asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Whether they are planning immediate steps to co-ordinate an early departure of coalition military forces from Iraq.
My Lords, our position remains unchanged. We remain committed to supporting the democratically elected Government of Iraq and to assisting Iraqi security forces in providing security for the people of Iraq until they can operate without coalition support.
My Lords, as these painful processes unfold, is the Minister confident that the Ministry of Defence will be able to offer full safety protection to our forces particularly if, in the end, they have to leave in somewhat difficult circumstances?
My Lords, we do everything we can to address issues of force protection, but we need to realise that this cannot be without risk. There is no solution which provides no risk to our forces; this is necessarily a dangerous operation. But in terms of the nature of the operation and its change in the future, we will of course monitor what changes we need to make to our equipment profile as those circumstances unfold.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the coalition is now down from the original 42 contributing states to just 23, of which more than half have fewer than 150 troops? What notification has he had from member nations that they intend to draw down further over the next 12 months?
My Lords, I am not aware of the change to which the noble Lord has alluded. I will write to him with full details, particularly in respect of potential drawdown from coalition partners.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is for immediate steps to co-ordinate an early departure of the coalition forces? Does he agree with me that those words are precipitate, pretentious and plain wrong?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting a serious and important point. Our strategy in Iraq is clear: it is to support the development of the democratically elected Iraqi Government and to work with that Government to ensure that the development of the Iraqi security forces can get to the point where we can hand over with confidence. That strategy has not changed.
My Lords, what do the Government hope to achieve by the co-operation of Syria and Iran?
My Lords, we need to be realistic about the level of co-operation that can be achieved. There is clearly a need, however, to engage all Iraq’s neighbours in the Middle East in the process. The central point, key to the development of peace in the Middle East, is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we can find a solution, that will then engender more support from the moderate Muslim societies and put pressure on Iran and Syria to respond.
My Lords, can the Minister enlighten us further on the indications that some Sunni tribal leaders are now giving more support to the Iraqi armed forces, particularly the Iraqi police?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in highlighting that the situation in Iraq is changing really quite rapidly and that recent reports have shown indications of increasing support in certain areas for the Iraqi police. We need to recognise that there are serious issues relating to corruption within certain elements of the Iraqi police which we need to support the Iraqi Government in rooting out. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that tribal leaders in certain areas are working with the coalition forces in supporting the Iraqi police.
My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt have seen the reports in some of today’s newspapers that the Syrian foreign Minister said yesterday in Baghdad that Syria was prepared to help in trying to resolve the crisis in Iraq. Can my noble friend tell us anything more about that? Was such an offer made? Does he know in what terms it was made, to whom it was made and with what effect?
My Lords, I do not have details beyond what I have already said in respect of Syria. I will write to the noble Lord and provide him with further information if we have it.
My Lords, is not anybody who makes a forecast with any precision about when our forces will be able to leave also likely to be plain wrong?
My Lords, we need to be realistic about the development of the situation on the ground. That means looking at the reality in each of the provinces and recognising where we have made progress. We have made progress in handing over two provinces already. We expect to hand over a third province at the end of the year. Operation Sinbad, which is taking place in Basra at this moment and which has taken on board many of the difficult lessons which we have had to learn during the past three years, is working. There are indications of progress. We hope that the situation develops to the point where we can look at bringing down the number of troops over the coming months, but it can be done only on the basis of positive developments on the ground.
My Lords, is it not better to leave undiscussed arrangements for the retreat of our Armed Forces?
My Lords, no one is talking about retreat—absolutely not. We have to recognise that the job that our Armed Forces are doing is not traditional in the sense of taking over territory; it is about supporting the development of the Iraq’s own security forces. It is about handing over to those security forces when the conditions on the ground exist to enable it to be done, without creating an increase in sectarian violence. That is our objective. We have a clear strategy to achieve it, and in certain areas we are seeing its implementation work well. We need to be realistic where it is not working well.
My Lords, is it not sheer folly, when we are beginning to make progress in a very difficult situation, for some people in this country to cut and run and make it appear as though there is a lack of will? Does that not help the insurgents rather than bring about peace earlier?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to indicate that it is not a simple alternative between staying and cutting and running. It is about making sure that we act in a way which takes into account the circumstances in Iraq, which are complex, but which are also changing really quite rapidly. We see areas where there is real improvement; we see the situation in Baghdad, which is terrible. We need to recognise that the actions that we take must be consistent with our long-term strategy and based on the conditions as they develop on the ground. It is not about cutting and running or retreating; it is about supporting the Iraqis in developing as a democratic state.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the suggestion which was made by Mr Al Aamery, who is the head of security in the Iraqi Parliament, at a press conference here last week that British and other foreign troops should withdraw to barracks and come out to take part in operations only under the instructions and at the request of the Iraqi Prime Minister, thus emphasising the sovereignty of Iraq?
My Lords, we certainly see that the Government of Iraq are starting to express their sovereignty—that is a good thing. We are working with them to make sure that we use our forces in parallel with what they are looking for us to do.