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Iraq: Inquiry

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 25 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect to establish an inquiry into the Iraq war.

My Lords, as the Prime Minister said in his letter to the Fabian Society last week, we recognise that a time will come when an inquiry is appropriate, but we are not prepared to make a proposal for a further inquiry at this time, while important operations are under way in Iraq to support the Government and people of that country.

My Lords, although this is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, does he not think it a bit fresh, to say the least, that the Tories have launched a motion about an inquiry into the Iraq war when they were so gung-ho at the launch of the war in 2003? By contrast, some excellent Bills have been announced over the past few days in the other place by our Liberal Democrat colleagues, and the Bill of my noble friend Lord McNally had its First Reading on Thursday. Remembering the words of Hans Blix, is the Minister—a former UN man with many years’ distinguished experience—going to persuade the Prime Minister at long last to change tack on this matter? Is it not about time that the British public were given justice as well with an immediate inquiry following the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq?

My Lords, noble Lords may recall that it was in this House that we agreed that it was not a matter of “if” there should be an inquiry but “when”. There remains a precedent, since the rather abortive Dardanelles inquiry of 1916, that inquiries wait until after the conflict is over.

My Lords, on the simple question of “when”, as it is apparent that these operations are going to continue for a considerable time, what can “when” mean?

My Lords, I am no soothsayer but just today in Basra hostilities have resumed around an effort to disarm the militia. So there is still—today, at least—a sufficiently active level of military action in both Basra and the country at large to make it seem premature for such an inquiry.

My Lords, when that time comes, how do we prevent a repetition of the time and cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry?

My Lords, that will weigh heavily on those who design this inquiry. We have already had four independent inquiries into the war, 60 parliamentary debates and a slew of important books, so any new inquiry, while asked to take a more holistic view, nevertheless has a lot to start with.

My Lords, we realise this is a difficult and delicate issue and certainly too serious to be the subject for silly party-point-scoring and rivalries, but does the Minister accept that the difficulty is that the longer we wait, the more of a problem there will be in providing some really useful conclusions, both for the policy-makers where policy has obviously gone wrong and for the military who are all the time looking with General Petraeus and our own military for new and better ways of dealing with this kind of warfare? There is a strong case for “soon”. He or others say that we must wait until troops withdraw but has he noticed that Senator McCain, who may shortly be—who knows—President of the United States, has talked about a military presence for another 100 years? Would he like me to come back in 2108 and raise the issue again?

My Lords, I think I can certainly assure the noble Lord that it will happen in our lifetimes, rather than in 100 years. Let us acknowledge the fact that we have generals in Iraq, most notably General Petraeus, who are showing that they are acutely able to learn the lessons of earlier mistakes and fashion new strategies and approaches. I very much doubt that this kind of inquiry will contribute to the day-to-day management of the war at this stage. What it can do is give us lessons for the future to make sure that, when we embark on interventions of this kind, they are done in the correct way, which enjoys full support internationally and domestically.

My Lords, I understand that it is intended that the inquiry should be held when the British forces’ work is done. In the event that the American forces remain for some time after the British withdrawal, would the inquiry be affected by the presence of American forces?

My Lords, did the Minister note last week that the Prime Minister in the other place, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, here, and a Labour Back-Bencher justified the war on the basis of regime change? Will the Minister confirm that conducting a war on the basis of regime change is against the terms of the UN charter? Does he not think that a war that has already cost 100,000-plus lives—many more have been maimed and many millions have become refugees—and which has turned Iraq into a training camp for international terrorism, should be learnt about now and quickly?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s point about regime change, the defence rested more on the case of the terrible role that Saddam Hussein played in his country towards his own people and the fact that, whatever other disagreements there might be in this House or elsewhere about the war, we could all agree that the removal of Saddam Hussein from office was a net plus for the people of Iraq and the people of the world. More broadly on the issues that the noble Lord raises, much has already been written and debated, and that debate will continue. An official inquiry is not needed to throw light on those issues.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that many of us believed that we were right to go to war in Iraq because we were told that there were weapons of mass destruction? With no defined exit strategy, where does that leave us?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware that the Prime Minister has sought to lay out a timetable for a reduction in the number of British troops and has made it clear that the exit strategy rests on putting the Iraqi security forces in Basra on their own feet, enabling them to carry out the job without active British support, except, perhaps, in a training role.