HL Deb 02 July 2003 vol 650 cc107-9WA
Lord Clinton-Davis

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will provide an update on events in Al Majarr Al Kabir, Iraq, on 24 June 2003. [HL3763]

Lord Bach

On 24 June last week, in another place, my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary informed the House that six Royal Military Police soldiers had been killed, and eight other United Kingdom service personnel had been wounded in incidents in Iraq earlier that day. Since then, we have been working hard to establish what took place. It may be some time before we have a full picture; indeed, we may never know with absolute certainty precisely what happened.

However, we will do all we can to establish the facts, and to hold to account those responsible. Accordingly, we have launched an investigation, and the Special Investigation Branch has appointed a senior investigating officer. We are also looking at the wider, operational aspects of what took place, to determine whether there are any lessons we need to learn. It may be some time before this work is complete, and we do not therefore intend to respond to every piece of media speculation or conjecture in the interim.

It would, however, be right for us to set out our current understanding of events leading up to, and on the day of the incidents themselves. In doing so we should point out that our understanding may change as new information comes to light.

The RMP were engaged in assisting with the regeneration of the local Iraqi police service by ensuring that they had proper training, equipment and infrastructure to operate as professionally as possible. This task included routine visits to police stations in the area. The police station in Al Majarr Al Kabir is one of a number that the RMP planned to visit last Tuesday.

Al Majarr Al Kabir is a town of approximately 60,000 people, situated to the south of Al Amarah, in Maysan province. The town has always been fiercely independent and was free of Saddam's regime by the time coalition forces reached it. The main focus of military operations in the area in recent weeks had been the implementation of a weapons amnesty, and thereafter, the recovery of illegal weapons.

These weapons searches were unpopular with the local population, although none had been conducted in the town itself. Local religious leaders had called for further searches to be resisted, and on 22 June, a 1 Para patrol in the town were faced with a hostile crowd of some 500 people. The soldiers fired baton rounds in order to enable them to be able to withdraw from the town. At a meeting the next day, officers from 1 Para agreed with the town council that weapons searches would be suspended, and that the council would itself take responsibility for recovering "heavy" weapons.

With this agreement in place, the following day the RMP section "booked out" at around 0910, planning to visit three towns in the area—Al Majarr Al Kabir being the first. Routine force protection measures in place required that they should all be armed, should have their body armour and helmets with them, should have working communications, and that there should be at least two vehicles—in fact they had three.

We judge that they would have reached the town at around 0940–0955, shortly before a 1 Para patrol also entered the town. We cannot yet be certain, but it may be that the attack on the Para patrol took place before the attack on the RMP. The attack on I Para commenced at around 1030, when the patrol was stoned by a large crowd. At some point a crowd also appears to have massed outside the police station. While attempting to move their vehicles inside the police compound, the RMP came under fire, and it seems at least one of them was killed at that point. The crowd evidently then stormed the police station. British forces were informed a short while later by local Iraqis that all six of the RMP personnel had been killed.

We understand that attempts were made to contact the RMP section as events unfolded. This is one of the details we will be trying to establish as part of the investigation.

In the follow-up to these incidents, Iraqi leaders in the province are continuing to work closely with us. We will not lose sight of our overall aim to support a better Iraq, and an Iraq that is for the Iraqi people. British forces in Iraq continue to do an excellent job in taking this important work forward.

As they do so, our thoughts remain with those that have lost their lives, and their loved ones who mourn them.