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Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

Last Monday I visited Iraq and discussed the coalition’s counter-insurgency operations with General Petraeus and others. The military part of the counter-insurgency strategy has a number of strands, including targeted operations and restriction of freedom of movement. The political and economic regeneration efforts are key components, and it is the Iraqi Government who must deliver for the people. If they do not, the insurgents will seek to fill the gap. When I met the Iraqi Prime Minister and the presidency council with the Chancellor, we pressed this point.

A couple of weeks ago the Defence Committee was in Washington and there was considerable interest in what the Prime Minister-elect might do about Iraq. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Prime Minister-elect about the future of British troops there?

I have discussions with a number of people about the future of the British troops in Iraq, but the hon. Gentleman can be reassured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is, as we know, shortly to be Prime Minister, supports entirely the strategy in which we are engaged with our allies in Iraq, and supports the process of transition of the Iraqi Government and Iraqi forces to providing security. That is exactly the message that my right hon. Friend gave the Iraqi Government, and which I gave to those whom I met when I was in Washington recently myself. I am sure that that is the message that the hon. Gentleman was able to give his interlocutors when he was in Washington.

Has the counter-insurgency programme revealed more about the origins of small arms used against coalition forces, ordnance used against them, and explosives used against both coalition forces and the people of Iraq, and whether those bear the fingerprints of Iran or have emanated from Iran? Can my right hon. Friend update the House about what his Ministry knows about the routes from Iran of the weapons being used against us and the people of Iraq?

My hon. Friend is aware that there is evidence to suggest that armaments and, in particular, improvised explosive devices—roadside bombs, for want of another way of describing them—are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq, and that they have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have UK forces deployed along the border in Maysan and why we continue to train and mentor the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, which has ultimate responsibility for border issues. It is also one of the reasons why the coalition and the Iraqi security forces conduct boarding operations in Iraqi territorial waters and the northern Gulf.

Whatever the effects of new counter-insurgency measures in Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that our forces are suffering high numbers of casualties in southern Iraq? The battalion referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, recently returned having suffered 50 wounded, as well as the three killed. The 4th Battalion the Rifles in its first 48 hours suffered 15 casualties, plus one killed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the number of wounded from Iraq is becoming one of the best-kept secrets in this country? If the public were made aware of the numbers, they might be able to give more support to our returning soldiers and understand the problems that they are going through.

There is nothing secret at all about the number of wounded in Iraq. Indeed, the figures are on the MOD’s website. Since I have become the Secretary of State, we have been updating that information fortnightly to ensure that it is current, because there were complaints when we were updating it monthly that it was being held back for too long. We are able to update it fortnightly, so there is no question of the information being kept secret. From my point of view as Secretary of State, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Just as yesterday and over the past week the knowledge of the sacrifice that our services made in relation to the Falklands was part of the country’s appreciation of their contribution, the people of this country should know exactly the sacrifices that our young men and women are making for our freedoms when they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am very conscious of the level of casualties and our need to do everything we can to reduce that casualty rate to a minimum. I am pleased to say that through our counter-insurgency strategy we have seen some progress in that regard, in relation to how we deal with indirect fire in southern Iraq.

To return to the Iranian influence mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to welcome the talks between the United States and Iran on the general security situation in Iraq. However, given that, as he says, it is British forces in southern Iraq who are facing the insurgency, as are British forces on the border with Iran, what involvement did the UK have in those discussions? Was a British general present at that meeting between the United States and Iran, and if not, why not? As our armed forces are involved, surely we should be part of those discussions.

The reason why there was no British general present at the meeting between the US ambassador to Iraq and the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is that no military people were present at that meeting at all. It was a meeting between the ambassadors of those respective countries. We should of course welcome that development in terms of the engagement between these two countries, which have not had such a level of engagement for some decades. The hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House can rest assured that we take every opportunity that we can to impress on the Iranians the need for them to counter the flow of weaponry, support and training that we believe is coming into southern Iraq and other parts of Iraq. It is not in the interests of Iran, which will continue to have close relations with Iraq in the future, to destabilise that part of Iraq. We make that very clear to them and take every opportunity we can to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the only way to bear down on this is through direct talks with the Iranians, and indeed the Syrians, to make it clear that if they are in any way supporting the insurrectionists’ activities in Iraq, we will take a dim—or even stronger—view of that? I wonder what attempts he is making to talk to the Iranians and the Syrians.

I cannot make it any clearer to my hon. Friend or to anyone else that we take every opportunity we can to get that message across to the Iranian Government. In our view, the most effective interlocutors and the best carriers of the message are those who represent Governments in the region, particularly the Iraqi Government. On a recent trip to the Gulf states, I made it perfectly clear to those who regularly engage with the Iranian Government that they should give that Government the clear message that they are potentially destabilising southern Iraq and that, in the long term, they are undermining their own interests by their behaviour—not to mention the view that we take of their supported attacks by proxies on our own soldiers.

One other aspect of this issue is that if the counter-insurgency operations are successful in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, particularly those supported by Iran, there is a risk that Iranian-supported insurgents may simply move their operations and start to operate against our forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of that risk?

There is already emerging evidence that weaponry which has its provenance in Iran is crossing the border into Afghanistan, as I have said from the Dispatch Box before. We are taking steps to try to stop that traffic and to get the message back directly—on this occasion, directly by conversations between, among others, our respective ambassadors in Afghanistan, in order to get the message across to the Iranians. I think that the House knows that Iraq is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a significant number of countries in the region—[Hon. Members: “Iran!”] Sorry; Iran is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a number of countries in the region, and in my view, to repeat what I have said previously, it presents a strategic threat to the security of the region.