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Iraq (British Forces)

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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7.53 pm

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I regret that I have to make a statement about two serious incidents involving British forces that took place in Iraq today.

One incident occurred at about 7.30 this morning UK time, 10.30 local time. It involved members of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who were conducting a routine patrol in the town of al Majarr al Kabir, about 25 kilometres south of the town of al Amarah, in the province of al Maysan. The two vehicles in which they were travelling were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rifle fire from a large number of Iraqi gunmen. British troops returned fire and called for assistance from other UK forces.

A quick reaction force—including Scimitar vehicles, additional troops and a Chinook CH-47 helicopter—was dispatched to the scene to provide assistance. It also came under fire. A total of eight British personnel sustained injuries, one on the ground and seven in the helicopter. The casualties were taken initially to 202 field hospital, south-west of Basra. Two of them have since been transferred to a United States field hospital in Kuwait to receive specialist treatment for very serious injuries. The other six are being treated in 202 field hospital.

Separately, the bodies of six British personnel, who appear to have been killed in another incident, were recovered from al Majarr al Kabir at about midday UK time. Those personnel were members of the Royal Military Police and had been engaged in training the local Iraqi police. Initial information suggests that they may have been involved in an incident at the police station in al Majarr al Kabir. I regret that at this stage, I am unable to provide any further details. British commanders are obviously investigating the situation as a matter of urgency.

We are in the process of informing the next of kin of all those who have been killed or injured. I know that the House will want to join me in sending our condolences to these families. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Our thoughts are with them at this dreadful time.

We are investigating whether there is any connection between the two incidents. British commanders in theatre are assessing the situation and have been in contact with local leaders. It would not be right to speculate further at this stage. I would certainly caution against reaching any wider conclusions about the overall security situation in southern Iraq, particularly in the United Kingdom's area of responsibility. Coalition forces have worked hard to secure Iraq in the aftermath of decisive combat operations. They will not be deflected from their efforts by the enemies of peace.

The House will be grateful for the trouble that the Secretary of State has taken to keep us informed. There is very little that anyone can add at this stage to the statement that he has made. This is clearly a tragedy for those involved, and the whole House will join the Secretary of State in expressing our deepest sympathies for those who were bereaved through, or injured in, the attacks. I can assure him that we agree that the next of kin must be the immediate priority. As he also said, it is too early to tell whether this signals a general worsening of the security situation in Iraq or is part of a pattern. In due course, the following questions will be asked. Were the attacks co-ordinated, and if so which organisation was behind them? Are we dealing with remnants of the regime, or were the attacks co-ordinated from outside Iraq?

We have the best-trained and best-equipped troops to deal with threats such as this. This is a setback for them, but one that they will take in their stride. They will not be deflected from their mission to bring peace and security to the Iraqi people, and nor should we. All that I ask of the Secretary of State is that he give them all that they need to conduct operations as safely as possible, because that is no less than our armed forces so richly deserve.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations, and particularly for his thoughts on the families, who will be suffering severely this evening. I know that the whole House will join him in the observations that he has made.

May I, too, begin by thanking the Secretary of State for coming to the House so quickly? He kept us fully informed during the conflict, and he is right to come here this evening. May I also echo the tributes that have been paid to our armed forces, and pass on condolences from the Liberal Democrat Benches to the families and comrades of those who have lost their lives, and to the regiments? We also wish a full recovery to all those who have been injured. Our thoughts are with them and their families.

These events show above all that we can never take the work of our armed forces for granted. The job that they are doing in Iraq is difficult and dangerous, and it is far from over. They continue to perform their task with great courage. Our thoughts are with them tonight.

In these awful and tragic circumstances, is not part of the unpalatable truth that, whether we like it or not, the British forces, like the Americans, are perceived as less of a liberating force and more of an occupying army? In the circumstances, should we not make an urgent approach to the United Nations?

Clearly, there has been a UN resolution in recent times, and it is important that we identify precisely who was responsible for the attacks before reaching such conclusions.

May I add my condolences and those of my Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru colleagues? Our thoughts are also with the families of the soldiers killed and injured in Iraq today. I urge the Secretary of State to do all he can to ensure that the families receive all possible support. As the Member for Perth, where Blackwatch has its regimental headquarters, I also urge him to do all he can to ensure that the necessary level of protection is afforded to our soldiers on the ground in Iraq.

Just two weeks ago, my colleagues and I were in the Basra- Umm Qasr area and we clearly saw that British troops were playing a sterling role in trying to work with, and give every assistance to, the local community. My concern is that this horrific incident should not lead to any reversal of policy. It is the correct policy and it should be continued.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Several hon. Members have told me of their shock, having visited southern Iraq and having seen the security situation on the ground improving steadily, at the appalling incidents that have now taken place. That is why it is so important to understand precisely what has happened.

May I, on behalf of my hon. Friends, also extend condolences to the families of all those who have been injured and killed in the tragic incidents in Iraq today? We in Northern Ireland are, tragically, all too familiar with this type of incident and we wish the injured well in their recovery. What is the position in respect of contact with local leaders on the ground in southern Iraq and what level of co-operation are British forces on the ground receiving?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. As far as local leaders are concerned, we have enjoyed an extremely good relationship across southern Iraq. Indeed, the information about the six deaths at the police station came from local people.

The men of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment are based in my Dover constituency. They were due to start coming home next week. Can my right hon. Friend say whether these incidents have changed those arrangements, and what practical arrangements are in hand to allow families and friends of people still serving overseas to make direct contact with the Ministry?

I am not aware of any plans to change the arrangements for the return, though the overall security position obviously has to be kept under review in the light of these dreadful incidents. I can certainly reassure all the families whose loved ones are serving in Iraq that every effort is being made for their welfare.

Like the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), I also visited Basra two weeks ago. People should realise that the work that our troops are doing on the ground is excellent. Local people greeted us with great friendliness. To all of us on that visit, this tragic news is particularly bitter. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that our forces continue to do the good work that they are doing now.

May I join others in expressing my deep sympathy to the relatives of the dead? I have mixed feelings tonight. A young relative of mine just returned home from Basra today, so I feel awful about what has happened. I repeat what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell): is it not time to call in the United Nations to help? We daily see American soldiers killed and other incidents for which we all feel horror. Is it not time that the whole world came together to do something about security and really help Iraq? If we are serious about helping the Iraqi people, we should secure the involvement of the United Nations. It is clear that there is hostility towards the coalition.

I repeat that there is a United Nations resolution, under which forces are already in Iraq with the authority provided by it. Indeed, we continue to discuss with other nations the contributions that they will make to rebuilding Iraq.

May I extend the condolences of my party to the families of those who have lost loved ones in Iraq, and our good wishes for the recovery of those who have been injured? It is particularly poignant, given that we have just hosted Iraqi members of the special Olympics team in my home town and constituency. We want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister and all Departments that helped facilitate that visit. I hope and trust that God will be with our troops in Iraq as they seek to serve the people of Iraq and restore democracy and permanent peace.

In the light of today's tragic events, will the Secretary of State reflect further on the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)? We are talking about a desire for a United Nations force in Iraq that can assist in developing representative and accountable government there. Clearly, as time goes on, the British and American forces will increasingly be seen as an army of occupation rather than an army of liberation. Does the Secretary of State not think that the UN is best equipped to fulfil that role?

I do not accept that description of the coalition forces, but I will certainly reflect further on what all hon. Members have had to say.

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for making that early report and statement.