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Volume 475: debated on Monday 28 April 2008

Our forces in Iraq still have a wide-ranging and extremely important job to do. They continue to play a positive role in helping to bring security and stability to Iraq. In Baghdad, we have over 200 senior officers and supporting staff working in the coalition headquarters. In the south, the primary focus of our forces is now on training and mentoring the 14th division of the Iraqi army and enhancing command and control capabilities in Basra, including at the Basra operations command. The 14th division remains some months from becoming fully operational.

We also support more directly the Iraqi security forces in their efforts to ensure the rule of law in Basra. In recent weeks, this has included providing fast jet and helicopter support and surveillance, as well as logistic and medical support. In addition to the focus on the Iraqi army, British forces are heavily involved in mentoring and training the Iraqi navy, supporting the Department of Border Enforcement and helping to protect the oil platforms. Finally, we facilitate economic reconstruction efforts—notably, setting Basra’s international airport on the path to international accreditation.

During a press conference last Friday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff blamed Iran for

“its increasingly lethal and malign influence”

in Iraq. He went on to say how recent operations in Basra had revealed

“just how much and how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability”.

Does the Defence Secretary agree with that assessment, and what is being done by British forces to counter the threat Iran poses to Iraqi stability?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right—and, of course, the Admiral is quite right, as he is in possession of a significant amount of the available information. Evidence suggests that a significant proportion of the equipment and armaments being used by insurgents in Iraq is of Iranian origin or has been transited through Iran. Any Iranian links to armed groups in Iraq outside the political process—either through the supply of weapons or through training and funding—is unacceptable. With our allies, we are seeking to challenge that in a number of ways. Through our support for the Department of Border Enforcement, we seek to interdict the transfer of any such weaponry from Iran into southern Iraq; and through supporting the searches conducted by Iraqi security forces, we have discovered, seized and destroyed a large amount of weaponry that appears to have been sourced from Iran. By seeking to influence the Iranian Government diplomatically in a number of ways, including involving other influential countries in the region, we are trying to get it across to Iran that it is not in its long-term interests to have instability in southern Iraq or any part of Iraq at all. We are also endeavouring to deal with the insurgent and other groups that the Iranians seek to support in Iraq—and we have done so very successfully recently.

Whatever our overall view of the presence of British forces in Iraq, clearly their safety and well-being should be a paramount consideration of the House of Commons. Following on from my right hon. Friend’s written statement to the House on Thursday, should we assume that the Government are planning on force levels of about 4,000 at least until the autumn?

My written statement was not intended to encourage the House to draw that inference. I have always made it clear that we keep our troop numbers under review. As I made clear when I made my oral statement, and it was reinforced in my written statement, we have decided to maintain our troop numbers in southern Iraq at about 4,000 while the Iraqi-led operations to enforce the rule of law in Basra continue. We are working with our coalition partners to define the support that the Iraqis will need over the coming months. It remains our clear intention to reduce troop numbers in Iraq as and when conditions allow, but while the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, as it does, and while military commanders continue to assess that the changing environment in Iraq requires the prudent decision to take time to consider any further reductions, I will stick with that decision.

But does the Secretary of State agree that his Minister of State was absolutely correct, as he often is, when last summer he told the Select Committee on Defence that the minimum viable military force in Basra was about 5,000? Can the Secretary of State explain how it was that he ever came to be persuaded that the figure of 2,500 was anything other than completely meaningless?

We have about 4,000 troops in Iraq. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to read the letter from the Chief of the General Staff, which was circulated down through the chain of command and put on the MOD website following his recent visit to Iraq. I think that I shall arrange for a copy of that letter to be placed in the Library of the House so that everyone can have access to it if they are not IT literate and cannot get it off the MOD website.

The letter goes into some detail to set out why our current troop levels can and continue to make a significant contribution to a substantial operation that is taking place in Iraq. The point that I am making to the right hon. Gentleman—I cannot make it any simpler than this—is that this is classic overwatch. The figure that we have is, in the assessment of this country’s leading soldier, whose reputation is worldwide, the right one.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Navy and its role. Will he say a little more about what the Navy is doing to support the work of the Iraqi navy and the importance he attaches to that?

I attach a great deal of importance to it. On a recent trip to Iraq, I visited the Navy. It is training marines and the Iraqi navy, which is comparatively small but developing towards the objective of it being able to take over responsibility for security, or at least to make a significant contribution to it, in the northern Arabian gulf.

With other allies, we provide security for those important oil platforms on which the whole Iraqi economy and its income depend. It is the ambition of the Iraqi navy that it will be able progressively to develop to be able to take over or add significantly to that security. It has made enormous strides and is shortly to take delivery of new ships in order to do that. At Umm Qasr, we have been continuing that training for some time—quite quietly, without much comment publicly, but very successfully.

When the Secretary of State made his statement to the House on 1 April, he said that it was too early to assess the effectiveness of last month’s Basra Operation Charge of the Knights, against the Sadr militia, of which we were given just 48 hours’ notice. Can the Secretary of State now provide the House with such an assessment, and also tell us what arrangements he has put in place to ensure that British military commanders have a full and timely say in any future operations in which our armed forces may be required to assist?

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said about troop numbers, will he also tell us whether the call at the weekend by Moqtada al-Sadr to his militia to limit their attacks on British and US forces will have any implication for the number of British troops deployed in southern Iraq?

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman’s questions in reverse order.

The latest outpourings from Moqtada al-Sadr merely add to the confusion that has emanated from his leadership of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia and his own political organisation. We do not rely on such statements, and I have always taken the view that our troops are at risk of attack from that source, so my answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that statement will have no significant effect on our assessment of the risk to our troops.

In answering the hon. Gentleman’s principal question, let me direct him to the Chief of the General Staff’s assessment—which is very fresh, as he returned from Basra only days ago. While there was some criticism of the planning of the first phase of the operation, we have been involved in the planning and support of the later phases, and they have been extremely successful. The information that I have suggests that there are clear and encouraging signs that Basra is springing back to life, and that the firm action taken by the Iraqi security forces has extended their control to most of the city. I have many pieces of information from citizens of Basra that show how relaxed they are in the new Basra, as they see it.

All those developments are very positive, but the situation is fragile. We must ensure that we see the operation through, and that we can enable the 14th division of the Iraqi army in particular to sustain the security that it has created.