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Iraq: Basra

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What specific tasks are now being undertaken by members of the Armed Forces deployed to the Basra region of Iraq.

My Lords, British forces in Iraq continue with vital security sector reform tasks, including the mentoring and training of the Iraqi army, navy and border enforcement department, as well as providing support to Iraqi security force operations. They also undertake where necessary targeted strike operations and a range of force protection and logistic duties in support of the multinational forces mission.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He mentioned the Iran border enforcement. In the light of the continual risk to our troops from explosive devices and weapons apparently supplied from Iran, can he tell the House how many people found to be carrying equipment of use to insurgents British forces have detained? Will the Government now consider publicly displaying captured hardware when there is clear evidence of Iranian involvement?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to stress this issue, which is of significant concern to Her Majesty’s Government. We have been focused on the whole issue of border control between Iran and Iraq and we have put a lot of effort into training the Iraqi army in its competence in border control. On the numbers of people, I shall look into the matter and write to the noble Lord. As for publicising in a more imaginative way the arms that we have successfully captured, that is something that I shall take back to the ministry and consider.

My Lords, press reports indicate that three rockets hit our base at Basra airport yesterday, thankfully with no casualties. As we approach what one hopes is the endgame, will the Minister assure the House that the maximum realistic protection will be given to our base at Basra airport, given that the situation may well be exploited for propaganda purposes by the insurgents?

Absolutely, my Lords. The noble Lord is right to focus on force protection. As we focus our operations from the main operating base at the airport, we are investing significantly in force protection. It is not just about hardened accommodation; it is about a number of different measures, some of them involving equipment that we are bringing into use. As regards development in the future, it is clear that we will need to continue to invest in force protection as the tactics of the enemy develop, as they have in the recent past.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that towards the end of the last Session very strong feeling was expressed in this House about the most unfortunate arrangement arising from the Cabinet reshuffle in which the Secretary of State for Defence was Secretary of State for Scotland as well? The Minister kindly undertook to convey those strong feelings. At a time of the greatest strain for our Armed Forces and for the Ministry of Defence, many in this House found that double-hatting arrangement unacceptable and we strongly urged that it should be corrected as soon as possible. What reply did the Minister get regarding his undertaking to convey those feelings? Could he lay to rest once and for all the issue that seemed to be difficult to answer yesterday in this House—the suggestion that the Secretary of State for Defence was not properly aware of the Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq before it took place?

My Lords, as regards the second half of the noble Lord’s question, from my recollection of yesterday’s Statement my noble friend the Leader of the House answered very clearly that question relating to my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary. On the first part of his question, I took back the strongly expressed views of the House. I have had conversations on the matter with my noble friend the Leader of the House and the Secretaries of State of both departments in which I have responsibilities. We continue to discuss this matter.

My Lords, in defining the new tasks of the Army in Iraq, which will result in a reduction in the numbers out there, will the Minister comment on whether the number withdrawn back to the UK will be deployed in Afghanistan, or can he reassure us that NATO is now pulling its weight in delivering the number of people required in Afghanistan for the operations there?

My Lords, as the noble and gallant Lord will know, our decisions relating to the two operations are completely separate, so I can assure the House that there is no linkage between the decisions that we have made in Iraq as the security situation has improved and the Iraqi forces have taken over responsibility and any decisions that we may make with our NATO partners with regard to the Afghanistan theatre.

My Lords, pursuant to the Minister’s response to the supplementary of my noble friend Lord King, when does he think that the conversations with the Leader of the House will bear fruit or, indeed, reach a conclusion?

My Lords, the House will know that I like to get a move on with things. Therefore, I hope that it will be possible to resolve them speedily.

My Lords, as regards the border between Iran and Iraq, when we have the 2,500 troops left in Iraq in the spring, as we hope, how many Iraqis will also be available for service there?

My Lords, the noble Baroness highlights the central importance of the capability of the Iraqi forces. That capability is focused mainly around two divisions of the Iraqi army: the 10th division, which we have now successfully trained, and the new 14th division. We are talking about tens of thousands of troops, which will make a significantly greater contribution than has been made by the British Army. The key role of the British Army and our forces is to mentor these troops. The key to this will be developments over the coming months, which we hope will allow us to make further drawdowns to 2,500, as the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

My Lords, how many troops do we now have in Kuwait and will the number be increased in the coming months?

My Lords, I am aware of the press coverage relating to the location of our troops in the region. I am not able to confirm whether we have troops located in Kuwait and whether that is likely to change in the future. I can say that as we make progress relating to the drawdown of our troops in MND (South-East), we expect there to be an increase of approximately 300 to 500 troops in the region, but at present I am not able to say in which countries that will occur.