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Iraq and the wider Middle East

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

[Relevant documents: Uncorrected minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees on 11 January 2007, House of Commons 209-i, Session 2006-07.]

We now come to the main business, and I inform the House that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

The middle east is a region that engages every aspect of foreign policy, not just our security with regard to conflict, proliferation and terrorism, but the security of our economy, energy supplies and climate. It is a region that is critical to our deeper goal of building a safe, just and prosperous world for all. This afternoon, I will concentrate on four areas: first, of course, Iraq itself; secondly, Iran and Syria; thirdly, the middle east peace process; and, finally, I shall make some comments on the wider political and economic reform that is needed in the region.

For the purposes of our debate I will address each subject in turn, but for the purposes of analysis and policy making they are, of course, intimately linked. What happens in Iraq has direct consequences for political developments across the region. Iran and Syria present very distinct challenges to the international community, but both have the ability to play a pivotal role for good or for ill in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and in the region as a whole. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as has long been recognised, is a festering sore at the core of the region’s politics. We need and have a strategy for the middle east that recognises both the scale of the challenges and the links between them. I shall first speak about Iraq.

As the disastrous conflict in Iraq has rightly been referred to as Blair’s war, will the Foreign Secretary inform the House of Commons of what is so important about the Prime Minister’s engagements this afternoon that he cannot be present in the House to take part in the first debate on Iraq in Government time since the war began?

I do not recall whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in the Chamber—he may well have been—when the Prime Minister made it quite clear that, as we move towards the end of Operation Sinbad and its assessment, he will indeed report personally to the House. He shakes his head, but he is a little unlucky, because I have been in the House long enough, and have a good enough memory, to recall on how many occasions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and indeed Prime Minister John Major, addressed the House. The double standards of those on the Conservative Benches, although probably inevitable, are somewhat undesirable.

As I was saying with regard to Iraq—

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress with my speech.

Our fundamental objective in Iraq has been and remains to develop the capacity of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, and in particular to increase their ability to provide security and basic services to the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi Government of national unity have only been in place for eight months—something that we often overlook. Governing by coalition is never an easy job, and doing so in a country that has been riven by decades of terror and oppression, and in which there is no tradition of government by consensus, is harder still. What is being tried in Iraq today—genuine power-sharing among the different major communities—has never even been tried before. Prime Minister al-Maliki has made a clear public commitment to bringing about national reconciliation. As I said to Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi last week—I think that a number of Members met him on his visit—we strongly support that commitment to national reconciliation, and we recognise how important it is to the future of Iraq.

In a moment. We have this month urged Prime Minister al-Maliki to redouble his efforts with all communities to demonstrate that his Government are pursuing a national and non-sectarian agenda, and we are providing help and support, including by sharing our experience from Northern Ireland.

I thank the Foreign Secretary. On 25 October last year, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister told us that he would be

“happy to debate Iraq at any time.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1515.]

Why should we believe him now that he says that he will debate it at some point in the future? Why was he so anxious to talk us into this disastrous war, but so reluctant to explain how we will get out of it?

Frankly, that is rather a silly remark. First, the Prime Minister has given a very clear and simple commitment that that there will be, we hope, a clear, potential turning point in Iraq in the not-too-distant future, as Operation Sinbad comes to a close, and that he will certainly come to the House at that point. All of what the hon. Gentleman says totally neglects the fact that no Prime Minister in the history of this country has put themselves before the scrutiny of Parliament more than this Prime Minister. For example, he, and he alone, agreed to the long-standing request of Select Committee Chairs from both sides of the House, and appeared before the Liaison Committee—for, if I recall correctly, several hours. He is not a Prime Minister who can be accused at all of avoiding the scrutiny of the House. He has set precedents that no previous Prime Minister of any party has been prepared to set.

I take on board what the Secretary of State says about reconciliation, but does she agree that whatever one believes about whether Saddam Hussein deserved the death penalty, the manner of the hanging, and the way in which it was handled, was an absolute disgrace and an outrage? Why was she, and the Prime Minister, so slow to condemn that?

I do not think either of us was—certainly, I was not slow to condemn it. There was extensive comment. What is much more important is that the Government of Iraq deplored and condemned it. They were horrified at what had been done, which was clearly never intended. Someone was acting on their own volition and in a way that has caused great difficulty for all concerned.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Prime Minister would come to the House at the end of Operation Sinbad or, as she said, when a turning point has been reached. How will we judge when that turning point has been reached?

That is what the Prime Minister will come to the House to report.

The greatest challenge that the relatively new Iraqi Government face is ongoing violence. Eighty to 90 per cent. of that violence takes place within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad. In contrast, the four southern provinces account for around 4 per cent. So progress in Baghdad is of immense strategic and symbolic importance to the whole of Iraq.

On 6 January Prime Minister al-Maliki signalled his firm intention to get to grips with sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar. His words were:

“We will not allow anyone to be an alternative to the state, whether the militias or anybody else, regardless of their affiliations”.

He went on to say:

“We will confront them firmly”.

On 10 January, President Bush said that the United States would help the Iraqis to deliver greater and more lasting security to the capital. It is the joint judgment of the Iraqi and the American Governments that the Baghdad security plan, including the announced increase in troop numbers but, equally importantly, increased resources for reconstruction, is the best way to achieve that goal.

In the course of her speech, will the Foreign Secretary give us some accurate estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed since 2003, and the current death rate on the streets of Baghdad and other cities? Does she think Operation Sinbad will make the situation worse or better?

First, my hon. Friend asks me for the figures from the beginning of the year. From memory, the Iraqi Government estimate that 12,500 people or thereabouts were killed during the year ending 31 December 2006. He knows that there are other widely and wildly varying estimates, but the figure that the Iraqi Government have given is based on returns to the Ministry of the Interior. Secondly, the most recent month for which I have figures is December-January, and the figure is about 1,900. There has been an increase in the past couple of months.

With regard to Operation Sinbad, I know of no evidence whatever to suggest that it is making matters worse or that it is likely to do so. What matters much more than my opinion about it is the opinion of the people of Basra. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to share this information with the House. In December 2006 polling in Basra showed that 92 per cent. of people felt more secure in their own neighbourhoods, and 50 per cent. felt that the police service was effective at protecting their neighbourhoods, which is up from 39 per cent. when Operation Sinbad began. Perhaps more importantly, 75 per cent. believe that the police service will be better this year. The figure for those who believe that the police service is capable and professional is 67 per cent. Again, that is a substantial improvement.

That is only one survey, and I do not intend to suggest to the House that it is conclusive. We should not overestimate the significance of one survey. However, it is a piece of evidence that comes not from my assumptions, still less from the assumptions of my hon. Friend—[Interruption]—but from the opinions of the people of Basra, whom I would have thought the House might treat with more respect.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned reconstruction and the importance of helping the Iraqi Government with that. What assistance is being given to the Iraqi Government to find the millions—some say billions—of pounds that former President Saddam squirreled away in foreign bank accounts?

Investigations along those lines are continuing and no doubt will take some time. Although it would, of course, be desirable to find and return any moneys that were stolen from the Iraqi people, the Iraqi Government have substantial revenues and have received substantial sums from both the United Kingdom and the United States to help with reconstruction, so they are not waiting for the return of that money in order to make progress.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), then I must make progress.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She mentioned the build-up of American troops. Is she aware of the comments today of the ingoing commander, Lieutenant General Petraeus, who said he could guarantee no success, even with the extra so-called surge?

I am not aware of the general’s precise words, but I am not the slightest bit surprised at his sentiments. Given the propensity of both politicians and journalists to ask people to give absolute guarantees of something for which nobody could possibly give a guarantee, I think he was very wise in his use of phraseology.

It might be helpful to the House if I took a few of the remaining interventions and then got on with my speech.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has painted a positive picture of what is happening in Iraq. Of course there have been positive movements, but does she agree that about 100 people being killed every day is, to many people, a testament that the country is at civil war? Can she also say how many of the 18 provinces have been handed over to Iraqi control?

No, I do not agree that there is civil war. What is much more to the point is that the Government of Iraq do not accept that. Of course there is terrible sectarian violence, which is extremely damaging. There is some slight evidence to suggest that it is beginning to be more widely accepted among the people of Iraq how damaging that is. It is within the memory of all Members of the House that it was the declared aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq to provoke sectarian violence in order to try to create civil war. However, it has not yet done so, although I accept that the situation is extremely dangerous. The Government of Iraq resist the notion that there is a state of civil war.

On the matter of Iraqi civilian deaths since the finish of the war, I know that the Government do not like the figure of 665,000 cited by The Lancet, but the House of Commons Library paper just published quotes the Iraqi Minister of Health as giving in Geneva the figure 150,000. What does the Foreign Secretary make of that?

What I make of it is that an awful lot of people have hugely varying assessments and it is extremely hard to know what the reliable figure is. My hon. Friend quotes the figure given in The Lancet, which I recall saying at the time was an enormous extrapolation from the sample that had been collected. It is clear that there is great disparity between the various figures that have been given, and there is a natural tendency for people to give the figure in which they have the greatest interest.

My right hon. Friend said that the American Government and the Iraqi Government were standing together, and that the American commitment of extra troops had been welcomed in Iraq. Is it not also the case that the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council, Egypt and Jordan have also welcomed the extra commitment of troops by the United States?

My right hon. Friend is right. She may be aware that in an interview with al-Arabiya some little time ago, the Prime Minister of Iraq made it clear that from his point of view, the proposals for the Baghdad security plan are the strategy of the Iraqi Government, as well as of the American Government.

Has my right hon. Friend any estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths or of the deaths of Iranians and Kuwaitis when Saddam Hussein was in power?

My right hon. Friend is, as so often, entirely right. I find it astonishing that people so readily dismiss all the terrible suffering caused in various ways in different countries by Saddam Hussein, to the ludicrous degree that some even suggest that there is an equivalence between his behaviour and his record and that of democratic politicians, which is farcical.

I fear that I must get on.

The House has shown great interest in the implications of the new Baghdad security plan for our involvement in southern Iraq. The Defence Secretary and I discussed that at some length and in some detail on 11 January at a joint session of the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I do not intend to repeat everything that was said then.

However, one point bears repetition. We have always said that our approach in Iraq and the level of our commitment there must be governed by conditions on the ground. At this point, I recall that I did not answer the question about provinces. Three have already been handed over to Iraqi control—Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Najaf.

We have not set arbitrary timelines. Like our coalition and Iraqi partners, we have tailored our approach to tackle most effectively the challenges in our area of operation. As we have explained repeatedly, the challenges in southern Iraq differ significantly from those in Baghdad and its neighbouring provinces, which have heavily mixed populations and, tragically, suffer from intense sectarian violence. In the overwhelmingly Shi’a south of Iraq, the challenge is to improve the quality of governance and the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and to reduce crime and the role of the militias.

Our troops and diplomats operate in a dangerous and difficult environment. The House has been consistent in its praise for their professionalism and courage. I pay tribute to them again. Their combined military and civilian efforts have led to positive change in Basra in recent months. The murder rate is down. The number of kidnappings has fallen. Significantly more police stations in Basra province have reached the standard required for transition to Iraqi control.

We have made important progress in unlocking investment in the region’s future by the Iraqi authorities. Our provincial reconstruction team has helped the Basra provincial council gain approval for more than 300 new projects funded by the Iraqi Government.

President Bush reaffirmed in his 10 January statement that he expected lead responsibility for security in all 18 provinces of Iraq to be handed back to the Iraqi authorities by November. We support that aim. As the House knows, decisions on the transfer of individual provinces are made jointly, with the Iraqi Prime Minister having the final say. As I said, three provinces have already been transferred. Two—Dhi Qar and Muthanna—are in our area of responsibility. The third, Najaf, is in the US sector and was transferred last month.

In the light of the progress that I have already described, we remain confident that, at some point this spring, we will be able to recommend that Basra province, too, is ready for the process of transition. The Prime Minister told the House on 10 January that, as Operation Sinbad draws to a close, an assessment of progress in Basra will be made, following which he will make a statement.

The transfer of authority is an important step. It marks a new stage in the development of a stable, independent and democratic Iraq. It does not, of course, mark the end of the international community’s support for the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people.

The role of some of Iraq’s neighbours is deeply worrying. Iran continues to supply weapons, training and funding to extremists operating in the south of Iraq and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranians should be in no doubt that, in the long-term, they have as much, if not more, to lose as anyone else from encouraging instability in Iraq. In this respect, as in others, the Iranian regime has a clear strategic choice to make. On the one hand, it can provide its young and talented population with all the benefits that they would get from a new partnership with the rest of the international community. To do that, the Iranian Government must meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency board, backed by the United Nations Security Council, for their nuclear programme; play a constructive role in Iraq, in the middle east peace process and throughout the region; and end their support for terrorism.

The alternative is for the Iranian regime to lead the country and its people into increasing political, economic and cultural isolation. Iran has consistently tried to portray itself as the victim of a vindictive policy led solely by the US and the UK. It has repeatedly hoped to exploit perceived differences between members of the Security Council. However, it has badly and repeatedly misjudged the situation. At the end of last year, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1737. It is plain even to the Government of Iran that the entire international community calls on them to meet their obligations.

When the Iraq Study Group report was first published, the Government broadly welcomed it. A key recommendation was that a conference or meeting should take place in Baghdad and that Iran and Syria should be directly engaged in it. That is indispensable if the Iraqi Government are to survive as coalition troops are withdrawn. Why have the Government gone back on their support for that recommendation? The report states that

“a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests.”

It is not impossible to continue disagreeing with Iran about its nuclear programme while engaging with it on the future of Iraq. Why are the Government not leading that?

First, we broadly welcome the analysis—the proposals in the Iraq Study Group’s report are interesting and worthy of further consideration. That does not mean—and I do not believe that those on the Iraq Study Group took it to mean—that everything that was said should be agreed and supported. The hon. Gentleman knows that we continue to maintain links with Iran and that we have recently increased those with Syria. We are doing everything we can to encourage those countries to take a more positive approach and engage more positively with Iraq. Some small steps in the right direction have been taken. Syria has opened an embassy in Baghdad, which we welcome.

Continued consideration will be given to the way forward, but I say in all honesty to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether the sort of conference in Baghdad that he suggests would be of as much help as the Iraq Study Group thought.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will forgive me if I take her back to an important point. She set a time line for handing over provinces in the Basra region—I believe that she mentioned November. I appreciate that the Prime Minister does not want to set an arbitrary date and I do not ask for that. However, discussions must have taken place about that in Government—surely the right hon. Lady could share the Government’s thinking on the matter. Is she saying that, assuming things go well, British troops may be home by November?

I have not set a timeline. The hon. Gentleman invites me to share something with hon. Members that we have shared repeatedly, but appears to go in one ear and out the other. We have told the House time and again that we never have set and never will set a specific date, deadline or timeline, because it would be dangerously irresponsible. We will make a judgment on the conditions.

However, it is fair and legitimate for people to have some idea of the ongoing judgment of the Government and the Iraqi Government about the conditions. It is our current view, and that of the Iraqi Government, that, if things continue as they are, we may be in a position to hand over to the Iraqi Government responsibility for all the provinces in November—in the spring, we hope, for Basra. However, we have repeatedly said that it will depend on the conditions and circumstances at the time.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with what the Prime Minister wrote in the current edition of Foreign Affairs? He said that the reason for the invasion of Iraq was not regime change but what he called “values change”. If she does agree, will she explain how it is possible to change people’s values through military force? To which other countries does that doctrine apply?

The Prime Minister, as ever, made a sensible point that it is important to try to encourage the development of the sort of values that inspire most people in most countries in the world: wanting a peaceful and better life for their children. Sadly, in the case of Iraq, military intervention was necessary to create the circumstances in which the politics of that country could be released to afford an opportunity for a democratic Government of unity to form. We hope that, in time, they will encourage the same sort of values and experiences in Iraq as we have here.

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to see early-day motion 625, which, curiously, states that this country does not see Iran as the enemy? No one in the House would want to go to war with Iran, but is it not a bit difficult to see it as a potential friend or ally while it continues to host holocaust-denial conferences, refuses to recognise—and calls for the annihilation of—Israel, oppresses its own people and still intends to pursue its nuclear ambitions?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. No one wishes to be an enemy of Iran, but it is difficult to be as much of a friend to the country as we would like while it continues to pursue the policies that he has identified. I also view with some bewilderment the notion—which I understand is current in some circles—that it is a thoroughly bad thing for the Government of the United Kingdom to maintain their nuclear arms, while it is perfectly all right for the Government of Iran to have them.

I welcome the dialogue that the Foreign Secretary described between the UK, Iran and Syria, particularly in regard to the work that the E3 have been doing. Will she confirm, however, that it is still the Government’s position that a strike by Israel or the US against Iran would be inconceivable, and that any military action would be unjustified?

I have been quite consistent and clear in saying that nobody is contemplating such action, and I sincerely hope that we never reach a time when anybody does. There is, however, something that people tend to leave out of the equation. I often wonder how many people have actually looked at the offer that the international community made to the Government of Iran, which would give them everything that they could conceivably want to develop a programme of modern civil nuclear power—which is what they say is their objective. That has an effect on these areas.

Will the Secretary of State commit herself to the long-standing policy of building relationships with Iran and Syria? It will be difficult, and there are real threats, but will she continue to make it a priority, despite what other allies think, in recognition of those countries’ significance in the region?

I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point that Iran and Syria are countries of great significance in the region. We have said that continually, which is why we have maintained contacts with them and why we continue to aspire to being able to make those contacts on a much more friendly and open basis. My hon. Friend will know, however, that it is not always easy to make a friend of someone who keeps trying to spit in your eye.

I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I must get on. I realise that I have been speaking for half an hour.

Iran must also meet its international obligations and standards in the way it treats its own people. After China, Iran executes more people than any other country in the world. Recently, for example, 10 Ahwazi men were sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activities, although we understand that the men did not have adequate access to lawyers and that the trial was held behind closed doors. We urge the Government of Iran to allow those men a fair and public hearing.

As for Syria, we continue to be concerned about the nature of its involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. We recognise, however, that some positive steps have been taken recently. The Syrian Government have re-established full diplomatic ties with Iraq, the Syrian Foreign Minister has visited Baghdad, and the Iraqi Interior Minister has been to Damascus to talk to the Syrians about disrupting what the Iraqis perceive to be a flow of fighters and weapons across the Syrian-Iraqi border. President Talabani spoke about the same issues when he visited Syria last week.

On the other hand, I fear that we are still looking for evidence that Syria is ready to play a constructive role in promoting stability in Lebanon, or in supporting President Abbas’s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians. Syria, like Iran, faces a strategic choice: either to act responsibly or to continue to support terrorism and hold back progress in the region. We will continue to engage diplomatically with both countries.

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated, progress on the middle east peace process must remain our highest priority. The UK and the international community continue to support the Palestinian people, including through the temporary international mechanism, to which the UK alone will contribute £12 million this year. Last year, the European Union spent €680 million supporting the Palestinians—more than in any previous year.

We welcome the recent agreement between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on the release of $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and on the easing of restrictions on movement and access. These practical steps are an essential foundation to the effort towards a comprehensive peace and a two-state solution, and an end to the cycle of violence.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, welcome as the increase in aid to the Palestinian people may be, it does not in any way replace the loss of the $90 million a month that the Palestinian Authority do not get because Israel has withheld the revenues that it collected? How can the poverty that is plunging people into real hardship in Palestine be reversed without additional funding to enable services and the functioning of the economy to continue?

We have continued to provide support, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it cannot make up for the loss of revenues. That is why we have continually urged the Israeli Government to release those revenues and why I am so pleased to see the $100 million now flowing into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority. It is important that we offer our support in order to reduce the humanitarian dangers in Palestine, which I accept are very real.

My right hon. Friend has not yet commented on the position of women in Iraq, drawing comparisons between their human and civil rights and quality of life now and four years ago.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have now moved on to talk about the middle east, but she has made a fair and legitimate point. She will know that it is now enshrined in the Iraqi constitution that there should be proper rights of the kind to which she refers and, indeed, considerable involvement by women in the governance of Iraq. I expect that she, like me, has met some of the Iraqi women MPs who are playing their part in trying to improve their country.

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that time is running out for a two-state solution in the middle east, and that, if such a solution proves impossible, we might sooner or later have to contemplate a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians, however painfully, have to learn to live alongside each other in a single state?

Israelis and Palestinians do need to learn, however painfully, to live alongside each other. The alternative is even more appalling. I accept that it is not easy to envisage speedy moves. I do not accept, however, that time is running out for the two-state solution, not least because, although it would be difficult, it is probably the most likely best outcome—if I may put it like that.

Given the construction of the barrier wall, razor wire fences, ditches and access roads to Israeli settlements on the west bank, if the Secretary of State believes in a two-state solution, where does she believe the borders of the Palestinian state should be?

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to talk about the final status negotiations. He will know that it is the express view of the European Union that the basis of consideration should be something along the lines of the 1967 borders. However, exactly where those borders should be ought to be in the hands of the parties, and it will be if we can get the negotiations going.

I am sorry, but I must make some progress.

There have been recent positive developments. The Gaza ceasefire is holding, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have met, and I believe that there is a new willingness on all sides to address some of the fundamental issues that underpin the conflict. We will encourage and support that, working closely with the Americans and with our EU and Arab partners. The Prime Minister was in the region last month, and I intend to go again shortly. Secretary Rice visited last week, and we then held detailed talks here in London, covering both the need to re-energise the political process and practical ways to support President Abbas and to help the Palestinian people. Our common goal is to see accelerated implementation of the road map, and real progress towards peace and stability for both sides. As the House may know, the next step is a meeting of the Quartet on 2 February.

These points of tension in the region—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine—all present different problems and demand and deserve individual attention, but they are also affected by, and pivotal to, wider political and economic reform in the region. Long-term stability in the middle east demands a truly comprehensive approach—what the Prime Minister has called a “whole Middle East strategy”. Of course, that means resolving the big conflicts, but it also means helping economies in the region to modernise, create more jobs and attract more inward investment. It means giving young people in the region—men and women alike—the tools and the education to embrace globalisation. It also means making progress towards more open politics, more accountable government and better respect for individual rights.

The challenges that we face in the region should not blind us to significant and positive developments across the middle east and North Africa over the past few years—developments that often have profound implications for the UK. From an admittedly low base, foreign direct investment is now growing. In Egypt, it has risen from just over $2 billion a year to more than $5 billion, including very substantial UK investments. Shell is about to make the largest ever investment by a British company in Qatar. BP is the biggest foreign investor in Algeria.

On the political front, we have seen the first elections in Saudi Arabia, universal suffrage in Kuwait and the most successful elections in Yemen's history. There has been an improvement in the rights of women: in Egypt, women can now divorce; in Bahrain, the Supreme Council for Women has been established; and in Morocco, there is a new, fairer family code.

It would be wrong to overplay such progress but, broadly, it is heading in the right direction. The people in the region are leading that change, but we can help them. We are doing so partly through our political relationships.

Order. The Foreign Secretary has said that she will not take any more interventions. It must be remembered that, to assist Back Benchers, I have put a 10-minute limit on speeches, and interventions have an impact on the ability of Back Benchers to make a speech.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am conscious of that, and that is why I have been trying to make progress.

Certainly, there are many on the so-called Arab street who are suspicious of British foreign policy. However, we are still seen by many local politicians not only as an honest broker in the region but as a close ally and friend. That is one of the reasons why the UK was entrusted with the job, during the Lebanon crisis, of flying the first international envoys into Beirut. It is why, when Libya wanted to come in from the cold, it made contact with the British Government. It is also why we can discuss the reform agenda with the Saudi Arabians through our “two kingdoms dialogue”.

We use that political influence to encourage locally-led political and economic reforms, and back it up with money and expertise. That includes the small-scale but highly targeted work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global opportunities fund: for example, supporting a youth parliament in Bahrain; teaching business and leadership skills to women in Kuwait; and strengthening non-governmental organisations in Saudi Arabia.

Last November, we hosted the Yemen donors conference in London. More than $4.5 billion was pledged in support of Yemen’s national reform agenda, and we announced a fivefold increase in our own aid programme: about $225 million over the next four years. This afternoon, I shall go to Paris to discuss how the international community can support reconstruction and reform in Lebanon. The UK has already committed more than $50 million to Lebanon, including humanitarian relief and 47 Land Rovers for the Lebanese armed forces. At the Paris conference, I will reaffirm our determination, which is shared across the House, to stand by the Government and people of Lebanon.

Alongside that work, the UK is influencing how the international community spends its money, making support for reform one of the main priorities. During our G8 presidency, the Forum for the Future established a $50 million foundation to support democracy, and a $100 million fund to support regional entrepreneurs. We are strong advocates of the recently proposed EU governance facility, which will provide additional funding to those countries that make the most progress on good governance. The exact size of that fund is still being decided, but we are talking about hundreds of millions of euros.

The challenges that we face in the middle east are complex and, as the whole House recognises, intensely difficult. But they are not completely intractable. The political prize is immense: we can help the people of the region to overcome a legacy of underdevelopment and conflict and give them the chance to carve out better lives for themselves and their families. That is the task to which this Government are committed.

This is a debate for which many in the House have been calling for some time. British troops have been in action in Iraq for nearly four years, and it is high time that the House of Commons took stock of what has happened. I say to Ministers that there is also a strong case for a similar debate on Afghanistan in the near future.

Whether we supported or opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003—[Interruption.] There is every variety of view on the Labour Benches about that. We must all, however, face up to the fact that the situation in Iraq now is grim and serious. We must learn from what has happened, not minimise some of the things that have happened. The Foreign Secretary was asked about the number of civilian casualties and gave a figure of 12,500 last year.

I will certainly do so in a moment.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, however, gives a figure of 34,452 civilian casualties. It is important for the House to get those matters straight.

We know that a great deal is at stake. Given the importance of the issue and the strength of feeling in the House about it, I have no hesitation in saying that the Prime Minister should attend this debate. It is not acceptable to Conservative Members, and quietly unacceptable to many Labour Members—perhaps not so quietly, as they are nodding their heads—who worry about such matters, that the Prime Minister, having been so keen to lead such debates in the run-up to the war when things were going fine, now prefers, with the whole issue in the balance and 130 British lives lost in Iraq, to skulk out of the Chamber to attend to something else.

According to The Sunday Times, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said:

“The Prime Minister never attends these debates, whatever the subject.”

We now have a Prime Minister who never attends debates, “whatever the subject”. The Foreign Secretary indicated that there was hope for a turning point soon, and that the Prime Minister would then make a statement. Where would the House have been in the second world war if Winston Churchill had only come along when a turning point was in prospect or had been reached? It is sad that the Prime Minister prefers the mentality of the bunker to the open thinking of debate.

The Conservative party was sold this war on a false premise. We were lied to by the Government. I keep meeting Conservative Members who tell me that if they knew then what they know now, they would have voted against this war. Will my right hon. Friend say that we will not be dragged down into the mire by this discredited Government? The more we attack this war and our presence in Iraq, the more we speak for the British people.

I must say that I do not fully agree with my hon. Friend about that. I voted for the invasion of Iraq, as did the great majority of the House, and I think that the problem has been in the execution and the inadequate planning for the occupation of Iraq, on which there is also a wide consensus across the House.

I suppose that my question has been slightly stolen. I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s comment that we must face the facts as they are now, and every sensible person accepts that. Given the Government’s reluctance to apologise for taking us down a road to war on that false prospectus, will not he and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench apologise for also taking that route? The evidence presented to him was no different from the evidence presented to all those who took a different view and were shown to be right.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do not think that it is up to the Opposition to apologise for believing the Prime Minister’s assurances to the House. I take a different view, in any case. I believe that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was right, but that the failure to plan for the aftermath of that has been a tragic mistake and that we are now living with the consequences.

I believe, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me about this, that if we did support the war, we must recognise that in many respects it has gone wrong—[Interruption]—as we did; and we must have the humility and thoughtfulness to learn from that. That is one of the tragedies of the Prime Minister not coming to a debate like this. I want to concentrate my remarks on what should happen next, but it is important to point out that there is something of a consensus across the House on where matters have gone wrong. It was the majority feeling in the House in March 2003, as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain)—now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—put it, that:

“in the end we as a government feel we cannot walk away from this situation, leaving Saddam Hussein unchecked, able in the future to attack the world”.

But I suspect it is now also the majority view of the House that, as the Secretary of State for International Development told the Fabian Society recently:

“The current situation in Iraq is… grim, so let us be clear about that truth.”

The right hon. Gentleman said:

“the intelligence was wrong, the de-Ba'athification went too far, the disbanding of the army was wrong and, of course, we should have the humility to acknowledge those things, and to learn”.

That is the voice of a member of the Cabinet, and that is precisely my view.

These errors do indeed appear to have been fundamental, and without them we need not have had the parlous situation that we have today. We also know, from documents published in recent months, that much military advice to send a vastly larger number of troops to Iraq from the United States to help control the country after the invasion was ignored, and that those in the US State Department who attempted to plan for the administration of the country after the invasion were sidelined.

That is a lesson to us all for the future that embarking on military action alongside another power requires confidence in our own Government that our allies have a satisfactory plan. Indeed, there are so many lessons to be learned, not only about the conduct of war and of occupations, but about the management of our relationship with the United States, that the case for a high-level Privy Council inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq is overwhelming.

The right hon. Gentleman has probably noticed that the leader of every mainland party is in the Chamber today except one, the Prime Minister. Does he agree that the Prime Minister should be in the House today, helping us with our inquiries on Iraq?

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have already gathered my answer to that from what I said earlier. Certainly, the Prime Minister should be here. It is unimaginable that an Attlee, a Callaghan, a Churchill or a Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war. But I have already said that and I want to make progress.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be working towards this in his speech, but I will ask him in any case whether he accepts that some of the decisions made in 2003—such as de-Ba’athification, the disbanding of the army and the disbanding of the police force—were made by the United States Administration under Paul Bremer, despite advice from the British Government and our representatives in Iraq.

Of course, without an inquiry we do not know what advice was given by the British Government at the time. That is one of the things that an inquiry should be establishing, and if that were the case Ministers would have much less to fear from an inquiry than they might otherwise.

As far as one can tell, Ministers agree with the case for an inquiry. On 31 October, the Secretary of State for Defence said on television that there would be such an inquiry, just after the Foreign Secretary had resisted announcing one in the House. We may differ as to when, but our case is that if an inquiry beginning with events in 2003 does not commence at least before the end of 2007, it will be found that many memories will have faded and many e-mails will have disappeared. If Ministers do not announce such an inquiry before the end of this parliamentary Session, we will ask the House to debate a specific motion requiring them to do so.

The most important issue of all, of course, is what to do next. The Iraqi people need—the whole region and the world need—a rapid improvement in the stability and security of their country. They, and the world, need their country to survive intact, for while it is all too easy to talk of partition in the armchairs of western capitals, the practical reality on the ground would mean bloodshed, disorder and foreign intervention possibly dwarfing anything that we have seen so far.

When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I visited Basra and Baghdad a few weeks ago, we came back with several things very clear in our minds. The first, not surprisingly, was that our troops perform dangerous tasks with extraordinary skill, and with calm and courage, in the face of great adversity; but there is no doubt that their own security situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past two years. They are not able to operate in Basra with the freedom that they enjoyed in the aftermath of the invasion, and it is clear that there has been slowness in meeting some of their practical needs for equipment and protection as they operate in a theatre of war. Shelter against mortar attacks in their barracks for which hostile militias have the precise co-ordinates is lacking, as is the foam necessary to protect Hercules transport planes against catastrophic damage from small-arms fire. While we should recognise that supplying military operations is difficult, we should also see the Prime Minister’s constant and obviously meaningless assertion that the troops will always have everything they need in that light.

From what we could see, there is a limit to what British troops can achieve in the city of Basra once Operation Sinbad is completed, and its completion appears to be imminent. Provided that the Iraqi army is able to take over as necessary in the city of Basra, we therefore have no disagreement with the Government’s apparent intention of withdrawing several thousand troops later this year. But implicit in that announcement is that several thousand will remain, presumably to guard the air station at Basra and do what they can to protect the border with Iran. Perhaps when he winds up the debate, the Minister will be able to expand on what the role of the remaining troops will be at that point, whether all deficiencies in their equipment will have been addressed, and whether it is militarily feasible for a smaller force based around the Basra air station to protect itself against coming under siege from encroaching militia attacks.

Looking beyond Basra to the overall situation in Iraq, we reached the view—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence—that three things were essential to bring the situation under control: a more rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi army, an intensification of pressure on the Iraqi politicians to achieve the political agreements generally characterised as “reconciliation”, and the creation of an international contact group, including members of the UN Security Council and nearby states, to help buttress and support the Government of Iraq.

In other words, the situation needs more Iraqi leadership and greater international support and involvement. In our view those remain vital issues, and without any one of them being implemented to the necessary extent the future looks bleak. That is why we welcomed the report of the Iraq Study Group—the Baker-Hamilton report—which was broadly in line with our own assessment, although we did not agree with all its proposals. A fixed timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would create military inflexibility and give insurgents their own timetable for operations, something that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), must bear in mind. He must also bear in mind his comment in the House in November 2003:

“Nothing could be worse than handing over to an Iraqi Government, however constitutionally founded, a security position that they were incapable of dealing with.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2003; Vol. 415, c. 168.]

I fear that his proposal for a total withdrawal by October would be a situation that the Iraqi Government would be “incapable of dealing with”, and would bring great bloodshed in its wake.

With that exception, the broad thrust of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations seemed to make sense, particularly its advocacy of a huge increase in the number of American troops embedded with or training Iraqi troops from 4,000 to 20,000, and the creation of an international support group of the kind that I have just described.

Was the right hon. Gentleman surprised to hear the Foreign Secretary say, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), that the regional security conference recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report would not achieve anything? Yesterday, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, announced the creation of a regional security conference along those lines. Surely the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary should be supporting that important diplomatic initiative, not undermining it.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me to an important point. I was surprised by one or two things that the Foreign Secretary said, and they did relate to the Baker-Hamilton report.

The Prime Minister gave evidence to the Iraq Study Group, apparently emphasising the importance of a fresh attempt to engage with Syria and Iran. After he flew to America the moment the report was published on 6 December—considering Iraq, that day, to be so important that he had to go straight to the White house, in contrast to today, when he did not stay in the House—he said that the Baker-Hamilton report

“offers a strong way forward”.

The Foreign Secretary said today that she thought it was worthy of further study, but at the time she said that it was

“thoughtful, substantial and quite profound.”

She also said that British officials had contributed to it and that the thinking of the Iraq Study Group was

“broadly in line with our own”.

She said:

“we will come to our own conclusions, which we will share with our American allies.”

It would be interesting to know what conclusions the Government came to and how they were passed on to the United States Administration, for the fact is that Ministers welcomed not only the Baker-Hamilton report, but the different strategy announced by President Bush earlier this month—even though it differed markedly from the Baker-Hamilton approach.

As a firm advocate of the transatlantic alliance, I say to the Foreign Secretary that saying we approve of one thing when thinking in Washington is going one way in December, or we think it is, and then saying that we approve of something quite different when the thinking in Washington changes in January, does no favours for the transatlantic relationship because it gives the impression that we will say yes to anything the White House wants to do.

I fully concur with the sentiments my right hon. Friend has expressed about the inability of this Government to engage positively with our American ally, but where is the consistency in supporting Iranian engagement in the stabilisation of Afghanistan and in refusing to engage with Iran in the stabilisation of Iraq? Is there not an inconsistency in that position?

My hon. Friend must bear in mind the Iranian attitude to efforts to engage with it. I will come to that in a moment. On that matter, I think that there will be a bit more agreement with the Government than on the things that I have just mentioned. If he will forgive me, I will come to Iran in a moment.

Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify for the record what his attitude is to President Bush's proposal to increase American troops—the “troops surge”?

That is the very point that I am coming to. We should be clear that there are many things to welcome in the President’s plan, including fresh attempts to speed up economic reconstruction, an unspecified increase in the training of the Iraqi army and great pressure on the Iraqi leaders to achieve the national reconciliation on which everything else depends. To try to achieve those things is right and is far superior to a policy of simply abandoning the Iraqi people to their fate, but it is also true that certain important things are missing from that strategy that were recommended in the Baker-Hamilton report, including the creation of an international support group, direct talks without pre-conditions with Syria, the provision of more resources to Afghanistan and direct talks with Moqtada al-Sadr. Very little attention has been given to the immense problem of 50,000 people a month fleeing Iraq, which can create a looming refugee and political crisis in neighbouring states such as Jordan. Those things are missing from that plan.

Are we not justified, given that previous attempts to flood Baghdad with larger numbers of troops have not achieved their objectives, to be somewhat sceptical about the deployment of 20,000 additional US troops, however much we may hope, as I am sure we all do, that they will succeed? That is our attitude to the President's announcement.

Is it not the case that British and US strategy in Iraq is not easily separated? The Secretary of State for Defence said on 11 January to the Select Committee on Defence:

“if you disturb the Shia in the Shia Sadr City in Baghdad will the Shia in the Shia flats in Basra rise up in arms? We are well aware of that possibility”—

yet the current plan, it seems, is for us to withdraw from Basra while the Iraqi and American forces go into Sadr city. The House is therefore entitled to know whether UK and US military plans are still being closely co-ordinated. Would not it be better to have a robust exchange of views with the US Administration and then implement an agreed strategy, rather than fail to have such an exchange and then implement different ones? An example is the all important training of larger Iraqi forces. As that is now an important part of the American plan, albeit on a scale perhaps not big enough, is there to be any British involvement or contribution to that, supporting that vital objective?

The Government appear to have had very little influence over some of the recent decisions in Washington. We would like to know from the Minister, when he winds up, what they are going to do to recover that influence and what they are going to do to keep alive some of the proposals in the Baker-Hamilton report that have not yet been adopted, but may become even more advisable in the months ahead.

That brings us naturally to the question of how to deal with Iran and Syria, often spoken of in the same breath but, of course, quite different countries in different strategic situations. I think that we are all in favour of engagement with Iran on the right terms, and the former Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, made strenuous efforts to engage with the Iranian Government. So far, those efforts have been rewarded with Iran's flagrant defiance of the UN Security Council and breach of the non-proliferation treaty, with every appearance that its Government are bent on a nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons programme.

It has surely been right for Britain, the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany to make a generous offer to Iran about assisting with the development of civil nuclear power. That offer, so far, has been spurned. On 23 December, the UN Security Council once again gave Iran a deadline to suspend all of its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Is it not now vital, while maintaining the “incremental and proportionate approach” called for by EU Foreign Ministers this week, to present an increasing number of usable sticks as well as to hold out the appealing carrot to Iran? Like the Government, we do not advocate military action against Iran, although like them we think that it would be unwise at this stage to rule anything out, but there are signs of division in Iranian politics about the best way for them to react, and now is surely the time to maximise the peaceful pressure on Iran to begin constructive dialogue.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the pressure on the Baha’i community in Iran. He will also know that, literally, lives are at stake on account of the hard-line approach that Iran has taken towards the Baha’is. Does he agree, therefore, that we are talking about a matter of life and death and that the best thing that the Foreign Office and the UK could do would be to provide a powerful rationale for Iran to take seriously the rights of those ethnic minority groups, including the Baha’is, who face the death penalty over crimes they have not committed?

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about human rights in Iran, and the Foreign Secretary made strong points about that in her speech. I think that we will all agree with him about that, but overriding the whole problem with Iran is the need to deal with its nuclear programme. That has to be absolutely top of the agenda, of course, but with human rights very strongly part of our agenda with Iran as well.

This week's agreement by EU Foreign Ministers, implementing the UN resolution and preventing Iranian nationals from studying proliferation-sensitive subjects in the EU, falls short of what is necessary. Surely there is a strong case for the EU to act with the United States in applying more extensive travel restrictions and, above all, financial restrictions, which could have a more serious effect on the Iranian Government's ability to do business.

It was rumoured in advance of Tuesday's meeting of EU Foreign Ministers that some financial measures would be agreed, yet none emerged from the meeting. We would like to know whether the Government failed to advocate such measures—financial sanctions against Iran—or whether they were rejected by other EU states. To fail to show strength now, along with a readiness to talk, when that strength might actually have an effect, would be a very serious failure of foreign policy. Unless Iranian plans are knocked off course, the consequences within a few years will be the spread of nuclear weapons programmes to other nations in the middle east. We would live with the consequences of it for generations to come.

I hope that I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The Foreign Ministers meeting agreed that the criteria identified by the United Nations should indeed be assessed against the position of organisations and of individuals to see what further steps could be taken. Officials have been sent away to work on those steps, so a decision in principle was taken to move forward in exactly the way and for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman is identifying. Detailed work on that will continue and I hope that it will come back to the next Foreign Affairs Council in February.

We hope that that bears fruit, although I am referring to measures that go beyond the measures agreed at the UN Security Council. I am referring to the European Union, alongside the United States, taking measures that go beyond that. [Interruption.] I think that the Foreign Secretary is indicating some assent to that. She will have the strong support of the Opposition if the Government are able to secure those measures. Otherwise, the non-proliferation treaty, a fundamental pillar of a relatively peaceful world in recent decades, will lie broken and ruined. It is time for EU nations to do more.

My right hon. Friend will recall that the Iranians seized some of our service personnel in the Shatt al-Arab. Does he share my concern that the Iranian Government have so far still refused to return our military and radar equipment that they seized in the Shatt al-Arab?

My hon. Friend is right. He refers to yet another difficulty that has arisen in recent months with the Iranian Government. That is why we advocate that as well as being open to dialogue with Iran, we must increase the pressure on Iran to engage in constructive dialogue with the rest of the world.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mr. Zebari, was quoted on the wires yesterday as welcoming the Iranian-Syrian initiative for a regional conference of Foreign Ministers and as saying that invitations will immediately be sent to Iraq’s other neighbouring countries, including Egypt. Does the right hon. Gentleman not see anything to welcome in what seems to be a constructive initiative?

Of course I welcome the Iraqi Government working with their neighbours. One of the advantages of setting up the international support group—or the international contact group as we described it before the Baker-Hamilton report was published—is that if a better dialogue develops with Syria and Iran they could be added to such a group. However, although we should be in favour of strong relations between Iraq and its neighbours, we must not lose sight of the immense difficulties that there will be for the world if the Iranian nuclear programme goes unchecked.

The case of Syria is parallel but different. There has clearly, and rightly, been a recent effort by the Government to explore constructive engagement with Syria, but such efforts are unlikely to work without the full support of the United States, and it is not clear that that has been forthcoming. Syria has much to gain from settling its differences with Israel and with the west in general, and the world has much to gain from Syria playing a more constructive part in the international community. There are rumours of useful back-channel diplomacy between Israel and Syria—would it not be a mistake of historic magnitude if the United States were to prevent or dissuade Israel from following up those talks as constructively as possible? I hope that the Minister can explain in his winding-up speech what the up-to-date position is with regard to contacts with Syria and what support is being received from the United States on this issue.

On wider middle east issues, there will be much agreement in all parts of the House on what we wish to happen. The legitimate Government of Lebanon deserve support against the attempts to overthrow them. Hezbollah’s manoeuvres helped to distract attention from the total failure to enforce United Nations resolutions requiring the disarmament of militias in south Lebanon, and it has emerged stronger from the war of last August, as was widely predicted.

We also all want the limited signs of hope in the middle east peace process to turn into more substantial progress once again. The Prime Minister toured the region before Christmas, but little has been said about what was discovered or whether anything was achieved. There are tiny signs of hope—the international community has maintained its support for President Abbas and maintained pressure on Hamas to foreswear violence and recognise Israel. A ceasefire has been implemented in Gaza. The Israelis have transferred £100 million of taxes to the office of the Palestinian President. We support the Government’s involvement in the continuing operations to deliver assistance to the Palestinian people, and we would welcome an assessment from them of the impact that that has made and of plans to extend it.

Nevertheless, formidable obstacles remain to be overcome before there can be any real progress on resuming the road map towards peace. Taking in the entire region, with all its conflicts or threats of them, the situation across the middle east represents one of the most alarming combinations of international events since the second world war. There is deep anxiety among some of the Gulf states that Shi’a-Sunni conflict could spread beyond Iraq, and that nuclear weapons could spread beyond Iran, and there is some desperation to see progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Whatever happens in the coming months, the politics of the middle east are likely to be a central preoccupation in the framing of British foreign and defence policy for years, or decades, to come. In the light of that, is it not time to stand back and take a wider strategic view? British influence in the middle east is patchy, and our efforts to maintain it have been patchy, too. A few days before Christmas, the Prime Minister visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time, and rightly agreed to regular security talks between our countries. It is important that that is not an isolated initiative. Should there not be, across parties and pursued over the long term, a major drive by the United Kingdom to elevate our economic, cultural, parliamentary and diplomatic links with many of the countries of the Gulf—and, indeed, with countries in north Africa?

We are not engaged in a clash of civilisations, and it is vital that we deepen our friendships with many Muslim nations. Their enthusiasm to reciprocate is undoubted. The best hope for long-term stability is for there to be a deepening of contact between the middle east and the wider west. Fewer mistakes would have been made in Iraq if an understanding of local society had been present in Washington—and possibly London. It must be right to make the addressing of this issue a major theme of British foreign policy, and it must be right to do so now.

Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

I agree very much with the concluding remarks of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). We are facing a fundamental crisis. As King Abdullah of Jordan told Members of both Houses in November, we are facing three concentric threats at the same time. However, although he referred to three—Iraq, Lebanon and the Israel-Palestine dispute—we now have the situation in Somalia, too, which is also potentially explosive and could have knock-on consequences in the entire region and the whole of Africa.

Our country should do far more internationally. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will be able to say that the Foreign Office has looked at the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation that extra money should be given to the BBC World Service Arabic television service that is due to open in the autumn of this year. Although it will cost £19 million, it will be able to operate for only 12 hours a day; but the Committee has pointed out that for a mere additional £6 million it would be able to broadcast 24 hours a day to the Arabic and middle eastern regions. That channel is a vital tool for communicating to that region good news and stories that give a balanced perspective. At present, the region relies on the very well funded al-Jazeera, which is subsidised by the Government of Qatar. It is able to broadcast in that region, and there are also some other channels, but the BBC World Service Arabic television service is vital to get diversity and pluralism, and a wider debate than is currently available. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that request.

Let me turn to the situation in Iraq. As someone who voted for the invasion in 2003, and who spent many years supporting the Iraqi people’s struggle for democracy and pluralism, and who has many Kurdish friends—some still in Iraq, some outside it, and some in our country—I have to say that things have not turned out the way that I had expected. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Members to laugh, but the fact is that my Kurdish friends told me—and they were right—that they were campaigning, as I was with them for 25 years, against the crimes of Saddam. We were prepared to fight and campaign very hard for pluralism and democracy. What we all underestimated was that, because of the nature of the Saddamite regime, there was a complete removal of any sense of respect for other groups in that society.

What we face today is not just the consequence of the failings of the current Iraqi politicians or the crass mistakes of the coalition provisional authority—Paul Bremer and the Administration in 2003 and 2004—but is also the consequence of Ba’athism and its apologists. Many of those who are so critical today of the situation in Iraq—including people who were members of the 1980s Governments who supported Saddam when he invaded Iran—must also bear responsibility for the current situation.

I am confused by what the hon. Gentleman just said. When the Prime Minister used to speak on this subject in the House he made it explicit that Saddam Hussein could stay in power, and that he was happy to sanction that, if Saddam complied with the United Nations resolution. So removing Saddam Hussein was not the reason why Britain went to war, and we should not be using it retrospectively to make a case for a failed Government policy.

Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I am not the Prime Minister. I am explaining my reason for voting as I did, which was my belief in supporting the Iraqi democrats, the Iraqi left and the Iraqi Kurds and Shi’as, who had suffered under the oppression of Saddam. That was my view then and it remains my view now. Those of us who took that position then faced a choice. There was an historic opportunity to rid the Iraqis of the person who had been their oppressor for all those years. Had we taken the opposite view, could our consciences have been clear of the feeling that we had betrayed our friends? Many of us had that dilemma, which I shall discuss.

This debate is all about learning lessons. We have had the memoirs of Paul Bremer of the coalition provisional authority, but unfortunately the British Government have blocked publication of the memoirs of our man in Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Would it not be helpful if the Government lifted that block and we heard what Sir Jeremy had to say?

My hon. Friend tempts me into an area that would take a long time to deal with. I refer him to the evidence session before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a few weeks ago, at which Sir Jeremy Greenstock gave us his views. If my hon. Friend reads the transcript, he will get some more information.

The essence of the issue is whether we take the view espoused by those who hold the neo-conservative view in the United States—such as Robert Kagan and the American Enterprise Institute—or an “ethical realist” view, to use a current phrase, of how countries should behave in an international context. The establishment in the last few weeks of the Iraq study group provided an opportunity. At last, there was perhaps the chance to move away from the malign influence of the legacy of Donald Rumsfeld and past events, and toward a more realistic view of, and approach to, engaging with Iraq’s neighbours. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary referred to some of the recommendations in that group’s report.

Such a view is, as I understood it, very close to the position of the British Government, of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, and of the broad body of international opinion. President Bush implied that he would go down that route. He appointed Robert Gates, who had been a member of the Iraqi study group, as the successor to Rumsfeld. However, although the US Administration have made cursory mention of the group, the essence of their position today is rejection of all the essential details of the group’s most important recommendations.

That presents us all with a fundamental dilemma. Will a surge of 22,000 additional troops, as President Bush seems seriously to believe, shift the balance significantly, or will the Americans have to come up with a new strategy in six to eight months’ time? It is extremely doubtful that the current American strategy will work—and if it does not, we will have wasted several months in which alternative approaches could have been taken. Of course, those might not work either; the Iranian and Syrian regimes are not benign and democratic. Nevertheless, we should listen to the warning from King Abdullah and consider an alternative approach. Preventing Iraq’s neighbours from intervening by building a regional containment and security structure could be the way forward.

However, it is clear that whichever approach is followed, the Bush Administration have already rejected their millennialist, neo-con vision of forcibly democratising the region. It is clear from recent remarks made by Condoleezza Rice in Egypt and by others that they are returning to the old-style approach, in which they say, “We decide which Arab regime is friendly to us and then we support it, regardless of its internal human rights record or lack of democratic values.” That is a sign that the neo-con view of the world has been defeated. The question is: is there an alternative view of how we build stability and security in the world? The British Government should be doing far more with their European Union partners, and with the United States and others, to build an alternative world view of how to proceed. That will not be easy, because we are not dealing with a stable region or a stable international context.

My most serious fear is that we are on the verge of a Shi’a-Sunni conflict. Such a conflict exists in Iraq and potentially in Lebanon, and also in the context of a wider struggle. Saudi Arabia, although Sunni-controlled, has a significant Shi’a population, and there are other countries in which that potential division exists. We should consider what will happen if Saudi Arabia, which has just sacked its ambassador in Washington and replaced him with a hard-liner, decides to intervene to support the Sunnis in Iraq; if Iran strengthens its grip and influence on the Shi’a groups in Iraq; or if the Turks decide to go in. Indeed, Turkey’s opposition leader said last week in a public debate that Turkey should intervene militarily to prevent a referendum in Kirkuk. If those things happen, the conflict in Iraq will have been regionalised, which could be extremely dangerous.

Our Government have to stay in Iraq for as long as necessary to help with the stabilisation process. Those who call for a timetabled or instant withdrawal are taking a huge risk, given the possible consequences. The American Administration’s current strategy is dangerous and probably unworkable, and it will not help us in dealing with the situation. However, there are some reasons for optimism in the region. We now know that the Israelis and Syrians have been secretly discussing possible agreements for two years, and that there is a revitalisation of the American effort at least to get involved in the middle east peace process. However, that must be followed through not just rhetorically, but in practice. We also know that there is a desire on the part of many countries in the region to prevent this slide toward disaster.

This is a very dangerous period, which does not call for party political point scoring or people trying to rewrite or re-fight the battles of four or five years ago. This is a very serious matter, and what we are doing today is too important to be diminished by party political posturing.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) is right to say that a lot has happened in four or five years, but the position we are in and the choices available to us are inevitably conditioned by the circumstances in which we went into Iraq. They simply cannot be disregarded in an effort to persuade everyone that we must proceed from here without regard to what has happened before.

This is an important debate, far too long delayed, for the House, the public and—perhaps most importantly—for our armed forces. I mean the Foreign Secretary no disrespect when I say that the Prime Minister should have opened the debate on a substantive motion in which he invited the House to pass judgment on the policies of his Government. It is wrong to say that previous Prime Ministers have avoided foreign affairs debates. In September 1990, Margaret Thatcher led the foreign affairs debate following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and, towards the end of that period, in February, John Major, who by then was Prime Minister, led two debates held because of the issues raised by the military action that was taking place and the consequences of it for British interests.

With almost chilling regularity, every Wednesday we now find ourselves having to acknowledge fatalities in Iraq. I do not know how the Prime Minister feels, or the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but it is the bleakest moment of the week for me. But that is nothing to the blight on the lives of the families and friends of those who have been killed. They are brave men and women who do their duty in Iraq, and I yield to no one in my admiration for them for their professionalism and their courage. Today they deserved to hear all the party leaders. The Prime Minister owed that to them.

The origins of our involvement in Iraq are well known. I remain of the belief that I had on 18 March 2003 when I went into the No Lobby to vote against the Government’s proposals. That was not a party political issue in the sense that only one party did that. Conservative and Labour Members joined us as did, in particular, Robin Cook, whose wisdom has been much missed on this issue since his untimely death.

I am fortified in my view that it was an illegal war based on a flawed prospectus by the increasing number of converts to scepticism. Indeed, few candidates for Labour’s deputy leadership seem willing to defend the decision in public. It was a question of judgment for all of us, but our judgment has been vindicated by events since then. What has happened since November 2003? As the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out, there were no weapons of mass destruction. There was inadequate preparation for the aftermath of military action and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was among those who made that point with great force at the time and deserves credit for doing so.

We have seen insensitivity and the mismanagement of coalition activities. We have seen the humiliation and obscenity of Abu Ghraib, the destruction of Falluja, the endemic corruption and, more recently, the macabre execution of Saddam Hussein. Along with that go the woeful failures in reconstruction, so that public services such as electricity, water and sewerage are worse now than they were under Saddam Hussein. We may all be able to agree, no matter how we voted on 18 March 2003, that the United Kingdom will never do anything similar again.

I also feel vindicated by the leaked documents that we have seen and the memoirs that have been published. Whatever was said in public—and a variety of things were said in public—we now know that the principal objective of the United States was regime change. That was always their objective. Why else would the British ambassador, after a lunch with Condoleezza Rice, have reported back to London that he told her that we would not resile from regime change? Of course, that policy was fundamentally and irreparably illegal, under article 2.4 of the charter of the United Nations.

Events moved on. Once the decision was taken, those of us who had opposed the war had to decide what attitude to take. We took the view that we had to support our troops. We argued that the United Nations should lead in the post-invasion period and we supported the continuing presence of the coalition, fortified as it was in implementation of the UN resolution 1546. But in May 2006, we began to argue for a change in strategy. In particular, we argued for regional engagement and for dialogue with Iran and Syria. By the end of 2006, the Iraq Study Group produced a report that closely resembled the conclusions towards which we had been moving.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred repeatedly to the liberation of Iraq as illegal. Like me, he will have noted that as a result of that liberation millions of Iraqis took part for the first time in free, multi-party elections to help to create a democratic coalition Government. Does he consider that the Iraqi men and women who voted in those elections were party to a crime and does he regret for a moment opposing a war that resulted in their liberation?

Of course I do not. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the rules do not matter, that the ends always justify the means and that the charter of the United Nations is to be observed when it is in our interests but disregarded when it is not, he contemplates a world of such chaos as none of us can properly contemplate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The Government said that the ISG report closely resembled their thinking, but what influence has that report, or indeed the Government, had on the United States Administration? As the hon. Member for Ilford, South, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, only those parts of the ISG report that were consistent with the existing strategy were accepted. Anything about dialogue with Iran or Syria was rejected. Anything about trying to regionalise support for Iraq was also rejected. It is not only people here who oppose what is being done. Listen to what was said after the State of the Union address. Listen to what the Democrats said on an occasion that is normally known for being more bipartisan than partisan. Listen to what senior Republicans are saying. They are opposed to the strategy. So here we are, part of a coalition implementing a strategy that is not even universally accepted in the United States. One is left with the conclusion that the United States Administration changed its course to some extent, but failed to accept the recommendations of the ISG either with no consultation with the UK or with a consultation that had no influence.

It is always said on these occasions that we are where we are. Let us ask ourselves where we are indeed. We are with a coalition partner pursuing a strategy that we should not support in a country on the verge of civil war—if it is not already engaged in one. How else should one describe incidents that result in 60 or 75 deaths at a time? According to the United Nations, 34,000 people were killed last year. There are continuing casualties, including Private Michael Tench, aged 18. Our foreign policy is being acted out by young men of 18. Does not that make us all pause and wonder if we are doing the right thing?

There is also the drain on resources, both military and financial, and the prejudice to other priorities, especially Afghanistan. A few days ago General Richards, one of the most cerebral commanders of recent times, argued the case for more troops if he is to fulfil his responsibilities in Afghanistan. There is the continuing, long-term adverse effect on our influence in the region and elsewhere.

Against that background, it would need overwhelming justification to remain, and I do not believe that that justification is present. Will the situation improve? There is no evidence. Will it be safer for our troops? There is no evidence. Are our interests being served? There is no evidence. The determining factor that changed my thinking was the way in which the US Administration responded to the terms of the Iraq Study Group. That is why my conclusions are that it is no longer in the United Kingdom’s national interest to maintain a military presence in Iraq. The divergence between our strategy and the US strategy, and between our interests and the US interests, supports that view. The deepening sectarian conflict and the antipathy of the Iraqi people all lead me to the conclusion that is time to plan a controlled exit.

I am listening with respect and admiration to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I am genuinely bewildered by his call to bring our troops back in October. What would he do if we knew that they would be needed to back up Iraqi forces for a specific event in November?

I would have more sympathy for that question if we were not already causing our troops in Afghanistan to prepare and be responsible for specific events for which they do not have the resources, either in men or equipment.

No, as I shall deal with the question in due course and in my own time. The right hon. Lady should contain herself.

Of course, any such exit would have to be carried out in ways that minimise the risks to our troops and other coalition forces, and we must continue to fulfil our obligations to the UN to assist reconstruction and promote regional engagement.

In a moment. We must also look at the issues to do with Syria and Iran. The risk attached to Iranian military nuclear capability is the potential for proliferation, and the fact that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey might feel determined to respond. We do not know to how many countries the Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan sold the nuclear secrets. Concentrating on Iran is so important because we do not know the effect that its acquisition of military nuclear technology might have.

It is important to remember that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s party did rather badly in the recent local elections. There are signs from inside Iran that there is great anxiety about the isolation imposed on that country by its president’s over-robust policy. There is therefore an opening, and that is why the former Foreign Secretary, now the Leader of the House, deserves great credit for the efforts that he made with his French and German counterparts.

Syria, of course, is a different country, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said. It poses different problems, but they will never be resolved until we find a way to deal with the Golan Heights. The return of the Golan Heights may not be as significant strategically as it was once, but it is of enormous political significance and it is right at the heart of any negotiation. For President Assad, getting the Golan Heights back is an overwhelming burden, because his father was the Minister of Defence who lost them.

When James Baker said that it is not appeasement to talk to one’s enemies, he was uttering a well known truth that has been established for hundreds of years in foreign affairs. That is why the failure of the US—or, perhaps more correctly, the White House—to accept that part of the ISG report is so fundamentally flawed.

I promised to give way to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is making a strong pitch for his case. However, I cannot understand how he can call for British troops to be withdrawn according to a timetable that is significantly tighter than the one recommended in the ISG report. I put it to him that his position has a whiff of political opportunism about it. It is designed to appeal to a domestic political audience, and does not have the best interests of the Iraqi people and British troops at heart.

I shall not respond to that charge. I shall leave others to form a judgment about my attitudes and approach to foreign affairs over the nearly 20 years that I have been in this House of Commons.

No, as I wish to make some progress.

At the heart of the middle east question lies the issue of Israel and the Palestinians, and at the heart of that is the fact that, on both sides of the aisle in the US Congress, there is almost uncritical support for Israel. Unless and until it is understood that the legitimate rights of the people of Israel to live in peace within secure and recognised borders will never be satisfied until there is a settlement with the Palestinians, that problem will never be resolved. It will continue to be a sore that will inevitably affect every other opportunity for stability in the middle east.

I give way to the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy).

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. His response to the two earlier interventions surprised and disappointed me, because he completely failed to answer what is a serious and proper question. Notwithstanding his long service in the House, is he seriously saying that he would proceed with the withdrawal of British troops from the south of Iraq even if there were clear indications that that would have a serious and negative impact on security in the region? If so, that is incredible.

If that is the right hon. Lady’s approach—[Interruption.] Let us examine the basis of her question. It is based on an assumption that our commitment is unlimited, and that we must stay in Iraq as long as there is any threat of disturbance or instability. That is simply not feasible or sustainable, either in terms of resources or of the lives that we put at risk when we send people to the region.

I accept that there will be risks involved in what I propose, but are they any greater than the risks faced at present by those whom we have sent there?

In a moment. Is the stability of Iraq to be guaranteed? Should we say that we will remain there for an unlimited time? President Bush does not say that. He says that there is no unlimited commitment

That is why I say that, to concentrate people’s minds and ensure that we meet our domestic responsibilities and especially our responsibilities to our armed forces, it is perfectly legitimate to establish a framework for withdrawal.

I give way to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith).

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He has not quite answered the question that was put to him, so perhaps he can find a better way to respond. Does he realise that a policy that puts in place an absolute timetable for withdrawal, regardless of the circumstances, could be viewed as a policy of cut and run? If, as Prime Minister, he were to vary that timetable and stay on for a couple of extra months, would he not be sending a huge signal to the terrorists and insurgents that a British Government could be pushed around and made to change their mind by the exertion of force? Is he not advocating an incredibly dangerous policy and gambling with the lives of British troops?

How can a country be accused of “cut and run” when it has spent the best part of four years endeavouring to bring about the solution that the right hon. Gentleman favours? How could anyone suggest that we have done anything other than fulfil our moral obligation to the people of Iraq?

I give way to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. It is generally acknowledged that his predecessor was very much against going to war in Iraq, but he himself gave rather mixed messages to the House in the autumn of 2002 when he said:

“It may well be true that, legally, no new resolution is required for the use of force to implement resolution 687.”—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 43.]

Does he regret that that may have given the Prime Minister succour to pursue the war in Iraq?

If I may say so, the Prime Minister was not looking to me for support for his policies. However, I shall tell the hon. Gentleman about that occasion, as I do not think that he was in the House then. The House was specially recalled during the summer recess, and all hon. Members were given a document that morning. It was a dossier that gave the impression, among other things, that nuclear weapons in the possession of Saddam Hussein could be launched within 45 minutes. If I am guilty of anything it was of accepting that document because it issued from the Prime Minister’s office. As we learned subsequently from various inquiries, the provenance of that document can hardly be regarded as impeccable. If the hon. Gentleman reads the whole of my speech, he will see that I pointed out that international law is not based on UN resolutions alone and that one also has to take account of customary international law. Customary international law provides clearly that armed force is not legitimate unless it is used as a last resort, when all other diplomatic and political considerations have been exhausted. Among other reasons that is why, when Dr. Blix and Dr. al-Baradei were still engaged in their investigations and were saying that they were receiving sufficient co-operation to justify continuing, the decision to take military action against Iraq was fundamentally illegal.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman on that point, and I agree with 99 per cent. of what he has said in his speech so far, but has not he put himself in unnecessary difficulty by putting a precise date—October 2007—on withdrawal? None the less, I prefer that approach to that of the Government, which is to set out a hopeful timetable, all based on the achievement of a level of stability and agreement with the Iraqi Government, which I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman is unlikely to be achieved, certainly not in the course of the coming calendar year. Would not it be preferable to insist, which is a strong position, that the earliest possible withdrawal of British troops, consistent with their safety and with the minimising of risk and further disruption, should now be an objective of British policy? To put a date on it dramatises it—

I was trying to point out to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and to the House as a whole that long interventions in a crowded debate are not helpful.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said, he and I often find ourselves in 99 per cent. agreement.

In due course, there will have to be a time line. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s proposition were accepted, and his statement of how we should proceed were to be implemented, there will come a time when we shall have to say when we are leaving. We cannot take 7,500 men and women and their equipment out of a country overnight. It is not possible to cut and run in the sense of leaving overnight; according to some advice I have been given, it will take six or even eight weeks. We cannot possibly imagine that the terrorists would be unaware of the fact that we were about to go. My argument is that unless we introduce a degree of precision and of compulsion, the Government will continue with the very policy that the right hon. and learned Gentleman finds so objectionable.

Sir Menzies Campbell: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman for old times’ sake, but this must be the last intervention.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman were simply urging the Government to withdraw “in the near future”, or something like that, he would probably have much sympathy on both sides of the House, but what would he do if the chiefs of staff said that a specific date was impossible?

Let me make it clear. I believe that the debate—not just our debate today, but the debate in the country—has to be brought to a head, and that the Government’s policy is unsustainable. That is why it is necessary to set what I have described as a framework for withdrawal. I shall tell the House what it is.

The fourth anniversary of the end of the combat phase is 1 May. We should begin the process of reduction on that date, using the period between now and then to make the necessary arrangements—I cannot imagine that the Ministry of Defence does not already have skeletal arrangements—and conduct the necessary negotiations with the Iraqi Government, our allies in the coalition and other allies in the region. We are told that by the spring three of the four provinces in which the UK has interest and influence will have been handed over, leaving Basra. The handover of that city could take place between May and July. The Tornado GR4 aircraft operating from Qatar should be withdrawn during that period. After all, they are not confined to acting on behalf of British forces but act on behalf of the coalition in general—

Nothing. The point is that the aircraft are part of the overall air effort and if we are withdrawing on the ground it is legitimate to withdraw from the air as well. We should hand over the supply route to Kuwait between August and September. Final withdrawal could be completed in October.

No, I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.

No one can accuse the United Kingdom of cutting and running after four years in which we have tried, to the best of our ability, to fulfil the objectives of the United Nations resolution. For four years, we have endured the stresses and strains of occupation, which are more directly borne by our armed forces than anyone else, but which—if truth be told—have had an effect on domestic political considerations, too. It is no longer reasonable or legitimate to ask our armed forces to bear that burden, which is why I believe that the process of withdrawal should begin on 1 May and end in October. In truth, it is time to go.

Sometimes debates on foreign affairs get involved in so much detail that we lose sight of the fact that the paramount object of British foreign policy should be the safety and security of Britain and British people, whether they are at home or abroad. Against that criterion, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been a failure. As a result of the invasion and occupation, Britain is less safe and British people are less secure.

All that was predictable when the Prime Minister, egged on by the Tories—they were not dragged along behind—recklessly tied Britain to the coat tails of the Americans. Indeed, it was not just predictable, it was actually predicted by those of us who were against the war. Almost four years ago, on 26 February, we questioned the haste of letting loose “Shock and Awe” on Iraq. We pointed out that Iraq was not a source of terrorism and urged that more time be given to the UN weapons inspectors, although it turned out that they had an impossible task, because there were no weapons for them to find. However, we were ignored when we gave those warnings.

In the same debate, we warned of the problems of ruling Iraq after the invasion. Who would rule and how would they manage to rule that state? We warned that neighbouring Governments and peoples would get involved in Iraq’s internal affairs and, even more importantly for the people of the UK, we warned that military action against Iraq would be a principal recruiting sergeant for terrorism and that al-Qaeda would be delighted if we invaded because more people would be provoked into supporting terrorism. Our Government ignored those warnings.

Ours were not the only warnings to be ignored. We now know that the British intelligence service had told the Government that, until that time, Iraq had not been a source of international terrorism, but that an invasion of Iraq would turn the country into such a source and that it would become a cause exploited by terrorists elsewhere. Somehow that warning did not creep into any of the dossiers that were published.

Where are we now? Murderous chaos prevails over large parts of Iraq. Senior British military commanders believe that our presence is, if anything, making matters worse. I cannot believe that anyone in the House could possibly expect anything other than protracted chaos, misery, death and injury for the people of Iraq whenever the occupation forces withdraw. There will be no fairy tale ending to the occupation, whether this year, next year or in five years’ time. That being the case, my sad conclusion is that the sooner we withdraw, the better.

What we should be doing now is concentrating on the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, in trying to make sure that Syria and Iran co-operate and do not massively get involved in the internal affairs of Iraq. Ending this reckless folly will be a humiliation for the British and American Governments, but I do not believe that we should sacrifice any more lives of the gallant British and American and other forces on the altar of vanity of the Bush family.

After all this time and trouble, we might have hoped that our Government would have at least learned some lessons from the Iraq debacle, but what happened in Lebanon shows that no lessons have been learned at all. In line with their destruction of much of Palestine, the Israelis invaded, bombed and shelled Lebanon, probably—we do not know, but probably—urged on by the United States. Although virtually the whole of the rest of the world called for a ceasefire, our Government continued to peddle the American line that a long-term lasting settlement was what was needed. They treated anyone’s calls for an immediate ceasefire as some naivety to be rejected by the sophisticates who dominate British and American foreign policy.

So what happened? The Israelis wrought widespread destruction and were then forced to withdraw. The democratically elected Government of Lebanon looked enfeebled and incapable of defending their people or their territory, while Hezbollah was made to look like heroes in the eyes of many in Lebanon and many more outside that benighted country. As we speak, Lebanon has been destabilised and is in danger of descending yet again into murderous communal strife. That is another disaster for US-UK foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the situation in Palestine has got worse. Decent Muslims and many others are absolutely disgusted by the failure of the United States to use its power and influence over the Israelis. According to an Israeli human rights group—I pay tribute to the fact that it is an Israeli human rights group and that Israel is a place where human rights groups exist—in 2006, Israeli forces killed 660 Palestinians, including 141 children. Palestinians killed 17 Israeli civilians and six Israeli soldiers. Like everyone else in the House, I deplore all those deaths, but I share the view of many in the middle east and further afield that if those figures were the other way round, the United States would not tolerate it for a minute. The Americans would step in and stop it.

I also believe that the concentration on Iraq has distracted attention and resources from Afghanistan, so that a situation which might have been a lot better now had we put resources into Afghanistan, is worse than it would otherwise have been. I believe that problems arising from the invasion of Iraq have also damaged our ability—and that of all sorts of allies—to bring influence to bear on Iran, because some people feel that it is just the Americans having yet another go at someone in the middle east. All that is part of the problems that spring from our foolish, stupid invasion of Iraq.

The present situation in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine is simply dreadful for the local populations, but its portrayal—

No, I shall not.

Its portrayal across the world has let loose a tide of enmity against Britain and British people, which could well endanger us and our children and grandchildren for at least a generation.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who is no longer in his place, that we are at a most vital point in the history of the middle east. We need to take stock; we need to start again; we need to break ourselves away from the thrall of believing that everything that Washington does is right. Above all, if we cannot get an ethical element into our foreign policy—as recommended by my late good friend, Robin Cook—we can at least go back to the proper position that the first interests of Britain’s foreign policy are the safety and security of this country and its people, and not cosying up to anybody else for whatever reason.

I start by expressing my warmest regards and thanks to British troops now operating in many spheres—particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. My thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones in pursuit of Government policy. I believe that it was right to go into Iraq at the time, but regardless of our views in this House, we owe a debt of gratitude to the British troops.

Speaking as someone who supported the enterprise in Iraq, I say to the Government that it is a mistake that the Prime Minister is not on the Treasury Bench for this debate. This is such a serious debate that it should really be led by the Prime Minister, who could have laid out his personal view as well as that of the Government on how the situation should have been engineered. It is a matter of regret that he has chosen to be absent from this important debate.

I support the view that there should be an inquiry at some point—sooner rather than later, I hope—into the reasons for going to war and the conduct of it. We have nothing to fear from such an inquiry. Democracy in this country to carry the British people along with these decisions requires at some point a check on those reasons, so that people are able to see clearly and independently what those reasons were. I make it clear, in case anyone wanted to intervene on me, that I back the whole idea of an inquiry.

This is my first opportunity for some time to speak on this subject, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I backed the original invasion and that I do not resile from that position. I think that it was right for a number of reasons. It was right because, although we were never absolutely certain whether Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction—the Government made a strong case that it was—we knew all along that Saddam Hussein had made it absolutely clear that if sanctions were lifted he would always pursue those programmes with vigour. He gave way to nobody on that.

More importantly, the UK had a particular—almost moral—responsibility for dealing with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It was to some degree unfinished business for us. I believed all along that we should have dealt with Saddam Hussein in the original Iraq Gulf war. We should not have finished on the borders. The world would have been a safer and a better place if we had not.

I also felt very strongly that it was quite desperate at the end of that war for us and the Americans to encourage the southern Iraqis—particularly the Shi’ites, the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds—to rise up and depose Saddam Hussein. When they rose up, we did two terrible things to them. First, we gave them next to no support whatever, except for the occasional speech or a few words of congratulation. More particularly, we signed an agreement with Saddam Hussein that allowed him to use his helicopters to transport his troops down to southern Iraq. The massacre of the southern Iraqis was, I think, a moment of shame for this country and a moment of shame for the Americans as well.

When people say to me, “But, you can’t go all over the world dealing with problems in that way. You can’t just get rid of people because they are wrong and bad men”, I agree with them, but I think that there was a difference with Iraq. We had a responsibility for the condition of Iraq and we had a responsibility to the Iraqi people to resolve the matter as soon as possible. The whole idea that somehow we could have just carried on after 12 years of sanctions was also total nonsense. A UN report at the time made it absolutely clear that between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi children were dying every month—I emphasise, every month—as a direct consequence of the sanctions regime that we had imposed.

What was worse was that members of the UN colluded in a process to debauch Iraqis over food and medical aid. In other words, they gave Saddam Hussein and his cohorts an opportunity to trade illicitly by using the oil-for-food programme, which was also meant to produce medical aid, in order to put that money into the republican guard and other supporters. We watched while that happened, and we watched while France, Russia, China and many other countries deliberately flouted the sanctions regime and delivered to Saddam Hussein and into Baghdad goods and services, but Basra and the rest of the Shi’ite majority received nothing.

Those who were in power in those countries have a serious point to consider: on the one hand, they were against the Iraq war, but on the other, they were happy to deal with Saddam Hussein and to provide him with what he needed. So there were many issues that we had to settle at the time, but some people have the idea—it is not reality—that there was a golden time in Iraq before the war when people did not die and that, somehow, they die in droves today.

The situation is desperate today—I would not pretend otherwise—but it was desperate before we went into Iraq. The difference is that now there is hope—hope that, through the process of a democratic Government, for all their faults, we can deliver to the Iraqi people eventually and in due course some form of stability that allows them to live with some form of justice and peace.

Of course my right hon. Friend is right to say that there is a general recognition that we cannot intervene everywhere. However, given the adoption by the United Nations of the responsibility to protect, does he agree that the international community must decide whether that responsibility is to be a serious attempt to avert genocide or simply a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing?

My hon. Friend and I agree on the fact that, since the ending of the cold war, there has been time for a rethink of our responsibilities to others who may not directly impact on our daily lives. If we ask people in this country whether they care and want to intervene in such areas, their answer will be absolutely no for the most part, because they do not see what it has to do with them. However, we have a responsibility to try to stabilise areas—I am thinking of many countries—so the idea that there is an absolute, sole and singular British interest that involves only the direct effect on British citizens is wholly incorrect and very damaging to our long-term interests.

My right hon. Friend has always been consistent in his approach, but does it not reflect very badly on the House and is it not a matter of great regret that the difference between the case for war in the United States and this country has been so stark? In the United States, the case was taken through both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was a coherent and principled case, based on the concept of regime change. In this country, under this Prime Minister, what we saw was a flawed prospectus, obfuscation and a case built on weapons of mass destruction that never existed. Is that not a stain on the reputation of the House?

Yes, there were differences, and I guess that any inquiry later on will deal with them. Some of those differences relate to the governing party’s need to get its own people through the Lobby and the narrowing of the argument. We have discussed that. If I have one regret, it is that we did not press harder and harder for a much wider stretching of the terms of that debate. However, there were specific and direct concerns about weapons of mass destruction—I do not resile from that—and it was right for us to ensure that they were debated.

I wish to tell the House in the second phase of my speech that the issue is not that there was a lack of plans for what would happen in Iraq after the invasion. In fact, there was a surfeit of plans. That was the problem. In America—this is where I condemn what went on—there was an almost childish argument between the State Department and the Pentagon about what they should do afterwards. The Pentagon had made up its mind that Chalabi would go into power and that, very quickly, it would draw down troops and get out of there, leaving the Iraqis with their police and armed forces in place to get on and sort it out. The State Department was for nation building, and it pushed that case very strongly.

The truth is that the planning should have been finished and finalised before we went anywhere near there. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and I came back from Kuwait, it was clear to us then that there was still a real lack of planning here and in the United States and a sense that the United States would come up with something almost at the last moment. The real nightmare occurred seven or eight months after the invasion, because into that vacuum—we know that power abhors a vacuum—came the insurgents and terrorist organisations that were allowed to galvanise and organise others in Iraq. I wish that that had not been the case, but we are where we are now.

I have to tell the Liberal Democrats and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that we are all for troop withdrawal. There is no wonderful idea that only the Liberal Democrats are for troop withdrawal. We are all for troop withdrawal—the only question is when and how. [Interruption.] They laugh, because they do almost anything: they see a wagon rolling and they will jump on it. [Interruption.] I wish that they would shut up for a second and listen.

The Liberal Democrats have come up with the arbitrary date of October solely because they sense and smell that the Government are heading towards a general withdrawal of troops in that time and they want to be first to give some idea that they have put a date on it. One can almost read the circulars going out on to the doorsteps saying, “Liberals call for October withdrawal—Government did what they called for.” It is so shallow as almost to be unworthy of any debate or discussion.

No, I will not give way.

We want our troops out, but we want them out when Iraq is secure and stable, as far as we can deliver it. Those who want to cut and run, saying, “Devil take them; we don’t give a damn about them”, are the real problem.

The hon. Gentleman can sit down; he will get his own chance in due course.

I was a little depressed by the failure of the Iraq Study Group to tackle some of the issues. I recognise that we have to grab on to something, but I am not sure whether there is that much to grab on to. The group seems to have gone in almost every direction at the same time. We want to stabilise Iraq—I agree with it on that—but I put it to right hon. and hon. Members that, if they wish to withdraw troops and to stabilise Iraq, first it requires a military presence. Right now, there is massive violence on the streets.

I support President Bush’s desire to put in more troops. Yet I differ with him—this is where I line up with Senator McCain—in that I think that he should have done so earlier, and he should have put in many more troops. I am not sure whether 20,000 troops will be enough. We should be talking about nearer to 50,000 troops if we even want to begin to stabilise Baghdad. That is a real policy: an idea to try to stabilise while giving the Iraqis—[Interruption.] Again, I hear a lot of chuntering from the Liberal Democrats. I must tell them that, whether or not they like it, what the Iraqi Government have asked us is, “Please give us time.” If we cut and run before they have time to build up their forces, it is shame on us.

I do not think that a British Government worthy of the name should possibly be allowed to cut and run. I ask the Government, when they think this through, to remember some of the words that were said to me when I was in Iraq by many of those who are now in government. They said, “Despite the odds, we think it was right for you to help us, to free us and to give us a chance. Please don’t leave us alone.”

After 23 years as a Member, I never thought that I would stand here and say that I agreed with almost every word spoken by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). It was a very thoughtful speech, and I agree with the main points that he made.

As chair of the Campaign Against Repression of Democratic Rights in Iraq and chair of Indict, I have, of course, received thousands of letters about Iraq over the years. Recently, a number of Iraqi medical doctors wrote to me. One suggested that I should resign as the special envoy on human rights. Several letters from other doctors followed. I want to read just one of them because it sums up for me what the war was all about. It is from Dr. Leonard Jacob. He wrote:

“Dear Dr. X,

I had the misfortune of reading the terrible letter that you sent to Ann Clwyd. Let me begin by saying that whilst I do not by any means condone the terrible present situation in Iraq, and whilst I criticise the governments of the USA and the UK for allowing the situation to get out of hand, and for not having an exit strategy, I still believe that it is possible to bring this chaotic situation under control after crushing the remnants of the defeated Saddam’s party and his henchmen, albeit at a greater cost to all parties concerned.

Like you, I am also a Christian doctor from Iraq who has been working in this country for the last 26 years.

Unlike you, however, I and my family, have not only watched but also sensed and experienced bitterly and in person, the physical and the psychological torture and the terror that we were subjected to, at the hands of Saddam’s thugs and secret service criminals.

I am not here trying to compare your family’s situation with mine, but if your family was perhaps fortunate enough for 35 years, to enjoy the privileges of Saddam’s tyrannical and brutal reign, my family and relatives, had to escape the intimidation and the imminent danger to their lives…They fled the country in 1991 leaving behind very good jobs and homes and their livelihoods.

In doing that, we lost a member of the family. We were the lucky ones; many lost more than one member and some could not make it at all and were killed under torture or disappeared completely.

You say that all this time, you have been active in human rights…But I and many other political prisoners and detainees…have not even heard of you…Other human rights personnel, in this country and abroad, were very active in condemning the brutality of the criminal Saddam and his regime, in various publications and in mass gatherings and meetings, but we never saw you in any of those meetings nor did we hear any condemnation like that from you. So where were you all that time?

Where were you…when Saddam and his regime were arresting, torturing and killing thousands of Communists and Shia in the late 70s, 80s and 90s? Or did not that matter to you?

Where were you when he, his sons and his thugs were inventing new methods of torture, like dangling the bodies of their victims in acid baths, starting from the perineum, and pulling them in and out, so that they would die a slow and painful death; or pumping the rectum with petrol and then shooting them, so that they would burst into a ball of fire?

As a doctor, working in a human rights organisation and claiming to be one of the founders of the medical group”

within that organisation

“wasn't that something that stirred at least some repulsion in you to prompt you to campaign for the human rights of those people?

And what about some of Uday’s crimes? Have you written or spoken about them? Have you ever denounced him publicly, when he and his thugs, used to behead young decent women from respectable families, who would refuse to surrender to his lust, after raping them, and then throw their severed heads in front of the doors of their parents’ homes, with a message ‘whore’ displayed on their heads?

Where were you, when Saddam first used chemical weapons in 1983, during the war with Iran, and then again in 1987 and in 1988, in Halabja, or haven’t you heard of it? And where was your human rights campaign when Ali Kimyawi supervised the throwing of whole families from helicopters in Kurdistan and the throwing of shackled Shia victims, from the roofs of tall buildings in the south of the country? Wasn’t the condemning of that savagery an essential part of your human rights job?

I have not heard, or seen you, condemning Saddam’s regime, when his torturers...rape the wives, mothers and sisters, of the detained members of the Communist party, the Shia political parties and Shia religious leaders, in front of their eyes, in order to obtain forced and false confessions from them!

Didn't that incite some anger in you similar to the one that you expressed in your letter to Ann Clwyd?!

The mass graves are yet another example of the recent additions to that reign of terror. Did you do, or write, anything about that?

You say that you are a Christian doctor, where were you when Dr Habib Almalih, a Christian doctor from Ainkawa and many others were virtually cut into pieces and put in black sacks and thrown at the doorstep of their parents’ houses, forbidding them even to hold any funeral service for them?

And again, being a Christian doctor, where were you, when Saddam gave the order to wipe out and flatten to the ground, 65 Christian villages of the Assyrian community in Kurdistan and hanged four young leaders of the Assyrian democratic movement and left them, hung and strapped on the electricity poles for days, for everybody to see?

It will take several books, to write about the crimes against humanity, the vicious torture and violations of human rights, the mass murders and extra-judicial killing and the genocide that have been committed by that fascist and repressive regime, which I haven’t seen you denouncing!

Finally, in stark contrast to your shameful silence in condemning these atrocities of the criminal Saddam and his regime, in the UK and internationally, Ann Clwyd, and for the last two decades, has been one of the torch-bearers”—

I include in that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)—

“in the fight against the violations of human rights by that repressive regime.

I have therefore inevitably arrived at a conclusion that it should be you that must reconsider your position in the human rights organisation and not Ann Clwyd.”

The letter is signed Leonard H. Jacob, physician from Sheffield.

By absenting himself from this debate, the Prime Minister, one of the architects of the Iraq catastrophe, has indicated yet again his lack of respect for the House of Commons and his own Back Benchers. The consequences of the invasion of Iraq were predictable and predicted, but I am not one of those people who believe that, having got into this appalling situation, we can just cut and run, as the phrase goes. Indeed, one of the reasons why I warned against the invasion before 18 March 2003, why I voted against the war, and why I have frequently intervened to criticise the conduct of the war, is that I have always recognised that it is much easier to invade a country than to get out of it subsequently. All history indicates that.

My hon. Friend used the phrase “cut and run”, which has been used on a number of occasions. At what stage does he believe that leaving Iraq before stability is created stops being cutting and running? Is he suggesting that if, in five, 10 or 15 years’ time, there is still not stability in Iraq, we will still have to be there because to leave would be cutting and running?

One will just have to make a judgment—[Laughter.] That is what politics is all about. It has been the Government’s appalling judgment that has got us into this position, but now we are in it we have to use our judgment as to when we can get out. It would be unwise, for reasons that have been stated earlier by my colleagues, to give a specific date, because we cannot know how the situation is going to develop in Iraq or in surrounding countries. I have often intervened about Iraq, and I do not want to bore the House by repeating things that I have repeatedly said, so on this occasion I will talk about another country that is closely involved in the so-called war on terror, before we get too deeply enmeshed elsewhere.

It was famously said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Likewise, Afghanistan today is not worth the bones of a single Lincolnshire marine. It is an unwinnable war, fought in an area that is no longer of great strategic or economic importance, as Afghanistan is a backward country that does not pose any military threat to Britain. For at least 3,000 years, Afghanistan was one of the military, religious and commercial crossroads of the world, but that is no longer the case. International trade is no longer conducted by camel caravans and mule trains. The Khyber pass is no longer Russia’s gateway to British India, but a winding, ambush-prone road to Islamic Pakistan which, in the adjoining north-western tribal areas, is inhabited by Pathans, who are virtually indistinguishable from the Afghanis on the other side of an easily-crossed artificial frontier, with whom they share a similar religion, culture, traditions, tribal loyalty, lifestyle, and a dislike of foreigners and the Pashto language.

Russia finally learned its lesson in Afghanistan in the 1980s, retreating after 10 years of incredibly savage warfare that left 30,000 Russians dead. We are apparently intent on re-learning that lesson for a fourth time. My father fought in the third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. He acquired a great respect for the Afghanis’ bravery in battle and had a firm belief that British troops should never again be required to fight there. My own visits to the country have convinced me that he was right.

Four arguments are, or were, advanced to justify this fourth war: that Afghanistan will provide a unique training ground for al-Qaeda’s international terrorists unless the Taliban are crushed; that Afghanistan is the main source of the heroin entering Britain, so its poppy fields must be destroyed; that the Taliban impose an extreme interpretation of the Sharia code of Koranic justice and deny women education, and thus cannot be tolerated by us; and that President Karzai is the democratically elected leader of the Afghan people, so we in the west have a duty to support him. All those four arguments for fighting in Afghanistan are unsustainable.

I supported the original strike against al-Qaeda training areas in the Tora Bora mountains following assurances from Ministers that it was to be a lightning SAS-style intervention of temporary duration, not a prolonged occupation of the whole country. Al-Qaeda no longer needs to train in Afghanistan as it is training, we are warned by our intelligence services, in many parts of the world, including Britain. Indeed, it is reported that British-born and trained terrorists are now being exported to other countries. Iraq is a much better training ground for al-Qaeda than Afghanistan, but before our invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruthlessly kept it out. The Afghanis are not Arabs, and few of them speak Arabic. There has always been tension between the Taliban and the relatively sophisticated Arab leaders of al-Qaeda, most of whom are from Saudi Arabia.

As far as we know, Afghanis were not involved in the planning or execution of the attack on the twin towers in New York, nor did they have any foreknowledge of it. The Taliban—a word with far too precise a meaning in western parlance, as it simply translates from Pashto as “Islamic student”—are not a movement with any known international or extra-territorial ambitions. They are a home-grown, home-supported, Afghan phenomenon, and no other Islamic state has any ambition to emulate their religious and political model. Almost all sensible Muslims elsewhere are embarrassed by their excesses.

The second argument advanced to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was that it would curtail poppy production, but that aim has been explicitly abandoned for the foreseeable future. It should have been obvious from the outset that any attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people was incompatible with any attempt to deprive them of their main and often only livelihood. Moreover, the geography of the area—there are a hundred passes over a frontier spanning a thousand miles in mostly rugged country—makes a physical blockade designed to stop heroin smuggling out of Afghanistan well-nigh impossible. Much of that heroin goes through Iran.

We must try to stop heroin being brought into Britain, but that will not be achieved inside Afghanistan, and it will not be accomplished, either, by an “unfit for purpose” Home Office. Most of the money from heroin does not reach the peasant growers, but goes into the pockets of Afghan warlords and many of President Karzai’s own Ministers. That speaks volumes about the reality of the so-called democracy in Afghanistan. President Karzai is obviously a brave man—he needs to be—but he is widely regarded as a western puppet.

All four of the arguments for the invasion of Afghanistan are misjudged. Even if they were not, there is a practical consideration that makes them otiose—the war cannot be won. Last week, General Richards, who is the retiring NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that it will take one more year to defeat the Taliban if more troops are provided. When I was in Vietnam, I remember General Westmorland, who had 500,000 American troops under his command, saying exactly the same thing to me about the Vietcong. A further “surge” of troops will not bring permanent victory. The Prime Minister and his demoralised Defence Ministers are struggling to field one more battalion of about 600 men. It would be comic if it were not tragic. Every Afghan is a soldier, and we should not send any more of our young men to die fighting them. Before Pakistan is further destabilised, before the containment of Iran is made even more difficult, and before NATO is discredited, we should get our armed forces out of Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has made an interesting contribution about the situation in Afghanistan, and I urge the House to ponder his words. I intend to confine my remarks to Iraq. Like him, I opposed the invasion, and I voted against it.

We cannot address the problems faced by Iraq today by saying that we should not have started as we did. All of us, including those of us who opposed the invasion of Iraq, have a responsibility to address the current situation and consider how best to improve matters. At last there is consensus that the situation in Iraq is horrendous. Throughout last year we were told that the coalition was winning—it was just that we were winning more slowly than expected. Earlier this month, President Bush finally made a public acknowledgement that the situation in Iraq was unacceptable, and that existing policies had failed.

More than 2,600 coalition troops have been killed in hostilities since the end of the war, and 130 British personnel have lost their lives. In addition, many soldiers have been injured, some very seriously. A colossal number of civilians have been killed; there was a discussion of that during the speech by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in the violence that has taken place since the war range from 19,500 to 70,000. The Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) both accept last week’s estimate by the UN that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the past year alone.

Basic utilities in Iraq are still unavailable or unreliable, and prospects for sustained improvement are poor while the security situation remains dire. Fear has led hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, and they have gone to other parts of the country or left it altogether. Aid workers warn of a crisis for refugees who have left Iraq as conditions deteriorate.

Two weeks ago today, having finally acknowledged that current policies are not working, President Bush announced the new Iraq strategy in his address to the nation. Extra US troops are being sent to work with the Iraqi army and police brigades, and are to be deployed in Baghdad. President Bush advised that they were to clear, secure and hold neighbourhoods. Extra troops will be sent to Anbar province, too. In parallel, he announced that the US would hold the Iraqi Government to meeting certain benchmarks on security, sharing oil revenues, reconstruction, constitutional change procedures, provincial elections and the reform of de-Ba’athification laws. That requirement was echoed in even starker terms by Condoleezza Rice. If events do not take a positive course, his words may prove significant in determining the US’s next steps.

The new policy of the US Administration aims to achieve a reduction in violence, and to bring stability and security and an improvement in the Iraqi people’s quality of life. We all support those objectives and would like them to be achieved. The Prime Minister signalled his support for the new US policy, but what happens if the new policy is not a success and the current violence continues? The situation in Iraq deteriorated for three and a half years before there was official recognition that the previous policies were not working. We cannot allow such a drift in policy to happen again. Do the Government have any benchmarks against which to judge the success of the new strategy, and if so, what time scale will be used?

Of course, we cannot isolate ourselves from the effects of US policy. It has been suggested that the new policy will result in a more difficult situation for UK forces in the southern provinces. What is the Government’s assessment of the impact that the new US policy will have on the situation in those provinces? The new policy put forward by President Bush was not the only option available. Members will be aware of the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group; indeed, a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to it. The group called for a change in the primary mission of US forces in Iraq, and for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts, most notably with Iran and Syria.

President Bush flatly rejected the recommendation to engage with Iran and Syria. We have to ask whether that was wise, or whether it would have been beneficial for the leaderships of all countries in the region to work towards common objectives. We must consider, too, whether there could be a role for the UK Government, as we have not placed ourselves in quite as tight a corner as the US Administration have. It is certainly not helpful that some militias in Iraq view themselves as implicitly supported by the Iranian regime. The UK must be prepared to play a distinctive role in resolving the problem, and in preparing for a situation in which there are no US or UK forces in Iraq. The Baker report stated boldly that the US would not be able to achieve its goals in the middle east unless the US dealt directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I turn to the conditions faced by our armed forces personnel serving in Iraq and elsewhere—an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions in the House in recent years. My concerns about the way in which we treat our forces stem from conversations that I have had in the Edinburgh area with serving soldiers and their families. I have on previous occasions raised in the Chamber cases of soldiers having to go to Edinburgh’s shops to get decent footwear to take to Iraq. I am also deeply concerned by the fact that, on occasion, soldiers will return from Iraq only to be sent back within an unacceptably short time. In my view, it is regrettable that a soldier who has served in Iraq should have to go back at all. The lack of time between tours of duty is disturbing. Three years ago, I drew attention to the fact that some members of the Royal Scots Regiment had been away from home for four Christmases in a row. Soldiers require a lengthy period in which to recover, spend time with their families and retrain.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, but is he also aware that some people now being sent to the front line are surprised to find themselves in that role? One of my constituents has a relative who was training to do logistical work for the RAF. They were training to load, and prepare loads for, aircraft, but they now find that they are being trained to take a front-line role, serving in the infantry in Basra. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the overstretch is such that people are being given roles that they did not expect to be given?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. We have to use the word “overstretch”, although the Government have resisted using it. The fact is that there is overstretch, and we are putting demands on our service personnel serving in such places that are not acceptable to people in the wider country.

In his speech on the twelfth of this month, the Prime Minister acknowledged the need for better conditions for our servicemen and women. That is welcome, and should be an urgent priority. In the field we must ensure that our troops have the conditions, equipment and support that they need to minimise losses. At home, we must ensure that the accommodation and services available to personnel are satisfactory. Following the Prime Minister’s statement, I hope that Ministers will furnish the House with further details of the new commitments that the Prime Minister stated would be necessary.

I welcome the fact that this debate was initiated by the Government. As long as our troops are fighting in Iraq, we should have such debates regularly. Whatever view one takes of the series of events that led to the present situation, there can be no disagreement about the scale of the tragedy that engulfs the good people of Iraq. We have a responsibility to do all we can to try to improve the lot of the people of that country.

I begin by declaring an interest in a company that operates in the middle east. On 12 January, the Prime Minister made a powerful speech in Plymouth, in which he tried to defend the Government’s failed policy in both Iraq and the middle east. He chose to make that speech from the deck of HMS Albion, and as he laboured through it, I had an irresistible recollection of the boy who stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled.

The Prime Minister made two claims in that speech. He claimed that the extraordinary and terrible events of 9/11—the attack on New York by al-Qaeda—were the origin of all the problems that we face. He went on to argue that to deal with the problems of terrorism caused by those events, it was necessary to have not only soft power, but hard power. I have no difficulty in agreeing with much of what the Prime Minister said: of course he is correct to say that the events of 9/11 were seminal, and have dominated much of our thinking since then. He is also correct to say that in dealing with terrorism and threats from around the world we need both hard and soft power, but I am sad that it has taken him 10 years as Prime Minister to come to the conclusion that our armed forces are undermanned, and that the Ministry of Defence needs its requirements to be met.

However, the Prime Minister made two basic mistakes. First—and this underlines his whole policy on the middle east—he assigned an unjustified importance in global terms to al-Qaeda as an organisation, and to the events of 9/11. That has meant a dangerous oversimplification of the world in which we live. Secondly, by concentrating on hard power and interpreting the world in that way, he has given the impression that if one accepts that there is a threat from al-Qaeda, and a need for hard power, that by itself justifies the attack on Iraq, and its invasion.

The reality is, and will always be, that one cannot justify a pre-emptive attack on another country merely by reference to some universal principle. That war was a terrible mistake. The Prime Minister should have reflected on Bismarck’s observation that pre-emptive wars are rather like committing suicide because of a fear of death.

The Prime Minister’s mistakes essentially stem from fundamental misunderstandings about the course of recent history. The real seminal date in our recent history is not al-Qaeda’s attack on New York. It is the end of the cold war, which opened up a series of circumstances, of which al-Qaeda is one consequence. When one looks, for example, at the rebirth of xenophobic nationalism as seen in the Balkan wars, Azerbaijan or elsewhere in the Caucasus, that is all a consequence of the collapse of communism and the end of that period in our lives. The emergence of democracy throughout Latin America, the far east and eastern Europe, too, has been a consequence of the end of the cold war. The emergence of China and India as major powers in the world is a result of their adoption of capitalism, which became possible only because of the elimination of communism as an alternative economic theory.

Against that background, al-Qaeda’s threat, important though it is, should be seen as simply one of the consequences of this extraordinary period in human history. That is not only a theoretical point. It is highly relevant in explaining why so much of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy has gone so disastrously wrong. He has been required, as has George W. Bush, to attempt artificial linkages in order to produce some overall theory of the world in which we live. So there was the absurd attempt to imply that Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda that justified the invasion of Iraq—obvious nonsense, which Congress has now ruled definitively against.

A second example was the embarrassment of having to be ambivalent about the Russian oppression in Chechnya. The Russians claimed that they were suppressing not just a nationalist movement but an Islamic terrorist movement, which would justify the support of the United States and the west. There has also been the foolish attempt to say that the way to make progress in Baghdad starts in Jerusalem.

I agree with anyone who argues that progress in Israel and Palestine is crucial to the wider world, but to imply that somehow that is the solution to the problems of the middle east is absurd. The suggestion that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because of Israel and Palestine, or that al-Qaeda, which has hardly a single Palestinian member, is a consequence of the frustration of the Palestinians, are examples of how the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, regularly go wrong in their analysis and bring us to the circumstances that we now face.

An interesting comment was made by Ferdinand Mount in a recent issue of Prospect, when he wrote:

“What changed in 1989”—

the end of the cold war—

“was that the anti-communist rationale melted away and western leaders have since failed to construct an alternative narrative for their actions that would bear the heat of public scrutiny.”

What the Prime Minister and President Bush have been doing is trying to provide some new world paradigm, and all the real facts have to be forced into this artificial construct. That explains the mess that we have today.

Where do we go from here? First, with regard to Israel and Palestine, things are not all bad. Looking not just at the past couple of years but from an historical perspective, we see that there was an enormous breakthrough in Israel’s relationship with Egypt, the withdrawal from Sinai, followed by the peace with Jordan, and followed, even with the Palestinians, by a mutual recognition of a need for a two-state solution, which very few Israelis would have conceded a few years ago, and very few Palestinians would have acknowledged. What produced that breakthrough were statesmen—Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein—people who looked to the future, not backwards.

I believe that there is now an opportunity to make progress, but I must make one fundamental point, to the Israeli Government rather than to anybody else: there cannot be any prospect of long-term peace based on a two-state solution in the middle east unless there is not only a Palestinian state, but a viable Palestinian state. It must have boundaries that enable it to take its place among the world family of nations, and not be a combination of small fragmented entities nominally called a state, but without the realities that are required to produce the substance of statehood. Otherwise, young Palestinians in particular will not be able to begin to think of themselves as ordinary citizens of an ordinary nation, and thereby contribute to growing tranquillity in the region.

Secondly, with regard to Iran, it is one of the great ironies of recent events that the United States and our own Prime Minister have been the single greatest contributors to the emergence of Iran as a hegemonic power in the past few years. Iran traditionally had two opponents in recent times—Saddam Hussein on one side and the Taliban on the other. Thanks to George Bush and our own Prime Minister, both were eliminated without the Iranians having to act in their own interest. But Iran is a serious regional power, and our objection to Iranian policy is not its aspiration to play an important role in the region, to which it is entitled, but its aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons. A response is required by the United States, which has more influence than anyone else, offering not only dialogue with Iran but a serious opportunity of normalising relations—similar to the opportunity that it offered to, and was accepted by, Gaddafi and Libya. If the United States could accept the Libyans after Lockerbie, it should be able to contemplate the prospect of full normalisation of relations with Iran.

My right hon. and learned Friend will acknowledge that Libya renounced all its nuclear ambitions and America responded. Does not he believe that that should happen with Iran?

I accept my right hon. Friend’s comment. The quid pro quo has to be two things from Iran: an effective and verifiable renunciation of its nuclear aspirations, and renunciation of support for terrorism. In exchange for that, it should be offered not only dialogue but a full normalisation of relations—far more than the Americans are currently offering. The advantage is that either the Iranians would accept the offer—we must remember that many in Iran, unlike those in North Korea, do not want isolation but wish their country to be a normal respected member of the international community, so there is a serious prospect of such an offer being perceived as attractive—or they could reject it. If that happened, the United States would be in an infinitely stronger position to say to Russia and China, “We need effective sanctions and pressure on Iran to make it reconsider the position.” That is the best way forward.

Like all hon. Members, if I wanted to go to Baghdad I would not start from here. Although the situation shows odd glimmers of encouragement, it is more desperate than any of us could have anticipated. One important fact, which is not good and has not been mentioned so far, is that no fewer than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country since its invasion. They did not flee in disapproval of the invasion or because they disliked western policy, but because they were in danger of losing their lives. The 2 million are those who could afford to go—they are overwhelmingly the middle classes of Iraq, potentially the people who could build the new country. They cannot now do that.

The withdrawal of troops is an issue not of principle—the Iraqi Government want troops to be withdrawn—but of timing and extent. We do not require a fixed date but a gradual withdrawal, in co-operation and dialogue with the Iraqi Government.

In the speech that I mentioned a few moments ago, the Prime Minister concluded:

“The post cold war threat is now clear. The world has changed…I have set out the choice I believe we should make. I look forward to the debate.”

It is rather sad and pathetic that we are holding the debate this afternoon and the Prime Minister is not taking part in it.

In the shifting sands of change in the middle east, there is one established certainty. We know—the House has been privileged to hear it first—that, without peradventure, irrespective of circumstances, the Liberal Democrats, were they in government, would commence the withdrawal of troops from the middle east three days before the local elections in this country and complete withdrawal by October. That is one of the most appalling examples of opportunism by the Liberal Democrats—and I have witnessed many. I deeply regret that an otherwise serious and sober debate has included such flippancy about dealing with a serious problem.

Many—if not a large majority—of my constituents were dismayed and upset by the decision to go to war. I have the most profound affection for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the deepest respect for many hon. Members who opposed the commencement of the war and others who changed their position to criticise our engagement in the conflict. However, I have yet to meet an Iraqi in my surgery or my constituency who believes that the UK Government should withdraw their troops from Iraq. I have quite a case load of refugees or asylum seekers who look for refuge in the UK and with whom I have discussed what is happening in their country and how we should respond as a democracy.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it is important to emphasise that there is a democratically elected Government in Iraq and that there must be consultation and partnership with them in determining the best time for the people of Iraq for British troops to withdraw?

My hon. Friend is right. It is too easy to dismiss the election of that Government and to describe them as either a puppet regime or a regime that is there only with the support of the United States. It is there with the overwhelming support of the Iraqi people who participated in the election, and, indeed, of the leaders of Iraq, who have been brought to this House—and to whom we have been afforded the opportunity to listen—by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who earlier so movingly read a letter that she had received from an Iraqi. We have had the opportunity in the past two or three months to listen to at least three elected representatives of the Iraqi people, and they have asked us—almost pleaded with us—not to be precipitate in taking any decisions about our troops’ involvement in Iraq. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary confirmed, eight Arab countries have indicated their support for the new initiative that has been outlined by President Bush and that has been discussed at length here in the House.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made a typically challenging and thoughtful speech today. To a degree, however, he used the wisdom of hindsight—if he will allow me—to describe the way in which the United States’ policy mistakes had impacted on the ability of the United Kingdom’s troops to carry out their objectives. I have some sympathy for what he was saying, but I wonder what the House will make of what the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said when she gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 11 January:

“This is a different Middle East. This Middle East is a Middle East in which there really is a new alignment of forces. On one side are reformers and responsible leaders, who seek to advance their interests peacefully, politically and diplomatically. On the other side are extremists of every sect and ethnicity who use violence to spread chaos, undermine democratic governance, and to impose an agenda of hatred and intolerance.”

I do not seek to categorise that as a clash of cultures. I invite the House, however, to acknowledge that we are facing a serious challenge to western democracies and to consider the way in which we respond to those who seek to perpetuate violence and intolerance.

The Foreign Secretary covered the wide remit of the debate in her speech. I want to return to the question of Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. I declare an interest, as chair of Labour Friends of Israel, although I derive no pecuniary interest from the position. I have long watched the events in Israel with great interest. There was almost complete unanimity in the world community following the election of Hamas last January, and funding from many sources in the international community was frozen as the world struggled to grapple with a democratically elected Palestinian Authority who could not produce a Government whom the world could recognise as legitimate.

A consequence has been that the taxes that Israel was collecting on behalf of the Palestinian Authority were frozen. It is therefore to be welcomed that, as a result of the meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas in the Palestinian Authority area, an agreement was reached that $100 million worth of those tax revenues would be released by Israel directly to the office of President Abbas, to afford some relief from the widely recognised distress that is now apparent in the Palestinian Authority area, and about which a high degree of concern has, quite properly, been expressed.

Of course that is a welcome step, but does not the right hon. Lady acknowledge that, in terms of the revenues that Israel has withheld and the budget support that the international community was giving, the Palestinian Authority has lost $90 million a month? So $100 million after 10 months does not go anywhere near to covering the deficit.

I was about to acknowledge that the $100 million represents one sixth of what the Israelis have collected and are holding for the Palestinian Authority. To bring about the full release not only of those resources but of the resources from the international community, which stands ready to assist, it is essential that progress be made towards a political settlement that will enable there to be a Government in the Palestinian Authority who can be recognised internationally. Every effort of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to assist in bringing that about is greatly to be welcomed. Nor should we forget that the two leaders also discussed the lifting of travel restrictions in the west bank and a prisoner exchange. Slow, incremental progress is being made.

On security, it should be recorded that the Israelis deserve credit for resisting what might otherwise have been a violent response to the 100 rockets that have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the ceasefire was agreed in November, not even three months ago. As late as Monday this week, three Qassam rockets landed near Ashkelon in the south of Israel. In 2006, 1,200 Qassam rockets were fired into Israel. As with many issues across the middle east, the Governments of the countries concerned are trying to ensure the security of their peoples.

We are discussing war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee described, the prospect of three civil wars across the region if we cannot find a way of avoiding them. No side in this debate has a monopoly on revulsion at violence or distress and sorrow at loss of life. During my three years as security Minister in Northern Ireland, I learned that every single death is a matter for deep regret. There were two deaths in particular in Northern Ireland that I will never forget. I know how my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench feel every death. When they come to the House to record that another soldier has lost his or her life in the middle east, it is a matter of regret for all of us, not just those who were against the war in the first place. None of us supported a war or otherwise with anything other than a heavy heart.

Israel has built a fence to secure its borders and to keep its people safe. If I may, I shall relate one last anecdote from Northern Ireland—those hon. Members who know me are aware that I have many, most of which are amusing; the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) is smiling. The fences and barriers that we have built in Northern Ireland do bring security to the communities living on either side. It is a fact that the fence or barrier—or whatever it is called—in Israel has brought about a reduction in the number of attacks on the people of Israel.

If the purpose of the construction of the fence were merely to establish and preserve Israeli security, and if that construction were on Israeli land, it would be defensible. However, it is because it is intended to construct facts on the ground, and will have the effect of doing so, that it incurs such widespread criticism, even from historic supporters of Israel, among whom I number myself.

I understand that criticism. The primary objective of Israel, however, is the defence of its people, and that barrier is bringing about a more secure environment for Israelis within Israel, even though there are now more rocket attacks over the fence. In the long term, the best solution for Israel, the Palestinians, those in Lebanon and the whole region is one that will stand the test of time.

I have only 20 seconds left, and I do not have time to do justice to Professor Susser of the Moshe Dyan centre at Tel Aviv university, but he argues that Turkey could also be invited to play a greater role in the middle east. It has done so historically, and there is a strong case, which I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider, for inviting it to do so again.

While it was perfectly fair for the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) to make a speech expressing her own point of view, I think it was somewhat demeaning of her to suggest that the speech from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about what we should do now in Iraq was anything other than an honest statement of a policy assessment by a party which, incidentally, when it opposed the war unanimously, did so against a background of popular opinion in favour of the invasion. It does not have a record of simply taking the popular line. It takes the principled line, and my right hon. and learned Friend has a long track record of integrity on issues of foreign affairs which I think that the right hon. Lady will recognise and her constituents will respect.

I want to discuss the situation in Israel and Palestine, and my belief that the engagement in Iraq has taken attention away from the need to solve a problem that has become seriously worse, but has not received the international attention that it deserves if there is to be progress towards peace. Following the events of last summer, a weakened Israel has contributed to a sharp deterioration in the opportunity and climate for peace. Within the state of Israel, public opinion polls show a strong desire for a peace settlement among the population—it almost seems that they would do anything to secure such a settlement—along with a very low expectation that any such settlement can be secured in the present climate. That is cause for concern.

Next Wednesday the International Development Committee, which I chair, will publish a report. I will not pre-empt it now, but I hope that the House will pay attention to it, because I do not think we should regard the plight of the Palestinian people and their increasing dependence on aid with any degree of equanimity. Many of the measures that we are taking in response to the situation may even be making the achievement of a long-term solution harder rather than easier.

As was mentioned by the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and one or two others, the increasing volume of international aid, and the welcome release by the Israeli Government of $100 million to the office of the Palestinian President, give the impression that we are supporting the Palestinian people. However, while aid is at a record level, it does not replace the revenue lost by the actions of the international community. I accept that the reasons for those actions were decided collectively, but they have left the Palestinian Authority deprived of 75 per cent. of its budget, and any public organisation that loses 75 per cent. of its budget will be incapable of delivering the services that people look to it to provide.

A total of $60 million a month came from customs revenues collected by the state of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and $30 million a month came from the international community in the form of direct budget support. All the Palestinian Authority can get its hands on now is the $30 million of internal revenues that can be collected by the Authority itself. The international community has responded with increased contributions from our own aid budget, from the European Union, the United Nations and other sources, but that is not solving the problem.

The public services in the Palestinian state are on the verge of collapse. Many of the 160,000 public sector workers have been on strike because they have not been paid, and services are not being provided. The hospitals do not have drugs, and the clinics do not have the equipment that they need in order to care for people. One stark statistic—I think it relates to Hebron—is that before the funds were withdrawn, 600 women were in the local hospital having been delivered of babies over a period. Now there are only 100. The question that must arise is “Where have the babies been born?” They undoubtedly have been born, but they have not been cared for in the health system.

Another issue lies at the door of the Israeli Government and the Israeli authorities: not just the fence, the barrier and the security of the state of Israel, which is entirely understandable—indeed, it is the responsibility of any Government to try to protect their citizens and to provide security—but the way in which they have disrupted life inside the occupied territories and the west bank and made it impossible for people to carry on day-to-day life. There are well over 500 roadblocks inside the west bank, which people have to negotiate. At the same time, Israeli settlements are expanding. Those settlements have exclusive dedicated bypass roads, which give them access and speedy exit to the main state of Israel. Those roads are a further barrier that the Palestinians in most cases are not allowed to use or to cross.

The security barrier, or security fence may have some justification on security grounds, but the fundamental issue is that if a country wants to build a security fence it builds it, as we did in Northern Ireland, on its own land, not on the land that it occupies. More specifically, it should not build a 703 km barrier along a 315 km border. Clearly, the barrier is wiggling around and embracing all kinds of territory. That could by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as a security measure. It is regarded as an acquisition or indeed a land grab.

In that context, it behoves the international community to take some initiatives now to engage with the Government of Israel, who need support to secure a settlement. Clearly, the deteriorating situation does not give long-term security to the people of Israel. Someone mentioned creating a failed state. One cannot create a failed state. What one can do is deny the Palestinian territory the capacity to become any kind of state. I suggest that the international community is doing exactly that: it is talking about a two-state solution, but presiding over a situation that makes the existence of two viable states, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, impossible to deliver.

On a wider issue, in arguing the case for the invasion of Iraq, one or two Conservative Members have used grounds that are outside the framework of the grounds we were given when we were told the invasion was justified. However, on the back of the experience we have had in Iraq, the chances of persuading this country to engage, on humanitarian grounds, in international action in places such as Darfur—there have been similar situations in the Balkans and elsewhere—are likely to be a lot less than they may have been had that escapade not happened. I believe that it was a tragic mistake. Many of us have wrestled with trying to deliver the right result and helping to get a solution, but it is a question not just of whether we have a timetable to withdraw our own troops, but of giving the Iraqi authorities ways to address their ability to take control of their own country. Surely they must have some time frame and ability to develop capacity. If they cannot do it after four years, how many years do they have to have before we can withdraw and leave a viable state?

The tragedy is that the diversion of attention to Iraq has further destabilised the middle east and made a settlement in Palestine-Israel less possible. However, that settlement is even more necessary. The situation is deteriorating day by day and is unsustainable. It behoves this Government to take initiatives—I commend the Prime Minister for wanting to do so— that will help to move forward a proper peace process, allow two states to develop and allow the people of Palestine an increase in prosperity, rather than increasing poverty, which is what they face now.

The last words of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) demonstrate the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the whole of the middle east. Anyone who denies that has only to remember the final words of Saddam Hussein before he went to his gruesome and disgusting death—he talked about Palestine. Even in those last moments, as he went to his death, he knew that his martyrdom would be centred around talking about Palestine.

In August 2002—five months before the Iraqi war broke out—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) commissioned me to write an article in which I said that I would, with whatever reluctance, vote with the Government if there were a war against Iraq, but that I very much hoped that there would not be a war against Iraq, and I warned of many of the events that have taken place as a result of that invasion. However, I also said in that article:

“I think it would be a blessing for the world if Saddam were removed from office and replaced by a regime that rejoined the world community.”

The problem is that Iraq does not have a regime that has rejoined the world community. Its conduct, and the recent executions that have taken place, demonstrate that.

Leaders of the west hailed the democracy involved in the election of the Iraqi Government, but that election has resulted in a vengeful sectarian gang that is hounding its religious opponents and not seeking to unite the country. It is also odd that we welcome the result of democracy in Iraq but refuse to recognise democracy in Palestine. However repugnant the Hamas movement is—and I find Hamas deeply repugnant—its victory was at least as valid as that of the current Iraqi Government, and, I might say, it was a good deal more valid than the way in which President Bush came to office in 2000.

As the right hon. Member for Gordon pointed out, the situation in the Palestinian territories is unacceptable. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has done everything that any human being can do to obtain a settlement. It is true that he is obstructed by conflict among the Palestinians, but he is obstructed above all by recalcitrance among the Israelis, who are literally getting away with murder: the killing of hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians, thousands since the second intifada broke out; the deaths of Israelis that have followed as a result of the Israeli action; the construction of a wall that has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice deep into Palestinian territory, not so much to protect Israelis as to protect illegal Jewish settlements deep into the Palestinian territories; the deaths of Palestinians, of women and children; and the continuing construction, even in the past weeks, of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. I am baffled by those who pay tribute to the Israeli release of tax revenues. When a thief returns a small fraction of what he has stolen, I do not regard that as an admirable act; I regard it as inadequate and unacceptable.

When the Israelis were launching their war against Lebanon last summer, any idiot warned of the consequences—and, indeed, I did so. Hezbollah is mainly intact. Its members are the heroes of the middle east. The three Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping was the pretext for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon—as it is for the continuing Israeli attacks on Gaza—remain in captivity. What has been the result? The ineffable chief of staff of the Israeli army has resigned.

The Prime Minister of Israel, who was a lousy mayor of Jerusalem before he became Prime Minister, has an approval rating of 14 per cent. Amir Peretz, Israel’s Minister of Defence, has destroyed the once great Labour party that founded Israel, and which was responsible for its democracy and pioneering and all the other things that I was proud to support as a Labour friend of Israel. Too late, Israel says that it is going to get rid of him, later this year.

I find it deeply demeaning that the Israeli public, with their 14 per cent. approval rating of Ehud Olmert, have turned against the war not because they believe that it was wrong, but because it failed. However illegal and lethal it was, they would have continued to support it. There is a long history among my Jewish people of doing, in effect, what the Israelites did when Moses went up Mount Sinai. They were impatient for his return, and they started to worship the golden calf. The sad fact is that although Israelis can be great and constructive and idealistic, they can also be their own worst enemies. Frankly, who needs Hezbollah when they have got Olmert and Peretz to damage that once great country?

The sad fact is that the Israelis are going to be allowed to career on in this way. President Bush and the neo cons will not exercise any pressure whatsoever on Israel, but nor will the Democrats, who—be it Hillary Clinton or anybody else—depend on Jewish votes in key states.

I say what I said at the outset. There is of course a mosaic of issues in the middle east, some of which are related and others not, but in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria—to which I paid a private visit only a few weeks ago—Palestine is either the issue or the pretext for all the aggression taking place in the middle east. Although I deplore the loathsome regime in Iran, I find it somewhat baffling that we should condemn any possibility of its gaining nuclear weapons—I am against its doing so—while accepting the fact that Israel, which does not subscribe to the non-proliferation treaty, has had them for many years. Somehow, that is all right.

I have voted with my Labour Whip for all the 37 years that I have sat in this House of Commons, and I tell my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that any military action against Iran or any motion in this House endorsing it would provoke my first vote against the Labour Whip since I was elected in June 1970.

I begin by paying tribute to all the British soldiers and other service personnel who are contributing to the effort in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It was my sad duty last summer to visit the home and widow of Captain David Patton, a constituent of mine who was killed in Afghanistan. Our prayers and thoughts are with all those personnel currently serving there, and with the families of those who have made the supreme sacrifice.

I also wish to echo the comments by several contributors to the debate about the necessary equipment, clothing and supplies that are required by our personnel throughout the middle east. It is essential that all that is supplied to them in the carrying out of their duties.

The premise for the United Kingdom’s entry into Iraq was wrong. Saddam Hussein was an evil, cruel, vicious mass murderer. He met his demise, but unfortunately the manner in which he did so left a man who had no dignity in life with greater dignity in death than those who carried out his execution. The problem that we have at the moment in Iraq is that any US decision, either to have the surge that we are currently witnessing or any phased withdrawal that may be subsequently contemplated, would have serious consequences for the United Kingdom. No one whom I have heard, watched or listened to has suggested that there is any possibility of our personnel remaining if the US decided, for whatever reason, that the time had come for a phased withdrawal by their personnel.

It is true to say that the horrendous nature of what passes for a conflict in parts of Iraq is in some contrast to other parts of the country where there is relative stability, not least in Basra, where the good work and efforts of our personnel have contributed to that. I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) that the surge of 22,000 US troops will be insignificant. Either the US should have contemplated a much more significant increase in service personnel to try to combat the upsurge in the activities of the insurgents, or it should contemplate trying to increase the Iraqi personnel’s capability to deal with the issues over the next 12, 18 or 24 months, followed by a phased withdrawal. However, we have neither a massive increase that might be able to do something to restore stability and normality, nor a phased withdrawal, which everyone suggests will have to happen sooner or later.

The problem is that, in the next two or three months when the surge is permitted to occur, it will hamper the very good reconstruction effort that is being made by all the nations who are contributing to restoration work of some form or another in Iraq. In all probability, within three or four months, the situation will either be significantly worse than it is now, or it will not be much better. The question then will be what we should do after that.

I am afraid that all the interventions to date have not delivered a materially better Iraq. Had we allowed the situation to continue with Saddam Hussein in power, things might well have been worse. I concur with the comments by others who have pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people perished during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The fact that we do not know at present whether 30,000 or 100,000 civilians have died in the past 12 months only indicates the extremity of the situation that pertains at present.

It is unfortunate that neither the UN nor any other body has put forward any proposition that would lead to a significant improvement in Iraq by peaceful and diplomatic means. There are cruel dictators in other parts of the world. Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is one example, but the UN has not proposed any effective and agreed way of bringing that regime to an end.

In conclusion, I fear that we will have to discuss Iraq again, and in the not-too-distant future. We all agree that we must enable the Iraqi security forces to deal with the insurgents, but I fear that we will have to grapple long and hard with the long-term consequences of what is going to happen in 2007 as a result of the intervention by the US and the UK in that benighted country.

It is nearly four years since the great debate of 18 March 2003. Many hon. Members of all parties have entered the House since that date, and they may not be aware of all the arguments put forward then, but we must not forget that that debate had many precursors. The question of Iraq was discussed ad nauseam—certainly during the 1990s, and some would argue as far back as the 1980s. The problem of Iraq has a long genesis.

Some of the earlier speeches astonished me, because it seems that history is still being rewritten. For example, the Foreign Secretary made little or no reference to the real origins of the mess in which we find ourselves. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made some allusions to them, but did not go into detail. We cannot understand where we are going in respect of Iraq and the middle east in general if we do not understand where we are coming from. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) referred to the changed tone in Washington. I was quite taken by that, but I trust that he has not looked at the websites run by organisations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Centre for Security Policy or the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The approach of such hotbeds of neo-con ideology has not shifted one iota. That ideology remains the powerhouse driving American thinking in respect of both foreign and security policy, and we ignore it at our peril.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South should not ignore the influence of neo-con ideology. We are all glad to see the hints and changes that we hope will result in a more benign American approach to the world, but it is a little simplistic to expect that a few quotations will be sufficient to change the existing solid commitment and direction of that country’s foreign policy.

We must not forget how the problem started. Leading Members of this House did not mention that—an astonishing sin of omission. Indeed, one Opposition Back Bencher made an intervention earlier in which he advocated regime change. He clearly did not understand that one of the problems that we faced before the invasion of Iraq was that regime change is illegal and specifically ruled out by the UN charter. Any post facto attempt to justify what was done on the basis of regime change puts us on very dodgy ground.

We should recall that the premise on which we went to war was that there was a clear and imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction; there was no clear and imminent threat. We should remember, too, what the threat consisted of—capability plus intent—but there was no capability and no obvious intent on the part of Saddam. We can argue as much as we like about what a terrible man he was; of course he was, but he was no more terrible than many other authoritarian rulers on the planet.

We were taken into war on a false prospectus. There were no weapons of mass destruction and no threat from them or anything else. At the time, much was made of UN Security Council resolution 1441, which we debated for a long time in this place. However, subsequent events—leaks, memos, memoirs—all reinforced the view held by many of us at the time that the resolution was just a pretext and that the decision had already been taken and the die was cast. It all goes back to 1998 and the letter to Bill Clinton from the Project for the New American Century. Studying the “Who’s Who” of the neo-con world who signed that letter helps us to understand why we ended up in the position we are in.

That was America, however. The real problem was the decision taken by our Government, in our country, on our behalf. With that hindsight, it is truly amazing that the Prime Minister is still Prime Minister and that the then Foreign and Defence Secretaries—with the Prime Minister, the triumvirate who seemed to run the whole thing—are still in the Government. Nobody has been held to account, and I fear that nobody will be until the independent inquiry that is required looks into the whole process by which we were taken into what remains, by any objective analysis, an illegal and immoral war.

What have we ended up with? Iraq is in complete chaos. The country is fragmented. I do not know how we define civil war if we do not define the situation in Iraq as such. There have been many deaths—estimates vary but the number is 650,000, according to The Lancet. After a while, we become numb. I am reminded of Stalin’s observation that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a mere statistic. I cannot cope with a figure of 650,000, but I am aware of the bodies scattered around marketplaces that we see nightly on our televisions. One of the other great damaging aspects of the situation has been the effect on our diplomatic and moral standing in the world, because other people view those scenes, not least in the Islamic world and the Arab world at large.

As has already been adequately stated, there has been tremendous damage to our security. Like everybody else, I deplore violence wherever it takes place, but nobody can deny that the security situation facing Britain and British nationals has been immeasurably worsened by the fact that we took part in that illegal and immoral war.

In conclusion, I can add little to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said about Israel. He is an expert on that country, as well as on many other things. I concur with everything he said. I would add only that it is risible to suggest, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) did, that the wall was a security measure. It is not a security measure—it is a prison for Palestinians. The logic of her argument is that the Berlin wall should have been retained as a security measure for 17 million East Germans, which was patently not the case.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the wall is a prison for the Palestinians, but it is also a prison for Israelis.

I accept that, but

“Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage”.

The other important point made by my right hon. Friend was the unfairness of the situation, in that we rightly upbraid the Iranians over their potential for developing nuclear weapons—we do not want to see them anywhere—yet do not extend the same strictures either to Israel or Pakistan. Most importantly, we—the nuclear armed countries—do not fulfil our part of the non-proliferation treaty. When it comes to making meaningful moves towards disarmament of our own armed forces, frankly, we do not make them. Current military thinking both in the US and—presumably following on—the UK is further to develop and refine more sophisticated nuclear weapons. That cannot be the way forward. Again, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, I worry greatly about what might happen in Iran in the coming months.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the assessment of Hans Blix that the further development of a next generation of nuclear weapons by countries such as the UK make it more difficult to convince countries such as Iran not to develop their own set of nuclear weapons?

That is absolutely the case. Countries around the world are looking at what we are proposing to do with Trident, for example. What does that have to do with reducing nuclear armaments? Some years ago, I was speaking to a defence Minister in China. I told him that I had seen an alleged CIA report, stating that on the back of progress in the American missile defence programme, China had quintupled the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles being deployed, and the warheads. His response was to stand up and walk out without a comment. Perhaps I was wrong, but I took that as confirmation of how the Chinese were reacting to what was happening in the US. The moral of the story is that there is a quid pro quo in these issues all around the world—they are not restricted to the existing nuclear-armed countries. After all, if I were an Iranian of such an inclination, I might well look at North Korea and see how its development of a nuclear weapon seems to give it some kind of immunity from the threat of attack—because the results would be so horrendous.

To conclude, I fear that among the neo-con thinkers are those who still believe that the muscular approach to international diplomacy and international relations is the only way forward. They may well try to conjure up a pretext under which an attack of some sort could be launched—possibly by the US or through an ally such as Israel. We have read that Israel is training people for that contingency; it is what happens with military forces. The question is, however, whether it would be put into effect and what would be the outcome if such an attack were to take place. As with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, such an attack would get no support from me—not in my name.

A year ago, I called for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. I did so because I believed that we had achieved everything that we positively could there. We had already been there for almost three years and therefore—with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell)—we could not be accused of cutting and running, and things were going to get worse.

Now, after almost four years, I have to say that nothing has happened to make me change that view. What I described then as effective civil war is now open sectarian conflict, yet the Government—I listened to the Foreign Secretary today—seem unable to comprehend the implications of the death and devastation that is Iraq today. About 34,000 Iraqi civilians have died over the past 12 months. If that level of attrition is not civil war, I do not know what is. How long will it take before the Prime Minister faces up to the realities and realises that we have no place in a civil war and that there is nothing left to be gained by the UK continuing in this tragedy?

I have total admiration for what our armed forces in Iraq have, in the direst of circumstances, achieved, but we owe them more than admiration. We must now confront what we are asking them to continue to fight for and die for—130 have already given their lives—in that troubled land. We, along with the Americans, are increasingly perceived to be complicit in the deteriorating situation. That was noticeable at the time of the execution of Saddam Hussein—nothing to do with us—but the horror of that lapped against our door as well as that of the Iraqi Government. The stark fact is that Iraq has always been a flawed state—indeed, it was an artificially constructed state in the first place—and its tribal and sectarian fault lines have been held together historically only by superior and often external power. The idea that western-style democracy or, even in such an Islamic country, western force could do so was, looking at it now, naive.

We are fast becoming recruiting agents for those who parade themselves as the resistance to what they call the occupation. The Foreign Secretary said, “Ah, but we are there to fight terrorists.” It is worth reminding the House that before we went there, there were no al-Qaeda members and no terrorists in Iraq. It is time for us to tell our troops that they have, with immense professionalism and courage, done everything that we have asked of them, and more, and that it is now time to come home.

The only way to help bring long-term stability to Iraq, as the Baker-Hamilton commission identified, is to involve its neighbours—Iran and Syria, as we have heard today, but I would add Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well. Stubbornly refusing to talk to Iran and Syria or, worse still, threatening them with isolation if they do not comply with western demands is crass. History will judge harshly those world leaders who, for reasons of hubris, turn their faces against such engagement. It needs to be encouraged now—and if America will not do it, we should. What is certain is that the escape from today’s quagmire in Iraq will not be found in repeating the Vietnam war blunders of naively counting enemy casualties and pouring in more and more troops. That, as many hon. Members have said today, can only make matters worse.

I turn now to the middle east, which I have watched over many years. Today, it is like watching a dialogue of those who will not hear. Everyone is talking and no one is listening. The Iraqis and the Syrians are talking to each other—that is a good thing—but even though Syria holds the key to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the United States and the United Kingdom refuse to enter into open dialogue with her.

Voices in Israel call for dialogue with Damascus, but they, too, are apparently blocked by American displeasure. The leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, moves significantly towards a de facto, if not a de jure, recognition of Israel, but no one responds. Lebanon teeters on the brink of turmoil, her Prime Minister’s credibility destroyed by the refusal of our Prime Minister and the American President to accede to his tearful pleas to stop Israel’s bombing of his country last summer. Indeed, military action has served only further to polarise opinion and has made the problem more intractable.

The volatility of the whole region is higher than I can ever remember it, and it has the potential to engulf us all. I do not believe that that volatility can be reduced or solved by formula. At the moment, the situation is too grave for that; it is beyond road maps and intricate diplomatic processes. Confidence, which has been destroyed over the past months, needs to be rebuilt, and that, in my view—it may not be a particularly popular view—can be achieved only by dialogue—unthreatening dialogue, exploratory dialogue—across the board and at every level and through every available channel, and I know a bit about exploratory dialogue from my time in Northern Ireland.

Behind such dialogue, certain fundamentals must be recognised. Israel has an inalienable right to live within legitimate, universally recognised and secure borders. The Palestinian people have an inalienable right to a viable and—to add to what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—a genuinely autonomous state. That cannot happen in practice without the participation of Hamas, which forms a major part of Palestine’s political structure and, indeed, was successful in the recent democratic elections—whatever we may think about that organisation. There can be no secure Israel without agreement with Syria and without a stable Lebanon, and we cannot have a stable Lebanon without the involvement of Hezbollah, which, as I have recently witnessed, forms such a major political element of the Lebanon political structure, as well.

All those elements must be engaged, their grievances and aspirations aired, and their lines in the sand identified. There must be no undeliverable preconditions to dialogue. If I learned anything in Northern Ireland, it was that undeliverable preconditions bring peace processes very quickly to an end. Of course, Israel cannot open exploratory dialogue at this time. The security and political situation prevent that. She could, however, discreetly set out her own lines in the sand. That is something that could usefully be done now. If Israel cannot talk, the Quartet can, and if the Quartet cannot talk, the British Government can. For a start, the Foreign Secretary should go to Damascus, not in the offensive, hectoring spirit of the Prime Minister’s recent envoy, but genuinely to explore how to take forward the Baker-Hamilton report on the middle east. Were the Foreign Secretary to talk to her counterpart in Syria, I have reason to believe, from the conversation I recently had with him in Damascus, that she would be pleasantly surprised.

I have never seen the senior Foreign Office official Nigel Sheinwald look combative and offensive. He went to see what room there was for real negotiation. He did not go to try to intimidate the Syrians.

My understanding from the conversation that I had was that he said that there was a series of conditions and that if the Syrians met those conditions, they could become involved in dialogue. That is not the way to make friends or influence people.

As well as talking to Syria, talks with Fatah must continue and dialogue should be initiated with Hamas. We need to start to explore their understanding of the process of genuine ceasefire and the policing of it, of the recognition of Israel, and of their lines in the sand on prisoner release and negotiation. The concept of a reconstituted Palestine Liberation Organisation, including both Fatah and Hamas, jointly representing the Palestinian interests, including the camps and the prisoners, should be encouraged. We could usefully offer potential peace dividends in that regard, as well.

The current democratically offensive financial siege of the Palestinian Authority should be ended. Exploratory dialogue should also be opened with Hezbollah. Whatever we think about Hezbollah, we need to test the sincerity of its claim to be now exclusively interested in protecting south Lebanon and its community there and in securing a fair share in the power-sharing arrangements that are essential to any stable form of governance in Lebanon: and to be no longer interested, in its words, in the violent destruction of Israel. That process is something that could usefully be engaged in at this time.

There will be people in the House who say that we cannot and should not talk to terrorists, but we have in the past. Our history is littered with times when we have declared that we will not talk to terrorists, only to find ourselves years later inviting them to this country as the Governments of their countries. We have done it in the past, as I know in Northern Ireland, and we will do it in the future, and if we are to make progress in the middle east we need to do it there as well. We should not do it in a grandstanding manner, but discreetly, respecting confidences and painstakingly building mutual trust on both sides. I know that that takes infinite patience and great effort, but it can be done. Britain, for once, has a real opportunity to lead rather than just to follow, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will not let that opportunity slip.

Once again in these past weeks, the continued violence in Iraq has dominated the news coverage from that unhappy and miserable land. Sectarian violence, murder, the killing of innocent civilians and the death of coalition troops have been reported daily. It must seem to the Iraqis and the people here at home who watch those images on their televisions each night that there is no end in sight. Adding to those scenes of utter brutality was the general feeling of revulsion at those awful grainy pictures of Saddam Hussein on the gallows. Although it is right that we should support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, I sincerely hope that those images will persuade them to step back from future and further executions.

The new year saw yet another US strategy in Iraq, as 20,000 extra troops are to be deployed to Baghdad. That was President Bush’s answer to the Iraq Study Group report that urged rather different solutions. It appears that for the US Government and the commanders on the ground, even more troops are crucial to bring the violence in Iraq to an end. I have my doubts about whether that is the right way forward, but I certainly welcome the extra help for reconstruction.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the expected reduction of the number of British troops in Iraq is a better way forward, and does he, like me, hope that the Minister for the Middle East will give the House an assurance that Britain will continue to support the reconstruction of Iraq by providing the Iraqi Government with non-military assistance?

The reconstruction of Iraq is vital to its future, so our contribution is important, and I hope to develop that argument.

People in Baghdad live in fear of even more violence and bloodshed—a fact that was recently brought home to me by my constituents, Talib and Dianne Elam, who received news on Christmas day that their 72-year-old uncle had been shot and died from his wounds when American troops stormed his home in Baghdad. The family, who are of Kurdish descent, support our intervention and the new Iraqi Government, as they suffered brutally under Saddam. They have been unable to discover the circumstances that led to their uncle’s death, but they suspect that the American troops were acting on information provided by opponents of the Iraqi Government. Talib Elam’s brother-in-law, Adel Murad, who is the Iraqi ambassador to Romania, has written to President Bush seeking information so that the family can understand the situation better and come to terms with their grief. The family has written to the Prime Minister, too, and I hope that the Government will intervene to make sure that the Americans provide every possible piece of information about their uncle’s death. As I said in the House in November, the decision by the United States to disband the Iraqi security forces has proved to be a great error of judgment.

Apart from that terrible tragedy for the Elam family, Christmas day also saw the folly of rushing to recruit tens of thousands of Iraqis to the police force and train them without adequately checking their suitability and background. On the same day, British troops in Basra had to disband a police unit that they had helped to set up. In those circumstances, one can hardly blame Iraqi citizens for not trusting the police, and there are numerous examples of police committing crime rather than preventing it. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate, he can tell us more about British plans to train the Iraqi security forces thoroughly and improve recruitment and efficiency.

Many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed admiration for Britain’s brave servicemen and women, who put their lives on the line every day, working to bring peace and stability to Iraq. We wish them well, and we pray that they will be home soon. The deployment of another 20,000 US troops to police Baghdad—a city of nearly 6 million—provides, I fear, a vain hope of solution. That deployment is too low, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said. My wish is that the American President will have got it right, but I have very grave doubts about whether that is the case.

Hostility between sectarian groups has only added to the swelling violence and bloodshed in Iraq. While those 20,000 extra troops may reduce the violence on the streets of Baghdad in the short term, they do not provide an answer to the long-term question of how to stabilise the region, bring peace and help the Iraqis to rebuild their lives and their economy.

The need to rebuild the economy is a factor that is often overlooked, especially as the country is tearing itself apart—a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) alluded. At a recent meeting with British parliamentarians, the Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi said that more than 70 per cent. of the eligible work force in Iraq was unemployed. The millions of Iraqi unemployed have found little refuge in an economy derailed by two years of relentless attacks by insurgents. Many have not had steady jobs since the United States disbanded the Iraqi army, and bad and dangerous developments began to take place. High unemployment is not just a waste of human resources; it also leads to trouble, as thousands of young, discontented Iraqi men find that they have little to do except confront the coalition forces and join those who seek to destabilise the country. If more people were working, the country would become more stable, living standards would rise, and the Iraqis would have at least the hope of peace, and of a future.

One true thing that can be said about Iraq is that until now, very little has gone to plan in the post-conflict situation. The key to a solution in Iraq and the wider middle east is a successful conclusion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If that conflict were resolved, it would encourage moderate Governments in the middle east. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that Syria and Iran have to be given a strategic choice between being part of the solution and being isolated. I certainly endorse the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram): we have to involve the Iranians and the Syrians, and possibly the Turkish Government, to find a solution to what is happening in Iraq.

Let us be clear: the coalition’s post-conflict strategy in Iraq has not worked. If it had made progress, many of those who criticise our intervention in Iraq would now be silenced. To focus on a military solution alone is no answer, because there is not a military solution to the situation in Iraq. However, the withdrawal of our troops, on the terms advocated by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will not solve anything either. It would create a power vacuum and invite an unrestrained explosion of violence in Iraq. When withdrawal takes place, it must be carried out consistently, within an agreed time frame, and with the agreement and co-operation of the Iraqi Government and others. Alongside that process, a comprehensive scheme of diplomatic, economic and rebuilding measures must be implemented.

When we went into Iraq, I hoped that it would help to bring peace and stability to the country and the wider middle east, and end a tyrannous regime. If we left now, we would consign that country to chaos. Moreover, the Iraqis would be left without any hope whatever. We have to accept the consequences of our intervention in Iraq, and that means abandoning the idea that there is a military solution. A better way—the only way—is to engage with other powers in the region and seek to make them part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. For the millions of people living in Iraq, that is the only hope.

Many people welcome today’s debate in Government time, but it is unfortunate that it is on an Adjournment motion, and that there is no substantive motion to be discussed. That disappoints many of us but, as has been said, it is even more disappointing that the Prime Minister decided to absent himself from today’s proceedings. That same Prime Minister said on 25 October that he would debate Iraq any time, anywhere—yet today he found other things to do, rather than come to the Chamber to explain what policy, if any, the Government are following. That is disappointing, but if we consider the history of the build-up to the war, we should not be all that surprised.

As I said, on 25 October the Prime Minister said that he would debate the subject “at any time”, so we hoped that he would make the effort to come to the Chamber today. Earlier this week, his spokesman said that the Prime Minister never comes to Adjournment debates, and that is probably why the Government tabled an Adjournment motion. That is not very clever, and it is rather transparent.

I should like to speak about the background to the conflict. In September 2002 we were treated to the dossier, and I remember saying at the time that it was probably the least persuasive document in recent political history. It was full of suppositions and ifs and buts, it did not inform the debate, and it utterly failed to provide any justification for military action, let alone imminent military action. On reflection, perhaps the dossier did not have to do that, as we have learned that the Prime Minister and the President had met at the President’s ranch and decided on military action, come what may, within a few days of that debate.

In a parliamentary response to me on 15 January 2003, the Prime Minister said:

“we are prepared to take action if necessary in respect of Saddam’s regime. It is right because weapons of mass destruction—the proliferation of chemical, biological, nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology along with it—are a real threat to the security of the world and this country.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 682.]

So he clung on to the WMD theory at that stage. On 25 February 2003, in response to the rhetorical question:

“Is not war now inevitable?”

the Prime Minister replied:

“Of course it is not.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 135.]

Six months before, he had agreed with President Bush that war was indeed inevitable. At the time that statement was made, 120,000 American troops were massed on the Iraqi border, ready to go in.

These events catalogue how the Government have treated Parliament with disdain, and obfuscation—if not, I am sad to say, with deceit. Here we are, more than three years down the road, and apart from toppling Saddam nothing much has been achieved. On 13 January this year, President Bush acknowledged that Iraq was more unstable now than when Saddam was in power. He said in a CBS programme that without question, decisions had been made and things had been done which should not have been. He went on to say:

“I think history is going to look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.”

Although that is a gross understatement, it is a welcome acknowledgement by the President that things are going from bad to worse. Perhaps he has been chastened by the fact that 3,020 US army personnel have lost their lives in the conflict. Although General Franks said that he did not do body counts, the number of Iraqi civilians who have died is massive. Whether one accepts the UN figure, the Iraqi Government figure, the figure in The Lancet or any other figure, it is patently obvious that tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed, and are being killed as we debate the matter today.

I quote:

“The neo-con mission has failed. It’s not only failed to provide a coherent international policy, it’s failed wherever it has been tried, and it’s failed with the American electorate, who kicked it into touch last November. So if neo-con unilateralism has damaged the fight against global terrorism . . .”

Those are the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and for Wales in the New Statesman on 22 January, a few days ago. They are harsh words from one who was always taken to be a loyalist. They are harsh words about the foreign policy being adopted by Britain—which is, of course, introduced by Bush and slavishly followed by the British Government.

As a result, bloodshed and carnage go on day after day, with more than 130 civilians killed on Monday this week. Indeed, the number of killings has escalated steadily over the past six months, with no end in sight. Let us not forget the deaths of more than 130 British servicemen and women. Theirs was an unenviable task and an extremely dangerous one, and we all pay tribute to their bravery and professionalism.

In March 2005 I visited Basra and Baghdad, and I came away with the firm impression that the only realistic exit strategy would have to be events-led—that is to say, as the Iraqi army, police and security forces were trained up sufficiently, and as they could take on greater responsibility. That is a difficult proposition, as young men and women who volunteer for the new security forces are in real danger of assassination as soon as it is known what they do. I now believe, and have done for some time, that we will not witness any such events, and that the presence of the British armed forces in Iraq has come to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) sent out a press release stating that I said that the British Army was a problem. I did not—I would never say such a thing. She has already insulted me, but if she were here, I could discuss the matter openly with her. The British Army is not the problem, but it is perceived as part of the problem, not the solution, because it remains in Iraq in such circumstances. I have nothing but the highest regard for the Army, but soldiers’ role now is to stay alive—they have little scope for peacekeeping. The position is plainly untenable.

As President Bush’s surge takes effect, even greater danger is likely to befall British troops. As retired US General Keane said on “Newsnight” on 9 January, there will be consequences for the British troops in southern Iraq, which will call into question the rumoured British policy of drawing down troops. That is the problem: the Prime Minister is prepared to engage with the US and give evidence to congressional committees, but we do not know whether an exit strategy exists.

Many people believe that the presence of the brave men and women of the British armed forces now serves no useful purpose. We hope that the troops are brought home as soon as possible. Of course, it must be done in an orderly and secure way—I recognise that the withdrawal exercise will be dangerous. However, there is currently a high human cost for no appreciable return. It is clear that there will be no military solution and that a diplomatic and political solution is the only way forward.

Even the incoming US field commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, is reported today as saying that the position in Iraq is dire and that he could not guarantee success, even with President Bush’s surge of 21,500 troops.

Enough is enough. It is time to call a halt and bring the troops home. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), recently said of British foreign policy that the Prime Minister’s good intentions had turned to dust. The longer the forces remain in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for Britain seriously to put itself forward as an honest broker in the middle east and the more likely it is that terrorism will strike Britain.

The Prime Minister and the Government did not listen to the millions on the streets who were against the war. Will they listen to the clamour in favour of the coherent exit strategy that is now needed? I call on the Prime Minister to show some leadership in the matter and explain the Government’s exit strategy to Parliament and the people of Britain. It is long overdue: we require an immediate strategy to disengage. That is the only coherent way forward.

The debate is crucial. It is about the role of Parliament and the political institutions of this country but, bizarrely, the Prime Minister is not here. There is a motion for the Adjournment of the House and apparently no opportunity for the Government to set out a statement of their case for the war in Iraq and their policies on the middle east. The only way in which the House can express dissent from the Government’s policies is by calling a procedural vote on the Adjournment later. I understand that that will happen and that several hon. Members will vote to express their dissent from policies that we are asked to agree.

The war in Iraq has cost the lives of at least 500,000 people since 2003. The Saddam Hussein regime cost the lives of many tens of thousands of Iraqis before that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was right to highlight the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. A small number of us, including my right hon. Friend, opposed it from the 1980s onwards, when the House was busy turning a blind eye to arms sales, oil deals and all the other support that was given to that regime because it suited the west to support Iraq in the war against Iran.

However, I differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley about where we go from here. It cannot be said that the position in Iraq is better now than in the latter days of Saddam Hussein. As I said, more than 500,000 have already been killed. According to a BBC website, 1.7 million Iraqis have been forced immediately into exile and all the neighbouring countries are threatening to close their borders.

I want to correct my hon. Friend. I saw the BBC website, and it said that 2 million Iraqis had fled the country. The figure of 1.7 million related to internally displaced people. The United Nations says that another million could be displaced before the end of this year.

My hon. Friend is right; I stand corrected. This means that almost 4 million Iraqis have either become internally displaced or fled the country. The lucky ones have managed to get out of the region and into western Europe. In Jordan, Syria and all the neighbouring countries, there are Iraqis living a desperate existence, yet they too were lucky enough to get out.

Is it not therefore an absolute disgrace that this Government are still deporting Iraqi asylum seekers from this country?

My hon. Friend has made a good point. My constituency has often welcomed asylum seekers from conflicts all around the world. The Iraqi asylum seekers there include those who came during the Saddam regime and those who have come since. Interestingly, those who fled persecution under the Saddam regime did not, for the most part, support the war, and they certainly do not support the continued presence of British and American forces in Iraq. They recognise that the continued presence of those forces is creating further problems, rather than presenting a solution to them.

News was leaked out last week of a proposed new oil law that the Iraqi Parliament is to be invited to approve in a few weeks’ time. This is a mysterious piece of legislation, and I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on the matter when he responds to the debate. Apparently, the drafters of the new law were not in Iraq but in Washington, and they were assisted by people in London. The proposed law bears an uncanny resemblance to the British-imposed oil law in Iran in 1952, after the shah was imposed on the people of that country. BP and other oil companies made massive amounts of money from that arrangement in the succeeding years. There is deep suspicion that the oil law that is now being proposed for Iraq is the reward for the invasion, and that it will involve the privatisation of oil production and the sale to certain oil companies of cheap oil that ought to be for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

The proposed oil law is indeed a bit suspicious. Does my hon. Friend also share my concern as to whether the big conglomerates such as BP and Shell will invest in the necessary infrastructure and in fair wages for normal Iraqi citizens?

That is a legitimate concern, and I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on the future of this oil law. I also hope that he will recognise that the Iraqi people ought to be able to maintain public ownership not only of the oil but of oil production and oil sales, which is the crucial part of the arrangement.

Is my hon. Friend aware of a meeting of Iraqi trade leaders that took place in Jordan in December, at which senior trade unionists discussed this proposal? They took the view that this oil law would not be in the interests of the Iraqi people. They also believed that that would be the view of the Iraqi people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be inappropriate for 15 or 20-year oil contracts to be signed while the country is still under occupation?

I agree with my friend; it would be illegal to do that, because Britain and the United States are, in law, occupying forces. They do not therefore have the legal authority to make fundamental changes to what is happening in that country. Those are the terms of the Hague convention, and that ought to be understood.

I have been more generous in giving way than the Minister was, and I have less time, but I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Has my hon. Friend seen the draft law, in which 75 per cent. of the profits will go to companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon? This was the real reason fo