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UK Armed Forces in Iraq

Volume 758: debated on Monday 15 December 2014


“My Lords, the UK is currently providing substantial support to the Government of Iraq through airstrikes, surveillance, gifting and transporting equipment and the training of Iraqi forces in specialist skills. There are currently around 50 UK personnel working with the Danes in Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq, carrying out combat infantry and sharpshooter training. We are coming to the end of the second of four three-week courses. We also have around 10 military personnel in Erbil looking at how we can assist the Government of Iraq in training and equipping other Kurdish forces.

The international coalition is developing its plan for building the capacity of Iraqi security forces. The US envisages a coalition effort across at least four sites in Iraq. Any future UK training contribution would be absorbed into this coalition plan. In early November, I announced our intention to provide further training to the Iraqi military. No decisions on troop numbers, units or locations have been made, although we expect to focus on providing expertise in countering explosive devices.

At Defence Orals on 24 November, I also announced our intention to advise and assist the Iraqi armed forces through the secondment of advisory personnel to command headquarters, and we are considering what contribution we can make. The details of any decision will be announced to Parliament in the usual way”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given to the Urgent Question asked in the other place earlier today. The thrust of the Answer appears to be that the headlines in yesterday’s papers—in the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and the Sun, for example—which said that hundreds of British troops are going back to Iraq are wrong. Are the Government saying to us that these headlines, which appeared in a number of newspapers close to the Government, have just been made up, and have not come as a result of comments made by an inside source, whether injudiciously or otherwise?

The Secretary of State for Defence was quoted as confirming that our Armed Forces would be deployed to four separate sites in Iraq next month to train Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers, and that the training we are going to be offering in January will be in infantry skills and some of the basics, particularly on how to deal with IEDs. The Ministry of Defence has been quoted as saying that decisions on numbers, units or locations have not been made. How long will it be before decisions are made on this issue of providing further training? This will also show just how accurate or otherwise the apparently speculative leaks in yesterday’s newspaper reports were. Bearing in mind what the Government have said about not involving combat troops, what will be the size and composition of the force protection element of the training mission? What is the nature of the requests for further help that have come from the Iraqi Government?

We have supported steps taken by the Government, regional partners and the international coalition in combating ISIL. Do the Government not accept that rather greater clarity is now needed about the role of our Armed Forces in Iraq, the scale of their involvement, and the timeframe of training operations? Would they agree that the public, our Armed Forces and Parliament are entitled to be told about this directly by the Government, rather than via what appears to be a leak—from whatever source—to the media?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we have no plans to send hundreds of soldiers to Iraq, and never did have such plans. The UK is already making the second largest contribution to air strikes and surveillance after the United States. Our training effort in Iraq will be small scale and niche, building on the UK’s strength in areas where we are best able to support the coalition. This will be a very limited mission. Our Prime Minister has made it very clear that we are not going to recommit ground combat forces to Iraq. As the Iraqi Prime Minister himself said on 17 September, the Iraqi Government do not want to see foreign troops fighting on the ground.

The noble Lord asked how many people we are sending. At the moment, I cannot tell the House very much. We have not set a number, but it will be very low. It will be mainly specialists with niche skills, such as counter-IED. That is something in which the British Army has excellent specialists. We will also be advising the Iraqi army on how to manage its headquarters. We have no plans to send in ground combat forces.

The noble Lord also asked what further help the Iraqi Government have asked for. We are in discussions with the Iraqi Government. It is the Iraqi Government who have requested help from us. The Secretary of State was in Iraq last month, and discussions are continuing to take place.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. Could he say something about the effect of the assistance given so far to the Iraqi Government in deterring or curbing the activities of ISIS?

My Lords, we are confident that it is working. We have a very active training programme, which I can tell the noble Lord about. We are carrying out training on heavy machine-guns and combat infantry training. We feel that any training of this sort will help the Iraqi security forces to train up to combat ISIL.

Is my noble friend aware that the House will be grateful that he clarified the point that there is no intention to put in combat troops, because clearly misunderstandings arose over that? It is helpful to have that cleared up. In respect of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, what sort of numbers are going through this training programme, and what sort of length is it? Obviously, in some respects, getting greater expertise and skill within the Iraqi armed forces at this time is a matter of some urgency.

My noble friend makes a very good point. These training courses are very important. Following on from the noble Lord’s earlier question, we feel that it is very important that we build them up. We are still scoping these training courses. As I said, we have just completed several courses in the Erbil area in heavy machine-guns. We are currently doing combat infantry training and sharpshooter training with the Danes in the Sulaymaniyah area. Two more courses are being carried out.

Our soldiers have helped commercial contractors to train the Iraqis in counter-IED. As I said earlier, this is something in which we have a real niche speciality. I can assure my noble friend that the “advise and assist” recce team returned to this country on 7 December, and options are being considered to set up a logistics headquarters and a ninth armoured mechanical division. PJHQ is developing a business case for counter-IED training at two build-partner capacity sites.

Will my noble friend tell the House whether, across government departments, there has been an assessment of any further terrorism risks in the UK because of our further forays into Iraq? Could my noble friend also say whether the perceptions of what the UK forces are doing in Iraq has been consulted on with our ambassadors in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states?

I can assure my noble friend that we are in discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID. As my noble friend knows, General Sir Simon Mayall has been out to the Gulf. He has just returned from Egypt and has been discussing with the Egyptian Government the very point that my noble friend raised.

What is the position of our troops if they come under attack or are put in danger as a result of being in Iraq and helping the Iraqi forces?

The noble Lord raises an important point about rules of engagement. As we are still scoping the numbers to go out and they are very small numbers, it is too early to say anything about the rules of engagement. But we are confident that members of the Armed Forces who are being sent out will be there in a training role and they will be far from the combat zone. Once we have finished our scoping, this important issue will be looked at very carefully.

Given the increasing instability in central Europe, are the Government not absolutely right to avoid mission creep in the Middle East?

Are the Government not right to avoid mission creep in the Middle East because of the growing instability in central Europe?

I agree with my noble friend. We have absolutely no plans for mission creep. We have previously announced our intention to support the Iraqis with training their forces and, as I said earlier, the Iraqi Prime Minister has been very clear that they do not want to see western ground combat forces.

Can my noble friend tell the House whether the number of air strikes being carried out by Her Majesty’s forces in Iraq are at the moment increasing or decreasing?

My Lords, I probably can tell my noble friend that, but I fear that I may get into trouble if I say too much. I do have some figures. They are official-sensitive and I am probably unable to tell my noble friend that.

My Lords, are we providing training on our own or are we co-operating with other states? Perhaps my noble friend could say which other states are providing training missions. Are we training Iraqi regular forces or irregular forces?

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend who of course knows Iraq very well, having himself served on Telic 1. As for help from other coalition members, there have been significant offers of support in principle from coalition partners. For example, I understand that the Australians have offered up to 400, New Zealand up to 100, the Danes 120, the Germans around 100 and Italy 280. The US has authorised up to 3,100 personnel to be in Iraq.

Will my noble friend kindly tell us whether there will be a component of the preventing sexual violence initiative in the training in Iraq?

My Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend that from the Dispatch Box. I have written to her on this issue and I will give her my assurance that I will follow it up and write to her as soon as I possibly can.