Iraq: Adjustments to UK Forces

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 27th May 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 11:00 am, 27th May 2004

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"As I have made repeatedly clear to the House, we keep the number and nature of United Kingdom forces in Multinational Division (South East) (MND(SE)) under constant review. Since MND(SE) was established in the summer of 2003, we have made a series of adjustments in the light of the situation on the ground and the advice of the General Officer Commanding. The most significant of these have included: the multi-nationalisation of the headquarters, which was originally based on a UK division; the deployment of two additional surge battalions, which I announced in September; and the deployment of a replacement for these battalions, plus a small number of Royal Military Police, primarily to provide a surge capability to assist with the training and development of Iraqi security forces in MND(SE), which I announced to the House on 28 October and 15 December respectively.

"As a result of the latest advice from the General Officer Commanding, we plan a number of further such adjustments within MND(SE). The two surge battalions—currently the 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 1st Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers—have made excellent progress in their work with local Iraqi forces, who are increasingly taking on responsibility for basic security functions in MND(SE). We therefore judge that it is unlikely that we shall need two further battalions to perform this role this summer, but we will keep this under review.

"As a prudent precaution, we are reducing the 'notice to move' of 40 Commando The Royal Marines in order to keep open the option of deploying it to continue this work when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Royal Highland Fusiliers reach the end of their tours. In the mean time, 40 Commando will continue with its current activities.

"In January 2004, we deployed two additional platoons of Royal Military Police from 110 Provost Company to assist in the provision of specialised training for the Iraqi police service. They will come to the end of their tour in June, having performed an invaluable role. We judge that this work should continue, and therefore plan to deploy two platoons of the RMP from 160 Provost Company to replace those returning next month.

"In addition, the House will be aware that the security situation in Iraq remains difficult, even in parts of MND(SE), which on the whole continues to be one of the more stable areas of Iraq. In particular, there is a continuing threat from violent groups in the area around Al Amarah in the province of Maysan. Although UK forces and Iraqi security forces have taken, and continue to take, robust and appropriate action to deal with this threat, the General Officer Commanding, Major General Stewart, judges that, with the planned withdrawal of 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a light infantry battalion, at the end of its six-month tour in July, it would be advisable to take the opportunity to deploy a Warrior-trained infantry battalion. This will provide General Stewart with a well protected and mobile reserve, which will give him greater operational flexibility. We therefore plan to deploy the 1st Battalion The Black Watch with a small number of logistic enablers. This will involve up to 600 personnel—a net increase of about 200 when the withdrawal of 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders is taken into account.

"Finally, in view of the nature of the threat posed by violent groups around Al Amarah in particular, which has involved mortar and rocket attacks on UK bases, General Stewart has requested, and I have agreed to, the deployment of 69 Squadron from 36 Regiment Royal Engineers—some 170 personnel—for a period of around three months. These engineers will carry out force protection work, including the construction of additional physical defences in British bases, to reduce the threat posed by the kind of attacks we have seen in recent weeks.

"I would emphasise to the House that these are prudent adjustments, at the request of the General Officer Commanding, to UK forces in MND(SE). It remains the case that we, with our coalition partners, are considering the levels and dispositions of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead to support the sovereign interim Government of Iraq through the process leading to the election of a transitional assembly and government early in 2005. If we judge that further changes to the UK military contribution in Iraq would be appropriate to support this process, we will of course inform the House at the earliest opportunity. At present, however, no such decision has been made".

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Shadow Minister, International Affairs, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. It has certainly been a long time in coming. The Statement focuses on operational, rather than strategic, matters. In the light of that, can the Minister rule out any announcement next week, when Parliament is not sitting, of a substantial movement of British troops in Iraq or further troop deployments there?

We will support the extra deployment mentioned in the Statement as commanders on the ground clearly are arguing that there are compelling reasons for doing so. The Statement is right to highlight the excellent progress that the two surge battalions—the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Royal Highland Fusiliers—have made in their work with local Iraqi forces. We on these Benches congratulate them on that.

We very much support their replacement, at the end of their six-month tour, by a Warrior-trained infantry battalion, and we support reducing the notice to move of 40 Commando The Royal Marines as standby. The need for a Warrior battalion was demonstrated only a fortnight ago when a convoy of Argylls in Land Rovers was ambushed by Iraqi militia.

Can the Minister confirm that, in the light of it being "advisable" to replace the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with a Warrior-trained battalion, the Argylls, who are vulnerable as a light infantry battalion, will, in the mean time, be adequately protected until the end of their tour?

We support the deployment of the Royal Engineers squadron in the light of the mortar and rocket attacks around Al Amarah. It is unfortunate that the Black Watch is being deployed so soon after its previous tour in Iraq. That is a perfect example of the overstretch facing our troops at the moment.

It is clear that the state of our troops post-30 June remains ambiguous. That is most unsatisfactory. Parliament is entitled to know as soon as possible what will be their status.

Finally, the Statement points out that the security situation in Iraq remains difficult. I therefore congratulate our Armed Forces, on operational deployment there, on their exceptional skill and courage under these demanding and dangerous circumstances.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Shadow Minister, Defence

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Many questions have already been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. However, I should like to ask the Minister about the area of operation in which the troops will undertake their activities. The Statement refers to them being confined to the MND(SE) and we hope that that would be the case. Obviously, the numbers are very small in overall terms. Therefore, their commitment towards replacing troops from other countries which have left would not really be fulfilled.

Can the Minister say whether negotiations have been undertaken with the Americans to consider replacing Spanish forces who are leaving or have left Iraq? That would significantly change the area in which British forces have operated before and, I believe, would change the strategic nature of the operation that we were undertaking. If we were to move into north Iraq, that would need not just a Statement in this House and in another place but perhaps even a vote in order that the Government's intentions are carried out with the support of Parliament because it would change the whole nature of the operation in Iraq.

The Statement refers to small movements of personnel. Obviously, many of those requests came from the commander on the ground. We very much support the movement of the Royal Engineers to make our troops safer. With the 30 June deadline soon to be reached, much of the work they are undertaking will not be seen by the local population as embedding our troops but as a mere short-term response to the threat.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that it is a welcome sign that the Warrior armoured infantry battalion will be moved because of the implications for the safety of our troops. However, having trained on Warrior, I feel somewhat for the soldiers who will be operating in it. It is a fabulous vehicle but in the hot summer ahead it will be rather uncomfortable.

I have a couple of questions on overstretch. The question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, is one that I wished to ask, but I have a specific question about the Black Watch. The threat of amalgamation or disbandment seems to overhang the regiment at present. Can the Minister say whether the fears of the troops of that regiment in that regard are being dealt with appropriately? It seems unfortunate that they have been sent back to Iraq to deal with the situation while the state of the regiment is in doubt.

Will these troop deployments need further call up of TA personnel? Are the Government considering any drop-off in the response of TA personnel? As this operation drags ever further into the future, it seems possible that the publication of adverse experiences of TA personnel who serve in Iraq—many go back and find that their jobs are no longer open—will mean that they may feel differently about doing so.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the reception that they have given to the Statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, rightly identified, it is a Statement about operational requirements rather than one about a shift in any of the strategic objectives. The noble Lord and others will have noted that there is a net increase of troops on the ground of about 370.

The noble Lord asked whether I could guarantee that no Statements will be made next week. I can give the guarantee that there is nothing planned in that regard for next week. Care has been taken to ensure that this Statement was made today before the Recess. Had there been anything further to say, it would have been said. However, the noble Lord will know that there is always the possibility of the completely unexpected. I very much doubt that that will be the case, but I cannot give absolute cast iron guarantees. All I know is that there is nothing planned at present.

This is, indeed, at the request of the officer commanding. I thank both noble Lords for the generous way in which they acknowledged that and, indeed, for the generous way in which they supported the Warrior deployment to MND(SE).

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked about the protection of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. We do the utmost to protect our troops on the ground. One of the first duties of any government when deploying troops is to ensure that those troops are deployed with as much safety as can possibly be guaranteed given that often they are entering a dangerous situation. Again, there are no cast-iron guarantees about personal safety but it is our duty to do what we can to ensure that.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the Black Watch and both noble Lords said that they were concerned about overstretch. The tour length will be six months and plans have been made to backfill where necessary. I understand that the King's Regiment will now backfill for the Black Watch as the training regiment at the Land Warfare Centre at Warminster. The Black Watch has been in training at that centre.

I fully understand the concerns about overstretch. However, the Black Watch is being deployed because it has been identified by the military commanders as having the skills necessary and has been identified by the General commanding MND(SE) as the regiment that he wishes to deploy.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, indicated that he thought there was ambiguity in the way that the troops would be used. I would refer him to what his right honourable friend Mr Michael Howard said in another place only yesterday:

"The Prime Minister said yesterday that while operational control of our troops in Iraq after 30 June must remain with British commanders, final political control over their deployment will be a matter for the Iraqi Government. I make it clear that I support that view, which is entirely consistent with the need for the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June to be real and not cosmetic".—[Hansard, Commons, 26/5/04; col. 1558.]

That is what Mr Howard understood the Prime Minister to have said. That being the case, I am bound to say to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, that I do not really follow why there is ambiguity over this because his own leader in another place seems to be clear.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I wrote it down while he was speaking. Perhaps I was wrong and I apologise to him if that was the case. Let us not worry about whether the noble Lord used that word. I want to be clear that both the party opposite and the Government's party understand what the position will be and that has been acknowledged by the noble Lord's leader in another place.

It is true that the United Nations Security Council resolution under discussion will deal with the fine detail of how these relationships work after 30 June. Again, we have made that clear. That matter is under discussion at present. In addition to the UNSCR, there is also planned an exchange of letters about how this relationship will work between the incoming interim Iraqi Government and the coalition as it is now, the former coalition as it will be.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the area of operation. Yes, indeed, the 370 extra troops will operate in MND(SE). The noble Lord asked about whether there were any negotiations with the United States about filling in for the Spanish troops when they depart. I think that the Statement from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear that those sorts of discussions happen all the time. There is a constant interchange of discussion about what is suitable to be deployed on the ground. Those conversations happen between coalition partners—and there are now a number of coalition partners—and in the Ministry of Defence between its civilian and military advisers, and thereafter of course around the whole of Whitehall. So those discussions continue.

The noble Lord was quite right about a decision to move more of our deployment out of MND (SE). It is not all constrained in MND (SE), there are military personnel, for example, in Baghdad. But, if we were to move any major forces, that would be a more strategic decision. Would it need a vote? No, it would not need a vote. As the noble Lord knows, constitutionally, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did not need a vote in the first place to engage in military action in Iraq. He chose to have one, but there is not a need to have a vote. I would think that one would be very unlikely.

I hope that that has dealt with all the questions raised. As I understand it, there are no implications for the Territorials in the Statement. There are Territorials on the ground, but their position will stay as it is at present.

I believe that my right honourable friend has a rather good record of coming to another place to make such reports and, if there is more to report, I am sure he will continue to do so.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, the Minister announced that these are adjustments to the forces. Is she aware that the matters contained within the Statement—not least the announcement of the deployment of Royal Engineers and a Warrior regiment to provide extra protection for our troops—is the clearest confirmation that this House could have of the dangers faced by our forces? The decision to require the Black Watch—back for less than a year from its excellent work on Operation TELIC—to go again to Iraq is a further indication of the pressures and the stretch that our forces face.

The Minister took some trouble over her answer and we respect the fact that the Government wanted to give this Statement before the House rose. However, in her answer that matters are kept under review there seemed to be an implication that we may well have a further Statement when the House returns. Other matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, which are as yet unresolved, may require a further Statement. Will she confirm whether that is an accurate estimate?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sorry if the way I answered the question left a big question mark in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord King, that I was anticipating a further Statement after the Recess. That was not in my mind.

It is important to answer a question as accurately as one may. When the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked me whether I could guarantee that there would be no further Statements next week, I am not able to give an absolute cast-iron guarantee for all the exigencies that may be possible, given the difficulties there are on the ground. What I am able to guarantee is that if there are further changes that need to be announced, they will be announced as quickly as possible. I think that my right honourable friend's Statement has made that very clear.

The noble Lord is quite right that the 370 extra people on the ground are deployed for the purposes he described, as was made clear in the Statement. They are not an enormous addition to our forces. We have all read speculation about additions to the forces being far greater than those that my right honourable friend has announced today. They are there absolutely at the request of the General Officer Commanding.

The noble Lord said that this is the clearest possible indication of the danger that our troops face. That may be his interpretation. I would say that this sensible precaution is being taken at the clear request of the officer commanding, who I have met, and who I am sure the noble Lord has also met. He is an extremely sensible man who is making the right precautionary deployments of troops. He has asked us to ensure that we do everything we can to guarantee, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said, that we give our troops maximum protection.

Let us be clear: we all know that the period between now and the handover of power on 30 June will be very difficult. Different groups are jockeying for position in Iraq because they want to be in the best possible position on 1 July. That is what is happening, whatever groups we are talking about, and that leads to a particularly potent cocktail of difficulty.

The Statement makes clear that on the whole MND (SE) has been relatively peaceful. On the whole that is so. That is what my right honourable friend's Statement makes clear and that was certainly the impression I had when I spoke to the General Officer Commanding when I was last in Basra.

However, things have changed in recent weeks, although I am bound to say that violent incidents have recently levelled off from their really high point a little while ago.

Photo of Lord Lawson of Blaby Lord Lawson of Blaby Conservative

My Lords, the Minister has explained the position very carefully, clearly and fairly. Given the fact that it is a rapidly moving and very difficult situation, will she give an undertaking that should there be a need during the Recess for a significant redeployment of British troops, either numerically or geographically, Parliament will be recalled?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, that is a very fair question. The noble Lord will know that it is not in my gift to give that sort of guarantee. However, I can say to the noble Lord that I should be very surprised were Parliament not to be recalled if there were such an eventuality.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the whole House will recognise the skill and courage of our Armed Forces in Iraq and the need for their effective deployment. As a former gunner officer in the Suez war, I can well remember the problems my fellow officers and I had in maintaining morale in a politically deeply divided country.

Two weeks ago on 12 May, when we renewed the military discipline law, I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, asking in advance some questions about human rights abuse, accountability and such matters. He was kind enough to attempt to answer the questions late in the evening in that debate. I would not expect the Minister to answer my question fully today, but if she looks at that debate, she will find that the luckless Minister was not really able to answer the questions properly, even though he was given written notice.

The noble Baroness has rightly told us—as she always is astute to do—that she seeks to answer questions accurately and fairly. I am sure she does. But the noble Lord, Lord Bach, undertook to write, setting out precisely the position of Iraqi victims of any abuse under British law. He was not able to answer at the time, and I fully recognise that.

Two weeks have passed and we have not been given an answer. I have put down lots of Questions for Written Answer, but surely it is in the interests of the morale of our troops and restoring public confidence—in this country and Iraq—in the political situation, that the Ministry of Defence and the Government as a whole, should be able to give that reassurance. The troops will know where they are and we can remove some of the unfair stain on the reputation of our forces caused by gross abuses by our coalition partners in Iraq. Will the Minister look at the debate and see what she can do to ensure that a coherent and full answer is given to reassure the public?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that the skill and courage of our Armed Forces is very much to be admired and, of course, that it is important to maintain morale. I might not have the same view as the noble Lord on how maintaining morale is best achieved, but he is entitled to his opinions and I am certainly entitled to mine.

I shall certainly ensure that my noble friend Lord Bach is aware of what the noble Lord has said today. My noble friend would be answering the questions today were he not overseas because of his official duties.

I would say this: the Armed Forces are fully aware of their obligations under international law. They are given thorough mandatory training courses, which include specific guidance on the handling of prisoners of war. All personnel have to attend refresher training every year on that issue. Before going to Iraq, all personnel are briefed on the rules of engagement and the procedures for dealing with prisoners of war or other detainees. Each combat unit is required to have eight senior non-commissioned officers trained in the handling of prisoners of war. Units responsible for the routine handling of detainees conduct further specialist training.

I hope that that has set the context. I realise that it will not answer the specific and, I am sure, very, very clever legal questions that the noble Lord has put to my noble friend, but I wanted to make that absolutely clear. I am glad that the noble Lord made the point that much of what has been said about our Armed Forces was false, and certainly the disgraceful pictures that appeared in the newspapers were fakes. Those who put that stain on our Armed Forces bear some responsibility for doing what they can to remove it.

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, is pretty good at looking after itself, although of course it welcomes all the support it can get? I, too, was disappointed that the Minister did not mention the very successful little action that took place with the Argyll regiment not so long ago, and its handling and defeat of the militia.

I have the same concerns that other noble Lords have expressed regarding the Black Watch. It is a great regiment, and any sensible general would like to have it with him in any operational concern. But I am amazed that of the 40 battalions of infantry—we never quite know how they are concentrated and working—no other regiment is ready to take the Warrior role. I see that as definite overstretch. Although the noble Baroness has done her best to put that out of our minds, I am afraid that it will be seen very much as overstretch.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sure that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are very good at looking after themselves. I deliver the Statement to your Lordships' House as my right honourable friend has articulated it in another place, but let me acknowledge now what he said about the way in which his old regiment handled the issues over the militia: I put on record the admiration of the whole House in that respect.

The Black Watch is a very fine regiment. There was a time when I knew the Black Watch quite well—of course not the entire regiment—as I had family connections with it. I know how excellent the regiment is. The noble Viscount says that the decision was evidence of overstretch. It is quite right that the Black Watch was deployed last spring in Iraq; it has since been in Warminster doing other work. Any decisions on redeployment are taken with the Chiefs of the Defence Staff on the advice of the General Officer Commanding on the ground on his needs. I am sure that they will have chosen the best regiment for the need identified.

Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour

My Lords, my noble friend will know that I was among many who strongly opposed the war in Iraq in the first place. Now, more than a year later, the coalition forces are becoming increasingly unpopular and increasingly under guerrilla attack, even though most Iraqis were delighted to see the back of Saddam's cruel regime. Surely to put more troops in now is to continue digging when we are in a hole. It is not likely to be popular with the Iraqis, and the resistance movement is likely to gain more recruits. What is surely needed, together with the transfer of sovereignty on 1 July, is a rapid handover of responsibility for security to the retrained Iraqi police and army. Fallujah has been quiet since an Iraqi armed force took over the control of security there. That is an object lesson for the whole country.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord suggests that we stop digging. He must take on board the fact that this is not a strategic decision to deploy more troops; it is an operational decision to respond to a need identified by the General Officer Commanding in Iraq. He has said that he needs more troops for quite specific purposes, which I have been able to identify in the Statement to your Lordships' House. Were we not to fulfil that, I would venture to suggest that many noble Lords would be outraged that we set to one side the recommendation from the General Officer Commanding. So I am afraid that I do not agree with my noble friend on that.

Furthermore, I do not agree that the addition of 370 troops will enrage Iraqis on the ground who do not want to see the troops there in the first place. Frankly, I do not think that the Iraqis who are unhappy to see the troops will think that 370 more or less will incite them to any greater acts of violence.

What is true is that occupying forces in any country are bound to attract a certain amount of criticism. Would not we all be appalled to live in a country where there was an occupying force? We can all understand that. That is why the handover of sovereignty on 30 June is so important; it is why Her Majesty's Government have worked so diligently and hard with our coalition partners and, importantly, with the United Nations to ensure that this handover is a real handover of sovereignty. We are doing that in negotiating the UNSCR and through the exchanges of letters. I hope that my noble friend will acknowledge that we are working very hard on that objective.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative

My Lords, I would like to ask a relatively narrow but, I think, significant question. The Minister has acknowledged that there could be a "cocktail of difficulties"—I believe I quote her correctly—as one moved to the situation where an Iraqi government would emerge. Does she feel that the rules of engagement of our forces are so drawn that they could cope with that potential situation?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Yes, my Lords, I believe so. I also believe that the rules of engagement are not designated entirely by politicians. As the noble Lord will know from his previous incarnation, politicians in the Ministry of Defence are bound to take an interest in this; and there are the legal implications of rules of engagement; but rules of engagement are always put into place under military guidance on what is needed.