Skip to main content

UK Armed Forces (Iraq)

Volume 589: debated on Monday 15 December 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the role of UK armed forces in Iraq.

The United Kingdom is providing substantial support to the Government of Iraq through air strikes, surveillance, the gifting and transporting of equipment and the training of Iraqi forces in specialist skills. About 50 UK personnel are working with the Danes in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, carrying out combat infantry and sharpshooter training, and we are coming to the end of the second of four three-week courses. We also have about 10 military personnel in Irbil, seeing how we can assist the Government of Iraq in training and equipping other Kurdish forces. The international coalition is developing its plan to build the capacity of Iraqi security forces and any future UK training contribution would be absorbed into this coalition plan.

In early November, I announced our intention to provide further training to the Iraqi military. No decisions on troop numbers, units or locations have been made, although we expect to focus on providing expertise in countering explosive devices. During Defence questions on 24 November, I also announced our intention to advise and assist the Iraqi armed forces through the secondment of advisory personnel to command headquarters. We are considering what contribution we can make and the details of any of these decisions will be announced to Parliament in the usual way.

I am sure that many Members will, like me, have been surprised and dismayed that the Defence Secretary told a Sunday newspaper about the deployment of UK armed forces to Iraq before he told this House. Is it not true that that led to turmoil in his department? Yesterday morning, he said that hundreds of troops would be deployed across four training bases, but yesterday afternoon a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said that no decisions on troop numbers, units or locations had been made, so how many are there? What message does he think this sends to our armed forces? Is it one of clarity and decisiveness or one of confusion and uncertainty? These are serious matters and the British public will want to know that this is not being undertaken lightly.

We have supported steps taken by the Government, regional partners and the international coalition to combat ISIL, including the provision by UK forces of training and equipment to the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, but we will scrutinise any developments and ensure that appropriate questions are asked. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the risk involved in expanding the training role to several locations across Iraq and the status and rules of engagement of force protection personnel? Will both training units and combat-ready personnel be solely under UK command and comprise UK servicemen and women alone? What role will the RAF, which is currently undertaking combat missions in Iraq, play? What discussions has he had with the Iraqi Government about this deployment? Does he agree that there must be no misunderstanding about British involvement in Iraq at any stage, which is why we need a clearly defined strategy?

There has not been enough clarity about the role of the UK armed forces, the scale of their involvement and the time frame for training operations. The Defence Secretary said just over a month ago that that would be very limited and at that stage only a dozen UK troops were involved in specific training tasks. Is there a strategy or are the Government making it up as they go along? Will the Defence Secretary explain reports that the National Security Council is meeting later this week to discuss and approve something he has already announced?

Finally, does he intend to come back to the House to report on the deployment so that we can have a full, open and proper discussion on these hugely significant matters? That is what the British public would expect and demand.

As I said, I have already announced, including in this House, that we are considering what further contribution we can make to the training of Iraqi forces. There is nothing new about that. Yesterday, I made it very clear that the numbers are yet to be finalised. When they are finalised, they will, of course, be announced to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. He asked whether there will be a proper assessment of risk. Yes, I will take advice from my military advisers on the risk involved. On force protection, we must make sure that any training that we provide is properly protected, even though it is well away from the front line. The RAF strikes will continue. I will keep the House updated on the number of missions that are flown and the number of strikes.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with the Iraqi Government. I make it clear to the House that everything that we are doing in Iraq and everything that we are considering doing in Iraq is at the request of the Iraqi Government. I clarified that in my visit to Baghdad and Irbil last month. It is precisely because the Iraqi Government have asked us and our coalition partners for help that we are considering this action at the moment.

I cannot comment on specific details in respect of the National Security Council, but I repeat that the details of our final decisions will be reported to the House.

Surely the key question is whether ISIS poses a threat to us, directly or indirectly. If it does, it needs to be dealt with by whatever means necessary. Are not too many western Governments getting close to conflict by opinion poll? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the state of co-operation with the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, which remains a key factor in whether we can win a ground war against ISIS?

The advance of ISIL is a direct threat to this country and other western countries, which is why some 40 countries are involved in the international coalition and why a number of them are considering putting personnel in to assist the training effort. On my predecessor’s second question, the support and enlistment of the tribes of the Anbar is critical in pushing ISIL back towards the western frontier of Iraq. There have been encouraging signs, but it is up to the Iraqi Government and the reformed Iraqi army to ensure that, in all their actions, they command the support of Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds.

Some of us had the privilege to meet British and Danish troops in Iraq last week. The training includes medical training. Given that 60% of peshmerga injuries are caused by improvised explosive devices, where loss of blood is a significant factor, why are we not training them in the use of tourniquets, which was very beneficial to our troops in Afghanistan?

I will certainly look at that suggestion. We gained expertise in countering IEDs and vehicle-borne explosive devices in Afghanistan and, as the hon. Lady says, we also accumulated considerable expertise in dealing with the injuries that they cause.

I urge the Secretary of State please to ensure that, along with the trainers, we deploy people who have expertise in Iraq, both military and civilian, to look specifically at the role of the Shi’a militia and the Sunni tribes so that we can credibly sit at the table with the Iraqi Government and the United States to challenge and debate the overall strategy, and drive a Sunni reconciliation.

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, said. It is vital that the new Iraqi Government not only consider themselves to be inclusive, but demonstrate that they are inclusive. They must command the support of the Sunni tribes and show that the Shi’a militia that are associated with the effort to halt ISIL are part of an overall inclusive effort that cuts across political, religious and tribal divisions. I have emphasised that throughout. There are encouraging signs in the Iraqi Government, in the reform of the Iraqi military and in Defence Minister Obeidi’s proposals for a national guard that can help to secure ground that has been won back from ISIL. However, there is a long way to go in ensuring that that effort is genuinely inclusive.

Given the current UK deployment in Iraq, what long-term consideration is being given to the implications of training the peshmerga on possible independence for Kurdistan in the future and on relationships with the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Government?

I welcome the recent rapprochement between the regional administration in the Kurdish areas and Baghdad. It is essential that that is built upon so that oil revenues can be properly allocated and spending, especially on the military, can be considered by the Government of Iraq as a whole. The priority now is surely to halt the advance of ISIL and help the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces to push it back from the territory that it has claimed.

Last Monday afternoon, members of the Defence Committee were at the presidential palace in Baghdad, and in answer to my questions the President said no to British troops on the ground against insurgents but yes to more equipment and training and a continuation of the airstrikes. Does the Secretary of State agree with the President and me that if UK combat troops returned, they could be regarded as occupying forces, which would create other difficulties for Iraq?

I agree with both my hon. Friend and the President of Iraq, in no particular order. The President of Iraq himself has said that he does not want British or any other foreign combat troops involved, which is why we need to make it absolutely clear that we are not proposing to return combat troops to Iraq. The effort that we are making is relatively small-scale and should be seen alongside the contributions being promised by others, including the Germans, the Spanish, the Danes, the Italians, the Australians and the New Zealanders, all of whom are considering what effort they can make to help with training and equipment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to defeat this ISIL criminal caliphate cult, or Daesh, it will have to be done not just in Iraq but in its headquarters and heartlands in Syria? What is the international coalition of 40 countries to which he referred going to do about that?

The hon. Gentleman, who has some experience of these matters through his chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is right that in the end ISIL can be defeated only if it is defeated in both countries, Syria and Iraq. That is why we welcome the strikes that other members of the international coalition, including the United States but also our allies in the Gulf, have undertaken against ISIL, particularly in the north of Syria. That helps to disrupt ISIL’s supply lines into Iraq. Our part—it is all that the House will allow us to do at the moment—is in Iraq, but we have plenty to do there through airstrikes, surveillance, the supply of equipment and the consideration that we are now undertaking of further training.

When I deployed to Bosnia in 1992, it was supposedly in a non-combat role, but the chiefs of staff insisted on ensuring that I had a field surgical team with an operating theatre and three general practitioners, for several hundred people. If we deploy several hundred people into Iraq, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are adequate medical facilities to look after our soldiers if by chance they are wounded, even though they are not in a combat role?

The House has the benefit of my hon. Friend’s considerable expertise in these matters, and I will certainly take up his suggestion. I emphasise that if we deploy further personnel, they will not be in the combat zones or on the front line. This will be a training effort to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces in some areas of expertise, in particular in encountering improvised explosive devices, as well as the sharpshooter tactics on which we have already been instructing.

Last week the members of the Defence Committee who went to Baghdad met Vice President Ayad Allawi. He brought with him 30 tribal sheikhs who described the total destruction of Shi’a and Sunni villages, the murder of men in the villages, and the abduction of women and children. People were left with nothing in an attempt to clear land for criminal elements within the militias. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the training we provide is not used by militias for their criminal activities, because often those militias are also part of the Iraqi army?

The hon. Lady is right and we must always be careful who we are training. It is important that the Iraqi Government—she will have seen this on her visit to Baghdad last week—follow through on the reforms they are proposing. The army must become genuinely inclusive and militias must be properly under control. Holding ground that can be liberated must have the full-hearted support of local populations, and that will be particularly important as ISIL is pushed back in the tribal areas of the Anbar.

The brave peshmerga whom we visited being trained by the British Army in Sulaymaniyah last week did a fantastic job in stopping the breakneck advance of ISIL in the summer, and they are to be congratulated. They did so against huge odds in terms of personnel, equipment and training, and to this day they are a pretty makeshift army. Does the Secretary of State agree that although it is vital that this should be a Kurdish or Iraqi battle against ISIL, we have a vast role to play in terms of equipment, training—particularly IED training—and we must do our part to combat the dreadful wickedness that is ISIL?

Yes. ISIL is a threat to us in this country and generally to the west, as well as a threat to all those in Iraq—particularly those of other religions or indeed their own religion—who want to live at peace. That is why, with the support of the House, since early summer we have been considering what we can do to supply the peshmerga. We have supplied heavy machine guns and helped to airlift other equipment and ammunition that is needed, and we are considering—it is still only considering—the scope of training that we are able to offer in some of those specialist skills.

The public are right to be concerned about mission creep in Iraq, and about the lack of candour by the Ministry of Defence when it comes to boots on the ground. In September I asked the Secretary of State whether forward air controllers are directing air strikes in Iraq. I was given a holding answer in October, no reply in November, and we are now getting towards the end of December. Can we have some candour from the Secretary of State on the simple question of whether forward air controllers are directing air strikes in Iraq?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not received an answer to that question and I will look into it. We have made it clear that we are not involved on the ground in combat in Iraq, as that goes beyond the wishes of this House. We are involved in air strikes, surveillance and intelligence gathering, and certainly in the supply of equipment and training.

May I press my right hon. Friend a little more on Syria? I met representatives of the Syrian national coalition last week. Bearing in mind the vital part that the repression in Syria plays in giving support to ISIL throughout the region, can the Secretary of State say when he intends to come back to the House to explain what more we can do to support fighters in Syria who are currently fighting Assad and the extremists in order to protect the Syrian people?

My right hon. Friend, who was a most distinguished Minister for the middle east, is certainly right to advise the House that Syria should not be neglected in all this. As well as the surveillance capabilities that the military is providing, we are in discussions with the international coalition about making a contribution to a programme to train the Syrian opposition, as I told the House during Defence questions on 24 November. We continue to scope that mission with our international partners. That kind of training would almost inevitably have to happen outside Syria itself, but it is under active consideration at the moment.

The urgent question has illustrated that we need a far broader debate than we are having at present. I visited Iraq 26 times when I was special envoy on human rights. Many of the things we put in place were not just military matters: we trained civil society, we retrained journalists, we insisted on the rights of women and we trained the judiciary. I have just visited both Baghdad and Kurdistan with the Foreign Affairs Committee and we need to look again at what we actually achieved. My worry is that some of those gains are now slipping away and we need to reinforce them.

I think the House will endorse that. The right hon. Lady knows as much about Iraq, in particular about the Kurdish areas, as anybody in this House. There are lessons on the type of aid that was given and what we can do now to help the new democratically elected Government in Iraq to build on some of the earlier support we offered. On whether there should be a debate on Iraq, that is not a matter for me. However, I look forward to my appearance before the Select Committee later this week.

When insurgents such as ISIL break cover and seize and hold territory, they lose the advantages of secrecy and surprise. It should therefore not be too difficult in the short to medium term to expel them, but then they will go back to guerrilla and terror tactics. Will the Government have in place a medium to long-term strategy for containing that sort of warfare? We have lacked such a strategy in the past when we oscillated between nation building at one extreme and doing little or nothing at the other.

The tactics of ISIL vary and there is some evidence that it is already altering its tactics in the face of air strikes. The overall strategy has to be led and endorsed by the Government of Iraq. It is very important that, in the end, the campaign is led by the home-grown army of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with the support of the international coalition. The strategy has to be formulated there rather than here, but we can offer specialist expertise.

In 2003, there was massive opposition to Britain going into Iraq. Those concerns are still there, yet we have now heard that more British troops are going back into Iraq and that a British base is being built in Bahrain. Is the Secretary of State not presiding over an expansion and an extension of British military activity in the whole region? Is he really sure where all this will lead, what the cost will be, and what the casualties will be?

What I am sure of, first of all, is that ISIL presents a clear and present danger to us in the United Kingdom. There have been acts of violent extremism on the streets of our capital and elsewhere. This is a very direct threat and there are Britons, sadly, who have gone to fight for the jihadists. There is a direct British interest in ensuring that ISIL is not allowed to capture further territory in Iraq and is thrown back out of it. That is why we are supporting the legitimate Government of Iraq, and why we are acting at their request in considering what further training and support we are able to offer. So far as the base in Bahrain is concerned, we have ships and aircraft permanently present in the Gulf. Having a permanent base there will make deployment much easier.

One of the most important things the Defence Committee heard last week was the strong desire by Governments in the region, particularly the Government of Jordan, to “Arabise the narrative”. What more can the UK Government do to support the strong desire that this be seen as an Arab-led initiative against an evil form of extreme Islam and that we in the west—countries such as Britain, the United States and France—be seen as acting in support of those efforts?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The extent to which our allies in the Gulf accept that they and other regional parties have a regional responsibility to help the Government of Iraq deal with this challenge is encouraging. The recent conference in Kuwait on combating the ideology of ISIL was an important illustration of that. In the end, this has to be dealt with by the legitimate Government of Iraq, with the support of the region and the international community.

Although the humanitarian work is valued and appreciated, should we not avoid mission-creeping into a new war before we have had an explanation of why 632 British soldiers died, having been ordered into Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired?

I think that everyone in the House is awaiting the well overdue publication of the Chilcot inquiry, and anything that can be done to accelerate that would be welcomed on both sides of the House. Helmand is a better place than it was when our troops went in, however, and we should pay tribute to the work done there and the sacrifices made.

We are all proud of the work done by the combined school for explosives and bomb disposal now based at Bicester. Do I understand it from my right hon. Friend’s statement that either Royal Engineer and/or Royal Logistics corps limited bomb disposal capacity will be deployed to help train Iraqi service personnel in dealing with bomb disposal and improvised explosive devices?

No decision has been taken about which units are likely to be involved or which locations they are likely to be sent to; this is simply something we are considering at the request of the Iraqi Government. As my right hon. Friend says, however, this is expertise that we have in this country, and there are lessons learned from the Afghan campaign that we think we could usefully contribute to assist the Iraqi military.

I want to be clear about something the Defence Secretary just said. The House has only given permission for us to go up to the Iraqi border because it has never been asked to go beyond that. If he wants to do that, the Prime Minister should have the courage of his apparent conviction and ask the question. Will the Defence Secretary be specific about the request from the Iraqi Government? Have they made a specific request for the kind of increased ground force deployment he outlined to The Sunday Telegraph this week?

I did not outline any ground force deployment; I made it clear that we were not considering the deployment of combat forces to Iraq. I discussed the effort we might make in support of the Iraqi military with Iraqi commanders and the new Iraqi Defence Minister, Minister Obeidi, when I was last in Baghdad, and I discussed the same matter in Irbil. This is expertise that the Iraqi and Kurdish forces would certainly welcome.

The Secretary of State is right to congratulate Prime Minister Abadi and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on coming together to form the revenue-sharing and hydrocarbon deal, which will allow them to pay for some of the equipment, training and so forth. Of course there are challenges facing both—the unification of the Peshmerga and, of course, the militias that we have heard about today. There has also been talk of the formation of a Sunni national guard. Has the Secretary of State had a chance to discuss that with both parties in Kurdistan and Baghdad?

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the agreement—only an interim agreement at this stage—between the Kurdish regional authority and Baghdad about the allocation of oil revenues. I hope both sides will build on that to forge a stronger relationship. So far as the national guard is concerned, yes, I did discuss the issue in Baghdad, and I view it as essential for that national guard to be truly national, so that it does not comprise simply Shi’as, Sunnis or Kurds but is genuinely national and cuts across all the political, tribal and religious divisions.

This deployment is a new worry for the families of service personnel. Can the Secretary of State provide an estimate of how long the tour of duty will be on this particular mission?

I am sorry, but I cannot make any such estimate at the moment, simply because we have not yet decided the numbers or which units will be involved. As soon as we have further details, they will of course be reported to this House.

Will my right hon. Friend further update us on the support for military training and aid that our allies in the Gulf states are providing to the Iraqi Government?

A number of allies in the Gulf have already contributed equipment and have been involved in air strikes, flying in support of the coalition efforts in Syria, in particular. They are looking to see what other logistical help they can provide. A number of them provide bases and other support for the international effort.

Given the threat presented by ISIL, I think the whole House would support any effective action. However, before we left Iraq, we trained, equipped and supported the Iraqi army, yet it crumbled in the face of the threat from ISIL. Why is the Secretary of State convinced that this intervention will be effective and will not simply drag us further into front-line involvement in this war?

We are not going to be dragged into front-line involvement, as I have made clear. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that the previous Iraqi Government did not enjoy the full support of all parts of Iraq, which is why the army did not command the loyalty of all parts of Iraq and why it crumbled in the face of the ISIL onslaught. The new Government are, I believe, genuinely representative, comprising Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish Ministers, and the reforms we have seen so far show, I think, that the Government understand the need to be wholly inclusive of all the different elements of Iraq. It is early days and there is a challenge, as the hon. Gentleman said, in that these divisions still remain. It is up to us to help the new Government of Iraq to overcome them.

Given that the only strategy to beat ISIL is probably a large ground offensive involving tens of thousands of troops, does my right hon. Friend believe that such a resolution will ever by executed by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces?

Yes, I do have confidence that ISIL can be pushed back if we are able to help re-equip and retrain the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. We have had some significant offers of support in principle from other coalition partners: the Australians are offering up to 400 personnel; the Germans about 100; the Spanish 300; the Italians 280; the Danes 120. A number of countries are coming together to offer the sort of training and support that they are each able to offer individually in overall support for those ground forces.

When Parliament was recalled to debate ISIS in September, many of us expressed concern about the potential for mission creep, and I am afraid that the manner of the Secretary of State’s announcement has not reassured us. He said that these activities would be undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. Who will co-ordinate them, and is it true that, as has been reported in the press, we will be based at either of the training centres in which the United States currently reside?

As the hon. Lady knows, everything that we are doing in Iraq is either at the request or with the permission of the Iraqi authorities. As for the location of any training effort, it has yet to be decided. The coalition is considering a number of sites divided between the Kurdish and southern areas and areas around Baghdad, but we have yet to finalise exactly which country is likely to offer further training where.

There have been reports that, in addition to those in the countries mentioned by my right hon. Friend, Iranian military advisers are playing key roles in the fight against ISIL. Can my right hon. Friend tell us more about how the efforts of such a diverse range of international military advisers are being co-ordinated on the ground?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not co-ordinating efforts with Iran, but more than 40 countries are now involved in the international coalition, a number of which have made significant training offers. We are considering—scoping—what training offer we might be able to make, in addition to those that have already been made.

The Secretary of State said that there was an acceptance of regional responsibility and spoke of some of the contributions that had been made, but does he categorically believe that regional partners are providing enough support on the ground in the form of kinetic activity? If not, does he envisage any circumstances in which the fairly hazy commitment that he has described today could increase?

We have made it clear that we want to see this effort underpinned by support from the regional partners, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made exactly that point during his visit to Ankara last week. All the regional parties must be involved. We have seen how ISIL has swept across the borders between Syria and Iraq, and has managed to seize a large amount of territory. I think the regional partners understand that the integrity and survival of Iraq are key to the region. We are continuing to encourage them, as I did during the Manama conference in Bahrain two weeks ago. We are encouraging them to continue to contribute, not least because we think it important for public opinion in western Europe to take account of the part that they are playing in the effort against ISIL.

I do not doubt that my right hon. Friend shares my admiration for the Royal Marines and for what they did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Is he considering using them to deliver the level of expertise and training that they have clearly demonstrated, so that they can provide the top-notch advice that I think is so desperately needed?

I much appreciated my visit last week, with my hon. Friend, to the Royal Marines in his constituency, and I am well aware of the formidable strengths and expertise that they bring to operations of this kind. I should emphasise, however, that we have not yet made any decisions about the number of personnel, or about the units from which they might be drawn.

Are there any differences between the Secretary of State’s assessment of the training requirements of the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi Government’s own assessment of its training needs?

Broadly, no. All this is being done in close co-operation and discussion with the Iraqi Government. I had discussions with the new Iraqi Defence Minister and his officials in Baghdad, who were fairly open about gaps in their military, their capabilities and their equipment, and about the areas in which they look to the rest of the international community for assistance.