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Volume 470: debated on Monday 21 January 2008

The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. Levels of violence are still unacceptably high, but there has been significant improvement nationwide over the course of 2007. In and around Baghdad, for example, following action by Iraqi and coalition forces, security has been enhanced. In the south, the security situation remains relatively stable. The increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces, under the leadership of Generals Mohan and Jalil, enabled the successful handover of security responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqi civilian authorities on 16 December. The Iraqi security forces have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred since then, such as the disturbances in Basra and Nasiriyah during last week’s Ashura festival.

Senior elements in the Iraqi army say that they have enough people in Basra but that they are dangerously short of equipment. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the Iraqi Government that British efforts will have been wasted if the Iraqi army is unable to procure the relevant equipment quickly?

I am aware of the need to ensure that the Iraqi army is properly equipped to carry out the task that is expected of it. Of course, our focus is not only on training troops but on ensuring that the Iraqi Ministry of Defence is able, through its procurement process, which we support specifically by the deployment of support to the Ministry in Baghdad, to spend the increasing levels of income that the Iraqi Government are able to achieve from the sale of oil. We are making significant progress in that regard, and that equipment is improving day by day. I spoke to General Mohan when he visited last week, and I know that he has expressed some frustration about the pace at which that is happening, but that is a result of a number of different things and we are keeping a close eye on the situation. Procurement is improving.

Can the Secretary of State give us an indication of when he expects the last British troops finally to leave Iraq?

As I have said to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions, we keep these matters under review. We are clear about the progress that we have been able to make, particularly over the past 18 months, with regard to the reduction of our troops in Iraq. I have never been prepared to put a date on when we will remove the last of our troops from Iraq—and I am not prepared to do so now—but it will be a function of the conditions on the ground and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide security for their own people.

Reverting to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), one concern about the Iraqi Ministry of Defence’s procurement processes is that some factions within Iraq might be trying to keep the Iraqi army unnecessarily weak. What can we, the British, do about that? General Mohan is short of machine guns and mortars, and he needs a speedy answer to that problem.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman met General Mohan when he was here last week. I am sure that he was impressed, as I was, by the general’s professionalism and dedication to the job. We are all delighted that he has continued in the job beyond the date of his first appointment. He displayed commendable and professional energy and commitment. He did not raise that specific issue with me but I am sure that he raised comprehensively all the issues that he intended to raise with those whom he met. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but I must point out that, last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence was very successful in spending its procurement budget, to the extent of 85 per cent. We believe that the figure will also be about 85 per cent. this year.

My own observations on the restrictions on spending arise from the cumbersome conditions that have been imposed by the coalition authority to prevent corruption. The need for them is understandable, but the Iraqis are sometimes wary of working through them. I have not heard specific comments from any source about ethnic division in relation to procurement, but I can understand why people might think that such an issue might exist. I shall ensure that that does not become a manifest problem in Iraq in the months to come.

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about the security situation in Basra and he told the House that violence there was down by 90 per cent. Today, a member of the public from York wrote to me to say:

“He, the Prime Minister, chose not to mention that this”—

the decline in violence—

“is due entirely to the oppressive methods used by the police force. They impose extreme forms of Islam on the people. Women are unable to venture out in public unless their dress conforms to the extreme Islamic rules”—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not going to read out a full letter on a supplementary question. He is lucky that I called him.

Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the 90 per cent. figure used by the Prime Minister has been used regularly in the House. It relates to the reduction in violence and it is due substantially to the fact that about 80 per cent. of violence in Basra was directed at our troops when they were based there.

I have no way of knowing the provenance of the information that the hon. Gentleman presented to the House. He is perfectly entitled to put his constituent’s observations to us, but unless we know the factual basis of that constituent’s opinion, we have no way of evaluating it. I asked for and was provided with about 45 minutes of candid footage of the centre of Basra a couple of weeks ago. I saw obvious evidence of women moving around in the town’s markets and they were not dressed as the hon. Gentleman described. I was struck by that because of the assertions that many people had made. It seemed to be a bustling city in many respects. There is violence and I understand that, but Generals Mohan and Jalil—and the army and the police force generally—are improving their ability to deal with it. There is still some way to go—no one ever represents the position differently—but from my own observation of candid footage of the centre of the city, it is not capable of being described as the hon. Gentleman put it.