? I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman making clear at whom his criticism is directed. [Interruption.] Yes, we take responsibility for what is happening in the south, but he must understand that by general agreement what has happened in the south has been more satisfactory than what is happening in many other areas, thanks precisely to those whom he is praising, who have done the planning and implementation with political direction. He needs to spell out—let this be heard very clearly in Washington—whether these criticisms from the neo-cons' friends also extend to the American Administration in Washington.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me two other questions. He asked about concrete evidence in respect of weapons of mass destruction. Plenty of concrete evidence of weapons of mass destruction was put before this House in successive documents—[Interruption]. Well, it was sufficient to convince Opposition Members and others on 18 March. If they are now saying that the 173 pages of the weapons inspectorate's reports were not sufficient, I am surprised that they did not say that during the debates on 17 and 18 March.

As for further evidence, the Iraq survey group is doing its job in more difficult circumstances than had been anticipated because of the situation caused by terrorists. At the appropriate moment, details of their work will be published.

On a unified command, we agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there should be a unified command of a multinational force under the United Nations mandate, and I do not anticipate very great difficulties in achieving that.

Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I begin by associating myself with the Foreign Secretary's expressions of sympathy and condolence, especially in relation to Fiona Watson, who was formerly my constituent and whose parents still live in Pittenweem in north-east Fife? The whole community was saddened by her death.

It is clear that there is broad agreement between the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and me on the middle east, so let me confine myself to two specifics. First, following the events of the past week, is it conceivable that there can be any lasting settlement that does not in some way involve Yasser Arafat? Is not the ever-extending so-called defensive wall an increasingly insurmountable and political obstacle to peace?

Secondly, I hope I might be forgiven the observation that the indignation of Conservative Members about Iraq might ring a little more true if there had been a little more scepticism before the conflict.

I was much impressed—indeed, persuaded—by the memorandum attributed to the Secretary of State, which somehow found its way into the public domain last week. Is it not clear that if additional troops from the United Kingdom and elsewhere are to be provided, they will be made available by capable nations only if a fresh United Nations mandate allows the UN a greater role in security and reconstruction than the Draft resolution currently contemplates? Indeed, a vital role in precisely the language used by President Bush and Prime Minister when they held a press conference in Northern Ireland before the outbreak of the conflict.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for the tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks. I repeat my condolences to the family and friends of Fiona Watson. I know from direct contact with the family how devastating it has been for them and for the whole community in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's constituency.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked two questions about the middle east peace process, the first of which was whether there can be any lasting settlement that does not involve Yasser Arafat. If we ever secure a lasting settlement, it will be for historians to judge what positive or negative contribution Yasser Arafat made to it. Our position is that we deal with Heads of Government, and that includes Yasser Arafat. For that reason, among others, on 23 August, having spoken to Abu Mazen about the security situation, I spoke on the telephone to Chairman Arafat.

On the question of the security fence, I have made the British Government's position clear.

On the question of the United Nations mandate, a large number of countries have provided, or are providing, good troops on the ground, with 8,000 troops being provided by 10 other European Union members states or accession countries. Other countries might require a further mandate, which is one of the reasons for considering a further resolution, which I believe we will secure.

Under Sergio Vieira de Mello's leadership, the United Nations was playing an increasingly vital role, which is why I believe that terrorists decided to target the United Nations. Had the UN not been playing that role—had it been an irrelevance—it would not have been a target. The attack was launched precisely because, despite all the scepticism, the UN, the CPA and the governing council were making progress. The United Nations has been doing a very good job, but I hope that the negotiations will further strengthen what it can do in this profoundly important country.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

Nobody can possibly derive any satisfaction from the situation on the ground in Iraq, which is grave and seems to be becoming graver, but does my right hon. Friend believe that his comments about the "Iraqisation" of the process are fundamental? At present—I do not intend these comments to be construed as aggressive—Iraq has a form of colonial government, and until such time as the Iraqis can see that there is an Iraqi Government of competence and capacity the difficulties of the present situation will continue.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is correct. Of course, I was insistent that we described ourselves, with the US, as the occupying power in the first resolution because we were, and I thought that there should be no dubiety about it. But I also believe, as the whole House does, that we have to move swiftly to moving sovereignty to the Iraqi people. That is one of the aims of part of the Draft text that is now being discussed: to get the governing council, along with the United Nations Secretary-General and the CPA, to establish a clear timetable for moving from where we are to a fully representative Government by Iraqis for Iraqis with elections. I think that, once we have got that, with those signposts, along with other progress we hope to see made, the situation may well improve.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

With hindsight, what should have been done differently to prepare for the aftermath of the war in Iraq?

Mr. Straw

I think that there could have been more effective preparations to deal with the possibility of terrorism. I do not for a moment suggest that everything was got right; that is palpably not the case. Certainly, one of the things that was not anticipated was the speed with which the Saddam Hussein regime would fall and the power vacuum that would be left. That said, when the shadow Foreign Secretary visited Baghdad in late July, there was gradual improvement—as I had seen in early July—across that country. It is not as a result of any defects in planning but as a direct result of terrorism that progress has been set back.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

On the leaked memo, I agreed with the Foreign Secretary when he said: The lack of political progress in solving the linked problems of security, infrastructure and the political process are undermining the consent of the Iraqi people to the coalition presence and providing fertile grounds for extremism and terrorism. Some of us forecast that that might happen. Will he tell the House how 2,000 more of our troops going into the gravest danger will stop that? Should he not be telling the House what the Government's exit strategy is and when we will bring the troops home?

Mr. Straw

Paradoxically, putting in more troops now and taking other action with the coalition forces and the coalition provisional authority to secure and then improve the situation is the route by which we will be able to hand over control of Iraq to the Iraqi people and then safely leave that country. That is what we want to do and what the Americans want to do, and we want to do so as quickly as possible, but we have very clear responsibilities not to create a vacuum there. I am fully aware of the frustrations of the Iraqi people—frustrations that existed in greater number under the Saddam regime but which of course could not be voiced because of the reign of terror that was operated. Of course I am aware of their frustrations, but Iraqis are the last people who wish coalition forces to leave tomorrow, as it were. They want a phased process of a handover of control of their country as quickly as possible to the people of Iraq.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

I remind the Foreign Secretary that quite a few Conservatives did not vote with the Government on 18 March. Does he agree that there is little point in sending thousands more troops so long as the project is being interpreted, however unfairly, as some anti-Muslim crusade? Instead of trying to get thousands more troops from France and Germany, could not the Government concentrate on trying to get some of the responsible Arab countries to participate? For example, would he consider approaching countries such as Egypt and Libya, which have behaved very responsibly in recent years and that could make a huge difference if they were seen to be participating in the Iraqi venture?

Mr. Straw

Countries round the world, including in the region, have an important role to play in respect of Iraq, not necessarily only in providing additional troops but in political support, which I hope will be another element in the resolution that is finally agreed from the discussions in New York. It was palpable around the whole region before 18 March that Saddam Hussein was unloved not only by his own people but by one leader and one set of peoples of the middle east, and it was they who were very pleased to see the back of him.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The US Administration recognise that they need allies, and are converted—at least in this area of policy—to multilateralism. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a special role in seeking to converge with the French Government to ensure that the EU divisions before the conflict do not spill over into the task of reconstruction, which is in all our interests?

What is my right hon. Friend's preferred timetable for restoring Iraq to the Iraqis and giving them a legitimate government?

Mr. Straw

I agree with my right hon. Friend's first point and I was much heartened by my conversations with EU Foreign Ministers at the weekend.

On the timetable, we all want this done as soon as is safe and possible, but the details of the timetable should come from the representatives of the Iraqi people on the Governing Council. It should not be initiated by the British Government.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Should we not put it on record that many of the forecasts of those who voted against going to war on 18 March have not come to pass? Should we not realise that it is not surprising that it takes a little longer than five months to replace dictatorship and anarchy with democracy? May I express the hope that those who are working for us out there are given our total support here?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. He has been consistent in his approach and has stood by the position that he took up to 18 March. I only wish that hon. Members on his Front Bench had followed a similar—

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)


Mr. Straw

Exemplary? I remind Opposition Front-Bench Members that the hon. Gentleman said that he was ashamed of them.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Did not Mahmoud Abbas's position become unsustainable when he was asked to deliver, in terms of suppressing terrorism, what he was not physically capable of doing while the Israelis are provoking terrorism by targeted assassination and by building the wall? Does he agree that there is no chance whatever for middle eastern peace as long as the Israeli Government are allowed to do whatever they think fit while Palestinians live in poverty and despair?

Mr. Straw

I spelled out clearly the Government's position on targeted assassinations and the security wall. We in the international community want the Israeli Government to follow that approach. On the discrete point about what brought down Abu Mazen, there was first the bombing by Hamas on 19 August, which killed a large number of entirely innocent men, women and children. There was a deliberate decision by Hamas, without any justification, to try to destroy the road map and undermine the authority of the Palestinian Authority.

The second problem that Abu Mazen faced was a lack of clarity about whether he was responsible for security forces in Gaza and, later, as it was hoped, on the west bank. The fact that there is such confusion, with some forces controlled directly by Chairman Arafat and some by the Palestinian Authority, is wholly unsatisfactory. In my conversation earlier today with the Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, I spelled out the imperative of ensuring that there is clarity in respect of the security arrangements, and then that the Palestinian Authority take steps that they are obliged to take under the road map—and that they have pledged to take—to deal with terrorists operating in their territory.

Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

May I first declare an interest, in that I recently returned from visiting Israel and Palestine with the Labour Middle East Council? We met Abu Mazen, who made it very clear to us that he felt that he was not being cut enough slack by the Israeli Government, that he did not have the opportunity to produce on the ground the results that the Israelis and the international community were expecting, because that Government were not doing their part with regard to settlements, for example. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that the Israeli Government give enough room for manoeuvre to a future Palestinian Prime Minister, and have the UK Government given any consideration to providing direct assistance to security forces on the Palestinian Authority side, to improve their detection of terrorism?

Mr. Straw

As I said, I have already been involved today in detailed discussions with the Foreign Ministers from Israel and the occupied territories, and with Secretary Powell. We stand ready to do everything we can. On the issue of providing further equipment for the security authorities in the occupied territories, we are certainly ready actively and positively to consider such requests, but we have to be assured about who will use such equipment and how it will be controlled. In our view, it will have to be controlled by the Palestinian Prime Minister and cabinet—specifically the Interior Minister. They must be people in whom the international community has confidence. If that does not happen, the current spiral will continue downwards.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Now that the Foreign Secretary is in plain-speaking mode, as evidenced by his attack on the shadow Foreign Secretary, will he extend that a little further and tell George Bush that he was a bit naïve and inexperienced when he flew on to an aircraft carrier on 1 May and said, "The war's over"? Will the Foreign Secretary also take the following into account? I heard him remark that he is meeting different people such as the French Foreign Minister to try to mend some fences with the United Nations. We tried to do that before the war began, and if there is any grovelling to be done to the United Nations, he should tell George Bush and his Republican guard to do the grovelling.

Mr. Straw

I know that the White House makes heavy use of the House of Commons website and Hansard reports.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Has not the Foreign Secretary been far too indulgent towards the attitude of the French and German Governments? On the issues of a United Nations resolution that can help with the reconstruction of Iraq, and of finding a framework for the operation of an international peacekeeping force, have the French and Germans not merely displayed schadenfreude but done damage to the prospects for peace in Iraq itself, and prejudiced any possibility whatsoever of a common European foreign policy, let alone of a single European Foreign Minister from either France or Germany?

Mr. Straw

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I have spoken week by week by telephone, and in meetings, with Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, the two Foreign Ministers in question. Of course, they held a different position in respect of military action in Iraq, and we should respect that, just as some people did in this House. But they have shown a constructive approach to the security and reconstruction needs of Iraq, and conversations with them in New York and in other capitals continue.

On the issue of a common foreign and security policy, all of this emphasises the need to keep the matter an intergovernmental one in principle. One area about which I have been speaking today—Iraq—has been the subject of a divided approach within Europe. The other area—the middle east—has been the subject of a common foreign policy. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that our own position has been greatly strengthen by the fact that we have the European Union with us, and I shall give one practical example. We could have taken action here to freeze the whole of Hamas's fundraising activities, but the fact that we were able to get the other 24 member states on board greatly strengthens the effectiveness of that action. The hon. Gentleman needs to address the question of whether he wants us not to seek to co-operate with our European Union partners. My view is that we should co-operate where we can. Often, co-operation achieves success, and where it does not, well, we take our own decisions.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Despite the existence of a recent opinion poll in Iraq showing overwhelming support for the strategy and record of the coalition in recent months, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still far too early to judge either the success or, indeed, the failure of the current strategy? Does he share my confidence that in one, two or five years' time we will be able to look back on the difficulties that face us today, and on the sacrifices that are being made, as stepping stones towards the successful re-establishment of a free and independent Iraq?

Mr. Straw

I do not think that there is any doubt that the vast majority of Iraqis overwhelmingly wish to see not only the end of Saddam Hussein but, obviously, the establishment of a representative Government in a stable and secure society. There are profound frustrations at the moment in some areas—not all—that we have to understand, but it is certainly too early to judge whether or not we have been successful. What I can pledge to the House is our determination, along with that of the coalition authorities and other countries working there, to do everything that we can to secure this goal of a secure, prosperous and stable Iraq.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Does the Foreign Secretary recall that many of us who voted against the war did so because we felt that no weapons of mass destruction would be found that posed a threat to this country? Indeed, we argued that this invasion would make terrorism worse, not better, and that is precisely the situation that we face now. Does he agree that we are in danger of being sucked into a Vietnam-type vortex whereby we will be constantly told that more troops are being provided? Is not the solution to try to re-engage the international community, and is it not about time that the American Administration and ourselves made active efforts to re-engage the French and the Germans? There is no point talking about the accession nations of eastern Europe. We have to deal with major international powers that have the ability to move the UN forward. Is the Foreign Secretary prepared to take the necessary steps to get us out of the morass?

Mr. Straw

Terrorism in a terrible form existed before 18 March and I do not accept for a second the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the causes of terrorism in Iraq today. As to re-engaging with France and Germany, and other key partners, we have been engaged with them throughout and, as I have already told the House, I am greatly encouraged by the constructive atmosphere in which I have held many discussions with my French and German counterparts in recent weeks.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

My right hon. Friend has always been particularly candid about the difficulties that we face in the reconstruction of Iraq, but can I ask him to re-examine the position of the Iraqi army? I believe that it was a major mistake to stand down that army and we should reconsider the possibility of it serving the country again. I spoke this morning to someone who had been a general at a military academy, who told me that he could provide between 50 and 100 people to help the coalition to bring about security. We should think more about the contribution that Iraqis themselves can make to the stability and security of their own country.

Mr. Straw

The answer to my hon. Friend is yes. As I announced earlier, the Iraqi army is being rebuilt and the aim is to have three brigades—about 40,000—by the middle of next year. I shall certainly take forward my hon. Friend's specific suggestion with the coalition provisional authority.

Mr. Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what additional non-military British and foreign resources will be made available for the reconstruction of Iraq, so that our Army does not have to spend time training police, running the banking system and supervising contractors? Will he have discussions with the Russians about the rebuilding of power stations, because they built them and they understand them best?

Mr. Straw

On additional funds, the Department for International Development has committed £198 million altogether this financial year. Within that overall figure, an allocation of £20 million was recently made for short-term infrastructure projects in the south of Iraq.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that we should, as quickly as possible, shift some responsibility from the military to civilians. That is why additional troops have been sent. The more quickly they can help the security environment, the easier it will be for civilians to do the job themselves.

I am familiar with the hon. Gentleman's argument that many power stations in Iraq were built by the Russians, and therefore have Russian parts and Russian dimensions. I have already witnessed what can only be described as serious sales pitch by representatives of the Russian power supply industry about the need for them to be in Iraq. I very much hope that they will be able to secure a fair proportion of the contracts.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

In the light of current evidence, does my right hon. Friend believe it possible that the UK Government and their allies may have overestimated the extent and immediacy of the threat from Iraq—for example, in respect of a restarted nuclear weapons programme, biological and chemical weapons stocks, the quantity and range of missiles and their speed of deployment?

Mr. Straw

On some of my hon. Friend's detailed points, I await the judgment of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, which will shortly appear. I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that the decision taken by an overwhelming majority of the House on 18 March to take military action is as justified today as it was on that day. I remind the House that the principal reason why it took that decision was the continued defiance by Saddam Hussein of the will of the UN and a judgment that he would continue to defy that will unless military action was taken. I also say—and we all have to think about this—that had we not acted as we did, the world would be a very much less safe place. The House needs to think about this: we would have seen a re-empowered and emboldened Saddam Hussein, who would have been a real and profound source of longterm instability in the region.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Since no occupying power in the Mesopotamian area over the past 1,000 years has succeeded in persuading the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds to co-operate, and if, as one of the Foreign Secretary's hon. Friends sensibly suggested, he is looking for an exit strategy, may I suggest the exit of the present Labour Government?

Mr. Straw

No Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

My right hon. Friend has not referred to the search for weapons of mass destruction. Can he explain how it has been possible to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest of Saddam Hussein and members of his regime, but no such rewards have been offered to those with information leading to the location of weapons of mass destruction? I have a strong feeling that the money would be quite safe.

Mr. Straw

I think that the factual basis of my hon. Friend's question is not quite correct. I know that the Iraq survey group and the military authorities have been seeking the active co-operation of all those who unquestionably were involved in Iraq's weapons programmes.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Given the welcome aim of involving the United Nations more and effecting a rapid transition to Iraqi self-government, does not the Foreign Secretary think it a good idea to suggest a date by which there would be total withdrawal of our troops, to provide a stimulus for those trying to create an Iraqi Government, and to send a clear message to the terrorists that we do not wish to have an army of occupation there for long?

Mr. Straw

It is sensible to set a timetable for the transfer of responsibility and sovereignty to the Iraqi people, but it would be irresponsible for us to do that without taking the lead from the Iraqis, and without making a judgment day by day and week by week about whether the security situation justifies a withdrawal.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

The whole House will join the Foreign Secretary in sending condolences to the families and friends of British victims in Iraq—but in view of the continual newspaper reports of the killing of ordinary innocent. Iraqis because of the over-zealous reaction of American forces, can the Foreign Secretary tell the House how many ordinary Iraqi men, women and children have died since the peace began—and if not, why not?

Mr. Straw

The reason why not is that I do not have the estimate to hand. Some of the estimates are very difficult to come by, but I shall see whether I can get an estimate and place it before the House.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm the reports that a significant number of Wahabi fundamentalists have crossed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia since the war, and are a major contributory factor to the violence? Are the Saudi Government helping or hindering in dealing with that problem?

Mr. Straw

It is true that a number of extremists have come into Iraq from a number of the neighbouring countries. The Saudi Government have given excellent co-operation to the coalition provisional authority and the coalition forces, and I think that they will continue to do so.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the Foreign Secretary remind the House that 500,000 children died as a result of the failed policy of containment, and that the Saddam preservation society on the Lib Dem Benches, who would have done nothing to get rid of Saddam, and the carping critics on the Tory Benches, should recollect that the policies that they supported in the past would have led to far more deaths of Iraqis this year to add to the 300,000 bodies that have already been dug up from the mass graves?

Mr. Straw

Terrible though those calculations are, I think that my hon. Friend is correct. Containment was not working. If we had not brought this matter to a head, my guess is that those who favoured some kind of deal with Saddam would have won the argument, and Saddam would have been re-empowered and emboldened to maintain and increase his reign of terror over his own people, in which it now turns out that hundreds of thousands—an estimated 300,000—died, as well as over the rest of the region.

The situation in Iraq today is not satisfactory, but we are working hard to improve it. However, in my judgment it is on any basis significantly better, and will be judged over time to be significantly better than under Saddam.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

All commentators refer to the increasing alienation of the Iraqi population because of what they see as the slow pace of reconstruction and the heavy-handedness in the response notably of the Americans. If there are increasing numbers of foreign troops and different nationalities in Iraq with many of whom the Iraqi people have no historical links, what steps will the coalition take to ensure that they understand that that is helping the reconstruction of their country and not merely helping to solve our military problem?

Mr. Straw

I pay tribute to the British troops operating in the south of Iraq, who have shown great felicity and courage in getting alongside Iraqi people to try to build up their confidence, as they have in other theatres. On the whole, that is working. Sometimes they are engaged in straightforward conflict with particular groups of Iraqis because of criminals or terrorists operating against them. The most important things we can do to meet the aspiration to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is to secure a rapid transfer of power to the Iraqi people. That process has been started. As I spelled out to the House in my statement, 25 Iraqi interim Ministers have now been appointed and there is a governing council that is far more representative than any government under Saddam Hussein and which will increasingly take responsibility for the services that make a difference in the Iraqi people's day-to-day lives.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

After five months of occupation, and now an increase in the deployment of British troops in Iraq, does the Foreign Secretary think it is now time to reconsider the closeness of British foreign policy to that of the Bush Administration, and perhaps declare some independence in our foreign policy, rather than following George Bush from war to war?

Mr. Straw

I could go through the areas with regard to which we fully support the United States and the European Union and those with regard to which we have differences of opinion, but I do not think that there would be any point. The simple fact of the matter is that in some areas of the foreign policy proposed by the Government and supported by the House, such as our approach to Iran and to Chairman Arafat, we happen to have disagreements with the United States, but even my hon. Friend would be well advised to recognise that overall for the security of the international community it would not be wise for Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States to get too far apart. His own constituents would suffer if we did.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

The Foreign Secretary said that real progress on the ground in Iraq is being overshadowed and undermined by the atrocities. Does he agree that it is being underplayed by some people in the United Kingdom? He mentioned that all 240 hospitals in Iraq are functioning. The remarkable political pluralism that is represented by the governing council, if it is successful, could have an effect not just in Iraq but well beyond its boundaries. The last time my right hon. Friend made a statement mentioning these positive developments I looked in the newspapers the next day but there was no report of any word of it. Does he hold out any hope of its being reported tomorrow morning?

Mr. Straw

I live in hope.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Labour Friends of Israel also visited the region before the recess and we met Abu Ala. We were impressed by his commitment to peace and his track record on that. At the time, there was great hope about the ceasefire on the Israeli side, but also scepticism that it might be an opportunity for the terrorists to regroup and strike again. Unfortunately, that fear was realised, and the terrible thing is that it reinforced the scepticism on the Israel side. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is vital for the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on and prevent terrorism—not to stamp out every incident. but to convince the Israelis that that is its intention? That is also vital for the Palestinian Authority, because it must be in control of its area. It is the first function of any Government to protect their civilians and to be in charge of their area.

Mr. Straw

Yes, I do. As I spelled out, the Palestinian Authority have a clear responsibility to do that, and we hold them to it, but the international community and the Government of Israel have a responsibility for the climate that is created in which these things can happen.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Involved in Saddam Hussein's totalitarian control of the Iraqi people was the domination and subversion of three major sets of organisations: youth organisations, women's organisations and trade unions. Now that those are free, they can help to bridge the ethnic divisions in Iraq and to build democracy. What is being done to facilitate those organisations' work in achieving that?

Mr. Straw

A good deal is being done to build up civic society in Iraq. Obviously in the last month the prospects for doing that have been set back by the terrorist outrages, which have created straightforward insecurity in the areas where they took place and an atmosphere of insecurity across wider Iraq. Already, however, the fact that so many newspapers have been founded and are being published and that so many political parties are being formed shows that, to pick up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for just south of Ayr—

Mr. Foulkes

Come on. Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

Mr. Straw

Yes, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—near Ayr.

That shows that Iraqis are already, even in these circumstances, enjoying freedoms of action and thought undreamt of during Saddam Hussein's regime.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

My right hon. Friend said in his statement of Abu Ala: "We will judge him by his commitment to the peace process." Having been fortunate enough to meet Abu Ala, may I tell my right hon. Friend that I believe that he is absolutely committed to the peace process and is a leader of wisdom and pragmatism? However, he needs to be able to demonstrate that he is his own man if he is to have any credibility with Israel and the Quartet. To that end, would it not be a good first step if he could persuade the Palestinian security chief, who resigned at the same time as Abu Mazen and showed that he was not only paying lip service to the aim of dealing with terrorism but was doing something about it, to change his mind and come back on board? That would go some way to meeting some of the concerns expressed in Israel that the Palestinian Authority have to act as one against terrorism, not just paying lip service to that idea, but doing something about it.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not for us to get involved in the internal politics of the Palestinian Authority or any equivalent authority. However, I would say that Abu Ala has a very distinguished record as one of the architects of the Oslo accord, and he is a man of peace. It is crucial that he is given authority by Chairman Arafat and that he has the security forces under his control, in a co-ordinated command that enables him to carry out the key task facing any Government in the occupied territories: establishing their authority over the terrorist groups, eliminating them and making the occupied territories secure. If they are able to achieve that, and the Israelis and the international community have an important part to play in that, confidence will build up and, with a bit of luck, we will return to the virtuous circle that existed before Hamas set about blowing up the peace process on 19 August.