Iraq

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 3rd November 2008.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 2:30 pm, 3rd November 2008

What progress has been made in the development of Iraqi security forces; and if he will make a statement.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

UK forces in southern Iraq continue to make very good progress in mentoring and training the Iraqi security forces. We have helped to train over 20,000 Iraqi troops, and the performance of both the 10th and 14th divisions of the Iraqi army is a testament to the vital contribution that UK forces have made to improving security conditions on the ground. We have also helped to train more than 22,000 members of the Iraqi police service, including some 7,800 police officers in Basra itself.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion to a vitally important role. He is, of course, full of beguiling words about the success in bringing Iraqi forces up to scratch, although it has to be said that when I was in northern Iraq a few weeks ago there was no sight of them: it was all down to the militia. A lot of the success in dealing with violence in Baghdad is down to former Sunni militias.

What does the Secretary of State have to say about the interview given by Mr. al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, to The Times on 13 October? He was very critical of what he claimed was our secret deal with the Mahdi army, a deal that I am sure the Secretary of State will deny. Mr. al-Maliki also said that the Iraqi forces are now ready to take—

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to Mr. Leigh for his kind and welcoming words.

On the substance of his points about security conditions on the ground, I should say that it would be wrong to underestimate the contribution that British forces have made to improving the capabilities of Iraqi security forces. When I was in Basra last week, my protection and security were provided by the Iraqi army, militia and police themselves, and that is a significant step forward.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are parts of Iraq in which security conditions are not as good as in the south. However, the whole point and purpose of our mission in Iraq is now to improve the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Iraqi Prime Minister, who made it clear to me how much he welcomed the role of UK forces in the south of Iraq. He wanted to see that role be completed in the near future, and it will be. There is no question at all of any secret deal with the special forces or special groups in Basra. Everything that we did was done in full knowledge and sight of our coalition partners and the Iraqi Government.

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Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I welcomed the Secretary of State on Thursday, so I shall not do so again. When the Defence Committee visited HMS Chatham and Umm Qasr a few months ago, we saw the fantastic job that the Royal Navy was doing in protecting the oil, the resource that will help bring Iraq out of this dark period of its history. I recommend that the Secretary of State visit the Royal Navy on his next visit. Will he make an assessment of what the Iraqi navy will do in the coming months to boost its own capabilities?

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. In 2003, the Iraqi navy just did not exist. Clearly, it has an important role to play in securing vital Iraqi interests in the Gulf, particularly in respect of the oil industry and its platforms there. The Iraqis now have security responsibility for one of the two principal oil installations in the Gulf, and that is a sign of progress. The Royal Navy is doing a brilliant job in Umm Qasr, and when I am next in Iraq I hope to see the Royal Navy team there in person.

Mentoring and support for the Iraqi navy will be one of the enduring roles for British security forces in future. I hope and remain confident that the first months of next year will see a significant change in our mission in Iraq, and that will be welcomed on both sides of the House. However, it would be wrong to assume from that that UK forces will have no further role to play in supporting our Iraqi allies. They certainly will.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

I remind the Secretary of State of how incredibly impressed the Defence Committee was when we saw the mentoring of the Iraqi armed forces in Basra. Although it is inevitable that we will draw down our sizeable footprint there in the months ahead, will the Secretary of State explain what plans there are to maintain a very strong relationship with the Iraqi armed forces? I am thinking particularly of the higher level, at which we saw strong personal relationships that would be very good for the United Kingdom's influence in the longer term.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

When I met Mr. Abd al-Qadir, the Iraqi defence Minister, in Baghdad, those were some of the issues that we discussed. He and I want an enduring, sustainable and normalised defence relationship between the UK and Iraq. There are two particular issues on which we can make a significant and enduring contribution. First, we will support the training of the Iraqi officer corps, and we look to formalise those arrangements between us.

Secondly, in the context of what I said in response to the remarks of the Defence Committee Chairman, Mr. Arbuthnot, I repeat that we want to continue to mentor and support the Iraqi navy. The UK has a unique contribution to make in those two areas, and I look forward to formalising those understandings with the Iraqi Government in the near future.

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