HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc22-37

3.48 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

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

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement on the elections that were held in Iraq yesterday. First, however, let me deal with the tragic crash of the RAF C130 Hercules aircraft in Iraq yesterday. As the House will be aware, the aircraft crashed approximately 30 kilometres to the northwest of Baghdad at half past four in the afternoon, Iraq time, yesterday. The aircraft was flying from Baghdad International Airport to Balad airbase. The site has been secured, and we are investigating the cause of the crash. The House will understand that it would be wrong at this stage to speculate about possible causes of the crash.

"Ten United Kingdom service personnel were on board the aircraft and are presumed killed: nine from the Royal Air Force and one from the Army. Their next of kin are being informed. The Ministry of Defence will release the names of those who were on board only once this process is complete and the families have been given time to inform other loved ones and friends. I know that the House will join me in sending our deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of these brave men and to their comrades.

"Yesterday's elections in Iraq demonstrated the vital importance of what those brave British service men, along with thousands of their comrades, have been helping to achieve there.

"Only two years ago, Iraq was still under the sway of one of the most ruthless dictators in the world. Dissent was punishable by torture and summary execution, with an estimated 300,000 people buried in mass graves. The last time that the Iraqi people voted was in the staged elections of Saddam's tyranny—with one candidate and a 100 per cent majority for a man who had been ruthlessly defying the will of the United Nations for 12 long years.

"Yesterday, in contrast, the elections took place in implementation of a mandate from the United Nations, for it was the Security Council in Resolution 1546 which laid down the timetable and process for these elections and the steps which will follow. Yesterday, the Iraqi people had the choice of some 8,000 candidates for the new National Assembly, and 11,000 candidates in regional and Kurdish elections, from 111 different political parties and entities. One third of the candidates were women.

"While turnout figures will not be available for some days, it is already clear from initial estimates that a substantial proportion of the Iraqi population took part in these elections. Turnout appears to have been especially high in the north and south of the country, among both men and women.

"The turnout in Sunni majority areas was lower, mainly because of the high penetration of insurgents threatening to kill voters. However, in other areas where Sunni Arabs were able to vote freely, they appear to have done so in good numbers. Simon Collis, British Consul-General in Basra, told me that some 50 per cent of Sunnis there may have voted. He described the 'extraordinary atmosphere' in Basra as families went out to vote, taking along their children dressed in their smartest festive clothing.

"In the mixed suburbs of Baghdad, the largest centre of the Sunni population, polling was brisk. In Mosul, extra polling stations had to be opened when turnout exceeded expectations.

"Yesterday's elections were monitored by some 22,000 domestic election observers, 33,000 party officials and some 120 international monitors accredited to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. I arranged that three of the monitors should come from this House on an all-party basis: the honourable Members for the Forest of Dean (Diana Organ), Blaby (Andrew Robathan) and Torridge and West Devon (John Burnett). My right honourable friend for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) also observed the elections.

"Electoral procedures appear to have worked efficiently throughout the country. Voting took place in private; proof of identity was demanded; indelible ink was used to stop people voting more than once. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Canadian head of the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, has described the election as a 'very good process'. My honourable friend the Member for the Forest of Dean, Diana Organ, described arrangements in the town of Maysan as 'model'.

"I pay tribute to the Independent Electoral Commission and to its advisers from the United Nations, led by Mr Carlos Valenzuela, for their outstanding work in assisting the Iraqis and ensuring that yesterday's elections ran smoothly. I also want to thank the staff of the British Embassy in Baghdad, especially Andrea Reidy, for the excellent job that they did in covering the elections.

"No one expected these first free elections in half a century to be perfect. But they went better than many had anticipated, and they are all the more remarkable given the circumstances in which they were held.

"We have grown used to insurgents in Iraq attacking any and every group and organisation working to rebuild the country. The Iraqi people, most of all, have suffered from this terrorist violence. And the insurgents had made clear that they would use the vilest means possible to stop yesterday's elections from running smoothly. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgency in Iraq, declared last week that democracy was an 'evil principle'. He and his henchmen—many, like him, not Iraqis themselves—sent suicide bombers to attack polling stations and other areas associated with the elections.

"Yesterday's elections represent a real blow to this disgusting campaign of violence and intimidation. In Sadr City, in Baghdad, for example, a mortar attack at a polling station in a local school left a number of people wounded. However, multinational forces troops at the site report that people simply helped the wounded, and then along with those who could, rejoined the queue to vote. In Sunni areas in central Iraq, large groups of people defied terrorist intimidation and walked several kilometres to polling stations to cast their votes.

"There are many other such stories from across Iraq. It is impossible not to be moved by them, and by the countless examples reported from Iraq of those millions of people determined to shape their country's future, taking a profound joy in casting their first democratic vote in that process. This was a moving demonstration that democracy and freedom are universal values, to which people everywhere aspire.

"I pay tribute to the Iraqi security and police forces and the troops of the UN-mandated multinational force, who helped to maintain security around the polling stations across Iraq. Several policemen were killed when suicide bombers, unable to get through their rigorous searches, blew themselves up. Our thoughts are with their families and those of all the Iraqis who lost their lives in yesterday's violence. The fact that not a single suicide bomber managed to get through the security cordons around the polling stations is a great tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of Iraq's security forces.

"As Iraq's Interim Prime Minister, Dr Ayad Allawi, said this morning, There will still be violence, but the terrorists now know that they cannot win". We have seen the determination of the Iraqi people to participate in building a more secure and democratic future for their country. We now need to support them as they continue that process.

"The Independent Electoral Commission expects to publish its results within 10 days of the elections, and to certify those results by 20 February.

"Yesterday's elections were for a Transitional National Assembly of 275 members. Its first task will be to elect a three-person presidency, which will in turn appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet, whom the Assembly will be asked to approve. This Iraqi Transitional Government will then be sworn in and the Interim Government will dissolve. We expect this to take place by the end of February. The new Assembly will then begin work on the next stage of the political process in Iraq, as set out in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546: the drafting of a permanent constitution for Iraq.

"We will support the efforts of the Assembly to include the widest possible representation in this process, especially of the Sunni political groups which did not participate in the elections or which failed to win seats because of the intimidation of Sunni voters and the resulting low turnout in some of these areas.

"Many Iraqi political and religious leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, have made clear their wish to include Sunni groups in this process. I welcome Prime Minister Allawi's call earlier today for a, new national dialogue that guarantees that all Iraqis have a voice in the next government". There is also an important safeguard for both the Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the Transitional Administrative Law, under whose terms the constitution will need to be approved. The constitution must not only receive an absolute majority of votes in a referendum, but in addition can be blocked by two-thirds of voters in any three of the country's 18 provinces.

"The United Kingdom will continue to offer every support to the political process in Iraq, working with our international partners including through the European Union. We will seek an early meeting of the Sharm el-Sheikh group of Iraq's neighbours and G8 countries to build on international support for Iraq, and we will continue to work for a central role for the United Nations in supporting the political process.

"Meanwhile, the British troops in the UN-mandated multinational force and our many civilian staff in Iraq, led by our ambassador, Edward Chaplin, will continue to help to rebuild the country and to increase the capacity and effectiveness of Iraq's security forces. I pay tribute to all the British personnel in Iraq, both military and civilian, who are doing this work with such courage and dedication in such difficult and dangerous circumstances.

"There have been deep divisions over Iraq in the last two years, but this election should unite us all. Yesterday, the Iraqi people in their millions showed their wish to embrace freedom and to shape the destiny of their country. As they pursue that historic endeavour, the United Kingdom will continue to offer them every support".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships are extremely grateful to the Minister for repeating this lengthy and very important Statement. I have not seen a copy in advance, but what I hear from her is immensely encouraging. Perhaps I may add straightaway that, in relation to the Hercules disaster, we on this side join Ministers in sending our deepest sympathies and condolences to those who have been bereaved on an otherwise happier day. That is a great sadness. I shall return to that incident in a moment.

As far as the elections are concerned, there is obviously a long way to go, but this is without question a very good step. I notice that even the most persistently negative commentators in our press, who all along have tried to bad-mouth the prospect of the election, are hard pressed in today's editions to make the worst of it, although they are always trying. The doomsters—there have been plenty of them everywhere all along—have on this occasion been proved quite wrong.

Like the Minister, I pay warm tribute to the brave Iraqi people; the UN officials; our steadfast security forces; the Iraqi officials; and the independent Electoral Commission, which organised this election and has seen it through effectively, often at enormous personal risk. It is difficult to imagine some of the risks that those people have had to run. I draw particular encouragement, as does the Minister, from the signs that quite a lot of Sunnis voted. I am told that they were queuing to vote even in Fallujah, although not in some areas where it was simply impossible. But in Baghdad generally there seems to have been a heavy turnout. I understand that the overall turnout was around 60 per cent, which is 1 per cent more than that in the previous general election in this country. So that is not bad at all.

Of course, the elections were marred by violence, particularly, as I have already said, by the tragic Hercules crash. I understand that it is obviously very difficult to answer any precise questions about why this happened, but, later on, it would be good to know whether it was shot down by missiles and what it was doing on a rather unusual route for the RAF Hercules planes.

As the Minister reminded us, the new parliament and government will now draw up a constitution and elect another new parliament—in December, I believe—to be approved by national referendum. Three provinces would be able to block it, which could place a remarkable degree of power in certain hands. Is that the correct pattern? Does the Minister agree that the key issue, for us here anyway, is what exact role the multilateral forces will now play and how long our troops will stay there? Does she agree that fixing a date for exit would be a mistake and that we should stay for as long as the new Iraqi Government want us there? That must be the guide and the criterion for our continued presence and our continued efforts in Iraq.

Can the Minister bring us up to date on another key feature which will also determine how long we are needed in Iraq—that is, the training of the Iraqi soldiers and police force to maintain future security? I understand that the goal is to train a force of 120,000 people, but reports suggest that the numbers so far are dramatically lower. It would be good to know the real position.

Aside from politics, are not the priorities now, first, as the noble Baroness said, to ensure that the Sunnis are involved—although they are a minority, they have for years been top dog, as it were, and they must be properly involved, as very many are willing to be—and, secondly, to get reconstruction really going? In that context, could the Minister comment on reports that almost £5 billion of Iraqi oil revenue seems to be missing from the fund that was set up for reconstruction after the invasion? That is, of course, separate from the issue of what happened to the money in the Oil for Food programme scandal, when Saddam was still in place.

Those of us who supported the invasion and the removal of the monstrous and evil Saddam and who have tried, over the many months since then, to see the positive side, even though terrible mistakes and policy misjudgments have undoubtedly been made, can now point to definite progress. I recognise that one poll does not deliver democracy. On the contrary, it can deliver and often has delivered the opposite, as we who knew Europe in the previous century will never forget. More understanding is needed, particularly from the theorists and academics on both sides of the Atlantic, of the different types of democratic involvement and pluralist governance that can take root in different societies.

That said, it is a good day for the Middle East. One cannot help hoping that it will lead to wider peace and harmony in the whole region. For that, we would all be deeply thankful.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, we recognise the tremendous tragedy of the aircraft crash. We also recognise that the Government, for sensible reasons, cannot tell us much more about it at present. I hope that the Minister will say as much as she is able and will keep us informed as the circumstances become clearer.

We congratulate the Government on the part that they have taken in what has clearly been a remarkably courageous and successful vote. It was for that reason that we, like other parties, supported the plans to hold the vote now and not, as some wished, postpone it. In the circumstances, it is right to restore sovereignty to the Iraqi people as soon as possible. I am not sure that, as a party deeply dedicated to proportional representation, we would have chosen quite so perfect a system of proportional representation as the one chosen here. Its implications for Israeli politics have, over the years, not been entirely happy. The Iraqis must now own and take control of the process, as they move on not only to form their own government but to design their constitution and move to the next stage of elections.

The worst outcome from now on would be for the new government to appear still to be beholden to occupying forces. I hope that the Minister will say a little more about the moves that will be signalled with regard to a reduction in the role of the United States and the other occupying powers and the reduction and eventual withdrawal of occupying forces. Ministers have talked about the distinction between a timeline and a timetable. I would be interested to hear the Minister tell us what that distinction is. It was not entirely clear from the Statement the other day.

It is also extremely important to the British how our withdrawal is co-ordinated with that of other countries. A number of unilateral decisions appear to be under way. If other countries in the multinational division withdraw, will Her Majesty's Government take over their responsibilities in the interim, as we appear to be doing with the Dutch? Does that necessarily imply that we may be willing to increase the British forces there?

Is it the Government's understanding that the United States also intends to move towards complete withdrawal in a recognisable time-span and towards the complete restoration of sovereignty to the Iraqi Government? There have been disturbing stories in the US press in the past week or two about the establishment by the United States of permanent bases in Iraq. That would be a huge mistake, and we would like some reassurance that Her Majesty's Government's understanding is that all outside forces will withdraw within a foreseeable period.

We also ask about the impact on the wider Middle East, which ought to be very positive. On Iran, we have strongly supported the position of the British Government, with the French and German Foreign Ministers, to take a firm line on the nuclear issue, but to encourage change towards greater democratisation from within. As regards Saudi Arabia, is there anything that our Government and other European governments can do to encourage the very slow process of change under way there? For the rest of the Middle East, the European Union's Barcelona Process appears to be stalled, but assistance to political, economic and social development is clearly vital.

Can the Minister also tell us when the third UN human development report on the Middle East will be published? Many of us were extremely impressed by the first and second UN human development reports, which were written by a distinguished group of Arab columnists, political scientists and sociologists. I last heard that the United States Government had blocked the publication of the third UN human development report because it deals with the politics of the region, which, of course, involves the Middle East peace process.

Our last question concerns how this is seen by the Government as feeding into the process which, again, we hope will move forward in Gaza. Are the Government able to tell us more than we have yet learnt about the purpose and expectations of the meeting to be held in London on 1 March?

4.11 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for their response to the Statement. I, too, believe that this has been a very encouraging step forward in moving towards democracy in Iraq. I am grateful to the noble Lords for expressing their condolences to the families and loved ones of those affected by the Hercules air crash.

There is not a great deal more that I can say. The Statement has made very clear that this happened yesterday afternoon, that the site of the crash has been secured and that it is being searched in an attempt to ascertain the cause of the crash. There are a number of reports about what that cause may be. A full investigation is under way, which will take into account all the possibilities. But I am not in a position to confirm or deny any of the speculation that, understandably, we have seen circulating on that issue.

I, like the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, think that the main congratulations should go to the Iraqi people, who showed courage throughout Iraq in going to their elections. They were, of course, helped by the independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which was being advised by the United Nations, the great work carried out by Carina Pirelli in the United States and by Carlos Valenzuela on the ground.

As the Statement indicated, the turnout of Sunnis appears to have been lower. None the less, in some of the Sunni strongholds there appear to have been queues. The Statement states that polling stations had to be opened in Mosul. I am sure that your Lordships will have seen that there were queues in Fallujah. We understand that voting took place in a fairly healthy way in Tikrit. Adnan Pachachi, one of the leaders of the Sunni community in Iraq, said that he was pleased about the voting of the Sunni population in Baghdad.

There was, of course, violence, as the interim Prime Minister Allawi acknowledged in his statement this morning. He instanced, for example, seven suicide bombers who attempted to attack polling stations. He made the point that all seven people were foreigners—they were not Iraqis—and that they were all stopped by the Iraqi security forces. Of course, there were other attacks, but those were the points that he centred on in his statement.

Both noble Lords are right that one of the really important issues for those who are elected to the 275-strong Transitional National Assembly will be the setting up of the constitution, which must have the widest possible consensus drawn from among the Iraqi people.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked what role and implications that had for the multinational forces and whether I agreed that it would be a "mistake" to fix a date for those forces to leave Iraq. Yes, I agree that that is right: it would be a mistake to do that. The Iraqi forces are being trained and it is going reasonably well. There are not necessarily absolute timelines that can be followed, but certainly training has been going on in Iraq and, now, in some of the neighbouring countries.

As regards the future of the multinational force, the elections yesterday have given a new legitimacy to an Iraqi-appointed government. As a result of those elections, there will be a three-strong presidency put into place. That group will put forward a Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet, who will have to be approved by the Transitional National Assembly. That is a different system to ours, but it is perfectly respectable. It means that a future Iraqi government in this interim period before the elections at the end of the year will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of their people than the government have at present.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked me what will be done about Sunni involvement. Under the transitional administrative law, it is the duty of those drawing up the constitution to consult with all parties, not just those in the Transitional National Assembly. Some commentators have got the idea that if people are not members of that national assembly, they have no role in drawing up the constitution. That simply is not true. There is a positive duty to consult outside. As the Statement indicated, there is also the safeguard of ensuring that should three or more of the governorates vote against the constitution, ultimately, the constitution will fall.

The noble Lord also asked questions about money for reconstruction, which he said, according to some reports, has gone astray, and the Oil for Food programme. As the noble Lord knows, that is a matter of considerable concern among the international community. I am not certain how far those investigations have got, although, as we all know, currently, there is a great deal of work going on within the UN on that. Perhaps I will be able to report back in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said, "One poll does not deliver democracy". No, it does not, but it can provide a good and encouraging start for this stage in the process, which we look forward to continuing.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked about restoring sovereignty. I have answered by implication. I believe that this will be a greater legitimacy for the incoming government—temporary as they will be. There will be further elections towards the end of the year after the referendum on the constitution. The Transitional National Assembly has to be certified by 20 February, although we hope that we will get some preliminary results on the elections within about 10 days, which then have to be made official through a certification process. I hope that we will have better figures on turnout during the next 48 hours, which will give us an indication of how patchy the turnout was in some areas. We know that it has been very high in the Kurdish areas and in the Shia south. But, of course, the concern will be over the Sunni areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was anxious about the distinction between timeline and timetable. That is quite right. Prime Minister Allawi put forward a number of instances that had to follow sequentially in the build-up of the Iraqi forces in the next few months. The timeline set out for the election was a six-stage plan, which was put forward by interim Prime Minister Allawi. I can make sure that a copy of that goes into the Library of your Lordships' House. The distinction to make is that no times or dates have been added to the timeline. It is not a timetable as such, but a series of sequential events that follow upon each other.

On force numbers, a Written Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and, I think, put out in your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Bach on 27 January last, made clear that approximately 220 additional UK troops would replace the Dutch troops to whom the noble Lord referred.

The impact on the wider Middle East is a question that goes some way beyond the ambit of the Statement itself. I would say only that I do not think that any sensible person sincerely believes that, in a democratic pattern for the Middle East, one size fits all—or certainly no one who travels in the area and sees countries as different as Morocco on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other. No one could harbour illusions of the possibility of there being a formula whereby one size would fit all. But even in a country like Saudi Arabia, municipal elections were held recently. While it is true that women were not allowed to vote, none the less progress is being made on some electoral issues which would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.

We want to inject some new and what I would call very practical energy into the Barcelona process, and we shall have the opportunity to do so during our presidency later this year. And like the noble Lord I, too, look forward to the further UNDP report on development in the Arab world.

We have talked about the purposes of the meeting scheduled for 1 March on Israel/Palestine. I shall be happy to talk about it further with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and any other noble Lords who wish to do so, on a future occasion. That meeting is very different in nature.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, would my noble friend care to comment on the attitude of George Galloway and people who think like him? They see the continuation of terror and the rejoicing of terrorists as a sample of what we can expect. Will she also talk about the needs of the Iraqi people? Obviously those needs have to be formulated by the Iraqi Government. However, the Iraqi people have desperate needs in terms of social services and infrastructure, elements of which are water and transport. What contribution are we able to make, or what are we prepared to say if we cannot make a positive contribution at present? In my view, the message we have to impart is most important.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. When he asks me whether I would like to comment on the attitude of certain individuals, quite honestly, my answer to that is no, not really. I think that the Iraqi people have borne more than adequate testimony to what they want and have given a far better, stronger and more articulate answer to those who take the view of the sort described by my noble friend than ever I could from this Dispatch Box. The courage and determination of the Iraqi people to get to the polls yesterday is to be applauded. Like many noble Lords, I watched those who are first-time voters walking along with elderly people who had to be carried. They were clearly determined not to be kept at home, no matter what the threat to their personal safety. Watching that yesterday was a truly humbling experience.

On the question of infrastructure, of course we want to see developments move faster. As my noble friend will know, we have put aside a great deal of money. Moreover, many British people, not only in our Armed Forces, but also from civilian life in the form of many private sector companies, are out there doing what they can to help rebuild Iraq. They are working to improve the major facilities such as water and electricity supplies, as well as transport systems. We have a rather good fact sheet on this which I shall be happy to send to my noble friend if he would find it helpful.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, we on these Benches also express our deep sorrow at the news of the crash of the RAF plane, and our prayers are with those bereaved and distressed. We also share in the relief that the elections held yesterday have had so positive an outcome. However, there seems to be an irony here. Saddam Hussein was a brutal and evil dictator, yet in his fascist regime there was little division either between the religious faiths or within them. His was a very secular society, if brutal.

It is sad that the country now runs the risk of dividing along religious lines, and it is particularly sad to us that many from the ancient Christian Church are fleeing the country because they believe that their lives are in danger and that they have no future in Iraq. Can the Minister give any assurance that urgent attention will be paid to this sad state of affairs?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for what he has said. Some of the unsung heroes of this conflict have been our service padres, who at times during the military conflict have borne a very heavy burden. On behalf of my colleagues I should like to say that our service padres have done a first class job.

The right reverend Prelate remarked that it is ironic that under a brutal dictator there was little division between the faiths. I am sorry to say that I disagree with him about that; there was a great deal of division, but the fact is that it was simply never heard. Under the auspices of the United Nations, we believe that some 300,000 people are buried in mass graves. That bears adequate testimony to the fact that there was enormous division along religious lines. Many of the Shia faith who did try to offer alternatives to domination by a Saddam-led Sunni minority found themselves either in prison or, worse, in one of those mass graves.

Of necessity, we have to describe the Iraqis as Sunni, Shia, Kurd or Turkoman because that is the way Iraq, whose territorial integrity is enormously important, now openly perceives itself whereas before it did so rather more covertly. However, it is encouraging to note that leaders as different as the secular leader Mr Allawi, the clerical leader Ayatollah Sistani, Mr Pachachi from the Sunni side and the admirable Kurds now all say that Iraq has to pull together and that this is the real opportunity for it to do so. I urge the right reverend Prelate to look at what Mr Allawi said this morning about trying to bring all these groups together. Further, Kofi Annan pointed out that whether people voted or did not vote because they were too afraid, now is the time for Iraq to come together as a country and to back the democratic process.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell us a little about American intentions as regards making up its forces? A distinguished American general, when interviewed on the box the other night, said that double the number were needed. The question of security is all important if the newly elected members of the temporary government are to form a constitution. Apparently we have put more troops in even though our areas are under control. However, the Baghdad area is out of control. Will the Americans put more troops on the ground, and are we urging them to do so?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Americans have put in more troops in order to provide security for the election process, but I am afraid that the noble Lord may be disappointed with my full answer, which is the same as that I would make if we were talking about the United Kingdom. Troop numbers are kept under review and will continue to be kept under review in consultation with Ministers of the incoming temporary Iraqi government. However, this is something that all members of the multinational force will want to talk about, not least because they will want to consult the incoming Ministers on the Iraqi side.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, I echo the expressions of sympathy and admiration already made from the Front Benches. I welcome the tone and style with which the Minister has answered the questions put to her.

Does the Minister believe that there is sufficiently wide appreciation of the extent to which the comforting phrase "the Iraqi people" may, consciously or unconsciously, mislead us in assessing the complexity of the problem that lies ahead? We are dealing, are we not, with an ethnically and religiously diverse society as explosive as many from which this country has withdrawn historically in our post-imperial era? Is it not of immense importance that all those concerned in the multilateral coalition that is addressing itself to this should appreciate the need for immense sensitivity, for the avoidance of unduly rigid timetables or prescriptions in advance about the place, nature and size of forces and so on?

Above all, we should try to proceed with a combination of patience and expedition—perhaps, in one old phrase, "with all deliberate speed", meaning with all cautious speed—in helping the different components in Iraq along the path which now lies ahead of them. May we be sure that the experience of this country, which one does not often invoke in circumstances of this kind, can be mobilised to ensure that decisions are not taken on the basis of any perhaps almost unconscious post-imperial ulterior motives in this situation of extreme sensitivity?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, for his message of sympathy. I am sure it will be greatly appreciated.

The noble and learned Lord is quite right—we do use the phrase "Iraqi people" to describe a diverse people. We use the phrase "British people" to describe diverse people in this country, too, despite the fact that many of them hold different views and have hugely different backgrounds. I come back to what my right honourable friend said in the Statement that I have repeated to your Lordships. Yesterday was a moving demonstration that democracy and freedom are universal values to which people everywhere aspire.

One of the matters that I have found most concerning and in some ways most depressing is the way that some of our commentators, in a rather condescending way, have presumed to decide that democracy is something that other people do not want, that it is somehow an exclusively western attribute to want democracy. What happened yesterday admirably demonstrated that that simply is not the case. Throughout Iraq the polls have shown that about 80 per cent of people wanted to vote. We do not, of course, yet know how many got to the polls.

I agree with what the noble and learned Lord said about treating these issues with sensitivity and not arriving at prescriptions in advance. In some senses, we now have to change our mindset as well. The Iraqi people—if I may use the phrase again—will increasingly be speaking for themselves with greater and greater authority. It behoves us all to listen to that voice both on this side of the Atlantic and on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the whole House feels great sympathy and regret at the loss of life due to the crash of the Hercules?

Does my noble friend further accept that there is genuine relief and pleasure among all people of good will at the heart-warming results of the elections yesterday throughout Iraq? Does she agree—this bears repeating on record again and again—that no one could fail to be moved by seeing the emotion and delight of those very brave Iraqis who took their right to vote and refused to be intimidated by the threats from the men of violence? It cannot be repeated too often either that they deserve our great admiration. Also, the non-Iraqis who have been working in Iraq under tremendously difficult circumstances to help bring about the elections yesterday deserve our very deep gratitude.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree both with the point about sympathy for the families of those affected by the Hercules crash and with that about the relief and pleasure at the way in which the polls went yesterday.

We should not for a moment forget that some Iraqis lost their lives yesterday. We do not yet know the exact figures—we hope to have a more accurate view shortly—but somewhere in the region of 30 Iraqis lost their lives trying to vote. It is a staggering figure when you consider the ease and security with which we vote—or choose not to vote—in this country. That is one of the real messages for many people which came out of yesterday.

One does not have to have supported the military action in Iraq to acknowledge that yesterday was a great step forward for the Iraqi people. It provided the encouraging next step in the democratic process. I thank my noble friend for expressing that so clearly.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, I am an honorary Air Commodore. Does the Minister accept that the crews trained at Royal Air Force Lyneham are among the very best and most highly trained in the world? Our deepest sympathies go to the families and friends of all those involved. We very much hope that it will be possible in the hours, days and weeks ahead to establish the causes of this tragic episode.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I endorse everything that the noble Lord has said. I know how good those crews are. I have flown in Hercules aircraft myself in Iraq. I know the care that is taken and the skill, expertise and dedication of those who fly them. Of course everything needs to be done as quickly as possible to ensure that the families, in particular, know why their loved ones died. I know that my noble friend Lord Bach, who is in his place beside me, and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence will do everything possible to obtain that information quickly.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, perhaps I may press my noble friend on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Will the British Government resist at every stage proposals from people within Iraq for the stationing of permanent military forces in either Iraq or separately in Kurdistan? Would not the stationing of troops in Kurdistan in particular raise all kinds of problems in the Middle East which people, particularly in Iraq, are not taking into account?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my noble friend has reinforced the tricky question put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire—no doubt because it was a tricky question. We do have troops stationed permanently in some parts of the world, but I am not in a position to say what will be the outcome of any discussions with an eventual Iraqi Government who are backed by the full authority of the people's mandate in the elections at the end of the year.

We have run very quickly into the pitfall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, advised us against—that is, being too prescriptive at this stage about a future which we all acknowledge should be largely fashioned by the Government of Iraq on the basis of their mandate. We cannot believe that we have to listen to what the Iraqi people want, and have a relationship of give and take among allies with them, but at the same time say, "Here are our red lines", before we even start to consider the question of troops.

Nothing I have said in answering my noble friend's question should in any way indicate that I think we will permanently have troops there. In answering a very difficult and delicate question at this Dispatch Box, I am not about to put Her Majesty's Government in a position which, for all I know, may be quite different from the circumstances prevailing in a year's time.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as an opponent of the war in the first place, as the noble Baroness knows, I welcome the elections that occurred yesterday in Iraq and the election results. Indeed, the high turnout puts this country to shame. I hope that the 59 per cent turnout of voters in this country will be improved at the next election, perhaps reaching the Iraqi level.

I would like to pursue the question that has already been raised by a number of your Lordships. What is the Government's attitude to the future of Iraq as a unified nation? Does the noble Baroness not agree that the great danger at the moment is that the country will split into three parts—the Kurdish north, the Sunni centre and the Shi'ite south, and that that would be a disaster for Iraq? Because of our history in Iraq, is it the Government's policy to prevent that split if they possibly can?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is a perfect example of the point I was making a moment or two ago. One does not have to have supported the military action in Iraq to support the fact that yesterday's elections appear to have gone off more smoothly than some anticipated might be the case.

Let me be clear on the question of the future of the Iraqi position constitutionally. Her Majesty's Government support the territorial integrity of Iraq. The question of Iraq's future constitutional position is exactly the question which the transitional National Assembly will be considering over the next few months. It is exactly the question upon which the Iraqi people will have the opportunity to vote in their referendum. So questions about what the United Kingdom Government would do to prevent the break-up of the Iraqi people come back to the prescriptive point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. We support territorial integrity, but we recognise that this is an exercise in a new constitution which is an exercise for the Iraqis, supported as they will be, no doubt, with advice from many different quarters. But in the end, it is a question for them.