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Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the security situation in Basra. Before I begin, I would like to pay tribute to the courage of all our servicemen and women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I know that the House will join me in paying tribute in particular to those who have been killed or injured in the line of duty, most recently Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh, killed in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, and the soldier killed in Iraq last Wednesday. I know that all our thoughts are with them and their families and friends.

Our policy in Iraq consistently has been to get the Iraqis to a point where they can take control of their own destiny and security. To that end, in December 2007, we transferred responsibility for security in Basra province to the Iraqi authorities. Of the four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, Basra was the last to transfer under provincial Iraqi control.

The transfer of security responsibility means Iraqis taking the lead in solving the challenges and problems that they still face in their country. It therefore means Iraqis taking decisions on their own future and taking responsibility for implementing those decisions. As the Foreign Secretary and I made clear when the multinational force transferred security responsibilities to the Iraqis, the UK military’s role in Basra was changing rather than ending. No longer were we in the lead, although our forces remained on hand to support the Iraqi security forces. But let me be absolutely clear: our forces continue to do a vital and necessary job in Iraq. Their roles include training and mentoring in the Basra area and on Iraq’s borders, providing capabilities such as fast jet support and surveillance for Iraqi operations, and facilitating reconstruction. We describe this mission as operational overwatch. We will continue to work alongside the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq until they are able to ensure security without our support.

One of the reasons why the Iraqis needed our continuing support into 2008 was that they and we recognised that improving security and enforcing the rule of law in Basra would require action over the longer term. As the Iraqi Government have made clear, the main problems in Basra are criminality and militia elements that act outside the law and are unwilling to embrace democratic politics. While UK and coalition forces have done much to deliver broad levels of security, over the longer term only the Iraqis can tackle successfully criminal activity and political violence, which are often linked to social and economic factors. The events of the last week should be seen in that context.

When I visited Iraq three weeks ago, I was briefed in detail about the Iraqi plan for improving security in Basra by General Mohan, the commander of the Iraqi security forces in Basra. General Mohan then visited Baghdad the following week to present the same plan to the Government of Iraq for endorsement. Prime Minister al-Maliki formally announced his intention to accelerate the implementation of the plan at a meeting on Sunday 23 March, where both the US and the UK were represented at a very senior level.

Let me be clear: what we have seen over the last week is action being taken by the Government of Iraq to fulfil their responsibilities for security in a province that has transferred to Iraqi control.

The Iraqi security forces, under the personal supervision of their Prime Minister, commenced Operation Charge of the Knights last Tuesday. As I have explained, it is an operation intended to tackle criminality and those in the city who continue to act outside the law, as a means of improving security for the people of Basra. The planning, timing and execution of the operation have been led entirely by the Iraqi Government and their security forces, and the Prime Minister’s presence and leadership in Basra demonstrate the importance that they attach to it.

Since last Tuesday, the Iraqi security forces have been conducting cordon and strike operations against criminal elements across Basra, supported by efforts to encourage militias to give up their medium and heavy weapons. An operation of that kind in a challenging urban environment was never likely to produce immediate success, and indeed the Iraqi Defence Minister, Abd al-Qadir, has acknowledged the strength of resistance that the Iraqi security forces have faced. But Iraqi operations continue, and the Government of Iraq are making steady progress towards achieving their aim of ensuring respect for the rule of law by all parties and factions. Moqtada al-Sadr’s call on Sunday for his followers to abide by a ceasefire and work with the Government of Iraq to achieve security is a demonstration of that progress.

It is too early to give a definitive or detailed assessment of how the operation has gone overall, and it would be quite wrong to seek to do so while the Iraqi security forces continue to conduct their operations in Basra and elsewhere. The situation remains fluid, although levels of fighting in Basra have reduced since the weekend. That trend has been reflected in other areas of Iraq where tensions rose in response to the operations in Basra.

In the other provinces in the multinational division south-east area, the Iraqi security forces have dealt successfully with the security challenges that have arisen in Dhi Qar and Al-Muthanna, and though there is more tension in Maysaan, militia elements there appear to have been complying with Moqtada al-Sadr’s statement. In Baghdad, too, the security situation has stabilised, and the curfew has now been lifted.

We and our coalition partners are providing support to the Iraqis in line with our commitments under overwatch and in accordance with our usual rules of engagement. Requests for support are being made through the coalition, and I can confirm that UK forces have continued to meet all their obligations as part of the multinational corps. The support that we have provided is similar to that given in previous incidents, most recently during the disturbances in Nasiriyah and Basra over the Shi’a Ashura festival in January. It is important that the House understand the extent of that support. During the last week, British forces have—as part of the coalition effort—provided surveillance, flown fast jet missions over the city as shows of force and used our helicopters to help to resupply the Iraqi security forces.

Logistic support to the Iraqis has included food, water and ammunition. Medical care is being provided to wounded Iraqi security personnel. We have a small number of liaison staff working in Iraqi headquarters, and as far as ground forces are concerned we have so far deployed elements of one of our three battlegroups, using tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery to provide in extremis support to Iraqi units in combat on the ground. We have deployed elements of another battlegroup to resupply one of the Iraqi headquarters. Once again, I pay tribute to the professionalism of our forces in those complex operational circumstances.

In October, we announced our plan for drawing down UK troops from southern Iraq, from 5,000 at the time of the announcement to around 2,500 by the spring, dependent on conditions on the ground and military advice. At the end of the year, when UK forces moved into overwatch in the last province of Basra, we reduced force numbers to around 4,500. Since then, numbers have been reduced further, to their current level of around 4,000.

Before the events of the last week, the emerging military advice, based on our assessment of current conditions then, was that further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement, although it remains our clear direction of travel and our plan. In the light of the last week’s events, however, it is prudent that we pause further reductions while the current situation is unfolding.

It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change. I am sure that hon. Members would not expect us to do anything else, so at this stage we intend to keep our forces at the current level of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements. I expect to be able to update the House on force levels later this month.

What is happening in Basra is a manifestation of our policy to give Iraqis control of their own security. That road will not always be smooth. It will require political and economic progress and reconciliation, as well as military action. I commend the continuing efforts of the British business man Michael Wareing to galvanise economic development in the south, working with companies and investors from Iraq, neighbouring countries and the wider world. I have no doubt that, despite the challenges, that combination of security, political and economic support is the right way to bring about lasting stability in Basra and beyond.

I begin by associating myself and the Opposition with the tributes made by the Secretary of State to those killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of the security of the people of this country. We are in their debt and our thoughts are with their families and friends.

I think both sides of the House agree that for our forces to remain in Iraq we need a military and not just a political role for them. To have our troops rocketed and mortared just to provide political cover would be wholly unacceptable. The Secretary of State has set out what he believes the military role now is, and on that basis I have a number of specific questions for him.

First, how much control do we really have over events in the area in the south of Iraq? At the meeting on 23 March, did our commanders agree with bringing forward General Mohan’s offensive? When the Secretary of State says we were represented at a very senior level, was it military or civilian and what was the exact level? Surely, it is not acceptable for us simply to end up mopping up if we do not have a say in what operations are being carried out and how. From what the Secretary of State has just told us, it appears that our commanders had only 48 hours’ notice, yet they had to deploy more than one battlegroup, with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that an acceptable model for the future?

Secondly, the Secretary of State was briefed by General Mohan, as were several of us during his recent visit to the House—we raised it on the Floor during our last discussions. At that time, General Mohan said that although he believed he had sufficient men to deal with the militia threat, he was short of equipment—in particular, medium-range artillery, electronic jamming equipment and off-road capability. He also said at that time that he believed that the Government in Baghdad were slow to provide that because of pressure being applied from the Iranian Government. What representations have our Government made to get more equipment available more quickly to the Iraqi forces themselves, so that they can better deal with the situation that they face and not have to rely so much on British equipment?

Thirdly, although we welcome the Iraqi Government taking on the militias and we all hope that they succeed in doing so, what if things do not go according to plan and the situation deteriorates further—something that we all hope will not happen? Under what circumstances would British troops ever be redeployed into Basra city and who would take such a decision? Would it be so important that it would be taken by Ministers, not just by commanders on the ground?

We have seen in recent months only a small reduction in total numbers on Operation Telic, to around 5,500 now in the region—considerably more than in Iraq itself. Have the Government completely ruled out redeploying any of those back to Iraq if the situation deteriorates further? What are the cost implications of keeping our numbers up to a higher level than the Government anticipated and said only a few months ago, because that will clearly have a marked effect on the overstretch of our armed forces?

I am afraid that the Government have been caught too often on the over-optimistic end of the spectrum. Only two weeks ago, in the Government-produced national security strategy, they said that

“we are entering a phase of overall reduced commitments, recuperation of our people, and regrowth and reinvestment in capabilities and training as much as equipment.”

That is simply not true in either Afghanistan or Iraq. What will they do now in the light of the changed circumstances?

I hope that the Government have now learned not to play party politics with projected troop numbers. That the Prime Minister’s performance last October reflects badly on him does little to help the families of those who will now be separated from them for longer than the Prime Minister led them to believe. We should spare a thought for them today. They are willing to make the sacrifices; they just expect the truth.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I am sure that they were appreciated by the whole House. I also thank him for his consistent support for our military, wherever it is deployed. He is entirely consistent and stalwart in that regard. I am grateful to him for that, and I know that our troops are, too.

I first challenge the peroration of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was that there was something either dishonest or misleading about the information that was given to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I personally take great, detailed care to ensure that, in relation to matters to do with both Afghanistan and Iraq, I keep the House updated. I ensure that every statement that comes from the Government keeps the House updated. [Interruption.] It is what should be expected of me. [Interruption.]

Great care was taken with the information that the Prime Minister gave the House in October: that information and the plan reflected the best military advice. The circumstances and conditions have changed, and the military advice has changed. There is no question of anyone using troop numbers for party political purposes, but there is a question of troop numbers being used in the way that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) constantly calls for, so that people have some indication of the sense of direction—particularly the families of those people who are deployed to dangerous environments.

The hon. Gentleman is constantly calling for detailed information. He is constantly calling for me to come to the Dispatch Box to anticipate where we will be in a particular period, and to the extent that I am able to respond to those questions, I do so. I do not think it appropriate subsequently, when my responses are qualified by the conditions or military advice—the conditions and the military advice change—to suggest that that anticipation is in any way misleading. It is not.

The second point that I want to make is that questioning whether we—the United Kingdom—have control over what is happening in southern Iraq is, with all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, not to understand fully the position that I explained in some detail at the beginning of my statement. This part of southern Iraq is under provincial Iraqi control, which means that the Iraqis have prime responsibility for security.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that he knows that. The Iraqis have control.

At the meeting, an assessment was made of whether the Iraqis could deal with the situation. I quote:

“Iraqis can deal with the challenges in Basra. Not only that, they should deal with the challenges”.

That was General David Petraeus, who was present at the meeting, speaking in an interview on Monday morning with John Simpson on the BBC. The view was taken that the Iraqis could deal with these challenges in relation to how their army was equipped and the reinforcements that could be provided, and that they should deal with those challenges, because that underpinned the decision to move to provincial Iraqi control in the first place. As I spelled out, the nature of the challenges that faced us in Basra could be dealt with in the longer term only by the Iraqis.

Day by day, the Iraqi army is better equipped, but of course there are still challenges. There is the challenge in the Ministry of Defence of ensuring that the Iraqi army can spend the resources available through its budget—that is improving day by day. When it is short of capability, we provide that as part of overwatch, which is exactly what we did.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that in Iraq, and especially in Basra, what our troops do is as part of a division of the multinational corps. The commander of that corps was in Basra, and decisions about the use of our troops are made through the proper chain of command—not by politicians, but by military commanders.

Is it not ludicrous to suggest that developments in and around Basra are somehow being determined by either the Iraqi Government forces or, indeed, British forces? Do not recent events show that any changes that take place are in the gift of the militias? Does that not in itself make the case for accelerating the withdrawal of our forces, rather than further delaying bringing them home?

The activity of our forces over the past week has been in support of the Iraqi security forces in a continuing operation. The operation made steady progress over the weekend, although it is acknowledged that there was significant resistance to it at the start. That has shown exactly the relevance of our forces and, frankly, the folly of bringing our forces home before conditions and circumstances allow.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I echo his words of condolence and his tribute to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Has something fundamental changed since the Prime Minister’s announcement in October on the intended reduction in the number of troops? Since that time, British troops have pulled out of Basra city, handed over the province and largely restricted themselves to the air base. The picture that has generally been painted is of an improving situation.

Against that background, does the Secretary of State appreciate that the British public will be rather surprised to discover that the Government have changed their mind over the troop withdrawals? Will he explain when the decision was made and confirm whether the military advice had anything to do with the minimum number of troops needed to protect the forces, which we have raised on several occasions?

The statement refers again to the concept of overwatch, which people will previously have understood to involve training, surveillance, logistic support and availability on stand-by. However, the Secretary of State told us today about fast jet missions and the deployment of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that still overwatch in the sense that is generally understood?

Will the Secretary of State confirm what commitments have been given to the Iraqi Government about what they can expect from British troops and over what time scale? Although I welcome his confirmation that the direction of travel is towards troop withdrawals, how long can the MOD continue to break its defence planning assumptions by operating on two fronts? What impact will this have on the promise of more troops and helicopters for the work in Afghanistan?

The plan and the direction of travel remain the same. As I made clear in my statement, it emerged that the rate of progress in that direction would not be sustained in the way that was planned in October, before the events in question took place. However, reducing the number of our forces is still our plan; we still intend to do that, subject to conditions on the ground and our assessment of the ability of the Iraqi security forces to sustain and develop security in the city of Basra. The nature of the challenge that they face there is such that it would not be possible for British troops to deal with it and sustain the position in the long term.

The problem is a combination of politics and economics; it is a combination of militia and criminal gangs, who are of the same ethnic and religious background. That can be dealt with in a sustainable way only by the Iraqis themselves. They have a plan—it is widely accepted to be the right plan—to deal with it, and it will take a sustained period to achieve that.

I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about specific stages in the plan. What I am saying is that because of the actions of the Iraqi Government and the reaction of the militia in the city of Basra over the past week, and because of what is going on, it is prudent for us to mark time at this stage—not to abandon the plan, but to mark time and review the situation.

We will review the situation while sustaining the troops, for whom we know we have a use and a need at the moment, because we have deployed them in support of the Iraqi operation over the past week in different ways, as I explained to the House and to the hon. Gentleman. The use of those troops to support the Iraqi forces in such circumstances was always part of overwatch; I have always said that it would be potentially part of overwatch.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s understanding was that such a use of force would not be part of overwatch, but the hon. Member for Woodspring, who speaks for the Conservatives, consistently asks me to spell out the exact circumstances in which we would deploy, in the context of overwatch. Nobody in the House could have been in any doubt about what was involved in overwatch.

Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether maintaining current troop levels in Iraq will have any impact on the prospect of reinforcing the boots on the ground in Afghanistan, if that proves necessary in an emergency?

We keep our troop levels under review in both operational theatres—in Afghanistan and in Iraq—and I have not found myself unable to do anything that we needed to do in Afghanistan because of Iraq, or vice versa. I do not expect to be in that situation.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Defence Committee has never understood the figure of 2,500? Does he agree that it is a mistake to raise hopes of withdrawal and then to abandon those hopes, because that makes the position seems worse than it is? My view is that the Iraqi operation last week was not bad news, because it showed the Iraqis taking back responsibility for a key part of Iraq. However, as has been asked, what does that do to the defence planning assumptions? Does he still intend to complete his review of those planning assumptions this spring?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security, particularly at the highest level, in their Government. They are also turning their attention to security in Basra and the south of the country. In particular, the Government are showing the whole country and the people of Basra that they are prepared to take on Shi’a militia; they are not seen to be picking and choosing the elements that they will engage with, but are showing that they are even-handed. Those are all very positive signs. It is a difficult and complex task that they have taken on, and it will take time. It will be some time before we can assess the success and sustainability of anything that they achieve.

The Government have endeavoured to spell out in detail to the country and to the House our plans that make troop numbers assessable, but we have always made it perfectly clear that those plans are subject to conditions and to military advice. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands, probably better than many hon. Members but certainly as well as any hon. Member, that those conditions and the military advice can change, and that is what has happened.

I accept the advice that the right hon. Gentleman gives for the future in relation to specific numbers, and I will take it on board. Defence planning assumptions continue to be under review, and when that review is concluded I will report to the House.

As the Secretary of State said, our forces in Iraq continue to play a vital role in support of the democratically elected Iraqi Government, but does he have any view on or assessment of the role of the Iranians in interfering in Basra and the region to assist the insurgents and the militias who oppose the central Iraqi Government?

It is well known that Iranian elements have been interfering substantially in southern Iraq in a number of ways. To be frank, it is not surprising that there is a connection between those who live in that part of Iraq and Iranians, because historically people moved freely around that part of the world, and during the time of Saddam Hussein there were strong relationships between elements that are now involved in Iraqi politics and Iranians. All of that is perfectly understandable. No one can move either of the two countries, and they will need to find some way of supporting and working with each other, but support by certain elements of militia and other insurgents by the provision of training, money or military equipment is unacceptable. We have exposed that on every occasion that we have been able to, not just to the Iranians and the Iraqi Government, but to other Governments in the region. It is not supported by anybody who wants to see stability in the region, and it should stop.

May I press the Secretary of State again regarding overwatch? Surveillance, fast jets, helicopters, food and water, ammunition, medical care, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are evidence not of overwatch but of active participation, which, if allowed to get out of control, could easily result in our being engaged in a civil war.

In the context of overwatch, it has always been planned that it may be necessary for our troops in southern Iraq to go to the support of the Iraqi security forces. There is no intention of allowing that support to get out of control, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests. All of that is done in the context of the multinational corps, carefully and after due consideration, and we allow our troops to become engaged in that fashion only after proper consideration of whether it is appropriate for them, they have the equipment and force protection to be able to do it, the action is in support of the Iraqi forces, and it will result in a positive outcome, which all the interventions have done.

But how seriously unstable is the position in Basra? Has the fighting among the Shi’as come completely out of the blue? My right hon. Friend will be conscious of the fact that it is less than a month since he said in a written answer that the Government were planning for a reduction of our forces to 2,500 in the spring. He said that he will tell us—no doubt after the recess—the new timetable. Can he assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq?

I assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq.

Is the Secretary of State for Defence aware of the weight of criticism by military strategists, particularly in the United States, of the dangerous position in which our troops have been placed near to Basra for mainly political reasons?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am well aware of that criticism, but I am also well aware of the sustained and consistent support of the most highly qualified and experienced American generals currently serving in Iraq, who have supported every single step that we have taken right along the line. General David Petraeus, who is rightly credited with having significant military experience and who has undertaken a long period of service in Iraq, so he knows the country well, supports every single thing that we have done, and he said that not only in Congress but in this city.

Having encouraged the Iraqi Government to take direct responsibility for security in Basra, it is only right to do everything possible to support them in that new role. Are there not two imperatives in this situation: first, to do everything possible to support, and above all nothing to undermine, the chances for nascent Iraqi democracy; and, secondly, to do everything possible to support, and nothing to undermine, the position of our American allies? Is that not the only possible, honourable and right policy to adopt?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct to say that we should remain on the same page as those who are in the coalition with us, particularly the United States of America. In the course of this week, the corps commander has been in Basra at the heart of the decision-making process with Prime Minister Maliki and some of our senior officers. We keep close to our American allies, who know, understand and support everything that we are doing. We all do that to support the democratic Government of Iraq, so that they can build their security forces and, more importantly, build strength in their political system and governance to allow them to sustain the level of security that the people of Basra want. The people of Basra overwhelmingly support their Prime Minister in what he is doing there.

The Secretary of State has said that even-handedness by the Iraqi Government is vital. Will he therefore explain why the six-day war in Basra was waged against only one Shi’ite militia, the Mahdi army, and not against Fadhila, an armed militia which controls oil production, or the Badr organisation, which is actually an ally of the Nouri al-Maliki Government? Is not the real reason that Moqtada al-Sadr is the biggest political threat to Nouri al-Maliki in advance of the elections? Would it not be entirely wrong to ask a single British serviceman or woman to risk their life in supporting one side in a bloody civil war between warring political factions?

The hon. Gentleman has a surprising ability, from a comparatively long way away from Basra, to explain exactly what is happening there. The information that is coming out of the city suggests that the Iraqi security forces are taking on a complex mixture of criminal elements and gangs, including the Jaish al-Mahdi. The JAM has attracted attention, because Moqtada al-Sadr speaks for it and is part of the political process in Iraq through those from his organisation who were elected—he is a significant player in that process. To suggest that the Iraqi security forces have been taking on only one element of the militia and criminal gang elements in Basra is to misrepresent what they have been doing.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that unless we are careful, we will get drawn into a quagmire that is not of our making? [Interruption.]

At the end of the day, talk of withdrawing 2,500 troops by the spring was wrong. The next time that we discuss a reduction, we should discuss withdrawal, which is what it should have been in the first place.

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s views on these matters, and he and the House are well aware of my view on when we will withdraw our troops from Iraq. As far as the first part of his question is concerned, we have no intention of being drawn into any quagmire and we will not be drawn into one.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the statement about the possible withdrawal of numbers of troops from Iraq was made, extremely unwisely and rashly, by the Prime Minister when he was in Iraq? Some of us believe that to have been a cynical pre-election stunt. Will the Secretary of State define for the House the overwatch obligations and commitments to which he refers but which he never enumerates?

I have spelt out the detail of overwatch in the body of the statement that I gave to the House on what we have been doing, in practical terms, in support of the Iraqi security forces in the past week. Beyond that work, of which there are many practical examples, we are also training the Iraqi security forces and working on the border to train the Iraqi border police.

When our troops took on the role of overwatch, it was always likely that criminal and militant elements would seek to test the resilience of the Iraqi forces. I for one am heartened by the fact that they are sufficiently confident and competent to undertake this exercise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest disincentive against those elements continuing their activity will be the sure knowledge that British troops will stay there, bolstering competence, until they are defeated?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Iraqi security forces’ ability to conduct and sustain an operation of that nature depends at present on support from the coalition. As the part of the coalition with the primary responsibility in that part of Iraq, we need to continue to support them.

How long does the Secretary of State think it will be acceptable for him to keep coming to the House to express condolences for the deaths of men serving their country in Iraq, and then going on to describe an unexpected and violent turn of events over which the British appear to have little or no influence or control?

Is not the present situation that a very violent military conflict has broken out between two Shi’a armies? We are providing logistical and military support in extremis to one of those armies, the Iraqi army, although the Iraqi Prime Minister gave us no warning of his change to the timing of the attack. No doubt he has swept aside whatever advice he had had from the British and the description of the operation that had been given to the Secretary of State himself only a short time before. Surely the purpose of having 4,000 people in Basra now is to make sure that they are in adequate numbers safely to withdraw, because they do not appear to be playing any useful or predictable part in the political development of the country.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman misrepresents the position in Iraq. Our forces, and those personnel who support them from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, have been making significant progress, not only in training the Iraqi security forces, but in helping the democratically elected Iraqi Government, after decades during which the country was destroyed by the tyranny of a dictatorship, build an Administration who are increasingly becoming more competent and able to serve their own people. With respect, it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that those achievements have not been made by those people, who have put their lives on the line.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks me how long it will be acceptable for me to come to the Dispatch Box to express condolences for the deaths of troops in operations. I do not think that it will ever be acceptable for me to do that—that is not a word that I would use. I find it deeply difficult—not for me, but for the people who I know grieve over those who have lost their lives. That will never be acceptable as far as I am concerned. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, I would much rather not have to do it at all.

During my time as Secretary of State for Defence, I have had some difficult statements to make from this Dispatch Box, but I do not recollect that I have had to make a series of statements of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes. I have never made a statement at this Dispatch Box of that nature.

This is the point at which provincial Iraqi control is being tested by the Iraqi Government themselves taking responsibility and taking decisions. It is a very difficult thing that that Government have chosen to do. There are many positive aspects to the fact that they are prepared to do it, not least the even-handedness of the Government’s approach and the fact that the Prime Minister took responsibility for it. It is a difficult thing to do. We need to stay with these people and support them, in the way that we have been doing, to the extent that they need to see this through.

Last month, I had the privilege of spending some time with our troops in Basra who are monitoring, mentoring and training the Iraqi security services, and doing a superb job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although in the short term it is not possible to reduce the number of troops, it is in the long-term interests of everyone, not least the Iraqi people, that we have sufficient troops there to do that job, which will eventually enable the Iraqi security services to manage the job on their own?

My hon. Friend describes what we seek to do very eloquently and straightforwardly. We have, over a period of some years now, progressively been handing over responsibility across the whole of the south—indeed, the coalition has been handing responsibility to the Iraqi security forces across the whole of Iraq. Many determined terrorist and other elements have tried to stop that progress. There have been setbacks. There has been a significant improvement in security in Baghdad, but I have always described that security as fragile. The fragility of that security has been exposed over the past week or thereabouts, but it has sustained. The important thing about the nature of the progress is that every time it is challenged, and every time it sees off that challenge, it emerges from those circumstances stronger. The Iraqi people deserve the opportunity to have a secure, democratic future, and they will not get it unless we support them through this process.

Five months ago, to the sound of trumpets, the Prime Minister announced the reduction to 2,500 troops. Why is he not here today to listen to this statement? He should be here—

Order. The hon. Gentleman asks his questions on the statement; he does not ask about the presence or the absence of any right hon. or hon. Member.

When I visited Basra last year, it was made abundantly clear that the minimum force protection was more than 4,000, and that was confirmed last year by the Armed Forces Minister to the Defence Committee. Is it not time simply to withdraw our troops from Iraq, because they serve little purpose, their lives are being endangered, and they are there only at the behest of President Bush?

None of those assertions is true. I cannot believe that anybody who understands what our troops have done very bravely over the past week in support of the Iraqi security forces could suggest that they are there for no purpose. They are there for a very obvious purpose, and they have shown it over the past six days.

Will not the reduction to 2,500 by the spring be seen as a broken promise among a long list of broken promises in Iraq? Have not the Government been bounced by a factional Iraqi Government, the US forces who want to pull the strings, and new-empire-building generals? Is it not still an occupation that is massively unpopular both in Iraq and in this country? People will ask, “What has changed since the disastrous Blair policy?” What has changed?

My hon. Friend’s position on this issue is well known, and I suspect that his question is informed by his views on whether we should be in Iraq in the first place rather than an assessment of what is happening. I deny almost all the assertions that were contained in his question. There is a very clear direction of progress. It was never going to be progress that was not subject to changing circumstances and conditions on the ground. I am just thankful that our planning was such that we have the ability to be able to adjust when necessary, and that is what we are doing at the moment.

The Secretary of State said that the British forces are providing “in extremis” support to Iraqi combat units. Does not that imply that our generals in the south are having to respond to decisions taken by other armies, and that we are therefore the victims of events rather than the leader of a strategic plan?

We are part of a coalition and, in southern Iraq, we are part of a coalition that is going through a process of transition. We cannot have a situation where we hand over control to Iraqi forces and keep control ourselves. That is not possible. We handed control to them through a process known as provincial Iraqi control and came back into overwatch, making decisions on when we would deploy to support them according to the circumstances in which they found themselves and their ability. We did so in the context of being part of a wider coalition, consulting our allies. That is exactly what we do. There is no problem with our continuing to proceed in that fashion, and it does not subject our troops to any of the risks that the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

What did the Secretary of State’s words mean, when he referred to marking time and sending in artillery only “in extremis”? Is not our position becoming untenable or, indeed, something of a farce? The militias know that we will never have the political will to send in ground troops—the only way to defeat militias is on the ground. What are we doing there? Should we not just stop marking time and make a decision to go in and retake the city or, even better, start our withdrawal because we are making no difference?

The hon. Gentleman asks what “in extremis” support is. It is support provided to Iraqi security forces in circumstances where they were in extremis and, to be candid, needed our support in order to extract themselves from that set of circumstances. We deployed our artillery against people who were mortaring them. We deployed other troops who made their presence near to the situation very visible, so that they could be seen by the enemy, allowing Iraqi security forces to be extracted. That is exactly what we did in those circumstances.

I referred to marking time to summarise the part of the statement in which I explained that we would review the circumstances in the light of recent developments and that I would then report back to the House. What I mean by that is that we do not intend to continue the reduction of our forces in the meantime, while we review circumstances and wait for the situation in Basra to develop further to see which way it settles.

Does not the statement we have heard demonstrate the folly of the policy on which we have embarked? Is it not a fact that the disestablishment of the Iraqi army at the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall was the direct cause of the Iraqis’ failure to gain control of the streets of Basra and elsewhere in Iraq? The Government were associated with that decision. Is it not also a fact that our inability to reduce our forces in line with our planning demonstrates that the difficulties associated with getting out are a very powerful reason for not having gone in in the first place?

I do not think that I would be able to assist our troops in the circumstances that they face in Basra in any way if I concentrated my time or resources, when making decisions, on assessing whether a decision that was made five years ago was right or not. I am much more interested in the decisions that we need to make now concerning the ambitions of the Iraqi people, their security forces and the troops there for whom I have responsibility.

Is the Secretary of State as dismayed and embarrassed as I am that a large number of the criminal forces against whom this operation has been directed consist of the police whom we were responsible for training? There is every possibility that we shall repeat this process in Afghanistan. When are we going to have an inquiry into the matter?

The early attempts to create a police force in Iraq had exactly the results that the hon. Gentleman describes, as criminal elements came out of the police forces and may, indeed, have deliberately gone into them in order to obtain training. Under the generalship of General Jalil, of whom the hon. Gentleman may be aware, we have dealt with that very problem during the past year or more: a significant number of police officers have been dismissed from the Iraqi police force, while others have been retrained to ensure that that situation does not occur again. We have learned significant lessons from those early days of police training, and we shall implement them in Afghanistan to ensure that we do not repeat the problem.

May I remind the Secretary of State of what the Select Committee on Defence heard last time we were in Iraq? The military advice, to which he keeps referring, was that 5,000 was the minimum viable number for the base in Basra. Was it not therefore the height of folly to advertise a reduction in the number of troops in Basra in advance of withdrawal, even if that were the Government’s intention? Does not that leave us more vulnerable than we would have been, having advertised weakness and invited the intervention of hostile forces?

With respect, the elements of the hon. Gentleman’s question do not follow in the way that he suggests. The number of troops in the contingency operating base in Basra had no relevance to the behaviour of the militia in relation to the operation. The two matters are not related. I do not intend to swap military advice from the Dispatch Box with him. I know the military advice that I was given, and our decisions, plans and report to the House were entirely consistent with it.

How much does the Secretary of State see the hand of Iran in the fighting of the past few days? What discussions has he held with the Iranian Government about it?

I have had no discussions with the Iranian Government in the past few days about that matter. I have no doubt that Iranian interference in Basra and in wider southern Iraq has had some influence on those whom the Iraqi security forces have been engaging in the past six days. I have no evidence of malign involvement by Iran, specifically in the past six days, but there is no question but that some of those people have been trained and equipped by Iran. I have made no bones about the strategic threat that Iran poses to that part of the region. Its involvement in southern Iraq is only part of its malign intentions for the region.