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Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2006

The Iraqi Government of national unity are now firmly in place and the business of government has begun in earnest. Prime Minister Maliki and his team are committed to working to a national unity agenda. They have announced a national reconciliation plan and set clear priorities—primarily security, electricity supply, economic reform and building democratic structures. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister announced on 19 June the imminent transfer of security responsibility in Muthanna province, to be followed by other provinces. Iraq will continue to need our support and that of the international community as it works on those priorities.

I was fortunate to visit Iraq recently with the Defence Committee. The Secretary of State is right that it appears that two or perhaps even three of the provinces that are under British supervision may well soon be handed back to Iraqi control, but the fourth—Basra—will not. Although the Prime Minister’s reconciliation plan is welcome, does the Secretary of State agree that the biggest problem in Basra appears to be a governor whose only interest is self-interest?

We are anxious to ensure that the security plan that has been devised by the Prime Minister—he has already done a good deal to promote it—is followed through effectively and that there is a clear structure of control and command in the hands of the commander of the armed forces in the area. The Prime Minister is well aware of concerns about security in that area and is determined to address them.

Is not one of the best indications of the improving political situation in Iraq the fact that eight newly-elected Iraqi MPs are visiting the House of Commons today? They have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and you, Mr. Speaker. Clearly, we hope that the MPs will enjoy themselves during their week. They will be following individual Members to find out how we do things and see whether they can translate any of their experiences into their important work in Iraq.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I was grateful to her for giving me the opportunity earlier today to meet those new MPs, who, incidentally, are a very impressive bunch. I am also grateful for the work that she is doing to show them various parts of the country and aspects of our parliamentary experience. I hope that you will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that I strongly urged them to learn from the many good things about our Parliament, but not necessarily to follow some of our examples of behaviour.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday was indeed welcome. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that it was considering a steep reduction in the number of US troops in Iraq. To what extent have British Ministers been involved in those discussions? Does the fact that Italian and Japanese withdrawals are going ahead mean that we can finally expect a statement on a comprehensive strategy to prepare the way for the withdrawal of British forces?

I am always a little nervous when people leap from one important and worthwhile step forward to a whole group of assumptions that are set some time ahead. An unfortunate feature of the discussions is the fact that the media tend to harden up anything said—however tentatively—into some kind of detailed commitment. It is of course the case that the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a process that is based on the circumstances on the ground and the reality in different areas. We all hope that progress can be made, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there is sometimes a better option of redeployment. In any event, the Iraqi Government will wish—we will want to work with them—to support the handover in al-Muthanna and any other province that is considered for some time. The important process offers considerable hope for the future, but no one should second-guess it at this stage.

When does the Foreign Secretary expect British and American troops to terminate their tour of duty in Iraq and actually leave?

When they and we believe that the job that they have gone there to do is done, or when and if the Iraqi Government ask them to leave.

It is well known that the reconciliation plan to which the Foreign Secretary referred arose from informal dialogue that took place over a long time with representatives of the Sunni insurgents. Representatives of the American Government, apparently including the ambassador, were involved in that dialogue. Were representatives of the British Government also involved in the dialogue?

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he has moved on a little from discussions about changes in the provinces. I simply say that of course we are closely involved in all discussions that take place about how circumstances in Iraq can be improved.

The Foreign Secretary has touched on the proposed national reconciliation plan, as have other Members. She will be aware that one of the proposals is for a form of amnesty—it is an ambiguous proposal—for some of those who have been involved in the insurgency. Does she think that, at this stage, it is acceptable for a British Government to sign up to such an amnesty if it is with people whom the Government know have been responsible for the deaths of British military personnel in Iraq?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was not talking about the national reconciliation plan; the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) was. However, I will simply say that the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement was, of course, very carefully worded. He spoke about wanting to draw people into the political process, but he also spoke about people who had not committed crimes. I think that, yet again, people are leaping forward—I do not recall that the word amnesty was used. Although there is clearly a wish to draw people who have been involved in the insurgency into the political process if that is possible and practical, the Iraqi Government are approaching this matter in a very careful way. They have chosen with care the words that they have used, so it would be a mistake for us to be any less cautious in our phraseology.