Although insurgent attacks have continued, particularly in the four largely Sunni provinces of central Iraq, their overall number has declined since the elections. The majority of attacks are against coalition forces, but one attack in the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad, recently killed more than 160 civilians. Significant parts of Iraq, including Multi-National Division (South-East), remain relatively quiet.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the British troops are doing a superb job in southern Iraq, particularly on regeneration and how does he see that process spreading to the rest of the country, particularly with the advent of the new Government?
In areas where security is good and the security situation remains relatively calm it is important that we build on that to allow the delivery of reconstruction projects. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Department for International Development on its work and on the excellent way in which it has co-operated with military forces in MND (South-East) in delivering several reconstruction projects concerned with running water, sewerage, power and the like. For the moment, it is crucial that the majority of work on military-sponsored projects is done by local Iraqis and contractors, whose wages help the local economy still further.
Will the Secretary of State confirm the estimate by the head of the Iraqi intelligence services, General Shahwani, that the number of insurgents has grown to more than 200,000, of whom about 40,000 are hard-core members and the rest are active supporters? If that is the case, what will the military situation be in future?
I do not accept that estimate; in fact, I do not recognise those figures. I do not in any way underestimate the severity, from time to time, of insurgent attacks, but our evidence is that a great number of those attacks are largely the work of foreign fighters—fanatics who have come into Iraq from other countries in order to continue a campaign against the west. As I said, their target has mostly been innocent Iraqis. That is obviously to be deplored and demonstrates that they are not at all interested in anything other than promoting violence and anarchy, and that they have to be defeated.
While I would agree with my right hon. Friend about security and the need for much improvement in that respect, does he agree that the turnout of the people of Iraq on election day should be commended, as should everybody involved with it? I was in Basra, where 80 per cent. of the population turned out, despite security threats and some mortar attacks. That is a mark of the courage of the people and of everybody involved in security in Iraq on that particular day.
Scarcely a session of Defence questions goes by without my paying tribute to my hon. Friend, whom I again thank for the efforts that she made in the course of the elections. She visited a number of polling stations where she was able to see for herself what we all learned about the remarkable courage and determination of the Iraqi people to take their opportunity to vote, supported, as has perhaps not been sufficiently noted, by Iraqi security forces. The fact that trained Iraqis took responsibility for security at the polling stations is an enormously positive sign for the future, in terms not only of the election but of their capability to deal with their own security.
Although we all accept that the British troops are doing an excellent job in Iraq and pay tribute to those brave Iraqis who voted, the security situation remains a concern. Last week, the UK took over from Dutch troops who have pulled out of Iraq. Does the Secretary of State envisage that we will have further responsibilities to cover other coalition partners who may withdraw from Iraq in the near future? Given that only last week we sent an extra 500 troops of the 1st Battalion Royal Green Jackets to Kosovo, is not now a good time for him to cancel his planned reduction in Army infantry numbers?
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. He referred to the withdrawal from the south of the Dutch forces, to whom I pay tribute for the efforts that they have made over a long period. We always made it clear that there would be adjustments in the size and the nature of the forces in our area of responsibility. I am delighted to say that the Dutch will in large part be replaced by Australian forces, who will come in to work alongside the Japanese and forces from the United Kingdom. The overall effect on security and the numbers required to provide security in the south will not be affected in any way.
On election day, Dr. Malko, the president of the Assyrian National Assembly, claimed that up to 400,000 Assyrians and other ethnic minorities were not allowed to vote because ballot boxes did not reach them and Kurdish militia prevented them from going to vote. He has appealed to the Prime Minister to ensure that they get representation given what happened. Has that been investigated? What representation will those minorities have in the new Government?
As I understand it, there were difficulties in some parts of Iraq but they were not significant. A small number of complaints were made to the independent elections committee for Iraq, and if that issue has been raised with it, I am sure that it will be properly and thoroughly investigated.
In praising the admirable work of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, who are being asked to cover 30,000 square miles of desert, will the Secretary of State assure us, following their deployment to Muthanna province, that our forces who are deployed to Iraq are adequately trained and equipped to fulfil their role effectively, safely and efficiently?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces was in Iraq last week and I give hon. Members the absolute assurance that our forces are properly trained and equipped and doing a magnificent job, not least by progressively reducing the number of incidents in their area of responsibility, working closely with Iraqi forces and training those forces to take responsibility. They are gradually restoring matters so that Iraqis may be entirely responsible for their own affairs at some stage in the future.
They certainly do a magnificent job, as always, and, invariably nowadays, they do more with less. However, is the Secretary of State aware of the article that appeared in The Sun on
"British troops were forced on guard duty in Iraq without bullets in their guns; Quartermasters refused to give them any ammo because the soldiers had not passed their weapons-handling tests and soldiers have also been sent on dangerous convoy guard missions without ambush training", while reserve forces
"have had to put their lives at risk without vital equipment because of cock-ups in logistics".
Obviously, that particular report is being investigated; a thorough investigation will be carried out. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, in the course of his otherwise congratulatory remarks about British troops, could not resist a political side-swipe. I suppose that there is something in the air. However, to respond in kind, I point out that there has been a steadily increasing defence budget in the past five years—in stark contrast with the steadily reducing budget when he was in office.
Whichever line one took on the war, does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be the greatest condemnation of the atrocities that criminals and terrorists have perpetrated, including beheadings, mutilations of bodies and, only last week, the murder of 125 Iraqis in one go? Does my right hon. Friend know of any Member who defends such crimes and atrocities? If there is such a Member, would not it be a good idea for that person not to be in the next Parliament?
I cannot imagine—at least not out loud—to whom my hon. Friend refers. I accept that some people had principled reasons for opposing the war, but it is vital that everyone recognises that we have a common interest with the Iraqi people in defeating terrorists and fanatics. Every single member state of NATO is contributing to training and assisting the people of Iraq to ensure that those terrorists and fanatics are defeated.
Does the Secretary of State accept that it may be better for Iraq's long-term security if members of the Iraqi armed forces could attend our three officer academies, the Joint Services Command and Staff college near Swindon and possibly the Royal College of Defence Studies? If so, do the Government have any plans to ensure that that can happen?
There are a range of training opportunities for Iraqi officers. I accept the hon. and learned Gentleman's underlying proposition that it is important that we train not only soldiers but those who are to take responsibility for leadership and the difficult decisions of command. Those officers are being trained in an officer training academy in Baghdad and in the south as part of a NATO training organisation. I am confident that the United Kingdom will be willing to take and train officers should that be necessary.