HC Deb 19 April 2004 vol 420 cc21-37
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on my visit to the United States from 15 to 16 April. In New York I met the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and in Washington I met President Bush. With them both, the two main points of discussion were Iraq and the middle east peace process.

There is no doubt that the present situation in Iraq is very difficult. Since mid-March the US has suffered 123 military fatalities, of whom 112 were killed in hostile action. One Ukrainian soldier was also killed during recent disturbances in Al Kut. A number of contractors have been targeted since the middle of March. In addition to a number of US civilians killed, one British, one Italian and one Canadian security guard, two Finnish businessmen, three German citizens and one Dutch contractor have been killed.

Most security incidents continue to occur in the so-called "Sunni triangle" north-west of Baghdad. This includes the town of Fallujah, where the US marines have set up a cordon against Sunni insurgents. US forces are also deployed around Najaf, where Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters are still ensconced. There is currently a pause in military activity in Fallujah and Najaf to allow discussion with those involved. I hope the whole House will join me in passing on our deepest sympathy to the families of all those who have died, including the civilians, Iraqi and western citizens.

We should not lose sight of what is happening across the majority of the country. Some 2,300 schools have been rehabilitated; $32 billion has been pledged for reconstruction; electricity generation is now above pre-conflict levels; higher oil production over the past four months has given Iraq $2 billion more in revenues than we expected even last November; and Iraqis are enjoying the benefits of a new Iraq currency worth 40 per cent. more than the discredited Saddam dinar.

Of course there will be resistance, as we are seeing in Fallujah and Najaf. It is absolutely clear what is going on there. All those who think they will lose out when Iraq becomes democratic—former Saddam supporters, foreign terrorists, militias led by extremist clerics—have a vested interest in seeking to delay or disrupt the transition towards democracy. They portray themselves as opponents of American occupation. In fact, they are opponents of allowing the Iraqi people the chance to choose their own leaders in free and fair elections. It is essential that the forces of reaction and terror do not prevail.

The vast majority of Iraqis want a prosperous, stable, democratic Iraq, at peace with its neighbours; a force for good in the region and the world; international forces staying not a day longer than they have to; Iraq's wealth, which is Iraqi wealth, and Iraq's oil, which is Iraqi oil; and a country that is a sovereign, independent state governed by Iraqis for the benefit of Iraqi citizens. That is exactly what the coalition want We are on their side against the small minority of those trying to disrupt this vision, and we have a political and military strategy to achieve it.

Our work on reconstruction and investment in Iraq must continue, so that all parts of Iraq know that they have a place and a future in the new Iraq. We will redouble our efforts to build the necessary capability of the Iraqis themselves to take increased responsibility for security and law and order. We will hold absolutely to the 30 June timetable for the handover of sovereignty. We will work with the UN Secretary-General's representative, Mr. Brahimi, and all members of the UN Security Council to secure a new Security Council resolution to set out the new arrangements.

The UN should have a central role, and it should be developed still further once the occupation ends on 30 June. The UN will have a vital role in the electoral and constitutional processes in 2005, and in co-ordinating international reconstruction assistance. I welcome the proposals made by Mr. Brahimi for this transition. As he says, the most important milestone is the election to be held in January 2005. Before then, there will be an interim Government from 1 July, to be formed before the transition, led, as he said, by a Prime Minister, with a President to act as head of state and two Vice-Presidents.

I also welcome Mr Brahimi's suggestion of a large national conference to promote dialogue, consensus-building and reconciliation in Iraq, and to elect the consultative assembly to serve alongside the Government in the period up to January 2005 and to help prepare for elections.

That is the vision. We will stay the course until it becomes the reality, and I hope that the whole international community will come together to support it. Whatever people's views of the wisdom of the war in Iraq, it must surely be in everyone's interest, not just in Iraq but across the world, for this vision of hope and democracy in the future of Iraq to prevail and to succeed.

I also discussed the middle east peace process with Kofi Annan and President Bush. We condemn the targeted assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, just as we condemn all terrorism, including that perpetrated by Hamas. We have to break out of this vicious cycle of suicide bombings and retaliation. Israel needs security, and the only lasting security will come from the stability of a solution to the middle east peace process with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

That is why we welcome the Israeli proposal to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the west bank. The road map remains the best way to peace, and disengagement from occupied territory can be an opportunity to return to it Disengagement is not the final step; it has to be an important first step on the road to a final settlement.

There was criticism that last week's announcement prejudged the issues of Palestine's final status: it should not and it does not. It is a statement of fact that those final status negotiations, when they come, cannot ignore the reality on the ground, but all issues, I repeat, are to be decided in that negotiation.

Israeli withdrawal also provides a chance for full engagement by the international community. The Quartet should seize this opportunity to help the Palestinian Authority take the necessary economic, political and security measures so that a viable Palestinian state becomes not just a concept but a real possibility. I hope that a meeting of the Quartet can take place as soon as possible, and in any event not later than May to discuss this issue.

Among the other issues that I discussed in both New York and Washington was Cyprus. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to Kofi Annan, both for the skill and distinction with which he has led the UN during difficult times and specifically for the work that he has done on Cyprus. I hope that the people of Cyprus will see the benefits of the United Nation's plan and vote for it in the referendums on Saturday.

I believe passionately that all these issues need to be seen in their wider context, for they are all linked. We are firm in response to terrorism and states proliferating weapons of mass destruction, but we must also be firm in tackling the breeding grounds of terrorism. That means broadening out the international agenda and confronting the issues upon which the terrorists pray: poverty, conflict and religious and ethnic strife.

Both the UN Secretary-General's high level panel on the future of the UN and the G8, chaired this year by the US and next by the UK, can help establish to this broad and common agenda and set a forward direction for the whole international community. It is more essential than ever that they do so.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

I begin by welcoming the fact that the Prime Minister decided at the last minute that he, and not the Foreign Secretary, would make this statement on these vital international issues. We welcome this small U-turn by the Prime Minister, just as we welcome his big U-turn to hold a referendum on the European constitution.

On the substance of the Prime Minister's statement, I entirely agree about Cyprus. On Iraq, we do not in any sense resile from our support for military action against Saddam's regime. We fully support the continuing deployment of British troops in Iraq. We pay tribute to them for their competence, professionalism and bravery in very difficult circumstances, and I join the Prime Minister in expressing our sympathy to the families of all those who have lost their lives in the circumstances that he described. I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to join me in condemning last night's roadside bomb that injured three British soldiers in Al Amarah, particularly since two members of the same regiment were injured on Saturday.

Notwithstanding the very great difficulties that are clearly present in Iraq today, I agree with the Government that it is essential that we see this through; and, like the Prime Minister, I reject the criticism of those who suggest that we should now pull out.

On the scale of the military commitment, can the Prime Minister tell the House whether British commanders in Iraq have asked for reinforcements and whether any such request has come from the Americans? What arrangements are being made to replace the 1,300-strong Spanish contingent whom, we are told, are to be withdrawn as soon as possible?

The United Kingdom has been punching above its weight militarily, but are there not concerns that we have not done so diplomatically and politically? To make that point is not in any way to criticise David Richmond, as the Prime Minister falsely asserted on the radio on Saturday morning. I have no doubt that Mr. Richmond is an able man who is doing his best in difficult circumstances. I am not criticising Mr. Richmond—I am criticising the Prime Minister. Why has he refused to send to Baghdad a more senior and authoritative figure than Mr. Richmond? Did he raise in Washington last week the role of the British representative in Baghdad? Did he ask the President to designate the British representative as Ambassador Bremer's deputy? The Prime Minister will be aware that it has been widely reported that even Sir Jeremy Greenstock found it extremely difficult to make his voice heard at the headquarters of the coalition provisional authority. Is not that why, when British troops are in daily peril, there should be a powerful and senior British voice in Baghdad giving us a real say in the decisions that are made?

As we approach the 30 June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty, I welcome the announcement that the United Nations will be involved in the handover, but what precisely will be the nature of that involvement? Will United Nations special envoy Brahimi have the same discretion and flexibility as he had in Afghanistan? Were he to come to the conclusion that the deadline of 30 June is unrealistic, would the deadline be reconsidered?

Given that the deadline is little more than two months away, will the Prime Minister answer some crucial questions? How will those to whom power is to be transferred on 30 June be selected? Will that be a matter for the United Nations or for the coalition provisional authority? What powers will be transferred? In particular, who will be responsible for security? Yesterday, Ambassador Bremer said: It is clear that Iraqi forces will not be able, on their own, to deal with these"— security— threats by June 30 when an Iraqi government assumes sovereignty.

After 30 June, will the new Iraqi authorities be able to decide on the way in which coalition troops are to be deployed, where they are to be deployed, in what force they are to be deployed, or whether they are to be deployed at all? Will the Iraqi authorities have the power to ask coalition troops to leave Iraq? Will they have the right to decide what happens to any insurgents apprehended or captured by coalition forces? Great concerns have been expressed over the performance of the Iraqi security forces during recent events. Did the Prime Minister raise with the President the nature of the steps that would be taken to improve the training and effectiveness of those forces?

Finally on Iraq, does not everything that has happened over the past year reinforce the warnings that we gave at the time about the lack of a carefully thought through plan for reconstruction in post-war Iraq? [Laughter.] They are all on the record for the Prime Minister to see.

On the middle east peace process, was the Prime Minister consulted by President Bush before the President announced his endorsement of Prime Minister Sharon's plans last week? Did the Prime Minister express to the President the view that given that the road map had been drawn up by the Quartet, it would have been more appropriate for the Quartet to be involved in further decisions of this kind than for them to be decided bilaterally between the United States and Israel?

We welcome Israel's disengagement from Gaza and partial disengagement from the west bank, but does the Prime Minister agree that there will no lasting peace or security in the middle east without establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure state of Israel? Will he confirm the following two principles? First, a two-state solution cannot be imposed and must be reached by agreement through negotiation. Secondly, all the elements of such an agreement, including the Palestinian right of return and Israeli west bank settlements, must be on the table for negotiation. Will he confirm that last week's statement by President Bush must be the start, not the end of a process?

Given that the Prime Minister is always eager to secure the maximum possible agreement in the European Union on such issues, will he confirm that, if such agreement existed and the constitution were in force, the president of Europe, not the British Prime Minister, would have met the President of the United States last week?

The Prime Minister

I should thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his support, which was, as ever, generous, on Iraq. On today's evidence, I cannot say that he would be someone with whom one would want to go tiger shooting. Throughout, he tries to give us general support and create as much particular mischief as he can. Although he says that his criticism of David Richmond's status is not a criticism of David Richmond, I do not believe that many people took it as anything else. When people do a difficult job on the ground and risk their lives, there is nothing worse than the Leader of the Opposition scoring points by saying that they are not suitable. That is exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is doing and everybody knows it.

Of course, the United Nations is involved up to and through the 30 June deadline, which Mr. Brahimi, as well as the United States and Britain, has reaffirmed. The UN will continue with the current consultation and dialogue, most notably with the key groups in Iraq. It is interesting that, in all Mr. Brahimi's negotiations, a majority of Iraqis, whether they are Kurds, Shi'a or Sunni, obviously want a broad-based constitution that represents all the different groups in Iraq. That is a cause for optimism, even in the current difficulties.

It was always anticipated that there would be a security agreement with the new Iraqi Government after 30 June that would involve coalition troops. It was never contended that we could turn all security issues over to the Iraqi forces after 30 June. However, we are attempting to ensure that the Iraqi capability to conduct policing and civil defence work is extended and made as secure as possible, which is important. It is bound to be difficult to create an entirely new police and civil defence force, but I believe that we shall manage to do that. I emphasise that the difficulties in Fallujah and Najaf still exist and are acute; none the less, it is interesting to note that local leaders and Iraqi police and defence forces are involved, and I therefore hope that both issues can thus be resolved.

Of course, it is essential to improve the training of the forces, but my overall view is that although difficulties exist—in some ways, they are to be expected—I reject the line that somehow there was no proper preparation. After the conflict, specific groups in Iraq were always going to try to dislodge the progress that was being made. It was always going to be difficult, but I believe that the difficulties are a reason for us to redouble our efforts, not to retire and retreat from the field.

One would not quite have gathered from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's words that we are in agreement about the way forward on the middle east. Of course, it is right that the final status negotiations must include all the issues, whatever the expressed views of Israel or America. All I have been saying is that the fact that there is to be a disengagement or withdrawal by Israel from Gaza and the west bank at least gives not only the Palestinian Authority but the international community the chance to play a role in building the necessary economic, political and security capability in the Palestinian Authority in relation to the part over which it will have control once the Israelis withdraw from Gaza and parts of the west bank. I do not in any sense want to minimise the anger at other things that have been said or done over the past few days, but it is important that we at least focus on the possibilities that that disengagement offers.

In respect of the European Union, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's position is absolute nonsense. There is nothing to prevent us from taking a view as an independent sovereign country, and it will be a pleasure to debate the reality rather than the myth.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD)

I echo the very proper expressions of condolence to our own forces and those of other countries, and increasingly to those civilians from countries around the world who are assisting in the rebuilding of Iraq and are now the focus of attack, and to the innocent Iraqis who continue to lose their lives in significant numbers.

We agree with the Prime Minister that, whatever differences have preceded the position in which we find ourselves today, it is clear that the skill, bravery and sheer professionalism of the British forces should continue to be deployed to achieve the end that everyone wants to see—a stable and secure Iraq, for its own sake and the sake of its people and in the interests of the most difficult region in the world.

The Prime Minister's discussions with the President took place against three very troubling backdrops. The first was what many of us regarded as the excessive military force being used by the Americans, especially in Fallujah. The second was the continuing political uncertainty for the people who want to see the transition, as we do—we agree that we should adhere to the June deadline—and who want to have that signal reinforced; it is welcome that it should be reinforced within Iraq. The third was the fact that the discussions were preceded by another deeply worrying act of unilateralism by the Bush Administration vis-à-vis the Prime Minister of Israel, which called into question many of the assumptions that this Government, with all-party support, have held dear and integral to the road map process and to existing UN Security Council resolutions.

Watching the events of last week and listening to what the President was saying in his press conferences with the Prime Minister, many of us had a nagging doubt about the extent to which the President, although he undoubtedly gave the appearance of listening with great courtesy to the Prime Minister, actually chose to hear what we hope the Prime Minister was trying to get across in the course of the talks.

It is undoubtedly welcome news that there is to be an increased role for the United Nations in Iraq. The current lack of legitimacy stems from the sidelining of the UN during the conflict. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge, however, that following the very dismissive terms in which many in and around the American Administration have spoken publicly about the UN, the warmer words that are now coming into play will have to be matched by deeds if they are to win the confidence of the international community? Perhaps he has already made that point to the President. The Prime Minister says that the UN will continue its present dialogue, and that he is encouraged by the efforts of Mr. Brahimi, as we must all be; but is he satisfied that the Americans will give the level of input that is so crucially required?

Does the Prime Minister recognise that it might not be right to class everyone—as he and the President have—who is being driven into the hands of those whom he rightly describes as the terrorists and fanatics as being, by definition, terrorists and fanatics themselves? We saw what happened to those hundreds of women and children in Fallujah last week. They were not terrorists or fanatics, but when they see what is happening to their own domestic circumstances, the real tragedy is that some of the wilder elements get driven in the direction of the terrorists and fanatics. The Americans must surely understand that.

As for the wider middle east peace process—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman must be heard. This is unfair.

Mr. Kennedy

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Prime Minister confirm what his Foreign Secretary has said over the past few days—that the Israeli policy of targeted assassination is both unlawful and unjustified, and also counterproductive? Are the British Government making direct representations to the Israelis to that effect?

In his statement, the Prime Minister said that the new position adopted by the Israelis and the Americans was a first step—the beginning of a new phase in the process. Mr. Sharon, however—both on the plane home to Israel and since arriving in his own country—has given every indication of seeing it as not a first but a final step. What will our position be in the light of that?

Perhaps the Prime Minister will confirm or contradict this. We have heard that, during the build-up to the original decision to mount the war in Iraq, the Americans gave him the option of not participating. At the time, I asked him repeatedly whether he could envisage circumstances in which this country would not participate in unilateral action with the Americans but without UN sanction. He did not answer then. Will he now at least tell us whether the Americans made that option explicitly open to him?

The Prime Minister

I find that last point somewhat extraordinary. Of course we always have the option of participating or not participating. We had to make a decision, and we actually made it finally in this House. We decided that we would participate. I have never made any secret of my belief that it was right that our troops were there. I do not think that that was ever secret.

Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's other two points. I welcome what he said about the UK forces, which I consider right and responsible. Whatever differences there are over the war, it is right that we continue to deploy those forces and see this through. It must now be in everyone's interests to get Iraq resolved in the right way.

I do not accept that we have ever wanted to sideline the UN. We made copious efforts to get the UN to back a final ultimatum to Saddam. We had already secured its backing, in resolution 1441, for a demand that Saddam comply and comply fully with what it said. Since then there have been no fewer than three further UN resolutions. The President and I agree that we should seek another resolution to put all issues connected with political and security measures in context and carry them through.

I have not said that everyone who is angry about whatever action is being taken is a terrorist and a fanatic. There is no doubt, however, that those driving what is happening in Fallujah are terrorists and fanatics. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that they cannot draw in other people.

What happened in Fallujah arose from the brutal murder of civilian contractors, which was carried out in a particularly horrific way. I hope that, given the engagement of local leaders and the talks taking place between them, the Americans and other leaders from the Iraqi governing council, it will be possible to resolve the situation peacefully. We must, however, also state definitively—because this will be important for the new Iraq that we want to create—that we cannot allow a situation in which outside terrorists, clerics with their own militias or heavily armed gangs of insurgents try to run the country. That has been the tragedy of Iraq for many decades. It is surely right to say to all those people "If you have a particular point of view, stand in the elections. You must not try to get your way by means of violence when you cannot do so democratically."

In respect of the middle east peace process, of course I confirm what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said during the past few days about targeted assassinations. However, on the point about whether Mr. Sharon sees this step as a first or a final one—in the course of his press conference he also reaffirmed his support for the road map—I would simply say that despite the anger at statements made on the right of return for refugees and on settlements, which I understand, there is still an opportunity. From my conversations with European leaders at the weekend, I think that people recognise that, which is why the European Union statement welcomed the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank.

Of course this should not be a final step; of course it is not a final settlement. However, my point, very simply, is that it must be better than what we have now to have at least some disengagement from the occupied territory, provided that that disengagement is followed by active measures, supported by the international community, to give the Palestinians the economic and political strength and the security needed for the idea of a viable Palestinian state to become a realistic possibility. It cannot be right that we simply have disengagement, then allow a vacuum to develop. That is all that I am saying, and when people reflect on it they will see that whatever their anger about unilateral statements on the right of return for refugees and on settlements, it is still better to try to make something of this offer of disengagement—or this strategy of disengagement—than to do nothing.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm, in specific terms, that the policy of Her Majesty's Government, in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 446 and other UN Security Council resolutions, is that all 200 Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory are illegal and must be removed? Will he also reconfirm that the wall being built by the Israelis, biting deep into Palestinian territory and separating farmers from their land, workers from their jobs, pupils and students front their schools and universities, and sick people from their hospitals, is also illegal and must be removed?

The Prime Minister

Our position remains entirely as we have set it out before. In respect of the security fence, I say absolutely unequivocally that it must not become part of a political settlement. The Foreign Secretary and I, and others, have made that position very clear. I simply repeat, however, that if such a disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank happens—including, incidentally, the removal of some 7,000 settlers from Gaza—it is important that the Palestinian Authority be able to step into that breach. That is the only point that I am making. We do not alter our position at all on the substance of the matter. The question will ultimately be, as it is with all such peace processes, whether people want to carry on making their statements, or whether they want to try to establish a different reality. That different reality must begin with the disengagement being followed by a process of reconstruction.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

The Prime Minister said in his statement that the final settlement in the middle east cannot ignore the reality on the ground. Is it not the case that the reality behind Prime Minister Sharon's latest announcement, coupled with the ongoing building of the security wall, is that the Israeli Government are bent on a de facto annexation of significant parts of the west bank? Given that such a policy is both illegal and contrary to the road map, why is the Prime Minister going along with it?

The Prime Minister

I have made it clear that I do not believe that the security fence can be used to annex territory. I want to make one other point, which it is fair to make, or we could end up, as is often in such situations, with an entirely one-sided debate. Even as we condemn the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, we should not forget that innocent Israeli citizens have died in large numbers as a result of terrorist acts in Israel—not in the occupied territories, incidentally, but in Israel itself. Obviously, any Government—particularly a democratic Government, as in Israel—will want to take measures to protect their citizens. I do not resile from anything I have said about this, but one of the problems with the situation is that people always see one particular point of view. There are two lots of suffering in this case and both must be dealt with.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

Is not the unpalatable truth that an occupying coalition force, far from curtailing violence, is seen more and more as an inspiration for it? Have not we reached a situation where many Iraqis have come to regard this as a war of liberation? In those circumstances, there are some of us who think that Mr. Zapatero is right and that—embarrassing though the loss of face may be—the coalition forces should be withdrawn.

The Prime Minister

I do not deny for a single instant that the propaganda launched at the coalition is that we are an army of occupation that wants to stay there, irrespective of the views of the Iraqis, in order, on some days, to take their oil and, on other days, to occupy the country. That is the propaganda case that is being made. It happens to be false, as most people know and accept. The truth is that neither ourselves, the United States or any other country wants to remain a moment longer than is necessary to secure the conditions in which a proper political settlement can take place.

I say to my hon. Friend, whose very strong views on this subject I understand, that if we were to withdraw coalition troops now and leave Iraq to the mercy of militias, insurgents and outside terrorists, the losers would not just be the whole of the middle east—the whole world, actually—but, most of all, the Iraqi people. Were he to talk to anyone in the British sector at Basra, he would know that, of course, the vast majority of Iraqis do not want their country to be occupied, but they want to make sure that when the occupation leaves, what takes over is the democratic will of the Iraqi people and not the will of extremists, fanatics and those who would take Iraq backwards.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

In the middle east peace process, we seem to be moving beyond the road map to the implementation of a settlement on the ground. I suggest to the Prime Minister that if we continue to pretend that the road map has life in it, or that the two parties under their present leaderships will negotiate a settlement to all of the issues, we will end up with a unilaterally imposed Israeli settlement on the ground. We ought to get the Quartet, at its meeting next month, to grab control of the issue, to attempt to develop a settlement of all the outstanding issues in dialogue with the parties—but without seeking to get them together in direct negotiations—and to seek to impose that settlement. The alternative is not the road map, but a unilaterally imposed Israeli settlement.

The Prime Minister

The Quartet can come to whatever decisions it wishes, but I do not think that the choice is the one that the hon. Gentleman poses. The reason we are not in the road map is perfectly simple—the basic security measures that are supposed to be taken under the road map have not yet been taken. All that I am saying is that we cannot be in a worse position if, when the disengagement from Gaza and the west bank takes place, we move in on an international basis to develop the security, economic and political infrastructure that the Palestinians need. If we fail to do that, and if there are those in Israel who want de facto and unilaterally to create a settlement, they will gain from the inability of the Palestinians to run their affairs within the territory that they will occupy. That is why it is so important that we seize the opportunity that the disengagement offers us. I agree that it is important that the Quartet is fully involved, but the Quartet is not going to be able to negotiate the final status. That is unrealistic.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the relationship between Israel and Palestine that he has just described is central, other states in the region have a role to play? Will he join me in urging Syria to play a constructive and credible part in what can be achieved in the region?

The Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. Syria, I hope, along with other countries, will realise that its support of terrorism and any sponsorship of terrorism is preventing us from getting back to the road map.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

The Prime Minister publicly justifies his own actions on the basis of UN resolutions and international law. On what basis does he believe that President Bush is entitled to cede Palestinian negotiating positions without their consent, and why does he think that unilaterally sanctioning illegal townships bang in the middle of the west bank is going to do anything other than destroy any chance of a viable Palestinian state?

The Prime Minister

President Bush made it clear several times—not just in the press conference with me, but in the one with Prime Minister Sharon—that, ultimately, these issues have to be decided by negotiation, and that remains the case. There are realities on the ground, and all the discussions that have taken place between the Israelis and the Palestinians throughout many peace processes have recognised that—but, ultimately, these things have to be decided in final status negotiations.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while President Bush was appearing on the White House lawn with Prime Minister Sharon, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs was producing its weekly report on the situation in the occupied territories? It referred to further land confiscations, ambulances being turned away from checkpoints, more houses being demolished, and a nursery school in Nablus being closed when Israeli forces entered it. Does he therefore understand the anger that exists throughout the Arab world and beyond, and why Israel felt that it had been given a green light to continue with its illegal policy of targeted assassinations? Does he agree that if this development is to be an opportunity for the peace process and not a threat, we must recognise that the road map is not the gift of the US, that the Quartet must establish its authority, and that disengagement must be real and military, as well as involving the dismantling of settlements? Does he further agree that the international community must accept its responsibility for an international presence in that part of the world, to ensure peace with justice for both sides?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that I understand the anger that exists in the middle east and the Arab world about these issues. I also believe it essential that the Quartet play a role, and we will obviously have to discuss with the Palestinian Authority exactly what that role would be in security terms. However, in principle my view is that the more the international community can be involved in helping the Palestinian Authority to have—and, in a sense, guaranteeing that it has—the wherewithal to move forward from any unilateral disengagement by the Israelis from Gaza and parts of the west bank, the better.

That is precisely why I want there to be a meeting of the Quartet, hopefully in early May. At that meeting, we can put aside the rights and wrongs of what has happened in the past few days in terms of the statements made by America or Israel—or, indeed, by anyone else—and focus on what the Quartet can do to ensure that the Palestinian Authority can take advantage of unilateral disengagement, should it take place. It is worth pointing out that, had it not been for the other issues surrounding the announcement by the Israelis, much of the middle east would have welcomed in principle a unilateral disengagement from parts of the occupied territory.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

In his statement, the Prime Minister mentioned 123 American fatalities, and the Ukrainian soldier and the US. British, Italian and Canadian civilians who have tragically been killed since mid-March. However, he made no reference to the number of Iraqis who were killed. Will he take this opportunity to address that omission, and will he tell the House whether he agrees with the head of the US army's central command, who said that these losses, whatever they may be, are the result of a judicious use of force?

The Prime Minister

I did express our sympathy in respect of the Iraqi civilians who have also died. That is why we must ensure that we try to resolve the situation in Fallujah and Najaf as peacefully as possible, and that is what we are doing.

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

Will my right hon. Friend consider advice from me that is given quite freely? He could learn a lot from the experience of the former Soviet Union. It tried to impose its system of government on eastern European countries, but once they were free from military occupation they decided to go in a different direction. We cannot impose western-style democracy on Iraq, a country of a very different civilisation and culture. Once the occupation has ended, Iraq will determine which direction to go in, and at what pace.

The Prime Minister

I rather think that the analogy with what happened with the Soviet Union is a little different from what my hon. Friend says. In fact, the moment those countries were free from repression, they chose democracy, and it is absolutely clear that that is what the majority of Iraqis want. There is an extraordinary attitude in some parts of the west that somehow democracy, human rights and the rule of law are western values. In my view, they are values of the human spirit. That is what people want, and what they opt for every time they are given the choice. In Iraq, we will have a process whereby, first, people vote in an assembly to draw up a final constitution, and then there will be a democratic vote in elections. I would have thought that everybody, no matter what their view on the war in Iraq, would support that.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

In the crucial days leading up to 30 June, is there not a case for having a British representative of ministerial rank and importance—somebody like Lord Robertson—overseeing what happens from Britain's point of view?

The Prime Minister

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary remain heavily engaged in the issue. The best way of operating with the coalition provisional authority is through the mechanism that we have.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned Jeremy Greenstock, whose view is that David Richmond is the best person for the job, has the experience and is trusted by the Americans. It is important to realise that everything that happens in any part of Iraq affects the whole country. Down in the south, the British forces and civilians are in control, while around Baghdad it is predominantly American forces and civilians. It is important to have the right partnership with them so that we can influence the decisions that are made. I genuinely believe that to be the case now. Of course, we must always keep the matter under review but, first, Jeremy Greenstock and then David Richmond have done a very good job.

If people from inside Iraq, either members of the governing council or our military personnel, were saying to us, "Look, this isn't the right way of working", of course we would listen very carefully, but they are not. There are certain issues that have to be resolved at a Government-to-Government level as well.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)

Once again, the Prime Minister seems to make a cogent case on the middle east, but is not the truth that the 30 June deadline, the latter-day conversion to the United Nations and the U-turn on the fundamental human rights of Palestinians are more to do with the re-election of the President than with the longer-term stability of that troubled part of the world? Is not it also the case that Sharon will continue to assassinate with impunity because there is nothing that anyone can or will do about it, and that post-30 June, heavy-handed American military activity will determine the future of Iraq, and certainly not the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

The United Nations will have a key and central role in the political transition. When American troops are suffering losses and coming under attack from terrorists or insurgents. they have a difficult position to maintain.

On the middle east peace process, I return to the point that I have made constantly. People can argue about what the President said or what the Prime Minister of Israel said, and about their motivations, but that does not really profit anyone, because ultimately the question is what we can do about the situation. My point is that if one big reality on the ground changes—the withdrawal by Israel from the whole of Gaza and parts of the west bank—that should not be looked in the mouth but should be built upon.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Given that the 3rd UK Armoured Division and the coalition provisional authority conducted successful local government elections in southern Iraq on a household franchise based on the ration card system last August and September, does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to undermine the likes of Maqtadr al Sadr, and to show how few people they represent, is to move swiftly to national elections in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman again for his service in Iraq. Secondly, I entirely agree with what he said. That is absolutely right, and it shows that people are perfectly prepared to participate in those elections and want to do so. What is happening in Iraq at the moment is that we are being put to the test because some of these groups wonder whether we have the commitment to see it through. That is what they wonder and many people in Iraq have never known democracy—they have had a brutal repression for more than three decades. They are asking whether things are really going to change, and we have to give them the confidence that they will.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool. Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless work in trying to bring peace and justice to both Palestinians and Israelis. Does he agree that the withdrawal of about 7,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza should be a cause for celebration, not for grudging acceptance? What does he believe the Government can do to ensure that we move forward to negotiations based on the road map and the Geneva protocols—put together by progressive Israelis and Palestinians and based on the important principle of land for peace?

The Prime Minister

I agree with what my hon. Friend says, and it is worth pointing out that, had the Palestinians come forward several months ago to demand that 7,000 settlers be moved from Gaza and that Israel disengaged unilaterally from Gaza and parts of the west bank, people would have thought that it was a bold negotiating ploy. What has happened is that surrounding issues—what was said about final status questions such as right of return and so on—have obscured the fact that, underneath all that, there is something that we can work with.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

If, God forbid, al-Qaeda succeeded in killing as many civilians in the United Kingdom as Hamas has succeeded in killing in Israel, would the Prime Minister rule out a policy of targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we act, all the way through, in accordance with international law. That is what we should do and we have made our position clear on targeted assassinations. I did say in my statement, which I repeat, that we condemn the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

Does the military and political strategy, to which the Prime Minister referred, mean that the British Government supported the level and type of action visited on Fallujah and Najaf, in which by far the greatest loss of life was suffered by innocent Iraqi civilians? Does that also mean that the British Government would endorse such actions, should they become necessary in future?

The Prime Minister

It is worth looking at what is happening now, which is that we are trying peacefully to resolve the situation in Fallujah. It is a difficult situation when four contractors are taken away and brutally murdered, and there was bound to be a reaction to it. However, I hope that we can resolve the issues in Fallujah in a peaceful way, which is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)

Has one of the effects of the war in Iraq and the lack of a coherent exit strategy been to increase the terrorist threat not only in Iraq, but here in the UK?

The Prime Minister

There is a perfectly coherent exit strategy, which is to make sure that the Iraqi people can enjoy the same freedom as we enjoy. There is no reason why they should not, particularly if they support the new constitution and if they are allowed to support it by the people who are attacking them. I think that it is important that we maintain that situation.

As for being a terrorist target, I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman does a disservice to us all in suggesting that people in al-Qaeda and other terrorists would somehow be silent if the problems in Iraq did not exist. These are the people who want us to withdraw from Afghanistan—[Interruption.]The hon. Gentleman says that it might increase the threat, but what could be a bigger threat than that represented by 11 September—which happened, let me remind him, before we were in Iraq or Afghanistan? The truth is that if we withdrew from Iraq, we would be told to withdraw from Afghanistan, and if we withdrew from Afghanistan, we would be told to withdraw from the whole of the middle east, and then we would be made to withdraw even more—[Interruption.]Well, the hon. Gentleman asked whether we had not made ourselves a bigger target by our action in Iraq. My answer is that we are a target for these people by our very existence and the values we believe in, and that the only way to defeat them is to get after them.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

A month ago I was in Gaza with Christian Aid, and I saw the humanitarian, economic and political crisis there. I understand why my right hon. Friend has welcomed, as I would, the withdrawal from the settlements, but does he accept that timing is everything and that if Israel continued to bulldoze the land in the perimeter areas and to have a complete crackdown, with no freedom of movement for Palestinians, there would be no peace and very little hope? It is essential that when he speaks with the Quartet, President Bush supports that move and that the international community is in there immediately, because no viable Palestinian state will be made simply by withdrawal from settlements.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to say that, obviously, we must ensure that a further entirely unjustified reality is not created on the ground, but one of the key ways of preventing that is to get a proper security plan in place on the Palestinian side. While the terrorist attacks occur within Israel, there will be retaliation—that is a fact—and then the cycle of terrorism and retaliation will become worse. That is why it is important that we act as an international community.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con)

In his statement, the Prime Minister said that the United Nations should have a central role, and will have a vital role, post-30 June—but the United Nations has no armed forces nor external civil service, except those volunteered by the member states. Beyond the existing members of the coalition, what other countries have volunteered assistance?

The Prime Minister

There are about 30 countries in the coalition—whether we can draw more people in depends in part on how we improve the security situation. However, the United Nations role is not, and never was intended to be, to carry out the security itself. The United Nations would not want to do that. The United Nations role is to ensure that the international community underscores the legitimacy of what is happening. That means, for example, that with the oil wealth, the United Nations, through its various organisations, can be a signatory to the account to ensure that the Iraqi oil money is used for the Iraqis, and is seen to be so. I think that that is a role that the United Nations can play, and it is particularly important in connection with the details of the political transition.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

In condemning what originally happened to Fallujah, does my right hon. Friend recognise that many of us also condemn what has happened there since and the number of Iraqi civilians who have died? That cannot be condoned or acceptable. Does my right hon. Friend also recognise that despite the fact that he is 100 per cent. committed to the road map, many of us do not believe that President Bush and Sharon have the same objective as he does for the destination of that road map?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, President Bush restated his commitment several times. The road map is not moving forward because of the problems of security; that is why it is important that we deal with those. There is no other way of getting back into the road map.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for democracy in Iraq— and now at home, on the issue of Europe. That is great news. Can he tell us how long he thinks British troops will need to stay in Iraq to supervise the transition, and whether we will need to reinforce?

The Prime Minister

We cannot be sure about the length of stay of British troops at this point in time; it depends upon making sure that the security situation is sorted out. However, it is not coincidental that the violence is happening in the run-up to 30 June. Its purpose is to stop us making progress towards 30 June—and if people think that they can do that, their propaganda that we do not want to give them democracy gets off the ground. That is what it all about, and that is why we have got to hold firm, so perhaps post-30 June I shall be in a better position to respond.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

Everybody in the House will condemn the barbaric killing of the four contractors in Falluja, but independent sources estimate that about 700 civilians have been killed there, including 80 children, and thousands have been injured. Does the Prime Minister condemn the disproportionate use of force by the United States against the citizens of Falluja? Is he willing to support an independent United Nations inquiry into just what went on there, or will we see yet more Fallujas as the violence escalates?

The Prime Minister

I hope very much that we do not, and that is what I am working for. I hope that we can see a peaceful resolution.