HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc605-14 3.31 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab) (urgent question)

To ask Defence Ministers to make a statement on the military situation of the coalition in Iraq.

In candour, I should say that, had we not been sitting now anyway, my hon. Friends and I would have been among those asking for a recall on Iraq.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Mr. Speaker, I would like to bring the House up to date in relation to the current military situation of the multinational force in Iraq. Before I do so, I am sure that the House would wish to record its wholehearted condemnation of the atrocious act of terrorism in Beslan. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will no doubt return to it later, but I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering our deepest sympathies to the families and community of Beslan.

Hon. Members will be aware that more than two months have passed since the sovereign Iraqi Interim Government assumed power in Iraq under the leadership of Prime Minister Allawi. Since then, UK forces have operated as part of the multinational force whose mandate was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in resolution 1546. That terrorists did not disrupt the transfer of power is due, in no small part, to the skill, professionalism and dedication of the multinational force operating alongside the Iraqi security forces.

The role of the multinational force as outlined in UNSCR 1546 is to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq in support of the Iraqi Interim Government. To that end, the multinational force has developed a security partnership with the Iraqi Interim Government and the Iraqi security forces, which enables close co-ordination between the two.

We recognise however that the Iraqi security forces must increasingly take responsibility for the security of their country, and so another important task for the multinational force is assisting in building the capability of the Iraqi security forces and institutions through a programme of recruitment, training, equipping, mentoring and monitoring. That programme is well advanced and there are already close to 90,000 Iraqi police officers. The Iraqi national guard—(formerly known as the Iraq civil defence corps)—is now some 35,000 strong and is being trained and expanded to take over guard and patrol duties. The facilities protection service, which is responsible for protecting Iraq's major strategic infrastructure, Government buildings and other nationally important sites, consists of almost 74,000 personnel. Two brigades of the new Iraqi army are now fully trained and operational. The remaining seven brigades are expected to be operational by January of next year.

Of course, it will take time for those organisations to develop the capability to operate independently, and the multinational force is helping to achieve that aim. For example, in the UK area of operations, UK military police and Iraqi police have been conducting joint patrols since April 2003. We are also mentoring the higher ranks so that a truly capable force can be developed.

The past two months have shown that there are those who wish to thwart the aims of the Iraqi Interim Government and the multinational force. Terrorists have continued to launch a series of vicious suicide attacks, a number of leading Iraqis have been assassinated, and foreign workers and journalists have been kidnapped and brutally murdered. Yesterday, a joint patrol of US marines and Iraqi security forces came under attack, with the loss of many lives. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in utterly condemning those dreadful acts.

Prime Minister Allawi and the Iraqi Interim Government have made it clear that they will not allow terrorists and insurgents to derail progress in Iraq. Prime Minister Allawi has also outlined robust plans to create special police units trained and equipped in counter-terrorism and insurgency. He has emphasised his commitment to creating capable security forces that will include members of the military, the police, the national guard and the border guard. Tightening border security is also a high priority, and we welcome the commitment from Iraq's neighbors to work with the Iraqi Government to achieve this.

Moqtada al-Sadr's rebellion in Najaf has posed an early test for the capability of the Iraqi security forces and the authority of the Interim Government. Prime Minister Allawi"s sensitivity towards the sanctity of the Imam Ali shrine for the Shi'a community, and his restraint in using force to quell the rebels, have been instrumental in bringing an end to the fighting. The Interim Government and Ayatollah Sistani and other senior religious leaders have shown that they do not accept violence, and that Iraq's future will be secured only through peaceful means. Ayatollah Sistani's successful peaceful intervention in, and resolution of, matters in Najaf deserve our praise.

Moqtada al Sadr's militia has also been responsible for attacks in the UK's area of operation, specifically in al-Amarah, in Maysan province. It is important to note that these people comprise an assortment of thugs and criminals. In no way do they enjoy the support of the majority of the local Iraqi people.

UK forces have been responding to these challenges in joint operations with the Iraqi security forces. As part of this operation, leaflets have been distributed across the city highlighting the fact that militia violence is preventing peace and that political dialogue is the way to bring change. British forces will continue to act robustly in responding to threats to legitimate authorities in Iraq.

It is vital that the Interim Government restore order so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and rebuild their lives. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that positive progress is being made, despite challenges from those who oppose the Interim Government. They know that their views are not the majority's, and that we will not let them prevail in the political process.

Mr. Dalyell

Has not the time come for a firm and early date for withdrawal? The alternative is chilling. Although the Minister has outlined the good efforts that our forces are making, those forces increasingly are seen as an army of occupation. The risks involved in withdrawal may be less than those involved in staying longer. A balance has to be struck, but should we not consider giving a firm date for withdrawal?

Mr. Ingram

I know where my hon. Friend is coming from with that question, but he must also take what is happening into consideration. We have an Iraqi Interim Government, and we are moving towards establishing a democratic electoral process in the country. If Iraq's people and legitimately elected Government feel that a withdrawal date is required, surely it is up to them to make that request? It is important that we work alongside the Iraqi authorities to establish the peace and stability that most of the people in Iraq want. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is saying that he wants our forces to withdraw tomorrow, but I am sure that more mayhem would follow any such withdrawal.

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

In praising the highly effective and determined gallantry of British servicemen and women at all ranks in the rebuilding of Iraq during the past few difficult weeks, will the Minister of State clarify for the House whether the rules of engagement in the multinational division south-east have been changed at all over the past two months? Secondly, what progress has been made by the NATO training implementation mission in Iraq? Where and when will training of Iraqi personnel start?

Mr. Ingram

The issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is important because of some of the controversy during the past few months. The rules of engagement have not changed, and the same rules will continue to apply. The hon. Gentleman knows only too well the difficulties associated with the type of environment in which our troops are deployed: they are trying to peacekeep as well as peacemake, and they sometimes find themselves in difficult firefighting engagements.

The NATO team was deployed to Iraq last month, and it is scoping the training requirement for the Iraqi security forces. A full report setting out the team's recommendation is due in the middle of this month. Clearly, the recommendations will be acted on quickly thereafter.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

What can be the logic of people who have previously argued that our troops should operate under a United Nations mandate but who now argue that the troops should withdraw now that their actions are governed by a UN mandate and are there at the request of Iraqi Government?

Mr. Ingram

I have already answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) has perhaps just posed his question in the way in which I should have answered it.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the condemnation of the attack in Russia and the continuing attacks on civilians and kidnapping in Iraq? The Minister is right to say that the people who do those things are nothing more than thugs and criminals.

May I ask two sets of specific questions? What other nations have offered troops to join the multinational force during the past few weeks? Have there been any additional contributions from other countries, and are negotiations in place with other countries to provide such troops?

Secondly, does the Minister consider that the existing force structure of the number of British troops in the British sector is sufficient? Are there any plans to send any additional troops from the UK to Iraq if necessary?

Mr. Ingram

On the latter questions, our current strength stands at just over 9,000 and our future deployment, come the roulement in November, will reduce that to about 8,500. There are no plans to increase the number. Clearly, however, in all theatres such as this one we must constantly consider the current situation. The deployments announced in June indicated our willingness to increase our presence on the ground in a very specific way. The situation is always fluid.

In terms of other countries' commitments, a sizeable multinational commitment exists, and there are constant discussions with other nations to encourage them to maintain their presence and to put a new presence into the country.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

Based on the professional advice that the Minister has been given by the military and by his own diplomatic service, can he advise us on the best estimate of the length of time for which British troops will remain in Iraq, and on what target date we should be aiming at for their withdrawal?

Mr. Ingram

I am sure that when Moqtada al-Sadr and the other insurgent forces in Iraq were involved in fighting with us, they would have loved to know the answer to that question. Although it should certainly be examined at all times, it is the type of question that really should not be asked—

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

Why not?

Mr. Ingram

For the very reason that the minute we set down a time scale, we give a set of objectives to those who are still carrying out terrible acts of terrorism and aggression, not just against our troops and the multinational force but against the Iraqi people. We are about trying to establish peace and stability in Iraq, not about giving the country over to the thugs and criminals who are carrying out those terrible acts.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Does the Minister share my observation that any bad news in this country is reported as front-page news and is top of the news, while the objective work of British forces and British charities and voluntary organisations is simply not mentioned? For example, can he recall a single occasion in the past six months when he heard a British Broadcasting Corporation report that objectively described what was happening in that country instead of always reporting the worst possible events?

Mr. Ingram

I know from my regular contact with our forces that they take a similar view. They think that there are many acts of commitment to bring about peace and stability in Iraq, and that what they are doing to create that new country and to help the people find a new future is often overlooked. The very many acts of individual and collective gallantry, which have just been recognised in the honours and awards announced today, should be a salutary lesson to those who report on the bad news, bad news, bad news, which they exploit to the detriment of those who are putting their lives at risk.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that one of the British policy objectives must be to remove our troops from Iraqi soil as long as it is feasible and practical to do so?

Mr. Ingram


Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

Does the Minister agree that it is not simply about those who opposed intervention, but about the growing view that despite the loss of more than 1,200 British and American troops and massive intervention, we have simply established an area of chaos, where we meet ever-increasing hostility from the people of Iraq? Is not that a fact? If the situation continues to get worse, what will the Government do? Would it not help to resolve things if they gave an indication of when they think it would be appropriate for foreign troops to be removed from Iraq?

Mr. Ingram

I sought to set out the background to that. We are trying to establish the new Iraq, alongside the Iraqi people and their leadership. That is not an easy process. Many people fail to recognise how brave those local politicians are. Day on day they are met with a threat not only to their lives, but to the lives of their families. We really should recognise the commitment that they are giving. It is right that we should stand alongside them in achieving that new future, for which they are prepared—sometimes all too tragically—to make sacrifices. Clearly, we have to plan, alongside them, future points of withdrawal and removal of troops from Iraq. All of those things are part of the fluid process and those discussions will continue with the legitimate elected authorities in Iraq.

Mrs. Mahon

I put it to the Minister that the only people in charge of the military coalition are the Americans, not the United Nations. I repeat the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that we get a date for the withdrawal of troops. The Australian Labour party has said that when it wins the election it will bring its troops home. The Spanish Socialist party has already brought its troops home. The idea is gaining support world wide and we would not be isolated if we said that we were going to bring our troops home. We are now seen more as the problem than the solution.

Mr. Ingram

I remind my hon. Friend that the House voted for the deployment in Iraq and has continued to monitor the situation. I recognise that there are those who think that the withdrawal of troops will make the situation better in Iraq, but they are living in a dream world. They have to consider that Iraq would descend into chaos. They are effectively saying, "Withdraw the troops now", but they do not have an alternative proposition. It is a knee-jerk reaction and does not add up to a substantial policy, and this Government will not accede to it.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

Figures released by the coalition over the weekend show that August saw the highest number of attacks on coalition forces since the conflict began, averaging 87 a day. We know that we were misled into this war and we are now being misled about the aftermath, which is turning into a long, bloody conflict, with no end in sight.

Mr. Ingram

I think that the only person who is misleading the hon. Gentleman is himself. I constantly give detailed information, which is then twisted and turned, over-interpreted and misinterpreted. I explained that the situation has been bad during the past two months. That has to be dealt with. When I was asked whether that would require additional troops, I indicated that we are planning a reduction in troops. We are planning for a different scenario, but we have to manage the difficult situation. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is one of those who says that we should withdraw the troops, but what does he think would happen to Iraq if we did so?

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

In April, during a Westminster Hall debate, I queried the description by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), of al-Sadr as an insignificant rabble rouser. Was the Foreign Office so ill informed at the time, or was it an attempt to mislead the House?

Mr. Ingram

I am sure that it was not an attempt to mislead the House. I would have to read the Official Report of the debate to see the context in which those words were said. Moqtada al-Sadr has been carrying out terrible acts and, clearly, he has the support of a percentage of the people in the area he represents. However, the weight of opinion within his community is against him, and that side of the argument will prevail. The minority—that rabble rouser and dangerous man—will not prevail. The people of common sense and decency who want a new Iraq will prevail.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Does the Minister agree that it is difficult for Members of Parliament to determine whether the violence is decreasing or increasing? Will he agree to put into the Library a monthly written report identifying the degree of violence in the preceding month? The report could, for example, state the number of incidents, as best it is known, the number of casualties on all sides, and the degree of ordnance used. That would enable us to begin to form a view on whether the violence is increasing or subsiding. If that cannot be done generally, in respect of the coalition as a whole, surely it should be done in respect of British servicemen.

Mr. Ingram

I am not wholly unsympathetic to that idea. My concern is about the exploitation of the information by people who are not of good will and who are not trying to establish a balanced approach to an undoubtedly difficult situation. Such information can be misused and misapplied—the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) spoke about the way in which the media report these matters. We can take a snapshot, but the situation could improve in the month following the report. We hold regular debates in the House and Ministers are held accountable, but I shall consider how best we might communicate the overall environment in the area and give better information.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Is there really much of a difference between those who are carrying out murderous attacks in Iraq, including the killing of children, and those who are responsible for the atrocities that have occurred in Russia in the past few days? Is there not a common theme between terrorists of various sorts?

Mr. Ingram

Terrorism of all types when it involves indiscriminate—or, in many cases, discriminate—acts against women, children and defenceless civilians has to be condemned in its totality. However, no two sets of circumstances are the same. Although we can sympathise with the Russian Government and people and give them our best advice, ultimately, they have to find their own resolution to their own problems.

There are increasing indications of international connections in terrorism. We have to get on top of that. Nations are showing increasing willingness to share intelligence and to take action to stop the movement across the globe of international terrorists and the materials they use.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

Events of recent weeks suggest that al-Sadr's army and other insurgents are extremely well organised and resourced. Is there any evidence that they are being helped by countries neighbouring Iraq, or does it remain likely that they are financed by money taken corruptly from the UN oil-for-food programme?

Mr. Ingram

I have no direct evidence of the terms in which the hon. Gentleman put his question. Clearly those people are getting funds, and part of the process of sharing intelligence is establishing where they are coming from. It is important to stop not only funds for the acquisition of weapons that come from individuals and organisations across the border and those collected in the country, but the movement of weapons. Sadly, there are many weapons in Iraq that the people may use, so funding may not be used for purchase if they already have access to all the equipment that they need.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

Two of my constituents, Helen and Kevin Williams, have been doing humanitarian work in Baghdad for the past two years. They report a recent deterioration of the situation, and in fact two of their fellow workers in the charity were killed last week. They say that there is increased violence and there are more no-go areas partly because of the actions taken by the Iraqi authorities. Is the Minister convinced that the actions of the Iraqis on policing and running prisons meet acceptable standards of international human rights?

Mr. Ingram

In my answer to the urgent question I indicated that we recognise that it will take time to make the Iraqi security forces fully capable. We should remember that it takes tremendous bravery for them to take action against the determined people whom they are up against, and many lives have been lost through their willingness to do so. Non-governmental organisations and those who work in such organisations on the ground can give us a better understanding of situations; so if my hon. Friend can get his constituents to write a detailed background of their experiences, I ask him to pass it on to me and the Foreign Office.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

Given the evidence that the rebels are pursuing an increasingly successful campaign of sabotage against oil installations in the south of Iraq, what are the precise responsibilities of the British forces as regards the protection of production and distribution facilities?

Mr. Ingram

Our relationship with the forces has been set up precisely to protect the infrastructure, primarily the oil pipeline, processing plants and electricity plants. We work to try to apprehend people who do such things—if we can get there at the time they are doing so—and to take action against them. We have an important role to play on that because we have helped to rebuild the country not only through the money that we have put in, but through the many projects that we have commissioned using either our direct funding or international funds. We have a clear role that we shall continue to carry out to the best of our ability.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

What representations were made to the Government of Iraq following their banning of al-Jazeera from the country, thus preventing it from reporting to the Arab world what it believes to be going on in Iraq at present? Is the Minister worried about the attitude towards freedom of speech shown by the Iraqi Interim Government?

Mr. Ingram

Not that I am aware of, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's question to the attention of my colleagues in the Foreign Office, who might have better information on the matter.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

How does the level of violence against Iraqi personnel compare with that against coalition personnel, and are the Government pledged to making sufficient resources available for training and helping the Iraqi security forces so that an early and orderly transfer of authority is possible?

Mr. Ingram

That is exactly what we are doing. We are training up many people not only in Iraq, but in neighbouring countries. We are bringing together the best experience from countries with a good knowledge of the Arab community and of how best to interface with it, as well as imparting our forces considerable experience gained from Northern Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere throughout the globe. Of course, the terrorists will always go for the softest targets because that is the very nature of their planning and approach. As the security forces build their capabilities, they will become less soft and more able to look after themselves. I guess that the attacks will decrease over time because the response to them will be much more effective.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

The Minister will know from his experience in other circumstances that one important distinction between a peace process and a terrorist movement or tyranny is a willingness to be held strictly accountable to international law. Does he have any intention of ensuring that British troops' activities will be answerable in the International Criminal Court? When does he expect to be able to tell the House that all those held by coalition forces will have access to legal representation, a trial in a court of law and unrestricted rights of access by the International Red Cross?

Mr. Ingram

There are a lot of implications to my hon. Friend's question that do not quite stack up. The International Red Cross has free access to our facilities, and has produced a number of reports. It continues to monitor the situation, and we continue to respond, if necessary, to its comments. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government have consistently applied a high standard of international law for years and even decades. We set an example to the rest of the world in the conduct of operations in the many countries in which we find ourselves, which is why many countries want to work alongside us when we deliver peacekeeping initiatives. I wish that my hon. Friend would reflect on that for a moment and pay tribute to the 55,000 British personnel who have served in Iraq, instead of blackening their name every time he asks a question.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)

One of those personnel is my brother-in-law, who was on leave in August and told me about the good work that the British armed forces are doing in Iraq. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to my local regiment, the Cheshire regiment, for their work? I agree that we must stay the course, but is he satisfied that the British Army is in a position to deal with a sudden upsurge in violence in, for example, Basra, similar to that with which the Americans have had to deal in Najaf?

Mr. Ingram

I pay tribute to the Cheshires and all the other regiments that have served in Iraq, as well as those that will serve there in future, as I have done time after time. Whether we are capable of meeting any upsurge in violence depends on its scale, but alongside that we must consider the international community's willingness to deal with the problem. There are a considerable number of international troops—admittedly, they are predominantly from the US and the UK—but in the past British troops and forces have shown the capability to deal with violence if it flares up. Yes, I think that we would be able to deal with any known increase in violence.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

A young TA member, Sergeant Jones, told me on Friday of the unpleasant task that he had to perform with colleagues: uncovering a mass grave. Will my right hon. Friend consider, however unpleasant it is to do so, collating all that information in a single document, as there appear to be some people, particularly in the media, who do not understand the nature of the regime that has been toppled?

Mr. Ingram

There were many acts of barbarism, and we have probably only discovered the tip of the iceberg. My hon. Friend makes a useful and interesting point, and I should like to reflect on it to see whether we can collate information to help us achieve a better understanding of the problem.

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