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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Fowler on introducing this debate and on the eloquent and authoritative way in which he has done so. The lessons to be drawn from the recent history of Iraq are of profound importance, not just to Iraq, but to ourselves and others. I believe it to be a counsel of despair to say that the only thing to be learnt from history is that no one has ever learnt anything from history. Nor am I impressed by the canard that it is easy to be wise after the event. It is surely better to be wise after the event than to be unwise or to pass by on the other side. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said in his eloquent speech, this matter is not going to go away. I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the gallantry of British service men and women and those of other nations who have served in Iraq, together with the many foreign civilians who have served there, and in expressing sympathy for the sufferings of the Iraqi people.
Despite the reductions in violence following the troop surge, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, referred, the situation is very grave. As has been mentioned, the number of people driven from their homes has apparently quadrupled to more than 2 million. Since the occupation began, more than 2 million people have fled the country, although some are trickling back, largely because of visa problems. Electricity in Baghdad is available for only eight hours a day—half the level before the invasion. Unemployment is more than 60 per cent. More than 40 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Focus group surveys carried out for General Petraeus in five Iraqi cities recently are reported to have found that all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the US invasion is the primary cause of violence in the country and regard the withdrawal of all occupying forces as the key to national reconciliation.
Next Thursday, your Lordships will hold a debate to be introduced by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, on the Government's consultation document on war powers and treaties. I venture to guess that Parliament will in future be more sympathetic to any government call for support in overseas deployment of troops if there has been complete candour and openness about Iraq. So I add my voice to those who say that it is timely that, in accordance with longstanding tradition, an independent inquiry should be set up as soon as is practicable, not in any sense to seek scapegoats but in order to learn lessons for the future while those who have been involved in the recent history of Iraq are still around and memories are fresh. I do not accept the argument that this cannot happen when troops are still in theatre. Their morale would be unaffected and they will do their duty, as they have on previous occasions. They could be there for a long time—our people are still in the Falklands.
A large number of interrelated questions remain to be answered. Were the wholly inadequate plans for the stabilisation and reconstruction effort after the April 2003 invasion the result of avoidable ignorance or divided counsels within the American Administration and the British Government? Was the lack of a UN mandate a fatal weakness in securing necessary resources and expertise? No one will know the answer to that better than the Minister. Was the decision to adopt a model of direct governance a hindrance to the chances of addressing the issues of transition and reform? Was the widespread criminality, the international terrorism and the massive insurgency, which has bedevilled reconstruction efforts, predicted? If not, could it have been? Could greater initial force have averted the murderous chaos?
Why was there an assumption that the coalition would quickly be able to transfer civil governance to Iraqis when it was clear that the process of de-Ba'athification, the purge of the top layer of the Civil Service and removal of its institutional memory, and the disbanding of the Iraqi army—in fact the destruction of all Iraqi institutions—would leave a vacuum making political development, internal security and reconstruction infinitely more difficult? What was the basis for the belief that the Iraqis would welcome foreign occupation? How long did the Government believe at the time of the invasion, and indeed now, that the international forces—themselves a cause of and target for insurgency activity—would be required to prevent a descent into anarchy and civil war?
There has been a disjuncture between political discussion and the realities on the ground in Iraq. In the limited time when foreign occupation is tolerable to the great majority of Iraqis, if it still is, and if security and the rule of law, political progress and reconstruction are to be achieved, can the Government assure us that the massive cuts in senior personnel at the Foreign Office—one in four—have not and will not affect its future capability to deliver what was once regarded as the finest advice on middle eastern affairs available to any government in the world, delivered by men and women trusted and respected as no other in the region?
These are urgent questions that can be answered only by a full, independent inquiry. I hope that the Government will not continue to shelter behind the principle of the unripe time. Parliament will not tolerate that, and I believe that the Government have less to fear from openness than the reverse.