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Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006

My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I have always said that lasting progress in Iraq cannot be achieved by military means alone, but will depend on a combination of security, politics and economics. Our security strategy is clear and has not changed. It is not driven by the American political calendar, nor will it be thrown off course by those who use violence and terrorism to provoke sectarian reaction and to stop progress in Iraq.

“Our strategy has three main elements. First, we are helping the Iraqis to build up their own security forces, still with a long way to develop, but already with over 300,000 recruited, trained and equipped. Secondly, as these forces develop, we are handing them control, province by province, city by city, moving to a point where they have complete responsibility. Thirdly, we are underwriting that hand-over process by leaving in place quick-response forces, not to do front-line security work, but ready to support the Iraqis if the situation gets out of control.

“We remain convinced that this remains the right strategy—indeed, the only one that could possibly work. I welcome the constructive approach of the Iraq Study Group. As I made clear yesterday, its assessment of the security situation is largely in tune with our own. We do recognise the graveness of that situation but I would also note the group’s own conclusion that there is no magic formula to solve the problems. People should not confuse a difficult situation with a problem of strategy. Our strategy has long included many of the elements the group has highlighted. What is changing is the pace at which this strategy unfolds. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government want it to go faster. That is a natural response and a welcome sign of increasing confidence. But it also crystallises the great challenge Maliki faces. On the one hand, to keep up momentum, to reinforce a sense of progress and nationhood, he must show that Iraq is regaining control of its own destiny. At the same time, he must not ask too much, too quickly, of its developing security forces.

“The Prime Minister made clear during his visit to Washington last week that we have always been open to engagement with Iran and Syria, but it is absolutely vital that the basis for their engagement must be support for the democratically elected Government of Iraq, not support for sectarian or terrorist agendas. Those countries know what they have to do. They must decide which path they want to follow.

“There are some parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad, where the reality on the ground is clearly a long way from the point where the coalition can hand over. This morning’s suicide bombs were another reminder. Part of their motive, of course, is precisely to provoke an escalating sectarian reaction.

“But Baghdad is not Iraq. I make no apology for reminding people that 14 of the 18 provinces are relatively peaceful. The security situation, and therefore progress along the security strategy, is different in each of these provinces. In the area under British lead in the south, two provinces have been handed over to the Iraqis and a third is soon to follow. The fourth, Basra, remains the most difficult challenge. But again, the security situation is a symptom. The underlying cause is rival Shia power blocs vying for power. Right now that is too much for the Iraqi security forces to deal with on their own, and there are real weaknesses in the local police. So, unlike in the other three provinces, British forces are still doing front-line work in the main city.

“Operation Sinbad is working through Basra city area by area, re-establishing security, building confidence, rooting out corrupt and failing police and putting Iraqi soldiers on street corners as a sign that the Government are determined to govern. Friday’s operation, Op Pisa, an impressive operation involving a number of bold strikes across the north of Basra city, shows that when we need to act we do so, and we do so decisively.

“But of course the key is that these improvements in security are followed quickly by progress in governance and by economic regeneration, building momentum and winning over local people to a positive view of the future. This is our strategy. We will continue to support the Iraqis in overcoming the violence and intimidation that disfigure their country. We will work with them to build a long-term relationship, including training and mentoring, to help with the security of the country and the region, including dealing with the ongoing challenge of international terrorism.

“But both in security and in the parallel strands of politics and economic development we have to accept that how quickly things move will depend on many factors, not all of them directly under our control. In fact, it is a measure of success if the path to progress becomes increasingly an Iraqi one. As I said in a speech last month, we must get used to thinking not just in terms of our strategy but of our role in their strategy.

“We continue to insist that we are not going to cut and run. This is not about political gestures or a trial of wills; it is about recognising the challenges we face but also the commitment we have made. We will hand over when it is right to do so, driven not by arbitrary deadlines but by reality on the ground. I have made clear a number of times why we will not be drawn into laying out a prescriptive timetable for drawdown. I note that the honourable Member for Woodspring supported this position yesterday. Our strategy will and must remain conditions based.

“We will work to ensure that our plans remain clear and realistic. But I will also work to resist cynicism and defeatism so long as I still believe that we are making a difference and so long as I still believe that the presence of our forces there is increasing the chance of a positive legacy for their work and the sacrifices in Iraq in the past three years”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will be very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement on what I take it is an expression of what the Prime Minister calls his whole Middle East strategy. I confess that I have not yet seen a copy of the Statement although I made a number of requests to do so. Therefore, my reaction has to be immediate to what I have heard, which, as I say, appears to be an initial response to the Iraq Study Group.

The situation is, indeed, appalling, as more slaughter in Baghdad this morning—and, it seems, almost every morning—confirms. It is entirely right that the Government should report, and keep reporting, to both Houses of Parliament on what is a very fast moving scene, as the Minister rightly says, especially since more than 7,000 of our brave troops are deployed in Iraq.

In the light of the Iraq Study Group report, which the Minister mentioned and which has emerged since this House last debated the issue a week ago, when will the Government be in a position to set out their own fully considered proposals for a change in direction, given that President Bush has announced that he will tell the American people about that, and give his views, before Christmas? That is in the next few days. Or is that what we have just heard? I am not at all clear whether that was the definitive statement.

High hopes were pinned on this report, which is certainly very blunt about what went wrong. It says that the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating”. That is a very different story from the line maintained until recently that improvement and success were on the way, as many of us obviously hoped. The report goes on to recommend a number of changes in the deployment and status of American troops and therefore, by implication, British troops, and to urge the rather obvious importance of somehow involving Iraq’s neighbours in trying to stop its total disintegration, which is in nobody’s interests.

Has the Government’s view on the conditions which must be met before the withdrawal of British troops changed in any way as a result of the report? Is it still the position that the troops will remain “until the job is done”? Is that still the stance after this report? What will be the objectives of the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to the region? Will he make his own further assessment? What was the result of sending an envoy to Syria a few weeks ago? Have any parallel exploratory talks taken place with Iran as part of the whole Middle East strategy? What assessment have the Government made of the reaction of the Iraqi Government to the study group report’s conclusions? Do the Government agree that Iraqi support and co-operation are absolutely vital if any change in strategy is to be successful? In particular, do the Government agree that any international contact group that is formed must have Iraqi involvement throughout? Have the Government noted the outspoken views of the Iraqi president, Mr Talabani, on the study group, which he obviously did not find at all helpful?

Does the Minister agree that if other neighbouring countries are to be drawn into the rescue operation in Iraq, that will not be done by threats and conditions, since the allies are in no position to lay down any such conditions? Does he further agree that the positive co-operation of the rising Asian powers and of Russia must be secured? This is not just an Atlantic matter. That must be done both on Iraq and on the closely related issue of the Palestine-Israeli settlement. All that may be just as important as the outcome of any debate or study group report in Washington, and perhaps even more so. Does the Minister accept that whatever conclusions the policy-makers or their critics are reaching in Washington—whether to “stay the course” or change direction—they will not necessarily dictate or control the events that are unfolding in the Middle East?

Does he agree that the missing piece of understanding—in all the views coming out of Washington last week, in the Bush-Blair press conference, in the media and in many of the comments of the pundits in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic—is that the modern age of weaponry and technology has dispersed power massively away from the American superpower, for all its colossal might, and into the hands of the smallest, most lethal unit, the most vicious cell and the most malign clique? Iraq shows us that the age of ultra-asymmetric warfare has arrived. Does the Minister agree that that is the lesson that is facing us very clearly in all our thinking and new thinking about Iraq?

Given the myriad questions that legitimately arise from this situation, and the truly urgent need to carve out our own course, will the Minister press the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to ensure that both Houses of Parliament receive a further report before the Recess and that a full debate on Iraq, the lessons and the prospects, can be held early in the new year?

My Lords, I can only extend my sympathy to the Minister for having to read out such a thin Statement, which has in its second sentence the words that our security strategy,

“is not driven by the American political calendar”.

We all understand that should be understood as reading that our security strategy is in severe danger of being driven by the American political calendar.

This Statement is clearly about the Iraq Study Group. It talks about our strategy and what we are doing, but it implies that actually our strategy is being defined in Washington, without very much influence from London. Indeed, if we want to exert influence in Washington, the Prime Minister has to go over there and do his best. The Statement says that the Iraq Study Group’s assessment of the security situation is largely in tune with our own. We may be very glad to hear that. We would love to know a little more about what Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment is, since there has been no comparable inquiry in Britain and no comparable dialogue with Parliament or with opposition parties. We are asked, as ever, to trust the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, if our assessment of the situation is comparable to that of the Iraq Study Group, there are disturbing noises in Washington that President Bush does not agree with that. The Iraq Study Group, for example, says that we have to have a dialogue with Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran and Syria; and President Bush has clearly said that he does not accept that. What are Her Majesty’s Government going to do about the divergence of view between official Washington, the rather wiser statements of the members of the Iraq Study Group, and the opinions of Her Majesty’s Government? It is not surprising that in view of that the Prime Minister looked extremely uncomfortable at various points during the joint press conference.

For the rest, we are unhappy about some other aspects of the Statement. We have again been told that 14 of the 18 provinces are relatively peaceful, but the other four are by far the most important and heavily populated. We are told that the British will hand over our provinces one by one, with two more to go as situations improve. What will happen if the British have completed handing over our four provinces before the United States has finished with its remaining three? Do we leave ahead of the Americans or do we wait for them before we do so? After all, they may wish to leave with much of their equipment through Basra.

We are told that we will hand over when it is right to do so, which I take as meaning that we will hand over when the Prime Minister considers that it is right to do so. This is not a satisfactory report. The Iraq Study Group has now set a rather more constructive direction for American policy, which we know the British follow, and we find ourselves yet again without influence in Washington as a substantial amount of influential opinion there does its best to rubbish the report of the Iraq Study Group. As ever, that leaves us in a deeply unhappy situation.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their questions and I shall try to deal with each in turn. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the Government have begun their response, but the study group’s report is to the United States rather than to us. Making sure that we understand the implications for us, which in some respects are distinct from those for the United States, requires a bit more work, but there is every intention of holding all the discussions that the House requires. This is the third such discussion in 22 days. I do not regret that clear necessity and we will not stand back from any discussion, but I cannot make a commitment on behalf of the House authorities that there will be one before the Recess. I certainly have no difficulty with addressing questions.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked whether we have a view about the conditions for withdrawal and whether they continue to be that we withdraw when the job is done. Perhaps I may respond to that and to one of the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about what we will do in the areas from which we are withdrawing and what we will do about when the United States forces begin to withdraw from the other three provinces. I do not think that it is a matter simply of withdrawing as a complete step. The first step will be to withdraw from front-line duties. As the Statement says, there will be a necessity to remain, although not on front-line duties, until it is certain that the Iraqi security forces can stand up and do the job that is required. This will have to be a phased and carefully calibrated set of events, because otherwise we might very well find ourselves inadvertently cutting and running and there is no intention of doing that.

The United States withdrawal arrangements are principally a matter for the United States, in discussion with us, but if we still have forces there in that second phase, the probability is that withdrawal through the south should be facilitated.

The Prime Minister has expressed his intentions regarding his visit to the region. He wishes to re-stimulate what he, I and, I believe, this House regard as the central plank of what is required—that there should be a re-engagement in the Middle East peace process as the vital key to resolving a number of issues across the region. That is what is needed and that is at the front of his agenda.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald was the envoy to Syria. He engaged in a deep discussion with the Syrians. I do not wish to make extravagant claims, but I believe that the decision of the Syrians to dispatch an ambassador to Iraq to begin a process of normalisation of relationships was one of the achievements of that visit and I am very pleased that it was successful in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked about links to Iran. Discussions are going on all the time on a whole variety of matters to try to keep within the bounds of normality in dealing with another state—even in such areas as immigration, in which I am involved.

In response to the question about Iraqi support for the ISG, we understand that it has been measured, that the Iraqis are considering it, that there is not immediate unanimity of view because they are debating and analysing it, as we are. It would be more surprising if suddenly everyone in that troubled country and all of the factions were absolutely of one mind within two days of reading a report produced in Washington. Truly, that would have surprised me completely. But there is a debate going on, and I believe that there is a measured understanding of the report’s importance and of what some of the links with the neighbours mean.

I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the Iraqis will be involved throughout. I echo in this House the last words of the Statement: we need to start thinking not just about the United Kingdom and the United States—although we are responsible for the United Kingdom’s interests—but about the Iraqi Government, who have been democratically elected, and about how we can assist the progress of democracy under that Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, is right: we will need to draw in others, but I do not accept that there should be no threats. A robust discussion with the neighbours should not burn off their desire to take part, but there has to be an honest discussion about the sponsorship of terrorism and the potential development of nuclear weapons. Those issues will not just vanish. The international community has a long-term concern, and I hope that a moderate and modulated discussion of that kind can be held. However, if necessary, I do not think that it would be inappropriate if, for example, the world were to say to one of the neighbours—Iran—through the Security Council, that the development outside international treaties of a potential nuclear weapon was not acceptable. In general, questions from whichever party in your Lordships’ House about that problem have emphasised that that would be an undesirable development in any terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, suggests that the missing piece of understanding is the extent of asymmetry in the character of warfare. I am not sure that it is really a missing piece in terms of understanding because the conflict in Lebanon taught the lesson very thoroughly. We are seeing terrorist organisations being equipped to fight wars very much more consistently than was ever the case in the past, and that must now be part of the strategic assessment made by Her Majesty’s Government and all the allies, who are trying to achieve peace in the Middle East. I agree with the noble Lord that it would be a serious mistake if we were to overlook the significance of that change and the way that it alters or reshapes big-power politics and the capacity of big powers to exert force without a response from people much more locally. That has to be part of the analysis.

The noble Lord asked about Asia and Russia. Of course, China and Russia are both members of the P5, and there are many other links aside from the work of the United Nations Security Council. All effort, whether in respect of the Iran nuclear dossier or the dossier about Iraq, has attempted, and does attempt, to engage those powers and other emerging economic powers in Asia because, as the noble Lord said, they should not be neglected in this calculation. The international community cannot just be defined in terms of those who have traditionally been, or have become, members of NATO. I agree that it can no longer be defined without proper regard to the emergence of these powerful blocs, and work is being done very seriously on that basis.

I hope that I have responded to the question about whether there will be further reports and further debates. I believe that new developments inevitably stimulate questions and debates, and I do not resist the concept of those discussions as they arise.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. If I may say so, I thought that he was unusually inconsistent this afternoon. He believes that there is every implication in the report that we are driven exclusively by Washington but, on the other hand, he says that Washington does not agree with us and that we are in a totally different position. They cannot both be true—at least, not at one and the same moment. They may be true sequentially or at other times but they are not true at the same moment.

I thought that the visit to Washington resulted in a major discussion between the President and the Prime Minister, and that is part of a constant assessment which must take place. In the context of that assessment, I have no difficulty at all in saying to the House that we have been very much more forward-leaning in talking to Syria and Iran and in trying to engage them in this process in a constructive way than, in my judgment, the United States has been, and I believe that we should continue to be so. If there is a difference about the extent to which we should do it, or the rapidity with which we should do it, I believe our position is right. The region cannot do without the major players, who can be so disruptive, taking part in processes that may be more constructive; hence the force of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about not antagonising them too much in the process, if I can paraphrase him in that way.

I conclude my comments on the important points and questions raised by both noble Lords by saying that these are acutely difficult times. There should be no attempt to pretend otherwise. I do not suggest for a moment that, for example, four provinces with a significant part of the population are not still among the most difficult of all the problems that are faced, because I agree with that analysis. We see a willingness on the part of the Government of Iraq to stand up, to do the job that is required and to take over with assistance and our assurance that we will not abandon them before we know they can actually do the job. That is not a bad principle to guide what we do. How fast it may succeed, and whether it will succeed, are matters on which we will be tested—I accept that. However, if we believe that the democratic process in Iraq should be given every chance of succeeding in the interests of the people who have been oppressed by a brutal dictatorship for a very considerable period in recent history, then let us give it that chance. Let us have the honesty to say to the people of Iraq that we stand for democracy and we intend to fight for democracy.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the very full and very clear Statement made by Des Browne in another place. It is very frank about the difficulties that we face, but it is equally clear in the Government’s determination to support the development of democracy and prosperity in Iraq. Although I have—to take a phrase from the noble Lord, Lord Howell—myriad questions for the opposition parties, I do not believe that that is within the rules. I will therefore ask my noble friend whether, when he talks to the leaders of the opposition parties on this subject, they suggest that the Prime Minister should not talk to President Bush about our joint strategy. Do they suggest that the Prime Minister should not try to take an initiative in the Middle East? Do they suggest that we should withdraw immediately and leave chaos? Or do they agree with the Government that we should stay until the Iraqi Government and we agree that the job is done, as my noble friend said? Do they never think of uttering just a few words about our duty to back our forces when they are mobilised fighting for democracy? I ask my noble friend whether the opposition spokesmen ever utter those phrases.

My Lords, on the last point, I believe that there is huge support everywhere for the forces of the United Kingdom and huge admiration for what they do. My personal opinion is that providing encouragement and boosting morale are never amiss, however difficult the circumstances. That is an important point. However, I would never say of either the Opposition Benches or the Cross Benches that they have disregard for the interests of our forces.

My noble friend’s other points strike a very real chord with me. I believe that we would be criticised and the Prime Minister would be hounded mercilessly if he did not talk to the American allies or to President Bush. Someone would say, “He has not gone to Washington for 6 months, 9 months or a year to hold discussions”. The demand would be that we should make those journeys, see people in the various capitals and ensure that the work is done. We should therefore expect those who believe that the democratic project is of genuine importance to the United Kingdom to be a little more upfront in saying that it is important to stay and see the job through rather than insisting, as I sometimes feel is done in the background, that it is all so disastrous that withdrawal with our tail between our legs is the only option.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that it is precisely because we care for our Armed Forces and support them to the hilt that we express our concerns, on their behalf as much as anybody else’s? I very much regret the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, which was entirely contrary to the spirit of your Lordships’ House and the recognition of the challenges facing our Armed Forces. There is no suggestion that the Prime Minister should not speak to President Bush. It is vitally important that he does. We are having this Statement today because of an urgent Question tabled by the shadow Foreign Secretary in another place suggesting that it might be a good idea if the Prime Minister spoke to Parliament as well as to President Bush. Is not the striking feature of the Iraq Study Group the lengths to which it went to construct a group with bipartisan support, drawing on the widest possible range of opinion in the United States? A serious crisis faces our nation. Given the situation of our forces in Iraq and our country’s reputation in the Middle East as a result of the disastrous mishandling of the Iraq operation, do the Government not think it wise to draw on all strands of opinion in this country? Should they not try to construct genuine national support for a strategy so that our forces can believe they have the backing of Parliament and the people?

My Lords, I hope I have said enough to convince the House that I believe that support for the Armed Forces is shared on all sides. Today’s Question may well have been tabled by the Opposition, but I draw to your Lordships’ attention the fact that—aside from our frequent debates in this place, especially over the past 22 days—there have been 60 debates on Iraq since mid-2003 in the other place. It is scarcely short of debates on Iraq. Whether people regard the debates as satisfactory, or having the outcome they would have wished, is an entirely different matter from the frequency or seriousness with which the other place takes these discussions. The other place has recently decided that the time has not come for the kind of review or study that the noble Lord has just urged. That time may well come, but the House of Commons has decided that that moment is not this moment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is interesting in that it was a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand why the Minister is responding to this debate. Inevitably, however, the questions and discussion have moved further away from the Armed Forces than perhaps they should at this difficult time for them. My reading of the Statement is that the Armed Forces will be expected to stay there pretty well at the current level, albeit the job may change somewhat. Do the Minister and the Government recognise that the Armed Forces have been committed way above defence planning assumptions for a considerable time? There is no reduction in the likely requirement for effort in Afghanistan. It will not conceivably be possible to continue at the current level of overseas deployment without lasting damage to the Armed Forces. I hope that the Government will take that into account in the Armed Forces’ long-term interest.

My Lords, I share the view that we must be concerned about the difficulties of lengthy, extensive commitments. I hope I have made it clear to the House that our intention is that, as we move to Iraqi takeover of security, the Armed Forces will be drawn back from the front line. Once we have seen whether the Iraqi forces can stand up to the difficulties they face, there should be a real prospect of our forces being drawn down. I recall pointing out to the House just over a week ago that the overall number of forces committed in theatre reduced slightly in the last year. Of course, I would hope that it would be possible to reduce that still further. But the phrase “still further” inevitably demands that we know that there is adequate security to make further progress in Iraq.

My Lords, the Iraq Study Group was not the only body advising the American President. He has now had advice from another group which is composed predominantly of retired senior military officers. I believe he received the advice yesterday. Does the Minister know what that advice was, and can he confirm reports from some members of the group that it was effectively completely contrary to the advice of the Iraq Study Group and apparently met with the approval of the President and the Vice-President? Under those circumstances, how does the Minister see the strategy going ahead, if we think the Iraq Study Group has got it right but the President thinks that his retired military advisers have got it right?

My Lords, I am always extraordinarily cautious about commenting on retired military personnel—they always at least purport to know more than the rest of us mortals. I am aware of the report although I have not been able to study it in detail; the Iraq Study Group’s report is the document which we have been studying. The ministerial teams in the FCO and I am quite sure in the MoD and across government will be studying the two reports together and looking at the comparisons. In these circumstances I can well imagine people arguing fiercely about the different perspectives that have emerged. I cannot say that everyone will end up agreeing, and I have no reason to believe that they necessarily will. But until we do the study, I cannot tell you that we will not.

My Lords, the Statement made welcome reference to the increase in the size of the Iraqi armed forces and to their success in recruitment, but it made little reference to the Iraqi police forces. I think it is widely known that they are not totally reliable and have been substantially infiltrated by insurgent elements. Can the Minister tell the House anything about the state of the Iraqi police forces, whose activities are most important in curbing the horrors that are going on there?

The Minister also referred to the need to get the peace process back on track. He talked about the consequences of what happened in Lebanon. Do the Government fully understand what great damage has been done to the peace process and particularly to Lebanon as a result of the Israeli action, which the President and the Prime Minister appeared to condone? They certainly did not make any protest against it or any attempt to halt it. The damage has been far reaching, not just in its physical impact on Lebanon but also in its effect on the political situation there. We are yet to see what could develop as a result of the danger arising from the strength of Hezbollah as a result of Israeli action.

My Lords, in all debates on problems across the Middle East there has been widespread recognition that there were serious rocket and other attacks on Israelis from southern Lebanon and that the Israelis responded. We consistently said that it would be wholly unacceptable to the United Kingdom if the response were disproportionate. I do not believe that there can be anybody who does not know that the United Kingdom expressed strong views to the combatants on both sides, or that unless we dealt with both sides there could be no prospect of cessation. I do not accept the argument that we damaged the peace process by doing that, although I am clear that the conflict set the peace process back a long way. I can only hope, as others do, that it was a significant wake-up call and at least alerted people. The Palestinian President and the Prime Minister of Israel have tried to find ways of talking again, rather than seeing those problems recur.

On the question of the police in Iraq, there is plainly some influence and action by militia forces infiltrating the police forces, which is a very serious matter. Prime Minister Maliki has committed himself to tackling the security issues and the sectarian forces behind them and to promoting national reconciliation. As a result, a process of reform is taking place in the ministry of defence and the ministry of the interior, which controls the police. I do not for a moment suggest that it will be an easy process to deal with, because some of the conflicts are between Shia groups, let alone conflicts between Shia and Sunni. They are being played out in police forces as well, but I submit that we have as much responsibility to assure the Iraqi people of quality in the police force as we do in security and military terms.

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for not being here for the Statement. I add to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Eden. I do not know whether our failure to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon—indeed, even worse, our apparent encouragement of the Israelis to continue their military action for a further week—has damaged the peace process, but does the Minister agree that it has severely damaged our influence in the Middle East?

My Lords, every Foreign Office Minister who has responded to that question during the course of the conflict and subsequently has made the point that we believe that both sides should cease firing at each other, but that a unilateral pause by one side was unlikely to be sustainable as a matter of practical reality. I do not accept that that was an encouragement to one side to continue. The truth was that people were going to try to defend themselves. The question of proportionality arose in that context as long as rockets were being fired. It needed both sides to stop, and that was the appeal that the Government made.

My Lords, I was in the United States on Friday and Saturday, when the statement was made by the Iraq Study Group. It coincided with a powerful leading editorial in the New York Times and the Washington Post calling for the Iraq Study Group to be taken very seriously as possibly the only constructive way out of the dilemma of the situation in Iraq. I was with a group of people very closely associated with our country who were strong supporters of the Democrat Party in the United States. They looked at the television programme and said, “What has happened to your Prime Minister?”.

None of us would deny the importance of discussions between the Prime Minister and the President but, given the importance in a democratic country of having a representative voice in one’s head of government, why does the Prime Minister feel unable ever to express any public view that has any difference from the United States, even on an occasion such as this, when the Iraq Study Group was of crucial importance in widening out the possible solutions to the dreadful fiasco that we have in Iraq?

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, may be putting the point a little unfairly. The Prime Minister said that we believe that the Iraq Study Group has gone along strategic lines with which in many significant respects we agree. It may be that others do not agree with it and have either said that they do not agree with it or did not say enough to show that they agree with it. Everyone can draw their conclusions. I do not know that it is necessary to put it in other terms or to open a breach that might become unnecessarily wide. There is an argument going on. There is another report, which may win more support among at least some in Washington. We have made our position clear. If it is not wholly aligned with other people's positions, all I can say is that it is our position.

My Lords, there was certainly ambiguity when the Minister in an earlier response talked about safeguarding democracy, when the West often does not accept free and fair elections in the region or elsewhere. Have the Iranians and Syrians submitted thinking and proposals for peace in Iraq? If so, what might they be? Secondly, would the Minister clarify what constitutes civil war?

No, my Lords, I will not clarify what constitutes civil war. During the past 10 days I have been supplied with endless academic tracts, more or less none of which agreed with each other. Although I feel that I am being drawn back into being a more successful academic than perhaps I was when I was doing the job, I do not know that it is a great advantage to the House to rehearse the argument here.

On Iran and Syria, the discussions are really only just beginning—certainly so with Syria and increasingly, I believe, with Iran—about what the role might be. It is too early to answer that question, although there is a very important question about how to get them engaged. I believe that everywhere we accept free and fair elections. If the reference was to Hamas, as I suspect it was, let me say that there is no question about the propriety of that election in our minds. However, an issue is involved: anyone who is elected as a Government does not get a free hand as a result of that; they are bound by international conventions, the agreements that have been made, a willingness to embrace peace and a willingness to acknowledge and recognise the existence of neighbours without fighting them.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I strongly support the comments of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on exceeding defence planning assumptions? We are seriously damaging our Armed Forces in the long term. There are two buzz-words or phrases in British military doctrine: the comprehensive approach and effects-based planning. What is the desired end state in Iraq for the militias and armies, as agreed with the Iraqi Government? That seems to be rather at odds with the concept of a free and democratic society.

My Lords, I have no difficulty agreeing that the militias have no alignment with the idea of a free and democratic society. They would rather shoot people than encourage them to vote. There are a number of militias, and the prospects for engaging any of them by potentially drawing them into security forces on a legitimate basis, and holding weapons that are legitimately held under the control of a single authority—namely, the state—in relation to the use of violence, must be an option with some of the militias, as it is in resolving similar conflicts in other parts of the world. In some cases, I fear that it may not come to that; that is why the Iraqi Government and their forces must be in a position in which they can deal with those militias. In saying that, I do not for a second underestimate the difficulty, but that is the bottom line—the reality.