Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 24th January 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 12:28 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for tabling this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss Iraq without the fevered concentration on the negative, which is usual in the media. First, I shall deal with the question of an inquiry. We debated this at great length last February in a debate on Iraq tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. Then, as now, I completely agreed with the Government's position stated in that debate, when the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said,

"The Prime Minister said yesterday that there were important lessons to learn but that an inquiry was not appropriate while our troops are engaged in combat in Iraq and facing extreme danger".

As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, reminded us, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, went on to say that,

"nobody has set their mind against an inquiry or some form of debate and discussion of these fundamental policy issues in the long term".

As I understand it, that is still the position and I certainly go along with it.

The Minister on that occasion also said:

"Now is not the time for investigating what might or might not have been, but for putting our energy—all of our energy—into helping the Iraqi Government bring an end to the violence".—[Hansard, 22/2/07; col. 1255.]

I agree completely with all of that, and I do not consider that discussion of an inquiry is either sensible or appropriate while there are British forces in theatre.

When looking at Iraq, it is important not to start only at 2003. As I have often told the House, I spent the last 12 months of my government service—which ended in August 1991—wholly immersed in Iraq.

There are two very important lessons to be learnt from 1991. First, do not leave decisions about crucial ceasefire timing and conditions to soldiers, even those as distinguished as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf; because they got it wrong. Secondly, do not allow a very long, detailed Chapter 7 resolution—that chapter enables you to take military action—such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 of April 1991, to lie for some 12 years before taking decisive military action to enforce it.

Time does not allow expansion on these two lessons, which are part of the reason I consider—and have always considered—our military action in 2003 politically, morally and legally completely justified. Whether one agrees with me about that or not, no one can be satisfied with the way in which things developed after the successful 2003 military action; and, indeed, lessons can and should be learnt.

One mistake which was made was not the commonly levelled criticism that there was no post-military action planning, but that the very detailed planning in the US State Department for handling the civil situation after the invasion and overthrow of Saddam—all of which was meticulously reported in Bob Woodward's excellent book, Plan of Attack—was never put into action. The State Department was prevented by the Pentagon from implementing it, as my noble friend Lord Anderson said. We have all expressed disquiet in this House about some of the decisions taken after the invasion. An outstanding example was the disbandment of the Iraqi army. As is reported in another Bob Woodward book, State of Denial, General Jay Garner told Donald Rumsfeld that three terrible mistakes had been made. The said that they were,

"the extent of de Ba'athification, getting rid of the army and summarily dumping the Iraq Leadership, Group. Disbanding the military was the biggest mistake—hundreds of thousands of disorganised, armed, unemployed Iraqis running around. It will take years to rebuild the army. They'd taken 30,000 to 40,000 Ba'athists and sent them underground and they'd gotten rid of the Iraq Leadership Group".

It was not for want of some of the people on the ground seeing the dire consequences of some of the mistakes that had been made. These are certainly lessons that need to be learnt.

Not enough recognition was given to how the horrors of Saddam's regime brutalised and exacerbated tensions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, fracturing Iraqi society. We know, from the Balkans and elsewhere, the violence that erupts from the removal of a dictatorial regime, and Iraq had been held in the grip of a fearsomely efficient terror machine of incredible brutality. Again, this was recognised by Jay Garner, who at a press conference at the time said:

"There's always problems when you've been brutalised for 30 years and you take people out of absolute darkness and put them in sunshine".

I argued in April 2003 that it was a mistake not to tackle Moqtada Sadr then, when he was clearly responsible for the murder in Najaf of the respected 42 year-old Shia cleric leader, al-Khoei, who had just returned to Iraq from exile in London after the invasion. To have dealt with Moqtada then could have avoided many subsequent problems.

We should all learn from the success of General Petraeus's tactics of the surge, which is leading to a return, however modest, of some of the 2 million Iraqis who fled abroad and to attempts of some Mahdi army militants to bring back some displaced Sunni neighbours to Shia districts. A major aim of the surge was to give Iraqi politicians breathing space to pass legislation to try to bring about some reconciliation. Now, at last, a law has been passed—the Accountability and Justice Act—to give former, not top-level, Ba'ath members some chance of pensions or even reinstatement in their former jobs. Other positive developments are the Sunni Awakening movement, which is acting against the insurgents linked to al-Qaeda, and the main Sunni alliance in the Parliament, the Iraqi Accord Front, indicating that it will rejoin the Maliki Government.

Control of the oil industry and provincial elections remain elements in the national reconciliation package, but in both there are interesting and encouraging developments, which unfortunately there is no time to expand on now. There are some grounds for at least a glimmer of hope for national reconciliation, which everyone—Iraqis and others—has learnt is the only hope for any peaceful progress for Iraq.