With permission, Mr. Speaker, following my visit to Baghdad and Basra yesterday, I shall make a statement about the future of British troops in Iraq, the timetables, our legal agreements and our force numbers.
Let me begin by asking the whole House to join me in paying tribute to the heroism of all our armed forces and to their service and sacrifice in Iraq and, of course, in Afghanistan and in peacemaking missions around the globe. Let me pay particular tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of our country—military and civilian personnel. We salute their courage and will honour their achievements. Today we remember in particular Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, 29 Commando Royal Artillery, killed in Afghanistan on Monday, and the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles killed in Afghanistan yesterday. At the time of Christmas their families are uppermost in our thoughts.
On 22 July, I set out to the House the key remaining tasks for the UK’s mission in Iraq, and I can today report progress on all these tasks. Taken together, the tasks that we set ourselves reflect our underlying priorities: security for the region, democracy in Iraq, and reconstruction to help the Iraqi people—security against terrorists, strengthening democracy in place of dictatorship, and reconstruction to give Iraq’s people a stake in the future.
First, on security, our aim has been to entrench security improvements by putting Iraqis in charge of their own defence and policing for the future. Our most recent contribution has been to help with training thousands of new Iraqi forces and policemen and women. In total, the UK has helped to train more than 20,000 troops and more than 22,000 police. In total across Iraq, 500,000 troops and police have been trained by the Americans, the UK and other forces. In addition, we have already mentored three brigades of 14th Division, with 9,000 troops, to become combat-ready—the very troops that have repeatedly mounted successful independent operations making Basra now safer for its citizens. As a result, in the past year violence and criminality in the Basra region have fallen dramatically. Yesterday, I met the commander of the Iraqi 14th Division and Iraqi security forces and their embedded British training teams working with them in Basra. I can tell the House that our commanders judge that training is making good progress and is now nearing completion.
Our second task is to strengthen Iraqis’ emerging democracy. At the heart of embedding democracy is the most immediate task of ensuring successful local provincial elections. Provincial elections are now scheduled for 31 January 2009. Conditions are in place nationwide for a high turnout under a UN-supervised process, with security led by Iraqis’ own security forces.
Thirdly, there is reconstruction and our aim to give the Iraqi people an economic stake in the future. That has meant restoring economic activity and building basic services in the Basra area.
Recent proposals for new investment in the Basra area now amount to $9 billion-worth of projects. With assistance from Mr. Michael Wareing, whom I thank, the Department for International Development has helped arrange 18 investment missions in the past few months. Following our London and Kuwait investment conferences, the new Basra investment commission, which we helped establish, is holding a major investment conference today in Istanbul. In addition, the Basra development commission has launched a youth employment scheme, which already works with nearly 100 employers to give work experience and training to potentially thousands of young Iraqi people.
We have helped rebuild the economic infrastructure. Since 2003, we have spent £100 million on giving more than 1 million people improved access to clean water and power. Basra airport, which is central to future economic development, is now under effective Iraqi civilian control, delivering on the commitment that I outlined to the House in July. That includes air traffic control and management of the airport terminal—now under the control of the Iraqi authorities—and we expect to complete formal handover arrangements at the turn of the year.
Since criminal gangs were driven out of the port of Umm Qasr by the Operation Charge of the Knights Brigade, there are now plans for major port expansion. New investor proposals and contracts, including from British companies, offer the potential to make Basra once again the major trading hub in the region.
On 1 January 2009, with the expiry of United Nations resolution 1790, Iraq will regain its full sovereignty. Yesterday in Baghdad, I told Prime Minister Maliki, and he agreed, that British forces in Iraq should have time to finish the missions that I have just outlined. In the past three weeks, concluding with our talks yesterday, we have made substantial progress with the Government of Iraq. We have defined: first, the tasks that need to completed; secondly, the authorisations needed to complete them; and thirdly, a way to provide a firm legal basis for our forces. At all times, we have worked closely with President Bush and the Americans, and our other coalition partners.
On 16 December, the Iraqi Council of Ministers agreed to submit to the Council of Representatives a short draft law to give the presence of UK forces a legal basis after 1 January. The law is now going through the Iraqi Council of Representatives; it had its first reading yesterday and is scheduled to have its second reading on 20 December. We expect the process to be complete before UN resolution 1790 expires. In the event of the process not being complete, the Iraqis have told us that Coalition Provisional Authority order 17, which confers protection on coalition troops, will remain in place. Our troops will therefore have the legal basis that they need for the future.
Once we have completed our four tasks, including training for the headquarters and specialists of 14th Division—with the precise timing of its completion decided by commanders on the ground—the fundamental change of mission that I described in the House last summer will take place by 31 May 2009 at the latest. At that point, we will begin a rapid withdrawal of our troops, taking the total from just under 4,100 to under 400 by 31 July. The majority of the remaining troops will be dedicated to naval training.
Yesterday, Mr. Maliki and I agreed that Britain’s future role will focus on continuing protection against attack of Iraqi oil platforms in the northern Gulf, together with long-term training of the Iraqi navy—work that I saw for myself at the port—and support for training the officers of the Iraqi armed forces. In other words, that is the realisation of a normal defence relationship, similar to those we have with our other key partners in the region, which I agreed with Mr. Maliki in July was our joint objective for 2009.
Of course, that relationship will be one strand of a broader, enduring relationship with democratic Iraq, which I also discussed yesterday with the Prime Minister. Our future relationship will be one of partnership. We agreed to continue the shift of focus to economic, commercial, cultural and educational relationships. We will maintain a large embassy headed by a senior ambassador in Baghdad and maintain small missions in Basra and Erbil. The embassy in Baghdad will expand its commercial office and the Department for International Development will expand its programme of economic advice in Baghdad. We have discussed a plan with Prime Minister Maliki for British companies to provide expertise to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, and Britain can help Iraq’s plans to give 10,000 Iraqi students scholarships overseas.
In the past five and a half years, Iraq has faced great challenges and endured dark days, but it has also made significant progress. We can be proud of the way in which our forces carried out their mission in the most difficult times, and we can be proud of what they have accomplished. In my discussions with Prime Minister Maliki, the two vice-presidents, the Basra governor and the army leadership, I was assured of Iraq’s continuing gratitude for Britain’s role in freeing Iraq from tyranny. The UK’s new relationship with the new Iraq is one that has been justly earned by the efforts and sacrifices of our forces, and by our contributions to Iraq’s peace and reconstruction.
Iraq has many challenges to confront in the days to come. No road that it takes will be easy, but today’s levels of violence across the whole of Iraq are at their lowest for five years, economic growth this year is almost 10 per cent., and yesterday, in Basra, I was told that for just 35 seats being contested in the provincial assembly elections in January, there are more than 1,270 candidates, with 53 different party labels, standing for election. So, as Iraq approaches its second free provincial elections, democracy is clearly growing.
In supporting and protecting the progress that we have made, the British campaign has endured great hardship and sacrifice. Yesterday, I stood with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the head of the Iraqi army in Basra and members of our own forces outside our headquarters in Basra, in front of the memorial wall naming and commemorating every single one of the 178 British servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of our country. It was a fitting and moving tribute to men and women whom we must never forget. Because remembrance is vitally important, the Defence Secretary and I have decided, after consultation, that we shall bring that memorial wall now standing in Basra home to a fitting resting place of its own in our own country. We will do so when, at the end of July, the last of our combat troops leave Basra. It is a memorial now for ever to be in Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
May I particularly welcome what the Prime Minister has just said about the wall in Basra? I think that that is absolutely right. I join him in paying tribute to the soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday, and to Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was also killed. Our thoughts should be with their families and friends, particularly at this time of Christmas.
Everyone, and not least the families of those still serving in Iraq, will welcome today’s announcement on troop withdrawal. As I have seen for myself in Iraq and elsewhere, our forces always carry out the tasks that are assigned to them with professionalism and courage, and they are a credit to this country. We should also recognise that, as well as the Army, the Navy and the RAF have both served superbly in Iraq. Today of all days, we must remember the fallen in Iraq and the many who have been wounded. Since March 2003, 178 have lost their lives. Their friends and families are in our thoughts and prayers at this time. I should also like to pay tribute to the local Iraqi interpreters, some of whom took unbelievable risks on our behalf. They deserve not only our thanks but our sanctuary.
On the legal basis for our troops, of which the Prime Minister gave a full explanation, will he confirm that, in the first half of next year, they will have exactly the same legal protection as the Americans, under their status of forces agreement, particularly if they need to defend themselves using force? Can he also tell us what the terms of the legal agreement will be between May and July next year—that is, after the end of the mission but before a number of our troops have returned?
Three key issues arise from the statement: first, the achievements of the last six years; secondly, the handover next year; and thirdly, the lessons that we must learn for elsewhere, especially Afghanistan. First, on the last six years, does the Prime Minister agree that, like all of us who supported the action in Iraq, he needs to strike a realistic tone about what has, and has not, been achieved? Security has undoubtedly improved over the past few months. The Maliki Government can now take the lead in upholding order and, crucially, as the Prime Minister said, the people of Iraq have at least seen a potential democratic way forward. Does he accept, however, that the economic conditions and the state of basic services mean that the daily reality for many Iraqi citizens remains dire? Given that women are being attacked in Basra for not wearing the hijab, and that many Christians are still being persecuted, does he agree that serious human rights abuses remain?
That brings me to the second issue—the handover. Clearly, Iraqi forces will still have help from US forces. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of the ability of the Iraqi security forces and the police to maintain security in the medium term? It is clearly in all our interests that Iraq remains a united sovereign country, so can the Prime Minister provide an assessment of the current role of Iran in southern Iraq? Does the Prime Minister agree that, as part of being a sovereign united country, it is essential that Iraq enjoys normal relations with all its neighbours? Can he tell us what steps he is taking to encourage all Arab countries to send ambassadors and fully staffed embassies to Baghdad?
In terms of the economy, Iraq has a large fiscal surplus. Can the Prime Minister tell us more about the steps he is taking to ensure that British firms benefit from that and from reconstruction projects? Can he confirm specifically that, until recently, there was no permanent representative of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in our embassy and can he tell us whether that has been put right?
The third issue is the lessons for elsewhere, and particularly for Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister agree that Iraq has taught us some tough lessons in the need for such missions to be carefully planned not just in the war fighting, but in the post-conflict phase? Does he agree that they must have clear and specific objectives and must be properly resourced from the outset? Does he accept that the mission in Iraq was deficient in all those respects and that it is essential that we do not perpetuate those mistakes in the continuing mission in Afghanistan? Does he agree that, crucially, an important lesson is that any increases in armed forces will succeed only if they are accompanied by genuine political progress? Is it not the case that in Iraq it was only when key sections of the population decided to lend support to the Government and not the insurgency that the real breakthrough was made? Does he agree that that will be equally important in Afghanistan?
With the need to learn all these lessons in mind, will the Prime Minister tell us why he has not today announced a full-scale independent inquiry? Should we not be clear about the purpose of such an inquiry, which is not simply to rework exhaustively the decision to go to war, important though that is, but to examine the mistakes made in its conduct and planning? Does the Prime Minister accept that if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are more likely to make them again in the future? Surely we do not have to wait until all the troops have been withdrawn, as inquiries have been held before when our troops have been deployed. After all, with 400 British troops remaining in Iraq into the future, if we follow the Prime Minister’s logic, there will be no inquiry for many, many years.
What we surely need is a robust, independent inquiry with powers and membership comparable to the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war. Should it not examine the origins and conduct of the war in their entirety and be able to question Ministers, including all the members of the War Cabinet? Will the Prime Minister give a commitment today to set up such an inquiry so that we can learn from the mistakes that were made? Does he not agree with me that that is just one of the many things that we owe to our brave armed forces?
We are in total agreement about the contribution that our forces have made, about the help that we have been given by Iraqi citizens and about the need for economic development and political advances in democracy always to complement what is done militarily. Where I part company with the right hon. Gentleman is that I do not believe that Iraq is an exact parallel to Afghanistan—[Interruption.] Well, Afghanistan was a country held by the Taliban, but it was virtually ungovernable and had very little economic development. Iraq is confronted by a number of problems, including divisions within the country between different groupings as it deals with the legacy of Saddam Hussein. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it also has the presence of Iran as a threat on its border. I believe that we have to look at some of the things we have done in Iraq as quite different from what we are doing in Afghanistan.
As to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about what will happen over the next few months, I am satisfied that the overwatch we have carried out over the last period of time, in which Iraqis themselves have been involved in combat and we have been training them, sometimes while embedded among them, for future purposes, means that as we leave, the Iraqi forces are strong enough both to maintain order in the Basra area and to have policing services that, although not ideal, are sufficient for the task.
Of course, there are very difficult days ahead for Iraq. It still has a great deal of work to do, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on rebuilding its economy, but I believe that we have made a very significant contribution to that. Iraq still has a lot of work to do in improving its democracy, and the local government elections will be important to it. Of course, there is still far more to do to train its navy. That is one of the reasons why, as I saw yesterday, a great deal of British work will now involve helping the navy to do what it has to do to be a strong navy in the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the agreement between our forces and the Iraqi Government. The agreement provides the conditions under which, following the expiry of the UN resolutions, our forces can be protected while in the country. I will place in the Library the document that is going to the Iraqi provisional assembly, the Council of Representatives. It contains means by which, if there are disputes on these matters, they can be resolved, and it maintains that if a case came up, any person concerned would remain in British detention, not Iraqi detention, during the period of the investigation. It is similar but not entirely similar to the United States’ agreement. We should remember that the United States’ presence will be longer. It is engaged more than we are in combat operations, and the discussions with the Iraqi authorities were different from the very special discussions that we had with the Iraqi authorities.
May I add one point about the economic situation? We have a large number of people helping the Iraqis to develop their economy. Michael Wareing has done a huge amount of work and is holding the investment conference today. I have met the Basra development commission on a number of occasions. The Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary have been deeply involved in helping it.
I was asked about the involvement of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. There will be a UK Trade & Investment presence, which is a joint Foreign Office-Business Department operation, and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will visit Basra and the area at the start of the year. I was also asked about embassies. The United Arab Emirates recently set up an embassy in Baghdad, and we are encouraging other countries to do so.
Equipment is an issue that often comes up in relation to lessons that we must learn. I can say today that the Secretary of State for Defence is announcing that the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract worth more than £150 million to buy more than 100 new tracked all-terrain vehicles, which will be known as Warthog and will provide improved protection for our forces, while retaining the all-terrain capability of Viking vehicles, which have proved invaluable over the past two years in the terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever money has been required for new equipment, armour or helicopters, we have been prepared to provide it.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s last point about an inquiry, I should say to him that the Franks inquiry dealt only with the causes leading up to the Falklands war, not the war itself. I presume that what he is proposing is different, not the same as the Franks inquiry, but I have always said that this is a matter that we will consider once our troops have come home. We are not in that position at present, so it is not right to open the question now. That is the course of action that the Foreign Secretary, I and others have stated to the House on many occasions.
I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the unnamed soldier from 1st Battalion The Rifles and Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan. Their deaths are reminders of the sacrifice and bravery of all British servicemen and servicewomen who have lost their lives over the past year.
Let me be clear: I passionately believe that it was a mistake to invade Iraq, but I am second to none in my admiration for the professionalism, dedication and courage of British servicemen and servicewomen. That is why I share their relief and the relief of their long-suffering families that they will finally be coming home soon. We should all be proud of them. But are the Government not ashamed of what they have asked them to do, and are the Conservatives not ashamed that they cheered the Government on? Listening to the Prime Minister’s extraordinarily rosy account of Iraq, one would have been forgiven for thinking that nothing had ever gone wrong.
Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that he and the Conservatives sent our brave servicemen and servicewomen into an illegal war? When will the Prime Minister apologise for what he did, signing the cheques for George Bush’s invasion? Is not the true scandal today, as we look back at that fateful decision to send our troops into battle in Iraq, the single worst foreign policy decision in the past 50 years, that not one of the men and women on the Government Benches and on the Conservative Benches will apologise for what they did? Is it not time for the Government and the Conservatives to hold up their hands and say sorry to the British people for Iraq?
I am proud to be speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches today and leading the only party that was steadfast in its opposition to this illegal war. Does the Prime Minister remember that when my party voted—every single Liberal Democrat MP voted to stop the war—his party and the Conservatives booed and jeered? President-elect Obama called the Iraq invasion a “dumb war”. Obama was right; they were wrong.
We have paid a huge cost for the Government’s decision to cover George Bush’s back, following him, no questions asked, into an unethical, unjustified and illegal invasion—a human cost, the cost to our own standing in the world and to the rule of law and good government here at home, the cost of increased radicalisation and instability in the Arab world and beyond, and an immense cost to British taxpayers, at £4 million every day, and counting. Does the Prime Minister now accept Joseph Stiglitz’s estimate that the Iraq war will have cost us £20 billion? That is equivalent to about 800 of the Chinook helicopters that our troops desperately need in Afghanistan.
Will the Prime Minister commit himself to a full inquiry? Unlike the Franks inquiry, it should be open. It should be held in public, because it is the public who need to see and hear that lessons really are being learned. The Government must not end this war as they started it—in secret, unaccountable and behind closed doors. Does the Prime Minister agree—[Interruption.]
Of course hon. Members do not want to be reminded of the past. They refuse to learn the lessons for the future.
Does the Prime Minister agree that we do not need an inquiry to know who bears the heavy responsibility for invading Iraq five and a half years ago? It is on the record in the votes of the House, because for all the shouting and heckling that we hear today from those on both the Conservative and Labour Benches, they know that they were the ones who let this happen. They know that their votes signed us up to George Bush’s war. They had the choice; they let Britain down.
I appreciated what the right hon. Gentleman said right at the beginning—that he, too, welcomed the contribution and the sacrifice that had been made by our troops in Iraq, just as they make sacrifices and serve us with distinction every day in Afghanistan and in every other part of the world where they are fighting.
I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that the war in Iraq was not a secret war, as it was voted for in the House by a majority of the House; that Iraq was a dictatorship and is now a democracy; that Iraq had persistently defied international law; and that Iraq is now in line, as a democracy, with the laws of the rest of the world. As for everything else he says, people can be proud today that Iraq is in a far better position than it was five years ago.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today, and in particular his announcement at the end of his statement that the Basra memorial wall will be brought to this country. Will the Government find a suitable opportunity, when all our troops are back, to allow the people of this country to demonstrate publicly their admiration and affection for the brave men and women of our armed forces?
We will look at the circumstances in which the memorial wall is returned to Britain and what can be done. Of course, there is also a permanent memorial to all those who have given their lives in the service of Britain since the second world war. That was established last year. We will consider what my right hon. Friend says.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the democracy in Iraq is not perfect, but it is improving; that the security situation in Iraq is very far from perfect, but it, too, is improving; that Iraq no longer poses a threat to its own population, to the region and to the world; and that now is the time to pay an enormous tribute to the soldiers of the United States, of the United Kingdom and of our allies for their enormous sacrifices and for their huge achievements?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s words, which I think will command great support in the House. I pay tribute not only to the British and American forces, and the forces from other countries, that contributed to the effort in Iraq, but to the Iraqi people, who—sometimes under huge provocation and huge persecution—have contributed to the building of their democracy.
I am very proud that this country helped to free Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Anyone who has followed the history of Iraq will know that we did the right thing at that particular time.
I am glad that the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that the withdrawal of our military efforts does not mean an end to our commitment to the people of Iraq, and that they will continue to benefit from our ongoing support for civil society and particularly for human rights. He will be interested to know that at a very successful conference that I chaired at the Foreign Office this week, attended by three Iraqi Ministers and 50 outside participants, the universal view was that that kind of British involvement would be essential in the future, which was very welcome.
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend has done as a special envoy to Iraq, the work that she has done with the Kurdish population of Iraq, and the work that she continues to do to bring about reconciliation between the different communities of Iraq. She is absolutely right that the relationship between Iraq and Britain will be strengthened at a cultural, economic, educational and social level, and I discussed that with Prime Minister Maliki yesterday. We will invite Iraqi students to come to Britain with scholarships that the Iraqi Government wish to provide; we now have a history of economic engagement with the Iraqi people in helping to rebuild their economy; we are helping young people to obtain jobs in circumstances in which otherwise they would be without work; and in every part of Iraq, not just in Basra, we want to build long-term connections with the Iraqi people.
Withdrawal from Iraq will doubtless lead to increased pressure to deploy further United Kingdom troops in Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should not do so unless other major NATO countries are prepared to deploy troops in a combat role in Helmand province? Will he tell the House what conversations he has had with other major NATO countries—at the European Council last week, or since then—about their willingness to do that, and what their response was? The House is entitled to a clear and unambiguous answer.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for asking questions to which I can give clear answers.
We will look at the situation in Afghanistan—as we do now—on its own merits, and in the light of what needs to be done because of what is happening in Afghanistan itself. To that extent, it is unrelated to any decisions that we make in Iraq. At the same time, we have already announced the deployment of additional forces in Afghanistan on two occasions in the past year, most recently earlier this week, and, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we are making a substantial contribution to the 41-member coalition in Afghanistan.
It is right to emphasise the need for burden-sharing, whether it applies to troops, equipment or the financing of some of the operations in Afghanistan. I said on Monday that that would be a major theme of the NATO summit which will take place on 3 and 4 April. Burden-sharing is essential if we are to defeat the Taliban and retain Afghanistan as a democracy playing its proper role in the world. Obviously we continue to discuss the issue with Germany, France and other countries, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should not fail to note that a substantial additional number of troops have been brought in by, for example, the French in the past few months.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s visit yesterday and his statement today. As he knows, 300 Iraqi interpreters have been killed so far. He also knows that last year the Government made an honourable statement that they would allow an immigration concession enabling those people to settle in the United Kingdom. How many have now settled in the United Kingdom, and how many remain to be processed? Will he assure the House that the process will have been completed by the time the last of our troops returns home?
As my right hon. Friend knows, this is a difficult and complex issue. We wish to thank the Iraqis who risked their lives and their safety to be of assistance to us. I believe that the policy we announced on 9 and 30 October 2007 strikes the right balance between what we must do to protect those people and how we can at the same time maintain the levels of expenditure in our country that are necessary to finance it.
So far, more than 300 staff have chosen and received the financial package that we offered, and 72 staff and dependants have been resettled in the United Kingdom. A further 100 will arrive in the coming months. We are on track to meet our target of 300 approved for admission to the United Kingdom this year under the gateway refugee resettlement programme. Given the number of Iraqis who have worked for Her Majesty’s Government and the armed forces in some capacity since 2003, it is absolutely right to focus assistance on those who have had the closest and most sustained association with us. That can be done through the objective eligibility criteria that we have set, based on length of service and job profile, so we are well on the way to implementing the policy that we announced last year.
While the Prime Minister was correct to speak of the plans to bring home the remembrance memorial for the 178 personnel whom this country lost in Iraq—let us hope that that total is not added to over the next six months—was there not something fundamentally remiss about his statement? It made no reference whatever to the last memorial that we leave behind of the vast number of innocent Iraqis—men, women and children, young and old alike—who perished during all this. Most shamefully in terms of history, the Americans and ourselves did not even bother to count the tally. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that while those people may be lost to history, they are not lost in the hearts of their families and communities, and that that bitterness and legacy of hatred will now go on for generations? Is there anything arising from today’s statement that he and his American counterparts will endeavour to do to redress the grotesque oversight of no body count and no names?
I acknowledge the sufferings of the Iraqi people. It is precisely to protect and support the Iraqi people that we have been trying to provide better facilities, jobs and help in the area of Basra where we have been most active. I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that, according to opinion surveys, the Iraqi people believe that the presence of British troops has made a difference to the quality of their lives. He must not forget the violence practised against the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein, and we must not forget that we were dealing with a dictatorship and that we now have a democracy.
The whole country will strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and will recognise his commitment to strengthening not just the security situation but the economic and political institutions that underlie it. However, the world has a disconcerting habit of moving on from a crisis once that crisis disappears from the headlines. My right hon. Friend’s own commitment guarantees a bilateral relationship, but how can we guarantee that the rest of the world remains engaged? It is in Britain’s and Iraq’s vital interests that those institutions continue to be strengthened.
It is important to recognise that countries that were not part of the coalition in Iraq are now part of the engagement with Iraq that is taking place with a view to the future. I am impressed by the number of Arab countries that are now prepared to place their embassies in Baghdad, and when I was in Kuwait last night I was impressed by the co-operation that it now wants with Iraq on both economic and political matters.
My hon. Friend is right: we must not forget that Iraq has serious difficulties to overcome. It has a long and hard path to travel towards full democracy and full security for its people. It has massive oil reserves, but it has not been able to benefit from them because of the inefficiency of its oil system. Iraq has a long way to go, but it is part of our determination to work with it at an economic and cultural level in the future, and I believe that a growing number of countries share that view.
Does the Prime Minister agree that for all the terrible difficulties that have been faced in Iraq—not least by our own armed forces during our time there—history is likely to judge the removal of Saddam Hussein as the right thing to do and as a success, and that our armed forces will be seen to have played a decisive role in that? Does he understand, however, the sense of unease felt by many in the armed forces and others that we are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? If now is the right time for the British to leave, why are the Americans taking over so much of the role that we are abandoning? Is it not just the case that we have run out of military capacity and political will, and that we are, in effect, being asked to leave because we cannot effectively contribute anything further with what we have available to us?
I agree very much with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks—that the removal of Saddam Hussein will be seen in history as a decisive act that made possible a democracy in Iraq—but I do not agree with his final comments, as the role that we have played in Iraq is in many cases now being taken over by the Iraqi forces and people. Whereas we used to be the organisers of any combat action in Basra, any interventions that had to be made in the town of Basra and the protection of the area, that is now being done by the Iraqi army and police. We have trained them to a point at which our commanders are satisfied that they have the ability and capacity to do that job. It is Iraqi servicemen who are doing the work previously done by British servicemen, and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have applauded that.
Whatever the mistakes—some of them absolutely disastrous—particularly by the United States in the occupation arising from the invasion of Iraq, does my right hon. Friend not agree that the vast majority of victims referred to by the former leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), died as a result of sectarian violence? That violence against totally innocent people must be recognised as a crime, but that crime was committed not by the British or Americans, but by those totally opposed to the democratic process in Iraq, and we should say so clearly and loudly.
People understand that that is the case. The internal violence in Iraq is something British and American forces have had to deal with, but I should also make the point that while Saddam Hussein was in power, violence—and in one case genocide—was practised against the Iraqi people.
At least I agree with the Prime Minister on one thing—his tribute to our armed forces, whose valour, distinction and professionalism are unique. In return, will he agree with me on one thing: when we invaded Iraq in March 2003, she did not possess weapons of mass destruction available to be deployed against British interests in 45 minutes?
Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the measures of the progress of democracy in Iraq is the fact that its own citizens, and, indeed, its journalists, can protest against their own leaders and world leaders—as happened with President Bush—without the fear of death, while under the previous Administration of Saddam Hussein anyone who made a protest suffered torture and a violent death, as did their families?
Iraq has a free press and, as we saw yesterday, a Council of Representatives that is not predictable in everything that it does. So far as shoes are concerned, I must say that the House of Commons is often less well behaved than an Iraqi press conference.
I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in praising the exceptional success of British troops in Iraq. At this time of year, we should also remember their families, who have been so steadfast for so long. Will the Prime Minister reflect on the fact that British troops have through the war-fighting phase and into the peacekeeping phase exhibited a range of skills almost unmatched by any other armed forces anywhere in the world, and that those skills are sustained, at the same time as we are fighting in Afghanistan only by a considerable investment in defence training? Will the Prime Minister bear that in mind when those very great demands come to be made?
I agree about the importance of equipment, and I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the families of servicemen and women. I was in Basra yesterday, where I met large numbers of people who will be spending Christmas away from their families. One of the things that they want to thank the British people for is the large number of unsolicited gifts, presents and cards that have been sent directly to the forces in Baghdad. They said to me that they have never seen such a level of support in any of the previous years they have been in Baghdad. Donations and presents to remember them at Christmas have come from a large number of people in all parts of the country.
On equipment, we have provided £4 billion for urgent operational requirements in the past few years. I have announced today new spending of £150 million to buy more than 100 new Warthog tractor all-terrain vehicles. We have always tried to respond to requests, such as for helicopters, better night equipment or better vehicles, and we will continue to do so. The hon. Gentleman has taken a huge interest in defence over many years, and I have great respect for him on those matters. I say to him that he must ask his own Conservative Front Benchers about those issues, because their decision to cut public spending from 2010 means that they cannot support the defence forces in the way in which we can.
May I add to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? I also welcome today’s statement. While my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly focused on the security situation and the economic development of Iraq, will he say a little more about the development of civil society in Iraq, and in particular about the way in which the Department for International Development, British development non-governmental organisations and possibly even British volunteers in future may help to contribute to social cohesion and an effective civil society in Iraq?
My hon. Friend has taken a long-term interest in that. DFID has worked mainly in the Basra area over the past few years. It has set up the Basra development commission and worked with a number of business men to bring jobs and industries to Basra. One very interesting project is being run on the model of the Prince’s Trust in Britain, where young unemployed people are taken on through individual firms. I think that everybody welcomes that, and it could be applied to the rest of Iraq. That is why DFID’s interest and the work in terms of civil society will now move from Basra to other parts of Iraq to seek to build better institutions for the future and give new hope of jobs and prosperity to people in all parts of Iraq.
The Prime Minister’s predecessor once referred to the blood price that would be necessary as a result of the war in Iraq. Given the huge scale of the human cost—the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, British and American lives lost—can the Prime Minister in all conscience say that that was a price worth paying?
Making decisions about war is very difficult indeed, but this House considered all the factors involved, made its decision and then implemented that decision. I can also say to the hon. Gentleman that we should be proud that 100,000 troops in all have at one time or another given service in Iraq, and they have done their duty by the country. At one point, we had 46,000 troops in Iraq; we now have 4,000, and we are now bringing the number down as we finish our mission at the end of May. I believe that we should say to our troops that we are proud of what they have done.
The Prime Minister has made a number of announcements that are welcome today and that will be even more welcome when they happen. Obviously, we wish safety to those deployed in the meantime and in the future. Those of us in Northern Ireland parties have had some engagement with the budding parliamentarians of Iraq, and we wish them and their people well in the opportunities and challenges that they face, including coming to terms with the toll of their loss, not just over the past five and a half years, but before. Will the Prime Minister tell us to what extent the prospect of troop withdrawal has been ensured by regime change in America, and will he also acknowledge that many democrats in this country are still sincerely scandalised by a war that was waged on false premises, with dodgy legal advice given in this Chamber, and under false assumptions?
So that the hon. Gentleman understands the sequence of the decisions, let me remind him that last July I said, and the Defence Secretary said to the House, that we had four specific objectives that we wanted to achieve in Iraq and that once we had achieved them there would be a fundamental change of mission. These objectives included greater security by training the Iraqi forces, making the holding of local elections possible, and moves, which we are now taking and working on, to improve the economic development of Iraq, so that people have a stake in the future. It is on the basis of these objectives that we now make our decision that our mission will end by 31 May next year at the latest. I believe that we have followed through the tasks that we set last July in a way that shows that there has been real progress, and that is why I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the motive for today’s decision is that we have completed the tasks we set.
I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that despite the large number of American troops left in the Basra area, the withdrawal of British troops will create a power vacuum. Will he outline the contingency plans for the re-engagement of British troops? That assumes, of course, that the extra numbers relieved from there have not been sent to Afghanistan.
We have moved on from our previous operation, where we had combat troops on the ground every day in the front line in Basra and the surrounding areas. We have moved from that position of combat to one of overwatch over the past year. We have moved successfully to that position, and the number of incidents taking place in Basra has, of course, been cut very substantially since the operation that was also organised by Prime Minister al-Maliki took place in Iraq. There has been a very big reduction in violence. I am satisfied that the Iraqi troops are in a position to keep order themselves, but, of course, this is now a matter for the Iraqis. The agreement says that the relevant Iraqi Minister could come back to us to ask for further assistance, if he chooses to do so, and that is a matter for him. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that whereas a year ago the situation in Basra was full of violence and incidents against British troops took place almost every day, we now have a situation where there is at least a minimum amount of security and Iraqi forces can take charge of the job themselves. That is what we hope to continue in the future.
I welcome today’s announcement and the confirmation that we will continue to play a role in Iraqi life, particularly in economic development and promoting democracy. Will the Prime Minister assure us that the role of women in Iraqi society will be a central theme of our work there, particularly access to educational opportunities, involvement in economic life and representation in parliamentary democracy?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. We have continued to discuss with the Iraqis the position and representation of women in national life in Iraq. I think she will agree that the best guarantee of the future representation and freedom of women in Iraq is the strongest possible democracy in Iraq.
When Her Majesty’s forces return home, will the Prime Minister ensure that each and every one of our servicemen and women is made aware of the support services available to them both when they get home and for the rest of their lives, and of the fact that they have won the right to priority treatment in the national health service? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Health issues a circular making it clear that it is Government policy that for the rest of their lives servicemen and women have priority?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has allowed me to mention the paper that was produced by the Defence Secretary on the range of services that should be available to servicemen and women and ex-servicemen and women. Those were set out in the paper that we published a few months ago. Such services include: better access to education—for example, the chance for someone to study once they have left one of the armed forces; better access to doctors and to health services, particularly for people who have to move between different areas of the country and often find themselves relegated down the list; and better help for people who have problems that have to be dealt with after a long period of service. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Defence Secretary is putting more money into this service, and particularly so when a large number of people will be coming home, finally, from Iraq.
I congratulate the Prime Minister and welcome today’s statement. As he knows, I did not agree with our going to war in the first place, but I must admit that a great deal of progress has been made and that it would have been wrong to withdraw our troops in view of the initial problems. I particularly welcome the progress that has been made, but he must acknowledge that regime change was not one of the options on the table as we went to war in 2003. I agree that this is a mature time, when we must learn the lessons, and I am sure that the Prime Minister knows there is a danger of the same sort of thing happening in Afghanistan. Will he reassure me and the House that things have been carefully thought through, so that we have an exit strategy from Afghanistan and we will not be spending the next few decades trying to sort out that problem, too?
My hon. Friend has raised the question of Afghanistan, which involves one major difference: a 41-nation coalition is involved in Afghanistan and is committed to the success of Afghan democracy. We are reviewing what we can do together to make for better outcomes in Iraq. What I am certain of is that we must complement the military strategy in Afghanistan with what we can do to train up Afghan army and police forces to bring economic development to those areas that are dependent on narcotics when they could be dependent on other crops and other farming ways of life and to build up the local institutions, working with the tribes and an efficient central Government in Afghanistan. The nature of that new strategy will also have to take into account the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that we can stop the flow of terrorists from one country to another.
I, too, pay tribute to the many who served their country in Iraq and to those who died doing so. I pay particular tribute to the hundreds from Northern Ireland who served in the Royal Irish Regiment and other regiments during the past six years. On a recent visit to Basra, I was particularly impressed by how professional, proud and passionate those who are serving there are about the role that we are playing. Much work still needs to be done to train the police, to secure the area against destabilisation by insurgents from Iran, to build the infrastructure in the poorer areas of Basra and to protect minorities, especially the Christians. Will the Prime Minister tell us what plans have been put in place to ensure that the outstanding tasks are completed and not left undone?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman was able to visit our troops in Iraq, and, in particular, in the Basra area; they will be pleased to hear what he has said. He pays a particular tribute to the troops from Northern Ireland, as I do. They are very much part of the exercise in Iraq, and I met some of them yesterday. I agree with him that the social conditions in Basra have to improve, which is why, for example, we have built two water towers in the poorest areas, and why we are continuing to contribute to the building of schools and hospitals, as well as to the provision of jobs. He talks about the police forces. Yesterday, I met the policemen who have come from Britain to help train the police forces in Iraq—they are, and feel that they are, making a difference. The important message that we should send our troops in Iraq this Christmas is that they are making a difference—they are making real improvements to the lives of Iraqi citizens. Whatever differences there were over the causes and outbreak of the Iraqi war, it is important to recognise that all our troops have made a significant difference to this civilisation of Iraq.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that more Labour MPs than Liberal ones voted against the war? Given that more than 1 million Iraqis have died, that there are 4.7 million refugees, that there is mass unemployment and that their economy has been devastated and replaced by one that has been privatised and put in the control of overseas corporations, will the Prime Minister give an honest assessment of why the occupation failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Iraqis?
If my hon. Friend were to visit today, he would see a different picture from the one that he describes. Yesterday, I was at the port of Basra, which had been completely unable to function under Saddam Hussein—it was unable to have any trade successfully going through it and wrecks in the port made it impossible for other ships to enter. As a result of British and other action, that situation has been changed and the port is now in a position to be a thriving port for the future. People will then get jobs and that will enable them to build their livelihoods, international trade will form around Basra, and, of course, given its history of oil production—five sixths of Iraq’s oil is produced in the south—Basra will be able to be a very prosperous place in the future. I do not think that anybody can tell us that the individual population of Iraq benefited from Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The Prime Minister just alluded to the fact that the Americans, with some assistance from us, are reassessing the campaign in Afghanistan from top to bottom. I urge him to think again about initiating an inquiry into lessons from Iraq. There are obvious historical precedents—for example, the Mesopotamia inquiry in the first world war, which helped the conclusion of the campaign in 1917-18. The Americans are very open about this, so why aren’t we?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is conflating Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that, on reflection, he would not wish to do. The Afghanistan war is being fought by a coalition of 41. There is a review taking place of how we can best detach the Taliban from the people of Afghanistan. That is a totally different position from where we are in Iraq, and he should recognise that. We have put more troops into Afghanistan because of the danger of the guerrilla warfare being managed by the Taliban, and we continue to look at that particular problem. Generally, our strategy in Afghanistan is to complement our military action with measures that will increase the Afghans’ ability to run their own country. The review in Afghanistan is completely different from what he is talking about in Iraq.
The Prime Minister has never detailed what the Government believe to be the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. Much work has been done on that, and the lower estimates are around 100,000. If the Prime Minister cannot give details today of his estimate, will he confirm that the Government will do some work on it, so that we can know the answer to the question?
It is not a matter for the British Government: it is for the Iraqi Government to examine what has happened in their country. Only they will be in the position to obtain the full information. I cannot see how from here or from just Basra the British Government could conduct such a survey. However, I acknowledge the loss of life and the suffering of the Iraqi people, and British forces are trying to improve the Iraqi people’s conditions of life and standard of living.