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Volume 460: debated on Monday 14 May 2007

Good progress continues to be made in developing the capability of the Iraqi security forces. To date, more than 143,000 Iraqi armed forces have been trained and equipped by the multinational forces.

I welcome the progress that has been made in numbers. Can my right hon. Friend also report to us the progress that has been made in training the Iraqi armed forces in skills and operational capabilities?

We are continually looking to improve the effectiveness. As for numbers, we are getting towards the figure that was set as the target for recruitment. The emphasis is now on building the Iraqi security forces’ capability, particularly in leadership, command and control, intelligence and logistics. If the House wishes for evidence of the improvement in capability, I point to the conduct of the Iraqi security forces, especially the Iraqi army, in Amarah last October, their contribution to Operation Sinbad at the turn of the year, and the contribution of the 10th Division of the Iraqi army, which the United Kingdom has mentored in relation to the Baghdad security plan. In the assessment of others, including some hard-nosed American generals, they were among the best Iraqi troops deployed in Baghdad.

Just over a year ago when I and other Members visited HMS Bulwark in the Shatt al-Arab, we were advised that the Iraqi navy had been fully trained to carry out boarding, and the only reason why it could not do so was its lack of boats. Bearing in mind recent events, can the Minister confirm that the Iraqi navy is indeed fully trained to undertake boarding, and can he tell the House what efforts have been made to provide it with the necessary boats so that it can carry out those duties?

Better than that, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that about two weeks ago when I visited Umm Qasr, where the Iraqi navy is based, I saw for myself that not only was it fully trained to carry out boarding, but it was doing so, although that was further up the river than the area where the incident involving our Marines took place in March. With reference to equipment, within months the Iraqi navy will receive the first of 21 new boats, all of which have been specifically designed for it to carry out such work. In the meantime, it has boats, provided by the Italians, from which it is able to carry out boarding.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that many Iraqi officers have been trained in Brecon, and to an extremely high standard?

I can, of course, confirm that. Significantly, that has been the case for some time now, not just in this phase of the development of the Iraqi army. It is amazing the number of very senior and older officers whom I meet when I go to Iraq who were trained in Britain, or in the British way in defence colleges elsewhere, perhaps in Pakistan or India.

Does the Secretary of State now accept that the Iraqi army would be in much better shape, and the security situation in Iraq would be more stable, if we had not expelled all Ba’athists from the army—and will he accept that a very bad mistake was made, and lessons had not been learned from what happened in Germany in 1945?

Retrospection always lends clarity to people’s opinions. I know from my conversations with Iraqis, and in particular with Iraqi politicians, that de-Ba’athification is still a contentious issue. I was not involved in the particular decisions that were being made at the time, but I understand their complexity. They were finely balanced decisions, and the balance may have fallen on the wrong side.

We welcome the progress made with regard to the training and deployment of Iraqi troops, but can my right hon. Friend give us an estimate of when he expects Iraqi troops to be of sufficient numbers and ability to take over all of the British sector in the south? What confidence does he have that the Iraqi forces will be able to monitor and control the border between Iraq and Iran?

When the balance between the level of threat in the remaining part of the south-east of Iraq—Basra province and Basra city—and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deal with that threat is right, we will be able to hand over. We are in that transition phase at the moment. In Basra city we have successfully handed over two of our operating bases and we have substantially handed over the Shaibah logistics base. We plan to consider the handing over of Basra palace within a matter of months, and around that time we will be able to assess whether the Iraqi security forces, in particular the 10th Division of the army, have reached a level of capability to face down the threat, as they have been able to do in the provinces that we have already handed over.