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Iraq: UK Armed Forces

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 15 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the comments of the Prime Minister of Iraq that British combat forces are no longer required in southern Iraq.

My Lords, Prime Minister Maliki did not say that UK forces are no longer required in southern Iraq. Instead, he recognised that the role for UK forces has evolved from combat to training. This is entirely consistent with the statement of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in July that our forces in Basra were now focused on completing the task of training and mentoring the Iraqi army before we make the transition to a long-term bilateral relationship with Iraq.

My Lords, given the smouldering resentment that Prime Minister Maliki clearly feels over the manner of our withdrawal from Basra and his obvious lack of appreciation for the efforts of our forces in Iraq, and given our wider military overstretch, is it not time to draw a line under this costly and controversial mission and bring our boys home now?

My Lords, it would be totally irresponsible to do anything pre-emptive or which might remove support from the real progress that has been made in southern Iraq in recent years. In the interview, of which only parts were reported, Prime Minister Maliki praised the work of British troops and expressed appreciation for them. Our decision to withdraw from the centre of Basra to the airfield was not a unilateral one; it was made after consultation with the Iraqis, and they provided other support to replace the guard in Basra Palace. We have to take thoughtful decisions, which means not having knee-jerk reactions to such issues.

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the Iraqi army. Is it also intended that the naval training team continues its very important work after any possible future withdrawal of combat troops?

My Lords, at the moment about 800 to 900 people are involved in training and mentoring the Iraqi army. About 50 people are involved in training the Iraqi navy, which is particularly important if we are to help Iraq to protect its oil potential. Clearly it needs naval resources to protect that area. That is at present under the command of a British naval senior person and it will continue for some time as there is much work to do. We are making good progress, and although we have made very good progress with the 14 Division of the army, there is still a significant way to go in terms of naval training.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what is happening with the status of forces agreement? I see in the US press that the United States is making rather slow progress in the status of forces agreement needed as from January next year. I understand that the British Government are not currently negotiating on this. Are we simply waiting for the Americans to tell us what the status of forces agreement will be, or do we assume that we will have withdrawn?

My Lords, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office with specific responsibility for this area, Bill Rammell, has been in Iraq in the past few days and has been talking about that. On a number of occasions when we have had renewals in the past, they have gone rather to the wire. A few complicated issues need to be discussed, and as I say, the Minister of State has been in Iraq only this week and has been discussing these issues.

My Lords, it is unfortunate that our involvement in the Basra region is drawing to a close amid such recrimination, as has been mentioned here. Will the Minister tell us whether it is now recognised in the Ministry of Defence that it was a grievous mistake to enter into the sort of deals that the troops did with militias in Basra and that the lesson will be drawn for other situations?

My Lords, a voice in my ear tells me that it is the noble Lord’s birthday and I shall recognise that before turning to his question. He should not get some of the statements that have been reported out of proportion. We did a very good job in Basra. As I said, our withdrawal was done after consideration of the issue with General Mohan, who was in charge there. Central government in Iraq knew about it and, in all that has been said by President Maliki over the past few weeks, there have been many expressions of congratulations for the work that has been done, respect for the British forces and thanks for the contributions that we have made in transforming the situation in southern Iraq. Our troops should get the recognition for the very good work that they have been doing.

My Lords, can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that nothing will be done in the negotiation of the status of forces agreement that touches on the safety and security of 4,000 members of the Iranian resistance living in Ashraf City who enjoy protected person status under the fourth Geneva Convention?

My Lords, I do not know the detail about the group of people to which my noble friend refers, although I know of his long-standing interest in the matter. The purpose of the SOFA is to ensure that we can operate on the basis that we do now. There will be changes, because we think we are moving towards a more mature relationship with Iraq and, as I said, the Minister of State is at present discussing the details of that.

My Lords, what provisions are the Government making for people such as interpreters, who have served the British troops so loyally and faithfully, but who are not being cared for by being given immigration rights here according to the new rule?

My Lords, I know that there is concern in the House about this; it has been raised more than once this week. It is not directly a matter for the Ministry of Defence, although we obviously take a very close interest in it. We have to ensure that, when we are providing help for those who have been working for British forces there, we have all the details of their employment and that we are sure about what we are doing. Great care is taken in trying to ensure that those who have serious needs to be accommodated here are looked after, but I know that there is still concern and that my noble friend, who spoke earlier this week, undertook to look earlier at the petition.