Skip to main content

Iraq and the Middle East

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

With permission, I shall make a statement on recent developments in Iraq and across the middle east.

Saddam Hussein was removed from power in May 2003. In June 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution setting out the support of the international community for the incoming interim Government of Iraq, for a political process leading to full democratic elections overseen by the United Nations itself, and for Iraq’s reconstruction and development after decades of oppression and impoverishment under Saddam’s dictatorship.

In January 2005 the first elections were held for a transitional national assembly, and 7 million people voted. A new constitution was agreed. In December 2005 full parliamentary elections were held, and 12 million Iraqis voted. May 2006 saw the forming of the first fully elected Government of Iraq, an expressly non-sectarian Government including all the main elements of Iraqi society, Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish. There has been full United Nations backing throughout for the political process and now for the Government of Prime Minister Maliki.

Successive United Nations resolutions have given explicit approval for the presence of the multinational force. The political process has thus continued through the years. For example, as we speak the Iraqi Parliament is awaiting the report on amending the constitution from the constitutional review committee, a draft law on de-Ba’athification relaxing some of the restrictions on former Ba’ath party members, and the new hydrocarbon legislation, which will attempt to spread fairly and evenly the proceeds of Iraq’s considerable oil wealth.

However, the political process—the reconstruction, reconciliation and everything that the UN has set out as the will of the international community and for which Iraqis have voted—has been thwarted or put at risk by the violence and terrorism that have beset the country and its people. From the day of the appalling terrorist outrage in August 2003, which killed the United Nations special representative and many of his colleagues, to this day, Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, has been subject to a sickening level of carnage, some of it aimed at the multinational force but much of it aimed deliberately to provoke a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shi’a. The bombing of the shrine at Samarra in February 2006 was designed precisely to provoke Shi’a death squads to retaliate against Sunni.

The violence comes from different sources. Some of it originates with former Saddamists; some with Sunnis who are worried that they will be excluded from the political future of Iraq. Many of the so-called spectacular suicide bombings are the work of al-Qaeda, whose grisly presence in Iraq since 2002 has been part of its wider battle with the forces of progress across the world. Now Shi’a militant groups such as Jaish-al-Mahdi are responsible for the abduction and execution of innocent Sunni. These groups have different aims and ideologies, but one common purpose: to prevent Iraqis’ democracy from working.

Throughout all the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed, one hope remains. Talk to anyone in Iraq of whatever denomination, whether they are Iraqi or part of the multinational force, whether civilian or military, and they all say the same thing: the majority of Iraqis do not want it to be like this. They voted despite the violence, they know its purpose and its effect and they hate both. There can be legitimate debate about what was right and what was wrong in respect of the original decision to remove Saddam. There can be no debate about the rights and wrongs of what is happening in Iraq today. The desire for democracy is good; the attempt to destroy it through terrorism is evil. Unfortunately, that is not the question. The question is not should we, but can we defeat this evil, and do we have a plan to succeed?

Since the outset, our plan, agreed by Iraq and the United Nations, has been to build up Iraqi capability in order to let Iraqis take control of their own destiny, and that as they would step up, we would increasingly step back. For three years, therefore, we have been working to create, train and equip Iraqi security forces capable of taking on the security of the country themselves.

In normal circumstances, the progress would be considered remarkable. There are now 10 divisions of the new Iraqi army and more than 130,000 soldiers, able in significant parts of the country to provide order. There are 135,000 personnel in the Iraqi police service. There, the progress has been more constrained, and frequently hampered by corruption and sectarianism, but none the less, again, in normal circumstances, it would be considered a remarkable effort. The plan of General Petraeus, then an army commander in Iraq and now head of the coalition forces there, which was conceived in 2004, has in its essential respects been put in place.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Iraqi forces have often proved valiant, but the various forces against them have also redoubled their efforts. In particular, in and around Baghdad, where 80 to 90 per cent. of the violence is centred, they have engaged in a systematic attempt to bring the city to chaos. It is the capital of Iraq. Its strategic importance is fundamental. There has been an orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of its functioning. It does not much matter if elsewhere in Iraq, not least in Basra, change is happening. If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that, and we understand it.

So last year, in concert with our allies and the Iraqi Government, a new plan was formulated, and promulgated by President Bush in January this year. The purpose is unchanged. Indeed, there can be only one purpose in Iraq—to support the Government and people of the country to attain the necessary capability to run their own affairs as a sovereign independent state. However, the means of achieving the purpose were adjusted to meet the changing nature of the threat. The Baker-Hamilton report, to which I pay tribute, also informed the strategy.

There are three elements to this plan. First, there is the Baghdad security initiative, drawn up by Prime Minister Maliki and currently under way. It aims, as the operation in Basra has done, to take the city district by district, drive out the extremists, put the legitimate Iraqi forces in charge and then make it fit for development with a special fund in place able to deliver rapid improvement. This began last Tuesday. It is far too early to tell its results, although early indications are more promising than what was tried unsuccessfully some months back. In particular, there is no doubt of its welcome among ordinary people in Baghdad.

The second part of the plan is a massive effort to gear up the capability of the Iraqi forces, to plug any gaps in command, logistics, training and equipment. Thirdly, there is a new and far more focused effort on reconciliation, reconstruction and development. There are now talks between Iraqi officials and both Sunni and Shi’a elements that have been engaged in fighting. It is again too early to draw conclusions, but this is being given a wholly different priority within the Iraqi Government and by the multinational force.

In addition, there have been changes made by Prime Minister Maliki, to whose leadership I again pay tribute, to the way in which economic development and reconstruction moneys are administered within the Iraqi Government, with the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, given specific responsibility. That will allow the disbursement of funds to be made and will allow, in Baghdad and elsewhere, development and reconstruction to follow closely on the heels of improved security.

The objective of all this is to show the terrorists that they cannot win, to show those who can be reconciled that they have a place in the new Iraq, and to show the Iraqi people that, however long it takes, the legitimate Iraqi Government whom they elected, and whom the international community support, will prevail.

The aim of the additional US forces announced by President Bush is precisely to demonstrate that determination. If the plan succeeds, then of course the requirement for the multinational force reduces, including in Baghdad. It is important to show—particularly to show the Iraqi people—that we do not desire our forces to remain for any longer than they are needed, but, while they are needed, that we will be at their side. In this context, what is happening in Basra is of huge importance. Over the past months, we have been conducting an operation in Basra, with the 10th division of the Iraqi army, to reach the stage where Basra can be secured by the Iraqis themselves.

The situation in Basra is very different from that in Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency and no al-Qaeda base. There is little Shi’a on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the multinational force. It has never presented anything like the challenge in Baghdad. That said, British soldiers are under regular, and often intense fire from extremist groups, notably elements of Jaish-al-Mahdi. I would like, as I have often done in this House, to pay my profound respect to the British armed forces. Whatever views people have about Iraq, our forces are dedicated, professional, committed and brave beyond belief. This country can be immensely proud of them, and we send again our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen and to the injured and their families.

As a result of the operation in Basra, which is now complete, the Iraqi forces now have the primary role for security in most parts of the city. It is a still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place, but many extremists have been arrested or have left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis after the operations have been conducted show a much greater sense of security. Reconstruction is now happening in schools and health centres; in fact, there are about 300 projects altogether.

A few days ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, organised the Basra development forum. He announced a $200 million programme of development and infrastructure in public services. In addition, the international community, with Britain in the lead, has developed projects to increase power supply, put in place proper sewerage systems and increased the supply of drinking water to thousands of homes. The plan to develop Basra port will be published later this year. The problems remain formidable, not least in providing work where for decades 50 per cent. or more of the city’s inhabitants have been unemployed. In an extraordinary development, the Marsh Arabs, driven from one of the world’s foremost ecological sites by Saddam, have been able to resettle there.

What all this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis. I have discussed this with Prime Minister Maliki, and our proposals have his full support and, indeed, represent his wishes.

Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra over the coming months we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. I should say that none of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100—itself down from more than 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict—to roughly 5,500. However, with the exception of forces which will remain at Basra palace, the British forces will be located at Basra airbase and be in a support role. They will transfer the Shaibah logistics base, the old state building and the Shatt al-Arab hotel to full Iraqi control.

The British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and support to Iraqi forces; securing the Iraq-Iran border; securing supply routes; and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and to be there in support of the Iraqi army when called upon. Over time, and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the Iraqi security forces, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer.

We hope that Maysan province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months, and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly, our role will be support and training and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly.

Throughout the whole of that part of the south-east, the UK depends on the steadfastness of our coalition partners: Denmark, Australia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. I pay tribute to them. I welcome the continuing Australian role at Tallil in Dhi Qar province. We are keeping in close touch with our allies as the transition proceeds.

The speed at which that happens depends partly on what we do and what the Iraqi authorities do, but also on the attitude of those whom we are, together, fighting. Their claim to be fighting for the liberation of their country is a palpable lie. They know perfectly well that if they stop the terror, agree to let the UN democratic process work and allow the natural talent and wealth of the country to emerge, Iraq would prosper and we could leave. It is precisely their intent to eliminate such a possibility.

In truth, this is part of a wider struggle that is taking place across the region. The middle east faces an epochal struggle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. The same elements of extremism that try to submerge Iraq—or, for that matter, Afghanistan—stand in the way of a different and better future throughout the region.

None of that absolves us from our responsibility. Indeed, for too long we believed that, provided that regimes were on our side, what they did to their own people was their business. We must never forget that Saddam inflicted 1 million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war and butchered hundreds of thousands of his citizens, including by chemical weapons attack, wiping out whole villages.

We need to recognise that the spread of greater freedom, democracy and justice to the region is the best guarantee of our future security as well as the region’s prosperity. That is why peace between Israel and Palestine does not inhabit a different policy domain; it is a crucial part of the whole piece. I shall meet President Abbas later today and also talk to Prime Minister Olmert. In the past 24 hours, I have had detailed discussions with President Bush and Secretary Rice. I shall emphasise again today the importance of basing the proposed national unity Government on the principles of the Quartet. I will also stress our total determination to use the new opportunity to create the chance for peace.

I have always been a supporter of the state of Israel and I shall always remain so. However, for the sake of Israel as well as for all we want to achieve in the middle east, we need a proper, well-functioning, independent and viable state of Palestine.

We should support all those throughout the region who tread the path of progress, from the Government of Lebanon, whose Prime Minister courageously holds firm to democracy, to those countries—there are many now—that are taking the first, fledgling steps to a different and more democratic governance.

As for Iran and Syria, they should not be treated as if they were the same. There is evidence recently that Syria has realised the threat that al-Qaeda poses and is acting against it. However, its intentions towards Iraq remain ambiguous and towards Lebanon, hostile. The statements emanating from Iran are contradictory, but as the words yesterday of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency show, its nuclear weapons ambitions appear to continue. Both countries, though very different, have a clear choice: work with the international community or defy it. They can support peace in Palestine, democracy in Lebanon and the elected Government of Iraq, in which case they will find us willing to respond, or they can undermine every chance of progress, uniting with the worst and most violent elements, in which case they will become increasingly isolated politically and economically.

No one should doubt that, whatever the debates about tactics, the strategy must be clear: to bring about enduring change in the middle east as an indispensable part of our own enduring security. The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential—essential for Iraq but also for us in our country. Self-evidently, the challenge is enormous. It is the purpose of our enemies to make it so, but our purpose in the face of their threat should be to stand up to them to make it clear that, however arduous the challenge, the values that they represent will not win and those that we represent will.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. We welcome and support his announcement that 1,600 of our troops will return from Iraq by the end of this year. That news will be welcome in this House, in the country and especially to the families of those serving in Iraq over the coming months. We owe a huge debt to the professionalism, courage and dedication shown by our armed forces serving in Iraq, as elsewhere, and we should never forget those who lost their lives, whose families grieve for them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I visited Iraq in November. It was clear from our conversations with military commanders in Basra, who briefed us on Operation Sinbad, that there was a limit to what British troops could continue to achieve once that operation was completed, so it is right that they should now start to be withdrawn. But does the Prime Minister accept that that news is inevitably tempered by questions and concerns about the dire situation that persists in Iraq today, about its implications for Iraq’s neighbours and the rest of the region and, above all, about the safety and security of our troops who will remain?

In his statement today, the Prime Minister spoke about “wretched and inexcusable bloodshed”, and an “orgy of terrorism” in Baghdad. Will the Prime Minister pledge to continue to give candid assessments about the security situation in Iraq, particularly about the situation facing our forces in Basra? Anyone who has been there can see how it has deteriorated dramatically over the last three years. British troops who are there, often on their second or third tour, know that that is the case. The air station in Basra, to which many of our personnel will be withdrawn, comes under regular rocket attack, so what steps will be taken to ensure that our smaller forces based around Basra air station are able to protect themselves from encroaching militias? Will the Prime Minister confirm once again that all requests for equipment and protection will be granted?

Looking beyond Basra to the wider situation in Iraq, we, too, want to see Iraq become a stable democracy at peace with itself and at ease with its neighbours, but we are very far from that goal today. Does the Prime Minister agree that three things are essential to bring the situation under control? First, he spoke about the rapid build-up in the strength and capabilities of the Iraqi army. Can he tell us what he believes the major gaps still are and how quickly they can be filled? Secondly, we need a more determined effort, as he said, to push Iraq’s own political leaders towards an internal political settlement between Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd. Does he agree that that must mean the disarming of all militias? Thirdly, is not what is required the creation of an international contact group, including members of the Security Council and nearby states, to buttress and support the Government of Iraq? Can the Prime Minister tell the House what is being done to implement those steps?

All those were, of course, recommendations contained in the Baker-Hamilton report, which the Prime Minister set great store by at the time. But despite his claim in today’s statement that the Baker-Hamilton report informed the US strategy, those steps were not all included in the different plans announced by the US Administration last month, which the Prime Minister also supported. Will he continue specifically to press for an international contact group to be set up as Baker-Hamilton suggested?

The Prime Minister spoke of the effort to bring peace to the middle east. Again, we wholeheartedly support that. Tomorrow, like the Prime Minister, I will meet President Abbas and next week I will visit Israel and meet the Israeli Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister said that he is a strong supporter of the state of Israel; so am I.

I note that the Prime Minister said that Syria should be treated differently from Iran, which is a change from his rhetoric about “arcs of extremism”, but can he tell us how he plans to engage with Syria, and specifically, what were the results of his envoy’s visit to Damascus?

On Iran, the Prime Minister did not specifically mention that today marks the expiry of the UN Security Council deadline for the country to suspend nuclear enrichment. Will the Prime Minister call for EU countries to join the United States in implementing additional financial sanctions to maximise the peaceful pressure that we want to see on the Iranian regime, so that it turns away from its dangerous course?

The Prime Minister spoke—impressively, as he always does—about the importance of spreading democracy and freedom in the middle east. He is right. There is a global terror threat; it is linked with a perverted ideology that we need to confront both at home and abroad. There are times, I agree, when it may require, as a last resort, military force to deal with it, but surely he would agree with me that we must also learn the broader lessons of the six years since 9/11; that the strategy must go beyond military force, that we need the soft power of diplomacy to accompany the hard power of military action, that we need broad-based alliances right across the region, that democracy takes time and that we should always act with moral authority. As a moral purpose always must be accompanied by moral means, surely we must recognise that, in the last six years, issues like Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition have done huge damage to our moral authority.

On the question of learning lessons, can I ask the Prime Minister this? Many of us in the House supported the intervention in Iraq, but there have been many, many bad mistakes. Is it not essential that we learn the lessons of those mistakes? [Interruption.] I know that the Prime Minister has up to now said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by—[Interruption.]

Order. I hear noises from the Liberal Benches and they are out of order. Bearing in mind that the leader of the Liberal party will be able to put questions to the Prime Minister, those noises are quite out of order. The Leader of the official Opposition is speaking and I will not allow Liberal Democrat Members to intervene in that way.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I know that the Prime Minister has, up to now, said that the time is not right for a full-scale inquiry led by Privy Councillors into the conduct of the war and into the decisions that were made, but will he today accept at least the principle of the need for such an inquiry? Will he do that today?

First, it is very important that we do everything we can to protect our troops, who will still face a difficult task—there is no doubt about that at all—in Basra. They will continue, incidentally, with the full combat capability that they have. What they are essentially doing is withdrawing from parts of Basra and doing the patrolling there, but the ability to get after the extremist elements, including the ones that are attacking us, remains undiminished. They will continue to do so. Of course we will ensure that they have the equipment and protection that we can give them.

As for the Baker-Hamilton report, let me just explain that it is correct that, because of issues to do with Iran and Syria—I shall come back to them in a moment—it was very much taken as if the Administration’s plan published in January was a rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report, but the elements in it are the only elements that anyone looking into the issue could emphasise. They are building up the Iraqi army, building up the Iraqi governance capability and making sure that those in the region help and support in that process. Both the Baker-Hamilton report and the Administration’s proposals are geared to dealing with gaps in the Iraqi army, which are essentially to do with command and control logistics, training and equipping. General Petraeus is in the process of ensuring that those gaps are dealt with.

In respect of the Iraqi Government themselves, it is a lot to do with the actual capability of disbursing the money. For example, there is a lot of money in the Iraqi oil account that could be used for reconstruction. The fact that Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is now in charge of that will make a big difference. That is important.

In relation to the contact group, there is already such a group. The issue is the extent to which Iran and Syria are going to play a constructive role in it. To be absolutely frank about it, some of the debates about what our relationship is with Iran and Syria and whether or not we are dealing with them can seem more contradictory than they really are. Ultimately, the question is this. We are perfectly prepared to deal with Iran and Syria in relation to supporting and helping the situation in Iraq, provided they are prepared to do so. The issue is whether they are prepared to do so. In respect of Syria, I think there is some sign that the Syrian Government are prepared to help. We cannot be sure of this, but there are some tentative signs.

In respect of Iran, I have to say, it is perfectly obvious to us—in this sense, we support entirely what the Americans were saying last week—that the ordnance, much of which was used against British soldiers, has an Iranian origin. No one can be sure of the precise degree to which those in the senior levels of the Iranian Government are complicit, but it is certainly very clear that that is the origin of that weaponry.

So the issue with Iran and Syria is that we could have any number of groups and they could come to the meetings, but what would they say when they came? Would they help or would they hinder? That is the issue that we need to explore.

In respect of Iran’s suspension of its nuclear enrichment, we will try to get a strong united European position. It is clear that, as a result of the measures that have been taken, including the financial sanctions and the sending of the troop carrier, the warship, out there, there has been a change, but we need to keep up the pressure. A very serious and dangerous situation is happening in Iran.

On the broad fight against terrorism, there have been all sorts of debates about Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, and I am not sure that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “What?”] Incidentally, it is a matter of fact that the European report about Britain’s involvement in this is simply wrong. If we were to construct a broad alliance against this terrorism, and if I had to single out one, or possibly two, issues to deal with, they would not be to do with rendition or Guantanamo or even some of the things that should never have happened, such as Abu Ghraib, which have obviously been a problem for us too. I would say that the single biggest issue that we should resolve and deal with would be the Israel-Palestine question. We also need to tackle global poverty, particularly in parts of Africa, where, if we are not careful, this same type of extremism is going to take root. If we want a broad moral purpose, those are the two clearest issues that we could address.

We must also realise something else about these people. In my view, we will beat them when we realise that it is not our fault that they are doing it. We should not apologise—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry, we should not apologise for our values, for what we believe in or for what we do. The fact is that the values that we stand for are values that can unite Muslim, Christian and Jew, and people of different races and backgrounds, and terrorism will be better defeated if we do not apologise for our values but stand up for them.

On the inquiry, I have nothing to add to what I said before. I totally understand that it is sensible to learn the lessons, but we will get to that point when our troops are no longer functioning in a combat situation on the ground.

The Prime Minister is right to say that we should not apologise for our values, but that does not mean that we should avoid the responsibility of taking account of the consequences of our actions. Whatever views we may have on Iraq, we can all agree that our forces have conducted themselves with skill, professionalism and courage, as the Prime Minister has said. I, too, extend my sympathy to the families of those who have died, and to those who have been injured.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of the troop withdrawals, especially in view of the remarks made by the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, yesterday about overstretch and the difficulties being experienced by our armed forces. That does not alter my view of the need for a phased withdrawal with a target of the end of October, but I do not expect to be able to persuade the Prime Minister of that. We make common cause, however, in having regard to the history of our treatment of Iraq. In the period immediately following Halabja, the then British Government extended the amount of credit that they were willing to offer to Saddam Hussein, a matter commented on by Lord Justice Scott in his inquiry—[Interruption.] Well, if I may put it this way, let the blame lie where it should.

The unpalatable truth is that we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, in which reconstruction has stalled and corruption is endemic, and a region that is a lot less stable than it was in 2003. That is a long way short of the beacon of democracy for the middle east that was promised some four years ago.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister a number of questions. On the Iraq study group, when the Government expressed their general support for the findings of James Baker’s committee, did they endorse what the committee said about phased withdrawal and the need to engage with Iran and Syria? James Baker said that

“it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies”,

yet the Bush Administration’s response to these proposals—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) must be quiet. That is courtesy, and it is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should be able to address the House without her interfering.

When the Iraq study group under James Baker put forward those proposals, did the Government have them under contemplation when they said that they broadly agreed with his proposals? Does the Prime Minister agree that there has to be engagement with Iran as part of the wider regional engagement to which he referred? Will he ignore the voices in Washington that are arguing—and perhaps even preparing—for military action against Iran? In that regard, will he take heed of the wise reservations expressed yesterday by his Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Does the Prime Minister expressly support President Bush’s surge strategy, on which the United States Congress is now deeply divided? What assessment has been made of the likelihood of the displacement of terrorist activity to Basra as a result of that surge policy? Finally—and perhaps most significantly, in the diplomatic context—what progress did Dr. Rice report to the Prime Minister in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following her recent visit to the middle east?

Does the Prime Minister understand that nothing that he has said today will persuade those in all parties who voted against military action in Iraq that they were anything but right to do so? Nor will it persuade the British public that military action was anything other than a major foreign policy mistake.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have been in close discussion with Secretary of State Condi Rice—and, indeed, with the President—on this matter over the past few weeks. There are possibilities of progress and I hope that in the coming weeks a framework for taking this forward will become a little clearer. Perhaps it would not be sensible to say any more about that at this stage, but obviously I look forward to my discussions with President Abbas later today.

In respect of the strategy being pursued by American forces in Baghdad, the most important thing is that it is strongly supported by Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi Government. They recognise that the situation in Baghdad is different from that in Basra. In Baghdad, they want this security plan to be carried out and to move through the city and really take on the extremists. In Basra, the 10th Division of the Iraqi armed forces consists of about 5,000 troops and the truth of the matter is that it is capable of doing the job. A lot of the fire is directed at the multinational force, rather than involving sectarian violence, so it is a different situation there.

I do not have much to add to what I said to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) earlier about the Iraq survey group. The Baker-Hamilton report made it clear that it wants to see a draw-down of American troops when the conditions are right, and that is also the strategy of the Bush Administration. It has never been our strategy to hold the troops there in perpetuity. On the contrary, as the Iraqi capability builds up, the need for our capability reduces. Of course, that will depend on the circumstances and on the time. In Baghdad, the extremists have redoubled their efforts, so we have had to redouble ours.

I have never agreed with those who say that the situation in the middle east was stable under Saddam, but there we are. That is a disagreement and there is no point in going back over it—

Well, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the consequences of our actions, I agree that we are entirely responsible for the decision to remove Saddam. However, let me tell him about the profound nature of my disagreement with him over what has happened subsequently. Since the middle of 2003, a full United Nations democratic process has been available, which the Iraqi people have shown time and again that they want. It is not our actions that are preventing them from getting it; it is the actions of the extremists, the terrorists, and the outside extreme elements linking up with the internal extreme elements to deliver chaos in the country. In those circumstances, since our actions are not causing that—on the contrary, we are trying to stop it—our response should be to stand up and take those people on. That is the profound disagreement that I have with him: not about the original decision, on which we can just agree to disagree, but on the subsequent one. I cannot for the life of me see how it can be right, when those elements are conducting themselves in such a way, and the alternative has been voted for by the Iraqi people and backed by the UN, to say that we should walk away and leave them to get on with it.

In paying tribute to my right hon. Friend’s dedicated efforts to bring about peace between Palestine and Israel, may I remind him that however repugnant Hamas may be, its election victory was as valid and democratic as that of the Israeli Government and the Iraqi Government? Imposing restrictions on the democratic decision of the Palestinian people, in all their poverty and deprivation, will simply strengthen their support for Hamas and make the settlement that he wants so much to achieve even more difficult.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his commendation of the efforts that we are making. I want to see a national unity Government, and it is far easier to deal with the situation in Palestine if there is one. It is difficult, however, for us to support that Government financially, or to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, if they are not prepared at least to say that they renounce violence or terrorism as a way of getting progress, and that they favour a two-state solution, since that is the position of the international community. I hope that we can make progress, including with the more sensible elements of Hamas. It is not a question of ignoring Hamas’s mandate; the problem is how we can take the peace process forward with a Government who say that they do not even recognise the right of Israel to exist. At some point, we must find our way around that in a manner that is obedient to the Quartet principles; otherwise, we will find it very hard to make progress. My right hon. Friend will know that the political situation in Israel—which is a democracy—would make it hard for any Government there to make progress unless there was some give in relation to the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. How can we negotiate two states when one side says that the other should not exist? We must try to resolve that problem.

Does the Prime Minister agree that of all the British newspapers today, The Sun got it most right when it said that the heroes who are coming back from Iraq deserve a heroes’ welcome? I was a little surprised, however, by what the Prime Minister said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Does not he agree that damage has been done to the reputation of both the United States and the United Kingdom by Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition? Does not he agree that there is nothing to be said by way of apology for our values, but that we need to uphold our values and act on them?

I have said what I have said about Guantanamo Bay on many occasions. We should never forget that it arose out of the situation of 9/11, the problems in Afghanistan and so on. A judgment must be made, but if we are talking about how to win the battle of ideology, particularly in the Muslim world, the two issues that I have mentioned—progress on Israel-Palestine and progress on poverty—are probably the major ones for those in the Muslim community here, let alone elsewhere. If we are standing up for the rule of law, I agree, of course, that we must promote that in an even-handed and sensible way.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that there are many heroes in Iraq, including the people of Iraq themselves. This week, we had a visit from a group of 11 representatives of teachers unions from Iraq. One of them was the wife of a man who had been executed by the regime, and another was a schools inspector who had spent four years on death row under the old regime. Whatever the leader of the Liberal Democrats says—I hope that he will go to Iraq soon, because unlike many of us, he has never been there, as far as I know—one of the teachers said:

“We are optimistic that all these things will be ended within one year, two years, three years. Then we are expecting a new life, a better life.”

Another teacher, Mohammed Saeed Hatem, said that the situation today

“was still better than it was. A bloody dictatorship has gone.”

We should not forget that.

The Prime Minister’s statement sounded like a long self-justification for the horrors of the last four years, and at points almost like something prepared for the day of judgment rather than for the House of Commons. He says that he does not apologise for values, although he did apologise for the slave trade, for which he had no personal responsibility. Will he at least apologise for the misinformation on weapons of mass destruction, which took us into Iraq, and the carnage that has been a direct result?

I have already said what I have said on that on numerous occasions. The reason I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should let the Prime Minister answer. By the way, I am not responsible for his answer.

That is just as well for you, Mr. Speaker.

As to the point on which the hon. Gentleman and I disagree totally, what has happened in Iraq in the past few years, which has been grim and difficult, is sometimes presented as a consequence of planning that was not done right or an administrative fault somewhere. However, the reason why there has been a problem is that the people whom we are fighting have a strategy: to plunge Iraq into chaos in order to stop democracy functioning. The point that I have made the whole time is that, given that the majority of Iraqis have indicated that they want peace, why should we not be at their side, helping them to get that democracy, rather than yielding to the same terrorism and ideology that killed the people on the train that we were hearing about just a short time ago? Ultimately, the hon. Gentleman believes that we should just walk away and let them get on with it; I do not.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is growing concern about what appears to be the mounting tension between northern Iraq and the Government of Turkey and, indeed, between the Kurds and Turkey? Given that some of the parties have apparently been involved in discussions with the American Administration, will the Prime Minister give the House a British perspective on those matters and an assurance that we will encourage dialogue and a peaceful solution to whatever problems there may be?

I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. We track the situation carefully, and we work both with those in Kurdistan and in Turkey to try to diminish any tensions as far as possible. I entirely agree that that is a sensible objective.

The Prime Minister is still in denial. Does he still not understand that the ability of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations to use Iraq as a battleground was only possible because of the decision that he and President Bush took to invade that country? Since then, not only has Iraq virtually disintegrated, with 100,000 Iraqi lives lost, but 2 million Iraqis have become refugees in fear of their lives and Iran has become the hegemonic power in the region. The Prime Minister is right that we should not apologise for our values, but I am afraid that he still has the obligation to apologise to this House and this country for his foolish decision to take this country to war in the first place.

I am afraid that, for obvious reasons, I completely disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not believe that it was right to leave Saddam Hussein, who had butchered hundreds of thousands of his people, and killed people using chemical weapons, in power. I do not believe that that was a sensible situation to leave in place. Again, as I have said to other hon. Members, the fact is that the reason why it is tough in Iraq is that terrorists are making it difficult. Therefore, our response—[Interruption.] With the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we did not cause the terrorism. The terrorists cause the terrorism. He has to understand that we will not defeat these people unless we stand up to them in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Anywhere where they rear their heads, we should be prepared to stand up and fight them. If we adopt the attitude that he has, we are well on the way to surrendering the initiative to them.

I look forward, as we all do, to the day when the last British soldier leaves Iraq, and I heard what my right hon. Friend said in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, but will he acknowledge that, given the range of hostile elements in Iraq, there is a limit to the extent to which he can reduce the number of troops in any area without beginning to increase the risk to them? Will he assure the House that in reaching decisions in future about reducing force numbers, the safety of the troops that remain deployed will be paramount?

Of course it will remain paramount. Of course, troops will still be subject to attack at Basra air base, although they are going to have the capacity to respond to that, and they will do so vigorously—indeed they have been taking combat action against some of those extremist elements with great success over the past few weeks—but the biggest problem that our troops have is that they are very much at risk when they are on patrol in Basra, so the fact that they are going out of the main districts in Basra will, hopefully, reduce the risk to them at least there. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing out the fact that we will continue to have a real challenge there and it is a challenge that our forces will continue to have to meet.

We all hope that today's statement from the Prime Minister marks the beginning of the end in terms of the active engagement of our armed forces. None the less, I am sure that he would want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that, for the rest of us, in this country and the world generally, it is far from the beginning of the end. The quagmire that we are almost inevitably leaving behind in Iraq, given what will now take place, will have ramifications. While he is right, or he takes the view that he is right, that no apologies should be offered, surely he should none the less take this opportunity to say that, for our country and for the Americans, it was a horrendous error at least, given what took place, never to give effect to a proper body count of the innocent Iraqi men, women and children who were lost as a result of the conflict that has taken place. That is a terrible reflection on our values as perceived in that country and the Arabic world generally—one which we will live with for a long time. When the Prime Minister did have his discussion with—

First, I simply do not accept, as I have said before, that innocent people in Iraq are dying as a result of our actions. They are not. They are dying as a result of the actions of terrorists and sectarians. I do not agree that our troops, as they withdraw from that part of Basra, are leaving a quagmire behind. They are not. The right hon. Gentleman should read carefully the accounts of the operation that has been conducted by British troops and pay attention. I do not think that we should completely disfranchise the elected Iraqi politicians in this situation. Those politicians have been elected. They are part of the Government and they do not believe that their country would have been better off if Saddam were still in charge. Nor do they believe that what is happening in their country today is leaving it a quagmire. They believe that they have the same right to democratic freedom as we have. I do not see why we should not support them in that.

The Prime Minister has referred several times to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group recommendations and he is right that the British Government have been engaged with Syria and Iran. Is not the essence of those recommendations that the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, should change its approach and perhaps do what it has done with North Korea? Perhaps that would be the best way of getting a solution in the region.

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. Of course there is a lot of wisdom in the view that it is important, even if you believe that people are hostile to you, to engage with them. It is precisely for that reason—I played some part in the discussions that led up to this—that the Americans agreed that, if there were a suspension of enrichment, which after all is the United Nations demand, they would participate in talks with the Iranians, for the first time in 27 years. They did make that offer. Indeed, they have made continual offers. It is hard to believe that the reason why the Iranians are doing what they are doing is that they do not know where the Americans or the rest of us stand on these issues. I think that they do. The Iranians, in my experience, are past masters at having all sorts of discussions with people and seeing different people—people go in and out of Tehran the whole time, back channels are opened here and there and everyone thinks that perhaps they are really going to make progress this time—and then it all never comes to anything. They have to realise that the international community is going to be firm as well as prepared to engage with them in order to get any results from them.

Today's news is extremely good. Does the Prime Minister accept that he deserves genuine credit for having kept his nerve and not withdrawn the troops prematurely, despite the strong pressures on him? We have got to the point today where we are making some real progress. On Iran, while of course diplomacy must be tried, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is correct that we need to go for tougher sanctions, particularly if we can get them through the Security Council, would it not be utterly irresponsible not to recognise that there is a real possibility that the last thing the Iranians want or would accept is a strong, united and successful democratic Iraq on their borders, and the last thing that they will ever agree to do, whatever the pressures on them, is to give up their enrichment and their nuclear weapons programmes? Do we not seriously have to confront that unfortunate, hideous possibility and plan accordingly?

I think that what the hon. Gentleman is saying is right in this sense. No one wants to resolve the issue with Iran in anything other than a diplomatic way, and no one is looking for confrontation with Iran, but we are faced with two unfortunate facts, as he rightly says. One is, as we can see from today, that they intend to carry on their enrichment process, which cannot be about civil nuclear power. The second is that all over the region, but obviously in Iraq, they are trying to do their utmost to undermine proper, elected Government. I think that it is possible to exert the right pressure, but he is right: we will have a far better chance of resolving this peacefully, as everyone wants, if the international community remains united and strong.

I for one will not use my right hon. Friend as an excuse for how I voted at the time. As he may know, I am quite capable of making up my own mind, as I did over Kosovo. Would it not be right to recognise that the large majority of British people, four years after the defeat and ending of Saddam’s tyranny, want to see a continuing reduction of British troops in that country, more or less along the lines that he has indicated—in fact, more so? We cannot stay there indefinitely. Whatever the United States decides to do, the policy that he has outlined today is indeed the right one.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I know that he would only vote according to his conscience on any of these issues. It is important to recognise the fundamental difference between Basra and Baghdad. The situation in Baghdad is simply not the same. The best guide for our own actions is the Iraqi Government. They are keen on the proposal to ensure that the Baghdad security plan is still in place and implemented. They are equally keen that the British draw down in Basra. That is because they recognise that, whereas in the one place they are fully capable of taking that control, in the other, they are not. That is a sensible way to approach that matter. I pay tribute to the allies that we have had in the south, who have done magnificent work there. This is always put in terms of British and American troops, but well over 20 other countries have been involved.

Is it correct that before the last Iraqi elections the Prime Minister sent officials from his office to assist the Iraqi party of his choice—the party of the then Iraqi Prime Minister? I am pretty confident that that is correct. It would be completely unacceptable if a foreign Government were to offer such assistance to a political party in our country, so why did the Prime Minister think that it was acceptable for the United Kingdom Government to do that in Iraq?

It is always important that we do everything we can to assist stability in that country. I will not go into the details of any help that we provided to that particular Prime Minister or any other Iraqi politician. If the hon. Gentleman were dealing with this matter in the way that I am, I think that he would do everything he could to make sure that we get the necessary stability in Iraq, and sometimes it is important to work through certain politicians to do that.

Does the Prime Minister realise that many people outside the House will find it very strange that in his statement he made no reference to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died in the past four years, or to the effect of depleted uranium usage, and the cancer rates in Iraq, or to the remaining cluster bombs? Does he not also think that the current attitude towards Iran and the threats being made towards it are leading us into another disaster like that which we are apparently about to come out of in Iraq?

I made specific mention, as I always do, of the terrible carnage; I think that I called it the wretched and inexcusable bloodshed. The only point I would make is one that I have made to other Members: that carnage is being caused by terrorists and extremists. It is important that we try to fight that in that country.

In respect of Iran, the issue is very simple. We will not get ourselves into the ludicrous position where a large part of western opinion is asking, “Why are we seeking this confrontation with Iran?” We are not seeking any confrontation with Iran. We are simply pointing out that, under its international obligations, it should not be developing a nuclear weapons programme and that it should stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine and elsewhere. I would have thought that, even from a progressive political point of view, we should be saying to Iran that both of those activities are wrong.

Does the Prime Minister accept that announcing a timetable for withdrawal from any conflict while it is still going on sends an invitation to insurgents to redouble their efforts? Does he accept that that is not what he has done today, but that it was spun in the media last night that that was what he was going to do? Will he take this opportunity to distance himself from last night’s media reports that he was setting a timetable for withdrawal, which would have put our soldiers at risk?

First, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that my experience over the past few years is that I am singularly incapable of spinning the media one way or another on issues—[Interruption]—particularly on this issue, on which it is incredibly difficult to get any balanced coverage at all. However, what he says is absolutely right. The reason why we are able to draw down is because the conditions have been met. It would be absolutely disastrous—we are not doing this in any shape or form—to say that future draw-downs are unconditional. Everything is conditions-based—based on progress and the capability of the Iraqi forces.

I agree with the Prime Minister that the Israel-Palestinian question is fundamental, but does he agree that there is currently a vacuum in the Palestinian territories? I saw with my own eyes during the summer the increasing squalor and poverty there, and in a breakfast meeting this morning with the Israeli Finance Minister it was acknowledged that an economic development initiative for the whole area is essential—an initiative that tackles the land ownership question and also allows greater freedom of movement, thereby stimulating more inward investment and increasing the chances of both peace and prosperity in that area.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend: that is exactly what is necessary. The question is how to achieve that. We need a political framework within which a negotiated solution can take place. I think that it should be possible to get a solution to the situation in the middle east even though people say, “It’s been going on for decades so how on earth can you be optimistic about that in any shape or form, particularly given the suffering of people on the Palestinian side, and not to mention the lack of security in parts of Israel, too?” The reason why I think that that is possible is because everyone is now agreed that we want a two-state solution. The territorial issue has to be solved, which can done, and there are issues to do with right of return and Jerusalem, which are difficult but not incapable of resolution, but the rest of it is just to decide for peace. If there were peace, the Palestinian territory would, of course, attract massive investment. That is what is so tragic about the current situation. As we have learned from the example in Northern Ireland, where there is peace we get economic development. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, but what is needed is for everybody—all the key parties—to agree to the basic principles of the framework that I hope we will be able to set out in the near future.

The Prime Minister states that he wants to keep the troops in Iraq while the Iraqi people want them there. When, therefore, will the Prime Minister organise a democratic referendum by secret ballot of the Iraqi people to find out what they want?

They had an election: 12 million of them voted—the turnout was 70 per cent.—and they elected a Government, who are a unity Government. That is what they said they wanted. We would do well to take account of the elected Government of Iraq rather than, with the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the professionalism of our forces in Basra, which has enabled them to come back. I also agree that the real issue in Iraq is to resolve the situation in Baghdad. In order to do that, would he look towards the Organisation of the Islamic Conference—apart from Syria—having a greater engagement?

Yes, I think that if the OIC can play a greater role, that would be sensible. Certainly it is important that all the countries in the area do what they can to assist; that is because they have a profound self-interest in doing so, quite apart from any other reason.

On the broader issue of the landscape of moral purpose and of values, how does the Prime Minister reconcile his entirely laudable aims in regard to poverty and democracy with the deeper problem of theocratic fundamentalism that drives so many of the policies in the region?

I do not think that poverty per se is the reason for that theocratic fundamentalism; I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, I do think that improved economic development plays a part. That is particularly the case in the African context where there are very worrying developments with this same type of extremism getting a foothold in conflicts. In general terms, the more prosperous and democratic people are, the less inclined they are to be drawn to any form of fundamentalism, political or theocratic.

Let me say what I think is the interesting thing about Iraq and Afghanistan. Where the people were given the chance to vote, they voted not to have fundamentalism. They voted for a broad-based non-sectarian Government. The key question is whether the extremists—some of whom are attached to theocratic fundamentalist movements—can push them into sectarianism, even though their first desire was not to go towards that at all. We need to deal with both of the issues referred to, but I believe that the more economic development there is in the region, the better it will be.