Skip to main content

Iraq: Basra

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

My Lords, our forces still have a vital job to do in Basra. Their primary focus is now on training and mentoring the 14th Division of the Iraqi army until it is fully operational. They also support Iraqi-led operations when requested, as they did during the recent successful Iraqi operations in the city. In addition, our forces facilitate economic reconstruction—in particular at Basra’s international airport—and lead the training of the Iraqi navy.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. As we know, strong evidence suggests that most of the weapons being used by the Iranian-backed group there, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and ever more sophisticated roadside bombs, are of Iranian origin. What are we doing diplomatically to counter the threat to Iraqi stability and to the lives of our troops, and how successful have we been on the ground with Iraqi troops in preventing the transfer of those weapons into southern Iraq and the Iranian training of the insurgents?

My Lords, it is quite right to say that a great deal of the weaponry that is coming in and being used by insurgents in Iraq either originates from or comes through Iran. It is a topic of great concern to us all. We are taking action diplomatically in a number of ways, including by trying to involve influential countries in the region as well as exerting our influence directly. We are supporting the Department of Border Enforcement in Iraq, and our fast jets help and assist in that. That is very important. Everybody involved recognises that the problem of weapons coming in to the insurgents from Iran is very significant.

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Americans seem to have been called on for assistance last time that the Iraqi forces were engaged in Basra as a first port of call, why are we there in such large numbers in combat units if we are there primarily as training support?

My Lords, there is a slight misapprehension there. The Americans did go to Basra, in somewhat limited numbers, in support of the extra Iraqi troops that went into Basra, because the Americans were monitoring those divisions. Similarly, when Iraqi troops have been moved into Baghdad, British advisers and support people—those who were mentoring and training those divisions—did go with them. So it is nothing exceptional for coalition forces that are mentoring specific divisions of the Iraqi army to go with those divisions when they are on operations.

My Lords, is there any indication of when this training programme is likely to come to an end? What progress has been made on it? I seem to recall Ministers indicating earlier a stage when they thought the training would be completed. Does the Minister have a forecast?

My Lords, the noble Lord, with his experience, will know that the training of any armed forces is not a single one-off event: it is training, mentoring and additional support where that is requested. The recent events in Basra city proved very successful in attacking the militia and criminal elements. The Iraqi forces took the lead but they had support and help from elsewhere. That was important. On that basis, it would be wrong to try to set a target date for when that training and mentoring could come to an end.

My Lords, bearing in mind that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Territorial Army, will the Minister say what proportion of the troops in Basra are being drawn from the Territorial Army?

My Lords, I cannot give a figure at this moment but I will certainly write on that matter. The Territorial Army and our reservists generally have a significant role to play. They have been very valuable in the work that they have done.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that few graver criticisms can be made of any Government than that they should undertake greater military commitments than they can produce the resources to meet those commitments? Is it not clear that there have not been adequate forces to best achieve the missions which have been so brilliantly performed by our Armed Forces in Basra and Afghanistan? Would it not be better to switch the Basra forces to Afghanistan? Will the Government overall make up their mind on whether they will adjust the resources to the commitments or the commitments to the resources?

My Lords, the commitments which the Government have given to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been substantial indeed: £10 billion in recent years, and from the Treasury, not the MoD budget. I acknowledge the noble Lord’s praise for the work of the Armed Forces and the fact that he says that they have been brilliant in what they do. But at this stage it would be somewhat premature and somewhat irresponsible to go for a simplistic solution such as switching troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

In this week commemorating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, and thus the Naqba—catastrophe—in Palestine, will the Minister agree that it would have been much, much better to have put huge efforts into solving the Israel-Palestine question instead of making war on Iraq?

My Lords, I do not think that work on a solution of the Middle East problem in terms of Israel and Palestine is mutually exclusive with the operations that we have undertaken. The Government still put a great deal of effort into trying to get a settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation that will suit everyone.

My Lords, pursuant to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about the flow of arms from Iran into Iraq, can the Minister tell the House when we first became aware of the flow of these arms into Iraq; what representations we have made to the authorities in Tehran over the years since they first started to flow; and what response have we had?

My Lords, I do not think that the Iranian authorities are very keen to acknowledge the scale of the problem. We have made it clear to the Iranians that supporting groups responsible for violence—there are a number of insurgency groups in Iraq—is totally unacceptable. We have done that directly. As I said earlier, we have also been seeking to influence the Iranian Government diplomatically by encouraging other countries in the region to put pressure on as well and face up to the difficulties that will arise if this kind of activity continues.