My Lords, first, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Sarah Holmes, who died on Sunday from injuries received serving on Operation TELIC.
The Prime Minister announced last week in another place that we expect to be able to reduce the number of British forces in southern Iraq to around 2,500 from spring 2008. Decisions on the next phase will be taken at that time. We will continue to make such decisions based on conditions, and in consultation with the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners, rather than timescales.
My Lords, we wish to be associated with the remarks of condolence from the Minister. Is it any wonder that Des Browne decided not to accompany the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Iraq? Can the Minister promise at long last that no further needless loss of life by British military personnel will be incurred, particularly in view of the vulnerable physical nature of Basra airport and the inadequate equipment there to defend our forces properly? Is it not now time to accelerate the action of withdrawal?
My Lords, I really do not accept the noble Lord’s point relating to the Secretary of State for Defence; as I am sure the House is aware, the Prime Minister was accompanied on that visit by the Chief of the Defence Staff. With regard to the loss of life and the need to protect our troops as they carry out the very dangerous mission we ask of them in Iraq, we are doing absolutely everything we can to ensure that they have what they need to provide that protection. I am sure the House will accept that we have made real progress on the strategy which we set out several years ago for supporting Iraq on its path towards democratic government and for the security of the country to be handled by its own people. On the basis of that progress, we have been able to reduce the number of our troops. We expect that to continue, based on conditions as they develop.
My Lords, we also send our condolences to the family of Lance Corporal Sarah Holmes, mentioned by the Minister. Two days ago in the other place, my honourable friend the shadow Defence Secretary raised concerns that personnel serving in Kuwait on Operation TELIC are not entitled to the operational bonus. The Secretary of State said that this was not true, yet a Written Answer sent last December to the Member for the Forest of Dean stated:
“The specified qualifying locations for the operational allowance are the geographical boundaries of Iraq”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/06; col. 933W.]
Can the Minister clear up this confusion? Are all personnel serving in Kuwait and the Gulf entitled, like their American counterparts, to the operational bonus? If not, are Her Majesty’s Government looking at ways in which this could be rectified?
My Lords, I should point out that we have not specified the location of the support troops that we have in the region down to a particular country, so I cannot comment on the location of troops in Kuwait or other places, but I shall certainly be able to look further into the noble Lord’s point on the definition of the operational bonus. I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.
My Lords, the noble Lord says that he is not able to comment about troops in Kuwait or elsewhere, but can he give the House an indication of the number of service men and women who are in that theatre of operations? We keep hearing about the numbers in Iraq, but it would be helpful to everyone to know how many troops are involved overall in that theatre.
Yes, my Lords, I am very happy to do that. They are there primarily to support, mentor and train the Iraqi security forces, particularly the 14th Division of the Iraqi army. They are also there to provide back-up if required in extremis to the Iraqi troops.
My Lords, looking further ahead, can the Minister tell the House whether there are any plans to re-establish the Iraqi air force? Are any of its former planes still serviceable? What has happened to its former pilots? Are we likely to be involved in any training, in the UK or in Iraq?
My Lords, a small team from the United Kingdom contributes to a coalition effort to redevelop the Iraqi air force to enable it to carry out counter-insurgency operations. The Iraqi air force currently has about 1,200 personnel and operates 50 aircraft. We are seeing real progress in that former members of the Iraqi air force are now rejoining, the flying training centre has been re-established, capability is increasing and they are flying an average of about 180 sorties a week.
My Lords, the violence has decreased significantly. Of course we need to monitor the situation carefully, but the violence in Basra itself and in Iraq as a whole has decreased significantly from its peak last December. In figures, the levels of attack in September, for example, were about one-tenth what they were in the previous months.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right: the relationship between the nation-state of Iraq and its regional neighbours is fundamental. It is encouraging to see the way in which the Iraqi Government are establishing those relationships and the focus which they have on their relationships as a nation. In particular, the relationship between Iraq and Iran is fundamental. The UK Government are acting to encourage that relationship with, in particular, our forces making sure that the border between Iran and Iraq is properly policed.
My Lords, I shall try to be even clearer. Our troops are involved daily in training the Iraqi army in the operations which it must undertake to maintain security within the region. This training is conducted at all levels of the army, among the leadership and across the chain of command, and includes tactics, procedures and training on equipment. We can see from the Iraqi army’s success—particularly in the 10th Division, which is now fully set up and has taken over responsibility—that this process works well. We should not underestimate the vital importance of our troops’ work in supporting and training these forces. Most recently, the way in which they were able to handle incidents in the centre of Basra shows that the training works. We have been following this process for a number of years. We are able to withdraw troops because the Iraqi security forces are able to take over.
My Lords, responsibility for the Iraqis’ security, both internal and external, will lie with the Iraqi Government themselves. Our strategy is to develop that capability, as I said, in the Iraqi air force, navy and army. We have undoubtedly made the most progress with the Iraqi army, but all three branches of Iraq’s services need to be developed.
My Lords, we are not envisaging Turkish intervention in northern Iraq. We are aware, as is the international community, of the terrorist attacks that have been undertaken by certain elements in the north, the PKK in particular. We are supporting all efforts to stop such terrorist activity, and we recognise the calm measures that the Turkish Government have taken to date in response to those attacks.