(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the liberation of Mosul and progress in counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria.
In the early hours of Monday morning, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced the start of the Iraqi-led operation to liberate Mosul. Iraqi forces are converging on the city from the east and south in the biggest offensive of the counter-Daesh campaign, designed to break Daesh’s grip on the largest city still within its grasp.
Iraqi forces have been preparing for the operation since the capture of Qayyarah in August. The aim is to drive out Daesh, but in a way that protects civilians. Thousands of Iraqi security personnel have passed though the coalition’s building partner capacity training programme, to which the UK makes a major contribution. Alongside other coalition aircraft, the RAF has been providing intelligence-gathering and intensive air support to Iraqi ground forces. More than half of the RAF’s recent strikes have been in and around Mosul. On the ground, British military instructors are, with coalition colleagues, helping to train, mentor and equip many of the forces engaged in the Mosul operation.
We recognise, as do the Iraqis, that this will be the greatest challenge that their security forces have yet encountered, and it will have significant humanitarian implications. The United Nations, in co-ordination with the Government of Iraq, is putting in place critical supplies of life-saving assistance, such as shelters, medical services and food, and the United Kingdom recently committed £40 million for the Mosul aid plan, bringing the total amount pledged by the UK to help Daesh’s victims in Iraq to almost £170 million since 2014. This will not be a quick operation, and we can expect Daesh to fight hard to keep Mosul. When I visited Baghdad and Erbil three weeks ago, senior Iraqi and coalition commanders outlined their plans for Mosul. Their confidence is high, and it is clear that Daesh is now failing. This year, it has suffered a series of crushing defeats: Ramadi was liberated in February, as was Hit in April and Falluja—the first city to be seized by Daesh—in June. Overall, the Daesh extremists now hold only 10% of Iraqi territory.
Ridding Iraq of Daesh was never going to be quick or easy, but as we enter the third year of the campaign, real progress is being made. Defeating Daesh in the long term will help make the streets of Britain and Europe safer. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the vital role of our armed forces in defeating this evil.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and, on behalf of the whole House, I pay tribute to the UK forces and all those involved in this incredibly dangerous operation. All of us who live free from oppression and go to bed each night in relative safety owe a debt of gratitude for what is being done to counter Daesh, as that evil force would destroy all our ways of life, no matter where we are.
I thank the Secretary of State for the detail he gave on current UK involvement, but can he say more about how he thinks it may evolve as the operation goes forward and as the question becomes one not of liberation but of maintaining security in Mosul and elsewhere? What is the UK doing to press our coalition partners to ensure that the protection of civilians is given the utmost priority? Everyone will know that he does not go into the details of operations and targeting, but it is well known that the UK has a more rigid procedure than applies in other areas and so what can he say about that?
What the Secretary of State said about Daesh being beaten back is so important, as we know. Daesh set itself up in Mosul as a caliphate that was to precede, in direct time, the “end of days”, which would secure Daesh’s particular perversion of Islamic law across the whole world. What can coalition partners do to get the message out to those who might otherwise be attracted into this madness that it is failing on its own terms and should not in any way be supported?
Finally, in Foreign Office questions, which helpfully preceded this urgent question, mention was made of reconstructing Mosul and Iraq. How will we show that we have learnt the lessons of previous failures over the past decade in Iraq, where we left a vacuum which the extremists were able to fill, both geographically and in the minds of Iraqi people?
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the overall purpose of this campaign, which is not simply to help defend the new democracy of Iraq, but to eradicate a threat to us all and to our way of life. He asked me a number of questions. The UK will continue to assist this campaign; the RAF will be closely involved in air support of ground operations. We have already been targeting key terrorist positions, and command and control buildings in and around Mosul. The specialist mentors who have been helping to train Iraqi forces will continue to provide that support, although away from the combat zones. The rules of engagement that I set at the beginning of this campaign two years ago are not changed by the operation in Mosul, although it will of course be more difficult to conduct this operation in a closely packed urban environment.
So far as the future is concerned, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that when Daesh is eventually driven out of Iraq, as I hope it will be, we will have to continue all our efforts to combat its ideology and look more deeply at what attracted people to join up in the first place. We will need to work with moderate Islam right across the world to ensure that that perversion does not increase. Above all, as he said at the end, we need to learn the lesson of this campaign, which is that we must ensure that the Sunni population of Iraq has sufficient security in future and that we do not have to be asked back to do this all over again.
One lesson of the campaign in Iraq is clearly that if air power is to make a valid contribution, it must be in support of identifiable ground forces. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it has been much easier to identify ground forces that we can support from the air in Iraq than it has been, or will be, in Syria? Does he also agree that when Daesh is pushed out and ultimately defeated, there will be no shortage of other groups that adhere to the same poisonous totalitarian theology as Daesh, but that are not as vulnerable as Daesh because they do not propose to seize and hold territory?
On the first point, my right hon. Friend is right. In Iraq, we have an operation that is being led by the Iraqi Government. These are Iraqi troops who are fighting for the freedom of their own country and to protect their own people. In Syria, we have some moderate ground forces—the Syrian democratic forces—who are ready and willing to take on Daesh. Although we see the liberation of Manbij and other towns and cities in the north of Syria, I accept that the situation in Syria is very much more complicated. If his final question was that we should despair and simply do nothing, I do not accept that. We must confront evil where we see it in this world, and, given the professionalism and power of our armed forces, I believe that where we are able to help those nascent democracies that ask for our help then we should do so.
The horror that Daesh has inflicted on the people of Mosul since it captured the city in June 2014 is unimaginable: women killed for not wearing full Islamic veils and gay men thrown from buildings. We fully support the operation to liberate the city, because Daesh, in its evil ideology, must be defeated wherever it emerges. I say that not only to protect the people of Iraq and Syria who have suffered such a great deal, but to protect our citizens here in the UK from the global threat posed by Daesh.
I appreciate the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). Although I fully accept that he cannot divulge the operational details on the Floor of the House, I ask him to set out in greater detail the full extent of the RAF’s involvement in the future, and how he intends to keep this House informed?
A number of forces are assisting with this important offensive, including militia groups and paramilitary figures, but there is concern about what would happen if some of these groups were to go into the city. What assurances has the Secretary of State had from the Iraqi authorities that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), indicated earlier, it is only the Iraqi army and Iraqi police who will enter Mosul? We expect this offensive to last weeks and possibly months, but, once it has been completed, there will be a need to secure and defend Mosul to ensure that Daesh is driven out for good and that the city does not descend into sectarian fighting. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what preparations are being made to protect the citizens and to rebuild the city, including the city’s infrastructure?
On the humanitarian situation, the United Nations has warned:
“In a worst-case scenario, up to 1 million people could be displaced”
as a result of this offensive. Will the Secretary of State set out in greater detail what humanitarian assistance the UK will be providing, not just in the immediate term, but in the longer term, to support any displaced people?
We stand in solidarity against Daesh and its wicked ideology, and with the brave armed service personnel who will be assisting vitally in this important campaign.
Let me welcome the hon. Lady to her position. I think she is the fifth shadow Defence Secretary in the past two and a bit years, but she is welcome for all that. I particularly welcome the full support that she gave to this operation and the role that British forces are playing in it. I hope the House will continue to support the operation through thick and thin. It will be a complicated operation militarily, involving the liberation of a very large city, and I am grateful for her support.
The hon. Lady asked me five specific questions. First, the role of the RAF will continue to be to strike deliberate targets, particular positions and command and control centres in and around Mosul, as well as offering close air support to the ground assault as it begins. Secondly, we will keep the House regularly informed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is due to give the next of a series of regular updates. I gave one earlier in the summer and he is due to do that shortly, but I certainly undertake to keep the House fully informed. Thirdly, the hon. Lady asked me about some quite well-founded concerns that different groups—the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the peshmerga and so on—will go into areas of Mosul where they might not be particularly welcome. That has been very carefully evaluated by both the Iraqi and Kurdish leadership. Red lines have been drawn and everybody involved is very keen that those lines should not be crossed.
Fourthly, on the security of the city, Mosul is a very complex city, not entirely Sunni, but it is extremely important that the day after the city is liberated, the population there feel that they have sufficient reassurance—not just the reconnection of essential services, but sufficient reassurance—in the security of the city to be able to return. Finally, the hon. Lady asked me about the humanitarian assistance. Yes, as I think I said earlier, we will be providing tented accommodation and food supplies as part of the United Nations programme. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has people ready in Iraq, and we are ready to go in and provide that help as soon as the fighting finishes.
The Defence Secretary rightly commented on the contribution being made by British forces to this successful operation. He is correct to do so, but does he agree that this is an opportunity to reinforce our messages about the military covenant and the support that our armed forces in their turn need from us? In that context, will he particularly bend his mind to the new accommodation model that the Ministry of Defence is currently considering?
I am happy to look at that again. As my hon. Friend knows, we have made great strides with the covenant in recent years, enshrining it into the law of the land and following up its implementation with local authorities and others. We are looking at new ways of providing or assisting with military accommodation. We are consulting on that and I will certainly bear my hon. Friend’s comments in mind.
We all earnestly hope that the liberation of Mosul will be swift and decisive and that Daesh will finally be driven out of Iraq for good. As we have heard, lessons must be learned from previous such military operations in Iraq, particularly the recapture of Falluja earlier this year, when non-Government militia were allowed to enter the city before the Iraqi security forces. Can we make sure that this does not happen in Mosul where, because of its huge strategic importance and the multi-ethnic composition of its inhabitants, the risks are much greater and the mistakes cannot be repeated? What discussions have the Secretary of State and his Department had with the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi Government and the peshmerga to make sure that the 1.5 million civilians, including the hundreds of thousands of children, are protected both during the liberation of the city and in its rebuilding thereafter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and I hope he fully supports the operation. Four Scots were killed on a beach in Tunisia by extremists a little over a year ago, and we all have an interest in making sure that Daesh is finally driven out of Iraq and the threat to our own people is reduced. He asked the question at the front of everybody’s mind—that there should be no reprisals from one group or another as these cities are liberated. We have to learn the lessons each time and, city by city, improve the way in which security and reassurance can immediately be provided. That is something that I reviewed with the Iraqi and the Kurdish authorities on my recent visit, and everybody is aware of that danger.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which we welcome. It is early days in this conflict and we hope all goes well. I hope we can spare a thought for the journalists who are covering this conflict, whom we expect to bring us back the information and who can themselves be in a very vulnerable position. How does my right hon. Friend assess the contribution of Iranian forces, and how will the 80,000 to perhaps 100,000 who have been working in Iraq against Daesh be kept free from the sectarian problems that affected that country, to make sure that their contribution and influence in the future may be for good, rather than adding to the sectarian problems that may occur after the conflict is over?
My right hon. Friend is right to praise the contribution of the British media, which have been following preparations for the assault and some of which are now close to the frontline. He raises an important point about Iranian influence not simply in Iraq, but in a number of these countries. Iran has the opportunity now, following the signing of the nuclear agreement, to show that it can be a force for good in these countries, and it is up to Iran to live up to its undertakings. The Iranians have given clear undertakings that they will not intervene malevolently in these cities as they are liberated in Iraq and we expect them to stick to that.
We all wish the forces embarking on this operation well. Is the Defence Secretary aware of any arrangements that are being put in place as the liberation proceeds to collect evidence, including forensic evidence, of crimes that have been committed? As well as defeating Daesh in this city, it is important that those responsible for the most awful crimes are held to account in a court of law.
The whole House would endorse that. The answer is yes, it is for the Iraqi Government to lead on that. This is an Iraqi operation, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear in New York recently that we will be looking for sufficient evidence to indict in some form or other the leaders of this barbarism in recent years and see that they are held properly to account. With other countries in the coalition, we are also looking to see how we will treat our own foreign fighters who may be detained and potentially returned to this country, to make sure that they, too, are held to account for any crimes that they may have committed.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), does the Defence Secretary agree that there is a need for specialist UK input into investigating those crimes, which are utterly horrendous?
I will certainly look at that. We have specialist expertise in this country, as my hon. Friend probably knows better than anybody, and the Iraqi Government are aware that they can call on that expertise, but I will remind them of it.
Will the Secretary of State say a little more about how he hopes the liberation of Mosul will impact on the campaign against Daesh in Syria, to which Parliament quite rightly extended consent for RAF involvement last year?
Daesh regards Mosul as one of the two centres of the caliphate, alongside Raqqa, so we expect its defeat there to be a body blow more generally. It will sever the lines of communication between the two cities, and as a result, Raqqa will become more isolated as the border is increasingly sealed. The Daesh fighters who remain in Raqqa will have no other place to go. There will certainly be a military impact, but I hope that the liberation of Mosul will go further by helping finally to banish the mystique of Daesh, because it is not a successful organisation; it is a failing organisation that can and will be defeated.
I add my thanks to the serving UK personnel for all the work they are doing in the region. It is clear to me that there is already a serious humanitarian crisis in Daesh-controlled Mosul. What forward planning has been undertaken to ensure that those who have already been affected get humanitarian aid and those who sadly and inevitably will be affected receive the assistance they need?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important for the House to understand that there is already a humanitarian crisis inside Mosul. People there have been living under this appalling regime for over two years, suffering all the barbarities associated with it. That is the situation at present, even before the liberation has begun. To answer her question directly, the Department for International Development is part of the United Nations development programme. The Iraqi Government will ensure that civilians, where they can get out in advance of the final assault, are transported easily to safer areas, and then our agencies are ready to go in alongside the United Nations to ensure that there is sufficient food, medical supplies and tented accommodation for the others.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), aid agencies estimate that more than 700,000 people will be displaced by the conflict—more than the population of Glasgow. Save the Children is concerned that we do not yet have tents in which to put those people up or safe routes to ensure that they can get out of the city unimpeded by Daesh and other forces. Can the Secretary of State provide some reassurance on what the Government can do to provide safety on those routes, and tents and services when those people arrive?
Those are very valid concerns that arise from what is now becoming a warzone in and around Mosul. As I have said, the Iraqi Government are fully aware of the need to cope with any increase in the displaced population, to arrange transport for those who can get out of the city to safer areas and to be ready with additional tented accommodation—winter is coming—to house the others. There has been a great deal of planning all summer for this operation and its consequences—what we call the day after Mosul is liberated.
Does my right hon. Friend know whether Iraqi and peshmerga field medical units are as far forward as possible, so that they can tend for the wounded on all sides when they come in, and quickly?
On my recent visit to Erbil, I saw for myself some of the medical evacuation training that British troops are offering to the peshmerga, showing them how to get casualties away from the frontline as rapidly as possible. That has been a big part of the training that we have been able to offer. They are now relatively seasoned troops; they have been doing this kind of operation for many months in other towns and villages, both in the north of Iraq and along the Euphrates valley, although not on this scale. They certainly understand the importance of getting casualties off the battlefield as quickly as possible.
The taking and holding of territory has been central to Daesh’s philosophy, in contrast to some earlier manifestations of that kind of ideology, so what is the next step in reducing the territory that will be held by Daesh after this operation, as well as combating the ideology, which in recent years has been used to justify not only what Daesh has done, but the killing of innocent civilians, from Mali to Tunisia, France and many other countries?
The next step in Iraq is to push Daesh beyond the border, which will mean some mopping-up operations in the north of Syria and to the north and west of Mosul, and clearing Daesh out of some remaining smaller towns along the Euphrates river valley. Members of the coalition, in our regular meetings—we will be meeting in Paris next week—are already looking at what more can be done to counter Daesh globally and whether we can set up structures now that will enable us to respond much more quickly and come to each other’s aid should Daesh resurrect itself in different parts of Africa, or indeed in the far east.
Given the Abadi regime’s inability to deliver reform, would not we be wise to plan on the basis that Iraq is unlikely to survive as a unitary state and is more likely to break into its constituent confessional and ethnic parts?
With respect to my right hon. Friend, I do not think that it is for us in this House to question now the integrity of Iraq or start designing a different shape for either it or Syria. We tried that around 100 years ago—indeed, it was a Conservative Back Bencher, Sykes, who first drew the line that runs between Syria and Iraq and presented it to Prime Minister Asquith. My right hon. Friend knows from his own ministerial experience how frustrating the pace of reform has been in Iraq—for example, to get the security and policing right, to delegate sufficient powers to the governors and to ensure that the army is properly accountable. Slowly, those reforms are being put in place. I think that we must continue to do what we are doing, which is accepting that these things are slow, but there is a democratic Government in Iraq who genuinely at the moment represent Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds in Iraq, and we have to work with them.
First, on the Secretary of State’s point about driving ISIS out of Iraq, what assurances can he give the House that we will not see a repeat of the situation that followed the surge in 2006-07, which would allow ISIS to re-emerge from the deserts and move into Syria? What steps has he taken to stop that, working with the coalition partners? Secondly, when the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and I were in Iraq a couple of years ago, we were appalled by the dearth of intelligence. Is he satisfied that there have been significant improvements in intelligence on the ground?
On the first point, nobody in the coalition—it includes some 60 countries, all involved in one way or another—wants to be back in Iraq doing this all over again in five or 10 years’ time, so we need to ensure that the political settlement that is left when Daesh is pushed out of the country endures and is as embedded as it can be and that both Sunnis and Shi’as can rely on sufficient security to get back to their cities, towns and villages and live their lives. We will therefore continue to encourage the process of political reform, which has been far too slow—in many respects, it has been behind the military progress that has been made. We will continue to encourage that.
My right hon. Friend will recall that after the fall of Baghdad in the Iraq war, the allies were roundly criticised for not having a plan for reconstruction, thereby creating a vacuum, which, as we know, is extremely dangerous. Is he confident that an adequate plan for reconstruction will be put in place immediately after the fall of Mosul?
As I said before, this is an Iraqi-led plan—an Iraqi-led campaign—to liberate Mosul, but from everything I have seen from visiting Baghdad recently, the Government are planning to get security into Mosul and to ensure that the essentials of life are restored there as quickly as possible, working through the local administration and the governor of Nineveh province, to make sure that people feel safe and can return to their homes. We will encourage that process politically, and we will also back it materially, with assistance from the Department for International Development.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of some of the horrific war crimes that have been committed against the Yazidi women in Mosul. Will he speak a little about what specialist services he and his colleagues will be able to provide for those women when they come out of that desperate situation?
The Department for International Development has some specialist programmes already in preparation to deal with some of those victims of the barbarity we have seen. It is also important that those who are responsible for that barbarism, if it was done on a genocidal basis specifically against the Yazidis, are properly held to account, and that is something we are working on with other members of the coalition.
It is good to hear about the positive progress that is being made in the counter-Daesh strategy, and particularly about the important role that is being taken forward by the peshmerga Kurds. What role did UK forces play in training those forces, and what other needs may have been identified for further assistance?
It is perhaps worth saying that, when my hon. Friend refers to progress, we are at the very start of this campaign to encircle and then liberate Mosul. I must remind the House again that this may not be easy; there may well be setbacks along the way. We have trained a large number of peshmerga forces, as well as Iraqi troops, over the past two years. We can be proud of the role that the British Army has played, particularly in training them to deal with improvised explosive devices, which have been seeded on a much larger scale than in any previous campaign we have come across—far greater than in Afghanistan or in the original Iraq conflicts—and in helping them to deal with evacuation to face snipers. It has been a consistent training effort over the past two years, and I hope that, as a result, the peshmerga are better able to deal with what will be a very difficult assault.
This conflict is taking place in a globalised world with social media. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to send out the very clear message that, although we have not seen the crimes and atrocities carried out inside Mosul by Daesh, terrible things will be portrayed from this conflict, which could take weeks or months, and many people will die, but that is a necessary part of saving the world and particularly of protecting Muslims around the world, who are dying as a result of the horrors carried out by this caliphate cult?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has experience of chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee in previous Parliaments. He is right: horrors are being perpetrated every day in Mosul, and that was the case long before the liberation and the assault started. We should not forget that some of these horrors have been perpetrated on our own citizens—on the hostages taken back in 2014—and others have been subject to atrocities ever since. It is important that the world does not forget just how evil Daesh has been in the extremes to which they have gone in punishing or killing those who happen not to accept the perversion they believe in.
Militias have been relied on to help defeat the death cult Daesh, but concerns have been raised about the involvement of Shi’a militias in liberating Mosul, based on the atrocities witnessed by Sunni residents during Falluja’s liberation from Daesh. What assurances has my right hon. Friend received that the very sectarian tensions that facilitated the rise of Daesh in the first place will not be stoked by Shi’a militias in Mosul?
It is a very legitimate concern, rooted not just in some of the earlier operations but in earlier conflicts. Those were assurances that I pressed for, and examined very closely, on my recent visit. There are red lines drawn on which units are allowed to go where as the encirclement operation begins. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that everybody in Baghdad and in Erbil—the Sunni and Shi’a members of the Iraqi Government—is very much aware of the need to do this operation, in what is essentially a Sunni city, but not entirely a Sunni city, in a way that gives the majority Sunni population of Mosul the confidence to return to their city in the knowledge that they will be able to live safely there thereafter.
As the offensive continues, it is likely that many Daesh fighters will try to blend in with the local civilian population. Can any specialist training be undertaken for the peshmerga and other forces to ensure that, if that does happen, any terrorist atrocities that may emerge in the longer term from within civilian life are limited?
That is an important point. We do not yet know whether Daesh will stand and fight, which they have done in some cities, or whether they will try to melt away. All we know at the moment is that Mosul is a very well-defended city; preparations for its defence have been going on as long as preparations for the assault, so all the signs are that Daesh will defend it for some time. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about training. Specialist units in the Iraqi forces are trained in this counter-terrorism work, and we have every interest in making sure that the Daesh leadership, in particular, as well as the rank and file of the terrorists, are detained wherever possible.
A successful ground offensive will require a huge improvement in the morale and fighting spirit of the Iraqi forces. What part have the UK and her allies played in making that improvement to the morale of Iraqi forces, and is my right hon. Friend confident that he can continue that work, so that Daesh has no respite and no chance to re-establish itself?
I was impressed by the confidence of Iraqi commanders on my most recent visit, compared with their approach to all this, say, a year ago. They have been encouraged by the relative ease with which cities and towns along the Euphrates river valley were liberated. They were—certainly a few weeks ago—very much looking forward to the Mosul campaign and regard it is as something that is difficult but doable. They have that confidence, and the Iraqi troops that I have seen being trained by our own forces are a very different army from the army that first fled in front of the Daesh advance in the spring and summer of 2014.
First, I would like to wish our armed forces a safe and successful campaign. We have heard that up to 1 million civilians may flee Mosul, many of them children who will have been deprived of education, who will have suffered the psychological impact of warfare and who, in the case of young teenagers, may be screened by the Iraqi forces as they come out. What ability do the UK Government have—on the ground, directly—to monitor the safety, education and health of young children?
Counselling of children, and indeed child protection, will be central to the work of the International Development Department and the United Nations programme after the liberation of Mosul, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to caution us. This is a military assault on a very large city; this is likely to be a war zone for some weeks and months. The Iraqi forces have done their best to warn the population of what lies ahead, but this is going to be difficult, and they are going to make every effort to protect the civilian population from the assault itself.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for tabling this urgent question and for visiting the region and engaging with the group. I also personally thank my former colleagues in the Royal Air Force for their service in this operation. Military support to the peshmerga is ongoing, but will the Secretary of State update the House on what rehabilitation and medical support there might be, particularly bearing in mind the wonderful facility at Headley Court, for any injured peshmerga fighters?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the Royal Air Force. We have touched on the role of the British Army, but over the past two years, since the House gave its authority for strikes in Iraq, we have seen the most intense campaign being managed by the Royal Air Force from Akrotiri and other bases in the Gulf, at a tempo we have not seen since the first Gulf war. I know the House would want to pay tribute not only to the pilots who fly the planes but to the huge back-up operation that sits behind them. On his particular point about medical support, perhaps he will allow me to write to him.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to stress that this is an Iraqi-led campaign but our armed forces are there because it will make a material difference to our own safety here. On that basis, what can he do, and what can we all do, to ensure that people in this country realise that we are engaged in this campaign not because it is a war against Islam but because it is a war that is being undertaken to support a democratically elected Muslim Government against those who would pervert that religion for their own barbaric ends?
On the first point, we must all continue to remind our constituents of why we got involved back in the summer of 2014: the horrors that were being inflicted on our hostages; the barbarity of the treatment of women and of gay people in Daesh areas; and the indiscriminate slaughter that Daesh has inflicted, as we have seen in western Europe, on people whether they shared the Islamic faith or not. We do have to remind people of why we are there. Then we have to do much more to support moderate Islam in some of the very good work that is being done in this country and elsewhere, through programmes run here and in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, on how we de-radicalise those who might be tempted to join this kind of extremist terror in future.
I welcome the start of this operation, but it is worth bearing in mind that it could turn into a fire fight in a large urban area with an enemy that is absolutely fanatical and has absolutely no respect for human rights law. How satisfied is the Secretary of State that the forces taking part have the ability to conduct this operation according to the current rules of engagement, and that we will have measures in place to allow civilians to flee while making sure that the cowards in Daesh, who are likely to run away from the onslaught, will be identified and captured?
My hon. Friend is right to warn the House that this will be a fire fight—a series of fire fights. I have been at pains to indicate that it is not going to be easy; it is going to be difficult in a very crowded urban area. Inevitably, there will be damage, and no doubt civilian casualties as well. As regards rules of engagement, the Iraqi Government have assured the coalition that their troops are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law—the Geneva conventions— just as western forces are. Indeed, that has been part of the training that we have been able to offer.
Bruno Geddo, the Iraq representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is reported on the BBC as saying three days ago that if the situation in the city
“is arranged in a proper way—everything will be controlled by the Iraqi army—people will not be allowed to flee Mosul”.
“people will not be allowed to flee Mosul”
mean in practice?
It is already quite difficult for the civilian population to get out of Mosul. They are being restricted, in the first place, by Daesh, which does not want them to leave Mosul, but the city is now, of course, being increasingly encircled by the forces that are there to liberate it. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Iraqi Government are ready to help civilians who can get out of Mosul by getting them easily to much safer areas well away from the frontline. As he suggests, the United Nations will be working with its agencies to make sure that help is brought forward as quickly as possible to those civilians who do escape.
Television news coverage yesterday seemed to suggest, first, that the balance of forces between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga and Daesh was about 10:1; and secondly, that the Iraqi army had access to very heavy armour whereas the peshmerga did not. Are both those things correct, or was I not paying enough attention?
I think my hon. Friend pays quite a lot of attention to most things, and I would not want to accuse him of inattention. I am not sure about the exact percentage that he quotes, but having visited Erbil recently and been out with the peshmerga and seen the training they receive, it is clear that they have sufficient equipment to participate in this operation, and have a well-defined role within it.
I associate myself with the comments in support of our armed forces, but also send our thoughts and prayers to the people of Mosul who will be living through the liberation. As the Secretary of State knows, what became clear after Ramadi was the industrial use of IEDs to undermine people’s lives as they tried to move back into their homes. There were huge human casualties associated with that within the Iraqi forces. We have very specialist expertise in this area. Given the scale of Mosul, with 1.7 million people, we can only imagine what they are doing. What additional support are we giving to the Iraqis in terms of training to deal with the counter-IED operation?
This conflict has a much larger dimension than previous ones. We have seen industrial-scale use of IEDs in cities such as Ramadi and elsewhere, where IEDs have been built into the walls of houses, concealed in rubble, and put under desks in schools and colleges. We have had to help the Iraqi army learn how to deal with that. A huge part of the training effort that we have been putting in at the four building partner capacity centres across Iraq has been specifically dedicated to counter-IED training that helps troops to recognise different types of IED, to recognise the traps that may be laid within IED devices, and to clear the IED once they have identified it.
The previous al-Maliki Government pushed a sectarian agenda against the Sunnis that led to the rise of Daesh. Bearing in mind that the composition of Mosul is predominantly Sunni, what steps have been taken to ensure that the Iraqi army is reflective of that, given that Turkey has indicated that it will be sending troops into Mosul to ensure that Sunnis’ rights are protected?
We all want to make sure that Sunnis’ rights are protected. It is incumbent on the Iraqi Government, who have Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish representation, to ensure that all parts of Iraq are fully protected. The aim of the Government in the reforms that they are driving through is to devolve more power to the governor of Nineveh province, in which Mosul sits, to ensure that he and the local administration can provide such reassurance. It is critical to the campaign that Sunnis in Iraq understand that the Iraqi forces are for them as much as for the Shi’as.
I am sure the Defence Secretary agrees that one of the positive developments is that the peshmerga and the Iraqi forces are working together against Daesh for the first time. Can he suggest ways in which that constructive co-operation might be continued in other operations?
That co-operation is essential not only for the liberation of Mosul, a city that sits very near to the Kurdish region, but for the future of Iraq. I am encouraged by the recent negotiations over the distribution of the oil revenue and some of the other accommodations that have been reached between Prime Minister Barzani and Prime Minister al-Abadi down in Baghdad. I hope that that will bode well for the integrity of Iraq as well as for the future of the Kurdish and Iraqi populations.
I also support our Government’s role in this operation. There are already reports that Daesh is threatening to use civilians as human shields and to execute anyone trying to flee. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is accurate, and is there anything that can be done to counter that particular form of barbarism?
I have seen reports along the lines of Daesh being prepared to put women and children in military buildings in order to prevent those buildings from becoming a target. We are dealing with a ruthless enemy that has not hesitated, over two years, to kill anybody, including woman, child and fellow Muslims. There is very little that we can do to control that, other than to show our absolute determination, whatever the cost and difficulty of this campaign, to deal with Daesh and to get it out of Iraq altogether.