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Volume 460: debated on Monday 14 May 2007

The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. In Baghdad and surrounding areas, violence perpetrated by sectarian and insurgent groups remains a very serious problem. Recent action by Iraqi and coalition forces as part of the Baghdad security plan has led to a reduction in murders by the militia death squads. But the terrorist groups continue to use suicide bombings to inflame the sectarian divide.

Outside Baghdad and its environs—which account for around 80 per cent. of the violence in Iraq—the security situation is better, particularly in the north and south of the country. But there are still security challenges in both parts.

Everyone knows that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month’s time, a year’s time or two years’ time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target—the magnet—for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?

I understand why the hon. Gentleman put his question in that way, although his vocabulary was slightly extravagant at one stage. I have always sought to be straightforward with the House about the complexity of the challenge that we face, and the nature of the challenge that we ask our troops to face, in southern Iraq. I have always said that the transition process is a condition-based process, and I have evidence that that is exactly how we have dealt with it in the three provinces that we have already handed over.

I am not suggesting, and have never suggested, that those areas are perfect places in which to live. I am merely describing the evidence in respect of transition and provincial Iraqi control there. I was told, not only in the House but elsewhere, that there would be meltdown and mayhem within weeks, but in all three provinces the Iraqi security forces have been able to maintain some stability—although not complete stability—with the help of the politicians.

That is our objective for the city of Basra and the Basra province, and I will not take my eye from it, although the fact that we stand between the militia in southern Iraq and what they want to do to the people of southern Iraq makes us a target in the meantime. We have a duty to those people to stay with them, while maintaining the balance of which I have spoken in the past. We also have a duty to members of our forces who have lost their lives or sustained injuries in trying to achieve that objective to see it through.

One of the biggest challenges in Iraq remains the lack of helicopter lift. It was announced recently that the six Merlin helicopters that had been delivered to Denmark would be returned to the United Kingdom, but they are fitted for search and rescue, a fitting that is wholly unsuitable for service on operations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that funds will be found to fit those helicopters appropriately?

When I announced not only that the Danish Government had agreed to send us the six Merlin helicopters on the basis of their contract, but that the eight Chinook helicopters previously fitted for mark 3 performance but unable to fly would be refitted for mark 2 performance, I announced in the same statement funds to ensure that all the helicopters would be capable of deployment in the operational theatre. We will indeed ensure that funds are available to fit them appropriately. It is unthinkable that we would fly helicopters in the operational theatre that were not protected in the way in which all the helicopters we currently fly are protected.

For 18 months, military commanders have been advising that the mere presence of British troops is provoking violence. How much provocation do our troops have to give before the Secretary of State will bring them home?

Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort. I have already explained twice to the House that what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that.

We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.