HL Deb 18 October 2004 vol 665 cc542-52

4.8 p.m.

Lord Bach

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

"Mr Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about the deployment of UK forces in Iraq.

"There has been considerable speculation in the media over the past several days about the United Kingdom deploying forces outside its current area of operations in southern Iraq. The only relevant fact is that the UK military received a request on 10 October from the US military command in Iraq for assistance. Such requests and discussions between allies are routine. There is regular dialogue with our coalition allies and with the Iraqi security forces on all aspects of operations in Iraq. Requests for assistance form part of these exchanges. The actual disposition of coalition forces in Iraq has been adjusted regularly since the end of combat operations. The Danish contingent, for example, has taken on a greater share of responsibility within Multinational Division (South-East), and the Japanese have deployed a 500-strong contingent into the Dutch area of operations.

"This particular request, if agreed, would involve UK land forces operating outside MND(SE). It is worth bearing in mind that Royal Air Force personnel have been operating over the whole of Iraq when required to support the coalition and that some British personnel are based in Baghdad to support coalition operations. Other British land forces have previously operated outside MND(SE).

"Iraqi security forces and coalition forces have recently been involved in intensified operations to restore areas under the control of militants and terrorists to the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government. Recent operations in Najaf, in Samarra and in North Babil have been undertaken as part of that effort. The political process is moving ahead as a result of those actions.

"The strategy is designed to increase pressure on and deal with those terrorists who are trying to prevent the rebuilding of Iraq and who threaten the holding of free elections in January. The US request is for a limited number of UK ground forces to be made available to relieve US forces to allow them in turn to participate in further operations elsewhere in Iraq to maintain the continuing pressure on terrorists. The request does not ask for UK troops to be deployed to Baghdad City nor to Fallujah.

"We are obviously considering the request. There are a number of issues that require assessment including: timing; the length of the potential operation; command and control arrangements; logistics; and which forces would be the most appropriate to conduct the operation. None of the details has as yet been decided and a UK reconnaissance team will deploy to the area tomorrow to provide further information which will inform the chiefs of staff. I expect the final recommendation from the chief of defence staff by the middle of the week.

"All of those factors require careful consideration. Once we have made a decision, I will inform the House in the usual way. Speculation over the weekend has focused on the suggestion that the request is somehow political and its timing linked to elections. I want to make it clear that the request is a military request. Although it is linked to elections, it is not linked to the US elections, but to efforts to create the best possible security situation in which to hold the Iraqi elections in January.

"A number of commentators have voiced concerns about UK forces coming under US command and about rules of engagement. If we agree to this request, the arrangements will ensure that UK forces have a specific task; they will be responsible for a particular area. There are no practical difficulties for UK forces operating alongside those from the US. Our forces are fully engaged with all of our coalition partners at every level of planning. On a daily basis UK forces work alongside forces from Italy, Denmark and other nations such as Poland, the Netherlands and Japan. This is a matter of routine and is an effective and practical way of ensuring coherence both in our own area and with those areas that surround it.

"UK rules of engagement are more than adequate for tasks of the type envisaged. There is no need to adjust them. They will provide proper protection for UK forces, as they have during operations in volatile areas in our own sector such as A1 Ammarah. It is worth noting that as the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces develop, they will expand the areas under their independent control. As a result coalition forces will need to become more able to act flexibly in support of Iraq security forces as they in turn take on greater responsibility for the protection of Iraqi civilians and property.

"The Government remain totally committed to the strategy of holding free elections in January; and to seeing a government in Iraq take their rightful place in the international community and deliver prosperity and a new future for the Iraqi people. That is something that should unite all sides of the House. It is right that the United Kingdom should do what it can to contribute to that fundamental strategic objective".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In doing so, I offer my and my party's support to all our troops in Iraq. I also pay tribute to the families for the support they provide. We fully support the coalition as it seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to Iraq and to preserve her territorial integrity.

While we instinctively wish to assist our American allies. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify the following. First, what will be the new rules of engagement? Are Her Majesty's Government entirely satisfied that they are substantially robust enough to cope with the change of area and support from the Americans who may be using different ROEs? Further, can we have the Minister's assurance that British troops, who are subject to the International Criminal Court in contrast to their US counterparts who are not, will not be compromised by likely change of ROE?

Secondly, for how long is it expected that troops are likely to be deployed outside MND(SE)? Thirdly, do Her Majesty's Government expect to have to deploy further forces from the United Kingdom to backfill the reserve battalion to be committed elsewhere in Iraq? Fourthly, what is Her Majesty's Government's assessment of the security situation in Basra and the rest of MND(SE)? Fifthly, will the Minister confirm that, should the deployment take place, our forces will be supplied with communications equipment that will enable them to fight alongside our American allies?

Sixthly, does he further agree that it is essential, if our troops are deployed, they should be deployed with a power to influence the decision-making process; not just with a responsibility to execute it? Is he satisfied as to the general scale and input of British views and expertise in current coalition counter-insurgency planning? Finally, given the nature of recent events and looking to the future, does the Minister still consider it a wise and sensible decision to cut four infantry battalions while the Army is so clearly and obviously under such great pressure?

4.18 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It was extremely carefully drafted to give the impression that it would receive support from all sides of the House. We have a number of questions and they are rightly centred on the safety of our troops.

Looking at the figures, it is striking to note that the American army has more soldiers based in Iraq than there are in the entire British Army. Therefore the proportion of troops we will he sending will have a greater effect on our capacity to reinforce our own troops than that of the Americans. The argument could be made that the Americans did not deploy enough troops in the first place, but that is looking back in history.

The Minister has not given any firm details about which troops should be used. However, the speculation is that it will be the Black Watch. I doubt whether he will confirm that, but it is important if it is the Black Watch, because they are the reserve forces on which the British troops will rely if there is an upsurge of violence. Their equipment—the Warrior armoured personnel carrier—and their training make them most suitable to back up any of our troops that are in trouble; and therefore having them deployed in another area could cause considerable concern.

Will the Minister say in particular, if the Black Watch is to be deployed, which regiment or which unit will take its place as the British reserve force in the southern region?

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, spoke of the rules of engagement. Have the Americans made any requests that we look again at our rules of engagement? If the rules of engagement are to be set, can the Minister say that they will not be changed at some later stage in an operation? After all, although they will be under British control, the overall command structure, as I understand it, will be that American officers will still be in overall control of the northern region.

Much was made in the Statement of the fact that this has no political link to the election in the US, although it has links to the election in Iraq. While we obviously support the election in Iraq, the estimation that this will not have a significant effect on the electorate in the United States should not he underestimated.

We support a stable and sustainable democracy in Iraq. Everything that can be done to move towards peaceful elections has to be considered. On that basis, we would look to the movement of troops, if this could be achieved. However, I should like to put down a marker: the reason that these troops are moving is due not to the elections but to the Americans' view that they are to undertake an all-out assault on Fallujah. While Fallujah might well be an impediment to the election, the way in which the Americans have been using airpower in Fallujah could put our troops at risk.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for what they have said, particularly their support for the British Armed Forces. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, in particular for the way in which he expressed his party's support for British troops in Iraq. That support has been forthcoming ever since this campaign began, and I am grateful to him for what he said.

The noble Lord asked a number of questions. I shall do my best to answer them, although he will appreciate that this is a holding Statement. When there is more to announce, it will be announced, as the Statement said, in the normal way at a later time.

Both noble Lords asked about the rules of engagement. If we decide to do this, the rules of engagement under which British troops would engage would be British rules of engagement. Of course, those rules of engagement are never published, as both noble Lords will understand, for very good reason, but let me assure the House that they are robust. Indeed, they are sufficiently robust to deal with any situation in which the British Armed Forces may find themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked about the International Criminal Court. Let me assure him that British Armed Forces abroad are subject to UK criminal law. In those circumstances, the ICC does not get involved.

As for the length of time involved, the noble Lord will not expect me to give an exact answer because there is no exact answer to that question. If we decide to deploy troops, we envisage a small-scale, time-limited operation.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is quite properly concerned about backfill. Our response to the United States request will take that factor into consideration. We shall not leave MND South-East exposed to an unacceptable level of risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked next about working with our American allies. He was really asking about interoperability. As he knows, that has been a concern of both the US and the UK over a number of years. The result is that the two sides are very interoperable with each other, in terms of their troops working together.

To answer the noble Lord's sixth question, I am satisfied that the UK influence in the larger plans to do with the strategic objective in Iraq is considerable and remains considerable.

On the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I have already referred to the rules of engagement and to the danger that he pointed out of possible exposure in MND South-East. As I said, we will not allow that to happen.

On any relevance to the United States election, I refer noble Lords to the first leader in the Times this morning, something that I do not often do. It puts such arguments in their proper context; it describes such criticism as "ridiculous" and poses this question: Does it really help Mr Bush's cause that US troops are in need of 'reinforcement'? Of course this has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with a military request from our American allies. We are looking at the strategic objective of having free elections in Iraq, which will be an amazing achievement when it occurs and something which I know the whole House will support.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, I want to express most strongly, my support for what British troops are doing. Could the Minister enlighten us whether there is any difference in the philosophy of British and American ground troops in the way in which they carry out their operations? I welcome the Minister's comment regarding the robust nature of our rules of engagement. Are our rules of engagement different from those of the Americans, and is the Minister satisfied that any friendly fire is covered by the rules of engagement of both parties?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid I am not in a position to say whether our rules of engagement are the same or different. I suspect, as I believe my noble and learned friend will as well, that they are different. I imagine that rules of engagement for each sovereign country are different one from the other. What I think should concern the House—I know that it concerns my noble and learned friend—is whether our rules of engagement are robust enough to deal with any situation the British Armed Forces might meet. I have told the House that we believe they are.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As I understood it, he said that the first request was made by the American military commander in theatre. Was there any parallel request from the Department of Defense or from the American authorities to the Ministry of Defence at the same time? Could the Minister be a little more forthcoming about what the request sought? We have some idea of the scale of it but no idea of the timing or duration in the American commander's request. Perhaps the noble Lord could enlighten us on that.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am sorry to be unhelpful, if that is how it seems to the noble and gallant Lord. As far as I know, no request was made at a level between Washington and London. If I am wrong, I shall of course let him know in the usual way, but I have no knowledge of any such request. I am not in a position to be able to tell him the exact form that the request took. That is probably a matter best left between the US and UK military. However, I repeat that if the request is acceded to, we shall of course inform the House.

Lord Garden

My Lords, I must admit to being puzzled by this. Have we gone back to the Americans and asked why, out of 130,000 troops, they need 650 British troops, when they have their own communications, short logistic lines, training and doctrine, so that they can redistribute their forces around with much greater ease? We must have gone back and asked them. What was the answer?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the reason the Americans need UK forces to backfill is so that they can release their units for other tasks. The noble Lord will know that we engage in regular dialogue with the US on all aspects of operations in Iraq. These sort of discussions are routine business, and I do not think that the noble Lord should be so surprised that the Americans would like 650 British troops working in their area. Our Armed Forces in Iraq have an absolutely outstanding record, as has been said from both the Front and the Back Benches.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, could the Minister please answer this question? If, as I believe they are, the American rules of engagement are different to our rules of engagement, and if the Black Watch comes under command of an American officer and the American officer orders them to do something which is outside our rules of engagement, what happens?

Lord Bach

My Lords, exactly the same as happens at the moment. It will be UK commanders who command this force in the field, if we accede to this request, and UK soldiers are obliged to follow UK rules of engagement.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, is the Minister, who has referred several times to the question of elections in Iraq, able to inform the House how the process of providing security for the UN election teams of monitors is progressing?

Can he comment on a report in the press this morning that the Australian Government have declined to provide security for the UN? Would he not agree that no one has a greater interest in these elections taking place on time than the countries in the coalition? It is therefore a trifle odd for a country in the coalition to be declining such a request.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I have not seen the report in the press this morning. However, even if I had, I very much doubt if I would comment on it.

The noble Lord, with his vast experience in this field, will know that a great deal of work is going on at the present time in order to make sure that there is sufficient security for these crucial elections. Indeed, this request from our American allies should be seen in that light.

Lord Truscott

My Lords, it is surely not unique for British troops to be placed under American command. After all, the NATO Supreme Commander in Europe is always an American. I recall that a certain American, General Eisenhower, led allied forces in liberating Europe.

Does my noble friend agree that it is impossible literally to draw an operational line in the sand in Iraq? Nevertheless will he reassure the House that, if British troops are called upon by our American allies to take part in a major operation in Iraq, British commanders will be consulted?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can of course give my noble friend that assurance, and he is absolutely right. We are already part of the multinational chain of command in Iraq, which is headed by the US Multinational Force Commander in Baghdad, General Casey. The British General Officer Commanding Multinational Division (South-East) reports to General Casey, though his forces remain under UK command and are ultimately answerable to London. To suggest that what is being proposed here is anything new is just not right.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I should like to return to a point which was raised by my noble friend Lord Astor about communications equipment.

I do not know if the Minister heard Colonel Tim Collins being interviewed this morning, when he said apropos of this issue that the inadequacy of communications equipment had been a factor. Some of us have been worried for years about the progress regarding Bowman. Can the Minister give us an assurance that real pressure is being kept on the Ministry of Defence to provide Bowman and, if the Black Watch or any other unit were to be deployed to the American sector under American command, could they be quite sure that the communications equipment would be fully adequate for the purpose, both in terms of reliability and security?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the last time I heard Colonel Tim Collins speaking was not this morning but it was when listening to the Conservative Party conference.

More seriously, however, he is quite right to bring up the question of communications. They are absolutely crucial. It is almost our first task to make sure that those communications are up to scratch, and also to work with our American allies' communications.

As far as Bowman is concerned, the noble Lord will know that the first in-service date for Bowman was met early this year. We are continuing to work very hard on that communications system. The answer to his question, therefore, is that communications will play a very important part in our considerations.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, although that was a holding statement, is not the Minister aware of increasing dismay in the country about these developments in Iraq? Does he not share that dismay himself and would he not like to confess to it if he could do so, but he has a duty to give us this holding Statement?

Does he not agree that the situation is getting worse and worse? Is he not aware that there are television polls today, for example, showing that 80 per cent of the public are against any further deployment of UK forces outside the existing areas?

Lord Bach

My Lords, no, I do not agree with the noble Lord at all. He has asked for my view and my view is that, although it is an extraordinarily difficult position and will continue to be so—certainly particularly difficult up until the time of the elections—things are improving in Iraq.

I also think that what we have learnt in the last few days about uncovered graves in parts of Iraq shows how absolutely appalling the regime of Saddam Hussein was. I have to say that if we had taken the advice from the Benches on which the noble Lord sits, Saddam Hussein would still be in power.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the Statement he has made is by way of an interim Statement?

Would he make a further Statement before—and I stress the word "before"—any UK forces are moved pursuant to any request that might be made? Does he not recognise that this issue is peculiarly sensitive?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I repeated the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in which he says that he will return to the House in an appropriate way, at the appropriate time. I do not think that, standing where I am, I can take what the Secretary of State said any further.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, have we turned down a previous request and, if so, why?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I have to say that I do not know the answer to that question. I do not believe that we have but, again, if I am wrong I will let the noble Earl know.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, would the Minister agree that this might be an appropriate moment finally to stop tinkering with the regimental system of the Scottish regiments, particularly the Black Watch?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I know the strong feelings in this House about that particular matter. However, the noble Baroness will know what our plans are in that regard and she will have heard me mention the Chief of the General Staff and the Army Board support for changes to be made to the infantry battalion system, in order that the arms plot may be ended and that we can have more battalions in active use than we have under the present setup.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, since the Minister told us that this request was made from military commanders to military commanders and was not accompanied—certainly not at that time—by a request from government to government, is it not clear that, while we should thank him for his courtesy in coming to the House to make the Statement that he has, this matter will not be decided by anything which is said in Parliament, if it is a military-to-military matter?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord often hits the nail on the head. This is a military request and it has to be dealt with in that particular way.

However, there is an obligation on us as the Government, and on any government, to come to the House—particularly when there has been as much publicity as there has, some of it a little ill-informed over this weekend—to explain where we are at the present stage. As I say, this is a holding Statement.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, following an earlier question with regard to the Black Watch, the Black Watch has never shirked its duty in the Queen's service. It seems to me, however, that the Government should be cautious about what is expected of it—particularly at this time.

In the local newspaper where I live, which is Black Watch country, also in the Scotsman newspaper and I dare say in other newspapers too, there is a growing number of letters from people who have the impression that the Black Watch is being increasingly used to support the election of the President of the United States. I am not saying that is necessarily the case, but it is a growing impression. It seems to me that, given that it is a growing impression, the Government should be extremely cautious how far they push the public in supporting our brave soldiers.

Could the Minister tell me whether the Government are aware of this correspondence and whether they are paying attention to it?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who, I know, has a close relationship with the Black Watch regiment and comes from the same part of Scotland. I did not know about the correspondence, but I must repeat what I said earlier—that what we are talking about in the House this afternoon has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the American election.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, could I clarify my noble friend's answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit? Surely the final decision should be made by the Government, not by military commanders.

Lord Bach

My Lords, my noble friend is of course right, but this was a military request and is entitled to a military response. Of course, under the system that we work under in the United States, the United Kingdom and in all free countries, it will be for Ministers—dare I say, elected Ministers—to make the final decision.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred to a military-to-military request. Could he give us an idea of what the current Chief of the Defence Staff felt about the matter? It has been somewhat reported in the newspapers.

Lord Bach

My Lords, all that I can say to my noble friend is, do not believe everything that you read in the papers.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I know that the Minister will agree that the Black Watch has had two exceptional tours in Iraq and deserves our greatest praise. If the new task has to be undertaken, will it affect the overall duration that the regiment has to be in Iraq? There is some considerable concern about how long it has been there already.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord, who I know also has a great interest in Scottish regiments, that the Black Watch's tour of duty, as I understand it, finishes at the end of six months, which is some time before Christmas. It is certainly not intended that they should come home later than that.

I was asked earlier about military requests from the United States. We always consider requests for military assistance in accordance with the overall military situation in Iraq and our own responsibilities and capabilities. There have been occasions when we have turned down requests from the United States, as well as occasions in the past when we have accepted them.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is not the major distinction between the actions of the United States forces and ours that there has been under our command considerable restraint? That kind of restraint has wedded our forces to the peoples in the areas around Basra. If they were to go to somewhere near Baghdad, that kind of restraint would change quite considerably, with a consequent effect on people's perceptions in Iraq of the British Government's actions and their military decisions.

Lord Bach

My Lords, there is no doubt that the British Armed Forces have a well deserved reputation for the way in which they act in their peacekeeping role. However, it does not follow that attacks that have been made on the Americans in that regard are true, or that it is true that the, concept of peacekeeping is one alien to our American friends", to quote directly the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in a Sunday newspaper. The Americans have had to deal with extremely difficult parts of Iraq, and to suggest that American troops have no idea about peacekeeping seems the complete opposite of the truth.