My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:
"I would like to make a further Statement about the deployment of UK forces in Iraq.
"On Monday I explained to the House that the UK military had received, and was evaluating, a request from the US military command in Iraq for assistance that would involve UK land forces operating outside the MND (South East) area in support of a combined Iraqi/US force.
"A reconnaissance team from MND (South East) deployed to the area in question earlier this week has now reported back to the Chiefs of Staff. The team provided information on a number of issues including logistics, the length of the potential operation, the likely tasks, activity levels in the area, the force levels required and the command and control arrangements. After careful evaluation, the Chiefs of Staff have advised me that UK forces are able to undertake the proposed operation, that there is a compelling military operational justification for doing so, and that it entails a militarily acceptable level of risk for UK forces. Based on this military advice, the Government have decided that we should accept the US request for assistance.
"I emphasise again that this was a military request, and has been considered and accepted on operational grounds after a thorough military evaluation by the Chiefs of Staff. As I said on Monday and as the Prime Minister said yesterday to the House, this deployment is a vital part of the process of creating the right conditions for the Iraqi elections to take place in January.
"We share with the Iraqi Interim Government and with our coalition partners a common goal of creating a secure and stable Iraq where men, women and children in towns like Fallujah can feel safe from foreign terrorists, from the kidnappers who murdered Ken Bigley and from other criminals. Crucially, Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi and the Interim Iraqi Government want to establish sufficient security for elections to take place in January.
"Recent successful operations by Iraqi security forces and coalition forces in Tal Afar, Samarra and the outskirts of Fallujah have been undertaken to restore areas under the control of militants and terrorists to the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government. As a direct result, the political process there is now moving ahead.
"We cannot consider the current UK area of responsibility in isolation. What goes on in the rest of Iraq affects southern Iraq and affects UK troops wherever they are based. We must therefore consider our contribution in the context of the overall security situation right across Iraq.
"This means that a UK armoured battlegroup consisting of the 1st Battalion the Black Watch and supporting units will deploy to an area within MNF (West) to relieve a US unit for other tasks. They will be deploying to a particular area with the necessary combat support services such as medics, signallers and engineers resulting in a total deployment of around 850 personnel. This deployment will be for a limited and specified period of time, lasting weeks rather than months.
"I cannot give the House further details about the location, duration or specifics of the mission. Honourable Members on all sides will understand that to do so would risk the operational security of the mission and potentially the safety of our forces. The speculation from many quarters so far has not been helpful. I should also emphasise that there are no plans to send a further 1,300 troops to Iraq as suggested this morning.
"There have been concerns about UK forces coming under US command and about their rules of engagement. The arrangements for this deployment are that the force will remain under the operational command of General Rollo, the UK General Officer Commanding MND (South East).
"On a day-to-day basis, the Black Watch will of course have to co-ordinate its activity with the US chain of command in the locality, but any changes in the mission or the tasking would have to be referred back to General Rollo. As with all UK operations, our forces will operate at all times under UK rules of engagement. These will provide proper protection for our forces, as they have throughout our operations in MND (South East).
"It is not unusual for UK and US forces to work alongside each other—they have successfully done so not only in Iraq with US forces often providing logistical support for our own forces and therefore reducing the number of troops and assets we need in theatre, but also in operations all over the world. Indeed, in Bosnia, about 22,000 US troops operated under UK command. As I said in my Statement on Monday, UK forces in Iraq work alongside forces from Italy, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Japan and other countries on a daily basis. This is an effective and practical way of ensuring coherence both in our own area and with those that surround it. This is a practice with which UK forces are both content and comfortable.
"There has also been speculation as to why there is a need for this UK force to backfill for a US unit where there are around 130,000 US troops in Iraq. The armoured battlegroup that will deploy brings important qualities of extensive training, experience and hard-edge combat capability to replace a US armoured battlegroup of equivalent capability. It is not the case, as is often implied, that there are 130,000 US troops that could take on this task. In fact, under a third of US forces in Iraq have the requisite combat capability, and of those even fewer have the armoured capability that is needed. These specialised armoured forces are already highly committed across Iraq, a country about four-fifths the size of France. The Chiefs of Staff have further concluded therefore that the provision of a UK battlegroup to this new mission would be a significant contribution to and would materially increase the effect of the continuing operations to maintain pressure on the terrorists before the January elections.
"On Monday, honourable Members raised the question of whether this deployment would leave sufficient forces to deal with contingencies in our own area of responsibility in the south. The roulement of British forces currently under way includes an armoured infantry battlegroup of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards with their own Warrior armoured vehicles who will fulfil the divisional reserve role currently undertaken by the Black Watch. This will result in General Rollo temporarily having an extra armoured battlegroup under his command which will provide a very robust force capable of dealing with contingencies. It is also worth remembering that other UK forces in MND (South East) will continue to carry out their tasks in the professional and effective manner which has become so apparent to the people of Basra and the surrounding area, restoring power, water and basic facilities, and supporting the Iraqi authorities in ensuring a robust level of security.
"This deployment is limited in scope, time and space. It does not represent a permanent additional commitment of forces. The overall trend in the numbers of our deployment in Iraq remains down, from the peak of 46,000 during the war-fighting phase to around 8,500 today. That overall downward trend is expected to continue as we continue to train Iraqi security forces to take over from UK forces—as has happened, for example, in Al Amarah in Maysan Province.
"The Government remain totally committed in their support of the interim Iraqi Government and the need to hold free elections in January. We also remain committed to protecting innocent Iraqis, to dealing with terrorists, kidnappers and criminals, and to training and equipping Iraqi forces so that they can take our place in providing security and see that a democratic Government in Iraq take their rightful place in the international community—a Government who deliver prosperity and a secure future for the Iraqi people.
"That is something that should unite all sides of the House. It is right that the United Kingdom should contribute to those objectives. The deployment of the Black Watch will emphasise to the Iraqi people that the UK will continue to contribute to the coalition to see the task through".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We are relieved that the Government have ended the confusion of recent days and responded to many of the concerns and questions that were asked on all sides of the House on Monday. As I and my honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence made plain in our responses to that Statement, we support the coalition as it seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to Iraq, and to preserve her territorial integrity.
The Statement makes it clear that this deployment has the support of the Chiefs of Staff, following the reconnaissance reports that they will have received. Having heard that, and that the proposed mission is both feasible and fully within the capabilities of the Black Watch battle group, we support this deployment as being a necessary military contribution to the coalition's efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq ahead of its elections. We are content to see that the Black Watch will be deployed with the necessary combat support services.
Will that battle group include a squadron of an armoured regiment with Challenger 2 tanks, possibly the Queen's Royal Lancers?
The Statement mentioned that the Scots Guards will be replacing the Black Watch. I understand that the Scots Guards have only just started moving from Germany. When is it envisaged that the battalion will be fully in place and ready to relieve the Black Watch? Have the Scots Guards been put on warning that they may be required in time to relieve the Black Watch in support of the combined Iraqi-US forces?
On Monday I asked questions about rules of engagement, and the Minister assured me that they are robust enough. But we remain very concerned. Will the Minister assure the House that troops who are about to face the enemy will not have their essential confidence undermined by the possibility of a commanding officer's legal judgments being subsequently overruled, as has recently been the case?
Bearing in mind the fact that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq, will the Minister confirm that there is likely to be a surge requirement for extra troops to Iraq ahead of the Iraqi elections in January? Will he say whether any troops at present serving in Iraq will have to have their tour extended?
The whole House and the nation can be supremely confident that the Black Watch will carry out its task with all the fortitude, discipline and courage that we would expect from one of the finest regiments in the British Army. We wish them and the entire battle group the best of good fortune.
The Prime Minister created a good deal of confusion and uncertainty yesterday about the future of the Black Watch. Will the Minister confirm that wiser counsel might be prevailing and the Government may now be reconsidering their decision to cut four infantry battalions? Certainly, the Prime Minister appeared to offer the Black Watch a glimmer of hope.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I wonder whether he can clear up some confusion. We are told in the Statement that there is no truth in reports this morning that there is to be a substantial increase in the number of British troops in Iraq—up to 1,300. I assume that if the Scots Guards are deployed, we are talking about 700 to 800, or possibly 900, extra before the Black Watch comes back. That is a significant increase in the number of troops deployed. Perhaps the Minister can explain what appears to be a discrepancy between different paragraphs of the Statement.
We on these Benches are unhappy about the deployment of British troops outside the British sector and about putting them under the overall command of the United States, even if not under American immediate operational command.
Our reasons for that are our unhappiness at American tactics, such as the apparent disregard for the scale of civilian casualties and the lack of training in their relations with an occupied civilian population. Britain is being dragged behind the United States in its mistaken approach to a "war" on terror, and the confusion between the very necessary and delicate business of attempting to reconstruct a more stable Iraq and the global war on terror, which we hear set out every day in President Bush's re-election campaign. We know that there is unhappiness about that in Washington, even within the American armed forces.
We are not worried about whether the rules of engagement of British troops are robust enough; we are concerned that those rules of engagement should encourage a degree of restraint that, in itself, promotes a sense of confidence with the occupied population. We understand that the reasons for this deployment are that the Americans are mounting a major attack on Fallujah, and we are anxious about the extent of the destruction that may be meted out on Fallujah, and whether that is not counterproductive in terms of rebuilding a democratic Iraq.
Will the Minister say when the Secretary of State for Defence last discussed allied strategy in Iraq with his counterpart in the United States? Can we be reassured again that the United Kingdom has some influence over American strategy?
I strongly agree with my Conservative opposite number that the matter raises questions about the numbers of infantry that the United Kingdom will need, and the Government's proposals to reduce those numbers. The Black Watch may find that this tour of duty is all over by Christmas, but clearly we are talking about an extended commitment in Iraq, and there is a parallel extended commitment in Afghanistan.
We also ask about the impact of this deployment on the very necessary training of Iraqi security forces, in which the Black Watch was engaged. The provision of fully trained Iraqi security forces is, after all, one of the prerequisites for a future stable Iraq from which British forces can justifiably withdraw.
Will the Government recognise the scale of public and parliamentary unease about the direction of American strategy towards Iraq and the willingness of Her Majesty's Government to follow that American lead? There is an apparent absence of British influence over American policy or strategy, suggesting that a significant change of policy and strategy on Iraq that involves British forces should be subject to parliamentary debate, not just reported to Parliament as a fait accompli.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their remarks. In particular, as I think I can distinguish on this occasion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and his party, for the support that they give to the military disposition. It is what I would expect of the Conservative Party. I would once have expected it of the Liberal Democrats, but no longer. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, very much for what he had to say.
The noble Lord will forgive me, I know, when I disagree with his comment that there has been confusion about this over the past few weeks and days. It is not true. A request was made, a reconnaissance took place and a decision has been taken. That is a proper and sensible way to continue. As to his point about what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the Black Watch, it does not seem to me to be confused in any sense at all
He knows that I will not go into details. He will understand why I cannot answer his question about when the Scots Guards will arrive, or his other detailed questions. However, I can reassure him on his very important point about the rules of engagement, which remain absolutely robust. They have been adequate for UK forces for some time now. I also remind the noble Lord that British troops serving abroad are at all times subject to United Kingdom law. I believe that deals with the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever.
I wish I could be as generous to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the party that he represents. They have to make up their minds: are they in favour of moving Iraq forward to the elections in January? If they are not, I can understand their refusal to endorse this move despite the overwhelming military support for it. But if they are in favour of the elections in January—and they say adamantly that they are—how in all conscience can they oppose this proposal? Its clear purpose is to ensure that we can hold elections in Iraq in January, which is what the Iraqi Interim Authority wants. To oppose it seems to be saying that they do not want that to succeed.
They suggested in another place—although I noticed that the noble Lord did not refer to this today—that every military disposal of this kind should be subject to a vote in the House of Commons. That is an absolutely amazing concept. It shows just how far they are removed from serious thought about these issues. The fact is that the Liberal Democrats have been found out on Iraq.
Earlier this week my noble friend Lady Symons showed quite clearly the double standards on legality that there have been over the past number of years. Added to that is a complete refusal to accept what is screamingly obvious and absolutely clear—that if their advice had been taken by Her Majesty's Government last year Saddam Hussein would still be in power with the inviting prospect of his sons succeeding him. As the Foreign Secretary said the other day, the Liberal Democrats' attitude towards that issue is a truth that dare not speak its name.
It is no use mouthing a few words of support for our troops and then opposing a disposition of this kind; that leaves our troops with a very unhappy feeling. Let me refer the noble Lord to a letter in yesterday's Guardian, which states:
"I am startled by much of the reaction to the proposed redeployment of some UK troops. Are they involved in a separate war from the other members of the alliance, or are they there to assist the Iraqis in ejecting insurgent forces so that they can proceed peacefully towards establishing a democratic government? If it is the latter, there is no question that they should be deployed wherever they are most needed. The support and encouragement our soldiers need to help them to complete the task is pitifully lacking here at home".
I am afraid it is pitifully lacking on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
In the Statement he has sensibly clarified the references to 130,000 American troops, which was always extremely misleading. As the Statement makes clear, less than one-third are available for the kind of work that the Black Watch are being asked to undertake, and with even less armoured capability. That reinforces the statement made some time ago by the Chiefs of Staff in the United States when they asked Secretary Rumsfeld for greater forces, a request that was unfortunately declined.
The Scots Guards battle group is going to deploy. If they are required to go to this new deployment 350 miles north of the present area, presumably that means that we will still be without a reserve, which we have previously had. Can the Minister clarify what the position will then be? There is a great deal of easy, facile talk around at the moment that we have a temporary problem over Ramadan, a temporary problem ensuring that the elections run smoothly, and a ready assumption that everything will be quieter thereafter. In fact, the evidence is that insurgency is growing and is extremely serious.
In supporting what is obviously a necessary request at this time, my biggest criticism of the Government is that their duty here at home is to ensure that our forces undertaking this dangerous work have public support for what they are doing. It is a very important part of morale.
Let me describe two matters that will encourage public support. First, the public need to feel that real attention is being paid to the British point of view in the decision making that is taking place in Baghdad; that we are not merely the pillion passenger to an American policy dictated by Secretary Rumsfeld and the US military. Secondly—I have repeated this many times in the House—last night, for the first time on television, there was a good news item about the excellent work being done by TA officers on the electricity and water supplies in Basra. If good work is being done—and Ministers stand up and plead that they are doing it—the public are woefully ignorant of it. If our forces out there are doing good work, it is the Government's duty to make sure that everyone in this country is aware of it—not merely through Statements in this House from the Dispatch Box, which no one listens to, but through an effective public communications exercise to do our forces justice for what they are doing in Iraq.
My Lords, the noble Lord uses his great experience in asking his questions. As to his first question about the condition on the ground in the south- east if—and it is a very big if—the Scots Guards are needed elsewhere, I asked this question before coming to the House today and I am advised that the commanding officers are satisfied that if that happened our troops in the south-east would not be exposed.
I am surprised that the noble Lord does not answer the second question himself. He held very high office in the department in which I serve at the present time, and he will know from his days, as we know from ours, how difficult it is to get the great British media to publish, either in written form or on radio or television, the good news that comes from a place like Iraq. It is very easy for them to publish any bad news there may be; it is very difficult to get them to publish any good news. We will continue to do our best to ensure that the good news comes across. Some obviously did last night.
My Lords, I was deeply disappointed to hear the Minister make party political points in terms of how we address the problem that we are all agreed about—that is, achieving both a peaceful and democratic Iraq and a peaceful and democratic Middle East.
I take the Minister's Statement at face value, in which case I am alarmed that the United States forces are so parlous that a small UK detachment is needed some 350 miles north and out of area. If this is the case—and given the convoluted command and control arrangements to which he referred—can the Minister tell us, if the Black Watch were to get into difficulties, would they get help from the United States forces or the United Kingdom forces?
My Lords, they would get help from coalition forces. I remind the noble Lord that we are in a coalition in the whole of Iraq.
The noble Lord accuses me of attacking his party on this issue. In return, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether or not he, himself, is in favour of this disposition.
My Lords, I did notice those important remarks. It is obviously important that politicians do not seek to hide behind the military in putting forward disposals of this kind. But in this particular case, the military, who have looked at this from a military point of view only, are absolutely unanimous in suggesting that on all counts this is a sensible thing to do. That is precisely why I asked the noble Lord, Lord Garden, with his great and distinguished experience in the Ministry of Defence some years ago, whether he supports this disposition.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his Statement. My first reaction is that we are talking about a tactical operation in a country, and it has taken four days to make a decision about a tactical deployment. My conclusion—and I would like the Minister to confirm that I am wrong—is that the Government are deeply worried about this deployment, otherwise the decision should have been made much more quickly. That is point one.
My second point concerns the very convoluted command and control arrangements. If you are to get military forces to react on the ground, in time, you have to have a simple, responsive chain of command. I would have hated the chain of command that the Minister described if I had been the operational commander on the ground.
The third lesson I would draw from that is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garden—I do not often agree with the Royal Air Force. It is quite clear that we do not have adequate forces on the ground in Iraq to control the situation.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord. Of course there is a worry about any deployment of this kind. The reason for any delay was not because of deep worry or concern about this particular deployment—we want to make sure that we get it right. We had a request from the Americans; as I told the House, a recce took place and a decision has been reached on military grounds.
I am sorry that the noble and gallant Lord is not happy about the way in which the chain of command that I described in the Statement will work. We are content, and I understand that the military are content, that that chain of command will work and has worked in the past.
We have no intention of adding a large number of troops to our contingent in Iraq at present. Obviously, if and when any decision of that kind is made, the Secretary of State will inform the House of Commons of that fact.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that I am very happy to support the comments he made in his Statement and the military imperative it describes. I declare an interest as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for the reserves of Britain's Armed Forces. How many members of those involved both in the Black Watch and the supporting arms are to be reserves? Are the necessary steps in hand to ensure that the employers of those reserves in the Black Watch and supporting arms are aware of any delays that might arise from the deployment of those people as to their return to the United Kingdom? That would be very helpful and encouraging to those who spare their people to play a part in such activities.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I cannot help him on the number of reserves there will be. He knows better than I do what a fantastic part the reserves have played in Iraq. Indeed, sitting next to him is one such reserve.
The reserves have done a fantastic job. The noble Lord was right to imply that there were difficulties at an early stage in terms of making sure that reserves can get back to their employment once they have finished their tour of duty. There were problems there; the Ministry has worked extremely hard to sort them out, with the help of the noble Lord and others.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that under the late Harold Wilson, a request was made for British forces to be used in Vietnam and that that was turned down without any lasting damage to American-British relations? Does my noble friend also agree that the move which is envisaged is designed to, and will, advance the re-election campaign of President Bush? In my view, that is wholly undesirable.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Let me reassure him that there was no political gesture linked to the US elections. This was a military request for assistance from the US military commander in theatre, and was considered in the context of the overall military effort in Iraq and our own capabilities. The advice of the chiefs of staff was that there was clear operational justification for accepting the request, and that it was within our capabilities. That was the basis on which the decision was made.
My noble friend talks about lasting damage to the relationship between the US and the UK. If we did not agree to this and act as good coalition partners, lasting damage would be done to the future of Iraq.
My Lords, the Minister has made a very serious Statement and, very properly, seeks the general agreement of the House. I am sure we all hope that this venture will be successful. But it would be a very sad day if that obliterated anxieties and misgivings that are widely felt outside this House if not in this Chamber.
I should like to press the Minister on one point, although I understand that he does not want to go into detail. Do the 850 members of the Black Watch represent between 2 and 3 per cent of the American forces of equivalent calibre? If that is so, do we really believe that the assault on Fallujah will turn on such a narrow calculation? Although no one in this Chamber would wish to say anything which would be distressing or harmful to the military operation, at least we are entitled to take account of the quite compelling radio broadcast by the noble Lord, Lord Healey, in the past 24 hours. He cast very serious doubts on the whole capability of this enterprise, not least because of the character of the American operation.
My Lords, of course the noble Lord is right in saying that there are anxieties about this step; there have been anxieties about other steps concerning Iraq and there will no doubt be anxieties in the future. The fact is, the Black Watch is exactly the sort of armoured battle group that the US request for the area in which it has asked its members to serve. The US battle group that is there now, of equivalent armour—equivalent effect—will move elsewhere in relation to the attempt to make sure that there can be free and fair elections, as much as is possible, in Iraq in January. I do not want to underplay the anxieties. I am not in a position to agree or disagree with the percentages given by the noble Lord, but we should not underrate the reputation which the Black Watch and other infantry battalions of that kind have, not just in this country but in the United States.
My Lords, I am afraid that I am not prepared to go into the timing of this particular disposal and how long it might last. I can say that the Scots Guards are due, in any event, to go to Iraq in the comparatively near future. As I think I said in answer to an earlier question, if this particular mission was not completed by the time the Black Watch was due to come home, the Scots Guards would be in a position to take its place.
My Lords, that is an extraordinary statement to make given that we heard in the Statement, that:
"This deployment will be for a limited and specified period of time, lasting weeks rather than months".
My heart sank when I heard that because when governments say, "They will be home by Christmas" we all know what to expect. However, what is meant by a specified time if we cannot be told what is?
My Lords, specified time means that it is a specified time. A date is known, but it is not one, I am afraid, that I am prepared to share with the House. Anyone who has had anything to do with the Armed Forces will know it would be absurd to specify the dates.
My Lords, I remind the House that this war in Iraq was declared officially over by President Bush more than a year ago, but it is certainly going on and it appears to be escalating. In the Statement, reference is made to "militarily acceptable" risk to United Kingdom forces. What is that risk? Will the Minister give me some idea of how high that risk is? Will British forces be supporting an American attack on Fallujah which, if President Allawi is to be believed, will amount to collective punishment on the people of Fallujah because they refuse to hand over—they cannot apparently do it—so-called insurgents?
My Lords, the noble Lord asks what an acceptable level of risk is. Obviously, any operation involves a degree of risk. When planning an operation such as this, a commander will always look at the balance between the likely risks and benefits, going ahead only if the balance is right. In this case, the General Officer Commanding in MND (South East) judged that the military benefits of the operation strongly outweighed the risks. That is the message that the Statement is intended to give to the House.
As far as Fallujah is concerned, if Iraq is to move forward it is absolutely crucial that fair elections are held in that country shortly, in January. If there are to be fair elections in that country it is important that some of the towns where the murderous thugs live, practice and control must be taken over. I presume that the noble Lord is in favour of the elections.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the one bit of good news in this announcement is that it is a clear tribute to the unequalled, hard-edged combat calibre and capability of the British Army? Secondly, will the Black Watch battle group be equipped—as they must essentially be if they are to work with the Americans—with the Bowman communications system? Is he satisfied that it is fully functional? Finally, is the British contribution to the coalition force to be entirely paid for by the British taxpayer, or will countries such as France and Germany, which have equal interest in the future of Iraq, contribute towards the large contribution that we are making militarily?
My Lords, the noble Lord knows the answer to the last question without me stating it. I cannot guarantee that Bowman will be used in its final form on this mission. The noble Lord knows, because we talked about this on Monday, that the ISD or in-service date for Bowman has passed, but a lot of work must be done before Bowman can be finally fitted for the Armed Forces. I can say that, as the noble Lord said the other day, communications for a mission of this kind are absolutely crucial and we will do our very best to ensure that communications both between us and the Americans and between British troops and headquarters back in Basra will be as good as they possibly can be.