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Iraq: UK Forces

Volume 684: debated on Monday 17 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What have been the implications for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces deployed in Basra of the recent declaration of a state of emergency in that province by the Government of Iraq.

My Lords, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Corporal John Cosby of the 1st Battalion, the Devon and Dorset Light Infantry, who was killed yesterday in Iraq.

UK forces are undertaking tasks in support of the Basra security plan announced by Prime Minister Maliki under the authority of the state of emergency. The plan includes an increased Iraqi Army presence, a programme of projects aimed at improving conditions through development, and enabling support for better governance. UK forces continue to provide training, mentoring and other tasks in support of the Iraqi security forces.

My Lords, on these Benches we, too, send our condolences to the family of the corporal. Two other soldiers were wounded by a roadside bomb in a separate incident. Can the Minister confirm whether they were in a Snatch Land Rover? If that was the case, how many more soldiers will be killed or wounded before Ministers take action? Will the Minister responsible for the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation now insist that those bodies set to immediately to provide commanders on the ground with an armoured option before they have to resort to Warriors?

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced, we are undertaking a review of our protected patrol vehicles in Iraq and on operations in Afghanistan. We anticipate taking action following that review, both on short-term solutions and on the longer-term solutions that we have already announced. However, I stress that, given its mobility and size, the Snatch Land Rover has an important role to play, particularly in areas such as downtown Basra.

My Lords, we add our condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed and our hopes for a speedy recovery to the two soldiers who were injured. We also extend our sympathy to the families of the 100 Iraqi civilians killed in the past 24 hours. Does the Minister agree with the remarks last week of the US Army Chief of Staff, General Schoomaker? He said of Iraq:

“The challenge is becoming more complex”.

He went on to say:

“I think we’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end of all this”.

If the Minister agrees, what does that mean for UK force planning over the next three years?

My Lords, we have a plan, and we have seen the progress of that plan in recent weeks. It is a case of sticking to it and being patient for the results. We have transferred responsibility for Al Muthanna province to the Iraqi security forces in the past week, and we anticipate that in the next six months we will transfer three of the four provinces that are the responsibility of the United Kingdom in MND South-East, leaving only Basra. We expect all provinces in Iraq to be handed over to the Iraqi security forces over the next 18 months. We recognise the challenges in Basra, but we are seeing the effectiveness of the Basra security plan. We must be patient and allow the results to bed down and take effect.

My Lords, why is the Ministry of Defence failing to notify the Royal British Legion and other charitable organisations relating to the Armed Forces of members of the Armed Forces who have been in Selly Oak hospital after being discharged on sickness grounds? Why has it also not passed information about the Royal British Legion to those people, who are suffering as a result?

My Lords, I do not have information on communication with the Royal British Legion, but I will look into the matter and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, if by the end of this year the Iraqi Parliament carries a resolution requiring the withdrawal of American and British forces from Iraq, and that resolution is opposed by the Iraqi Government, who will we listen to, the Government or the Parliament?

My Lords, we should not speculate about events that may or may not take place. We have set out clearly the criteria under which we are supporting the establishment of the rule of law and democratic government in Iraq. The handover or transition of responsibilities in each province is managed by a joint committee for the transfer of security and responsibility. We have set out clearly the criteria under which that transition will take place. Our ability to hand over Iraq depends on the establishment of those conditions on the ground.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the authoritative item on the front page of the International Herald Tribune today, which reports that the Iraqi security forces are regarded in large parts of Baghdad by Iraqis simply as the agents of Shia militias? Is it part of the criteria for our withdrawal, of which the noble Lord speaks, that the security forces to whom we hand over are actually proven in their integrity as servants of Iraq as a whole?

My Lords, I have not read the article to which the noble Lord refers, but I will read it. However, we know that in certain elements of the Iraqi police there are serious issues relating to sectarian allegiances. We have seen significant improvements in the performance and effectiveness of the Iraqi Army; we are seeing that on the streets of Basra now. Without doubt, its visibility and the effectiveness with which it is undertaking operations is testament to the excellent mentoring and training that it has received from UK forces and to its commitment and resolve.

My Lords, my noble friend has mentioned the 18-month period of transfer, at the end of which it is anticipated that the regions will be handed over to Iraqi control. Will he indicate what he anticipates will be the numbers, and more specifically the spread of roles, of the British forces at the end of that period?

My Lords, it is not possible for me to set out specific numbers. As I have said, it depends on the development of conditions. We have set out our expectations of the timetable, which depends on the conditions on the ground. Generally speaking, we want our forces, as coalition forces, to be able, once handover has taken place in a province, to carry out a strategic overwatch role in the area and then to withdraw to the provinces where handover has not taken place.