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Iraq

Volume 404: debated on Friday 30 May 2003

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In my Written Statement of 11 April, 1 said that we would continue to adjust our forces deployed to the Gulf region as appropriate, withdrawing units whose tasks are complete, and in due course replacing those whose tasks continue.Decisive combat operations in Iraq are now complete, and coalition forces are increasingly focusing upon stabilisation tasks. It will therefore be possible to make further force level adjustments over the coming weeks while continuing to meet our responsibilities to the Iraqi people.For maritime forces, the re-deployment of Royal Navy vessels has proceeded as planned. HMS Ark Royal has now left the Gulf region and is due to return to the UK in mid-May accompanied by the destroyer HMS York and RFA Fort Victoria. In addition, we now plan to withdraw the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, together with HMS Edinburgh and the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries Fort Austin, Orangeleaf, Sir Bedivere and Sir Percivale. The RFA Sir Galahad, Sir Tristram and Bayleaf are undertaking a rolling programme of maintenance in Singapore to allow them to return to the Gulf to continue to provide support to the humanitarian assistance effort. Further vessels will remain there for the time being to conduct mine clearance operations and force protection.As the need for offensive air operations and close air support has significantly diminished, we can bring back further air assets. We have withdrawn around 45 aircraft from the Gulf region, both fixed and rotary wing, including Tornado F3 and GR4, Harrier GR7, Nimrod MR2, VC 10 and E3-D aircraft as well as Chinook and Sea King helicopters. A further 26 helicopters will be withdrawn at the same time as HMS Ocean.For land forces, conditions now allow for the return of a further 3,500 personnel to the UK. This will include 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, with elements of 26 Regiment Royal Artillery, 38 Engineer Regiment and 1st Battalion The Light Infantry. It will also include a number of individuals who were attached to a wide variety of ground units and formations to perform specific augmenting roles. Returning forces are due a period of post-operational tour leave to which they are entitled, following which they will begin to prepare for training and then redeployment on other important operational taskings. In some cases, this will mean a return to Iraq to take part in continuing operations. In addition, we intend to withdraw 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, who were the first of the land formations to be deployed, during the course of May.We will now begin to prepare 19 Mechanised Brigade to take over from forces previously involved in combat operations in Iraq, allowing us to meet the continuing task of providing a stabilisation force within the UK area of operations. We would expect them to start this new task in July, commencing preparations immediately.In spite of these changes significant pressures remain on the Armed Forces if they are to meet the full range of their commitments. In order to meet our continuing obligations in Iraq, I have authorised the issuing of further call-out notices, against the Order made in January under section 54(1) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, sufficient to generate up to 1,200 reservists. There will be a requirement to call out further reservists as the operation proceeds, and I will keep the House informed of our plans. In parallel, we will be starting to demobilise those Reserves who are returning home. In time, the overall numbers of Reserves required in Iraq will reduce significantly. I have also decided to extend the tour of the 1st Battalion The Duke of Wellington's Regiment, enabling them to continue in their key role of ensuring security in the region of Az Zubayr.While details continue to be clarified, we envisage that by mid-May 25,000–30,000 UK Service personnel will remain deployed in the Gulf region, continuing to fulfil our responsibilities towards the Iraqi people. The planned replacement of forces is clear evidence of our commitment to them.Our aim is to leave an Iraq that is confident, secure and fully integrated with the international community. The planning process to establish the precise level of the continuing UK presence needed to achieve this aim is a dynamic one, and is kept under review. We will also need to take account of the contributions of coalition partners. We will continue to withdraw assets and personnel from the region where possible, but we will maintain an appropriate military presence for as long as necessary.