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Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I want to make a statement to set out detailed proposals for political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in Iraq, for the security of the Iraqi people, for the future configuration, new equipment and security of our own armed forces, and about the obligations that we owe to the local Iraqi staff who have supported us in our efforts.

I start as the whole House would want me to, by paying tribute to the seven members of our armed forces who, since July, have lost their lives in action in Iraq: Corporal Stephen Edwards, Private Craig Barber, Leading Aircraftman Martin Beard, Lance Sergeant Christopher Casey, Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath and Sergeants Mark Stansfield and Eddie Collins. I want to pay tribute also to the 18 who have died in Afghanistan: Lance Corporal Alex Hawkins, Guardsman David Atherton, Sergeant Barry Keen, Lance Corporal Michael Jones, Captain David Hicks, Privates Tony Rawson, Aaron McClure, Robert Foster, John Trumble, Damian Wright, Ben Ford, Johan Botha and Brian Tunnicliffe, Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge, Sergeant Craig Brelsford, Corporal Ivano Violino, Colour Sergeant Phillip Newman and Major Alexis Roberts.

They died doing vital work in the service of our country. We owe them, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude. They will never be forgotten. I also want to send our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen, and to the injured and their families.

Our strategy in Iraq as a Government has been first, political reconciliation, to work to bring together the political groupings in Basra and across Iraq; secondly, security, to ensure that the security of the Iraqi people and the new Iraqi democracy is properly safeguarded, as well as the security of our own armed forces; and thirdly, economic reconstruction, to work for an economy in Iraq where people have a stake in the future.

Our strategy is founded on the UN mandate renewed last November in UN Security Council resolution 1723. Whatever disagreements there have been with our decision to go to war, there can be little disagreement about the unanimous UN position affirming the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future, calling upon

“the International Community, particularly countries in the region and Iraq's neighbours, to support the Iraqi people in their pursuit of peace, stability, security, democracy and prosperity”.

Let me affirm, as I told Prime Minister Maliki last week, and as I have agreed with President Bush and our other allies, that we will meet our obligations, honour our commitments and discharge our duties to the international community and to the people of Iraq.

The future depends first of all upon sustained progress on political reconciliation. That is why, when I met Prime Minister Maliki and Vice-President Hashemi in Baghdad last week, I said that it was vital—they agreed—that the three plus one leadership group of the Prime Minister and presidency council meet now to take the political process forward; that key legislation be passed on sharing oil revenues, the constitutional review and provincial elections; that the Government must reach out to disaffected groups, as well as decide on next steps on detainees; and that local elections go ahead in early 2008 making provincial councils more representative. Our message to the Government of Iraq and to the leaders of all Iraqi communities and parties is that they must make the long-term decisions needed to achieve reconciliation.

The support of Iraq’s neighbours—including a commitment to prevent financing and support for militias and insurgent terrorist groups—is also critical to ensuring political reconciliation and security. I urge all nations to implement the international compact to renew Iraq’s economy, to participate in the neighbours conferences to boost co-operation and surmount divisions in the region, and to support the enhanced UN mission in Iraq. I renew our call—which I believe will be supported in all quarters of the House—for Iran and Syria to play a far more constructive role by halting their support for terrorists and armed groups operating in Iraq, continuing to improve border security, and arresting and detaining foreign fighters trying to reach Iraq. And we must all act against the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. When the people and security forces stand up to al-Qaeda—as in Anbar province, which it had declared to be its base—it can be driven out.

As I turn to the security situation, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the steadfastness of our coalition partners who are working with us—there are troops from Denmark, the Czech Republic and Lithuania—and to the continuing Australian and Romanian role. The achievement of a democratic Iraq matters to every civilized nation, and I pay tribute to all 26 nations—led by General Petraeus and the US—that have troops on the ground in Iraq.

As the Petraeus-Crocker report set out, the security gains made by the multinational forces this year have been significant, and as important as improving current security is building the capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can achieve our aim: that Iraqis step up, and progressively take over, security for themselves. In 2004, it was agreed with the Iraqi Government that in each of the 18 provinces security responsibility would be progressively transferred to Iraqi authorities as and when the conditions were right. Now we are in a position to announce further progress.

Over the past four years, the UK has helped train over 13,000 Iraqi army troops, including 10,000 now serving with the 10th Division which has been conducting operations in Basra and across the south of the country without any requirement for coalition ground support. As we also tackle corruption, 15,000 police officers are now trained and equipped in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army 14th Division, with about 11,000 men, is in the process of joining them and has already taken on responsibility for Basra city, bringing security force levels in the south to almost 30,000 now and over 35,000 by June next year.

Since we handed over our base in Basra city in early September, the security situation has been calmer. Indeed, in the last month there have been five indirect fire attacks on Basra air station, compared with 87 in July. Although the four southern provinces have about 20 per cent. of the population, they account for less than 5 per cent of overall violence in Iraq.

During our engagement in Iraq, we have always made it clear that all our decisions must be made on the basis of the assessments of our military commanders and actual conditions on the ground. As a result of the progress made in southern Iraq, US, UK and Iraqi commanders judged over the last 15 months that three of the four provinces in the UK area of control in southern Iraq were suitable for transition to the Iraqis. They have subsequently been transferred to Iraqi control.

As part of the process of putting the Iraqi forces in the lead in Basra, we have just gone through a demanding operation which involved consolidating our forces at Basra airport. That was successfully completed, as planned, last month. The next important stage in delivering our strategy to hand over security to the Iraqis is to move from a combat role in the rest of Basra province to overwatch, which will itself have two distinct stages. In the first, the British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and mentoring the Iraqi army and police force; securing supply routes and policing the Iran-Iraq border; and the ability to come to the assistance of the Iraqi security forces when called upon. Then in the spring of next year—and guided as always by the advice of our military commanders—we plan to move to a second stage of overwatch where the coalition would maintain a more limited re-intervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring.

I want now to explain how—after detailed discussions with our military commanders, a meeting of the national security committee, discussions with the Iraqi Government and our allies, and subject, of course, to conditions on the ground—we plan from next spring to reduce force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500. The first stage begins now. With the Iraqis already assuming security responsibility, we expect to establish provincial Iraqi control in Basra province in the next two months as announced by the Prime Minister of Iraq; to move to the first stage of overwatch; to reduce numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 at the start of September to 4,500 immediately after provincial Iraqi control and then to 4,000; and then in the second stage of overwatch from the spring—and guided, as always, by the advice of our military commanders—to reduce to around 2,500 troops, with a further decision about the next phase made then. In both stages of overwatch, around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq but elsewhere in the region. At all times, therefore, we will be achieving our long-term aim of handing over security to the Iraqi armed forces and police, honouring our obligations to the Iraqi people and their security, and ensuring the safety of our forces.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances. Existing staff who have been employed by us for more than 12 months and have completed their work will be able to apply for a package of financial payments to aid resettlement in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, or—in agreed circumstances—for admission to the UK. Professional staff, including interpreters and translators, with a similar length of service who have left our employ since the beginning of 2005 will also be able to apply for assistance. We will make a further written statement on the detail of that scheme this week.

The purpose of economic reconstruction is to ensure that ordinary Iraqis have a stake in the future. So, as a result of work launched with Prime Minister Maliki in July, the provincial council has created the Basra investment promotion agency and is forming a Basra development fund—$30 million from the Iraqi Finance Minister—to help small business access finance. As announced this morning by the Iraqi Government, we have agreed on the need for a new Basra development commission. It will bring national, regional and international business knowledge together, and provide advice on increasing investment and economic growth. It will host a business leadership conference to strengthen the engagement of the UK private sector in Iraq. It will help the provincial authorities to co-ordinate projects to strengthen Basra’s position as an economic hub, including the development of Basra international airport and the renovation of the port.

I can tell the House that in addition to our support for humanitarian assistance—additional support announced today by the Department for International Development—Deputy Prime Minster Barham Saleh has announced over $300 million for investment in Basra. This will be increased again in 2008, ensuring that the third stage of what we are trying to do—economic reconstruction—can make real progress.

The safety and security of our armed forces remains our highest priority. The Mastiff patrol vehicle offers the best known protection against mines and roadside bombs. I can announce today that, in addition to the 100 bought and deployed last year in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence is placing an order for 140 Mastiff patrol vehicles. In recognition of the work of all our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help our troops stay in touch with home, we will now provide additional funding from the Reserve to double the number of internet terminals and provide free wireless internet for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that they can e-mail their families from their living quarters.

I am also convinced after my visit to the region that progress cannot be fully achieved without progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. A few days ago, we published our proposals for an economic road map to underpin the peace process—a programme for economic and social support for rebuilding the Palestinian economy and the reduction of high levels of poverty among the Palestinian people. The Foreign Secretary and I believe—as I think does the whole international community, including the US, the European Union and the Arab League—that the current dialogue between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert offers the best chance of final status negotiations since 2000. The next step is a meeting of the parties and key international players in November, at which we would like to see an agreement that puts the Israelis and Palestinians on a path to real negotiations during 2008, leading to a final settlement of two states living side by side in peace and security. There will be a donors conference in December. The international community will work with Prime Minister Fayyad to strengthen the economy of a future Palestinian state. I welcome Tony Blair’s work as the Quartet envoy on this. The UK will continue to support the political process and to provide support for humanitarian assistance and economic development, and I assure the House of my personal commitment to doing all that we can to ensure progress. Working for a successful conclusion to the middle east peace process, taking on al-Qaeda terrorism and ensuring a more secure Iraq are all key to the future stability of the region.

We have made commitments to the Iraqi people through the United Nations, and we will honour those obligations. We will continue to be actively engaged in Iraqi political and economic development. We will continue to assist the Iraqi Government and their security forces to help build their capabilities so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country. It is also important to remember what has brought us to this stage: the determination, professionalism and sacrifice of our armed forces. They have protected the Iraqi people while training their security forces to bring peace to their cities, towns and districts. The scale of their achievement will always be remembered, and we will continue to discharge our duties to them and to the international community.

I commend the statement to the House.

May I start by welcoming the Prime Minister’s statement? I hope that he will agree that statements on our troops should always be made in the House of Commons. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the 25 servicemen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since we last met. We owe them and their families a huge debt for their professionalism, courage and sacrifice.

The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home, and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. Could the Prime Minister clarify one point in that regard? He spoke about 500 logistic staff who will be based outside Iraq. Can he confirm that they will be moved from Iraq, or are some of them already based in neighbouring countries?

May I also welcome today’s announcement about the Iraqi interpreters? People who have risked their lives for Britain should never be let down by Britain.

In Iraq, our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission and to minimise the danger to our troops. With that in mind, I wish to ask the Prime Minister about three main issues: the reduction in troop numbers, the goals and the safety of our remaining troops, and the steps being taken towards a political settlement.

On troop numbers, decisions should clearly depend on the build-up of the Iraqi army and the state of security in southern Iraq. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the border between Iraq and Iran can be policed effectively, in what is called the second stage of overwatch, without the involvement of British troops? Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the 13,000 Iraqi troops that we have trained in the south are sufficient to maintain the security of southern Iraq?

That question leads to the second issue: the goals for our remaining troops and their safety. When troop numbers continue to be reduced, there comes a point at which they will lack a critical mass and cannot protect themselves properly. Is the Prime Minister absolutely satisfied that the reductions will not take us past that point? Furthermore, does he think that that is the minimum number necessary for such protection?

As the Prime Minister has said, Basra air station was subject to attack even before the move out from Basra palace. Is he now satisfied that the protection at Basra air station is adequate?

One of the purposes of the overwatch role is to deploy the troops again if necessary. So can the Prime Minister tell the House under what criteria such redeployment would take place, who would make that decision, and what size of force is required to make the potential to redeploy credible?

However much the international community does, there is clearly a limit to what outsiders are able to achieve. It is up to the Iraqi communities themselves to come together and achieve political stability. As anyone who has been to Iraq knows, political progress is painfully slow. The independent Government Accountability report in the United States last month said that just three of the 18 benchmarks that had been set for the Iraqi Government had been met. Will the Prime Minister confirm that no de-Ba’athification law has yet been enacted, and that laws governing the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues have been drafted but have not yet been passed?

The Prime Minister spoke about neighbours conferences. Does he agree that it is now time for a permanent international contact group, with a permanent secretariat, to ensure co-ordination with Iraq’s neighbours on the crucial issues facing the country?

It is essential that we learn from the mistakes in Iraq and that we do not repeat them in Afghanistan: too little co-ordination, too little political progress and lack of a realistic plan. Now that more troops are coming home, may we have the independent inquiry we need to learn the lessons? The Chief of the Defence Staff said that when it comes to reporting on progress all we get are

“snapshots…sometimes really good and sometimes really bad”.

Does the Prime Minister accept the need to provide Parliament with full, regular updates on progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will he take up our proposal for at least a full quarterly report?

On reflection does the Prime Minister agree that the way in which he made the announcement about troop withdrawals last week and the way it was briefed to the press were mistakes? He promised to make such announcements to the House of Commons, but he did not. He promised that 1,000 of our troops would be brought back before Christmas, yet is it not the case that 500 had already been announced and 270 were already back in the country?

I have to say to the Prime Minister that this is of a different order of magnitude from what we have had from him over the past decade. This is not double counting of Government spending. This is not just spinning the good bits of a Budget. This is about dealing with people’s lives and the families of our brave servicemen, and does he agree that this is not an acceptable way for a Prime Minister to behave?

Let me say first where I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I agree about the tribute that we both paid not only to those who have given their lives but to those who serve our country every day in the most difficult circumstances in Iraq.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, too, about the slow pace of political reconciliation in Iraq. It was precisely for that reason that I wanted to impress on Prime Minister Maliki the need for progress in bringing all the parties together and on the de-Ba’athification law, the distribution of oil revenues and setting up local elections, so that provincial elections, where councils are more representative, can take place. It is precisely for those reasons that I and others have to press Prime Minister Maliki and all the other sectarian groupings so that they can come together to form a Government who can work. We will work hard for political reconciliation.

The right hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a permanent group is covered by a United Nations resolution at the moment. What is likely to happen over the next few months is that there will be a second UN resolution, and of course what happens after that can be part of the discussions with our allies about a UN resolution.

On troop movements and reconfigurations, let me explain to the House that overwatch is in two phases. The first stage gives us a re-intervention capacity and the capacity to operate supply lines and to look at the border issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. It also gives us the capacity to train and mentor Iraqi forces. That is the position in three of the four provinces and we are likely to be in that position within two months in Basra province, which means that we shall be in a position to support Iraqi troops and also to re-intervene.

The next stage of overwatch can be entered only when we are satisfied that the security situation on the ground has improved. That is why we put so much emphasis on getting 30,000 security and police forces into Iraq, and it will be only when we decide, with military advice on the ground, that it is possible to move to the next stage that the main role of our troops will be training and support.

Of course, issues related to the Iraq-Iran border will be taken care of in that part of our work and we will also have to look carefully at whether there is a re-intervention capability in the spring, but the main work of our troops is what we have been aiming to achieve for years—to train Iraqi forces so that they can do the job for themselves. As far as the numbers are concerned—[Interruption.]—I am coming to exactly that point: 5,500 troops at the beginning of September, 4,500 immediately after provisional Iraqi control is declared, then down to 4,000 and then 2,500. That was not the announcement I made in Iraq last week. The announcement I made in Iraq last week was about what would happen in the next few weeks. This is the long-term strategy for overwatch—[Interruption]which means that the number of troops falls from 5,500 to 2,500. An additional 500 troops will be outside Iraq—it would not be helpful to say where for security reasons—in the region, supporting the efforts of our troops in Iraq.

I make no apology for visiting our troops in Iraq. I would have been criticised if I had come to the House without visiting our troops in Iraq. I make no apology for spending time talking to the Iraqi Government, the Prime Minister, the Vice-President, the Economic Ministers and the military commanders on the ground. If we are to have responsible politics in this country—[Interruption]Ministers who hold responsibility for the safety and security of our armed forces must visit them, listen to what they say, draw on their advice and then make the decision, which is what I am announcing today.

The Prime Minister began with a tribute to those who have died and been injured. Let me, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with that tribute. Let me, too, as he did, salute the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces—something that is too often taken for granted. The truth is, though, that they were given an impossible task in Iraq. Who now in the Government takes the blame for what the Chief of the Defence Staff called the “false and inflated expectations” of what they could achieve in Iraq?

Obviously, we welcome the Government’s change of heart in relation to interpreters and other civilians, but we are entitled to ask why it has taken so long and precisely how generous the terms will be. What is the Government’s estimate of the number of people who will be entitled to take advantage of that change of policy?

The Prime Minister has mentioned the target of 2,500 by next spring, but that is well below the figure that is thought appropriate for force protection. That has certainly been said by Ministers in recent times. In addition, from what the Prime Minister says, at 2,500, he does not anticipate any intervention taking place. If that is so, the question that immediately arises is what purpose will those troops serve.

The harsh truth is that Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been a catastrophe. We have paid dearly in lives, resources and reputation. Is it not time to acknowledge that the presence of British troops in Iraq no longer serves any realistic military or political purpose. Is it not time, too, to acknowledge that, after four and a half years, Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to the people of Iraq and that our obligation now is to our young men and women in our armed forces? Is it not time to acknowledge that the deployment in Iraq, where little more can be done, is prejudicial to our efforts in Afghanistan, where success is still possible? Is it not time now to set a framework and a programme for the complete withdrawal of all our forces from Iraq?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about our obligations to our armed forces—I am pleased that he said that both at the beginning and the end of his remarks—but we also have obligations to the international community, and I would have thought that the Liberal party, with its Gladstonian inheritance, would recognise the obligations that we have internationally, particularly in relation to UN resolutions that have been passed, calling on us to support the democracy of the Iraqi people.

On the specific questions about interpreters, let me give the House the information. There are probably 200 who would immediately qualify as past staff members. There are 250 who are staff members at the moment. There may be others who will join that list once they have done a year’s service. We will discharge our obligations that they will either gain help to go to a country of their choice or be able, in agreed circumstances, to come to the United Kingdom. We will provide the support that is necessary for that to happen.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument about force protection, I am acting—as are the Government—on military advice when I give the figures that I have given to the House today. If we are to move to the second stage of overwatch, which is primarily a role in respect of which we are giving training and support to the Iraqi security forces to operate in Basra with the police and armed forces themselves, then the figure that we have decided in consultation with our allies, and after taking military advice, is the figure of 2,500 that I am able to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That figure will be reached in spring next year, subject to military advice; then we will look again at the situation. But I want to dispel any suggestion that he makes that that number is insufficient for the force protection that we are talking about. The decisions that we make are made on military advice.

Sometimes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises us for having too few forces; he then criticises us for having too many. The correct position is this: we owe obligations under the United Nations to the Iraqi community. We will discharge our obligations. The Iraqis will take responsibility for their own security, and we will support them in doing so. Despite our disagreements about the decision to go to war, I hope that he will support us in the support that we give to the Iraqi people.

As one of the 139 Labour MPs who both spoke and voted against the invasion of Iraq, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind, when faced with carping criticism from the Tory party, that it was enthusiastically and overwhelmingly in favour of the invasion and never raised any quibbles at the time?

I also ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that everybody in this country welcomes the reductions that he announced last week and the further proposed reductions, and would welcome the announcement as soon as possible of the total withdrawal of British troops—wherever, however, and in whatever circumstances he decides to announce it.

We will discharge our obligations to the Iraqi people; I have to say to my right hon. Friend that that means that there will be no artificial timetable now for the final withdrawal of troops from Iraq. We will discharge our obligations during the two phases, but we will continue to review the numbers necessary to do so. I say to other parties in the House that if they have questions about the security situation at Basra airport, I shall be happy to offer them a briefing, on Privy Council terms, with our armed forces about both the numbers required and the jobs that will be done over the next few months.

I have to say to my right hon. Friend that there will be no artificial timetable. We shall continue to report to the House on what is necessary to discharge our obligations.

The Prime Minister will forgive me, but I do not think that we heard an answer to the question, posed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, about whether 270 of the troops whose withdrawal the Prime Minister announced last week had already returned home. Is that true?

I said that the figure on 1 September was 5,500 troops. It is now falling, after provincial Iraqi control, to 4,500. It then falls to 4,000, and then it will fall to 2,500. The idea that we are not reducing the numbers is completely—[Interruption.]

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that we were militarily engaged in Bosnia for 15 years, in Northern Ireland for 38 years and that we are still involved in Kosovo after eight years? Does he agree that after four difficult years in Iraq, we now have measurable and quantifiable success—not failure, as some people are trying to talk up?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for what he did as Minister for the armed forces. We appreciate his work in meeting and discharging his responsibilities to our forces. I have nothing but praise for our armed forces, because the work that they have had to do is not simply in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Ireland and the Falkland Islands. The work that has been done by our armed forces, at every stage, has been magnificent. It shows a professionalism, a commitment to duty and great courage. We are very proud of them.

Is the Prime Minister aware that it was said of Mr. Gladstone that he could convince most people of most things and himself of almost anything? As the Prime Minister was the second most powerful member of Tony Blair’s Government and one of the few people who could have stopped this country going to war, and as the result of not doing so there are more than 100,000 Iraqis dead and more than 2 million have fled their country, will he now accept his share of personal responsibility for what has been the greatest error in British foreign policy in recent times?

What I would say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that we are building a democracy in Iraq, free of Saddam Hussein. We are engaged now in political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. The situation I saw on the ground in Basra was one of a reduction in violence that makes it possible for provincial elections to be held and for economic reconstruction to yield results. I would hope that even if he disagreed with us on the decision to go to war, he would agree with us now that we must combine the political reconciliation we are pushing for, the economic reconstruction that we are financing and the security measures that I have announced to make it possible for the Iraqi democracy to play its full part in the region and the world.

Unlike some, I have never tried to hide the fact that I supported the measures that led to the destruction of the Saddam tyranny, and I am not in the process of apologising. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that it was never the intention that British troops in Iraq should stay indefinitely and therefore that there will be much welcome for a continued policy of the troops leaving Iraq at the most appropriate time?

The numbers that I have announced today make it clear that there were 45,000 UK troops at the time that Saddam Hussein fell and there will be 2,500 troops, subject to military advice, in the spring. That is a very substantial reduction in the numbers, but it is possible only because the Iraqis are now able to take responsibility for security themselves. I cannot emphasise enough that 30,000 people in the Iraqi security forces are being trained up in the police and the armed forces in the region. It is because there are 30,000 Iraqi security forces personnel in the southern parts of Iraq that it is possible for us to reduce our troop numbers. But I will not give my hon. Friend an artificial timetable that suggests that we can leave Iraq overnight. We will review the situation and discharge our responsibilities to the Iraqi people

On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, may I add my condolences to those previously expressed in the Chamber?

The latest invitee into the Prime Minister’s big tent—one Alan Greenspan—recently said that he thought that the Iraq war was all about oil. When the Prime Minister discusses economics with Mr. Greenspan, will he discuss his opinion of the reason for the war in Iraq? Can the Prime Minister give a reasonable and reliable figure for the likely number of ex-Ministry of Defence Iraqi employees who might come to Britain to seek asylum in due course? Finally, the Prime Minister has frantically been trying to row away from the Blair project and the Blair war—frantically rowing away from the Blair mother ship, as it were. Will he really make a difference, and show why he is so different, by apologising to the British people for this debacle?

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning and for his condolences in relation to those who have died in Iraq. I know that the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh are in Iraq at the moment. I think that I told the House the numbers of interpreters and other staff who would qualify under the scheme we have announced today. There are 200 who have already completed their work and 250 or so in situ. There are others who may qualify once they complete their work with us over a period of a year or more. Those are the kind of figures involved. They will either be people who will go to another country, with support from us, or, in agreed circumstances, come to the United Kingdom. Those are the figures that we are able to give at the moment. As far as the war itself is concerned, let us not forget the evil that Saddam Hussein did. Let us not forget also that we are building a democracy in Iraq. I can disagree with Dr. Greenspan as well. Our contribution must be to sustain a democracy in Iraq.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that I am absolutely sure that his innovative proposals for civilian staff in Iraq will be much welcomed, not only in the House but by the military, who recognise the vital importance of having good links with local staff, in this intervention and perhaps in others? I have a constituent who was involved in international protection for an international statesman who was visiting Iraq, and his life was saved by two local Iraqi security men. Are they the kind of staff whom my right hon. Friend envisages might be given access to the United Kingdom, as my constituent has requested?

The persons I am talking about are mainly interpreters and translators who have worked for the British forces in Iraq—our direct employees, some of whom have finished their work but are vulnerable to attack, and some of whom are still working with us but do not meet the year’s qualification, although they may do so at a later date. Those are the men and women who would qualify for the proposals that we are putting forward today.

Does the Prime Minister not accept that it is becoming almost impossible to see how the cause of democracy and development in Iraq can be served by the continuing presence of British troops? It is almost impossible to see how a rapidly reducing number can play any worthwhile part in overwatch, given the disorder in southern Iraq, and it is quite inconceivable that the Prime Minister will ever come to the House to suggest re-intervention, with a surge of troops or whatever, at any stage after today’s statement. If the statement is intended as political cover for removing the troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, will he give an undertaking that the only consideration will be the safety and reputation of British forces, not domestic political pressures, either here or in the United States?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the British forces are serving no purpose, that is not the view of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government want our support, and not only with respect to the supply routes that we manage at the moment and the re-intervention capability that we have. They want our support to train and mentor the Iraqi troops. We had a responsibility, which we are discharging, to train up 15,000 Iraqi armed forces, and we are helping with the training of Iraqi police. I met many of the people who have come from the United Kingdom simply to train those forces when I was in Basra last week.

I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is no purpose served by our presence. What our presence is designed to do is to make it possible for the Iraqis to take over security of their own country. I say this to him: look at the reduction in violence in Basra; look at the attempts that we can now make on economic reconstruction to give people a stake in the peace; look at the progress that has been made over these last few months. If that progress can continue, the Iraqis will not only be in a position to have their security forces in place to take over from ours, but will build, through local provincial elections, a local democracy that is capable of making decisions, based not on violence, but on people coming together to decide what is the common good. I am far from agreeing with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our forces serve no purpose; our forces are doing an important job—an important job that will end up, I accept, as simply one of training and mentoring the forces of Iraq.

Does the Prime Minister accept that well over 500,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the invasion started, and that more than 2 million Iraqis have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries, or into internal exile in Iraq? What support is being given to them? What support is being offered to Syria and Jordan, so that they can look after those people? If the Prime Minister is proposing that employees of the British armed forces be allowed to enter this country as a place of safety, is he also prepared to say that those Iraqis who have sought asylum in this country will not now be deported to Iraq?

First of all, I do not accept my hon. Friend’s figures. Secondly, the position of those who have served our armed forces, and put themselves at huge risk to do so while in the employment of our armed forces, is one that we ought to safeguard. Under the measures that I announced today, they will be able to apply for help outside Britain and will be able, in certain circumstances, either to go to another country with support from us, or to come to Britain. I accept that there are large numbers of Iraqis now outside Iraq, but one of the reasons why they are outside Iraq is that they need the security of a safe Iraq to come back to, and it is precisely for those reasons that we are building up the security forces of the Iraqis.

I think that it is often misunderstood that over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Iraqi security forces—both the armed forces and police—capable of managing their own security, and when the transfer of three provinces took place, it worked in a way that has been relatively calm. We believe that when we move to overwatch in Basra, there is a very good chance that we will have calmness as well, but we will work towards that, aiding the Iraqi security forces.

Can the Prime Minister confirm his response to the question—which he will well recall—that I repeatedly asked of his predecessor in office, in those long months in the build-up to the war, and which he never answered? I asked whether there could or would be circumstances in which the Americans would go in without the benefit of the backing of a second United Nations resolution and the British would not. Is not the sad fact of the matter, as we all now know, that there were never circumstances in which an American intervention would not be accompanied by British back-up? As the principal bankroller of that Government policy over those years, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that underlies all the difficulties that he is talking about this afternoon, and that it is our very presence in Iraq that is now the problem? Is it not an impossible wish, following a weekend in which he has been talking a lot about vision, for there to be a vision for a political settlement in Iraq because of the very circumstances to which our presence has contributed?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. We tried very hard for a second UN resolution. We worked very hard to achieve it, and unfortunately did not. Intervention in Iraq is now covered by a UN resolution. He should accept that the UN resolution is about our presence supporting the security, democracy and prosperity of the Iraqi people and, in my view, there will be a further UN resolution in the next few months. Instead of arguing about the causes, perhaps we could come together to support the democracy of the Iraqi people and to ensure that they have the security to run their own affairs and the economic reconstruction necessary for a stake in their future. I believe that that should be common ground among all of us in the House.

I believe that the men and women of the British armed forces, their families and the British people will welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. Is it not a fact that we are able to withdraw troops from Basra because of the success and professionalism of the British armed forces? Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be celebrating this announcement, rather than seeking to engage in party political posturing from the comfort of these Benches while the men and women of our armed forces are putting their lives on the line?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and I thank him for the work that he did as defence Minister and as veterans Minister. Over time, people will come to realise that the draw-down of British troops in Iraq is possible because the security situation has improved, and it is only because we have those 30,000 security forces being trained up that it is possible to make this announcement today. Over the past month, we have proved that, as a result of the transfer from Basra palace to Basra airport, the security situation in Basra has improved, and I hope that there will be a general acknowledgement that, as the security potential of the Iraqi forces improves, it will be possible for the numbers of our troops to fall.

As the Prime Minister is taking and listening carefully to military advice, will he assure the House that, as our troops return—whether temporarily or permanently—they are properly welcomed, properly recognised and properly housed?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is where we must make progress over the next few years. We have set aside £5 billion over the next 10 years for accommodation for our forces. That money will upgrade the existing single-person accommodation and help young families with someone serving in the forces to buy their own homes. The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the housing situation, and much more needs to be done. That is why we have set aside in the public spending review £5 billion over the next 10 years, and I assure him that the welfare of our troops is our first consideration.

I appreciate the Prime Minister’s caution in carefully describing the circumstances under which we will support those who worked for us in Iraq and also the interpreters. However, may I urge him to be generous and positive in the interpretation of those rules so that we do not end up with people feeling that they have been let down by this country?

There will be a statement later this week about the details of the scheme. If my hon. Friend has any particular points that she would like to raise, she would be very welcome to talk to Ministers about them. We have to deal with the people for whom we have a direct responsibility—interpreters and translators, people working in the employment of the British armed forces. That is what the scheme is essentially about, but if my hon. Friend has any particular representations to make, we will be happy to listen to them.

I agree with the Prime Minister that valuable work remains to be done for British troops in Iraq, but will he clarify his answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader the Opposition about what reserves will be available to the commander of overwatch troops in the later phases of this operation? Secondly, will he compare and contrast his own slippery manoeuvrings of the last weekend with the courage, steadiness and resolution of British troops on the ground in Iraq?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I praise the resolution, determination and courage of our British troops in Iraq. We will talk to our allies in detail about the next stage of overwatch. We have forces outside the border of Iraq as well, but the principal intention of moving to the next stage is to enable us to be the trainers and mentors of the Iraqi security forces who are taking responsibility for problems themselves.

Speaking as one of those who did not support the intervention in Iraq, I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister on the responsibility of his statement today. While we are talking about responsibility, does he agree that in respect of our obligations to the Iraqis and the international community, the people who would be let down most if we cut and run prematurely from Iraq would be those very British forces whose courage and professionalism has brought about the achievements that my right hon. Friend described, of which we can be so proud?

I met British forces in Basra who are proud of what they have achieved and I am proud of them. I am proud of what they have achieved in defending people in Basra itself, proud of what they have achieved in all the other provinces and also proud that they are training up the Iraqi security forces to do the work themselves. Although my hon. Friend disagreed with me about the origins of the war, I am glad that he has come to the view that it is necessary, in supporting both our troops and the Iraqi people, to take decisions in the measured way that we are doing by setting out the different stages through which we will draw down our forces.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement about the extra 140 Mastiff vehicles, which will be exceptionally welcome to our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Will he confirm that the cost will be borne by the Treasury and will not come out of the Army budget? In addition, will he ensure that any necessary medium-protected patrol vehicles—they are greatly needed, particularly in Iraq—will be provided and that modern doctrine will be overturned so that those vehicles that are procured will be designed to ensure maximum protection for our troops? I am talking about V-shaped hull vehicles.

As the Defence Secretary has pointed out to me, we are looking into those smaller vehicles to which the hon. Lady has drawn our attention, as there are important issues about security and safety. As for her more general question, the £120 million that we are spending is covered by the defence settlement. Where there are urgent requirements, we are prepared to meet them and we have spent several hundred millions in the last few months and years in meeting those requirements of our troops.

My constituents will very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of troop reductions, but does he agree that that is not only the right policy for this country, but demonstrates that the policy of political reconciliation, economic development and the Iraqi people taking responsibility for their own security is now working?

I hope that there will be general recognition in the whole House that, whatever the disagreements on Iraq and whatever the views on the slowness with which economic reconstruction has taken place, there is a unique opportunity now, as the security situation improves in the Basra province, for the work of economic reconstruction to give people a new means by which they can have a stake in the future.

What I would like to see over these next few months—I think we will see it, if we can bring the parties together—is the security situation improving as, at the same time, we invest in Iraq and in the Basra province, I hope with British businesses involved, as well as businesses from other countries, so that we can end the very high unemployment in that area and make people see that prosperity can go side by side with peace.

Was the Prime Minister’s statement in Iraq that 1,000 British troops were to be withdrawn agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence and provided by information from him?

These are all agreed figures: 5,500 to 4,500 to 4,000 to 2,500. I really do not understand. If we are reducing the number of troops to 2,500, that is a reduction, and that is the reduction that I am announcing today.

I do not think that the Prime Minister has answered the point about the border between Iran and Iraq. What assurances can he give about our capacity and that of the coalition forces to impede the bringing in of weapons and destructive explosives, which hit both Iraqis and coalition forces, bearing it in mind that his own Secretary of State for Defence said that so much that has been hurled against British troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan has its provenance—that is the word he used—in Iran? We are too nice to Iran, frankly—too diplomatically nice. I want to hear a more robust response.

Let me remind my hon. Friend that in my statement I made it absolutely clear that we call on the Iranians to stop people coming across the border, to stop weapons coming across the border and to stop the support of terrorists who are coming across the border. As for the policing of the border, there has been some success as a result of the work of the coalition troops, and we will continue to see the coalition troops police that border.

May I put again to the Prime Minister the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind): why did the Prime Minister not support Robin Cook from the start, when he opposed the atrociously foolish policy of invading and occupying Iraq, from which the Prime Minister is now struggling to extricate us, almost certainly leaving chaos behind?

We now have a democracy in Iraq, which we did not have before. We have the people of Iraq voting for a new constitution and in elections for representatives. I think that the task ahead—I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees with it, despite our disagreements on the war—is to support that democracy, to enable it to take over its own security, to build political reconciliation in that country and to have an economy that gives people a stake in its future. If that were the case, it would make a huge and significant difference to what happens in the rest of the middle east and the Arab states.

As we withdraw our troops from Iraq—I look forward to the complete withdrawal of all our troops—can we invest more in rebuilding Iraq and attracting back the many hundreds of thousands of professionals who have become part of the Iraqi diaspora, namely, the engineers, the teachers and others who are desperately needed to rebuild that benighted country?

It was precisely those matters that I was discussing last week with the Economic Ministers in Iraq—how, through encouraging new investment in the infrastructure and then through getting business development, particularly in the Basra area, which is potentially very rich, we can attract people back to Iraq and give Iraqi people a stake in the future. I say to my hon. Friend that the next stage, where we will be under test because we have to show that it will work, is to get the economic reconstruction process moving forward and show that we can bring prosperity to that area of the world.

When the Defence Committee visited Basra in July, we found that 90 per cent. of attacks were on our forces. Is not the logical position that we should withdraw our troops, as our withdrawal from Basra palace has led to significantly fewer attacks in the area? We are therefore part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I have to say that it was before our troops withdrew from Basra palace that the security situation in that area became a great deal calmer. Because we are training up the Iraqi security forces, they are in a position to police and provide security to that area. Far from moving quickly out of Iraq helping the Iraqi security forces, our presence to train and mentor them is an important element in bringing about a calm, or calmer, security situation. On the basis of that calmer security situation, we can build a better future for the Iraqi people.

I welcome the conditions-based approach, about which the Prime Minister has told us, on draw-down of troops, which will hopefully mean many more coming back to communities such as Plymouth. Does he associate himself with the calls made over the summer by General Dannatt and others not only for the Government, families and fellow service people to welcome our armed forces back, but for businesses and communities to do more to mark and recognise their service than they do at present?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does in her constituency on exactly that. I want us to recognise the contribution made by our armed forces more than we have done, and to support the families of our armed forces when they are abroad, in combat and in the firing line. I also hope to be able to announce new measures to help those who have been injured fighting for our country with compensation schemes that are more generous than they have been in the past.

The Prime Minister mentioned in his statement that the stability of the Iraq that our troops will leave behind depends very much on the behaviour of Iraq’s neighbours. Will he update the House on what recent connections, or at least correspondence, there have been with Syria? Will he also comment on the story in the papers that he has entered some agreement with the American President about treatment of Iran if it continues to threaten global stability?

There is no truth in that statement attributed to me in the papers at the weekend. As far as Syria is concerned, we continue to press it to play a far more positive role, to end support for terrorists in Lebanon, and to play a constructive role in the middle east peace process. Those matters are common ground on both sides of the House.