Iraq

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 31st January 2005.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary 3:32 pm, 31st January 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the elections that were held in Iraq yesterday.

First, however, let me deal with the tragic crash of an RAF C-130 Hercules aircraft. As the House will be aware, the aircraft came down approximately 30 km to the north-west of Baghdad, at half-past four in the afternoon, Iraq time, yesterday. The aircraft was flying from Baghdad international airport to Balad airbase. The site of the crash has been secured, and we are investigating its cause. The House will understand that it would be wrong at this stage to speculate about possible causes. Ten United Kingdom service personnel were onboard the aircraft and, sadly, are presumed killed— nine were from the Royal Air Force and one from the Army. Their next of kin are being informed. The Ministry of Defence will release the names of those who were onboard only once this process is complete and the families have been given time to inform other loved ones and friends. I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of these brave men and to their comrades.

Yesterday's elections in Iraq demonstrated the vital importance of what those service personnel and thousands of other brave British servicemen and women have been helping to achieve in Iraq. Only two years ago, Iraq was still under the sway of one of the most ruthless dictators in the world. Dissent was punishable by torture and summary execution, with an estimated 300,000 people buried in mass graves during the period of Saddam's dictatorship. The last time that the Iraqi people voted was in the staged elections of Saddam's tyranny, with just one candidate—a man who had been flouting the will of the United Nations for 12 long years. Yesterday, in contrast, the elections took place in the implementation of the will of the United Nations, for it was the Security Council, in resolution 1546, that laid down the timetable and process for the elections and the steps that follow. Yesterday, the Iraqi people had a choice of not one candidate but 8,000 candidates for the new National Assembly, from 111 different political parties and entities, with 11,000 candidates in regional and Kurdish elections. I am delighted to say that one third of the candidates in the national elections were women.

Although turnout figures will not be available for some days, it is already clear from initial estimates that a substantial proportion of the Iraqi population took part in the elections. Turnout appears to have been especially high in the north and south of the country, among both men and women. Turnout in Sunni majority areas was lower, mainly because of the high penetration of insurgents threatening to kill voters. However, in other areas where Sunni Arabs were able to vote freely, they appear to have done so in good numbers. Simon Collis, British consul-general in Basra, told me this afternoon that some 50 per cent. of Sunnis in that province may have voted. He described the extraordinary atmosphere in Basra, as families went out to vote, taking along their children dressed in their smartest festive clothing. Polling was also brisk in the mixed Sunni-Shi'a suburbs of Baghdad. In Mosul, extra polling stations had to be opened when turnout exceeded expectations.

Yesterday's elections were monitored by some 22,000 domestic election observers, 33,000 party officials and some 120 international monitors accredited to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. I arranged for three of the monitors to come from the House on an all-party basis, and my hon. Friend Diana Organ and the hon. Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) formed that delegation. My hon. Friend Ann Clwyd also observed the elections, and Baroness Nicholson did so on behalf of the European Parliament.

Electoral procedures are reported to have worked efficiently throughout the country. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Canadian head of the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, has described the election as a "very good process". I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—one of the three all-party observers from the House—has described arrangements in the town of Maysan as "model".

I should like to pay tribute to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and to its advisers from the United Nations—led by the quite exceptional international diplomat, Mr. Carlos Valenzuela—for their outstanding work in assisting the Iraqis and ensuring that yesterday's elections ran smoothly. I should also like to thank our ambassador, Edward Chaplin, and all our staff in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk for the excellent job that they do generally, but specifically in covering the elections.

No one expected these first free elections in half a century to be perfect, but they went far better than many had anticipated, and they are all the more remarkable given the circumstances in which they were held. We have grown used to insurgents in Iraq who attack any and every group and organisation that is working to rebuild the country. The Iraqi people most of all have suffered from that terrorist violence, and the insurgents had made it clear that they would use the vilest means possible to stop yesterday's elections running smoothly or at all. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the insurgency in Iraq, declared last week that democracy was an "evil principle". He and his henchmen—many, like him, are not Iraqis themselves—sent suicide bombers to attack polling stations and other areas associated with the elections, with the message, "If you vote, you die."

Yesterday's elections, by contrast, represent a real blow to that disgusting campaign of violence and intimidation. In Sadr City in Baghdad, for example, a mortar attack at a polling station in a local school left a number of people wounded. However, multinational force troops at the site report that people simply helped the wounded and then, along with those who could do so, rejoined the queue to vote. In Sunni areas in central Iraq, large groups of people defied terrorist intimidation and walked several kilometres to polling stations to cast their votes. Those elections were a moving demonstration that democracy and freedom are universal values to which people everywhere aspire.

The fact that not a single suicide bomber managed to get through the security cordons around polling stations is a great tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of Iraq's own security forces, who were in the front line. I pay tribute to them, and to the troops of the UN-mandated multinational force, who helped to maintain security around the polling stations. Several policemen were killed when suicide bombers who were unable to get through their rigorous searches simply blew themselves up. Our thoughts are with their families and those of all the Iraqis who lost their lives in yesterday's violence.

As Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Dr. Ayad Allawi, said this morning:

"There will still be violence, but the terrorists now know that they cannot win".

We have seen the determination of the Iraqi people to participate in building a more secure and democratic future for their country, and we now need to support them as they continue that process. The Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq expects to publish the results of the election within 10 days, and to certify those results by 20 February.

Yesterday's elections were for a Transitional National Assembly of 275 members, who are elected on a wholly proportional system. The TNA's first task will be to elect a three-person presidency, which will in turn appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet, which the TNA will be asked to approve. This Iraqi Transitional Government will then be sworn in and the Interim Government will dissolve, and we expect that to have taken place by the end of February. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said,

"the success of these elections augurs well for the transition process".

The new Assembly will then begin work on the next stage of the political process in Iraq—the drafting of a permanent constitution for Iraq—as set out in Security Council resolution 1546. Many Iraqi political and religious leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, have made clear their wish to include Sunni groups in that process. I welcome Prime Minister Allawi's call earlier today for a

"new national dialogue that guarantees that all Iraqis have a voice in the next government".

There is also an important safeguard for both the Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the transitional administrative law, under whose terms the constitution must be approved: the constitution must receive an absolute majority of votes in a referendum and, in addition, it can be blocked by two thirds of voters in any three of the country's 18 provinces.

The United Kingdom will continue to offer every support to the political process in Iraq as set out by the United Nations, working with our international partners including through the European Union. We shall seek an early meeting of the Sharm-el-Sheik group of Iraq's neighbours and G8 countries to build on international support for Iraq. We will continue to work for a central role for the UN in supporting the political process.

The House knows that there have been deep divisions over Iraq policy in the past two years, but this election should unite us all. Yesterday, the Iraqi people in their millions showed their wish to embrace freedom and to shape the future destiny of their country. I know that the whole House and our country stand behind them as they pursue that historic endeavour.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State for International Affairs, Shadow Foreign Secretary & Deputy Leader, International Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it?

On behalf of Conservative Members, I join the Foreign Secretary in his expressions of sorrow at the crash of the RAF C-130 Hercules north of Baghdad yesterday. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with the families of those who have died in this incident. In Iraq, we have asked a lot of the dedication and professionalism of our armed forces, who have responded magnificently, and I pay tribute to those who have given their lives.

Obviously, we must await the outcome of inquiries into the cause of the crash. Those planes, as I personally know, have a good safety record and are flown with the greatest professionalism. If there is any evidence that that crash was caused by hostile action, the Government will have many further questions to address. Can we be assured that the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary will keep the House informed?

In the meantime, there are certain questions which I hope the Foreign Secretary will answer now. Why was this plane flying to Balad? Is that a routine run for RAF C-130s, as is the regular flight from Basra to Baghdad? Has the whole site of the crash now been fully secured? We are told that an Australian airman was killed in the crash. Were any Americans involved?

On yesterday's elections, may I join the Foreign Secretary in his warm words of praise for the way in which they were conducted, and for the courageous way in which the Iraqi people responded? The turnout and level of participation, even in the face of the gravest terrorist threats and violent intimidation, were not only encouraging but proved the doom merchants wrong. At the suggested 60 per cent. overall, the turnout would be a little higher than in our last general election, which should give us food for thought.

On terrorist intimidation, I see that interim Prime Minister Allawi announced today that seven foreign nationals had been held in relation to election day attacks. Are there any indications as to which countries those seven came from?

While the vote was a major blow for freedom and democracy and against tyranny and terrorist intimidation, is not the key to its longer-term success the breadth of the turnout in all parts of Iraq and across the various ethnic and sectarian divides? I see from the reported remarks of the UN's Carlos Valenzuela that higher numbers of Sunnis than expected turned out to vote, and that in the former rebel stronghold of Falluja queues were seen forming outside polling stations. Is not that a welcome vindication of the anti-insurgency action taken by multinational forces in rebel areas over recent months? And was it not encouraging that, in most areas, Iraqi forces took the lead in providing the necessary security to allow the poll to proceed? I, too, pay tribute to them for that.

Now we must look to the future. The new Transitional National Assembly and Government will now draw up, as we have heard, a constitution to put to the people in a referendum later this year. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that all elements of Iraqi society must be involved in the drawing up of that constitution if they are to feel a sense of ownership in it? What steps will be taken to ensure that, even where low turnout or boycott have caused under-representation of certain crucial elements in the new Assembly, those elements can still become part of the constitution-formulating process? Looking further to the future, can the Foreign Secretary comment on the words of Iraqi interim Interior Minister Falah al-Nakib yesterday:

"I think we will not need the foreign forces in this country within 18 months"?

How does such a time estimate fit with the current rate at which effective Iraqi security forces are being trained and commissioned?

Can the Foreign Secretary comment on the extraordinary reports today that since the war almost $9 billion of Iraqi oil revenue has gone missing from a fund specifically set up for Iraq reconstruction, and that mismanagement by the coalition provisional authority was to blame? I am sure that he will agree that that is a most serious allegation. What steps are he and his Department taking to follow this up?

Yesterday's elections are a positive step towards a stable and democratic Iraq, which has been the long-standing goal of all of us who supported the war. Of course one poll does not deliver democracy; indeed, sometimes in history it has delivered the opposite. Yesterday's vote, however, was good for Iraq, the middle east and freedom. For that we must all be thankful. Our hope must now be that it will set the path for wider peace and harmony throughout that troubled region.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks. He asks me essentially to speculate about the causes of the crash yesterday. With respect, I would rather not do so. A board of inquiry has been established, and it is appropriate that it should deal with the causes.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very good point about turnout. We do not know what the turnout will be, but if it is at or above 60 per cent., then on the basis on which Members are in this House it must be a highly legitimate election.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the number of foreign nationals who may have been held by Iraqi security forces. I am afraid that I have no further information about them.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point about how inclusive the process of forming the Transitional Government will be. It will be very inclusive and, as I pointed out, Ayatollah Sistani, who represents a substantial part of the Shi'a majority, has made that clear. There are protections for both the Sunni and the Kurdish minorities, as I have spelled out, but it is also worth bearing it in mind that even if, as a result of a lower Sunni turnout, the Sunnis have fewer members in the Transitional National Assembly than their population would suggest, it would be open to the government's appointing panel to appoint Sunnis to the government, because it is not a requirement that members of the Iraqi Government be members of the TNA.

The mandate for the multinational force—it of course includes the British force—was established in resolution 1546, which states that the mandate will be reviewed in June this year and will terminate, unless extended by a further Security Council resolution, this December. Meanwhile, as the Iraqi Interior Minister implied, the question of whether foreign forces should be on Iraqi soil is entirely a matter for the Iraqis themselves. I heard Dr. Shaikhly, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Kingdom, say yesterday on the BBC that this election could not have taken place but for the presence of the multinational force of the United States, the United Kingdom and other contributor forces to the coalition. We proved yesterday that it is there not as an army of occupation, but as a force for democracy by, for and of the Iraqis. We will only stay there as long as we are needed, but how long that is depends almost entirely on how quickly the Iraqis' own forces can be built up. However, yesterday's experience was a good one in terms of their ability to deal with such matters.

I have no further information concerning reports of missing oil money, but we are actively looking into the situation.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy with which the Foreign Secretary began his statement, and express our regret at the loss of life? I have no detailed questions to ask the Foreign Secretary about the circumstances of the crash; I am content to wait until the Government feel able to release such details as are appropriate.

It would be churlish not to salute the courage of the ordinary citizens of Iraq who have voted in such numbers; nor would it be right to complain if the British Government felt a moment of satisfaction—even relief—at the fact that the election has taken place with such success. The Foreign Secretary will doubtless agree, however, that this is no time for triumphalism, and we would do well to accept Kofi Annan's sober judgment that this is merely the beginning. May I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary what steps can be taken to strengthen and improve the quality of the Iraqi security forces? What practical steps can be taken to ensure that the political process now set in motion will be as inclusive and representative of all opinions as he, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I consider desirable? What steps can be taken to improve delivery of public services such as water, sanitation and electricity, and to deal with unemployment?

The Foreign Secretary knows that my colleagues and I were opposed to military action, but we have accepted the moral obligation that that action imposed on us all. However, that commitment cannot be open-ended. The United Nations' mandate is due to expire at the end of 2005. Should not United Kingdom forces be withdrawn by then?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his expression of sympathy and condolences concerning the victims of yesterday's crash of a C-130 Hercules.

I understand the position in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman finds himself, but I should point out that there is no question of "triumphalism". No one feels triumphal about what has happened in Iraq, but there is a great sense of relief. I should also point out as gently as possible that we all have to bear responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Some of us in all parts of the House—a majority—decided on a course of action on 18 March 2003 that has caused much heart-searching. It meant that each of us individually, as well as collectively, has come under a huge amount of criticism, and in some cases much worse. We all made that decision because we felt that it was the right decision and that the outcome, however difficult, would be to produce a better Iraq than that which had gone before. So it has turned out. We now have the beginnings of a democratic Iraq. No one can gainsay what happened yesterday, which we have seen with our own eyes and through the eyes of observers.

I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, whose party has made so much of the position that it took in respect of Iraq, that the consequence of the decision that his party took was that there would be no democratic elections in Iraq. Saddam would still be in power, and the only elections that would have taken place in Iraq would have been a continuation of those ruthless elections in which the only issue was whether the leading candidate—the only candidate—got 99 or 100 per cent. of the vote. We bear responsibility for our actions, including the loss of life of British soldiers that has taken place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's party bears responsibility for the strategy that he and his colleagues resolutely pursued, which, whatever their good reasons, had the consequence, whether intended or inadvertent, of keeping Saddam in power and crushing the very idea of democracy in Iraq. The British people can make their own judgment about that.

Let me answer the other two questions that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised. He asked what we are doing about water, sanitation and so on. We are doing everything we can. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is present. He and his Department have been indefatigable in pursuing the aid and reconstruction programme, along with other international partners. The one thing that has set back the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq has been the terrorism. That is why we must have our multinational forces—British forces, United States forces and forces from other countries—as long as the Iraqi forces cannot cope themselves.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says we should make a commitment to withdraw our forces by the end of the year. If we were to decide that now, in advance of knowing what the security situation will be, we would be going back to the situation that his party wanted, where the forces of democracy are weakened and the forces of tyranny are strengthened. It would be utterly irresponsible for the House or the Government to make a premature decision about the withdrawal of British and other forces.

It is for the Iraqis themselves to make that judgment. If the Iraqi Government were to say today that our mandate had ended, we would leave tomorrow, but so far they have said, and we all understand this, that they do not like the idea of foreign forces on their soil—nobody does—but they understand fully that without foreign forces on their soil for a period, they cannot rebuild their country and create the freedom, security and democracy that they so desperately need.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

For many of us, the enthusiasm that we saw yesterday in many parts of Iraq reminded us of the post-liberation election in South Africa in 1994. Is it not ironic, however, that a blocking mechanism on the constitution—two thirds of the electorate in three provinces—which was designed to protect the Kurds, may, unless we are careful, be used by Sunni elements if they feel excluded from the process? So is there not now a very strong incentive to ensure that the Sunni elements who, often for good patriotic reasons, stayed outside the elections are brought within the big tent and feel part of the process?

Even though I agree that it would be wholly premature to give a date now for withdrawal, if we accept that the new Government are in the driving seat, should we not reconsider with them a staged withdrawal, province by province, to show that they are indeed in charge?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It showed great foresight when the drafters of the transitional administrative law put in the mechanism allowing a two-thirds vote in three of the provinces to block the constitution. It was originally put in as a protection for the Kurds, but is there now as a protection for the Sunni as well. All of us understand the apprehension of perfectly decent Sunni about whether they will be excluded from the political process, but it is the determination not only of us, but especially of the Iraqis, that that should not be the case, and there are mechanisms ensuring that it is not. On a timetable, the point is premature. Resolution 1546 lays down a clear timetable for review and termination of the mandate at the end of this year, unless it is renewed. It will be renewed only if the Iraqis themselves plainly ask for it, but they may well do so, because their own forces may not be fully ready.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The profound sympathy of the Foreign Secretary and the whole House will be much welcomed by my constituents at RAF Lyneham, who have so tragically lost nine of their number, although the healing of their hearts and of the surrounding communities will take a very long time indeed. I hope that that process will be helped by the knowledge that the sheer professionalism, determination and guts of the men and women of RAF Lyneham have made such a significant contribution to the successful elections yesterday. I hope that, through their grief, they will realise that their men have made some contribution to restoring democracy and peace in Iraq.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman passed on directly to the families concerned and all those on the base our profound condolences and those of the whole House for what has happened. He speaks of their sheer professionalism. I have had the privilege of flying in a C-130 Hercules, as a number of hon. Members have, and of seeing their astonishing professionalism, including, for example, in tactical flying at between 100 and 150 ft, lower than most helicopters, where they will normally fly at speed for kilometre after kilometre in that dangerous territory of Iraq. Without their bravery and professionalism, we would not have been able to do the job that we have done, culminating at this stage in the elections that went so well yesterday. It is of little comfort, but maybe some solace for the families concerned, that those who died did so for a very great cause.

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

A tragic shadow is cast by the death of our servicemen, but my right hon. Friend was absolutely right to enthuse about the response of Iraqis to democracy, which certainly puts paid to what a number of the doubting Thomases in this country have been peddling. In terms of the next stage under resolution 1546, does he think that there is any mileage in making available the UK experience with devolution as one way of accommodating both the Kurds and the Sunnis?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The Iraqis have available to them a wide variety of experience of setting up federal or quasi-federal constitutions. Our experience is quite important, as we have produced an asymmetrical arrangement, and yet it is one that is working well. Also available are the experiences in Switzerland and Belgium, which are regarded as classics of their kind in terms of maintaining a federal structure and a unified country with a high level of devolution. We will certainly ensure that that experience is made available.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Conservative, Richmond (Yorks)

Does the Foreign Secretary have any new information that he can give the House about the trial of Saddam Hussein, which will presumably be an appropriate way in which to build on the hopes for freedom engendered yesterday? More disturbingly, does he accept and will he convey to the Ministry of Defence that great distress was caused yesterday to relatives of servicemen flying Hercules aircraft in Iraq, including some living in my constituency, when news was given out of a specific type of aircraft coming down, but before the next of kin were informed? Would it not be wise to do everything possible, while recognising the immense operational difficulties involved, to minimise the time interval between news of a specific aircraft coming down and the informing of next of kin, so that those whose relatives are safe can at least sleep more easily?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I have no further information as I stand here about the trial of Saddam Hussein, but I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and place a copy of my letter in the Library. I shall certainly raise the points that he has made with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Having spoken to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, I can say that my colleagues are very well aware of the necessity wherever possible to inform next of kin before any publicity is given. I understand—this is only my understanding—that the reports about the crash were made by news outlets initially and not by the Ministry of Defence. We live in a kind of global goldfish bowl, which has some advantages, but many disadvantages in circumstances such as these.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Labour, Livingston

May I join my right hon. Friend in saluting the courage of those millions of Iraqis who went to the polls despite the grim security situation in that country and may I associate myself with his congratulations to our ambassador, Edward Chaplin, and his staff for the difficult and delicate task that they have had to perform on behalf of our country?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that now that the forces of democracy have been released in Iraq, there is an obligation on us to listen to the demands of the newly elected representatives? Will he confirm that the great majority of the parties standing in yesterday's elections stood on a mandate for negotiation to end the occupation? Is my right hon. Friend sensitive to the fact that if we want to achieve a constructive and positive partnership with the new Assembly, we must convince it and the Iraqi public that we have a clear perspective for withdrawal within a realistic time line?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his salute to the Iraqis' courage and for his congratulations to the ambassador in Baghdad, Edward Chaplin, and his colleagues. My right hon. Friend knows those people, and their skill and professionalism, very well.

Of course, we have an obligation not only to listen to the elected representatives of the new Transitional Government, but to do what they say in respect of the future of the multinational force. Frankly, an issue about ending the occupation does not arise. In terms of its legal and practical effect, the occupation ended with the passage of resolution 1546. Since then, the multinational force has been there at the invitation, and only at the invitation, of the Interim Iraqi Government, who are now to be the Transitional Government. Of course, one item on that Government's agenda will be when they want us to go, but we have had no indication that any serious and responsible Iraqi politicians want us to go before our job is done. The moment they do so—it is their judgment, not ours—we will go.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

In thanking the Foreign Secretary for what he just said and for the tone and content of his statement, will he take an early opportunity to talk to his new counterpart, when he or she is appointed, to make it plain that the British Government will make no unilateral commitment of any sort other than to stand by the democratically elected Government of Iraq and the principles on which they were elected?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement as a huge step forward for Iraq. While our thoughts are rightly with the British victims of the Hercules crash, he will be aware that in recent months a number of young Iraqi army recruits and policemen have been killed by terrorists and insurgents, even during the election period. Will the Government take the opportunity to pay tribute to those people and, alongside the new Iraqi Government, to look at ways of helping their bereaved families?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We do pay tribute to their great bravery. Notwithstanding the level of casualties that the Iraqi army and other security forces have suffered, I am pleased to say that recruitment levels are high and morale is improving. It is clear that the success of the Iraqi forces yesterday will help to defeat terrorism in the months ahead and to raise the morale of those forces.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

The manner in which yesterday's elections appear to have been conducted is the best news to have come out of Iraq for a very long time, but it remains to be seen whether it improves the security situation. I rather doubt that that will be so in the short term, but, as more and more Iraqis show their support for the Government that they have elected, perhaps support for the terrorists will decline.

The Foreign Secretary said that the presence of allied forces is an essential part of that security operation. However, although they are part of the solution, they are also part of the problem in that they are often a target and make it difficult for Iraqi security forces to operate because they are often seen, wrongly, as being the proxy for American and British forces. At some point, the Iraqis must take over responsibility for their own security. I suggest that that will be easier in the absence of allied forces, who are perhaps seen as pulling the strings, and that he should consider not keeping our forces there for long after the elections at the end of this year on the basis of the new constitution.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I anticipate that the security situation will remain difficult for some time but it is also clear that the fact that elections took place and the Iraqi people's overwhelming endorsement of the democratic process will weaken support for the terrorists and greatly help stability and security in the medium and long term.

As I said earlier, the timetable for the presence of a multinational force including the United Kingdom is clearly set out in resolution 1546 and that is the basis of our remaining there.

Photo of Robert Marshall-Andrews Robert Marshall-Andrews Labour, Medway

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that many who actively campaigned against Saddam Hussein years before he invaded Kuwait and also opposed the invasion of Iraq because they believed that the prospectus was false can none the less acknowledge success with the generosity of spirit that it deserves? Does he also accept that many questions remain unanswered and many concerns have not yet been tackled, not least a genuine audit of the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed, including in Falluja, during the war and the occupation?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I understand the basis of my hon. and learned Friend's initial comments. When I made the point about the consequences of people's actions, I did not say that people wished Saddam to remain in Iraq. It simply happens to be an obvious fact that a consequence—intended or unintended—of failing to vote for military action on 18 March is that Saddam would still have been there and the elections would not have happened.

I gave a full written ministerial statement about casualty figures in the autumn. I am happy to send my hon. and learned Friend a copy. The most reliable figures that are now issued come from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, although there are serious methodological difficulties about their categorisation—as some being caused by terrorists and others by the security forces. However, those figures appear to be the more reliable. The figures that The Lancet suggested, which range from 8,000 to 194,000—there was never an estimate of 100,000—need to be treated with the greatest scepticism.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that many of those who voted against the war in March voted for pursuing action through the United Nations in the earlier vote in February? A key matter is that the action was not taken legally within a United Nations framework. I accept the success of the elections, which were conducted through the United Nations thus demonstrating what it can achieve when supported internationally. Will the right hon. Gentleman ascertain what the United Nations can achieve in Iran as well as in Iraq?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

To repeat the point, at the moment of decision, which was not February 2003 but 18 March 2003, the possibility of weakening Saddam through sanctions was not available. Everybody knows that. The choice before the House at the point of decision was between taking military action or walking away, with the consequence that sanctions would have degraded and Saddam would have re-emerged, strengthened and much emboldened. A majority in the House made one choice, others, including Plaid Cymru, made another. We take responsibility for our choice; the hon. Gentleman must take responsibility for his. It is an indelible fact that the consequences of the Liberal Democrat, Scottish nationalist and Welsh nationalist policy would have been that Saddam, an undemocratic tyrant, would still be there and there would have been no elections yesterday. Those parties must understand that.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Following that, do not those who say that they were always against Saddam's tyranny have a responsibility to tell us how that tyranny could have been destroyed without military action, and how genuine democratic elections could have taken place without the intervention of the occupying forces nearly two years ago? On the occupation, would it not be wise for all the Governments involved, including the British Government, regularly to review the position, for obvious reasons?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Of course I accept what my hon. Friend said at the outset. Those who willed the end had a responsibility to will the means, but they failed to do so. I have set out the timetable for the review of the mandate of the multinational force, and I believe that it would be most appropriate, certainly for the British Government, to stick to the timetable in resolution 1546.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

I associate myself with the most moving tributes paid by the Foreign Secretary and by my hon. Friend Mr. Gray regarding the tragic loss of the C-130 Hercules crew yesterday. I am most appreciative of the unsung heroes of the Royal Air Force's air transport force, who, in war, emergency and times of humanitarian catastrophe, fly in the most demanding circumstances at great personal risk. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to look forward to the time when Iraq is an established democracy born of the common sacrifice of British and Iraqi security personnel, and to make an investment in the training of such personnel at British training schools such as Sandhurst, so that, over the months and years ahead, we can more fully build a peaceful future for Iraq?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I associate myself entirely with the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. I understand from the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence that there will indeed be offers from the British Government of such support and training for the Iraqi national forces.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

After months of reporting and comment that can only be described as selective, will my right hon. Friend pass on to those elements of the British media that appear to have had a change of heart in the past 72 hours our polite and respectful thanks for having acknowledged that it was right to go ahead with the election, that it was a success and that the seeds of hope in Iraq have not only been sown but are germinating?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Yes, of course I will, but I think that those people might be coming to that conclusion themselves.

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

The shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned that a number of foreign nationals had been detained in connection with offences against the election yesterday. What preliminary assessment has been received from our embassies in Damascus and Tehran of the reaction of the regimes in Syria and Iran to yesterday's election? How does the Foreign Office think that the election will affect relations between those two countries and Iraq?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am afraid that I have not seen any preliminary assessments from our posts in Damascus and Tehran, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman when I have done so. The Iranian Government have been supportive of the process; it is a majority of the people we might call their compatriots, the Shi'a, who in one sense stand to gain the most from the elections. I am not clear about the position of the Damascus Government, but we have looked to both Governments to ensure that they do not interfere in the internal processes of Iraq.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Is it not an awkward and unpalatable reality that Kurds went into the polling booths yesterday and voted in their tens of thousands for parties that had promised not a federal Kurdistan, let alone a Kurdistan integrated into Iraq, but a separate Kurdish state? What is the attitude of our Government towards possible demands for the break-up of the Iraqi nation, given the difficulties that might result if the Iraqi Kurds were to be associated with the Kurds in Turkey and Iran?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend is very experienced in having to deal with secessionist nationalist parties that have completely unrealistic objectives such as the break- up of a sovereign state. The way to deal with such a situation is the one that, sensibly, we have in this country.

I can reassure my hon. Friend about the way in which we are dealing with those secessionist tendencies. Like every previous relevant Security Council resolution, resolution 1546 reaffirms the territorial integrity of Iraq—its existing borders. Democracy is about giving people freedom—freedom to argue for any cause that they wish to support—and that is what these people have done. International borders, however, cannot be rewritten by any political party of any one country, and they will not be in this case. The future of Iraq's constitution must lie within the existing international borders.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Obviously one wishes Iraq a peaceful future, and he rightly mentioned all the hundreds of thousands who died under the Ba'athist regime in the past. However, in answering the questions from my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Marshall-Andrews and my right hon. Friend Joyce Quin, he did not make clear exactly what was the estimated number of casualties in Iraq since the invasion. How many died in Falluja? Indeed, how many tens of thousands of people who are resident in Falluja have been denied the right to return to their own city, and are living in camps under some form of control? Surely, if we are to have openness and transparency, we need to know what estimates his Department and the Ministry of Defence hold of exactly how many people have perished since the invasion.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I published a very detailed written ministerial statement in, I think, October, and I will send my hon. Friend a copy.

My hon. Friend speaks as if the casualties that have arisen since the end of the major military action in April 2003 had somehow just happened. The only reason they happened was action by the terrorists. I look forward to the moment when my hon. Friend decides to condemn those terrorists. They are the people who have been doing the killing, and in the many provinces where there has been no terrorism there has been no killing. I think the moral of that is very clear.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell

The process of the election has indeed been very successful, and I think we can all welcome that, but whether the election has been successful per se is for history to judge, perhaps three or four years down the line.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that transparency must be at the heart of this? We want to avoid suggestions like those that were made after the Ukrainian elections, when it was said—perhaps erroneously—that western political participation funds had been used in a very partisan way. Should not the way in which the £5 million that the Government contributed to the Iraqi political participation fund was disbursed be published, so that everyone can see that it was given out fairly?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

All the political parties in Iraq were operating under the Iraqi election law, and under the auspices of the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq.

I am afraid that we must make a judgment about the elections not in three or four years' time but, as we make judgments about our own elections, when the results appear and, in this case, when the observers' findings appear. What we know now is that the turnout was much higher than expected, and the evidence so far suggests that the incidence of electoral abuse was much lower than expected. The legitimacy of the elections is therefore likely to be much greater than expected, and that should be a cause for great celebration.

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

Will my right hon. Friend also pay tribute to the Iraqis in Britain who took part in the election activity over the weekend? Admittedly they did not have to demonstrate their physical courage like millions of Iraqis in Iraq, but they demonstrated their courage over decades, in many ways, when they were persecuted into exile by Saddam Hussein. Friends of mine were working on the election over the weekend, and I can testify to their passionate commitment to the democratic process.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the politics of the diaspora are important here, as elsewhere? Will he do what he can to build on the connections, and ensure that Britain's Iraqi community feel able to be involved, in whatever way possible, in building and deepening democracy in Iraq?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Yes to the first question, and yes, very much, to the second.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an important task for us all now is to support the brave men and women who were elected to the Assembly yesterday? When I visited Basra in December with other members of the Defence Committee, one of the points made by the provincial governor and council was that to travel to the United Kingdom they had to journey to Baghdad for travel documents. Will my right hon. Friend look at providing further facilities to our excellent consulate in Basra, where Simon Collis is consul-general, so that individuals who want to come to this country do not have to travel to Baghdad to get the documents and can have them issued in Basra?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend raises a fair point and I will certainly look at it.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

We will have to wait only a short while before the new Iraqi Government and the new Iraqi Parliament express their views about the withdrawal of troops. I hope that, however uncomfortable their decision is, considered from different points of view, it is accepted and acted upon because it will be a democratic decision.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many commentators are saying that this is the most democratic election in Iraq for 50 years? I was there 50 years ago and it was a feudal monarchical regime that merely had a democratic cover. These are the most democratic elections that have ever been held in the history of Iraq, imperfect as they are and despite all the difficulties that are associated with them. That is an extra reason why we should accept the decisions made by the new Iraqi Government and the new Iraqi Parliament.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend's intervention speaks for itself and shows the wisdom of his age and of British national service.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

While the people were courageous, is not the reality that this was an election but not as we know it? No press were allowed, for example, in Falluja. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq was not independent. It was appointed not by Iraqis but by Paul Bremer. However, if the election does have legitimacy, as the Secretary of State says, and if the coalition around Ayatollah Ali Sistani wins, as is expected, will not most Iraqis have voted for a timetable for the foreign troops to leave? If so, should not those foreign countries, us and the United States, respect that decision in the name of freedom and democracy and set that timetable to leave?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I say gently to my hon. Friend that I am surprised at his discomfort about the excellent result of the election. I have already spelt out that there is widespread acknowledgment that it has gone much better than expected. It is simply untrue that the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq was appointed by Paul Bremer. It was endorsed by the United Nations and is working under the auspices of the United Nations special representative in respect of elections, Carlos Valenzuela, and the authority laid down in resolution 1546. The degree of scrutiny and external supervision of the elections, including 55,000 internal observers in Iraq and 120 foreign observers, indicates the quality of the elections in the special and very difficult circumstances of Iraq itself.