UK Forces (Iraq)

– in the House of Commons at 1:16 pm on 21st October 2004.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 1:16 pm, 21st October 2004

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a further statement about the deployment of UK forces in Iraq.

On Monday I explained to the House that the UK military had received, and was evaluating, a request from the US military command in Iraq for assistance that would involve UK land forces operating outside the Multi-National Division (South-East) area, in support of a combined Iraqi/US force.

A reconnaissance team from MND(SE) deployed to the area in question earlier this week and has now reported back to the chiefs of staff. The team provided information on a number of issues including logistics, the length of the potential operation, the likely tasks, activity levels in the area, the force levels required, and the command and control arrangements. After careful evaluation, the chiefs of staff have advised me that UK forces are able to undertake the proposed operation, that there is a compelling military operational justification for doing so and that it entails a militarily acceptable level of risk for UK forces. Based on this military advice, the Government have decided that we should accept the US request for assistance.

I emphasise again that this was a military request, and has been considered and accepted on operational grounds after a thorough military evaluation by the chiefs of staff. As I said on Monday, and as the Prime Minister said yesterday to the House, this deployment is a vital part of the process of creating the right conditions for the Iraqi elections to take place in January.

We share with the Iraqi Interim Government and with our coalition partners a common goal of creating a secure and stable Iraq, where men, women and children in towns such as Falluja can feel safe from foreign terrorists, from the kidnappers who murdered Ken Bigley and from other criminals. Crucially, Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi and the Interim Iraqi Government want to establish sufficient security for elections to be able to take place in January. Recent successful operations by Iraqi security forces and coalition forces in Tal Afar, Samarra and on the outskirts of Falluja have been undertaken to restore areas under the control of militants and terrorists to the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government. As a direct result, the political process there is now moving ahead.

We cannot consider the current UK area of responsibility in isolation. What goes on in the rest of Iraq affects southern Iraq and affects UK troops wherever they are based. We must therefore consider our contribution in the context of the overall security situation right across Iraq. This means that a UK armoured battle group consisting of the 1st Battalion the Black Watch and supporting units will deploy to an area within Multi-National Force (West) to relieve a US unit for other tasks. They will be deploying with the necessary combat support services such as signallers, engineers and medics, resulting in a total deployment of around 850 personnel. This deployment will be for a very limited and specified period of time, lasting weeks rather than months.

I cannot give the House further details about the location, duration or specifics of the mission. I know that hon. Members on all sides will understand that to do so would risk the operational security of the mission and potentially the safety of our forces. Speculation from many quarters so far has not been helpful. I emphasise that there are no plans to send a further 1,300 troops to Iraq, as suggested this morning.

Concerns have been expressed about UK forces coming under US command and about their rules of engagement. The arrangements for this deployment are that the force will remain under the operational command of General Rollo, the UK General Officer Commanding Multi-National Division (South-East).

On a day-to-day basis, the Black Watch will, of course, have to co-ordinate its activity with the US chain of command in the locality, but any changes in the mission or the tasking would have to be referred back to General Rollo. As with all UK operations, our forces will operate at all times under UK rules of engagement, which will provide proper protection for our forces, as they have done throughout our operations in MND(SE).

It is not unusual for UK and US forces to work alongside each other—they have successfully done so not only in Iraq, with US forces often providing logistical support for our own forces and therefore reducing the number of troops and assets that we need in theatre, but in operations all over the world. Indeed, in Bosnia, about 22,000 US troops operated under UK command. As I said in my statement on Monday, UK forces in Iraq work alongside forces from Italy, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Japan and other countries on a daily basis. That is an effective and practical way to ensure coherence both in our own area and with those areas that surround it.

There has also been speculation as to why there is a need for this UK force to backfill for a US unit, when there are around 130,000 US troops in Iraq. The armoured battle group brings important qualities of extensive training, experience, and hard-edged combat capability. It is not the case, as is often implied, that there are 130,000 US troops that could take on that task. In fact, less than one third of US forces in Iraq have the requisite combat capability, and of those even fewer have the armoured capability that is needed.

Specialised armoured forces are already highly committed across Iraq, which is about four fifths the size of France. The chiefs of staff have further concluded therefore that the provision of a UK battle group to that new mission would be a significant contribution to and would materially increase the effect of the continuing operations to maintain pressure on the terrorists before the January elections.

On Monday, hon. Members raised the question of whether that deployment will leave sufficient forces to deal with contingencies in our own area of responsibility in the south. The roulement of British forces currently under way includes an armoured infantry battle group of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards with their own Warrior armoured vehicles, which will fulfil the divisional reserve role currently undertaken by the Black Watch. That will result in General Rollo temporarily having an extra armoured battle group under his command, which will provide a robust force capable of dealing with any contingencies. It is also worth remembering that the other UK forces in MND(SE) will continue to carry out their tasks in the professional and effective manner that has become so apparent to the people of Basra and the surrounding area—they restore power, water and basic facilities and support the Iraqi authorities in ensuring a robust level of security.

The deployment is limited in scope, time and space, and it does not represent a permanent significant additional commitment of forces. The overall trend in the numbers deployed in Iraq remains down, from the peak of 46,000 during the war-fighting phase to around 8,500 today. That overall downward trend is expected to continue as we continue to train Iraqi security forces to take over from UK forces, as has happened, for example, in Amarah in Maysan province.

The Government remain totally committed to the Iraqi Interim Government and the need to hold free elections in January. We also remain committed to protecting innocent Iraqis, dealing with terrorists, kidnappers and criminals, training and equipping Iraqi forces so that they can take our place providing security, and seeing a democratic Government in Iraq who will take their rightful place in the international community and who will deliver prosperity and a secure future for the Iraqi people. That should unite both sides of the House, and it is right that the United Kingdom should contribute to those objectives. The deployment of the Black Watch will emphasise to the Iraqi people that the UK will continue to contribute to the coalition and see the task through.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The House will be relieved that the Secretary of State has finally moved to end the unnecessary and unacceptable confusion of the past few days and announced the Government's decision on this important matter. As I made plain in my response to his statement on Monday, Conservative Members fully support the coalition as it seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to Iraq and preserve Iraq's territorial integrity. We agree that we should do what we can to contribute to that strategic objective.

In the light of what the Secretary of State has told the House today, and having heard that the deployment has the support of the chiefs of staff following reconnaissance reports that the proposed mission is both feasible and fully within the capabilities of the Black Watch battle group, Conservative Members support the deployment on the basis that it is a necessary operational military contribution to the coalition's efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq ahead of the January elections.

I will, if I may Mr. Speaker, press the Secretary of State, in the light of this decision, on a number of the points that I made to him on Monday. First, will he clarify his rather complicated assurances on the rules of engagement? Will he again confirm that the rules of engagement are indeed robust enough to cope with the change of area, mission and task?

Secondly, will he assure the House that troops about to face the enemy will not have their essential confidence undermined by the possibility of a commanding officer's legal judgments being subsequently overruled, as has recently been the case?

Thirdly, bearing it in mind that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq, will the Secretary of State confirm that there is likely to be a surge requirement for extra troops to Iraq ahead of the Iraqi elections in January? If so, where will those troops come from?

Fourthly, does the Secretary of State anticipate deploying the over-the-horizon assets that he holds in Cyprus? Is he satisfied as to the arrangements both for command and control and for air cover? Fifthly, will he say whether troops currently serving in Iraq will have their tour extended? Finally, are there any additional plans for further redeployment of British troops outside MND(SE)?

No doubt the Secretary of State will wish at his earliest convenience to apologise to the families of the Black Watch battle group for the exceptionally shabby way in which he has treated them.

The House and the nation can be supremely confident that the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment, which bears the distinction of Baghdad 1917 as one of its battle honours, will carry out its task with all the fortitude, discipline and courage that we would expect from one of the finest regiments in the British Army. To them and to all the supporting arms who go with them in the battle group, we wish God speed.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has finally and rather belatedly made the Conservative party's position on the deployment clear. It was not obvious from his comments on Monday, and no one could have detected from the Conservative leader's observations yesterday whether the Conservative leader actually supports the deployment, so we have made some progress.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman prepared his questions before he heard my statement. I have already repeated the point about rules of engagement, which he has come very close to suggesting should be published—he denied such requests when he was Minister for the Armed Forces—and I am delighted to repeat again that our armed forces will have robust rules of engagement. The rules of engagement have been sufficient to protect them in their operations in MND(SE), and that will continue to be the case as far as this deployment is concerned. Every hon. Member knows that British forces, wherever they serve in the world, are subject to the law of this country. That remains the case, it will always be the case and British forces want nothing else.

The hon. Gentleman's other questions largely concerned other matters not related to this particular deployment, and I shall certainly deal with them, perhaps in the debate that follows or on a future occasion. On apologies, he might like to reflect on the fact that his observations about the Black Watch were poorly received by the commanding officers of that distinguished regiment—very poorly received.

They have gone out of their way to keep their people and families thoroughly informed about this deployment. I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to make that apology instead of making cheap political points at the expense of hard-working serving soldiers and their families.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make this statement and for an advance sight of it. Of course, all of us in this House wish the Black Watch well.

Liberal Democrat Members did not support the war in Iraq, but we accept that we have a responsibility to the people of Iraq. However, we also have a responsibility to our troops serving there in terms of their protection, welfare and morale. For that reason, we believe that British troops should remain in the British sector under British command, so we do not support this redeployment. I hope that the Government have the confidence to put this issue before the House.

Of course, there will be times when our forces will temporarily serve outside MND(SE), including the Royal Air Force, liaison units and special forces, but the protection of the men and women in MND(SE) must be the highest possible priority.

Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said that the security situation in Iraq could get worse in the short term due to Ramadan, any US attack on Falluja, and the run-up to the January elections. So is now a good time to move 850 battle-trained members of the Black Watch, with its Warrior armoured vehicles, some 350 miles away from supporting the remaining British troops in the south?

Will the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards be in MND(SE) before the Black Watch moves? If the US attacks Falluja, will it be able to call on the Black Watch for support? What is the future of the Black Watch when it returns home? Will it be disbanded, as has been suggested and as has been campaigned against by my hon. Friends?

Finally, if the only elections that these troops are being sent to support are the Iraqi elections in January, which troops will replace the Black Watch when it goes home before Christmas, as the Prime Minister promised yesterday?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman thanked me for making the statement available to him in advance. I am sorry that he did not study it a little more carefully, because several of the answers to his questions would have been apparent to him had he done so.

It is important that the Liberal Democrats participate in this debate so that the country can see precisely where they stand on a number of key issues—

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

Is the leader of the Liberal Democrats seriously suggesting, as he appears to be, that every time British forces in a theatre of operation are redeployed there needs to be a debate and a vote on it? Is he seriously suggesting that, across the wide range of deployments that British forces make, that kind of political opportunism would serve them well? We know full well from the Liberal Democrats that their policy would mean that Saddam Hussein was still in power in Baghdad today. Given the current situation in Iraq, are the Liberal Democrats seriously saying to the families of people like Ken Bigley that they would not take action against terrorists and take the necessary action to see democratic elections taking place in Iraq? Do they or do they not want free and democratic elections in Iraq? If not, they should say so, because their policies lead directly to that conclusion.

The most fundamental question that the Liberal Democrats have to face up to is whether they back our troops. The leader of the Liberal Democrats has failed to do that.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the deployment of British forces that he announced will be fully supported by the Iraqi Government, who wish to have robust action against the terrorists and those who murdered Ken Bigley and are currently taking other hostages in Iraq? Is it not about time that the Liberal Democrats ceased to be the Saddam Hussein preservation society?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

With the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government, all the operations that I have described to the House and, indeed, this deployment and this operation, will have to be with the consent of that sovereign Government of Iraq. It is the Iraqi Prime Minister and his Government who want to see the terrorists dealt with and an end to the attacks on innocent Iraqis.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

As one who agrees with the decision that has been taken and has every confidence in the ability of the Black Watch, may I press the Secretary of State on one point? If, when it returns at Christmas, there is a need for other troops to take its place, have contingency plans been made for that?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As I sought to explain to the House in the course of my statement, the fact that the Black Watch will be going north and will in turn be replaced in position by the Scots Guards means that once it has been able to return home before Christmas we will be back to the steady state of forces that we currently have in MND(SE), so there will not be a significant change in the total numbers operating in the south.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies PPS (Team PPS), Department for Constitutional Affairs

Many colleagues would delay action for a couple of weeks beyond the US election. I do not want President Bush re-elected, but with every day that passes terrorists in Falluja are killing Iraqi people and taking UK hostages, and there will be more and more Bigleys. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is a military imperative to act we should do it now, not sacrifice UK and Iraqi lives just because we do not like George Bush?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent, at any rate: it is important that we act on the request made to us not only by our US ally but, crucially, by the sovereign Government of Iraq, who want an end to the lawlessness, violence, terrorism, killing and kidnapping. This deployment will play a part in that process.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I understand the pressures that have been brought to bear on the Secretary of State with regard to making this statement, but I wonder whether it was the wise thing to do. He emphasised that the decision was taken purely on the basis of operational considerations. Such decisions and movements are bound to take place from time to time when we have allies working on a joint operation, as has happened elsewhere. Can the Secretary of State tell us what policy issues are relevant, because it is those, not operational matters, with which this House should be concerned?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who always approaches military questions in the light of very considerable personal knowledge and experience. As he knows, such deployments are made clearly to reflect a policy background, which I stated to the House—it is the importance of removing the terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and of allowing free democratic elections to take place on schedule in January, as has always been our policy.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West

As the Member for Dunfermline, which is the Black Watch's largest recruitment area, I had hoped, as had many of its families, that it would not be committed to an even more dangerous aspect of its current operations, especially as our US allies, despite having 121,000 more in their armed forces than we do, seem incapable or unwilling to deal with the situation. What commitment can the Secretary of State give to assure us that all the vital support and equipment will be provided and that those soldiers will return to their homes for Christmas?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I have set out the reason for this deployment. I am absolutely confident that the Black Watch and all those, including our US allies, who will work so hard to ensure that the deployment is able to take place will do so successfully and satisfactorily.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses those views about the United States, which will be engaged in the deployment. I have explained to the House in some detail why this particular capability is necessary in order to allow wider operations against terrorists and kidnappers to take place.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

Is it not the case that the US forces place considerably greater reliance on the use of offensive air power against urban terrorist targets than we do, and that time and again, most regrettably, so-called precision US air strikes have resulted in significant Iraqi civilian casualties, including women and children? Assuming that that pattern continues, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the risk that not only the Black Watch, but British forces generally, may, quite unjustifiably, be associated in the Iraqi public mind with having caused significant civilian casualties?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not accept the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, not least because the capability of modern precision-guided weapons is now such that they can be precisely targeted in a way that he does not give credit for. The question also concerns whether it is right to try to deal with terrorists. I assure him that Iraqi public opinion wants the threats to security in Iraq and to the Iraqi people dealt with just as badly as the United States or the United Kingdom does. If he reflects on what he said, I am sure that he will realise that the sorts of terrorists operating in places such as Falluja are killing far more Iraqis than they are killing coalition forces. That is why the Interim Government are so determined to see them dealt with.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Mr Mike O'Brien, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

In view of the tawdry and rather irresponsible comments to the effect that Black Watch families have not been properly briefed up to now, will the Secretary of State confirm that they have been properly briefed and that that will continue?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The commanding officers have been at great pains to provide information to the families of those men currently deployed in Iraq. That is why I took such exception to the ignorant comments of Mr. Soames.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Of course we must see the job through in Iraq, but is it not unfair to ask regiments such as the Black Watch, or my local regiment, the Cheshires, to serve with such bravery and distinction in Iraq, and then face them with abolition on their return?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

It is not a question of abolition; the hon. Gentleman knows full well that it is a reorganisation. We will have the opportunity to debate that in a few minutes, but there has been a long process of reorganising infantry battalions throughout the history of the British Army. He knows that full well, so why does he come to the House making such foolish assertions?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Labour, Livingston

In the light of my right hon. Friend's remarkable statement that only a third of US troops are combat-capable, would he agree with the US chiefs of staff when they warned Donald Rumsfeld that he was not sending enough US troops to Iraq in the first place? What assurances has he received from the US in return for this redeployment that, this time, it will listen to us as good and reliable allies when we advise it to minimise civilian casualties in Falluja, especially since, as a result of today's decision, we are much more likely to be held responsible for those casualties?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend and I worked closely together on Iraq and have discussed on many occasions the organisation of our armed forces. He knows full well that in any force there are front-line combat forces and support forces. That was my point, which is self-evident, as I am sure he would accept. Inevitably, a certain proportion of the US forces deployed in Iraq will be front-line combat forces, and a smaller proportion still will be armoured capable. That is why this particular deployment is necessary.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

May I take the Secretary of State back to the question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne? He will understand the importance of morale to soldiers about to deploy on active service. Given that the Black Watch has already served with distinction during the war, and is now on a second and dangerous tour of duty, can he give it any reassurance whatever that its reward for that distinguished service will not be amalgamation or reorganisation?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman, who generally speaks knowledgeably on these matters from his personal experience, knows full well the history of the British Army and of the need to reorganise to deal with modern reality. We will debate that issue in the debate that follows. Consistent with the recommendation of the Scottish colonels, for example, what we are looking to preserve is the identity of single battalion regiments within a larger amalgamated structure. That is something that has happened in the past and can happen in the future.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

I apologise for returning to a theme on which we have already touched, but in the past 24 hours I have received a great many messages from right across my constituency expressing concern about the proposed deployment. Apart from a theme of cynicism about timing—which I do not share, but which I believe must be understood and responded to—which runs through virtually all those messages, the single major theme is a concern about the impact on civilian casualties of an assault on Falluja. I ask my right hon. Friend to acknowledge the profound concern of my constituents about the impact on civilian casualties and the enhanced risk, as it is perceived, to British troops as a result of association with any excessive casualties.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I emphasise to the House, to her and to her constituents that considerable efforts are always made in any operation to minimise civilian casualties. At the same time, we must all face up to the fact that in Falluja, determined, ruthless, fanatical terrorists must be dealt with. They have to be dealt with in a way that is militarily effective and has regard to the safety and security of the forces carrying out those operations.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

There will be a distinct chill felt in the homes of forces families across Tayside, Fife and beyond as the significance of this statement is assessed. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Black Watch would be home by Christmas, yet nowhere in the statement is that confirmed. Will it be home for Christmas, or does the Secretary of State envisage some situation or set of conditions in which that pledge will not be honoured?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I made it clear that this was a limited, specific deployment. The request from the US military command was for a deployment limited precisely in time. That is why the Prime Minister was able to say what he did yesterday. If there is any doubt, I can repeat it.

Photo of Dai Havard Dai Havard Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

A number of questions have already been asked about the rationale behind this release of American forces. I am still not clear exactly what tasks the Americans will be able to carry out once we provide this alleviation. The Secretary of State must understand that part of the problem is the lack of confidence that what he says, in relation to what the Brits will do in minimising civilian and other casualties, will be true in American deployments. We need some explanation of what the Americans will do once we assist them in doing it.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

May I make two points clear to my hon. Friend? First, whatever operations follow will be combined operations, involving Iraqi forces, led by an Iraqi decision-making process, but with support from US forces. Those will be consistent with the sorts of operations that I have already described to the House—operations to deal with centres of terrorism and areas that are outside the control of the Interim Government and providing a base from which terrorists can attack innocent Iraqi civilians and other innocent civilians operating in Iraq. Secondly, if we do not deal with those secure bases, it is much more difficult to see a secure, stable future for Iraq, and very difficult to see how democratic elections can safely be held.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Secretary of State confirm what his statement implies but does not quite say—that the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards will be fully deployed before the Black Watch deploy on this new operation?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

Obviously, there will be a period of overlap, as one force gets into place as another moves north. The hon. Gentleman will know from his experience that it is not sensible at this stage to give the precise dates and timings of those things.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Is the Secretary of State aware that someone does not have to be a lover of Saddam Hussein to be against this deployment and against the war? We are mirroring the views of millions of people in Britain, and of people in his constituency and mine. That is valid reason enough. Does he not think that it is slightly ionic that the American President and his Vice-President, who both refused to face the muck and bullets in Vietnam, are now calling on British forces to bail them out?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend and I have regular discussions on all manner of issues. I say to him—and to the Liberal Democrats, although they may not like it—that the issue is that there is a difficult situation in Iraq. No one is in any doubt about that. There is significant terrorism in Iraq, and a sovereign Interim Government struggling to establish peace, freedom and democracy for their people. The issue that my hon. Friend and other Members must face is what they will do now. They can perfectly rightly say that they are opposed to the war, which I respect, but the issue is what action we take now to deal with terrorism and the people who would ruthlessly murder our citizens and the citizens of Iraq.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I think the Secretary of State is beginning to understand the meaning of friendly fire.

We welcome the assurance given by the right hon. Gentleman earlier this week and again today that British troops deployed in this relatively more dangerous area would be under the control of British senior officers, and would be able to apply the advanced counter-insurgency techniques in which they are so proficient. If, as a result, their methods prove superior to those previously applied by American forces, what steps will he take to ensure feedback to our American allies, so that they can benefit from the experiences of our troops?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is a close exchange of both information and technical operation between the United States and the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman considers the way in which US forces, for example, are deployed and operate further north than the so-called Sunni triangle, he will note that they operate in a very similar way to British forces in the south.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

My right hon. Friend rightly said that this was a military decision, and the House must have confidence in it, but can he confirm for the sake of clarity in the House and outside that such decisions are made on military grounds? Can he also confirm that this is the first time our forces have operated outside MND(SE)?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

It is not the first time they have done so.

I accept that this is part of the role that coalition forces expect to play when they are part of a wider multinational operation. That is why it was important for us to look carefully at the military justification, and why we accepted advice given to us on that basis by the chiefs of staff.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Black Watch and the other UK regiments deployed in Iraq will have benefited significantly from their operational experience in Northern Ireland, which has contributed to the success of UK forces in the south-east zone. Will the Secretary of State assure us that that operational mode of deployment will not be set aside in the new deployment, although the Black Watch will remain under the command of the UK General Officer Commanding?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman would not necessarily expect me simply to agree with his question. The decision will be a matter for the commanding officer on the ground, once he has assessed the nature of the threat, the terrain on which the troops operate, and so on. However, having visited Northern Ireland many times and observed the techniques that the British Army has used in the past—and having seen the same techniques operating in such places as Basra—I pay full tribute to the support that the Army has been given by the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Many of us are concerned about mission creep. What if the Americans make a formal request for British troops to go into Falluja or, perhaps, Baghdad? Would a decision on that be a matter for the UK military command alone?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I assured the House on Monday that the request was not for troops to operate in either Falluja or Baghdad. I have set out the precise operational command today. In the very unlikely event of such a situation arising, the matter would have to be referred to commanding officers, and ultimately referred back here to chiefs of staff and Ministers.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

Can the Secretary of State tell us who will replace the Black Watch in the American sector when that regiment returns to Britain? Will it be replaced by British or American troops—especially if the Americans get bogged down in Falluja?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I have made it absolutely clear that the request is for a deployment limited in time. At the end of that limited period, assuming that operations have been completed in Falluja, it will be a question of whether it is necessary to occupy that area or whether it is possible to take the area at risk. That is a matter for the Americans; it is not a matter for us.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts PPS (Rt Hon John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I welcome the statement and the clarification of the reasons for redeployment of our troops. May I now invite my right hon. Friend to explain the importance of the redeployment to the ability to hold free elections in Iraq?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As I made clear on Monday and again today, this is about ensuring that pockets of resistance in places such as Falluja are dealt with, in order to reduce the terrorist threat to the Iraqi people and to coalition forces—and, of course, to ensure that progress is made not just in rebuilding Iraq, but in giving the Iraqi people an opportunity to participate in democratic elections.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

Will the Secretary of State tell us which of the Government's overseas commitments, if any, will need to be reassessed in the light of the redeployment of the battle group?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I entirely accept that the decision was not made for political reasons, but does my right hon. Friend accept that it carries a political cost? That cost will be borne in part by our political party, but also—perhaps more important in the big scheme of things—by the standing of this country abroad if the civilians deaths that we fear turn out to be on the scale that people are worried about.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the unease that is being expressed arises from a feeling that while our Government are willing to volunteer that political cost, when we look to our allies to make difficult political decisions—for example, on the Prime Minister's priority in regards to the middle east peace settlement—there is very little reciprocation?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend has always approached these issues in a careful, thoughtful and sophisticated way. It is important for us not only to continue our efforts in Iraq to promote the reconstruction of that country, but to use the influence that we gain as part of that process, and bring it to bear on all countries that are trying to obtain a secure and just settlement in the middle east. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is necessary to continue the process, and I assure him that the Prime Minister and other members of the Government are continuing their determined efforts to that end.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Secretary of State (Environment)

If it is the case that only 40,000 American troops have the requisite combat capability, does the Secretary of State agree that the additional deployment only amounts to an extra 2 per cent.? Can he explain why he considers it to be a significant contribution?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As I have tried to explain, this is an armoured capability. The request is for us to replace a relocating similarly armoured US capability so that it can be free—along with other forces, including significant contingents of Iraqi forces—to continue operations of the kind that are being conducted in places such as Samarra. The hon. Gentleman suggests that it is a modest contribution, and indeed it is; nevertheless, it is a vital contribution and one requested of us by an ally.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

Is it not the case that the present policy, which this deployment of British troops will reinforce, has been a total and unmitigated failure? Far from eradicating terrorist centres, it has encouraged actions by terrorists and insurgents. Is it not also the case that it is impossible to guarantee that the minimum number of civilians will be killed in the all-out attack on Falluja? Surely the best thing that a British Government could do to support and protect the Iraqi people is to argue strongly to the American Government that they must, sooner rather than later, change their policy—and change it dramatically.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The difficulty I have with my hon. Friend's observations is that they take no account of the appalling terrorist attacks that are occurring throughout Iraq and affecting the Iraqi people more than anyone else. While I can subscribe to many of the principles that my hon. Friend has enunciated—we certainly do not want to target civilians, and in any event we are not allowed to do so legally—it is important for her to bring to the House not only the criticisms that she makes in such an articulate way, but some suggestions as to what we should do to deal with the terrorist threat that exists in Iraq today.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Given the record-breaking speed with which the military and political decision-making machine operated this week—and, indeed, the incredibly short time that the recce group has had in which to reconnoitre the operation in Iraq—what guarantee can the Secretary of State give us that the same will not happen in future? There will be a request from the Americans for our troops to operate somewhere else, there will be a record-breaking decision to allow that, and we will end up with the severe mission creep mentioned by Mr. Prentice.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not accept that that is a likely outcome of this decision, which is a specific decision, limited in time and space, to deal with a particular problem arising from potential operations in places such as Falluja. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there are plenty of opportunities for Members to question Defence Ministers on deployments of this sort. There will be one later this afternoon, and another on Monday. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take every opportunity that is presented.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner, I have received calls on this issue over the weekend from constituency party members and from members of the public. We went into something of a tailspin over the weekend, with all the furore in the press. Ultimately, however, if this action is necessary, it is necessary; and if it is right, it is right. If the Black Watch have a pivotal role to play in securing the future democracy of Iraq and the holding of elections in January, we should praise that role, let them go in there and get on with the task, and get them home to their families in time for Christmas.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I assume that the Secretary of State has forward planning. On the assumption that the Black Watch come home for Christmas and that the Iraqi elections are in January, will there be any British troops in Iraq by Christmas 2005? Will any of them be from the Colchester garrison? Bearing it in mind that I represent the garrison town of Colchester and that I am proud of the troops I represent, will the Secretary of State reflect on whether his criticism that I did not back British troops was fair?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I invite the hon. Gentleman to think through the policy of the party that I assume he continues to support. That policy is to say that the Liberal Democrats would not have deployed British troops to Iraq. I am not at all sure what the hon. Gentleman actually supports, although I am willing to give him the opportunity to explain that during the debate that will follow this statement. Does he support taking robust action to deal with terrorism? Does he support the deployment of British forces to achieve that? None of those questions has been properly answered by his leader or, if I may say so, by him.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State said that it was important to see events in the British sector in the context of what is happening in Iraq as a whole. I put it to him that it is also important to see the impact on the broader region of events in Iraq as a whole. He will be aware that there is massive disquiet in the middle east not only about the events leading to the overthrow of Saddam but about America's approach to winning the peace. Is he also aware that concern about Britain's closeness to the United States has so far been tempered by an awareness that we understand things a bit better and have a rather more sensitive approach than that of the United States? Does he understand that this deployment will undermine that distinction in the middle east, and that that will undermine our ability to be a force for good and for sanity in that part of the world, particularly given that our priorities on issues such as the middle east peace process do not seem to be shared by our allies on the other side of the Atlantic?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

Since I first became a junior Minister under my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook, with responsibility for affairs in the middle east, I have been a regular visitor to the region. During that time, I have not had a single conversation with any middle eastern leader or senior figure who has not either looked for or welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Opposition Whip (Commons)

In the light of the recent wave of kidnappings, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of this controversial new deployment on the personal safety of the remaining British workers operating in Iraq? Does he have a strategy to deal with that impact, and will the Government be changing their advice to those workers?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

That is precisely why it is necessary to conduct this kind of operation. For the moment, the personal security of those people is threatened by terrorists operating from places such as Falluja. It is necessary to deal with Falluja, to help to secure the personal status of those people.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller PPS (Team PPS), Department of Trade and Industry

My right hon. Friend referred in his statement to the training of Iraqi security personnel. I have pressed his colleagues on this point before, because I am anxious to see Britain play a role in raising the standards of such personnel. That will help us to develop a systematic, organised exit strategy from this conflict. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what progress has been made in this regard and give us an assurance that Britain will play a key role in that process?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend is right to link the question of training, reconstruction and the prospect of democratic elections in Iraq to an exit strategy, because that is an exit strategy. The more training we can conduct of police, security forces and the new Iraqi army, the more opportunities there will be for those people to replace units of the British Army and, indeed, of other coalition forces. As I explained in my statement, that is precisely what has happened in al-Amarah, where British forces were constantly confronted by attacks throughout the summer. Now, they have been replaced by significant contingents of the new Iraqi army, and I am pleased to say that the situation there is much calmer.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Prime Minister has said that our troops are still at war in Iraq, but the Secretary of State said in his statement that we were at the end of what he described as "the war-fighting phase". Can he tell us what phase we are in now?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

What we are dealing with is clearly a very determined terrorist operation, affecting the Iraqis and our forces right across the country. We need to concentrate our efforts to deal with areas such as Falluja and other cities that have been out of the control of the Iraqi Government. That is the phase that we are in. We have to deal with the threat to innocent civilians and coalition forces by taking robust action against the terrorists, otherwise we would be letting our people down.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Could the Minister explain to the House why we should believe the reasons that he gives for the deployment of our troops to other parts of Iraq, when he is the very same Minister in the very same Government who continually informed the House that we had to believe them when they told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it could use in 45 minutes, that it was a threat to the world, and that the war would be legal?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I gave that information to the House in good faith, and the series of inquiries that has investigated those matters has confirmed that that was true.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

In his answer to Sir John Stanley, the Secretary of State placed great faith in the accuracy of modern air weapons. However, most of our constituents will still be concerned that, whatever the quality of the weaponry, innocent civilians are being killed in Iraq. There is particular concern when children are killed there. As he has said, what happens in the rest of Iraq affects the sector that British troops are in. He must therefore seriously address the point that the operations to control the insurgency have to be carried out in such a way that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum, even if that involves a greater risk to the American forces.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

That is precisely the legal rubric under which British forces operate.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

It is clear, is it not, that what this is about is the facilitating of a massive American assault on Falluja? Many of us are deeply sceptical about the assurances that civilian casualties will be minimised, because they simply do not fit with what we have seen over the past year from the US forces, or with the number of Iraqi civilian casualties that there have already been. It is impossible to go into a town such as Falluja with bombs and heavy armour without causing casualties among innocent civilians on a significant scale. We will be blamed for that, because of this deployment.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

May I adjust one aspect of what my hon. Friend has said? This will be a decision taken by a sovereign Iraqi Government in the interests of the Iraqi people. It is important that my hon. Friend should reflect that in the way in which he approaches these issues.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

Very approximately, how many insurgents does the Minister believe the coalition is currently fighting? How does he reconcile the estimate, made in April, of about 5,000 with the more recent estimate that about 25,000 had already been captured or killed?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

One of the points that I made in response to a series of questions on Monday was that I accept that there is not a solely military solution to the problem of insurgency in Iraq. It is necessary to deal with foreign fighters and the likes of Zarqawi and his supporters in a vigorous way. There are increasing signs, even in places such as Falluja, that the local Sunni population in such cities are sick and tired of the suffering that they are experiencing at the hands of terrorists. I made the point the other day to the Iraqi Vice-President, who was visiting London, that alongside a determined military operation to deal with terrorists, there must also be a political operation to deal with those people who ultimately are citizens of Iraq and who need to participate in a political process and in the restoration of their country.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Since last Sunday, on what occasions has the Secretary of State spoken to Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy about the resources and assets available to the United States compared with those of the United Kingdom, where they are located and when they could be deployed in theatre? Can he also share with the House how a proper apportionment of responsibilities is made, commensurate with the scale of our country and our armed forces, compared with those of the United States?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I have not spoken to Donald Rumsfeld this week, but I did spend two days with him last week at a NATO meeting in Romania. During those two days, the request from the United States was not mentioned once.