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Iraq: Withdrawal

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will now set a date for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Guardsman Daryl Hickey, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan last Thursday.

It would be wrong to set an arbitrary timetable for withdrawing British troops from Iraq. Any changes to troop numbers are based on conditions and in consultation with the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners. We have already reduced the number of our forces to around 5,500. The planned transfer of Basra Palace to the Iraqi authorities later this summer will see our force levels further reduced to around 5,000 troops.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply; perhaps I may associate myself with the message of condolence. Is it not the case that the whole of this Government, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, whom I, too, welcome to this House, are somewhat in denial about the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Iraq? Will the Minister confirm that the figures quoted by the Prime Minister this morning for deaths in Darfur are comparable in scale to the estimates made by the Johns Hopkins University for deaths in Iraq? Given that, is it surprising that a recent opinion poll quoted by the Economist showed that 47 per cent of Iraqis thought that attacks on coalition forces were justified? Is it surprising that people ask what the point is of British forces fighting pitched battles with the Iraqi police? Given that the US Secretary of Defense has said that the war may not be winnable, should we not be doing what Republican Senators are now doing, and thinking about a negotiated exit strategy?

My Lords, we recognise the very significant problems and difficulties that we face in Iraq. However, we do not believe that this is an unwinnable war. This is not a war; it is a process by which we are supporting the ability of the Iraqi people, their democratic Government and in particular their security forces to take over responsibility for the security of their own nation. We have made progress towards that end. We believe that the process of supporting those forces will in the end provide us with the exit strategy that we expect.

My Lords, we on these Benches add our condolences to the family and friends of those service personnel who have lost their lives recently.

What is the Government’s response to evidence showing that the casualty rate rises whenever the troops disengage and their strength is reduced, as in Iraq, as part of a transition process? With the insurgents now launching far more attacks in an attempt to show that they can take some credit for the withdrawal process from Iraq, can the Minister assure us that our troops will have the most up-to-date armour and helicopters with a lift capacity available to ensure that their exposure and increased risk is kept within manageable proportions and not extended through this exercise?

My Lords, I am absolutely able to give the noble Lord that assurance on providing our forces with what they need in terms of up-to-date equipment for force protection. We need to recognise that, as we move through the process of transition in Basra province, we must expect attacks on our forces to increase. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been saying for some considerable time, we must expect as we go through this difficult transition process that our forces will increasingly become the target. We are doing everything that we can to provide them with force protection in terms of tactics and equipment, but as the senior military commander, Lieutenant General Graham Lamb, said on Friday:

“We are increasing our strike rate against the militia. We have doubled our arrest rates and we must expect an increase in our casualty rate along with this”.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the Basra area by far the greatest proportion of the violence is directed at coalition forces? If the forces were to withdraw, presumably the violence—in that area, at any rate—would diminish and not increase. If there is still a job to do, of course the forces must stay and accept the risks, which are becoming considerable, but what exactly is their job today in Basra?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right: our forces are increasingly the target for the militias. The reason is that the militias want to take credit, as they see it, for forcing us out of Basra. However, we have shown our strategy to be successful in the other provinces that we have handed over—for example, Al Muthanna province. Once the Iraqi security forces, in particular the Iraqi army, have the capability to take over responsibility for security, our forces are then able to withdraw and the level of violence decreases. So the solution to the problem in Basra—the last province, for which we hope to see transition later this year—is to get the Iraqi forces trained up and with the strength and capability to take over responsibility, and to make the transition at that point.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to the humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Can my noble friend confirm that it is believed that if we prematurely withdraw our troops the humanitarian disaster will be even greater?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. We have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to ensure that, at the point that we leave, we give them the best possible chance of avoiding the humanitarian disaster to which my noble friend refers.

My Lords, the Government have been scrupulous in expressing their condolences, on each occasion, for the death of any serviceman engaged in this undertaking. Does not that run the risk that we sometimes forget the fact that, because of the skills of modern medicine, many people who might previously have been fatalities are now very seriously wounded? A considerable number of seriously wounded servicemen are now coming back. As well as expressing condolences for the deaths that unfortunately occur, can we be assured that the best possible treatment is being given to both servicemen and reservists who find themselves seriously wounded in these operations?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: because of developments in modern medicine and the resources and procedures that we are now using on operations, the level of survival from quite horrific attacks is much greater than it would have been in the past. That, of course, increases the burden of care for our wounded and we are absolutely putting in the resources needed to provide that care.