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Volume 475: debated on Monday 28 April 2008

The security situation in southern Iraq is stable, but has a fragility. Recent operations by the Iraqi security forces, supported by UK forces and coalition partners, who are deployed with those forces in Basra city, have been successful in helping the Iraqi Government consolidate control over Basra and all key routes into and out of the city. There are encouraging signs that conditions in the city are improving and we will continue to work with our coalition partners and the Iraqi authorities to help sustain this positive trend.

When Ministers have a strategically weak argument, they have a disagreeable habit of hiding behind the arguments of generals who have a responsibility down the chain of command to support the morale of the troops of whom they are in charge. The Secretary of State has done that this afternoon. The fact is that the strategic situation in Basra with the British forces is an example of dither, and it is damaging the reputation of the United Kingdom and the morale and capacity of our armed forces. When will the Government resolve that?

The current situation in Basra and southern Iraq is nothing of the sort. The plan was clear: we would progressively hand over the provinces of southern Iraq to provincial Iraqi control. When we came out of central Basra and handed over to provincial Iraqi control in December, it was clear that the criminal and militia elements in the city could be dealt with only by Iraqi security forces. We went into overwatch and I made it clear that that was the plan. The Iraqi security forces are now doing that task, and our troops are deployed with them, mentoring them in the city as they do so, as are US troops who have come with the divisions that they mentor. There are some 14,000 plus Iraqi troops in Basra and about 800 American troops in the south. Those numbers are a proportion of the numbers of troops that we have. All those troops are engaged in doing exactly what we described they would do, and they are doing it very successfully. It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to describe what they are doing in such a way.