HL Deb 07 June 2004 vol 662 cc72-83

7.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Iraq made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows: "With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on political and diplomatic developments relating to Iraq.

"Under a revised and accelerated timetable agreed on 15 November last year, and endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 1511, full authority will transfer from the occupying powers—the United States and the United Kingdom—in just three weeks' time, by 30 June, to a sovereign interim Iraqi Government. That Government will be in office until 31 January next year, by which time national elections for a transitional government and constituent assembly are due to have been held. The transitional government and assembly will oversee, among other things, the drafting of a new constitution, with a view to its agreement and elections for a government on the basis of the new constitution by the end of next year.

"To facilitate this process, the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, appointed Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi to nominate the interim Government. On 1 June, Ambassador Brahimi announced the appointment of Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawar as the new president; two deputy presidents, Dr Ibrahim Jaafari and Dr Rowsch Shaways; and a new Prime Minister, Dr Iyad Allawi.

"Dr Allawi's Cabinet was also announced on 1 June in a joint press conference with Ambassador Brahimi. Twenty-two of its 31 members are newcomers—that is, not former members of the Iraqi Governing Council; and six of the 31 are women. In an address to the nation last Friday, Dr Allawi identified his Government's priorities as the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty; security; economic revival; national unity; and preparing for elections.

"Immediately following the announcements on 1 June, the Iraqi Governing Council dissolved itself and handed over its responsibilities to the new Government, including control of the 14 ministries already under full Iraqi authority. The remaining 11 ministries will be transferred to full Iraqi authority by 30 June, at which point the Coalition Provisional Authority will dissolve and the occupation will come to an end. I express my thanks to Ambassador Bremer, who has led the CPA, and the British representatives, Ambassadors Greenstock and Richmond, for their work.

"The announcement of the new interim Government was the fruit of many weeks of wide-ranging consultations conducted by Ambassador Brahimi and his team. The result is, I believe, a competent, professional and broad-based Government acceptable to the widest possible range of Iraqis and reflective of Iraq's diversity. The new Government have been welcomed by the United Nations, the European Union, many governments in the region, and by key figures in Iraq, such as Ayatollah al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the outstanding work of United Nations Ambassador Brahimi and his staff; in congratulating all the members of Iraq's new Government; and in offering our fullest support.

"Meanwhile, Ambassador Brahimi has made recommendations for the membership of a Supreme Commission, to be formed within days to prepare a national conference to be held this July—next month. This conference will include a diverse range of Iraqi voices in the political process, thus providing for the broadest possible representation. It is expected to elect an interim national council of about 100 members, whose role will be to promote constructive dialogue and national consensus; to advise the presidency and the council of Ministers; to monitor the work of the executive, including the implementation of laws; to have the power of veto over executive orders; and to approve a national budget.

"The United Nations will be advising on the organisation of the national, regional and local elections which are to be held no later than 31 January 2005. We welcome the formation of an Iraqi independent electoral commission to prepare for those elections, with UN assistance. The commission's members have been recommended by the UN; and I pay tribute to the work of Carina Perelli, Head of the UN Electoral Assistance Division, and her team, for making that possible.

"As the House will be aware, the United States and the United Kingdom have proposed that there should be a new Security Council resolution to facilitate the transfer of sovereignty by 30 June. Drafts have been under discussion in New York and between capitals for some weeks. These discussions with our Security Council partners have taken place in a constructive atmosphere. I hope that this process may be brought to a conclusion very soon.

"Key elements of the resolution affirm the full sovereignty of the interim Government, and give the United Nations a lead role in support of the political process.

"The mandate of the multi-national force is dealt with both within the context of the resolution and in an exchange of letters to the president of the Security Council from the Prime Minister of Iraq on the one hand and the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell on the other, on behalf of the multi-national force. The draft resolution provides that the mandate of the force will expire in any event by 31 December 2005; but the Iraqi Government will have a clear right to review or terminate it earlier if they so wish.

"The draft resolution and the letters lay down in some detail the nature of the relationship between the multi-national force and Iraq's own security forces, and state the need to reach agreement on fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations. I am placing the text of the letters in the Libraries of both Houses.

"The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, addressed the Security Council last Thursday in New York. He asked that the international community endorse and support the Iraqi interim Government as quickly as possible; made clear his support for the resolution; and made a number of points about the provisions of the resolution, which are now being dealt with. The Security Council has been holding further discussions about the resolution over the weekend, and will resume those discussions later today in New York. A revised draft text is being circulated later today to Security Council members. As soon as it is, I shall lay it before the House and place a copy in the Library of the House of Lords.

"The biggest challenge which the new Government of Iraq will face is to build security. There will be those who will continue to seek to disrupt the transition to successful democracy in Iraq and to force decisions by the bomb, not the ballot box. But the Iraqi Government are firmly resolved to defeat the men of violence and we are resolved to help them to do so. The multinational force, including British troops, continues to work with the Iraqis to stabilise the country and to assist the process of reconstruction and political transition. The force is helping Iraq's own security forces to build their capacity. The Iraqi police force now numbers some 89,000 men, the Civil Defence Corps some 29,000 men, the border police over 8,000 men and the Facilities Protection Service some 74,000 men.

"I pay tribute to the courage and bravery of all those in Iraq who are working to build peace and democracy. The British troops of the multinational force, along with many British police and civilians, are giving them vital and courageous help. There will be some difficult times ahead, but the path to a free and democratic Iraq is now clear. The British Government will remain committed to helping the Iraqi Government and people to achieve that historic goal".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

7.21 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am sure that we are all extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. Since we are looking at global affairs, I hope your Lordships will allow me to begin by paying the briefest of tributes to the former president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who died yesterday. He helped to change the world for the better and did so by using his priceless gift of communication. He used the art of simple language to carry the world with him. That is an example that political leaders should always keep in mind.

We warmly welcome the announcement of a new Iraqi Government in Baghdad and the appointment of the new president-designate and the prime minister-designate. We see them as their own men, dedicated to building a new Iraq after the nightmare past, and nobody's stooges or placemen. In our view, this is a clear step forward. Obviously while violence continues, as it sadly does, this arrangement refutes those who have been talking of the coalition's efforts so far as being doomed or in some kind of nosedive. Does not this new formation, this government-to-be in the next few weeks, provide the best chance of holding Iraq together and avoiding civil war between factions and tribes? In my view, it was never very likely anyway and was exaggerated by some pessimists.

As for the draft UN resolution, we know that the main debate has been over the meaning of full sovereignty for the new Iraqi Government. I, for one, have never seen the question of control of the security forces, now to be relabelled the multinational force, as all that complex and difficult, provided it is made clear between the parties. The status of foreign troops in relation to the civil power after a period of occupation is not a new problem. It was managed perfectly well in Germany after the Second World War and in Japan and, very much more recently, in Afghanistan.

The reality is that future security situations are bound to be unpredictable. We do not know what will work out. Surely these matters can best be handled flexibly, and by a suitable exchange of letters, which must obviously leave the operational chain of command with the military and its home country, while strategy and major events are discussed between allies. Allies are what the Iraqis now become under their new government. We should welcome that. Will the letters establish that sensible and practical relationship? We need to be reassured about that.

We also welcome the setting up by the Iraqi Government of a new national security committee with members from both the Iraqi side and the multinational force side, the former coalition forces side, which should help this process.

Can the Minister confirm that the militias are now to be disbanded? I am not sure whether this will include the al-Sadr militia, which has been causing so much mayhem. Are the Iraqi Armed Forces to be reassembled and properly reconstituted? We recognise that disbanding them in the first place was a big American mistake. It seems to me that we did not raise a murmur of objection to it, as we should have done as coalition partners.

More broadly, would the Minister agree that despite all the negative reporting, huge strides have been made in reconstruction, especially in the south, much of it with the able help of our brilliant and flexible Armed Forces? Would she agree that the constant predictions of disaster merely serve to undermine the morale of our troops quite unnecessarily when they are doing a good, but fiendishly difficult, job? Actually, I think that they are impervious to much of the chatter they hear. Will she rebuke those doom-saying critics robustly?

Finally, what proposals will Her Majesty's Government put forward this coming weekend at the G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, for a better and more structured dialogue, at an international level, between the leaders of majority moderate Islam and the Western world, for example on the lines put forward by my colleague, Michael Ancram MP, in a pamphlet today? Would it not be desirable, as he argues in his pamphlet, to set up a process of this kind so that united minds can focus not just on Iraq's future, but on making serious progress on the Israel/Palestine imbroglio, which continues to poison the whole region, as well as on combating the dangerous threats to stability in Saudi Arabia? The latest tragic outcome of that situation, the shooting of a BBC correspondent and the killing of his cameraman, which we deeply regret, are in the newspapers this very morning. Will she say something about these events in the Middle East and how they are to be addressed, since they are all part of the same jigsaw as are developments in Iraq itself and will help to shape the future of that country?

7.27 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the Government for making this Statement and we hope that they will continue to keep both Houses well informed as this process continues over the coming months.

We welcome the clear central role that the UN is now, at last, playing and the restoration of sovereignty to an autonomous government. After so many mistakes have been made, we hope that we are now on the right path. I wish to stress from these Benches that those of us who were very doubtful about the path to war and the justification given for war nevertheless feel that we all have the strongest of interests in getting it right now and in ensuring, as far as possible, that we leave behind in Iraq a coherent, credible and united national government.

May I ask the Minister to explain a little what the full sovereignty of the Interim Government means? The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, referred to the parallel with the restoration of sovereignty to the Government of West Germany in 1955. That was very clearly a semi-sovereign state. Right up until 1989 it was governed by a whole set of agreements with the continuing occupying powers for some purposes.

I must say that the presence of an American ambassador in the shape of Mr Negroponte, given his past as an ambassador in central America, does not give all of us full assurance that this will be allowed to be a fully sovereign government. Can the Minister assure us that, while this resolution has been being negotiated, the British Government have consulted fully with their partners in the EU as well as with the United States?

Can she tell us a little more about the British role within the multinational force? Is it likely that the areas of the country that will be controlled by British commands within the multinational force will be extended, or is that not yet decided? Are we signing a separate status of forces agreement or is it covered by the exchange of letters with the US Secretary of State? Does that also cover British forces? Can she say a little bit about what sensitive offensive operations are? I understand that Sir Emyr Jones Parry, our ambassador to the UN, said yesterday that the policy on sensitive operations would require the assent of the ministerial committee for national security. Is that also agreed both by the United Kingdom and by the United States?

May I ask, as we have asked on many occasions from these Benches, what is going to happen to the Iraq Survey Group after 30 June? Will it, as the British Prime Minister appeared to suggest the other day, continue its operations until it finds something; or will it, as David Kay suggested, accept now that nothing is going to be found and wind up its operations?

Lastly, I echo and agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that this is a matter of concern to the entire region. Can the Minister assure us that there has been active consultation with Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, on the progress of restoring Iraq's sovereignty and stability? We are very conscious that Iraq's neighbours already have a degree of influence within Iraq. How do the Government see that fitting into what is now, I understand, called the "broader Middle East and North Africa initiative" which will be discussed at the G8 summit, and how do they believe the instabilities elsewhere in the region, in particular in Saudi Arabia and in Israel and Palestine, are to be addressed?

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, about President Reagan. He was indeed a figure of enormous historical importance not only to the United States of America but to the West. As our newspapers rightly reflected this week, he did a great deal to change the tide of international relationships. We benefit from that today.

I thank both the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for what I think were very supportive comments about the Statement that I repeated on behalf of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was right when he said that the new government who will be taking over—they have indeed taken over already, given that the CPA is handing over and that 14 ministries have already been handed over with the other 11 following on 30 June—stand the best chance of "holding Iraq together"—I think those were his words—in light of the way in which the representatives of different groupings have been brought together. I for one am very pleased to see that there is quite a lot of new blood among Ministers, and indeed a number of women among Ministers as well. The role played in all of this by Ambassador Brahimi has been enormously important, and the continuing role of Carina Perelli, the UN expert on elections, will continue to be of enormous importance into the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked me about the letters that Secretary of State Powell and the new Prime Minister Allawi have sent to the president of the Security Council. I agree very strongly with what the noble Lord said about the importance of flexibility in these arrangements. One is not going to be able to write out a blueprint, set it in stone and think that it is going to be able to deal with every eventuality that may arise. Both noble Lords will find copies of both those letters in the Library of the House. My right honourable friend made sure at lunchtime that both Houses would receive those letters.

If I may, I should just like to quote from what Dr Allawi said in setting out Iraqi consent to the presence of the multinational force: Until we are able to provide security for ourselves, including the defense of Iraq's land, sea, and air space, we ask for the support of the Security Council and the international community in this endeavour. We seek a new resolution on the Multinational Force (MNF) mandate to contribute to maintaining security in Iraq". That is a very clear statement from the incoming Prime Minister about the need for the continuing MNF presence. In his letter to the UN he also set out the structures that will act as what he calls the, fora for the MNF and the Iraqi government to reach agreement on the full range of fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations, and will ensure full partnership between Iraqi forces and the MNF".

I think that that is an enormously important exchange of letters given that both were sent on 5 June and both set out the ways in which, on behalf of the MNF, Secretary of State Powell has stated the position, and the way in which that position has been requested by the incoming Iraqi Government. I hope that that gives a clear view on that point.

The noble Lord asked also about militias. We understand that there has been movement on the militias today. I am not in a position to make an absolutely definitive statement about this, but as I left the Foreign Office earlier this afternoon, telegrams were arriving about the militias and the start of militia movement away from their aggressive stance. We hope that that will continue. At the moment we are on a watching brief to try to encourage that sort of movement. Obviously, it would be enormously welcome were that to be the case.

I agree, of course, with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said about the importance of our British troops in and around Basra and the way in which they have operated in MND South-East. I have visited them on two occasions. Your Lordships do not need me to say it, but I say it none the less: they are an extraordinary example of peacekeeping at its very best and everything that we would expect of the way in which our troops operate when they deal with people in quite difficult local circumstances and quite volatile security situations. They deal with it with complete professionalism and competence.

So when the noble Lord invites me to "rebuke the doomsayers robustly"—I think those were his words—I say that although I rebuke them robustly, it is a very good thing to hear them rebuked robustly by Members on the other side of the House. If I may say so, his statement was much more positive than that which I heard from his right honourable friend in another place earlier today.

I think that the structure that we now have in place offers a very positive way forward. The noble Lord asked how we can translate this into what is happening elsewhere in the region. What is happening elsewhere in the region is of course very worrying in a number of different ways. The terrorist situation as it has developed in Saudi Arabia is causing enormous concern at the moment. I join him in sending condolences to the family of Simon Cumbers, the cameraman who was killed in Saudi Arabia yesterday, and to his colleagues and his friends. I join the noble Lord also in wishing Frank Gardner, the correspondent who was reporting at the time, a full and speedy recovery, although I understand that, sadly, he is quite badly injured.

However, in all of this, let us not lose sight of the fact that the Tunis summit of the Arab League came forward with some very positive statements about the future relationships between the region and the West—the EU and the United States of America. I think that a critical reading of the Tunis summit statement leads one to believe that we have a great deal on offer there with which we can work for the G8. I for one hope that we will take up some of the points made by the Arab League when we meet shortly at the Sea Island summit.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was quite right. Whatever our differences, we all are now, I hope, working for a better future for Iraq. We are doing that with the active support—the key and central role—of the United Nations, something which I know the noble Lord and all his party have stressed to us throughout this dialogue—although I am bound to say that I do not think that we on this side of the House needed any persuading on that; we were always very keen to involve the United Nations. However, I would point out to him that the European Union, which as we know was pretty well in disagreement over the initial action in Iraq, has very warmly welcomed the formation of the new Iraqi Government. I hope that we will see real progress on the question of the United Nations Security Council resolution.

The noble Lord addressed the question of, "how sovereign is sovereign". They are a sovereign government. There is a self-denying ordinance for the next seven months which that sovereign government have taken unto themselves, which is not to prejudice the position of an incoming elected government. That is not something imposed on the Iraqi Government who will be taking over on 30 June. They themselves have stated that they do not want to take decisions that in the longer term may prejudice decisions that can be taken by an elected government.

The statement by Secretary of State Powell was made on behalf of the multinational forces. There will not be a separate statement from the United Kingdom. It may not have been crystal clear in the Statement, but it stated that he spoke on behalf of the multinational forces and dealt with the questions about the sensitive operations in relation to Prime Minister Allawi.

After the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi Interim Government, the Iraq Survey Group will continue its activities, to clarify our understanding of Iraq's WMD programmes. The Powell-Allawi letters make that clear, and make it clear that it will be under the aegis of the multinational force. The ISG's operations will be Iraq-wide. There is no fixed schedule for the ISG to report further, but we look forward to seeing how those issues progress.

I hope that I have dealt with all the points, other than the question of how much Iraq's neighbours were consulted. Let us remember that the United States of America does not have the sort of relationship with Iran—nor indeed with Syria—that we in this country do. I have discussed the issues on behalf of Her Majesty's Government with very senior representatives of the Syrian Government, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed them with representatives of the Iranian Government. However, everyone has not sat round a table discussing the matter in quite the way that the noble Lord implied. It was discussed at the Euromed meeting recently, and we have taken opportunities to try to make sure that we keep everyone—not only those two countries, but other neighbours—well up to speed on the developments that we hope to see come to fruition, which I am happy to say now are coming to fruition.

7.41 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give us some more information about how the present moves are being received by the different sections of the Iraqi public? We hear about the United Nations, but not how everything is progressing within the country. Also, has there been any improvement in the security situation? Will she assure us that neither of the main parties will withdraw troops—indeed, that they should supplement troops—until the situation is resolved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the security situation remains extremely volatile. It is important for noble Lords to remember that security is not at a dangerous level throughout Iraq, but it can erupt in a number of different places. We have discussed problems many times before about the Sunni triangle. Noble Lords will know about the difficulties in Najaf, which have been very different in character from those in Fallujah, but have none the less been highly disruptive. We have had some difficulties—of a very short-lived nature, I am happy to say—in Basra.

The incidence of security problems currently runs at a somewhat lower level than it did a few weeks ago. However, I remind the House that my right honourable friend's Statement made it clear that we expect the next few weeks to be very difficult in terms of security. That is because there are groups who inevitably still look for opportunities to get their slice of the action. I hope that the announcement of a government will to some extent mitigate such activity. However, as the Statement made clear, many people still do not wish Iraq to be a success. For different reasons of their own, they would like Iraq to be a failure for the future. That is not what the Iraqi people want; it is not what the Government of Iraq want. We will support them in their endeavour.

The noble Lord asks how everything has been received by the Iraqi public. 1 cannot tell him what public reaction has been so far, but I remind him that the recent opinion polls have shown that the Iraqi people want to end the period of occupation, which will come to an end on 30 June, and want to take control of their own affairs, which will happen on 30 June, and that more than 70 per cent of them believe that they will have a better future than they would have had under Saddam Hussein.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, my noble friend said that sovereignty would be transferred. I take her back to the specific words of the Statement. Will the 100 elected members of the interim national council have the power of veto over executive orders, as referred to in the Statement, relating to decisions taken by Iraq's own security forces—decisions taken in conjunction with the multinational force? If they do not have that power, we may end up with a major row in the new interim national council.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I see the point that the noble Lord makes, but I am bound to say that the matter is now one for the Iraqi Interim Government and the elected interim national council. They must sort it out on their internal basis. We may be able to add something more, because the Security Council resolution has still not been finalised; it is hoped that it will be over the next couple of days or so. The wording of questions around the precise nature of the relationship between the Iraqi Government and the multinational force is still under discussion. The Statement is very clear about the interim national council having veto over executive orders, as the noble Lord mentioned, but the detail of that is a matter for the Interim Government and interim national council to settle between themselves.

Lord Selsdon

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the way in which she has dealt with Iraq matters with great intelligence and dexterity. I have not agreed with much of what the Government have said before, but I agree totally with my noble friend Lord Howell that the time has come to look to the future. I have already declared my Iraqi interests, but I hope that the Minister will not mind if I share a few other recent experiences.

I had the pleasure of sitting with Dr Allawi in what I would call a non-aligned country not so long ago, to talk with him and other friends about what the British could do to help Iraq. I said that, personally, because of my relationships, I would do all that I could. As the Minister pointed out, the principal problems that he raised then were security, security, security.

We discussed the role of the Iraqi army—I have raised it in debate in this House—and why the British today did what they never did before. In the past, we always kept the army, and we paid it. The Iraqi army was not paid. We can argue about why people were members of the political parties in Iraq or not, but I have heard recently—it is nothing to do with the current relevant people in Iraq—that troops and others in Iraq are being offered bounties of 100 dollars for each American soldier that they kill. I have no reason to believe that that is true or untrue; that was the statement made to me earlier this week.

What can we do to get the Iraqi army back, equipped and loyal to its country, as it will be? Suggestions have been made that NATO should be involved as a peacekeeping force, in order to take the pressure off the United States. What can the Minister say about the steps that the British can take to improve and increase the security of Iraq? What else could we do to help that country? It is a great country with great potential, and we should put the past behind us.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support, and I am glad that he had the opportunity to have that discussion with Dr Allawi. Of course security lies at the heart of the issue. If security is not improved to the point at which people feel that they can participate in civil society—at which they feel that they can reconstruct their country—the difficulties for Iraq remain enormous. As I indicated, I hope that the security situation is improving. I do not want to make dramatic claims because, as night follows day, there would surely be some reason to regret that in the next few days.

Although security is vital, when I have talked to Iraqi interlocutors, I have also found them asking over and again why we cannot get out more positive messages about Iraq. Why it is that the messages about the reopening of schools and hospitals—the fact that electricity and water supplies are working in many parts of the country with literally hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Iraqi workers being created as a result of reconstruction—are not reported? My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said only this weekend that here is an economy that has recently imported 1 million cars. An economy that has imported 1 million cars cannot be struggling so badly. Indeed, those are positive messages.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked me to be more robust with the doomsayers—but I shall not be alone in my robustness in dealing with doomsayers. I hope that many of your Lordships, including those on the Opposition Benches, will also be robust on these points. The Iraqis themselves feel that they are not getting a fair crack in the media. That is what it comes down to: they feel that they are not being recognised for the substantial steps that they have themselves made to reconstruct the country both politically and commercially. I hope that that will also change and that a more positive attitude will be adopted.

I saw some coverage about the bounty offered for individuals; I think that it was bounty offered by individual militias for servicemen and servicewomen, whom I understand commanded a higher price. None the less, that is a reasonably contained activity that we need to ensure that we deal with very robustly. As for the question of NATO, in the short term, there is not a prospect of NATO taking over a role in Iraq. What we can do to help improve security in Iraq is to go on with what we are doing in Iraq—namely, training their police and their armed forces and ensuring that, as far as we can, we involve Iraq's neighbours in that process; indeed, many of them are already becoming involved.

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