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Iraq: UK Forces

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What future they envisage for the British military presence in Iraq five years after the invasion.

My Lords, UK forces still have an important role to play in Iraq, mentoring and training the Iraqi security forces and frequently supporting them in active operations. In line with our strategy, which was set out by the Prime Minister in October in another place, we will take decisions on the next phase of our military presence this spring. As always, this will be based on military advice and conditions on the ground.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As the time approaches for the total withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, will Her Majesty’s Government arrange a suitable way of honouring those who have died and those who will return to this country from the field of conflict? Secondly, as the presidency of George W Bush draws mercifully—dare I say that?—to an end and he is replaced by another President of the United States, is it possible for Her Majesty’s Government to facilitate meetings on Iraq between the three main contenders for the presidency so that they might talk about the future and bring about substantial changes?

My Lords, on the first point, we will certainly consider the appropriate time for commemorating those who have served and, in particular, those who have lost their lives. It is important that we should do that at the appropriate time, as I am sure every Member of this House would agree.

On the point about the three main contenders in the United States elections, that is somewhat outside my domain, tempting though it would be to try to arrange that kind of debate. I note, however, that one of them is in London at the moment and is offering his support for the work that British troops have done in Iraq. That support should be welcome.

My Lords, is it part of the role of our Armed Forces who remain in Iraq to help the Iraqi authorities to recover full working control of the port of Basra from the militias?

My Lords, we have made it clear on many occasions that security is vital in Iraq, but in getting self-sustaining progress we must also concentrate on good governance and economic development. A great deal of work is being done in Basra, and we have people there who are putting a great deal of effort into ensuring that economic development is as quick as possible. There was a conference in Kuwait recently, which was attended by many potential investors and senior Iraqi figures in order to deal with how we can help to regenerate the Basra province in all its aspects.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a good time after these questions to remind ourselves that one of the most important roles for the British Armed Forces in Iraq is to train the Iraqi armed forces, particularly the army? If any criticism is to be had, it is because we disbanded that army far too quickly after the conflict, instead of training it then. No one should be talking of withdrawing the forces until we have a fully trained Iraqi army which is able to control the state in the way that should have happened much earlier.

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The UK has made a significant contribution. Other countries have also been effective in training members of the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police. The UK has trained more than 20,000 members of the Iraqi army and 22,000 members of the Iraqi police forces. It is important that the Iraqis are able to take over their own security. There have been significant developments in Basra and the recent very successful operation in Shatt al-Arab was led by the Iraqi armed forces, supported by the British. Progress is being made, but there is still some way to go.

My Lords, did the Minister see today Hans Blix’s assessment of the Iraq tragedy five years on? He said:

“Responsibility for this spectacular tragedy must lie with those who ignored the facts five years ago”.

It is all very well praising the bravery and courage of our armed services, but if politicians make the wrong decisions and send them into wrong areas, the Armed Forces pay the penalty. Therefore, should we not have an inquiry into how those wrong decisions were made and how that advice was ignored five years ago?

My Lords, I am in a difficult position in one way because I served on two of the inquiries that took place and I heard Hans Blix speak on more than one occasion about these issues. There will come a time when we have another inquiry. I do not think it is when we have our Armed Forces serving on the ground as they are at the moment. But I would remind the noble Lord that the inquiries we have had put into context many of the statements made at that time. Looking again recently at the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Iraq and WMD, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea if Members refreshed their memories about some of the things that were said at the time, rather than misremembering some other things.

My Lords, if there is to be an inquiry, will it include the conduct of those who seem to be saying that, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, almost said, it was wrong to depose Saddam Hussein? Had the Government of the day decided to leave Saddam’s security forces in situ, howls of protest would have been heard the world over. Hindsight is a great tool, but sometimes it is used wrongly.

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. Life under Saddam was very difficult for the vast majority of people in Iraq. There are still some difficulties, but they are of a totally different nature. We are working hard to create stability and good governance. There have already been national elections. People are developing plans for provincial elections and the outlook for ordinary people in the long term in Iraq is a lot better than it could ever have been under Saddam Hussein.

My Lords, just for the record, does the Minister accept that we on this side share the view of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that there should be an inquiry, but we believe that it should be now? We owe it to our troops to go ahead with that inquiry at the earliest opportunity and it should not be delayed.

My Lords, we owe it to our troops to concentrate on supporting them in the actions that they are taking at the moment. If we have an inquiry, as the Government have made clear there will be, it should be at the appropriate stage, and that is not now.

My Lords, when will the Government apologise for the catastrophe in Iraq, for bringing terrorism into that country, and for increasing the risk of terrorism in our own country?

My Lords, I do not accept that somewhat, perhaps I may say, simplistic analysis. As my noble friend pointed out, life under Saddam was very difficult for many people. In some respects, he kept a lid by the force of fear on many problems that were there for a very long time.