HC Deb 11 May 2004 vol 421 cc147-51
6. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

If he will make a statement about the current situation in the British-controlled area of southern Iraq. [171834]

12. Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on the situation in Iraq. [171840]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

The situation in Iraq is overshadowed by the evidence of appalling and disgusting human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, for which there is and there can be no excuse whatever. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last Wednesday,

it is what we went to Iraq to get rid of, not to perpetuate."—[Official Report, 5 May 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1336.] The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement yesterday that covered the separate allegations concerning British forces. Inquiries are continuing, but I know that, overwhelmingly, British forces are carrying out their difficult and dangerous duties according to the law and to their finest traditions.

On the political front in Iraq, United Nations Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi continues his work to identify an interim caretaker government. Meanwhile, there are active discussions with partners on a new Security Council resolution to provide for the transition to a sovereign Iraqi state. In the south, there have been a number of engagements with insurgents. Overall, however, conditions for people in that area continue to improve. In Basra alone, 70 to 80 per cent. now have access to running water, and more than 90 schools and 48 health care projects have been completed.

Joan Ruddock

I have now had the opportunity to read the ICRC report in full. Will my right hon. Friend accept that its criticisms, particularly of brutal arrest techniques and disappearances, apply to all coalition forces, that we are in a coalition, and that those sickening pictures of American abuse shame us all by association? To whom did Sir Jeremy Greenstock speak when he received the copy of the Red Cross report? Was it Britain's failure to influence the Americans as regards the abuse that was a factor in Sir Jeremy's premature departure from Iraq?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right that these images, and the evidence that they portray, are a shame on all of us. They are utterly shameful, disgusting and disgraceful, and they would be if they had been perpetrated by any regime, but they are all the worse for the fact that they have been perpetrated by forces of a member of the international community. I do not accept her suggestion, however, that responsibility for dealing with matters that lie within the United States' sectors is also shared by the United Kingdom.

The ICRC made some criticisms last year, which are set out in the report. I must make it clear to my hon. Friend, however, that when I met Dr. Kellenberger in May last year, he was reassuring, of his own volition, about the conditions that the ICRC were at that stage reporting. She will also know that the incidents that have been alleged to be behind the pictures that have been shown in British newspapers are the subject of a thorough investigation. I also reassure her that Sir Jeremy's retirement, after a previous retirement, from his position in Baghdad, had nothing whatever to do with the ICRC report.

Tony Lloyd

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this marks a new low point in the credibility of the allied occupation of Iraq? It is now obvious that the unilateral strategy emanating from the White House is not helping the situation. What does my right hon. Friend intend to do to involve neighbouring countries with which we have good relations, such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, or to respond to President Chirac's wish for an international conference like the one that was held in Bonn after Afghanistan? Such action must be in the interests of both Britain and the people of Iraq.

Mr. Straw

The allegations and clear evidence of abuse in the United States sector are very damaging: there is no question.about that, nor should there be any pretence to the contrary. I should also make it clear that, as President Bush has asserted, in no sense was this supported or connived at by the United States Administration, who are as appalled by the evidence as we are.

I agree about the importance of involving neighbouring countries. I talked about exactly that during a conversation with Sergei Lavrov, the new Russian Foreign Minister, on Sunday. There is a proposal—included in Lakhdar Brahimi's suggestions—for a conference of Iraqis which might conceivably be held just outside Iraq, which would provide an endorsement and greater legitimacy for the caretaker Government. We are pursuing the idea of a conference of the neighbours separately.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the United Kingdom is paying a considerable moral price for the reports of recent days on the conduct of forces in Iraq? Does he accept that the closeness of the relationship with the United States means that Britain and British forces will be answerable, in the minds of the Iraqi people, for anything done by anyone in the name of the coalition? In the light of his reference to Lakhdar Brahimi, and adapting the words of the Prime Minister, may we now take it that the United Nations is no longer part of the problem but is providing the only solution?

Mr. Straw

I do not accept the first point. On the basis of my discussions and my knowledge of the way in which British forces are operating in the south, I believe that their professionalism, integrity and subscription to the rule of our law and international law are well known to the vast majority of Iraqis. Of course they do not want any occupation of their land to continue for longer than is necessary, but they recognise the benefits that have accrued from the way in which British forces have operated.

We have never suggested for a second that the United Nations is a problem. It has been part of the solution to the problem of Iraq for a great many years, but since the end of the major conflict in April we have sought and actively obtained United Nations involvement. Had it not been for the massacre at the UN headquarters in Iraq on 19 August, involving the killing of special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN would have been far more engaged than has been possible; but that, I am afraid, was a decision made by the terrorists and not by us.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the Amnesty International report that is splashed over the newspapers today? An eight-year-old girl was allegedly shot by British soldiers. I have been told that, in fact, a stone-throwing crowd surrounding two Warrior armoured personnel carriers fired over the heads of the crowd, and the girl was subsequently discovered dead. Blood money is involved. Will the Foreign Secretary comment on those appalling allegations, and ensure that they are investigated swiftly so that our soldiers can be cleared?

Mr. Straw

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman: the allegations are being investigated very swiftly. I hope to be able to tell the House more during the current Session, but it would be inappropriate for me to say more now, given that an investigation is under way.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op)

The Foreign Secretary may know that in the last couple of weeks I have met two Iraqi constituents who have returned from Iraq after several months in Basra and Baghdad. The two have similar tales to tell. Both found it convenient to bribe their way into the country via Syria and Jordan, which tells its own story; both talk of the difference between the approaches of British and American troops. They support our action, but are extremely concerned about the way in which, even before the latest revelations, American behaviour had alienated and appalled supporters of the coalition—and the position is becoming far, far worse. What will we be able to do if we cannot influence the American Government?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. The American Government are well aware of the damage done, not only by allegations but by evidence of abuse, to their reputation and to the reputation of the coalition more generally. That is clear from the observations made at the highest level by the United States Administration. As for what we are doing about the situation, we are working in our way in the southern sector. Yes, we are leading by example, but we are also engaged in active discussions with President Bush, Secretary Powell and other senior members of the United States Administration.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)

On what date, and how, did the Foreign Secretary become aware of the contents and existence of the ICRC report, which was given to Sir Jeremy Greenstock in February?

Mr. Straw

I became aware of it at the weekend.

Mr. Ancram

Is the Foreign Secretary seriously suggesting that Foreign Office Ministers were kept in the dark about that important report for some two months? I do not believe that the people of this country find that position credible.

Does the Foreign Secretary not realise how much damage the growing litany of disclaimers of knowledge and responsibility by Ministers is now doing to public confidence in the Government's handling of the situation in Iraq? Does he appreciate that, with the handover of power back to the Iraqis only 50 days away, the continuing lack of clarity on vital issues such as whether further troop deployments from the UK will become necessary, to whom precisely the handover will he made, and what the subsequent relationship between our forces and the new Iraqi Government will be, only adds to the uncertainty? The restoration of confidence is now crucial and urgent. Has not the time come for the Government to initiate a debate in the House on the overall situation in Iraq so that Ministers can comprehensively and unequivocally deal with those issues and, we hope, create a sense of competence and direction again?

Mr. Straw

On that last point, I am always happy to debate these matters. That is a question for the usual channels, but I am happy either to make a statement or for there to be a debate on Iraq—or, indeed, both. I enjoy it—it is important that I should come to the House and that the Government's position should be properly explained.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, I assume that he was not suggesting that when I said that I became aware of the report at the weekend and read the full report yesterday, I was telling the House an untruth. If he were suggesting that, he would need to consider his position. He will know, having read the report, that it refers overwhelmingly to allegations of abuse in respect of the area operated by the United States.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's points about the political process, let me say this. We agreed through the Iraq governing council and the coalition provisional authority on 15 November 2003 an accelerated timetable for the handover of sovereignty. That will take place on 30 June, and we are now working extremely hard to ensure that all the building blocks for that transfer of sovereignty are there. We are cooperating well with Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi of the United Nations, and we hope to have a United Nations Security Council resolution in place before the end of this month.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

May I ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm some points about the ICRC report? We learned yesterday from the Defence Secretary that the report was given to Paul Bremer, who shared the contents with Sir Jeremy Greenstock in February. The Foreign Secretary tells us that he received a copy of the report only this weekend, which was the second weekend in May. What happened to the report in the meantime, with whom did Sir Jeremy Greenstock discuss it, and where in the British Government was it sent after his receipt of it?

Mr. Straw

My understanding is that Sir Jeremy Greenstock did not in fact receive the report, notwithstanding the suggestions made in the newspapers today. It was seen by a legal adviser to the British part of the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad, and was passed at the time to the British and to the CPA there. I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact date for that now, but I will be happy to do so by way of a written answer. A copy was subsequently received in the British Foreign Office and we can say with the benefit of hindsight that it should have been made available to Ministers; but as it happens, it was not.

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