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Iraqi Forces (Training)

Volume 472: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

4. What progress has been made on the mentoring, monitoring and training of Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq. (190361)

We continue to make good progress in our monitoring, mentoring and training efforts with the Iraqi security forces. They have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred. The most recent include operations to counter smuggling, border enforcement and successful containment of the religiously motivated violence at the Ashura festival in January.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As he indicated, this is a crucial matter for us. Will he provide evidence of how overwatch is delivered by our armed forces in southern Iraq?

Contrary to some commentary on our forces’ activities in southern Iraq, we continue to play an important role there. I have already referred to the mentoring, monitoring and training of the Iraqi security forces. The view is that the 10th Division of the Iraqi army has improved significantly under that training, and that the 14th Division is progressing, although it is some way behind the 10th. Frequently, we support those troops in active operations, such as the counter-smuggling operation I referred to, which involved the seizing of 15 smuggling barges in the Shatt al-Arab waterway recently. That notable success was principally achieved by the Iraqi army. Where necessary, and at the request of the Iraqi army or their forces, we provide them with capabilities that they do not have access to, such as air cover, fast air support or aerial surveillance. Of course, we do that while retaining the ability and willingness to intervene if called upon to do so by the Iraqi army, but increasingly, that is becoming unlikely.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the men and women of the armed forces doing such important work in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes, whatever Prince Harry may modestly say about himself, and that we can be utterly proud of what they are doing? Is the Secretary of State on Facebook? Has he been invited to join a group demanding an apology from the Drudge Report?

I have not specifically been invited. With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman and his advice, which I normally respect immensely, it might be unwise for me to join Facebook. However, I support the tenor of his question. All those who serve us in Iraq and Afghanistan—and in other places, including Sierra Leone, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently visited—are entitled to be considered heroes. On the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about Prince Harry and his treatment by the media, I thought the most important thing Prince Harry did was put into context the heroism of those with whom he had served.

There were reports in yesterday’s papers that the Government are to bring forward the withdrawal of a further 1,000 troops from Iraq. Will the Secretary of State make any comment that he feels fit on that? Will he also give us an estimate of the final date for withdrawing all British troops from Iraq?

Currently, we have approximately 4,100 troops serving in southern Iraq and we continue to work on detailed plans with our allies, including the Iraqi security forces and other coalition partners, to determine the appropriate number of troops. Those decisions will be made on the basis of military advice, and when I am ready to make a further statement to the House about numbers, I will do so, just as I have kept the House informed as numbers have reduced.

On the final part of my hon. Friend’s question, a final decision will be based on an assessment of the Iraqis’ ability to provide security for themselves and their people.