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Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on the coalition's plans for elections in Iraq. [111600]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

At the conference of Iraqis in Baghdad last week, there was a call for a conference in four weeks' time to agree a broad-based independent Iraqi government. It is envisaged that such a government will then call a constitutional assembly; this will agree a constitution, to be put to a referendum. An electoral roll will need to be drawn up; then, we hope that elections will take place to select a representative Iraqi government. It is difficult to be precise about the timetable, as requested, but an estimate would be 18 to 24 months in all.

May I welcome the Minister's commitment to the free and fair elections that his answer seemed to imply? Can he explain the status of important political groups such as the Ba'ath party, the Communist party and the Islamic fundamentalists? Will they be allowed to compete freely and democratically in those elections, and if they won would they be allowed to win?

Yes, we hope that there will he free and fair elections. Whether they are through proportional representation remains to be seen, but I would imagine that the Iraqis would have more sense. We hope that the 13a'ath party will not be able to involve itself in that election, and certainly not in the form that it took under Saddam Hussein. It is not envisaged, therefore, that it would be allowed to operate. However, other parties would have to form and to put themselves in the normal way before the electorate. So it is a decision for the Iraqi people themselves as to exactly how they want to develop their political culture and go about creating a new and representative Iraqi government. Any birth is a difficult process, and the birth of a new democracy is going to be difficult; but it can also be a wonderful process.

When Donald Rumsfeld says that America will not tolerate any outside influence in the affairs of Iraq, is the irony intentional, and by what authority does America—or, indeed, Britain—determine which countries should have any influence in the elections in Iraq?

As my hon. Friend will know, under the Hague convention and the Geneva convention the coalition forces have a responsibility to ensure law and order and basic security in Iraq, and that is what we are seeking to establish in a difficult environment. Therefore, there is legitimacy in Donald Rumsfeld's saying that, and in warning others who may seek to disrupt law and order in Iraq not to do so. There are obviously one or two other regional players, and other organisations that are not governments themselves— Hamas, Hezbollah and various other groups—that might seek to play a role. We are simply flagging up that they should not seek to disrupt what we hope will be an orderly progress towards a democratic Iraq.

When it comes to elections in Iraq, what philosophical differences does the Minister think might divide potential political parties there? This is a crucial moment for shaping Iraq's permanent institutions of justice, taxation, human rights and local government, and, indeed, for the whole scope of government itself. In terms of structure, does the Minister think that the Swiss model might be a good one to emulate, and do the Government think that it would be good for Iraq's longterm economy—and, indeed, for the well-being of its citizens—for Iraqis to have a health service that is free in respect of all health needs at the point of delivery, including even foundation hospitals, or are we to conclude that when it comes to Iraq, this Government have a two-tier set of principles?

That was laboured—very laboured—but the philosophical differences between Iraqi parties are for the Iraqis themselves to resolve. Whether a Swiss or any other model—even a proportional representation model—is established will be for the Iraqis to decide. The same applies to foundation hospitals. They would be wise to listen to the arguments, but, in the end, it is entirely for the Iraqis to decide.