HL Deb 25 June 2003 vol 650 cc304-9

3.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made yesterday evening in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission I shall make a Statement on two serious incidents involving British forces in Iraq today.

"One incident occurred at around 7.30 this morning UK time. It involved members of the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment, who were conducting a routine patrol in the town of al Majar al Kabir, some 25 kilometres south of the town of al Amarah in the province of al Maysan. The two vehicles in which they were travelling were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rifle fire from a large number of Iraqi gunmen. Our troops returned fire, and called for assistance from other UK forces.

"A quick reaction force, including a troop of Scimitar vehicles, additional troops, and a Chinook CH-47 helicopter, was dispatched to the scene to provide assistance. They also came under fire. A total of eight British personnel sustained injuries, one on the ground and seven in the helicopter. They were taken initially to 202 Field Hospital, south-west of Basra. Two have since been transferred to a United States field hospital in Kuwait to receive specialist treatment for very serious injuries. The other six are being treated in 202 Field Hospital.

"Separately, the bodies of six British personnel, who appear to have been killed in another incident, were recovered from the town of al Majar al Kabir at around midday UK time. These personnel were not part of the Parachute Regiment patrol but were members of the Royal Military Police. Local information suggests that they may have been involved in an incident at the police station in al Majar al Kabir. I regret that at this stage I am unable to provide any further information. British commanders are investigating the circumstances.

"We are in the process of informing the next of kin of all those who have been killed or injured. I know that the House would want to join me in sending our condolences to the families. Our thoughts are with them at this dreadful time.

"We are investigating whether there is any connection between these two incidents. British commanders in theatre are assessing the situation and have been in contact with local leaders. It would not be right to speculate further at this stage. I would certainly caution against reaching any wider conclusions about the overall security situation in southern Iraq, particularly in the United Kingdom's area of responsibility. Coalition forces have worked hard to secure Iraq in the aftermath of decisive combat operations. They will not be deflected from their efforts by the enemies of peace".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and from these Benches we wish to extend our deepest sympathy at this tragic time to the families of those who have been killed or wounded. Is the Minister able to tell the House whether the next of kin have now been informed of these two incidents and, if not, how long will it take for all next of kin to be informed?

Little information has been released relating to the sad deaths of the six members of the Royal Military Police, as stated in the Statement last night. I wondered whether the Minister is now in a position to be able to let the House know more details of that appalling tragedy.

While welcoming the proposed review of force levels for the Basra region there have been reports that the Government intend to review what protective clothing our troops should wear. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that report. If that should be the case, perhaps I may remind him that the people who should make those kind of decisions are the local commanders on the ground through the chain of command where the situation will be different from area to area. I do not believe that it is right to interfere with the chain of command and it would be most unwise for Ministers to dictate tactics from Whitehall. We must not suffer from some of the same problems that the US Army has suffered from due to interference by Congress.

We have the best trained and the best equipped troops to deal with the current situation within the British area of responsibility in the Basra region. This is a very sad setback for our troops, but one which they will quickly overcome and their determination to bring peace and security to the people of Iraq will continue unabated.

Finally, will the Minister confirm that the Ministry of Defence has provided everything that commanders have requested, and that military reinforcements will be sent, if asked for, to conduct operations as efficiently as possible to ensure the safety of the lives of our troops? That is the least that we can do for our units in Iraq and is without any doubt what they deserve.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Our thoughts are with the injured and with the families of those injured and unfortunately killed. I was not alone in feeling shock yesterday when I heard the news about this event. That is perhaps because we have become complacent about the dangers in Iraq, due to the success of the British forces in their operations.

We have heard much about the operation to win hearts and minds, part of which is to swap body armour and helmets for berets. Obviously, that is an operational decision for the commanders in the field. For anyone in the situation of having to wear body armour, being safe depends not on the amount of body armour worn, but on the number of people who are prepared to shoot at you.

I have some questions. Following these attacks, will the British Government review with the Americans the strategy being undertaken and conducted in Iraq as to how the peace will be won? With the continued loss of American, and now British, soldiers there is a very real fear of an ongoing and sustained guerrilla campaign, which although small-scale seems to be consistent.

Do we have enough troops in Iraq—not just British but American troops? Is it realistic to believe that the number there, which seem pressed to meet all the needs being set out, will be sufficient? Will the Government push for further efforts to involve the international community and work with our American allies to make sure that as many countries as possible supply not just troops on the ground, but police units to rebuild the policing of Iraq? Obviously, the security of our troops depends on a return to a politically stable and peaceful Iraq.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their expressions of condolence, which will of course be passed on. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asked about the next of kin. The next of kin, both of those who died and those who were injured, have now been informed. Indeed, the names of those who died have now been released.

I am not able to give the noble Lord more details—I do not think that he will be very surprised—even those which have arisen since last night. An inquiry is going on. We feel that it is absolutely essential that we do not comment until the facts have been put together by those on the ground. Those facts will be made public and we shall then all be in a better position to discuss what actually occurred.

So far as concerns protective clothes—again I am not speaking about this particular incident—I just do not know—none of us knows—what those soldiers were or were not wearing at the time the tragedies occurred. I can say that special efforts have been made by British forces in their area of operations, in the south of Iraq particularly, to be as normal and natural and as helpful to the local population as possible. That means that they sometimes do not wear what other soldiers might wear in different situations. As I say, that is quite separate from these two incidents, about which no one yet can talk with any knowledge.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about numbers. We are satisfied that the number of British troops now in Iraq and in theatre is sufficient; 14,000 remain in Iraq and Kuwait—10,250 of whom are in Iraq. Other troops could be sent if requested by commanders on the ground. We certainly have troops to send. I remind the House that the 19,000 troops who had to be retained for Operation Fresco have now been stood down.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, made an excellent point about the dangers involved. It is a very long time now—I think it was 6th April—since the last British fatality occurred. This absolutely shocking news brings us all up short and tells us what we really in our hearts knew; that at present Iraq is a fantastically dangerous place for our troops.

I want to end by saying that those who died will be remembered for a long, long time for having given their lives for their country and in the hope of building a better world.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I preface my question by saying that there may be more than one reason why the Minister cannot or will not answer it. If so, I shall quite understand. Can he say how the soldiers of the Royal Military Police died?

Lord Bach

My Lords, no, I am not in a position to be able to tell the noble Lord that. I would of course if I could. I am sure that in due course there will be an answer to that question.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is there not a strong argument for involving elements from within the peshmerga in all UK and indeed many American operations in the field, for reasons which I am sure we would all understand? What can my noble friend report on the earliest possible reformation of a properly maintained and equipped Iraqi army?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we shall take away and consider my noble friend's point about the peshmerga. As far as concerns an Iraqi army, I know that the United States have started to put together an Iraqi army. That process is in its early stages. A number of people now make up that force, but there is no doubt that it has a long way to go.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us what is the exit strategy after this appalling incident?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall not go into details concerning exit strategies. Perhaps I may just say to the noble Baroness, that, although yesterday was an appalling day—an enormous tragedy for all those involved and shocking to this country—the fact is that some excellent work has been and continues to be done by our troops in Iraq. It would be dreadful to allow yesterday's incident to deflect us from our efforts to make Iraq a better place.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is it not clear that armed attacks on allied forces must be resisted by military means? However, the amount of looting and smuggling that continues surely indicates that the first priority in the civil sector must be to reorganise and retrain an Iraqi police force. That, in my view, is far more important than recreating an Iraqi army. That can happen later. Will the noble Lord report to and consult his colleagues on the need to draw into Iraq Arabic-speaking police officers from the rest of the world?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. We have been doing a great deal of work on that issue. The Chief Constable of Hampshire has been advising. Of course, our own Royal Military Police—and again I am not talking about this incident—along with civilian police officers have been busy trying to assist to build up a police force in Iraq. For example, not in our own area of operations but in Baghdad, 18 police stations are now running and five more are due to open in the next month. In the south of the country, in our area of operations, since the middle of April we have helped to set up a police force that is already having an influence on securing civil life.

Lord Desai

My Lords, before the war started many of us were afraid that there might be hand-to-hand combat and much guerrilla fighting during the first phase of the war. That first phase was mercifully short but the tail of the war will be long. We must be prepared for a long engagement. We should not lose heart at this stage just because of this dreadful occurrence.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. We hope that the engagement will not be very long, as he surmises that it may, but we must not lose heart. It is important to keep going. Otherwise, the forces of evil really will win.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the vast majority of Iraqis want peace and must now feel regret about the loss of our servicemen? Is it not a matter of great regret that our media are unable to report the feelings of that majority?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Earl is right. I am sure that the vast majority of the Iraqi people want nothing more than peace and freedom and are as appalled by yesterday's events as we are. As for the media, some properly report that fact, but perhaps they should do so a little more prominently.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House that I am still technically an officer serving in her Majesty's regular Armed Forces. Next week I shall be unmuzzled. I did not hear the Minister agree with my noble friend Lord Vivian or the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the tactics of the operation are a matter for the General Officer Commanding and his staff in theatre. It is essential to get that right.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I have never known the noble Earl to be muzzled, but he is absolutely right to remind me of a question that I did not answer, which I should have done. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, is right: tactics must be a matter for commanders on the ground. There is no suggestion—I do not think that the noble Lord thinks this is so—that Ministers in Whitehall will start issuing orders for British troops on the ground in Iraq.

Lord Inge

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for what he said. First, I associate myself with the condolences to the families of those who were killed. I say that having at one stage in my life had the privilege of being the Colonel Commandant of the Royal Military Police. I endorse what was said. I also endorse what has been strongly argued: it must be the local commanders on the ground who dictate tactics.

The main lessons that we should draw from that tragedy are, first, that Iraq is a much more dangerous country and operation than many people have been prepared to accept. It is unfortunate that we have had a sort of beauty contest between ourselves and the Americans, which helps no one. Secondly, I heard what the noble Baroness said about an exit strategy, but if we talk about an exit strategy now—although we may think about one—we send a terrible message to the people on the ground. We must recognise that if we are to be there, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, we must be there for the long haul. That is enormously important.

I was relieved to hear the Minister say that there are plans for reinforcement. I know that some people among the American forces and our own feel that we do not have sufficient troops on the ground to deal with the situation. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, suggested, we must be careful about getting some troops from here and some from there. If we get a mismatch of forces, without any clear concept of operations, we shall make the situation worse rather than better.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, especially for his condolences, bearing in mind the positions in which he has served in the Royal Military Police. I agree with all his comments about the dangers in Iraq and the stupidity of having a beauty contest between the Americans and ourselves. I agree with every point that he made.