With permission, Mr. Speaker, I want to make a statement to set out detailed proposals for political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in Iraq, for the security of the Iraqi people, for the future configuration, new equipment and security of our own armed forces, and about the obligations that we owe to the local Iraqi staff who have supported us in our efforts.
I start as the whole House would want me to, by paying tribute to the seven members of our armed forces who, since July, have lost their lives in action in Iraq: Corporal Stephen Edwards, Private Craig Barber, Leading Aircraftman Martin Beard, Lance Sergeant Christopher Casey, Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath and Sergeants Mark Stansfield and Eddie Collins. I want to pay tribute also to the 18 who have died in Afghanistan: Lance Corporal Alex Hawkins, Guardsman David Atherton, Sergeant Barry Keen, Lance Corporal Michael Jones, Captain David Hicks, Privates Tony Rawson, Aaron McClure, Robert Foster, John Trumble, Damian Wright, Ben Ford, Johan Botha and Brian Tunnicliffe, Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge, Sergeant Craig Brelsford, Corporal Ivano Violino, Colour Sergeant Phillip Newman and Major Alexis Roberts.
They died doing vital work in the service of our country. We owe them, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude. They will never be forgotten. I also want to send our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen, and to the injured and their families.
Our strategy in Iraq as a Government has been first, political reconciliation, to work to bring together the political groupings in Basra and across Iraq; secondly, security, to ensure that the security of the Iraqi people and the new Iraqi democracy is properly safeguarded, as well as the security of our own armed forces; and thirdly, economic reconstruction, to work for an economy in Iraq where people have a stake in the future.
Our strategy is founded on the UN mandate renewed last November in UN Security Council resolution 1723. Whatever disagreements there have been with our decision to go to war, there can be little disagreement about the unanimous UN position affirming the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future, calling upon
"the International Community, particularly countries in the region and Iraq's neighbours, to support the Iraqi people in their pursuit of peace, stability, security, democracy and prosperity".
Let me affirm, as I told Prime Minister Maliki last week, and as I have agreed with President Bush and our other allies, that we will meet our obligations, honour our commitments and discharge our duties to the international community and to the people of Iraq.
The future depends first of all upon sustained progress on political reconciliation. That is why, when I met Prime Minister Maliki and Vice-President Hashemi in Baghdad last week, I said that it was vital—they agreed—that the three plus one leadership group of the Prime Minister and presidency council meet now to take the political process forward; that key legislation be passed on sharing oil revenues, the constitutional review and provincial elections; that the Government must reach out to disaffected groups, as well as decide on next steps on detainees; and that local elections go ahead in early 2008 making provincial councils more representative. Our message to the Government of Iraq and to the leaders of all Iraqi communities and parties is that they must make the long-term decisions needed to achieve reconciliation.
The support of Iraq's neighbours—including a commitment to prevent financing and support for militias and insurgent terrorist groups—is also critical to ensuring political reconciliation and security. I urge all nations to implement the international compact to renew Iraq's economy, to participate in the neighbours conferences to boost co-operation and surmount divisions in the region, and to support the enhanced UN mission in Iraq. I renew our call—which I believe will be supported in all quarters of the House—for Iran and Syria to play a far more constructive role by halting their support for terrorists and armed groups operating in Iraq, continuing to improve border security, and arresting and detaining foreign fighters trying to reach Iraq. And we must all act against the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. When the people and security forces stand up to al-Qaeda—as in Anbar province, which it had declared to be its base—it can be driven out.
As I turn to the security situation, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the steadfastness of our coalition partners who are working with us—there are troops from Denmark, the Czech Republic and Lithuania—and to the continuing Australian and Romanian role. The achievement of a democratic Iraq matters to every civilized nation, and I pay tribute to all 26 nations—led by General Petraeus and the US—that have troops on the ground in Iraq.
As the Petraeus-Crocker report set out, the security gains made by the multinational forces this year have been significant, and as important as improving current security is building the capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can achieve our aim: that Iraqis step up, and progressively take over, security for themselves. In 2004, it was agreed with the Iraqi Government that in each of the 18 provinces security responsibility would be progressively transferred to Iraqi authorities as and when the conditions were right. Now we are in a position to announce further progress.
Over the past four years, the UK has helped train over 13,000 Iraqi army troops, including 10,000 now serving with the 10th Division which has been conducting operations in Basra and across the south of the country without any requirement for coalition ground support. As we also tackle corruption, 15,000 police officers are now trained and equipped in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army 14th Division, with about 11,000 men, is in the process of joining them and has already taken on responsibility for Basra city, bringing security force levels in the south to almost 30,000 now and over 35,000 by June next year.
Since we handed over our base in Basra city in early September, the security situation has been calmer. Indeed, in the last month there have been five indirect fire attacks on Basra air station, compared with 87 in July. Although the four southern provinces have about 20 per cent. of the population, they account for less than 5 per cent of overall violence in Iraq.
During our engagement in Iraq, we have always made it clear that all our decisions must be made on the basis of the assessments of our military commanders and actual conditions on the ground. As a result of the progress made in southern Iraq, US, UK and Iraqi commanders judged over the last 15 months that three of the four provinces in the UK area of control in southern Iraq were suitable for transition to the Iraqis. They have subsequently been transferred to Iraqi control.
As part of the process of putting the Iraqi forces in the lead in Basra, we have just gone through a demanding operation which involved consolidating our forces at Basra airport. That was successfully completed, as planned, last month. The next important stage in delivering our strategy to hand over security to the Iraqis is to move from a combat role in the rest of Basra province to overwatch, which will itself have two distinct stages. In the first, the British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and mentoring the Iraqi army and police force; securing supply routes and policing the Iran-Iraq border; and the ability to come to the assistance of the Iraqi security forces when called upon. Then in the spring of next year—and guided as always by the advice of our military commanders—we plan to move to a second stage of overwatch where the coalition would maintain a more limited re-intervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring.
I want now to explain how—after detailed discussions with our military commanders, a meeting of the national security committee, discussions with the Iraqi Government and our allies, and subject, of course, to conditions on the ground—we plan from next spring to reduce force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500. The first stage begins now. With the Iraqis already assuming security responsibility, we expect to establish provincial Iraqi control in Basra province in the next two months as announced by the Prime Minister of Iraq; to move to the first stage of overwatch; to reduce numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 at the start of September to 4,500 immediately after provincial Iraqi control and then to 4,000; and then in the second stage of overwatch from the spring—and guided, as always, by the advice of our military commanders—to reduce to around 2,500 troops, with a further decision about the next phase made then. In both stages of overwatch, around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq but elsewhere in the region. At all times, therefore, we will be achieving our long-term aim of handing over security to the Iraqi armed forces and police, honouring our obligations to the Iraqi people and their security, and ensuring the safety of our forces.
I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances. Existing staff who have been employed by us for more than 12 months and have completed their work will be able to apply for a package of financial payments to aid resettlement in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, or—in agreed circumstances—for admission to the UK. Professional staff, including interpreters and translators, with a similar length of service who have left our employ since the beginning of 2005 will also be able to apply for assistance. We will make a further written statement on the detail of that scheme this week.
The purpose of economic reconstruction is to ensure that ordinary Iraqis have a stake in the future. So, as a result of work launched with Prime Minister Maliki in July, the provincial council has created the Basra investment promotion agency and is forming a Basra development fund—$30 million from the Iraqi Finance Minister—to help small business access finance. As announced this morning by the Iraqi Government, we have agreed on the need for a new Basra development commission. It will bring national, regional and international business knowledge together, and provide advice on increasing investment and economic growth. It will host a business leadership conference to strengthen the engagement of the UK private sector in Iraq. It will help the provincial authorities to co-ordinate projects to strengthen Basra's position as an economic hub, including the development of Basra international airport and the renovation of the port.
I can tell the House that in addition to our support for humanitarian assistance—additional support announced today by the Department for International Development—Deputy Prime Minster Barham Saleh has announced over $300 million for investment in Basra. This will be increased again in 2008, ensuring that the third stage of what we are trying to do—economic reconstruction—can make real progress.
The safety and security of our armed forces remains our highest priority. The Mastiff patrol vehicle offers the best known protection against mines and roadside bombs. I can announce today that, in addition to the 100 bought and deployed last year in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence is placing an order for 140 Mastiff patrol vehicles. In recognition of the work of all our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help our troops stay in touch with home, we will now provide additional funding from the Reserve to double the number of internet terminals and provide free wireless internet for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that they can e-mail their families from their living quarters.
I am also convinced after my visit to the region that progress cannot be fully achieved without progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. A few days ago, we published our proposals for an economic road map to underpin the peace process—a programme for economic and social support for rebuilding the Palestinian economy and the reduction of high levels of poverty among the Palestinian people. The Foreign Secretary and I believe—as I think does the whole international community, including the US, the European Union and the Arab League—that the current dialogue between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert offers the best chance of final status negotiations since 2000. The next step is a meeting of the parties and key international players in November, at which we would like to see an agreement that puts the Israelis and Palestinians on a path to real negotiations during 2008, leading to a final settlement of two states living side by side in peace and security. There will be a donors conference in December. The international community will work with Prime Minister Fayyad to strengthen the economy of a future Palestinian state. I welcome Tony Blair's work as the Quartet envoy on this. The UK will continue to support the political process and to provide support for humanitarian assistance and economic development, and I assure the House of my personal commitment to doing all that we can to ensure progress. Working for a successful conclusion to the middle east peace process, taking on al-Qaeda terrorism and ensuring a more secure Iraq are all key to the future stability of the region.
We have made commitments to the Iraqi people through the United Nations, and we will honour those obligations. We will continue to be actively engaged in Iraqi political and economic development. We will continue to assist the Iraqi Government and their security forces to help build their capabilities so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country. It is also important to remember what has brought us to this stage: the determination, professionalism and sacrifice of our armed forces. They have protected the Iraqi people while training their security forces to bring peace to their cities, towns and districts. The scale of their achievement will always be remembered, and we will continue to discharge our duties to them and to the international community.
I commend the statement to the House.